Attitude Adjustment

Attitude Adjustment

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.

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2 thoughts on “Attitude Adjustment

  1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Colin- I love hearing about your Stockhausen adventures. History only takes him seriously insofar as he kept his music pretty conventional and played with pitch class sets (“Kreuzspiel”, etc). It’s nice to go beyond that.

    What has always struck me as difficult about these scores is not just that they demand a readjustment of performance practice, but they require a deeper kind of commitment to the music. Learning to interpret and express in a new way necessitates the learning of a new language, which is something you simply cannot fake. It has to be a labor of love, otherwise it is simply not the same piece.

    Glenn Gould shouldn’t have ever played Mozart, not particularly enjoying his music. But still, when it came time, Gould was able to pull off a recognizable interpretation. His playing of Mozart is vaguely demeaning and pandering, but he was able to execute something identifiable as Mozart without much extra work- he already knew the ins and outs of classical notation and performance practice.

    Is it just arrogant for a composer to demand performers to toss out everything they’ve learned for so long in the name of a piece for which the audience also must recalibrate? I don’t think so.

  2. Colin Holter

    Is it just arrogant for a composer to demand performers to toss out everything they’ve learned for so long in the name of a piece for which the audience also must recalibrate? I don’t think so.

    I don’t think so either – and of course a big part of its value is that it calls into question sedimented notions of the performer-composer relationship (e.g. that what the composer writes in the score represents a “demand” rather than an invitation).


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