Review of the two Stockhausen Aus den Sieben Tagen Concerts transmitted in BBC 3 "Hear and Now", on the 1st and 8th November 2008.

   A new understanding of Stockhausen's text-notated pieces seems to be on its way. Robert Worby's statement at the beginning of the first concert transmission might be the most comprehensive and clear statement ever written about the state of affairs so far: "For some, these texts appear poetic, perhaps mystical, even whimsical. To others, they are serious and precise instructions underpinned by Stockhausen's' commitment in serialism that gave rise to exacting music".
   Previously, Bernard Pulham (BernardP) wrote the following words in Google Groups on the internet, also signaling that it could be time to take a fresh look at these pieces: "(...) In my experience, these performances and their relationships to each other gave the lie to oft expressed convictions that the text pieces were too much of their time, or that only the famous Grammophone records could form the definitive versions for all time!
   It is probably also widely thought that these pieces, more than any others by Stockhausen, required his own performing presence to make them more than collaborative improvisations, or mere studies in group improvisiation.... I beg to differ.. (...)"

   You can read on about the analysis of the pieces made by me and Jerome Kohl here as well as find even more literature about Aus den Sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days) which was written in 1968 (and one further collection, Für kommende Zeiten, finished in 1970). But I will go on now with discussing what I heard on the BBC internet...

GOLD DUST (German: Goldstaub) requires the performers to do a very classical spiritual exercise - to live for a period in seclusion with a minimum of food and drink. After 4 days, one is to play "single sounds WITHOUT THINKING which you are playing". (Here [] you may see a personal account of the experience by Swedish composer Johan Boberg). The performance by Neil Luck and Matthew Lee Knowles brought out this piece's characteristic way of being by doing just that. Some few tones, sensitively put into sequence and juxtaposed was all there was to hear - allowing us to experience the life of vibrating tones and a slow passing of time. Reductionism reached by walking all the way to grasp its mode of perception from within.

MEETING POINT (Treffpunkt) is about keeping to one tone and making deviations from it in the manner of "lead the tone wherever your thoughts lead you". Small glissandi, microtonal phenomena and additional tones and sounds, maybe together with a drone, may result, and the piece is in itself a demonstration of such alternatives to the chord-based tonality which are so well-suited to an improvisatory process.
   The performance with Seth Josel on guitar, producing long electronic sounds and vocalists Maja Ratkje and Phil Minton (like all constellations, this was designed by artistic director Anton Lukoszevieze) had very good elements but did not unfold as an ensemble piece despite hinting at how it could have been during occasional blendings of captivating voice sounds. Most of the time there was an imbalance of voices in the overall sound, maybe due to the monitor set-up - Maja very much in the foreground and Phil far away, and the piece is, to be sure, written "for ensemble".

Before actually listening to the concert, I did some random cueing around in the recording I had made and heard some strangely static sounds. They turned out to be part of UNLIMITED, the entire text of which says "play a sound with the certainty that you have an infinite amount of time and space". Listening to the rendition, I found the sounds not to be so static, rather slowly expanding. Like GOLD DUST, the piece allows for perceiving long, slow processes, but certainly in a different way. More sustained and, well, looking out, as it were, into space ...Twentytwentyone Laptop Quartet with Arturas Bumsteinas played these absorbing sounds.

CONNECTION (Verbindung) is one of those piece containing "instructions underpinned by serialism". "play a vibration in the rhythm of your body play a vibration in the rhythm of your heart play a vibration in the rhythm of your breathing" - and on, to thinking, intuition, enlightenment and the universe. Clearly, very open to individual interpretation. But, on closer look, also very systematic: within each individual interpretation, elements are bound to differ a lot from each other, in their tempo and more dimensions. Furthermore, everybody start at the same place and go on at their own pace - heterophony (musicians playing the same part with variations) will gradually intensify and become polyphonic - and especially so as musicians finally "mix these vibrations freely".
   Four bass clarinets (Frank Gratowski, Ian Mitchell, Dave Ryan, Andrew Sparling) and one tuba (Robin Hayward) played an impressive 15 minutes version of this. Pushing, variously tapping, buzzing/interfering and at the same time swelling/declining, sparkling particles in motion...this describes roughly the first four stages being separately discernible, after which, as said above, there was a free mixing. Which took the form of intuitively shifting sections, like fire ever renewing, with various sensitive, interlinking collaborations across the multi-layered structure so characteristic of this and related pieces (see below about Upwards and Communion). There was effective use of pauses as the text demands, providing a transparency making everything crisply audible. And the tuba did an amazing job to work in a cleverly sparse way with its contrasting instrumental sound so as to exactly subtly supplement the bassclarinet group and in the end both uniting with it and enrichening it, instead of ever falling into the competitive pitfall. Magic!

INTENSITY (Intensität) simply requires players to "play single sounds with such dedication until you feel the warmth that radiates from you". These became mainly interpreted as long sounds. Compared to UNLIMITED, focus was on the inner life of the sounds and their dynamism, rather than on the overall contour, this following logically from the instructions. So different ways to play such a seemingly simple thing like long tones and so different overall results! Just one maybe easy-to-grasp example of what this music is all about.
   It seems an obvious idea to make a large ensemble play it, as happened here. There was a very orchestral sound throughout - majestic, like a grand landscape in gradually shifting lights and climatic conditions. Players were: Reinhold Friedl (inside Piano), Phil Minton (vocals), Mark Wastell (perc), Marc Weiser (electronics), Seth Josel (guitar), Michael Vorfeld (perc), Nikos Veliotis (cello), Maja Ratkje (theremin), Aleksander Kolkowski (violin), Dave Ryan, Ian Mitchell, Andrew Sparling, Frank Gratkowski (bass clarinet), Gordon MacKay, Patrycja Kujawska, Mai Kawabata, Sara Hubrich (stroh violin), Anton Lukoszevieze (stroh cello), Robin Hayward (tuba), Twentytwentyone (laptop quartet).

Unlike all other pieces in the text collections, ARRIVAL (Ankunft) does not prescribe anything about how to play. It only deals with meditative preparations for playing and with self-confidence related to it. The result here from the opening of the second concert sounded like an inspired free improvisation - all of it proceeding in gentle ways - often consisting of long tones, but with sections of crisp tone-repetitions, light timbres and little figures as well providing opportunities to look into the variety of musicians present - "all performers" participated.

UPWARDS (Aufwärts) has a playing formula similar to that of CONNECTION described above. It initially lets players draw up the extremes of "play a vibration in the rhythm of your smallest particles" and "play a vibration in the rhythm of the universe" but then tells them to play all the rhythms they can distinguish in between "one after the other and each one for so long until the air carries it on". So in this case, playing the same elements turns quickly into polyphony. But the suggestion to let each individual "rhythm" take its time was clearly reflected in a moderate pace of overall change. Players were Cranc (violin, cello, harp), Mark Wastell (tamtam, objects), Reinhold Friedl (inside piano), Michael Vorfeld (percussion).

COMMUNION (Kommunion) is another polyphonic piece. The special thing about is that it deals with relating to the fellow performers - playing vibrations "in the rhythm of the limbs of one of your fellow players", then of another one, proceeding eventually to the cells, molecules atoms and even smaller parts. Such focusing of attention towards each other, inevitably including playing movements and sounds, could be expected to have some consequences.
   And yes, a wonderfully alive process resulted with transparent structures throwing each other into relief. While "dialogue" might not be the exact word because this is not about strict call-response, there was certainly a collective spirit to be felt. Players were Reinhold Friedl (inside piano), Michael Vorfeld (percussion ), Anton Lukoszevieze (cello), Gordon MacKay, Mai Kawabata, Lina Lapelyte (laptop), Patricia Kujawska, Alex Kolkowski (Stroh violin), Bass clarinet quartet: (Frank Gratkowski, Andrew Sparling, David Ryan, Ian Mitchell), Robin Hayward (tuba), Phil Minton, Maja Ratkje (voices), Seth Josel (e. gtr).

IT (Es) instructs players to think nothing, to wait for absolute inner silence. In this state, playing is to happen, and it is to stop again every time one starts to think. So an automatism is employed. To silence the mind may not be easy - meditative training helps. The piece may contain long silences, sounds of simple, maybe primitive nature that can be produced right away - it is a very anti-virtuosic piece - and fast occuring outbursts.
   This performance leaves me in doubt as to how deep the ensemble members went this time. Such a smooth, almost regular, group turntaking sequence of nicely sounding long tones - could that really be "it", the unconscious (or "not conscious")? Players were Frank Gratkowski (sax), Robin Hayward (tuba), Rhodri Davies (harp), Anton Lukoszevieze (cello), David Behrman (violin & laptop), Arturas Bumsteinas (laptop).

SET SAIL FOR THE SUN (Setz die Segel zur Sonne) which concluded the second concert is still one more example of composing with long tones! It deals with fine pitch intonation (and what more follows), instructing players to listen to the overall sound and "slowly move your tone until you arrive at complete harmony and the whole sound turns to gold - to pure, gently shimmering fire".
   Again the inner life of sounds came into focus, but, differently from INTENSITY (see above), the overall "orchestral" sound was this time literally shimmering with an abundance of little nuances not unlike works by Ligeti of the sixties like Atmospheres and Lontano - apart from the same problem as in MEETING POINT, Maja's voice standing strangely outside the ensemble sound (despite, again, good-sounding contributions), at least in the recording - maybe the audience heard something different? It might also be left to audience members to determine whether the increasingly triumphantly fortissimo conclusion eventually got too dense and accrete - I think this was at least the case for the compressed audio file available to me. In any case, we had before an impressive demonstration of what is possible to produce on the spot, still with such a large-scale ensemble.

There was an enthusiastic applause after the piece, so the audience appeared to highly enjoy the music. These concerts are fine achievements, bringing so many different fine musicians together in so many good performances. Credit must also go to the appropriate and informed speaker comments by Robert Worby and to the inclusion of good, informative discussions (also including scholars Richard Toop, Robin Maconie and Jerome Kohl).

These pieces (65% of the contents of Aus den Sieben Tagen, by the way) have great potential. As we have seen here, they produce highly characteristic sounding results with a minimum of details in the instructions - they determine "how to play, but not which notes to use", as Robert Worby put it, and those improvisors who accept playing pieces sometimes have a field of exploration before them here. The pieces will sound differently every time, and they are adaptable to many instrumental combinations. And we have not even dealt with Stockhausen's' second collection of slightly different such pieces, "Für kommende Zeiten" (For times to come). So don't hesitate, out there ;-)

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