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Four pillars for five years: the Sound Barrier pays tribute to the musicians who inspired it. Part Three: Karlheinz Stockhausen!
The Sound Barrier for Sunday 9 April 2017
In the very early hours of 9th April 2012, I presented the first edition of The Sound Barrier. In the very last hours of 9th April this year, as part of the show's five-year birthday celebrations, I'll be presenting the third of four tributes to musicians whose work played such a huge role in inspiring the ideas upon which The Sound Barrier is built.
Those ideas are about innovation in music, creative ideas that break out of traditional notions of what music should do and be, and a devotion to music as art rather than as a commodity: as something that can shape, rather than merely accompany, our lives and who we are.
For me personally, and I am sure unsurprisingly for anyone who listens to The Sound Barrier even only occasionally, the most important of those musicians is Karlheinz Stockhausen. As a composer with roots in the Darmstadt School of integral serialism - an approach to music that forms its various elements, such as the pitches of notes, their durations, dynamics and timbres - into organised patterns or sequences, and then structures entire pieces on the bases of these, Stockhausen is not only one of the most 'organised' composers but also one of the most organically creative. Structure and spontaneity, organisation and unpredictability, mathematics and magic, all combine and collaborate in his music and, what's more, in ways that are always exploring a different idea in pretty well every one of the almost 400 individually performable works he composed.
With so much creativity, so many ideas to explore and be surprised at, it is impossible to really do his work justice in any way other than to play it all - so, even a bare summary is hardly achievable in just two hours. So instead, this week, I will be playing just three works: one from the very beginning of his musical journey, his three-minute electronic Etude from 1952, built out of painstaking manual layering of manipulated taped sounds of a vibrating piano string; his astonishing percussion piece HIMMELS-TÜR ('Heaven's Door') from 2005, just two years before his death, for a twelve-panelled wooden door that ultimately opens up to reveal a world beyond, full of invisible majesty and terror; and, for the second half of the show, the entire Second Act of his opera DIENSTAG aus LICHT ('TUESDAY from LIGHT'), composed during 1990-1991.
This huge, 70-minute piece has peeked into the show from time to time over the last five years, where I have played some of the separate pieces that appear within it, such as the deeply moving PIETÀ, for soprano, flugelhorn and electronic music; and the wild SYNTHI-FOU for multiple synthesisers; and, just a few weeks ago, the eight-channel electronic layer that plays throughout the entire piece, OKTOPHONIE. But this Sunday night you will hear the whole thing - with the huge cosmic battle that takes place between the armies of Michael and Lucifer, armies of trumpets, trombones, and synthesisers, and led by the shouting commands of a tenor and bass who steer their troops throughout space. In this, its complete version, it is called INVASION - EXPLOSION with FAREWELL, and it is an immensely powerful work, perhaps even more so today, as invasions and explosions become now a commonplace part of the daily news.
I hope you can join me this Sunday night at 10.00 PM (AEST) for these three extraordinary pieces, from the very short to the very long, these three glimpses of the commanding, colossal creativity of Karlheinz Stockhausen.
I thank, as always, the Stockhausen Foundation for Music for the kind permission to broadcast Stockhausen's music on The Sound Barrier.
The Sound Barrier can be heard live on 3 PBS FM, PBS digital radio, online and on the PBS app. It is also available as an audio file here on the website, shortly after it has gone live to air.