Friday, May 4, 2018

“Kurzwellen” for a New Age from mode records

courtesy of Naxos of America

Two weeks ago mode records released a new recording of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Kurzwellen” (short waves). This piece was created in 1968, scored for six players with shortwave radios and live electronics; and it is Number 25 in the catalog that Stockhausen compiled of his own compositions. When the work was first performed, the players were Aloys Kontarsky (piano), Harald Bojé (Electronium, an early model synthesizer also equipped for algorithmic composition), Alfred Alings and Rolf Gehlhaar (both on a single tam-tam with microphone), Johannes Fritsch (viola), and Stockhausen himself managing the live electronics and sound projection. Deutsche Grammophon recorded two performances they gave on May 4, 1968 and April 9, 1969, respectively, releasing both on a two-LP album. These were subsequently reissued on CD by Stockhausen-Verlag, each on a separate disc in the Stockhausen Complete Edition series.

These days I suspect that most readers will have to resort to Wikipedia to find out just what a shortwave radio is. Before the Internet simplified the process of distributing content on a global basis, the shortwave radio was one of the cheapest and simplest ways to listen to content that originated from a great distance. If you were lucky and skillful enough, you could receive signals from around the world; and shortwave radio operators took pride in maintaining logs of the sorts of content they received, its source, and the time of its reception. Incorporating this technology in a performance was one of the ways in which Stockhausen responded in his own way to John Cage’s pioneering efforts to use chance techniques in the creation of his compositions, There was no way in which he could exercise control over the sounds that the shortwave radios would contribute to a performance of “Kurzwellen.”

Nevertheless, on one occasion Stockhausen did try to exercise some control. In 1970, the year of the bicentennial of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, he created a special version in which all the radio sources would be broadcasting Beethoven. Since there was no way that he could realize this with shortwave technology, he replaced the radios with four tape collages based on both Beethoven’s music and his own reading of the “Heiligenstadt Testament.” However, except for this bit of tinkering with the nature of the sound sources, the rest of the performance instructions were left intact.

This variation on the original concept allows us to appreciate just what Stockhausen was trying to do. He referred to “Kurzwellen” as a “process” composition, meaning that, as a composer, he was specifying the activities of the performers, rather than the product that would result from those activities. This was an approach that he had clearly encountered when he was getting to know the nature of many of Cage’s compositions, but it is clear that he wanted to take some of Cage’s ideas that appealed to him and steer them off in another direction.

Stockhausen died on December 5, 2007; but, to the best of my knowledge, the curriculum of summer courses that he organized in Kürten is still active. It was certainly active in 2011, because that is when the performance of “Kurzwellen” on this new mode release was recorded. That performance was given by the C.L.S.I. Ensemble, whose initials stand for “Circle for the Liberation of Sound and Image.” As had been the case with that Beethoven version, the group strove to maintain the process while altering the materials to suit the ways in which technology had advanced since 1968.

That goal was achieved through a new performing version requiring four instruments, four shortwave radios, six computers, and a conductor. More specifically, each instrumentalist was coupled with a “personal radio operator.” The resulting recording is only two seconds longer than 48 minutes. The CD itself is divided into 31 tracks, which are grouped into four “Systems.” This reflects Stockhausen’s plan to divide the performance into four large sections with increasing numbers of events following a predetermined sequence of proportions, with a similar (but different) series of proportions specifying the events themselves within each large section. The track listing for the album suggests that C.L.S.I. did not choose to honor either of Stockhausen’s structural series of proportions.

Writing as one who has experienced a fair number of such “process” pieces, more inspired by Cage than by Stockhausen, I have to confess that, with so much activity going into making the performance, being a passive listener is not very rewarding. When one attends such a performance, one can at least enjoy the “choreography” behind the (wo)men-at-work execution of the “score.” However, even when the recording is an audio document of a performance for an audience, the experience of listening to the recording is impoverished when compared with that of actually being there.

Furthermore, because the process is almost never realized the same way twice (or even in a similar way), a recording does little to prepare one planning to attend a performance of the piece. At best this new recording may trigger some appealing memories among those present when C.L.S.I. gave their performance in Kürten on August 10, 2011. Those who have experienced other realizations of the “process directions” may also enjoy certain “rings of familiarity;” but my guess is that such pleasures may be beyond to reach of most listeners’ capacities for memory. As a result, this new mode release may turn out to be primarily of academic interest, rather than appealing to a broader base of listeners eager to learn more about Stockhausen’s work.

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