Playing It His Way

As I write this post, the Contemporary Music Workshop is about an hour away from our first substantive rehearsal of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s YLEM, the large-scale enactment of a creation myth and the third piece of Stockhausen’s “intuitive music” that I’ve had the pleasure to perform with the group. As it happens, I recently had occasion to do a little writing on the topic of Stockhausen’s output of the late 1960s and early ’70s in the context of a passage from Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, thinking specifically of Aus den sieben Tagen, a work written in 1968 whose oversaturated vision of utopia somehow captures the spirit of the era and at the same time makes it clear that Stockhausen was just a little too old to be a real ’68-er.

These pieces typically consist of extensive verbal instructions, often with a few clarifying graphics, and sometimes with some conventionally notated material as well. In any case, the players are generally expected to produce a lot of notes that aren’t represented in the form of noteheads on a staff; “intuitive” pieces are often called “improvisational,” even though the score is generally very specific about what should happen and when. For this reason, one of the problems with “intuitive music” as a mode of cultural production has to do with how the work of the performers is recognized: Even though they’re called upon to contribute more than they would be if they were playing a conventionally notated piece—in other words, they’re obliged to decide what pitches and rhythms to play within the sharply defined context Stockhausen provides, as well as to actually play these pitches and rhythms—Stockhausen remains the composer, and he receives credit for the composition. (This topic came up during the Spark festival in a panel discussion with FURT, who identified exactly this injustice while at the same time acknowledging the importance of this literature in the development of improvisation through the latter half of the 20th century.)

In order to decide how to approach pieces like YLEM, Aus den sieben Tagen, one of the questions that we’ve had to ponder is what the performer’s role really is: Are we improvising, or do we need to reconsider our “performer” job descriptions such that they might include the formulation of material to Stockhausen’s specifications, as well as the interpretation and presentation of already-written material? My feeling is that the latter gets us closer to the spirit of Stockhausen’s music. I have a distinct memory of suddenly thinking, while playing Treffpunkt a year or so ago, that I was improvising rather than playing the piece as written, even though the score didn’t specify a single note by name. It’s not out of reverence for Stockhausen that I take this position, but rather out of a desire to arrive at the fairest possible critique of his ideology (which I suppose foregrounds the question of whether assaying a composer’s ideology is a valid reason to play his or her music; I feel very strongly that it is!). It’s very easy not to take unconventionally notated music seriously, but it’s impossible to make any judgments about it—critical or wholly affirmative—unless we do.

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