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Kontra-punkte, one of Stockhausen’s less crazy compositions, dates from 1953, the golden age of total serialism.

The abstract painting is by Eva Ryn Johannissen.

Amy Winehouse, 10 days before her death

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.

About thirty years ago I was in love with Gillian Moore when we were both students at York University.

Fuck. Look at her now. Harry looks better, and he’s 76.

Did you actually meet Messiaen?

Sort of, a couple of times. I sat next to him in Paris when they played my Triumph of Time. I think it was Colin Davis, I can’t remember, maybe it was Boulez. I think it was Boulez, yeah, it must have been Boulez, and they played a piece of his.

I think it is a fairly established view that although Schoenberg was the developer of serialism, others soon surpassed him as far as innovation goes, and Schoenberg is paradoxically one of the most influential and best known or notorious modern composers, yet his compositions are little known or played (but thoroughly analyzed scholarly). Personally I prefer his pre-serialist atonal expressionist period as in Pierrot Lunaire with the hilarious “Sprechgesang”. As far as serialism goes, I am more inclined to listen to Webern and Stravinsky, not to mention Stockhausen’s particular spatial electronic serialism and Ligeti’s micropolyphony, both somehow emerging from serialism.

Personally I think Schoenberg should have resisted the Germanic cultural impulse to systematize and bring “Ordnung” out of the Expressionist chaos.

I mean, I understand the impulse, but I remain somewhat sceptical of it. A composer of immense power like Karl Amadeus Hartmann evolved more out of the pre-dodecaphonic Schoenberg than from the “12-tone method”. So too did Alban Berg. Early Hindemith also shows the possibilities.

But allow me to contradict myself! I still like the Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto is a fun work, not to mention Moses und Aron, and I can with difficulty agree that the 12-tone method allows you to sound Expressionist, and yet allow you to show some sense behind the sound.

The deeper question is: does it matter if you can show the sense behind the sound, if the finished product is … frankly … dull?

Pierre Boulez described him as an heroic failure. There’s a lot of truth in that description and it pretty much applies to Boulez the composer, too.

Unlike Boulez, however, Schoenberg was a very great man, a bona fide genius, and did something that absolutely had to be done. It took stupendous talent, courage, and strength of mind, and because of all this his life was blighted … such a very lonely path that met with incredulity and contempt.

His output is very mixed I think (I say that humbly) but there are magnificent things of the highest order.

Amy Winehouse has never heard of Claude Vivier

Bored by Barber, Bernstein, Britten, Tippett and Tchaikovsky? Try Claude Vivier! Never heard of him? Neither had I, but when I saw the announcement of a DVD from De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam my curiosity was aroused and I ordered it. Those Dutch are producing the most astonishing array of new opera productions. And I always saw them as a dull and unimaginative tribe. Pierre Audi, the artistic director of De Nederlandse Opera, has become one of my favourite directors since I saw his Ring, now my favourite Ring video, shoving the Harry Kupfer/Daniel Barenboim off its pedestal, at least in the video category.

I can’t possible give you a blow-by-blow report of the opera Kopernikus I watched yesterday. It is not called an opera, but a “ritual opera of death”. I never heard any of the singers, nor the conductor, who, surprisingly, took his applause in a protestant minister’s outfit, his real occupational garb. The performance took place in a cavernous old building, former warehouse or factory or something with a stage-like rectangle covered by a deep layer of sand, matching the general lighting throughout! Same with the costumes; very thick sheets of heavy felt. It might be moulded foam, I couldn’t tell, which the singers use skilfully to wrap themselves in, or their fellow actors. The “furniture” sets are wooden crates.

All this is mostly the background, my eyes were busy following the action. No orchestra, but musicians, in costume and make-up, are on stage, acting while playing their instruments. One brilliant slide trombonist doing a duo with the bass actor-singer, even while flat on his back. The female violinist moved all over the sand, wearing a billowy grey outfit with a very long train, and of course no stand for her notes. It is almost an hour of music she has to memorise. A few woodwind players, percussionists and a solo piano complete the “orchestra”. The music is not as strange as I had expected from a student of Ligeti and Stockhausen; of course I won’t walk around humming it.

Watching the singers gave my eyes more to do. Singing with the open hand occasionally tapping the lips to vibrate the sound created something new, not unpleasant to hear. A soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass, plus the narrator completed the cast. I have to include the musicians in the cast, because they were just as skilful actors as the singers. The language is “invented” but a running translation in English helps tremendously to let me know what is going on.

I think I shall watch Götterdämmerung tomorrow, give myself a day of respite from Claude Vivier, and then maybe his Marco Polo during the weekend.

Anybody seriously interested in new music, new composers, new ways to be a spectator and listener of an exciting experience, do try this DVD. Also it would be great to see a gay composer getting more recognition for a change.

All I need to add is that even Stockhausen thought this guy was weird.

No audience can keep awake through the eternal reiteration of a single idea. Nor can the human mind withstand a continuous bombardment of new ideas.

(Reginald Smith Brindle, Serial Composition)

I’m just reading The New Music – The Avant-Garde Since 1945 by Reginald Smith Brindle (1987), acquired for pennies from the Oxfam shop on Oldham Street just around the corner from where I live in Manchester’s trendy Northern Quarter.

Even though I have a couple of Mr Brindle’s guitar works on an old Julian Bream LP, this is not a category of music that figures much in my record or CD collection or concert and BBC Radio 3 listening, although when I first started listening to BBC Radio 3 around 1972 I tried hard to make some sense of what was broadcast of the “new music”, albeit without much profit. I now find Brindle’s fairly gentle critique of the thinking behind indeterminacy, integral serialism, graphic scores and the like usually hits the nail on the head.

So where does that leave the music he discusses: the likes of Togni, Donatoni, Nono for integral serialism, Haubenstock-Ramati, Renosto for aleatoric, Cardew, Bussotti, Buonomi, Levine, Brindle himself and Donatoni again for graphic scores? The above names are taken from the musical examples in the book, although I’ve been deliberately selective (mendacious?) in leaving out more famous names like Messiaen, Boulez, Berio, and Stockhausen.

Have these “schools” died as far as performances and recordings are concerned? Do any “masterpieces” linger in anyone’s memory (a tricky notion of course for those scores where no two performances will ever be the same, to the point where the whole idea of a recognizable “work” may well disappear completely). Is this period now to be regarded just as an unfortunate cul-de-sac in musical history?

Some of the then hard-line composers came to that conclusion themselves (Penderecki, Pärt, to name but two of the most well known names), others like Nono and Boulez stuck to their own kind of serialism. Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) committed suicide, but in his music we find the tendency of leaving the German symphonic style behind to develop an increasingly more avant-garde style, which would have continued without abating had he lived longer.

Quite radical composers in the minimal music corner have either mellowed (Andriessen, Adams, gradually losing the sharp edges) or ripened (Reich, refining his point of departure).

So, no, 1950s avant-garde is not really dead, but this type of music in its pure form might in the nearer or further future be considered a cul-de-sac.

Yes, 1950s avant-garde techniques and devices have been adopted, amalgamated, merged with (what might be called) more “classical” points of departure; and therefore, yes, the 1950s avant-garde does play a role in present day composing, either as continuity and development, or in music which is a reaction to the mathematics of it.

As with all periods some, indeed most, of the music then written (1950s), ends up in the “Oxfam shop” of music. What none of us know is what future generations will make of the music. It may all swing back into fashion, as has happened with the music of Korngold. Who would have predicted that in the 1970s? The avant-garde is far from dead, but it’s no longer sensibly called avant-garde, because it is simply part of the vocabulary which informs so much of what composers still do. The amazing freedom which it represented at the time remains often overlooked however, and is certainly still overlooked by those curmudgeons, stubbornly, bizarrely seeking out a tune in Pli selon pli.

Composers are now free to be as conservative or radical as they please; the pendulum has stopped swinging this way or that, because it’s finally become evident we don’t need a pendulum. Schnittke was the most prominent composer who boldly swung between styles (often in the same work) but there are many others.

The down side is that (as with much contemporary art) passions rarely are aroused one way or another. And I’m not sure the absence of an over-arching “school” doesn’t invite decadence. We don’t have a musical Damien Hirst yet, but it’s surely a matter of time.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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