Saturday, October 25, 2008

Aus den Sieben Tagen

I went to a concert yesterday at Wilton's Music Hall which is this hidden, derelict hall right behind a primary school I did a workshop at. I hadn't realized it was still a usable building, but it is awfully pretty from the outside so I had taken a picture of it during the workshop. I was a bit surprised when I found the hall and realized that that was where the concert was. An organization called Cut and Splice (maybe it was a festival? Not sure) decided to perform all of the movements from Stockhausen's Aus den Sieben Tagen over the course of two days in that hall.

Do you know anything about Stockhausen? He died last year and is one of the most important figures in 20th/21st century Western Art music. My first encounters with his music happened at Peabody in my Music History IV course. We learned about his string quartet that includes four helicopters, which is pretty nuts.

As part of the History IV we could get extra credit for doing a performance of a 20th century piece in class. My friend Laura found the score for Aus den Sieben Tagen and decided that I should be part of the group that performed pieces from it. This was right up my alley as a couple of the pieces demand that you not practice or rehearse ahead of time- extra credit for making stuff up on the spot? You betcha! So that was my first encounter with Stockhausen and specifically playing Stockhausen.

The score is not particularly score like. There are no written notes, it is all text based and written with words. The instructions include things like- vibrate at the rhythm of your body. Vibrate at the rhythm of enlightenment. Vibrate at the rhythm of the universe. Alternate between them as quickly as you can. Imagine you have infinite time. So it's a little bit weird, and more than a little bit mystical. Stockhausen claimed that this music was not improvised, but rather intuited. In retrospect, performing a few movements from this work was actually my first experience with group improvisation (intuition. Whatever.) Which is pretty darn cool.

There is one movement in particular that has stuck with me since my first reading of the score and that is Gold Dust. In gold dust the ensemble has to be isolated in individual rooms for four days with the instructions to sleep as little as possible, eat nothing, drink as little as possible, and think as little as possible. The performance is meant to happen immediately after the ensemble emerge from their rooms. For obvious reasons this was not one of the movements that we performed for extra credit. However, since Cut & Splice were doing a complete performance they needed some people willing to perform it- which is where recently graduated composers come in handy...

I don't remember their names, but the two people who performed Gold Dust (on piano and guitar) are good friend's of Ella's. She had been worried about them for the entire four days they had been in isolation and so was on the edge of her seat when they arrived on stage.

I've never seen more a more bewildered performance or a sparser one. I think maybe only 12 notes were played over the course of five minutes. It was pretty extraordinary actually- because they were so present with what they were doing, and at the same time seemed to be almost wholly unaware of the audience. There was so much space but there was also so much happening in terms of their intensity in that space. When the lights came on again at the end of 5 minutes the pianist lifted his head (the first time either of them had looked up) and just looked so confused. They had to be helped off the stage. I saw them at the intermission and they seemed fine by that point though- so don't get too concerned on their behalfs. (behalves?)

The rest of the performance consisted of quite a lot of extended techniques and washes of mechanical sound. I had a headache after one movement performed by four bass clarinets and a tuba because it had been so high pitched and loud (think about that one for a second.) I think ultimately it was a very *interesting* performance, but not necessarily an enjoyable one. That being said I would certainly be up for seeing another ensemble's version.

I've been wondering if extended techniques are the fashionable vocabulary with which to realize these pieces. Because the thing is that I don't think the score really suggests extended techniques, though it does seem that straight forward jamming wouldn't really get to the heart of the matter either. Oh! You know what would be kind of a cool thing to try? Making a sample version where you find pieces that to you seem like they sound they vibrate at the rhythm of enlightenment or whatever and then stringing all of those together. I wonder what that would sound like...

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