Getting It Off the Page
My colleagues in the UMN Contemporary Music Workshop and I recently unveiled our rendition of Stockhausen’s 1970 work Ceylon for Sri Lankan Kandy drum and small ensemble (instrumentation unspecified). If I may say so, it was a credible performance: We were very deliberate about interpreting the score, we rehearsed extensively, and we happened to be in a good psychological space when we played. I only have occasion to make music in front of an audience once every year or two; I’m glad it wasn’t a wasted opportunity this time.
However, we took a little bit of a short cut: Ceylon‘s score consists only of a short instruction—”All divided in two, with a couple of minorities; for festive times, a rhythm:”—and two smallish pages of rhythmic notation for the Kandy drum. Stockhausen’s original recording of the piece (featuring none other than Peter Eötvös on camel bells and triangle, as it happens) was based on a seven-part formal scheme that alternates sections based on the notated rhythm with improvised sections; this scheme is nowhere to be found in the score proper. However, when my friends and I rehearsed the piece, we appropriated this plan for our own performance.
Maybe our following Stockhausen the Director’s way through the piece rather than coming up with a new one based strictly on Stockhausen the Composer’s indications was simply a judicious performance practice decision. Somehow, though, I still don’t quite feel like I’ve really played the piece. Given its minimal instructions, the possibility-space for Ceylon is so much greater than what we explored, even though we added two droning soprano saxes and a few more processed woodwinds to KS’s original lineup of synthesizers, ring-modulated piano, percussion, and Kandy drum.
I don’t foresee an opportunity to play Ceylon again in the especially near future, but if I ever get the chance to prepare it again, I want to take a much more essentialist stance about what the piece truly is—that is to say, what the score conveys. After all, that’s the flexibility that a work of intuitive music is supposed to offer: the potential for a wealth of radically different interpretations that may seem foreign to one another but for their shared connection to the source material.