In 2007, I had the chance to experience a Karlheniz Stockhausen performance at the Auditorium della Musica in Rome. Sitting behind a massive soundboard at the center of Sinopoli Hall, the iconoclastic composer unleashed a torrent of electronic sound, via speakers placed around the perimeter of the hall. It was alternately jarring and soothing, putting the packed house into some kind of collective trance.
After ambling up on stage to receive a standing ovation, Stockhausen returned to the soundboard where he signed programs and chatted with various concertgoers, most of whom were under 30. In the brief moment I had to speak with him, I told him that I hoped he would come to New York and share his music with our own young, musically diverse community.
"I hope so too," he replied.
Sadly, Stockhausen passed away in December of that year. But, his music continues to inspire an almost religious devotion, as evidenced by the overflow crowd that jammed Issue Project Room on Thursday night to hear a program of his works from the 50's and 60's. The concert was part of this week's Darmstadt Essential Repertoire Festival curated by Zach Layton and Nick Hallett, who said they started the series seven years ago because they wanted "to play their favorite records in public." (Other concerts on the festival, which ended yesterday, featured Luciano Berio's Sequenzas, and Philip Glass' "Knee Plays" from Einstein on the Beach.)
The first 1/2 hour consisted of a "lecture" Stockhausen gave at Columbia University in 1960 on his approach to music, illustrating his dense, mathematical process with a variety of electronic and pre-recorded sounds, layered one on top of the other. As crazy as it sounded bouncing around Issue's open-minded walls, I can only imagine what people must have thought sitting in that lecture hall 50 years ago.
That was followed by 1956's Gesang der Junglinge ("Song of the Youths"): a bizarre, otherworldly work generally regarded as the first successful piece of electronic music. Lasting about 20 minutes and projected via four single-channel loudspeakers, it seamlessly integrated the singing of a 12 year old boy with matching electronic sounds. Composed as a work of total serialism, every element was carefully planned out: pitch, duration, dynamics, and timbre.
The first half of the program ended with Kontakte (1958), which Zach correctly referred to as "one of the masterpieces of electroacoustic music." The surprisingly visceral piece ebbed and flowed for the better part of an hour, the electronic music pulsing from one set of speakers to the other, accompanied by live piano and percussion. The piano was played by Denise Fillion, while the huge battery of percussion (including gongs, bells and massive bass drums) was manned by Chris Graham of the Iktus Percussion Quartet, who said beforehand how thrilled he was to have the chance to perform it. (Iktus returned after intermission to perform Mikrophonie I (1964), which unfortunately I had to miss.)
In a way, it didn't feel completely correct to hear these works performed without Stockhausen himself sitting at the soundboard: indeed, it took three sound engineers with MacBooks just to fill his place. But, even though Stockhausen never made it back here to perform his music for us in person, its nice to know that we have the technology and desire to faithfully reproduce these works ourselves, whenever we choose. I can't imagine any composer would be disappointed with that outcome, not even Stockhausen.
More pics on Flickr.