Sunday, July 21, 2013

The unfathomable strangeness of American music Part 3. Stockhausen in London

I have one short encounter with Karlheinz Stockhuasen. In 1985, I attended his festival at the Barbican in London. During one of the concerts, my girlfriend asked me "does he get along eith Boulez?" I said that they have a public rift, but that I thought it was just manufactured for the sake of publicity. I hadn't realized that Stockhausen was sitting behind us in the audience. Someone tapped me on the shoulder, I turned to see Karlheinz in his faux nineteenth century collarless jacket. He pointed his finger at his face, smiled and nodded.

Last night, my composer friend Ezequiel ViƱao and I heard Stockhausen's instrumental opera "Michaels Reise um die Erde". I'm not always his fan, but the beautiful writing floored me, as did the production.  Lots of brass and very few strings in a large amplified chamber group. The first two thirds are sort of doom metal images of Michael's destruction of Earth with brass, percussion, keyboards and some harp. One surprise that kept it exciting was a lot of jazz, mostly from Michael's  trumpet - he must have worked out these solos with his son Markus, who is a very good jazz trumpeter. I guess that some sections are improvised, including a pizzicato bass duo that would be exactly at home at the Village Gate.

Occasional spots of dark humor: Ezequiel pointed out that when Michael destroys Cologne, you hear a bunch of academic serial music, while the destruction of New York brought back the jazz.

Towards the end, after our version of the world is destroyed, sex, beauty and procreation reappear with extended and complex bird call courting duos on clarinets, trumpets and basset horns. Along with long memorized parts that include a lot of breathing into their instruments, the two bird couples, one of whom are Michael and Eve, are choreographed in intricate mating behavior dance rituals. The ending section sounded ike Olivier Messiaen's bird calls and recreations of the outdoors.

To me, Messiaen's spirit hovers over the whole piece - but what a great spirit to summon when considering the end of man together with thoughtful considerations of nature.

See this link for some examples of how Messiaen transcribed bird songs for human musicians.

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