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Hallucinations…and Hymns

Hallucination, A Tribute to Mary Bauermeister, Jacaranda, January 25, 2014 —

Xen_Stock

Jacaranda, the concert series in Santa Monica now in its 10th season, gave listeners two solemn, stunning performances on January 25th. With important compositions by Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen —two originators of “electronic music”—the evening offered the possibility of explosive, sonic fireworks. But candlelight in a hushed room might have better suited the reverential tone of this music, despite its many unusual and fervent sounds. It was fitting that Jacaranda’s Halluncination take place in the modern, airy sanctuary of Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church.

Patrick Scott, the Artistic Director of Jacaranda, writes copious, well-researched  program notes for each concert that he and Music Director Mark Alan Hilt produce. For Hallucination, Scott’s first thoughts turn to the shaking-up of the status quo when W.W. II ended: “There remains something profoundly unnerving about the whiplash change that happened to music near 1950—in the wake of the war, and after the atom bomb—as though evolution, suddenly lurching forward, forced life into a new course of mutation.” Parallels are then drawn between the two composers featured in the concert and how both men, to different degrees, were affected by war.

Nomos Alpha (1965)

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) barely escaped death as a teenager and ultimately enjoyed a successful life in several, varied careers. Born in Romania to Greek parents, he moved to Athens as a child and studied engineering. He joined the Resistance in the early 40’s and later lost an eye in Greece’s civil war. He was captured and condemned to death but escaped in 1947 and moved to Paris. With an interest in music and despite only being self-taught, he studied briefly with Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen. Then he met the influential modern  architect, Le Corbusier, who employed Xenakis for the next dozen years as an engineer, culminating in their shared work at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. (Xenakis was Le Corbusier’s architectural assistant on the design of the Phillips Pavilion and also wrote an electronic music piece–Concret PH—which             visitors heard entering and leaving the building.) The composer later described his music as “aural versions of architectural forms.”

In the meantime, Xenakis began combining the 12-tone system of music with what he knew about math and then experimented with computers and chance; the results were pieces of music that were mystifying (or painful) to most ears in the early 1950’s. Gradually his work became accepted, especially when John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Hans Werner Henze, Luciano Berio and other composers began to create similar music. Xenakis continued to compose throughout his life, teach at U.S. and European universities and design spectacular “sound and light” shows of his music at various sites around the world.

tim_looXenakis wrote Nomos Alpha, the first performance of the evening at Jacaranda, for solo cello. Some critics consider it “impossible” to play, but with a bit of multi-tracking, the alteration of strings and by pre-recording the final 16 bars of the score, it can be accomplished.  In the performance by Timothy Loo, we were treated to an intense, graceful and skilled rendition of the piece.  Other cellists can be found on-line playing Nomos Alpha but they seem to be rushing the segments together; Loo’s approach was akin to watching Pablo Casals play Bach, with a pause now and then for an elegant musical breath. Loo was dressed casually in black but wore a white glove on his left hand. When he began his determined bowing , slapping, plucking, and caressing of the cello strings, it became evident that the glove was necessary for him to race up and down the strings with the great speed and agility he exhibited.

As for the performance of Nomos Alpha …it really has to be seen in person to appreciate the dexterity of the soloist. During Timothy Loo’s 15-minute tour de force, a member of the audience noted the following impressions: “ a catalogue of sounds;  mimics every stringed instrument, from bass to violin to samisen;  the drone of war planes; Tex Avery cartoon noises; cat’s meowing;  different tones of two fog horns on ships passing at sea;  low hum of motor on a dirigible gliding overhead; stately silences between passages; finale,  a beautiful burst of music, has more individual sounds than humanly possible with 1 bow and 10 fingers!” Loo well deserved the cheers and standing ovation he received from the audience.

Stimmung (1968)

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007) grew up in Germany and had an unenviable childhood. Orphaned during the war, he toiled as a farm laborer and stretcher bearer in order to survive. To help pay for his composition studies in Cologne, he worked as a pianist and taught music in schools. By 1952, he was in Paris and, like Xenakis before him, studied with Messiaen. When he met Pierre Boulez, he encountered “musique concrete” (music using recorded sounds) and began to use that method himself. Gruppen, a piece written for three orchestras in the mid-50’s, employed yet another element Stockhausen would return to: various “points” of music performed simultaneously, with the musicians sometimes allowed to sing or play at their own discretion. Stimmung (1968), presented as the second half  of the Jacaranda concert, is an example of a composition affected by performers’ choices.  (Written in the same year, the score of “Aus den Sieben Tagen”, has no musical notation at all; a note in the text reads: “I do not make my music, but only relay the vibrations I receive”.)

The word “vibrations” recalls the free-spirited era when Indian music, rock & roll, love-in’s and drug-taking influenced a great deal of art and the artists who made it. Stockhausen became a guru of the New Music and broadened his own vision in the late-60’s with trips to Asia, Mexico and, especially, San Francisco during 1967’s “Summer of Love”. He was accompanied at that time by Mary Bauermeister, the woman who soon became the second of his four wives and with whom he had two children.  (The two met in Cologne in1960 at the premiere of Stockhausen’s early electronic masterpiece, Kontakte.)

Mary Bauermeister, who was in the audience at Jacaranda, was influential in the creation of Stimmung.  Patrick Scott’s program notes give a good snapshot of Bauermeister and her circle of influential friends:  “Born in 1934 in Frankfurt, by age twenty-three Mary established herself in Cologne, the only German city safe for all sorts of artists and progressive intellectuals. Her ‘atelier’ attracted the most daring American artists, poets and thinkers in the two years before President Kennedy’s assassination:  Alan Ginsburg, John Cage, David Tudor, Nam June Paik, Joseph Beuys and Timothy Leary”.  After moving to New York in 1963 and becoming an established artist and sculptor, Bauermeister convinced Stockhausen to join her on the East Coast.

It was the gurgling sounds of Karlheinz and Mary’s infant son that later intrigued the composer. The pinched sounds created in the sinus and nasal passages became the basis of Stimmung, which can be translated as “in tune with”. To this was added erotic poetry in English and German;  the various names for “god” used by Aztec, East Indian, Hawaiian,  American Indian, ancient Greek,  Egyptian, Roman  and African worshipers (among others); the days of the week, spoken in English; whistling; operatic singing and random sounds, some of which might be amplified.  It took 10 months to prepare the piece for its premiere in Paris and it remains one of Stockhausen’s most accessible and famous compositions.

Voxnova_Stimmung

At Jacaranda, Stimmung was performed by the six “contemporary vocal music specialists” who comprise VOXNOVA Italia, a reincarnation of the 22-year old French VOXNOVA.  This was their international debut as a choral group. They sat in a circle around an eerily lit circular table with desk lamps shining down brightly on their copies of the score.  Each singer wore small microphones and earpieces and between them were larger microphones on stands. The audience actually viewed the six exceptional vocalists in silhouette, so bright was the strange and mysterious circle of light they surrounded.  On an otherwise darkened stage, the mesmerizing effect was similar to the flight deck of some kind of space ship—the ideal visual for what was to come.

Each singer would say a word, hold a note, make some sort of slightly amplified sound or phrase and then, in a very polite manner, gesture with an outstretched hand to the next person scheduled to sing. Much of the time, several voices were heard at once, with a lead soloist perhaps singing over the others.  All of them were silently counting off notes and timings in the score, clearly focusing on when to begin their parts.  They sang for just under one hour and, like the Xenakis piece that proceeded it, Stimmung has to be seen and heard in person to experience the full effect of  Stockhausen’s extraordinarily beautiful writing.  (It certainly helps that the founder of VOXNOVA Italia, Nicholas Isherwood, worked with Stockhausen for the last seven years of the composer’s life.)

The effect of Stimmung is really difficult to describe. The singers imitated the sounds of musical instruments—odd instruments like the Aboriginal didgeridoo and a Jew’s harp. They produced noises that kids make when playing together.  Snippets of what could be Christmas carols, operatic arias or spoken Hindi faded in and out. Imagine turning on your grandfather’s old-fashioned radio when you were a child and spinning a dial that connected you to the rest of the world: gospel music from the American South, spoken word from England, static noise, Chinese sing-song, small chorales, country music from other countries. My seat mate at Jacaranda whispered “Tuvan throat singers”; my response was “and all the world’s voices”.

 

 

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