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Forwards to the past: what do Terry Riley's 'In C' and Stockhausen's STIMMUNG say to us today?

The Sound Barrier : Blog

We should always be wary of being too reductionist when we look at things, and especially when we look at history. It's easy to see this or that time, this or that event or person, as being the seed from which everything else grew. In reality, though, it's always a lot more convoluted than that, and always those times, events, and people are themselves products of others that both went before them and grew around them.

It's especially easy to do that with the 1960s and what they have meant to music. A lot happened then, as counter-culture movements began to form and coalesced with new technologies that enabled music to become more accessible to wider audiences, so the will to experiment was met with the opportunity to be noticed. But the rebellious spirits of the 60s would not have happened without the seeds of ideas that were already planted in the 50s, which themselves often grew out of the need to find new answers after the devastation of World War 2, and so on, and so on, back, and back.

But what we can say confidently is that the 1960s were a fascinating time and, since it is commonly believed that if you think you remember them then you weren't really there, it is certainly worth revisiting them from time to time.

A lot of the music of the 1960s still gets a lot of attention today, and rightly so, but this week's edition of The Sound Barrier focusses especially on two of the decade's most iconic works, at least in the field that is somewhat self-importantly (although it's hard to come up with a good alternative) called 'art music'.

Terry Riley's In C (1964) and Karlheinz Stockhausen's Stimmung (1968) are iconic in a few ways. Not least is that they have simply been so continuously revered, and each is amongst the most famous works of either composer. They are each associated with two very different musical traditions that were both flourishing in the 1960s: Riley's minimalism, and Stockhausen's serialism (although the serialism with which Stockhausen worked had already begun at the beginning of the 1950s, and was itself a reaction to the early twelve-tone methods of the 1920s, while minimalism was an attempt to strip away the excessive complexities that had come to dominate much of the musical modernism emerging from the first half of the century). Their sound worlds are very different as would be expected from these composers who worked very differently, and were associated with very different ideas about music, growing from very different avant-garde musical communities – Riley's from New York, Stockhausen's from Darmstadt.

Yet the two works share some common traits, built as each is from distinct moments of musical material that together form the whole piece, and the performance of which calls upon musicians who can be both very loyal to a score, while making spontaneous musical decisions based on what their fellow musicians are doing. Both works will always sound different from one performance to the next, and yet both will certainly always be instantly recognisable, no matter what part you hear, to anyone who has heard them even just once or twice before.

This aspect alone fascinated me enough to play both of them together on this week's show, and to ponder the question: is it this, their shared embrace of indeterminism and strict rules, and their shared call on musicians to work as individuals and as a collective, that unites these two very different works not just to each other, but to the decade with which they are so strongly associated?

Let's have a look now at how each piece works.

Terry Riley: In C
Terry Riley's 1964 piece In C is one of the really seminal works of minimalism, although the term itself was not really coined until much later. Simply (minimally!) put, minimalism in music refers to music that works with a very small number of notes, which might be repeated often, perhaps slightly changed, or might simply be sustained over long periods. Even that can be a confusing description, because sometimes works that might have a relatively small number of notes might work with them in extremely complex ways, generating huge diversity and variety, as serialism does. But in minimalism, variety is not the focus but rather the actual minimal nature of the ingredients. Harmonies and pulses are often constant, or change in constant, recognisable and repeated patterns. So, while in serialism there might be minimal elements, you are less aware of this than you are of the diverse ways they are used; in minimalism, it is the other way around: there might be variety, but you are less aware of this than you are of the focus on the small number of elements being used.

With In C, that minimalism lies most of all in the piece's focus around the note of C, and the key of C Major, and the unrelenting constancy of its pulse. Its score is constructed of 53 little fragments, or phrases, that never stray far from C Major, despite a short journey into the musically neighbouring key of G Major in the middle of the piece. It is scored for an ensemble of any size, and any combination of instruments or vocalists. Each performer works through the 53 fragments, repeating each one as often as they like, but always listening to what the other musicians are doing so that no one is ever more then two or three phrases away from anyone else. In this way, the phrases will always form different combinations with other phrases, but always with phrases that are more or less adjacent in the score. The shape and structure of each fragment are always close enough to those of the fragments either side of it in the score that they will always blend in interesting but non-jarring ways. People enter and change fragments at different times. This means that even when the same fragment is being performed by more than one musician at a time they might not align precisely. One person might be playing a fragment a beat or two ahead of someone else who is also playing it. So complex cross-rhythms form and change constantly. But the actual tempo, along with precision in playing the fragments exactly as they are notated in the score, should be maintained strictly by everyone throughout the entire piece. A continuous high C "pulse" can be played at eighth note (that is, quaver) pace throughout the piece to help keep everyone in time. This is typically done on a piano, but could also be done on tuned percussion, or even on drums if they are not too intrusive. Perhaps surprisingly, other than the pulse, the actual note of C is not played that often in the piece - the music hovers around it, suggesting it, rather than sounding it explicitly.

Performers can drop out now and then if they wish but should keep listening to what everyone else is doing so that, when they re-enter, they do so at a place in the score that is in keeping with how the piece is progressing amongst the ensemble. The piece finishes when everyone has completed the final 53rd phrase.

The 53 fragments that make up the score are all short: some of them only one note, none of them more than just a few. Some include rests. They all fit, uncluttered, onto a single page. Each is simple to play, with only a few including any sort of rhythmic syncopation. But rhythmic precision is paramount to the piece working and, when these fragments come together in ensemble, with everyone playing these fragments against each other, the results are glittering. The bright key of C major keeps the music sparkling. It is hardly surprising that it has been performed so widely although the simplicity of its fragments belies the challenges of doing it well, where precision and attentiveness can not afford to waver for even a second.

Ideally, Terry Riley said, the piece should be performed by about 35 people, and can last anything from about 45 to 90 minutes. Larger ensembles will tend to take longer because generally it will take longer for everyone to move on in a way that keeps apace with everyone else. A person will be more likely, in a larger ensemble, to need to do more repetitions of their fragment because they have more players who have to catch up with them, or at least not be too far behind – everyone then becomes a little more cautious about moving ahead too quickly.

The composer's own world premiere recording of In C, however, is with just 11 musicians, including the composer on saxophone, and lasts for just 42 minutes. This was the recording I chose for this week's show.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Stimmung
Karlheinz Stockhausen composed Stimmung in 1968. It was commissioned by the Collegium Vocale Cologne and, although it is written for the relatively innocuous and conventional formation of a vocal sextet, it is striking in its originality and, at the time it was composed, introduced an approach to singing and harmony that was virtually unknown in Western music. Overtone singing had been practiced for thousand of years, probably originating in Mongolia, but hardly heard at all in the West until the latter half of the 20th century.

Stockhausen discovered it quite by accident when he was humming softly to himself at night, trying not to disturb his young sleeping children, as he began to compose this piece for vocal sextet. The discovery utterly changed his original conception for the work which slowly emerged into one that, lasting over an hour, would be based entirely on a series of overtones drawn from a single fundamental B flat. Important for him, too, was the spirit of Mayan culture and ritual that had so impressed him during recent travels in Mexico, along with the contrasts between quietness and change that he noticed in the plains and rocks there. All of this became part of what he sought to breathe into his new composition.

Stockhausen, unlike the minimalist Riley, was of course a serialist composer. This meant that he would work with material, even when its core elements are quite limited, in ways that would generate the maximum amount of variety. So even with a piece based on a single chord – or, more precisely, a single note – Stockhausen then combined the pitches of its overtones in a large range of different ways, from single notes to combinations of two or three or so on up to six, in diverse sequences and patterns, distributing them amongst the six singers.

These combinations of the six voices, and of the pitches they sing (overtones of the fundamental b flat), are all notated in the score in 51 distinct segments, or 'combinations'. The rhythms, and tempi, and sounds they sing are, however, chosen from separately notated patterns or 'models', nine of which are provided for each singer. In each of the 51 combinations, the score designates a lead singer who choses one of their models and sings the rhythms and tempi and sounds of the model, bringing out the particular overtones indicated in the model (thus creating overtones upon overtones), repeating it until the other singers designated to sing in that particular combination come into sync with that model.

The tempi used throughout the piece are themselves derived from working with the same proportions as those of the overtones. The timbres are based on changing vowel patterns that blend with these overtones to create more, and increasingly complex, overtone structures. So the entire piece, while its rhythms and harmonies and tempi and timbres are constantly changing, is all based on this single unifying idea – the spectral structure of a single B flat note.

The patterns and paths by which each singer moves to a new model, led by another singer, are also hugely diverse throughout the piece, partly determined by how the part is notated in the score (and particularly whether or not the singer is already singing something else when the new model starts), and partly by choices that the singer makes (particularly the order in which to move into sync with the new model – whether to adjust rhythm first, or dynamics, or timbre, or tempo).

Mixed in with all of this are various 'magic names' – the names of deities from different cultures – that are chosen and spoken at different points throughout the piece, as well as several erotic poems, all of which, like the models being sung, are to be integrated into what the singers are singing at the time.

The whole thing results in an astonishing mix of the static and the constantly moving, as the harmonic ambience of the overtones centre and ground the piece, while its timbres and rhythms and densities are always shifting, moving away from one another and then back again, as the new always brings a renewed unity and then moves on.

There have so far been only four recordings made of Stimmung, and it was the very first of these, made shortly after the world premiere and under the composer's supervision by the ensemble for whom it was composed, that I chose for the show.

In C, Stimmung, the Sixties, and now
So, fabled though the 60s have been – a fable laced with its fair share of scorn for the flowers, the hallucinogenic drugs, and all the free love – do these works, so quintessentially 60s in their associations, still have something to say to us today? Are they relevant beyond the interest they rouse in us as music which, wonderful though it might still sound, is ultimately just a relic of a time that is past and has lost its significance?

As two works that are rooted in notions of community and individuality, and of order and freedom, all integrated into something cohesive and magical, I would venture to say that they are perhaps more relevant now than ever before. These are the balances that humans everywhere are trying to grapple with and both of these pieces provide us with models for thinking about the interconnectedness, and the mutual dependence, of things that might otherwise have seemed to be in conflict. They teach us to listen, to notice, while also urging us to take initiative, to make choices, and to create.

The fact that each works solves the tension between rules and freedom, between individuals and groups, in aesthetically different ways, and that the systems that hold their disparate parts together are very different, only goes to reinforce the point: that people, like music, can and must accommodate difference and that the key to doing this successfully lies in finding systems that create a structure within which people are able to listen to, understand, and respond to one another, as much as to be themselves.

It is obviously crucial to both In C and Stimmung that they are ensemble pieces. It is equally crucial that we never know quite how any particular ensemble will realise the piece. There is always the unexpected, and this not only keeps the pieces alive, but also keeps people curious and eager to learn to take on their challenges. To find their own ways of making them work. But always the rules are there too, constant and sometimes complex. Rules that rein in the freedoms while at the same time enabling them. Rules that give individuality its meaning by connecting it to something bigger and beyond.

And the result is music: communal, individual, enduring, iconic, 60s, now.

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