Darmstadt Institute goes back to the future, brilliantly

Thu May 12, 2016 at 1:19 pm
Stockhausen's "Mikrophonie I" was performed by the Talea Ensemble Wednesday night at Roulette. Photo: Michael Yu.

Stockhausen’s “Mikrophonie I” was performed by the Talea Ensemble Wednesday night at Roulette. Photo: Michael Yu.

Darmstadt Institute New York exists to bring to the city new performances of all the old favorites from the original Darmstadt International Summer Course for New Music. The latter is still extent, in its 70th year—the local version is a relative grandchild, 59 years behind.

The Darmstadt course is better known, fairly or not, as the “Darmstadt School,” the style (and more importantly, ideology) of atonality of Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and Bruno Maderna. Darmstadt set itself up as the logical post-World War musical utopia. It used history, particularly romanticism, as a launch pad, and also as an oppositional pole by which to define itself.

For the New York outpost, this season’s series of concerts was a celebration of the 70 years of music in Germany. Wednesday night’s capacious finale—music from Stockhausen, Xenakis, Alvin Singleton, Petr Kotik, Morton Feldman, and John Cage—was ambitious, slightly exhausting, but completely marvelous.

With the Talea and S.E.M. Ensembles performing, and Kotik conducting and playing flutes, Wednesday’s program at Roulette was wide-ranging and beautifully delivered. It also was an affirmation of the winning side in the ideological battles of 20th century music.

That came through in the juxtaposition of Stockhausen and Cage. The former’s Mikrophonie I opened the evening and his Zeitmaße fell in the middle, while Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with Joseph Kubera in the ostensible solo chair, came at the end.

Zeitmaße and Mikrophonie were written roughly ten years apart, and the difference between the two makes for an argument Stockhausen had with himself. The latter is a compact and finely etched work for five winds that applies serial principles to duration along with pitch. As sharply played as it was, the way everything is predetermined cannot help but sound dated.

Mikrophonie I is in a way even more tightly designed but full of eternal vitality—the future, not the past. Played by Talea’s percussionists, and organized by guest percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, two musicians use an array of instrument, and their voices, to manipulate a giant tam-tam. Two others wield microphones as instruments, channeling the sound to be processed through filters and volume controls.

This is an astounding work, especially live, where Wednesday it proved a phenomenal experience. The range of sounds from the tam-tam is vast; crashes, rumbles, roars like a jet engine, even highly vocalized moans—these results are also unpredictable. The intense interaction between the musicians and the instrument is quasi-mystical and exciting, a ritualized sorcery that stimulates the brain stem.

Unpredictability is Cage’s province. He arrived at Darmstadt to lecture in 1958—his music was already unpopular among European modernists, and his ideas were anathema. His “indeterminate” music of the 1950s—the Concert is one of the finest examples—was misrepresented, Cage felt, by composers like Boulez and particularly Stockhausen. Where Cage had been criticized by others, he in turn criticized Stockhausen’s music of the period. And where Stockhausen expresses his personality, Cage denatured taste and intention from his music.

The Concert is indeterminate as to the duration, number of musicians, and even the amount of the score to be played. Cage aggregated 84 different types of contemporary notation for the parts, and the players follow clock time. With Kotik turning his arms like the second hand on a clock, Kubera and S.E.M. threw out the music with a cool flame, musical and intellectual energy without an interpretive stance.

Kotik took up the flutes with Kubera and percussionist Chris Nappi for Feldman’s Why Patterns? This is a beguiling late work from the composer, expressing his open sense of time within the relatively short duration (by Feldman’s standard) of thirty minutes. There is some indeterminacy here as well—the three parts are unsynchronized until the final coda, and the performance had the quality of pebbles being tossed into a limpid pool.

Kotik’s formidable composing was represented by Music for 3, for viola, cello, and bass, from 1964. The piece mostly uses non-pitched bow work and tappings, but these are so highly synchronized that the rhythms and alternations between sound and silence were completely gripping.

Also played by the same string trio was Alvin Singelton’s Be Natural. The title defines the central pitch, around which the musicians improvise within rules Singleton devised. Played by violist Stephanie Griffin, cellist Meaghan Burke, and bassist James Ilgenfritz, the music came out as a gorgeous, haunting drone piece.

Xenakis, surprisingly, never actually appeared at the Darmstadt Institute. Violinist Conrad Harris played the solo pieces Mikka and Mikka S. Harris is an absolute master of this music, and his big, strong tone gave the insinuating microtonal slides real fire and excitement, as well as a surprising amount of beauty.

This was Darmstadt as confirmation of Cage’s quote that “we are all going in different directions.” The realization of so many ideas, and the exceptional performances, showed how well musical history continues to accumulate.

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