Karis and Freitas Play Stockhausen

Aleck Karis was one of the top pianists in New York for new music when I lived there in the ’80s, and I was fortunate enough to hear Aleck play my music on several occasions. I wrote Secret Geometry for piano and electronic sound for him (that’s where the name of this blog comes from), and he subsequently recorded that piece. He also played and recorded my Icons for clarinet, piano and electronic sound. Aleck has been at UC San Diego for many years now. I had hoped to include Aleck as part of the consortium of pianists who are to perform my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, but we couldn’t work out the details; he still might play the piece at some point, but it will be outside the framework of the consortium. Aleck is a quietly spectacular player, with a wide-ranging repertoire; his large discography includes Glass, Carter, Cage, Reynolds, Feldman, and Davidovsky, as well as Chopin and Mozart, among dozens of other composers.

Here is a video of Aleck with Kian Freitas performing one of Stockhausen’s most enduring pieces, Mantra for two ring-modulated pianos.

Revisiting New Music at the Philadelphia Orchestra

First, a correction: in this post, I listed works by Higdon, Torke, and Salonen as the only pieces by living composers during next year’s Philadelphia Orchestra season. I omitted a work by Lorenzo Palomo, whose Nocturnos de Andalucia will be performed. Apologies to the Philadelphia and Mr. Palomo.

Second, by way of comparison: The New York Philharmonic will perform seven works by living composers during subscription concerts next season, plus six more on special “Contact” new music concerts. In addition, although he is technically deceased and therefore not a living composer (at least not on this planet), the Philharmonic will also play Stockhausen’s Gruppen as a special event. The San Francisco Symphony will also play seven pieces by living composers on regular concerts – but they will additionally do a good bit more as part of next year’s iteration of the “American Mavericks” festival, which will also tour. Visiting orchestras to Davies Hall in SF seem to play a lot of new music as well, including the Philadelphia Orchestra’s presentation of a work by Behzad Ranjbaran.

Now, four pieces by living composers is about four more than a great many orchestras in this country will play next season, and as a composer and a concertgoer I am grateful for these four. Yet, I do hope the Philadelphia will increase its presentations of new music as Yannick settles in.

Stimmung at 42

Today I listened to Stockhausen’s 1968 composition Stimmung for the first time in about 30 years, and I thought the piece held up pretty well. Scored for vocal sextet, Stimmung is Stockhausen’s take on overtone chanting, in which a singer, by manipulating the shape of the mouth, causes overtones in a sustained note to become more prominent. The effect is sometimes uncanny, in that a single voice seems to be sounding two tones – a low fundamental and a higher pitch which is in fact simply an overtone. The technique is associated with Tibetan monks, and has long been used by David Hykes in a group called the Harmonic Choir. (I remember hearing them at New York’s St. John the Divine during my Columbia days.)

Although Stimmung is sometimes spoken of as a piece built on a single chord, that is no more the case than it is in Schoenberg’s “Summer Morning by a Lake” from the Five Pieces for Orchestra. Stimmung is about the play of the overtones, not the sustained chord. It is a spectralist piece before there was spectralism. Yes, in a sense Stimmung is a kind of minimalist work, and Paul Hiller, the artistic director of the Theatre of Voices, whose excellent recording I listened to, compares the piece to Terry Riley’s In C. There are similarities in the way the pieces both depend on the performers moving with a certain degree of flexibility through a series of modules prescribed by the composer, and Stimmung does rely on brief repeated figures. But it is not about process in the manner of the classic works of minimalism. There is too much fantasy at play here for a minimalist piece: poems are recited; various deities are invoked; and the days of the week are named in different languages (perhaps a foreshadowing of Licht, Stockhausen’s cycle of operas named for the days of the week);. The music at times sounds like devotional chanting, at other times like a work of electronic music, for the sound of the overtones is similar to what happens when a synthesizer’s low pass filter sweeps over the harmonic spectrum of a low sound, with the filter set to emphasize its cutoff frequency. When the names of the gods are introduced, the phonemes that make up the name are picked up by the singers who are chanting a repeated overtone figure. It is as though the name Quetzalcoatl, for example, colors the repeated figure, adding percussive sounds, bringing out additional harmonic content. Or is it that the name is heard through the filter of the overtones? What is the figure? What is the aural scrim through which we listen to the figure? I feel certain Stockhausen relished that ambiguity, that rejection of dualism. It reminds me of the spot in his Momente where the solo soprano says “is near and far – at once.”