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Rays and drops of sizzling sun: the energy of heat and light beams onto the sound barrier!

The Sound Barrier : Blog

As summer approaches in this corner of the world – and, it seems, an especially brutal summer at that – I thought it worth devoting this week's edition of The Sound Barrier to some of the ways in which heat and warmth and all the energies of solar radiance have been portrayed in music, to music that reminds us of the many dimensions of heat: its life-affirming energy, its primal presence in nature, its place in mundane and domestic life, its searing presence on the Australian landscape and its tense and conflicted role as it stands with one foot in nature and the other in technology, mediating between the two.

I opened the show with the first of these – the radiance, the life-affirming effervescence of solar rays – with STRAHLEN ('Rays') for live percussionist and 10-channel recording by Karlheinz Stockhausen. It is the composer's reworking of his HOCH-ZEITEN für Chor ('High Time for Choir), which is itself one half of the final scene of SONNTAG aus LICHT ('Sunday from Light'), the last-composed of Stockhausen's seven-part opera cycle LICHT ('Light'). HOCH-ZEITEN für Chor is performed in one auditorium while, simultaneously in the neighbouring auditorium, HOCH-ZEITEN für Orchester ('High Times for Orchestra') is performed. And then, at various moments designated in the score, the sounds from one auditorium are also fed into the other through loudspeakers. The audiences then swap auditoriums and hear the piece from the opposite perspective.

In each case, the performers are divided into five groups – that is, five choral groups and five orchestral groups respectively – and each of those groups performs in two melody lines. Each group has its own tempo, so ultimately each piece has ten layers of music playing simultaneously in five different tempi. For Stockhausen, this irregularity of tempi was crucial. He believed that, for progress to occur, for new things to emerge, music (which, for Stockhausen, was always the highest and most profound manifestation of divinity and the highest elements of humanity) had to break away from the regimentation of convention, from the march of the army as he once described it, and celebrate its own freedom and diversity.

When he recreated HOCH-ZEITEN für CHOR as STRAHLEN, he was faced with many technical challenges. The glissandi and long-held notes of choirs, and their changing timbres, could not be simply replicated on the vibraphone or glockenspiel – the instruments that were to provide the basic sound source for each of the ten pre-recorded layers of STRAHLEN, against which the live percussionist would perform. So each part had to not only be separately recorded but then each note had to be individually manipulated electronically to create those effects of glissandi and duration and changing timbre that had been so important in the original piece. It took 17 sound technicians to realise all of that, a project that could ultimately not be completed until a few months after Stockhausen's death.

But the result is amazing: bubbling with life and hope and radiance. And it says so much. It sparkles with vitality, even despite its delicacy. There may be a sense of vulnerability in those glittering sounds, as light as a light-beam, and yet also they burst with resilience. It is music that is propelled forward, music that you know, through its simple beauty, its embrace of diversity, will transcend and survive whatever restraints convention, life and even death may seek to place upon it.

Stockhausen's interest in working with musical layers, and in exploring different ways in which those layers can be related to one another is a thread through much of his music, and one that has been taken up by Dutch composer and sound artist, Margriet Kicks-Ass who I met earlier this year during my time at the Stockhausen Summer Courses in Kürten. Her latest work, The Equator Upside Down is one of the first she has created since her time studying the music of Stockhausen in Kürten and I played it at the opposite end of tonight's show. Its sound source begin with the noise of drops of water falling on extremely hot surfaces, and then those sounds are worked with and sculpted into layers of sound the mirror and reverse one another in a manner that Margriet drew from Stockhausen's epic work for two pianos and ring modulation, MANTRA. But in The Equator Upside Down the sound sources are built out of noise rather than the defined pitches of a piano – noise that conveys all the tension and intensity of nature and technology facing and shaping one another. It's a work that shows us the more ambiguous side of heat – its capacity to both create and evaporate, to expand and compress, right up to the music's final track, 'The Atlantic Ocean compressed in a live Performance' where ten recordings of ten minutes are compressed and reversed on top of each other into a 49 second tsunami of sizzling energy.

In between these two major works on this week's show, I played three smaller pieces that each had in some way emerged out of notions and experiences of heat. There was the comforting crackling sounds of Jim Denley's 'Through Fire' from his album Through Fire, Crevice and the Hidden Valley where field recordings from his 15 solo sojourn through the Bundawang Mountains were blended with improvisations on the alto sax, here in the shape of cavernous drones and quiet judders of sound that seem to convey something of both the silent imposing fortitude of a land shaped by fire.

The sounds of that land both scorched and stirred by the sun lay at the core of Peter Sculthorpe's majestic and searing Sun Music II, which, composed in 1969, was actually the last of the four Sun Music pieces to be written, but is placed second in the set, largely because of that defiant energy that pounds throughout it, in contrast to the more static sounds of the other Sun Music pieces. The percussive sounds of Balinese drums and rhythms permeate Sun Music II, but in a way that seems deeply connected to the Australian landscape too, almost pre-empting that angry lament of the land in his later iconic work Earth Cry.

And then in the middle of all this was Burnt Crumpets, the opening track of the debut solo album from Melbourne composer and sound artist, Pygarg. It's an album that takes its listener on a journey from a kind of minimalist avant-garde to a somewhat tongue-in-cheek cheesy pop. It's that opening track, with an almost Morton Feldman-esque piano motif against unsettling voice and musique concrète that I was so keen to include in tonight's show, even though it is linked to the show's theme really only by virtue of its title – itself just a reference to a couple of crumpets that got forgotten, and burned, in the toaster while the artist was putting the music together.

But that's how things are, really – even the biggest, most profound things of life, the things that shape our very planet, our very cosmos, also intrude into our daily lives in the most banal and prosaic ways. But the music that emerges from the big things, and from the little things, is always worth taking the time to listen to, because you can always be amazed by what you find there.

As usual, you can check out the playlist and audio file here on the website for more details of all the recordings, or to listen back to any of the music.

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