PLAYLIST #1 ~ TRACK 40

Stockhausen: Extract from ‘Mantra’  [5’34”]

Rosalind Bevan and Ivar Mikhashoff, ring-modulated pianos

39 The formula ('mantra') of Stockhausen's 'Mantra'

All that from this? Mantra’s ‘mantra’


In returning to the ways pianos have been exploited to reveal new worlds of sound, I must begin by declaring an interest.  I know more about Karlheinz Stockhausen than about any other composer in or out of this playlist, having devoted my life on this earth to writing an unpublishable book about his music – more specifically, about finding ways into his supposedly unlistenable works.  I hope the dear reader will indulge me accordingly, and may the fates protect me from prolixity and obscurity in what follows.

As foreshadowed (Track 31), Stockhausen (1928–2007) was one of a small band of enfants terrible who regarded themselves as responsible for picking up the baton Anton Webern had let fall the night he was shot.  Webern interested them, we may be confident, partly because his music sounded advanced, state-of-the-art abstract and – crucially – anti-Romantic.  These were great virtues to young men who had come to maturity during the recent war, had no reason to trust the generation associated with it, and saw no alternative to beginning from scratch in the wake of the moment Germans call die Stunde Null (‘zero hour’).  And for all the criticism aimed at them then and since, what were they going to do, really – start from where Richard Strauss had left off?  In particular they looked to Webern because they understood him to have taken steps towards extending the serial method of Arnold Schoenberg from pitch (twelve-tone composition) to other aspects of musical organization.  Whether or not they were justified in so doing (there’s disagreement) the point is that the logical conclusion of this notion – total (or integral) serialism, as it came to be called – is what they were interested in.  What could be applied to pitch, they contended, could and should be applied with equal rigour to the other three characteristics (‘parameters’) of musical sounds: dynamics (i.e. ‘volume’), duration and timbre.  The idea of a general serial theory along these lines was certainly bound to appeal to Stockhausen, who from the start of his composing in 1950 saw himself working, as he often said, “in the spirit of nuclear science”.

Fast forward 20 years to 1970 and Mantra, arguably the pivotal step in Stockhausen’s career.  Much had happened in his work in the meantime: gigantic achievements, too many to mention, but also an opening up of the original hermetic ideal of serialism to which he had been devoted (and which incidentally may have owed something to the titular Glass Bead Game of Hermann Hesse’s novel).  The shift was accompanied and charted by changes in his music’s notation, from the highly prescriptive early scores, through schemes incorporating variable and even chance elements, to the open notations of the 1960s culminating in ‘scores’ for performance by his own group consisting simply of his written texts.  It’s tempting to assume, as many have, that this evolution entailed leaving the very precepts of serialism behind.  The evidence, however, demonstrates beyond doubt that rather than him losing sight of his original paradigm, something else was going on.  In the words of Richard Toop, during this period, “far from trying to repudiate the serialism of his early works Stockhausen set out to amplify it, to generalize it, to bring ever new elements within its domain.  Serialism becomes not only a basis for organization, but above all for integration – the means by which apparent opposites are reconciled and mediated between.”

A much discussed, frequently derided concept, serialism is, by Stockhausen’s lights, also a greatly misunderstood one.  “Most American composers,” he complained, though I’m not sure they are alone, “identify serialism with historical time.  And this is really childish.”  It’s a point he expands on in a statement from 1974:  “Few people understand what serial music is.  Even my own composition students can be amazed when I explain to them the simplest things about it.  If writers about music speak today of a ‘post-serial’ phase, they mean no more than that music of recent years sounds different from that of the 1950s, and since their only conception of the music of the ’50s is of its having been ‘serial music’, then today’s music must, they assume, be ‘post-serial’.  Is that not dreadfully banal?  Anyone who has understood the essence of the serial mode of composition knows that with it something has come into our consciousness which cannot be revoked: the achievement of an equality of all elements in a composition, which yet recognizes the natural principle of differentiation.  What had once been hierarchical thought in all areas of music has been expanded into serial thinking, which will remain decisive for many centuries.”

Mantra did indeed, as suggested, signal a turning point, announcing a radical new departure and marking an abrupt return to traditional notation.  But – here’s the rub – it is as thoroughly serial a work as any from the 1950s.  The change of direction stems from the work’s ‘mantra‘ itself, the word a borrowing denoting in Sanskrit ‘instrument of thought’.  This was the first example of what Stockhausen, a great one for terms applied to his own composing, would come generically to call a ‘formula’ (German ‘Formel’), basically a musical seed containing in miniature all a work’s material (or its DNA, to take another analogy).  Crucially, in terms of the shift I’ve referred to, a formula is figurative, that is to say takes the shape of a melody.  It’s much more besides, to be sure, pitch still being just one parameter among several, and by no means – true to the ‘democratic’ serial spirit – first among equals.  But unlike a 1950s tone-row, which was at bottom an abstract matrix, you can hum a Stockhausen formula, even if it’s not going to turn up in the charts any time soon.  Mantra‘s mantra – heard in Track 1 of our chosen recording between 0’20” and 1’34” – actually came to Stockhausen on a car journey pretty fully formed, though it would subsequently be meticulously worked out as a serial construct (our illustration, above).  Each pitch is different, as in a tone-row, and is associated with (characterized by) a different musical attribute (tremolo, arpeggio etc.) which rules a whole section lasting a few minutes when the seed of the mantra expands to produce the tree of the whole 60-plus-minute work.  The mantra as a whole entity, meanwhile, is presented in each of the sections, not as anything resembling a traditional variation but in what Stockhausen calls an ‘expansion’ governed by one of a series of specially-composed scales.  As he explained to Jonathan Cott:  “Music critics who think this is old hat – just a variation form – really don’t know what they’re hearing.  If you, Jonathan, start getting taller … and all of a sudden you’re standing in front of me a hundred yards high, then it’s still Jonathan – it’s not a variation of Jonathan.  There’s nothing varied, really, it’s just that Jonathan has many different ways of presenting himself.  And that’s what happens here.  The mantra has twelve different ‘sizes’.  And the same applies to ‘time’.  When the mantra itself is based on the smallest time unit it is compressed to three-and-a-half seconds; and when it’s based on the longest time-unit, it last for almost four minutes.”

Mantra‘s sonic revelations stem from the fact that it subjects a piano duo to a technique of ring modulation, which Stockhausen originally brought to the party from his work in the electronic studio, though by now he’d used it in a few live pieces too.  A ring-modulator is a device into which may be fed two sounds – in this case a piano note and a sine wave frequency (“the purest sound,” Stockhausen tells us) – to produce output frequencies (concentrate now!) corresponding to the sum of the originals and the difference between them, the original inputs themselves being suppressed in the process.  (This means, apart from anything, that although the score looks conventional enough, what you see is not really what you get.)  In addition to regulating the sine-wave inputs according to the score, operating little custom-built (“69B”) modules, the players strike small antique cymbals to introduce the ruling note of each new section, and woodblocks to mark appearances of the mantra’s accents.  (Sounds not heard in our extract.  Try the beginning of Track 2, where the cymbals ring in the first section proper, audibly obsessed as it is with the “regular repetition” associated with the first mantra note.)

Soon formula composition would become the norm in Stockhausen’s work, culminating in Licht, a cycle of seven evening-length quasi-operas more like prolonged rituals, 29 hours of music derived from a three-layered, minute-long ‘superformula‘.  In Mantra, though it isn’t always as obviously tuneful as this later music would sometimes be, the decisive step was taken to transform himself from, as he once said, the most abstract of abstract composers to the most figurative of figurative ones – meaning that everything in a formula work is derived from what is, as part of its essence, a melodic Gestalt.  There is on Amazon USA a review of the present recording including the following: “What one gets is basically the sparse, bleep-bloopy pointillistic piano music of 1950s serialism (Pierre Boulez’s piano sonatas, Stockhausen’s early Klavierstücke) occasionally given a timbral shot in the arm by the electronics.  This sort of serialism lacks gestalt, and so in order to be interesting it needs to be fast, rich in timbres, and very busy.”  Though this is the kind of response a casual listener might be forgiven for taking away from an odd hearing, closer inspection reveals it to be so completely wrong-headed as to be an illuminatingly precise reversal of the reality.  The antidote is simple: listen, then listen again, then again, at first moment by moment, then passage by passage, eventually to the whole work.

All this by way of context, and I hope of interest to some.  The theoretical underpinning of a piece of music counts for nothing, as goes without saying, if the music itself is arid.  Mantra, I submit, pace our friend on Amazon, is anything but that.  On the contrary it testifies at every turn to its origins in what Stockhausen called “the happiest composition time I have ever spent in my life”.  The joy of discovery, and not least the musical fun to be had from his ring-modulated setup, radiates unmistakably throughout, as befits a work written for the composers’ great friends and colleagues the Brothers Kontarsky.  Certain moments stand out, among them the extraordinary, almost childishly comic exchange between the pianists following 1’31” of Track 6; the start of Track 9, where both players use their 69B modules to produce swooping glissandi from their chords; and the beginning of Track 13, when they stand up to bounce off each other the cries of Stockhausen’s admired Noh percussionists.  A shimmering, dreamlike beauty pervades our extract for most of its course – sparse, perhaps, though each of those pauses resonates, but hardly bleep-bloopy.  In reality, each and every note is made to count, as much as in any work by a classical composer.  Enough, by this stage in history, of Stockhausen the bogeyman: this is just music, only more so.

Stockhausen.org is the logical launchpad for further exploration.  I’d urge anyone keen to get a flavour of Stockhausen’s musical mind – glimpsed when Mantra was its latest product, as it happens –  to seek out his 1971 conversations with Jonathan Cott, long out of print (what exactly is the matter with these people?) but usually to be found on Amazon.  The standard work in English is by Robin Maconie, titled in its latest (2005) but one hopes not final incarnation Other Planets (available much more economically as an e-book on Google Play).  You might also care to check out this sample part of my own book, hosted on this site.  Then again you might not.  Either way it includes my attempt (section 3iii) to give a fuller idea than was possible here of how serialism was understood and deployed by its most dedicated, gifted and indefatigable proponent.

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