Wednesday, April 28

52 former diplomats

"TONY BLAIR should be delighted that no fewer than 52 former diplomats have written to him to say that his Middle Eastern policy is 'doomed to failure'" says Andrew Roberts.

Public Intellectualdom

Stockhausen pics

Professor Stockhausen introducing his works in the Whitla Hall last weekend.
Stockhausen in Belfast 1
Stockhausen in Belfast 2

Monday, April 26

Stockhausen in Belfast, day 3/3

17:30 25/05/04, Whitla Hall, Belfast

The final concert featured three substantial pieces from Stockhausen's massive opera cycle Licht.

Oktophonie (Octophony)
As its title suggests, the music is projected "over 8 groups of loudspeakers in a cube around the listeners". Composed at the start of the 90s, the work lasts 74 minutes and sounds very different from Stockhausen's electronic music of the 60s. Stockhausen explained how he slowed the rhythms down drastically so that the ear can follow the music's movement in space. Furthermore even the timbres are chosen for this end. The result is an emphasis on droning synthesized sounds constantly moving and flowing around the audience.

In his talk, Stockhausen surprisingly stated that the Whitla Hall was more suitable for octophonic music than any hall in Paris, London or Cologne. He also related his childhood experiences in which as a German he suffered 5 or 6 years of aerial bombardment. As a musician, he said he loved the sounds of the enemy aircraft and the firebombs falling.

Mittwochs-gruss (Wednesday greeting)
We were privileged to hear a world premiere performance of this work which lasts just under an hour. It utilises a Kurtweill K2500X synthesizer and an Akai S-2000 sampler. Again, the pace of the music is dramatically slowed down so that spatial movement is more clearly audible. Stockhausen also recommended making occasional head movements to order to better detect the planes of sound. I seem to recall some overwhelming chimes and bruising chords of sound in this piece. The music is intended to "awaken the universe of the fantasy". Stockhausen took the stage at the end to say how pleased he was to finally hear the piece as it had been intended to be heard and to dedicate it to the festival's organiser, Michael Alcorn.

Mittwochs-abschied (Wednesday farewell)
Here, Stockhausen explained his concept of "transreal" music, which goes beyond the surreal, and is composed of sounds "taken from completely different areas of life" but heard in impossible combinations. For instance, in the first section, sounds from a Venetian mass are heard in conjunction with (among other things) small handheld fans used by ladies in the 1920s. These combinations create "fantasy spaces" and the work is made of up 11 of these spaces. I should note that the sounds Stockhausen uses are also electronically altered, for instance to transpose their pitches. The work lasts 42 minutes and it is recommended that we "fly in the free flight of fantasy" for its duration.

The composer received a standing ovation.

Stockhausen in Belfast, day 2/3

19:30 24/05/04, Whitla Hall, Belfast

Hymnen (Anthems) (1966-1967)
Stockhausen put this piece into the historical context of the Cold War and also of a touring anthropological exhibition of the time. He began to think of himself less as a German and more as an "earthling". He would listen to international stations on his short-wave radio and
around midnight, he would hear the national anthems of various countries being played. It occurred to him to compose using these anthems as found material.

The piece is divided into four "regions" each lasting about half an hour, so its length makes it a demanding listen. The idealism of the work recalls Beethoven's setting of Schiller in his 9th symphony. After much complex development the work resolves into a final world anthem. Whether this was the composer's intention or not, I found myself scared at what form a world power like this might take. Partly because Stockhausen's sheer mastery of sound, on this scale, is a little intimidating.

Two days into the short series, and the next morning I found myself hearing everyday sounds, like the creaking of a banister or the passing of a car, in a overly-receptive way, trying to relate these sounds to one another as if they were in a Stockhausen piece.

Stockhausen in Belfast, day 1/3

19:30 23/05/04, Whitla Hall, Belfast

Dressed in white trousers, a white shirt, an orange jumper and a white jacket, Stockhausen was already at the mixing desk as the audience filtered into the Whitla Hall. The stage was completely empty and blacked out apart from "a small projected full moon" from a spotlight. Speakers were clustered in each of the hall's eight corners. The composer took to the stage to introduce each piece separately and at length. He would end his introductions with the wish that we closed our eyes, the better to leave our bodies behind, and that we had a good time listening.

Electronic Study 1 (1953)
Lasting about thirteen minutes, the stark beauty of this work audibly recalls Webern, but with the expressivity of each sound coming purely from its timbre rather that from that of a musician's hand, say, on the bridge of a violin.

Electronic Study 2 (1954)
Stockhausen stated that he made an intensive study of phonetics before writing this second study though he did not explain why except that he felt that this piece was built from sounds akin to consonants rather than vowel-sounds as in the first study. It is much briefer, lasting less than four minutes.

Gesang der Junglinge (Song of the Youths) (1955-1956)
Stockhausen integrates the voice of a 12-year old boy singing from the 3rd Book of Daniel ("O all ye light and darkness, praise ye the Lord") into his world of synthesized sounds. The effect of the almost drowned voice coming up and up again to give praise in the bubbling stream of sound is surprisingly moving.

Kontakte (1959-1960)
While there is a version of this work which uses two musicians playing live, we heard the purely electronic version of this work. As perhaps his best known piece of electronic music, it is the work of Stockhausen that I am most familiar with, but it never fails to reveal something new each time to me each time I hear it. In this version, without the two musicians, there is less emphasis on the contact between instrumental and synthesized sounds, but when projected over 8 speakers surrounding the audience, the spatial effects are obviously that much more powerful. The abstract sounds never cease to develop and change, creating an entirely new, beautiful and alien world.

Friday, April 23

Karlheinz Stockhausen is visiting Belfast

Karlheinz Stockhausen is visiting Belfast and there will be three performances of his works here over the weekend. This is as part of the Sonorities Festival of Contemporary Music. I intend to get along to all three Stockhausen events so I've been reading up on him again here at his home page, and also here and here.

Thursday, April 22

Modern conservative thinking

Attempts to separate the good from the bad in modern conservative thinking always fascinate me. This is a great example. It's by Michael Gove. He edits the Times on Saturdays, so has an obvious interest in dissecting the Daily Mail as neatly as he does here. But he does a lovely job not only in analysing the paper, but also relating its contents to factions within the Tory party.

Wednesday, April 7

Des Canyons Aux Etoiles

A few years ago I bought a copy of Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony, mainly because I was fascinated to read about his use of the ondes martenot.

While I've explored some of his music for keyboard instruments since, and had the fortune to hear a concert by Peter Hill of Messiaen's piano music, till now I'd never got around to any of his other orchestral music. That's changed with my purchase of the wonderful Des Canyons Aux Etoiles, written to celebrate the bicentennial of the United States in 1976.

No ondes martenot this time, but an orchestra of 44 accompanied by piano, horn, xylorimba, glockenspiel and some curious use of a wind-machine.

As Andrew McGregor writes:

"The variety of sounds is staggering [...] Time stands still when you immerse yourself in this remarkable new recording. Messiaen always was better at eternity than almost anyone else. Go on, lose yourself in the canyons of Utah under a star-filled azure sky."

The music is as colourful as the CD cover suggests and the excellent English sleeve notes are by Paul Griffiths.

Tuesday, April 6

Crime and prostitution

Theodore Dalrymple came to "the world of crime and prostitution" first through fiction and later through personal experience as a prison doctor:

"I realized that Maupassant was not a wholly reliable guide to the phenomenon of prostitution. There was more to it than jollity, the popping of champagne corks, and impromptu dancing."

To follow his argument a stage further, I suppose we should treat even an excellent short essay such as this sceptically, only accepting what he says if we have verified it from life ourselves.

(Linked from

Friday, April 2

Cooke obit

The Economist's obit of Alistair Cooke is up.

Thursday, April 1

Evan Parker

"If you can imagine the music of the future, why is it in the future?"

-- Evan Parker

Radio 3's Jazzfile is running a three-part documentary on the music of the free-improvising saxophonist Evan Parker.

This week's programme discusses his early period in the sixties. Among other groups, he plays with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and then with the Peter Brotzmann Octet, on their album Machine Gun, which is furiously intense. Almost to the point of comedy.

I've got four or five of Evan Parker's albums. Like a lot of improvised music, I'd describe them as:

- on the margins of the listenable;
- driven by dogmas I don't grasp;
- unlikely to be in the CD player much;
- necessary from time to time, to blow away the cobwebs.