Friday, 1 May 2015


Here’s something Stockhausen said about his 1970 piece Mantra, for two pianos and electronics:

To say it as simply as possible, Mantra, as it stands, is a miniature of the way a galaxy is composed. When I was composing the work, I had no accessory feelings or thoughts; I knew only that I had to fulfill the mantra. And it demanded itself, it just started blossoming. As it was being constructed through me, I somehow felt that it must be a very true picture of the way the cosmos is constructed, I’ve never worked on a piece before in which 1 was so sure that every note I was putting down was right. And this was due to the integral systemization – the combination of the scalar idea with the idea of deriving everything from the Onc€. It shines very strongly.

And here’s a small but representative part of what pianist Katherine Chi wrote in program notes for her performance of the piece (with pianist Aleksandar Madžar) at the Library of Congress on April 24:

The first four chords of the piece will use all of the notes of the “mantra” [a row of 13 notes from which the work is built] and from this basic compressed cell the entire piece will begin to unfold and expand through pitch, time, timbre and rhythm. The “mantra” will be reiterated in many guises 84 times throughout the piece. The longest “mantra,” which is produced by a sine-tone generator, will take the whole piece to complete the thirteen-note “melody.” Each note of the sine-tone “mantra melody” roughly corresponds to a division of the piece into thirteen cycles. There are thirteen notes and divisions for both Piano I and Piano II; however the progression of the sine-generated tones for each of the pianos is not simultaneous. It is ironic that this “melody” produced by the sine-wave generator can never be heard by itself. It will not produce a pitch by itself unless it is combined with the sounds of the piano, voice and/ or percussion.

Besides this, Chi writes about how hard the piece is for the pianists to play, something she certainly know about. Not only is the piano music itself difficult — virtuosic — but the pianists also have to play percussion instruments, and at one point intone some words.

But wait! What happened to the cosmos? Here’s the end of Chi’s program note:

Mantra is an exploration of an expanded sound world that allows a unique perspective of how electronics and instruments can co-exist.

And here, again, is Stockhausen:

To say it as simply as possible, Mantra, as it stands, is a miniature of the way a galaxy is composed.

Stockhausen gives us the cosmos. Chi gives us a mouse. In her notes she says nothing about Stockhausen’s grand conception. Which is unsettling, because she quotes the Stockhausen paragraph at the start of her notes, indented from her text, so there’s no way not to notice it.

mantra 5 blogAnd for her not to mention what Stockhausen says is unsettling for a second reason — she’s playing the piece! Doesn’t she care what the composer thinks? Wouldn’t we like to know if, when she plays this music, she feels the shape of the entire universe, as Stockhausen says he did?

Or does she think that this is just another one of Stockhausen’s grandiose nonsensical ideas? Or at least they’re seen that way by many people, when (for instance) he said that he came from another star, and got his musical education there, or that the musicians playing one of his pieces should coordinate with each other telepathically.

I won’t say we have a right to be told what Chi thinks of the cosmos in Mantra, but surely I’m not the only one who’d be intrigued to know. It would tell us something about both the piece and its composer. Does someone playing this music feel what Stockhausen says he felt? It’s not unknown to say a piece has cosmic breadth. We say that about the second movement of Beethoven’s Op. 111, and about the Mahler Second. Would Chi say it about Mantra, a piece she knows a thousand times better than I do?

She also doesn’t say how it feels to play a piece by someone who felt entirely “in the zone,” as an athlete would say, when he composed it. Who felt that the music wrote itself, that every moment in it was inevitable. “I’ve never worked on a piece before in which 1 was so sure that every note I was putting down was right.” Does Chi feel that every note is inevitably right?

Just a construction?

But then in Chi’s notes we also don’t read about about the simplest things that someone might feel — or anyway that I’ve felt — on hearing the piece. That often it just hangs there, doing nothing or almost nothing, repeating the same few sounds. That it’s graceful, witty, elegant, and surprising, too, as each new moment evolves, even those with all that repetition. (How surprising the piece is came home to me when, as I listened, I played the game of trying to imagine what Stockhausen would do next. His ideas were always richer and more fluidly shaped than mine.)

Chi says nothing about any of this. Her notes suggest that Mantra is nothing but an intricate construction, which provides a workout for two pianists (and collaborators who tend the electronics).


She’s not alone in doing this. So often, so very often, we talk about complex atonal works as if their structure is what matters most. We don’t talk about how this music breathes, where its heartbeat is, what you feel when you play it, what you might feel when you listen.

And this has consequences. Listeners may well be terrified. Because they don’t understand the program notes, they’ll think they won’t understand the music. Because the program notes make it seem mathematical, they’ll expect it to sound that way, which does nothing to dispel another preconception, which that the music will sound ugly.

And in fact it might sound ugly, because the musicians, having either written program notes this way, or internalized analyses of this kind by others, play these pieces as if they really were abstract, dry constructions of notes.

That’s what I thought Chi and Maždar largely did (though Maždar less so). The quiet parts of Mantra, with all the rapt and playful repetition — those came through, perhaps because they take care of themselves if you play them quietly enough.

But the rest seemed largely an assault of notes, made worse because Chi (though much less so Maždar) is an assertive pianist, whose sometimes violent playing didn’t do much for Mantra’s wit or grace.

We have to do better. I’ve written often about how badly we often write about this great art we love. In press releases, for instance. (Or here.)

But the problem goes beyond bad marketing, By writing the way we often do, We diminish the music, and out in place a way of thinking about it that can create performances without much human spark.

For my wife’s review of this Mantra performance, go here.

Original Content: Consequences

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