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One thread. Four threads. A billion threads. The rich and diverse tapestry of music.

The Sound Barrier : Blog

History, says Tolstoy in War and Peace, is not shaped by the heroes and villains of history books but rather by the millions of little people who each are just one thread in the vast tapestry that tells the story of who we are and of where we have come from. Each thread holds all of the rest together and to really know the picture you have to look at each of them. Pull one out and they all unravel.

When we look at the story, and the history, of music, that's exactly how it is: a huge labyrinth of connections interwoven with each other and, try as we might to find a single thread that explains it all, we are always frustrated in the task, because the threads lap and overlap in ways that are much more intricate than we can ever really understand. Would this music have developed if that music had not? Would these ideas and sounds have emerged were it not for those others?

When we tell the history of music we often make these connections but, at least in Tolstoy's view of things, it is a whole lot more complex, and indeed chaotic, than that because there are always so many forces at play, impinging on one another, all equally contributing to the richness and vastness of the totality.

These were the thoughts that began to occur to me as I pondered the death a couple of weeks ago of Holger Czukay – a musician whose work intersected with avant-garde electronics, ambient music, world music, and rock. He had an impact in all these areas and undoubtedly played a part in shaping how each of them is heard and understood today. A student of Karlheinz Stockhausen, and exposed to the possibilities of sampling by the sheer chance of having worked in a radio shop as a young person and been drawn there into the sounds of shortwave radios, he became interested in some of the more radical possibilities of rock after happening across the work of artists such as The Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa.

All of this put him very much in the centre of a growingly complex web of musical fertility that was emerging, especially in and from Germany, during those years. Holger Czukay's widespread musical interests meant that there are bits of him on many of music history's threads. What those threads, and that history, might look like without his mark is impossible to know – precisely because of what Tolstoy told us: every little bit plays its part in making the whole.

So, in the latest edition of The Sound Barrier I decided to spend some time just looking a little more closely at some of those threads – threads which, despite however distant or close or tenuous or strong a connection we might want to ascribe between them, are nevertheless each just as much a part of the tapestry as any other.

That exploration began on the show with the music of Holger Czukay himself, from his very earliest period where he had scarcely begun to engage with rock music at all and was still very much immersed in the electronic and found sound world which had impressed him as a teenager in the radio store and which he then learned to refine under the tutelage of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Canaxis was created in 1968, late one night in the same studio in which Stockhausen had created his iconic electronic works of the 50s and 60s and in which he still worked, having recently returned from Japan where he created his astonishing tribute to the music and cultures of the world, TELEMUSIK. After Stockhausen left the studio one night, Czukay set to work and Canaxis was the result: an experiment with loops, and world folk music, and samples from shortwave radios, all integrated into the electronic sounds in a kind of minimalist ambience. It really sounds nothing like the works that his teacher had been creating before and during this time, but the ideas and influences and connections are certainly there to be found if you look for them.

Take a step sideways to another bunch of German experimentalists in Berlin, on the other side of the country, at the same time: Conrad Schnitzler, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, and Dieter Mœbius. They met at the Zodiak Free Arts Lab, one of the very early (perhaps the first) underground music clubs to emerge in Berlin, and they quickly formed a new music ensemble called Kluster. On tonight's show I played the opening track of their very first album, Klopfzeichen. This was recorded in 1970, two years after Canaxis. With the eschewing of rock riffs, the layering of speech (recorded live here rather than from radio transmissions or other found recordings), and the building of a rich electronic musical panorama makes it easy for us to draw a linking thread between the two and indeed Holger Czukay was to later collaborate with the revamped Berlin ensemble, which, upon the departure of Conrad Schnitzler, became the somewhat more rock-oriented Cluster, not unlike the move that Czukay himself made around the same time as he formed and advanced Can. But the electronic soundscape of Kluster does not have the soothing ambience of Canaxis. Rather, it is harsh and brutal, reflecting much of the industrial coldness of steel and glass in the post-war, rebuilt Germany.

Fast forward now to the 21st Century. In her newly released album on hat[now]ART, Australian composer, performer and academic, Cat Hope, describes in the album's liner notes an emerging trend in urban architecture to design places that are intended to be uncomfortable so as to deter loitering. We see it in modern park benches that homeless people cannot sleep on, and in public spaces that are harsh and aggressive and that you want to walk through as quickly as you can rather than hang about in them. In her 2015 work for solo double bass and electronics, Dynamic Architecture I, Cat Hope takes this idea and applies it figuratively: both in the design of the graphic score which is realised by the double bass player, and in the densely layered drones of the electronic part which is embedded into this and which plays throughout the piece.

Of course, the gap between this work of Cat Hope and the three other artists I have featured on tonight's show – Stockhausen, Czukay, and Kluster – is inordinate. The times and places in which the other three worked all overlapped and Czukay worked directly with them both, decades before the work of Cat Hope. But how much is it right for us to attribute the ideas that emerge half a century later to what they did, separately or together, back then?

This is where Tolstoy's perspective on history comes in. The threads we notice are only some of many, and usually those that we describe from a distance are those that have had the most attention in the stories that others have told before us. And so it is that we think history is shaped by its big names when, in fact, those names have attained their prominence not because they really have shaped history but because we (or historians) have talked about them the most. We notice the threads that are the most familiar to us. This is something that only becomes really apparent to us when the history we begin to describe is our own. We discover that our lives are not shaped just by the political and other leaders whose names dominate the news and will probably appear in the histories that are written about in the future about the now, but rather by a million and one other things that are part of who we are and that shape how we think and live.

This is not to diminish the value of the big names of history, nor of music. It is rather to see that they are part of something bigger – a huge diversity of people and cultures and ideas that are always interacting and changing.

And so it was all of this, along with my promise on last week's show, that brought me to the work with which tonight's show finished: HOCH-ZEITEN für CHOR from Stockhausen's opera SONNTAG aus LICHT. It is the second version of the fifth scene of the opera, the first version of which I played at the end of last week's show (HOCH-ZEITEN für ORCHESTER). Each piece celebrates the ambiguity of 'HOCH-ZEITEN' in German, which means both 'High Times' and 'Marriages'. The two pieces are performed simultaneously in neighbouring auditoriums, one for five orchestral groups and the other for five choral groups, with sounds from each being transmitted via loudspeakers into the other hall at specified times in the score. The audience (or the performers) then swap halls and hear the piece from the opposite perspective.

Its celebration is huge and abounding in diversity in every sense: the different orchestral and choral groups all perform in different tempi; the choral groups sing in different languages, celebrating the diverse notions of marriage and union across the world's cultures. And the piece itself expands beyond the individual person's capacity to comprehend it – beyond the space of the here and now in which each audience member sits, so that to really hear the totality of the piece, you have to hear it twice, and you have to change your perspective. Tonight, as for last week, I played this as a reflection of my own personal support, and that of PBS, for a YES vote in Australia's same-sex marriage postal survey.

Composed in 2003, this music is from near the end of Stockhausen's life, long after the threads that linked him and Czukay and Kluster had split into their separate directions. The threads, like us, all survive and thrive not through being tied forever to one idea, to one notion of how history did and should unfold, but through the ways they change and mix with other threads, with new ideas, new notions of what it means to be who we are.

Remember that the playlist and audio is available for you to check out the details of all of tonight's recordings as well as to listen back to any of the music.

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