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KLANG Stockhausen Symposium - Serialism: Purcell Room,London 8.11.2008 (CR)

This symposium formed part of the South Bank Centre’s Klang festival, which was originally intended to celebrate Stockhausen’s 80th birthday, but has instead become a fitting tribute to the forward-thinking composer who died last year.

Education events such as this at the South Bank Centre are well handled, and seek to discuss important questions about the relevant composer and his/her works. This was no exception, and the debate was both lively and engaging, appealing to academics and interested members of the public in equal measure.

The afternoon began with a 45 minute lecture from musicologist Richard Toop from the Sydney Conservatorium, who was, for a while, an assistant to Stockhausen. Toop’s publications include writings on Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, Ligeti and other leading twentieth century composers, and he spoke knowledgably and passionately about the use of serialism in Stockhausen’s work. Serialism was defined as formulating and manipulating numeric patterns across different musical parameters (pitch, rhythm, duration, register, timbre, texture and so on), and was explained as a distinctly different concept to twelve-tone music, which deals only with serial treatment of pitch.  Toop pointed out that throughout his lifetime, Stockhausen followed his own course of exploration in music, using serial techniques to create a vast variety of musical ideas, which redefined what audiences may subsequently expect to hear. Mention was made of Stockhausen’s own writings on his work, in the journal Die Reihe which was set us as a ‘shop window for the European Avante Garde’, with a scientific bias towards explaining the works of Stockhausen and his contemporaries. It became clear that Stockhausen’s aim was to create a template for a future possible musical evolution, and he was aware of the importance of giving an account of what he did and why. His quest for unity in his music was fused with a drive to create, and deliver, a conceptual ideology. This was a fascinating talk, which gave examples in Stockhausen’s output of where the serial techniques employed were clearly audible and where they were more hidden, and went some way towards explaining Stockhausen’s compositional ethos.

The second talk of the afternoon came from Morag Grant, a music sociologist who is now based in Germany. Grant’s spoken manner was appealing, delivering an amusing and informative lecture which sought to define serialism through the music of Stockhausen. Grant focused on the impact of the music from a sonic point of view, and used four words to sum this up: tension, energy, elemental and beauty. The tension comes from a range of integrated material that juxtaposes in a way which one would perhaps not otherwise encounter than in serial music (for example, extremes of dynamic or register within the space of two short notes). This element of surprise creates a tension of its own, even when the music is well known to the listener. To explain the concept of energy, Grant likened serial composition as the splitting of a tone with the splitting of an atom, and the energy created as a result of that process. Combined with the youth, talent and ideological convictions of Stockhausen and his contemporaries, the music is fuelled with energy of its own. Elemental refers to the individual components of the music and how they work together. Stockhausen wrote about the importance of creating a scale of steps and using every degree of that scale, since missing any out would amount to modality. Grant drew strong parallels with architecture and art, particularly the modular style of La Corbusier and the work of Paul Klee, and explained how music and the other arts influenced each other. The final descriptor, beauty, is not a word ordinarily associated with serialism, as there seems to be a tendency to focus on the compositional techniques rather than the sound of the music, but Stockhausen’s music, is, in part, deeply beautiful, both in new and traditional ways.

The session ended with a panel discussion, chaired by Gillian Moore, Head of Contemporary Culture at the South Bank Centre and the person responsible for putting the Klang Festival together. Moore was joined by Toop, Grant and Stockhausen expert Robin Maconie. The group discussed a range of topics, such as the use of serialism in Klang (a set of 24 pieces), the concept of beauty in Stockhausen’s music and the long term future of Stockhausen’s music. It was clear that the audience included several well-respected Stockhausen academics, and a lively and engaging discussion ensued.

Once again, this was an excellent event which helped to provide background knowledge to Stockhausen’s music, without attempting to dumb down or patronise. Long may the South Bank Centre’s commitment to the exploration of contemporary culture continue!

Carla Rees


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