There’s something especially encouraging about a great first rehearsal: As the CMW at the University of Minnesota embarks on yet another of Stockhausen’s intuitive pieces—this time, it’s Setz die Segel zur Sonne from Aus den sieben Tagen—I feel like we’ve already laid down a good foundation for a successful rehearsal process. As I’ve noted here before, those pieces—like a lot of pieces with verbal scores—are easy to not take seriously for the same reason (among others) that dynamics always have to be given special attention in rehearsals for conventionally notated music: Western musicians are accustomed to digesting note material (which is to say dots and lines) first and verbal material later or not at all. In the score of YLEM, for instance, Stockhausen specifies several pitch-classes by name, and of course we were very careful to play the right ones at the right times. “Play a tone for so long until you hear its individual vibrations” is an instruction no less concrete (although perhaps a bit more psychoacoustically challenging) than a B-flat quarter-note in the middle of the treble clef, but it’s not presented in the code that musicians are conditioned to take seriously.
Nevertheless, over the past few years we’ve continued to refine our performance practice for this music, and I think we’re getting to the point where we can play them in a way that’s not only compelling to hear and see, not only true to the spirit of the score, but—most importantly—is starting to reveal the uniqueness in each of these short instructions. For me, that’s the goal of the whole exercise: If the realization of one set of woolly, more or less abstract commands is indistinguishable from the next, we haven’t done our job, even if in the context of each piece we’ve successfully connected Stockhausen’s dots (which are, of course, not dots at all). If, on the other hand, we can really illustrate the difference between “Again play a sound / Play it for so long / until you feel / that you should stop” and “Play a sound / with the certainty / that you have an infinite amount of time / and space”—which, after all, could sound very similar—then we’ll be getting somewhere.