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The idea of “taking a line for a walk” comes from one of Birtwistle’s favourite artists, Paul Klee. A preoccupation with Klee and his theories was an inspiration for one of the definitive Birtwistle pieces of the late 1970s, Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum. Using Klee’s idea of the difference between “dividual” and “individual” phenomena – the difference between, say, the endlessly divisible nature of water, as opposed to the singularity, the indivisibility, of a bottle of water – Birtwistle conjured a series of different musical materials. The question was then how to repeat these blocks of material, and how to transform them. On their own, each block is like a little machine of processes and patterns, but nothing ever repeats in quite the way you expect. That’s because Birtwistle used a series of random numbers to help generate how the blocks would recur, how long they would last, and even what notes they would use.
And here’s the paradox. “I didn’t make any decisions in writing Carmen,” Birtwistle says, since so much of the structure was generated through random procedures, “and yet it sounds like me – and no one else could have written it.”
The question was frequently asked, for whom does he compose? Certainly, for me (and I know that fortunately I am not the only one). With a few exceptions, Stockhausen’s works are consistently among the music of the last 50 years that gives me the most enjoyment and impresses me the most. This holds up until his later music. For example, Himmelfahrt (Ascension) (2004/5) for synthesizer (or organ), soprano and tenor, and Licht-Bilder (2002) for tenor, trumpet, basset-horn, flute and ring-modulation are, in my view, simply in a league of their own when it comes to, not just quality, but also sheer originality of ideas and the authoritative execution of these in the finest detail and with sublime compositional technique.
One of my favorite at-home concerts is currently Gruppen followed by Himmelfahrt. Both works feature polyphony of strands in different tempi – in the latter, the two hands of the keyboard player play in different simultaneous tempi – and both employ the concept in distinct ways. While Gruppen is gestural music, Himmelfahrt applies a more melodic approach. Both works offer complex listening experiences. At the end of such a “concert” I am exhausted but happily so. And completely drunk, so I now am unable to find the fucking Stockhausen CDs.
The Helicopter Quartet – alas, the only most recent work of Stockhausen that is available outside Stockhausen-Verlag – certainly does not tell the whole story about his more recent music.
Apart from the very good beginning and the terrific end (ascension and descent) I find it most of the time boring, and I seem to share this experience with many others. I have had some moments where I thought I had started to like the music, but then, after listening to some other earlier Stockhausen music, like the two above mentioned works, I really couldn’t bear it.
The extravagant perfomance requirements are the most outrageous in Stockhausen’s oeuvre and not typical. While other works are difficult to perform not just in terms of technique but also in terms of costs, none is of such a forbidding nature. And many later works, not just the composer’s own chamber music, like excerpts from Licht, but also his compositions from the Klang cycle, are relatively easy to perform in monetary terms.
I heard Stockhausen give pre-concert speeches in London three or four times. On each occasion, he was lucid, amusing, enthusiastic, unpretentious and, above all, quite sane. I have no idea why he comes across as such a basket case in interviews. In real life Stockhausen was a very nice, un-arrogant and down-to-earth person – I have experienced this during summer courses, in personal conversations and in exchange of letters.
However, and this is not meant as a critique of his contribution to 20th century music, he had shocking halitosis – and unavoidable, even if you were squeamish about such things, because he would insist on standing right up close to you in a conversation, and suddenly exhaling with a big German noise. I was present when David Atherton and two members of the London Sinfonietta vomited, then fainted because of this.
This post is my tribute to Amy Winehouse, now I’ll never get to have sex with her.