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Travelling across the sound barrier: the happy music of Adam Simmons and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The Sound Barrier : Blog

Travel was the driver for the latest edition of The Sound Barrier. My own travel, as I head off next week again to Kürten in Germany for more study of Stockhausen's music; and the travels of my studio guest, surely one of our most versatile and artistically open musicians and composers, Adam Simmons.

Adam's ongoing project, The Usefulness of Art, works with music to build and celebrate people's connections with each other, and Travelling Tales, its latest instalment, takes those connections onto the road and overseas, building them across cultures and nations in music that seeks to discover and join with the things that make people who they are.

The messages of Adam's music in all of this are brimming with hope and joy, turning into sound the things that are good about people and about their bonds with one another. Much of this was crystallised in the piece that kicked off Travelling Tales, and which Adam played live in the studio: Miłość for solo saxophone. It is the Polish infinitive for 'to love', and the music captures the warmth, the fluidity, the intimacy of love in sounds that draw a living, giving spirit out of the saxophone, as Adam so famously does in so many of his musical voices.

This piece led to the composition of the Travelling Tales Suite, which was composed in 2013, initially for a 14-piece ensemble at the Pireaus Festival in Athens, but has now been redeveloped for the larger 20-piece Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, which brings together so many of Melbourne's most stellar new music artists, and which will be premiered in this version in Melbourne on 7 - 10 December at fortyfivedownstairs.

It is a welcome, if not particularly popular, thing to hear music used as both the vehicle for and the celebration of what humans can be, and only all the more so when it is in the hands of such a creative and open talent as Adam Simmons, who has spread his musical mark across many genres, breaking down the barriers between them which, in a sense, is what his music is all about at the personal level too: a salutation to unity and connection and, ultimately, to humanity. We heard this in some of the other pieces from Adam's Usefulness of Art project that I played on the show as well.

Albeit in a different sort of musical voice, this has been much a part of the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, too who is, of course, the staple of The Sound Barrier. While I am in Kürten studying his music over the next few weeks, the tenth anniversary of his death will be commemorated and so it seemed only right that I also mark the event on this, the last show before I leave.

At the beginning and end of the show were two of the 'independent' moments of Stockhausen's huge cantata to love, MOMENTE ('Moments'), which he composed during the 1960s, and which is sometimes recognised as one of his greatest achievement and perhaps his own personal favourite. Its complex structure, which allows its many 'moments' to be ordered in different ways, and for excerpts from various moments to be inserted into other moments, not only creates a work that can be performed in many different versions, but also one the mixes and joins its three key elements – timbre, duration, and melody – in an endless variety of ways.

I played two different versions of MOMENTE on The Sound Barrier at the end of 2015 and beginning of 2016, and my blog entry for those broadcasts explains in some detail just how MOMENTE is organised.

The 'independent' moments, of which there are six altogether, and all of which are rather more substantial in length than the many 'timbre', 'duration', and 'melody' moments that make up the bulk of the work, can all be performed separately. I opened tonight's show with … denn der Liebe ist stärker als der Tod., ('...for love is stronger than death.'), a rousing tribute to love that is often placed at the beginning of a performance of MOMENTE; and I closed with the Betmoment ('Prayer Moment'), which always closes it.

It's a mighty and profound piece, and the enormity and variety of sound that Stockhausen builds out of its relatively small performance resources (a soprano, four choral groups, and just 13 instrumentalists) is a telling tribute to his skill in drawing such diverse capabilities from his instruments.

In between these two moments from MOMENTE, and just before Adam joined me in the studio, I also played another work that, like MOMENTE, and like Adam's music, celebrates what is good and beautiful in humanity: SCHÖNHEIT ('Beauty'), for bass clarinet, flute, and trumpet. It is from his cycle KLANG ('Sound'), in which Stockhausen sought to compose a piece to represent each hour of the day. The works of KLANG comprise both chamber compositions and electronic works, and 21 of them were composed before Stockhausen's death on 5th December 2017 prevented him from completing the cycle. SCHÖNHEIT belongs to a group of eight works within KLANG that all draw on the same material which is initially set out in the music of KLANG's fifth 'hour', HARMONIEN ('Harmonies'), itself composed as three smaller solo pieces for the instruments that then come together as a trio in SCHÖNHEIT. Then, in the six pieces that follow SCHÖNHEIT, other small instrumental combinations work with this same material, but ordering it in different ways.

The material itself is comprised of a set of melodic fragments in different registers and rhythms that are played and then sped up so that the melodies morph into harmonies. Their different combinations – within each piece and then between the pieces – create a wonderful tapestry of melodic and harmonic colour, hued by the different timbres of the different instruments, in music of irresistible gentleness, lyricism, and benevolence.

Remember you can, as always, check the playlist and listen back to the show, here on the PBS website. While I am away, The Sound Barrier will be in the capable hands of some of PBS's other announcers, so make sure you keep in touch with the show over the coming weeks and listen to the different sounds they will bring to you. It is PBS, so it will always be good, always surprising, always the music that is little heard!

I will be back, presumably a little jet-lagged, on 24 December!

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