Stockhausen’s Mantra: Bangor New Music Festival – INTER/actions

Powis Hall, Bangor University, 15 March 2014

Xenia Pestova, Pascal Meyer – pianos, percussion, electronics
Jan Panis – electronics

A joint enterprise between Bangor New Music Festival and INTER/actions festival-symposium of electroacoustic music.

Karlheinz Stockhausen was – and has remained since his death in 2007 – a hugely influential figure in postwar European music. Brilliant, charismatic and controversial to the point of divisiveness, he and the arch polemicist, Pierre Boulez, more or less dominated a generation of composers who, together, formed what Luigi Nono described in 1958 as the ‘Darmstadt School’: a reference to the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music at which many composers from all over the world continue to gather each year. However, it is the period between the early ‘50s and early ‘60s to which Darmstadt’s reputation as a cauldron of musical revolution largely pertains, with Stockhausen as primary magus.

At this time in Darmstadt – in a Germany struggling to come to terms with the reality of the horrific war machine it had so recently unleashed – a diverse collection of young and understandably angry avant-gardists determined to sweep away the past. With Stockhausen and Boulez at the helm, they explored new techniques and electronic technology (Stockhausen was also based at the public broadcasting studio NWDR in Cologne from 1953), adopting radical new stylistic and ideological approaches to composition. Counter-intuitively perhaps, the more strictly controlled the compositional processes they devised,* the wilder and more exhilaratingly free their music seemed to sound. But personal clashes between the composers could be fierce; especially with those who dared to espouse an (apparently) opposing aesthetic to the Stockhausen/Boulez paradigm, such as John Cage and Morton Feldman, who visited Darmstadt from the USA.

Eventually, musical differences pulled the Darmstadt School apart. But Stockhausen continued to explore new worlds of technique and expression, and he remained in the vanguard of the younger generation of central European composers; not only one of the most talented, but perhaps the most uncompromising, not to mention – either wondrously or infuriatingly depending on your point of view – one of the most egocentric and, frankly, one of the most bonkers (for example, he later insisted that he originated from Sirius). Many have hailed Stockhausen as a genius but others, far from seeing him as having broken with pre-war modernist traditions, have blamed him and others of the Darmstadt School for taking European ‘art’ music (for want of a better term) further down an already esoteric and intellectual path in defiance of public understanding. Today, composers of all stylistic stripes still have to overcome enormous scepticism, and often antipathy, from the mainstream in order to get their music performed in anything other than tiny, niche settings – if it gets performed at all. This applies especially, of course, to composers who write in more dissonant or experimental idioms.

However, fashions come and go – and one would think that audiences would be used to dissonant music by now in our ‘post-postmodern’, movie-loving age. But, whilst Stockhausen’s precursor, Arnold Schoenberg (via Schoenberg’s pupil Anton Webern), currently seems in some circles to be blamed for everything that’s wrong in life bar the price of milk, performances of Stockhausen’s opera Mittwoch aus Licht by the Birmingham Opera Company attracted huge interest in 2012. Cynics might say with some justification that that interest was more to do with Stockhausen’s expensive ‘stunt’ of incorporating a Helikopter-Streichquartett; one helicopter for each member of a string quartet performing and transmitting live midair to the audience in the auditorium below. But, whatever his faults and eccentricities, like Schoenberg, Stockhausen was a fantastically innovative and – yes – highly musical composer, who wrote many iconic works, of which Mantra is a prime example. Indeed, those of us present at Powis Hall in Bangor on March 15th were doubly lucky for, not only is this amazing piece very rarely programmed, but the piano duo of Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer, together with Jan Panis (Stockhausen’s former assistant), who realised the electronics, performed it outstandingly well.

Stockhausen wrote Mantra in 1970. It was his first piece to utilise full, conventional music notation since Mikrophonie I and Mixtur of 1964, after a period exploring chance procedures and graphic scores. Indeed, Mantra opened the door to what turned out to be a crucial phase in Stockhausen’s compositional development, based on what became dubbed his ‘Formula’ technique, and leading ultimately to that gargantuan seven-opera cycle, Licht, of which the aforementioned Mittwoch is a part. Lasting around seventy minutes, Mantra is altogether more modest in resources, yet is hugely demanding to play in terms of instrumental virtuosity, intensity of concentration and sheer physical stamina. All three aspects were impressively evident in the Bangor performance.

Mantra was conceived on a journey by car from Madison, Connecticut to Boston during which Stockhausen ‘heard this melody … I had the idea of one single musical figure or formula that would be expanded over a very long period of time … I wrote this idea down on an envelope.’ Structurally, the piece is fairly simple at root, although its unwinding is immensely rich and imaginative. Without ‘blinding with science’ in describing Stockhausen’s pitch techniques, it is cast in thirteen sections, each of which repeats and stretches in various extraordinary ways a 13-note melody, which comprises the ‘Mantra’ of the title. To quote from Andrew Lewis’ excellent programme note: ‘Each note of the mantra has its own duration, dynamic and – crucially – it’s own musical characteristic. It is these thirteen characteristics which grow to become the defining materials of the work.’**

In addition to an enormous number of notes – which, as Pestova and Meyer demonstrated so beautifully in Bangor, have to be performed with absolute precision in order to realise the multi-layered temporal processes at work – the two pianists each play a woodblock and crotales, and vocalise a variety of sounds at points in the work. Moreover, each pianist controls a ring modulator, which alters their piano’s sound to create a dense palette of colours and sonic possibilities. The acoustic sounds intertwine with these treated sounds, which are diffused through loudspeakers via a mixing desk. Of course, with changing technology, the analogue equipment Stockhausen originally specified has been difficult to source for some time, so, with the composer’s permission, Panis devised a digital means of realising the electronic element. It is thanks to Panis, therefore, that modern-day performances of Mantra such as that here in Bangor are possible.

Not only did the electronics work superbly well, but the piano duo did clear justice to Stockhausen’s athletic piano writing and creative daring; including, I would argue, the composer’s desire to capture the correct ‘vibration beyond the idea’ so to speak, in a piece which reflects his 1960’s exploration of the relationship between sound and the mystical or spiritual. Mantra also contains an important and highly visual theatrical element, as the pianists literally face each other down at various points, with challenges and counter challenges which range from the profound to the genuinely funny. Pestova and Meyer’s performance radiated excitement, a taut dramatic sense and good humour in equal measure. Their understanding of the score has clearly deepened over years of performing and recording it together, and they held the audience spellbound from start to finish in one of my concert highlights of 2014 so far.

In 1972, Roger Smalley wrote that, ‘with its rich textures and formal power I believe that in Mantra Stockhausen has produced the finest chamber work since Schoenberg’s String Trio of 1946’ – itself one of the finest works of the twentieth century. Based on this stunning performance of Mantra, I find it hard to disagree with him.

*  through so-called ‘total serialism’, for example, in which all musical parameters – not just pitch but dynamics, timbre, rhythm etc. – are composed according to systematic procedures.

**  published as a CD liner-note to Pestova and Meyer’s recording of Mantra, available on Naxos records.