Brilliance and Brown: Stockhausen’s Mantra

Mantra formula

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.


6 thoughts on “Brilliance and Brown: Stockhausen’s Mantra

  1. Brown is spot-on. Brown covers a wide spectrum but is not white. The risk of brown-ness is a built-in feature of any music which is a succession of aggregates, distributing resources so evenly such that any sample of a given length is essentially indistinguishable from any other. James Tenney got it right in talking about an ergodic state. I sometimes wonder if it was strange that aggregate-based serialism persisted as a genre of concert music (which demands beginnings and ends) rather than becoming a form of installation (i.e. as a continuous music in which listeners can enter and exit freely.)

  2. I’ve never thought of the relationship between Messiaen and Stockhausen in terms of how colourful they are, but since you mention it I perceive Stockhausen as bringing into being an infinite range of shades as well as colours you hadn’t previously imagined, while Messiaen’s colours tend towards sharply-delineated primaries. This is all consistent with Stockhausen’s stated aims of course – if he imagines two contrasting colours (for example, in this case, “pure” and “distorted” piano sounds), his next thought will be of a way of treating them as the extreme points of a “series” and of organising movements along it so that the entire spectrum is explored in a quasi-systematic order. I guess it’s a question of emphasis but “brown” is pretty much as far from my own perception of Stockhausen’s music as you could get!

  3. Daniel’s close to what I mean. It’s not only a synaesthetic reaction (although it is partly, in some sense, that – I hear and think of Stockhausen as brown and Boulez, e.g., is yellow), it’s also an association with the sort of riskiness inherent in Stockhausen’s music. Brown isn’t necessarily a bad colour, but it’s not as obviously attractive or vibrant as gold, say. (And doesn’t rule out a wide range of shades and hidden depths, rather than a shiny surface.)

    And that’s probably as far as the metaphor will stretch!

  4. I somehow agree with both sides. As Monday’s concert brought out brilliantly, Mantra gets a huge variety of the ‘monochromatism’ of the piano – an ‘entire spectrum’ of colours – but I do have a subjective sense that all the Stockhausen pieces I know, for all their aerial imagination and light-footed joy, have a telluric palette, reminiscent of Anselm Kieffer’s. I’d include reds, but at the terracotta end, yellows, but at the amber end, and of course, of blues, the prussian. I’ll never forget his great orange cardi when he appeared at the Southbank a decade ago – bright, but still somehow brownish.

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