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Zeitkratzer - Old School: Karlheinz Stockhausen

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Artist: Zeitkratzer

Album: Old School: Karlheinz Stockhausen

Label: Zeitkratzer

Review date: Nov. 15, 2011

This is the fourth installment in Zeitkratzer’s "Old School" series, but aside from the fact that these Stockhausen pieces date from 1968, there’s nothing “old school” about it. The young ensemble updates some of the composer’s most controversial pieces, exhibiting both fidelity and individuality in concert performances that teem with energy and commitment.

The five pieces on offer are taken from From the Seven Days, penned by Stockhausen just after a domestic crisis. There is not a note of music in the 12 scores; these may be considered prescriptive texts, but even that label does not speak to the poetic and spiritual elements in the verbal compositions. Stockhausen called it “intuitive” music, a concept which, of course, was not new. Groups such as AMM and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had been involved in similar pursuits for years. However, Stockhausen’s texts involved extremities of vision and approach that set them apart. Here, for example, is an excerpt from the instructions for “Gold Dust”:

    Live completely alone for four days
    without food
    in complete silence, without much movement
    Sleep as little as necessary
    Think as little as possible

Needless to say, that piece has only been recorded once, and it’s not on this disc. Some of the instructions actually involve music or the manufacturing of sound. Some do not. And there are often visual metaphors explaining and augmenting whatever actions are prescribed. Debate concerning the works’ validity and musicality has persisted in scholarly volumes throughout the succeeding 40 years.

My initial instinct was to compare these new interpretations with Vol. 14 of the Stockhausen-Verlag series, in which all of the pieces are presented across seven discs. Such comparisons are ultimately useless; any ensemble’s vision of these works will involve its own set of criteria (timbre, playing experience, etc.). That said, I couldn’t dismiss completely the notion of comparative listening, so let one example suffice. The text for “Set Sail for the Sun” reads:

    Play a tone for so long
    until you hear its individual vibrations
    Hold the tone
    and listen to the tones of the others
    -- to all of them together, not to individual ones --
    and slowly move your tone
    until you arrive at complete harmony
    and the whole sound turns to gold
    to pure, gently shimmering fire

The ensemble Stockhausen rehearsed and recorded in 1969 is slightly larger than Zeitkratzer, and a larger palette is in evidence. Attacks and decays appear and disappear episodically, the prescribed drone providing a kind of backdrop, a layer of support for the various timbres that flit or glide in and out of focus over more than half an hour. In Zeitkratzer’s realization, unity is paramount. I was reminded of Ligeti’s early 1960s choral works, in that any strands of melody become subservient to the harmonies they create by intertwining. There is also a very concrete form in this new rendering: A slow crescendo becomes apparent, gaining momentum as the piece finally reaches an earth-shattering tam-tam-ridden state that I’m reluctant to downplay with the mundane word “conclusion.” Gold it may or may not be, but bright it certainly is, embracing the entire sonic spectrum in one dazzling ascent.

The one other thing that Zeitkratzer and Stockhausen’s ensembles have in common is the level of musicianship. The composer gathered some of the finest musicians for his project, and Zeitkratzer boasts similarly excellent talent. Reedsman Frank Gratkowski and trombonist Hilary Jeffery will be names known to anyone following European improvised music, and the other members are equally accomplished. Only Martin Wurmnest’s contribution is difficult to assess; credited with “Sound,” his role is unclear, but he may be the one responsible for the extraordinary sense of space in the live mix. Listen to the rapid-fire pointilisms of “Intensity” or the susurrations of “Night Music” to get an idea of the wide soundstage this recording captures.

By Marc Medwin

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