Monday, July 20, 2015

Retro Review: A Different German Music, Maybe Not So Different - Stockhausen's Piano Music on Vinyl

(This review was originally published, in a slightly shorter version, and as part of a series on "Krautrock"! - on Sit Down Listen Up.)

I think that when I was twelve or thirteen, my music teacher (composition and classical piano) pulled a fast one on me. One day I passed by his coffee table, as once a week, on my way to play the piano. Sitting on the coffee table that day was a two-record boxed album, the Complete Piano Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. “Don’t ever listen to that. It’s absolute junk,” my teacher growled, and we went on with the piano lesson. Later, of course, I asked to borrow the album. He gave it to me with a snarl (and probably a wink), and I took it home and listened to it – and of course, since it had been denounced as garbage by someone who represented the Powers That Be, I loved it. My teacher never made another comment about it.

Eventually I bought my own copy (and later, the three CDs by a different pianist – including more pieces that hadn’t been written when the records came out). However, the LP set, though monophonic, still has more of the spirit of the mid-century avant-garde than the more recent recordings. The CDs are too slick: they don’t have the necessary roughness that one associates with the style.

The pieces have abstract titles following the avant-garde tradition, actually derived from classical titles such as “Symphony no. 3” and “Sonata for ‘cello and piano in A major, opus 6 number 4”. Stockhausen’s pieces are simply titled “Klavierstück” (“Piano Piece”) and numbered with Roman numerals. Since these titles don’t really mean anything, the listener is free to imagine whatever he wishes.

Side A of the first record consists of Pieces I through VIII, missing VI, which takes the entire “B” side. The first four are short studies in the “total serialist” style; every note is derived from a series of notes treated mathematically. These pieces are interesting enough in their own way, but (to those unfamiliar with the procedures in the style) can sound like just random notes. I like them mainly as a chaotic introduction from which the order in the rest of the pieces emerges. Piece V begins to group the mathematics-derived notes into clusters, and we catch evanescent glimpses of melodies and rhythms. These are scattered in VII, which counts as a “slow movement” and surrounds most notes with silence and imaginative reverberations from the piano itself – made by complex overlapping of various pedal techniques. VIII is interesting in that it is nearly the antithesis of both V and VII; here, “total serialism” returns, fiery, in loud clusters and dissonant chords.

Piece VI, the “B” side of the album, was recorded on a different piano. Musically it is a longer version of V, with shadows of other methods of organization (melodies, rhythms) underneath the avant-garde atonality. The difference in the piano, however, produces a completely different effect – there are harsher high notes and much louder overtones floating above the bass, which makes me wonder how the quieter VII would sound if played on this same piano.

Side A of the second record includes Pieces IX and XI. Piece IX is one of my favorites. If I may indulge the reader in an extended synesthetic metaphor, the piece is shaped like a fancy ornamental goldfish, though one with a fantail and an extraordinary number of fins. It begins with two long decrescendos on a single chord – an unusually “stable” moment for Stockhausen – (these are the two parts of the fantail). What follows is a long exposition that slowly unravels the chord into a serialist piece (this is the body of the imagined fish). Along the way, there are both some startlingly romantic, melodic gestures and some thick dissonance. The chord keeps reappearing in small moments of repetition, recalling the beginning (these are the fins, which resemble the showy fantail but are smaller). Finally there is a leap to the highest registers of the piano, where scintillating tones sound over an occasional bass pedal point – I’d like to say this is the head of the fish, but the image fails at this point and I’d say, rather, that it reminds me of scattered stars in a galaxy. It ends in freeform silence, the opposite of its beginning. The final two notes are not literally the same two as in VII, but sound similar and thus tie the two pieces together.

Piece XI is a chance piece; a set of composed fragments that may be played once or twice in any order, with the tempo and dynamics instructions coming at the end of each previous fragment. The amount of engagement with the score must make this piece fascinating to the performer; but as an audience member it’s always seemed more interesting in theory than in practice. Even in a style of music that often deliberately sounds random (even if it’s not), it seems to lack direction and coherence. In Kontasrsky’s performance, there are clusters of quick arrhythmic chords at the beginning, and then it merely seems to meander along never reaching the same level again. (However, I once remixed it with Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” and got some beautiful synchrony.)

The last on the album is Piece X. This is the sonic climax; a scarifying labyrinth of tone clusters (including “banging on the piano” – there is a wonderful Youtube parody of this part…!), rapid glissandi (played with gloves on the hands to avoid injury), tremolo, trills, and, slowly emerging from the chaos, melodic fragments (one was lifted by Takemitsu as part of an idée-fixe for his piece “For Away”) and – finally – restful silence. The piece, and this two-record album, ends with a sonic “fade to white”, though my copy is rather old and includes a fair amount of scratches and surface noise at this point.

Stockhausen couldn’t really go any further in the same direction as X and XI without too much strain on both the pianist and the listeners. Subsequent Piano Pieces (still titled the same way) are lighter, more melodic, and introduce the element of humor. Those, however, are not included in this set of records. Where music such as Piano Piece X did go is somewhat surprising: rock music.

American rock bands, it seems, have always been somewhat reluctant to drop the beat and engage in a little exploration of sound simply as sound (with the obvious exception of the Grateful Dead’s “space” improvisations). British (i.e. Pink Floyd) and European (such as “Krautrock” bands) have been more open to the idea. In a three-CD collection of early “lost tapes” by Can, there are a number of long instrumentals that go firmly atonal and explore the shape of the sound, much as in Stockhausen’s IX (remember the fish?) and X. The bassist, Holger Czukay, studied composition with Stockhausen. …And so, what goes round comes round: Stockhausen’s early Piano Pieces, in the “total serialist” avant-garde style, were probably intended as a rebellion against “normal” rhythmic and melodic development, but as the works proceed, a new kind of order emerges and crosses over to rock music, and thus is right back into “normal” aesthetics. The history of both types of music – “classical” and “popular” – is richer for it.

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