Thursday, August 30, 2012

Music That made Me Cry: Stockhausen's 'Hymnen'

Here's the cover to the LP release of Hymnen that came out back in the '70s, which was the format upon which I heard it first. I was an undergrad at Nazareth College of Rochester, and I was probably a sophomore when I first ran across this album. There was a record store near the college, and my friend and composer ally Tom Hamilton (not the Tom Hamilton who has worked with Robert Ashley and others, though) and I would swing by there a couple times a week, just to see what was new. For some reason the store stocked a lot of Deutche Grammophon cut-outs pretty regularly, and for a spell, they had a ton of Stockhausen's music. I bought pretty much all of it, over a period of several months.

I'm a little unsure exactly WHY Stockhausen's music appealed to me so much. Probably due to the same yearnings that made Siddartha and Steppenwolf (the Hesse novels) grip my attention in high school. Stockhausen's music was spiritual and intellectual AND it sounded really cool, at least a lot of it did. At any rate, I bought every album I could get my hands on. At one point, I probably had something like 50+ albums. One time when the ROVA Saxophone Quartet was rehearsing at my house, Bruce Ackley (their soprano player) was looking through my LP collection and when he got to the "S"s he exclaimed, "Holy shit, It's Stockhausen Central over here!" A proud "collector moment" for me.

So, as I was saying, somewhere around 1985, I find this Hymnen LP set and it's priced to move, so I grab it and bring it home. I recall it being pretty late and so I put it on the turntable and listen on headphones so as not to wake up the house. It's four sides of electroacoustic music, based on national anthems. I'm not sure what to expect, but I start listening and I do not take the headphones off until I've played the entire piece. Somewhere in the third "Region" of the piece, I realize that tears are running down my face. I can point to no rational explanation for this, except that there was something so rich and inexplicably RIGHT about the piece; it created a world in which I wanted to dwell forever. If I'd had any prior doubts, this was the moment where I knew that electronic music was central to my musical life.

Oddly perhaps, I've never really tried to analyse Hymnen. I've never wanted to. Other works have prompted me to dissect their workings, so as to understand (and possibly snaffle) the techniques therein. Not Hymnen. It seemed important to me that it retain a certain inexplicability, and it has. At one point during the writing of this posting, it crossed my mind that I should do a bit of research to bolster my musings here (I haven't read about it in years), but I decided not to. Rather, I would encourage you to discover the piece the way I did, if you've never heard it before. I think the research should follow the experience, not precede it. There is a posting of the entire work on YouTube, but I've chosen not to link to it because whoever uploaded it put the regions in the wrong order.

Chances are good that if you do listen to Hymnen, it won't have the same effect on you. It's one of those pieces that I suspect you have to hear at just the right point in your life or it's lost on you. It's almost two hours long and it's uneven. Most of my electroacoustic composer friends hardly acknowledge it at all, or disparage it mercilessly. They find it horribly dated, lacking in sophistication somehow. Stockhausen's earlier (1950s) electronic masterpieces Gesang der J√ľnglinge and Kontakte are considered his real achievements in the genre, and certainly they are much more disciplined works. Later works like Telemusik and Hymnen (or any of his subsequent electronic works), are rarely discussed. They never came up in any of the classes I took, nor were they mentioned by any other composers I knew. If you surf the net for comments about Hymnen, they tend to be either "this is the biggest load of crap ever" or mystical homilies exalting its sublimity. I don't think either approach casts much light on the music, but it does say something about its polarizing effect.

At some point in the late 80s or early 90s, I hit a point where Stockhausen's persona (and by extension his music) began to trouble me. I sensed that he was encouraging/enabling a personality cult and as the first parts of the Licht opera cycle emerged I felt that his ego had expanded to the point of lunacy and delusion. He didn't improve matters with his supremely egotistical and insensitive pronouncements about 9-11. I decided I didn't want to be a member of the cult and began selling off all but a few select albums. I didn't listen to any of his music for a long time, but in recent years, I have slowly relaxed that policy a bit. I still don't play his music all that often; my tastes have changed a lot over the years. But when I do listen, it's usually to Hymnen.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

If you can only have ONE Peter Sculthorpe CD...

Peter Sculthorpe: Earth Cry; Piano Concerto William Barton, didgeridoo; Tamara Anna Cislowska, piano New Zealand Symphony, James Judd, conductor Naxos 8.557382 (Released February 2005)

[I wrote this a while back as a CD review, but in response to a recent Twitter discussion that centered around Sculthorpe's music, I thought I'd post it here. I've updated it slightly. Hopefully I'll write on his string quartets soon.]

Will Peter Sculthorpe’s time ever come? Long known as Australia’s preeminent composer, his music is rarely performed beyond his country’s shores. His elder statesman status at home has not helped his music gain much traction abroad, and we are all the poorer for it. This release on the Naxos label makes a strong argument for a wider appreciation of his music, offering five works from Sculthorpe’s orchestral oeuvre, all from within the last thirty years.

Sculthorpe (b. 1929) was among the first of Australia’s composers to attempt to forge a national style that looked to Eastern and aboriginal models and materials, rather than those of the European musical heritage. His music is highly original and disarmingly direct—what he calls "music of straightforward line and structure"—tending toward leanness and transparency and often rather short in duration. He often uses aboriginal material in his writing and tends to favor stringed instruments, piano and percussion. His melodies are spare and simple, with an emphasis on repetition and variation of timbre rather than tonal development. He frequently rearranges his works for various forces; many of his works exist in more than one realization—indeed, one work here, From Oceania, is a revision of a 1970 version. He seeks to convey his sense of the continent's history, its landscape, and the harsh, incessantly blazing sun.

The opening work on this disc, Earth Cry, is perhaps the most openly “Australian-sounding,” with its featured didgeridoo soloist. Cast in four distinct sections, it is emblematic of Sculthorpe’s unaffected language. The violins often play in unison, and the composer in general avoids any “sophisticated” orchestrational techniques. Sculthorpe doesn't trade much in extended techniques or "modern-sounding" musical language, but there is a keen musical sensibility at work here and his priority is to communicate without emphasizing the musical skill involved. Like the "artless art" of Mozart, Sculthorpe's music is much more than it seems to be at first.

The largest work on the disc, and to my ears its centerpiece, is the Piano Concerto, from 1983. This is an extraordinary piece, and soloist Anna Tamara Cislowska performs the subtle part with insight and aplomb. This work is more expansive than many of his pieces, but not especially extravagant in gesture; essentially ruminative for most of its twenty-one minutes, it has some powerful moments nonetheless. I find its conclusion one of the most finely judged and satisfying endings I've ever heard. Ian Munro, with Diego Masson conducting the Australia Youth Orchestra recorded an earlier version of this work, which was my introduction to the piece (Tall Poppies TP 113, coupled with oboe and cello concertos by Carl Vine and David Lumsdaine, respectively), and there is yet another recording available, unheard by me at present (“Australian Piano Concertos,” Eloquence CD 426483, coupled with piano concertos of Ross Edwards and Malcom Williamson). The Naxos recording is a much stronger performance than Munro/Masson (though the Australian Youth Orchestra sounds pretty terrific for their level of experience), and might be preferable for its all-Sculthorpe couplings as well.

The disc is rounded out with Memento Mori, From Oceania, and Kakadu, each displaying a distinctive aspect of Sculthorpe’s art, making an ideal introduction to his music. The New Zealand Symphony plays exceptionally well under Judd, as they have on many other fine recordings. And with Naxos’s attractive pricing, no-one has an excuse not to hear this important composer in some of his strongest musical statements. Vigorously recommended.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

More Can to consider...

The French have a marvelous word, "introuvable," which a friend of mine once translated as "unfindable." "Unobtainable" is the usual rendering, "rare" or "lost" might do as well in a pinch, but I think his word choice had more nuance. The amazing German band Can has just released a three-disc set of "introuvable" or "lost" tapes, though it appears that they actually pretty much knew where they were all along. Now they've been combed over and the best material from the thirty-plus hours of rediscovered archived tape reels is now in the public sphere for all to consider, and even for those who think they've heard all that Can has to offer, I think this set offers some surprises. For just one indication, try "Graublau." Here the Can commandos demonstrate for other members of the Krautrock school how to really do that whole "motorik" thing. That's a start...

I once described Can to someone as "the sort of a band that might have resulted if Karlheinz Stockhausen had decided to supervise a merger of the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground." That doesn't begin to cover their strange synthesis of styles and techniques, but it's a beginning. Two of their members DID study with Stockhausen, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and bassist/sound designer Holger Czukay. Schmidt eschewed any conventional keyboard role, rarely playing supporting chord progressions or melodic material, instead producing unearthly textures and slowly-building gestures. Czukay's bass playing was a model of economy and he studiously crafted a lean foundation that would support the widest possible array of harmonic options. Jaki Leibzeit, a former member of the Manfred Schoof Quintet, was their drummer, one of the most remarkable, hypnotic time-keepers in all of rock. Michael Karoli was their guitarist, a soloist of endless invention and gorgeous tone. His lines had an effortless fluid grace; he seemed incapable of repeating himself.

But the thing that made them remarkable, especially in their prime, from about 1969-74, was that elusive element known as "chemistry." In combination with their two notable vocalists, Malcom Mooney ('68-70) and Damo Suzuki ('70-73), they set a new standard for invention and productivity, and they sounded like no other band in the world. Their last studio album came out in 1989, and the statement remains true to this day. The Lost Tapes material is largely taken from this "golden age;" most of the tracks are from ca. 1968-'72, a handful from '74-'76. The compilation was assembled by Irmin Schmidt, aided by his son-in-law, Jono Podmore.

"Chemistry" is an oft-abused term, sometimes implying that the parties involved played no active role in the result, it was merely a happy accident. Maybe, but I think that in most cases it also means that the parties involved have (or had) an understanding of the implications of their working together, an awareness of the potential and thus a responsibility to realize it. In the case of Can, this took the form of thousands of hours of rehearsal and improvisation. (I once read in an interview that they rehearsed daily for ten years, several hours a day.) These would be recorded by Holger Czuckay and then edited into a compact, coherent form. The bulk of the material on The Lost Tapes is material that they saved from these sessions, but never found the right context for release.

I recently played a class of mine "Halleluhwah," from their greatest album, Tago Mago. Within seconds of the opening, the entire class (none of whom had ever heard of Can) was utterly mesmerised, heads nodding in time, throughout the classroom. (If you know the song, you know what I mean. If not, try it; you'll do it too.) The class was astonished to learn that it was released 40 years ago, even more astonished to learn that it was recorded without multi-tracking. Edited down to its eighteen minute length from a two-hour improvisation, it remains as as powerful as the first time I heard it.

As was the case with a lot of great bands, I came to their music late. The first Can album I purchased was a compilation called Cannibalism (on LP) sometime around 1979. I was struck by how utterly timeless and unrooted their music was. Listening to "Father Cannot Yell," the first track of theirs which I remember hearing, I found myself falling into that state of bafflement, where all the elements seem to indicate one thing, but you find yourself unmoored and experiencing something completely different. They sounded like a rock band on the surface. Instrumentation, rhythms and energy all supported this concept, but their progressions didn't seem to go anywhere and they made musical choices that most bands would have avoided. I didn't know what to call it. Now, I'd just call it "Can." They became their own genre.

The other aspect of them that took me forever to discover was that their live shows were nothing like their recordings, in that they made no effort whatsoever to reproduce those recordings onstage. I never had the opportunity to hear them live, so I could only go by what I heard on their studio albums. Recently I began listening to the many live recordings that circulate among fans, and discovered I had only a partial measure of their greatness. Having listened to a fair number of live recordings from this era, their performances used their "songs" in the most general sense, as a template for improvisation, not a work to be performed with any consistency. I've heard live versions of "Mother Sky" that bore only the most vague relationship to the studio recording. Performances would often feature "spontaneous composition," wherein the band seemingly telepathically united to form a new work on the spot. This ability surpasses other "jam" groups (IMO) such as Phish or the Grateful Dead, in that their pacing is flawless and the interplay between the musicians is completely integrated. They are listening, to one another more than themselves. [Update] A comparison of the studio version of "Spoon" with a live version from 1972 makes this argument more vividly than I ever could.

Can essentially broke up in 1979, long past their musical peak. They had moved ("progressed" seems an inappropriate verb here) from playing live-to-two-track to working in a multitrack studio and with that much of their spontaneity was lost. As Irmin Schmidt noted, "In the very end, we were not listening to each other any more, which was giving up the main thing, the heart and soul of Can." The reformed in 1986 with Malcom Mooney, and made an album Rite Time (not released until '89), but their era as a group had pretty much ended. Michael Karoli passed away in 2001 after a long battle with cancer, and the possibility of a reunited Can passed with him. They played on one another's solo projects (some of Holger Czukay's solo albums are essentially Can productions), and have carefully protected and maintained their recorded legacy. The Lost Tapes simply expands and deepens that legacy.