Callithumpian Consort makes a compelling case for Stockhausen’s “Klang”

February 27, 2019 at 12:22 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Selections from Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Klang" were performed by the Bent Frequency Duo Project and Callithumpian Consort Tuedsay night.

Selections from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Klang” were performed by the Bent Frequency Duo Project and Callithumpian Consort Tuedsay night.

 Throughout his career, Karlheinz Stockhausen redefined what music could be. And in the last three decades of his life, the German composer’s works revealed a mind pushing at the boundaries of comprehensibility.

Listening to Stockhausen’s late music in live performance only deepens its mystery. That was the experience Tuesday night at New England Conservatory’s Brown Hall, where members of the Bent Frequency Duo Project and Callithumpian Consort performed selections from Klang, an expansive series of compositions the composer left incomplete at his death in 2007.

Stockhausen intended Klang as a set of twenty-four chamber and electronic pieces that capture each hour of the day. Some of the twenty-one completed works depict specific colors the composer associated with daybreak, dusk, and night. Others are theatrical recreations of dreams.

But like his operatic cycle Licht, Klang captures—quite literally—a sense of the otherworldly. A devout Catholic early in his life, the composer experienced a transformation of faith after he discovered the Urantia Book in 1971.

Reading its revelations that the universe is controlled by celestial beings (Jesus is even claimed to be of extraterrestrial origin), Stockhausen came to believe that his mind was a vessel through which higher intelligences communicated with humanity. In the music of Licht and Klang, he sought to express realms beyond the limits of human consciousness.

But in reality, the music of Klang, which he began in 2004, walks the wire between two warring ideas left over from the mid-twentieth-century avant-garde: the conflict between control and freedom in composition. By relaxing his strict formulaic technique, which stemmed from his experiences with total serialism, Stockhausen casts the movements of Klang in improvisatory, moment-to-moment structures, recalling his earlier Kontakte and Momente.

Edentia (the twentieth hour from Klang), scored for soprano saxophone and electronics, is a nineteen-minute cascade of eerie effects. The title refers to a fictional planet that serves as the administrative center of Earth’s constellation. The Urantia Book describes Edentia as a lush green wilderness.

Stockhausen’s resulting music is a kind of off-world pastoral. The saxophone sounds out short calls, honks, grinding harmonics, and squealing glissandos while the electronic soundscape rains down all sorts of blips, pulses, and chattering figures. Throughout, the texture remains static.

In Tuesday night’s performance, saxophonist Jan Berry Baker shaped Stockhausen’s wide leaps and bristly sonorities as if they were phrases in a long, lyrical line. Baker’s warm, radiant tone brought a touch of humanity to Edentia’s web of dispassionate sounds. The results were mesmerizing.

A selection from Natürliche Dauern, the third hour from the Klang cycle, followed.

Scored for solo piano, Natürliche Dauern recalls the crystalline forms and spaciousness of Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke series. Dissonances have long been integral to the composer’s musical language, yet Stockhausen interrupts the crushing harmonies and splintering riffs of Natürliche with long stretches of silence.

When played in full, the twenty-four sections of Natürliche Dauern last two hours. Offering only the last of the set Tuesday night, pianist Yukiko Takagi rendered the music with seismic intensity. Her brash chords rang clearly, and she tossed off the running phrases with crisp technique and forward momentum.

Tuesday’s performance of Himmels-Tür, the fourth hour from Klang, left a lasting impression.

Much like his Helicopter String Quartet, the idea for this work came to Stockhausen in a dream. In his vision, he saw the doorway to heaven stand before him, but it remained closed despite his relentless knocking.

Scored for solo percussionist, Himmels-Tür is a theatrical recreation of that experience. 

On Tuesday night, percussionist Stuart Gerber approached the large, multi-paneled door that graced the front of Brown Hall with heavy sticks in hand. Throughout the ensuing twenty minutes, he tapped out single pulses and tore through propulsive rhythms while accompanying the barrage with well-placed foot stomps. Changing to harder wooden sticks midway through brought greater urgency to his playing. Ever driven, Gerber seemed to release all his pent up energy onto the door, his strikes resulting in heavy resonances. When it finally opened, he cautiously walked through, moved behind the curtain, and then unleashed a torrent of cymbal and gong crashes while a siren blared, the music like a personal celebration after a long struggle.

Himmels-Tür ends tenderly. As indicated in the score, a young girl walks through the door and calms the percussionist’s frenzy.  Young actress Ruth Ashe quietly entered the door to end Tuesday night’s performance, her childlike innocence seemed to convey the essence of Stockhausen’s unusual, but haunting musical world.

The Callithumpian Consort will perform Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field 7:30 p.m. March 27 at Jordan Hall. callithumpian.org

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