Brown. My synaesthetic response to Stockhausen’s music is so often brown. Unlike his teacher and youthful inspiration Messiaen, who began from a metaphor of light, combining and splitting colours in and out of whiteness, Stockhausen mixes a painter’s colours: combination tends towards a uniform brown. Messiaen composes a dazzling transcendence, whereas Stockhausen sticks closer to earthy realities.
That might sound a strange comment to make of the composer of Trans and Inori, to say nothing of Licht, but it strikes at something of the problematic paradox of the mystical music Stockhausen began writing in the 1970s. There’s something tragicomic about this misstep: an all-too human failure at the heart of Stockhausen’s maddening enterprise to construct a home-made cosmology.
And yet … there are the works. That brilliant string of pearls. Mantra, for two pianists prosthetically extended with percussion, electronics and voice, is one of the later greats. A 70-minute magnification of serialism’s two conflicting realities: perpetual change and perpetual homogeneity. The 12-note series (plus a recapitulatory 13th) is blown up to 13 statements of the ‘mantra’ formula.
The procedure, as Stockhausen describes it, sounds, well, formulaic. But in practice the composer uses the almost ritualistic returns to very basic materials in order to open doorways from the prosaic and academic into the real and global. So the ring-modulated drifts surrounding a piano chord might admit a passage of imitation Javanese gamelan; or repeating pulses admit a glimpse of Japanese Noh theatre. At one striking moment those repeating pulses in the piano fracture into both morse code transmissions and ritual chimes.
Holding all of this together, while remaining sensitive both to the piece’s moments of comedy and its seriousness of intent, must be a huge challenge. Chadwick and Knoop were more than a match for it, especially in respect of Mantra‘s extraordinary imaginative scope. It is, still, music of a strange flatness, somehow suppressed even as it explodes galaxies of sound around the monochromaticism of a piano duet. That tension is key: it’s what keeps you listening and it’s how Stockhausen’s music achieves its strange drama.
The short piece by Newton Armstrong that preceded Mantra, Study in Tiled Light, was a more deliberate study in interesting flatness, a series of chords that gained its dimensions through stereoscopic division of the chords between the instruments and a subtle terracing of touch and timbre within.