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Six sails set to the sun

The Sound Barrier for Sunday 13 March 2016

A few weeks ago on The Sound Barrier I had a chat with Melbourne musician and composer Brae Grimes and playwright and theatre maker Jessica Bellamy about their, at that time, upcoming performances of some pieces from Karlheinz Stockhausen's famous set of intuitive music, AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN (FROM THE SEVEN DAYS), a set of 15 text-based scores. The scores invite performers to respond intuitively – to the directions in the score, to each other, to their audiences, in a process of deeply concentrated music making. They are not really works of improvisation because they are scores, after all; but nor do they include a single note of conventional notation. The lure of these poetic and evocative texts has drawn musicians to them ever since Stockhausen wrote them over a single week and in the midst of deep personal anguish in May 1968.

On this week's edition of The Sound Barrier I am going to be taking just one of those texts, and presenting to you six very different realisations of it. SETZ DEN SEGEL ZUR SONNE (SET SAIL FOR THE SUN) is a text that gives its performers instructions that range from the disarmingly simple ('Play a tone for so long/until you hear its individual vibrations') to the enticingly abstract ('slowly move your tone until you arrive at complete harmony/and the whole sound turns to gold/to pure, gently shimmering fire').

These works provide profound challenges for performers and for audiences: challenges to think about what sounds are being created, about what lies within them and between them, and how they can be moved in different directions, guided by different thoughts and ideas, and taken to different places. How do you turn sound into gold? What are the vibrations you should listen for?

Through listening this week to six different interpretations of the one text, we will get not only six different pieces of music, but the also the opportunity to experience different ways of understanding these questions, different ways of answering them. We will experience the diversity that can be generated from the one set of instructions amongst different musicians, whose ideas on how the words relate to sounds, and what they mean for how those sounds are shaped, begin to open up so many possibilities not only for the music they create but also for us, who listen, in how we hear, and what we hear in, music.

The performances I will be playing will range from one made in 1969 in which Stockhausen himself and his colleagues perform, through to one released just a few weeks ago involving a collaboration between German avant-garde ensemble Zeitkratzer and Japanese noise artist Keiji Haino. Along with these we will hear the work of edge-of-jazz ensemble Respect Sextet; the tuba of electro-acoustic musician Beth McDonald joined by her friends on bass clarinet, guitar and percussion; the multiple laptops, electric guitar and percussion of Salt Lake Electric Ensemble; and American avant-garde quartet Zeitgeist.

Between their different versions you will notice commonalities and differences. But it is the mix of these two that will be the most fascinating bit of all – the ways similar shapes are drawn in different colours and similar colours used to draw different shapes; the ways different paths are found, with those long-enough tones and their differently discovered vibrations, to find their own versions of gold, and their own gently shimmering fire.

Make you sure you join me this Sunday evening at 10.00 PM (Australian Eastern Daylight Time) on Melbourne's PBS FM: 106.7 on the FM dial or on PBS digital radio, or else anywhere in the world via the PBS smartphone app, or online, and then afterwards through the audio archive.

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