Last night the boyfriend and I attended a performance of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, mostly to hear a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Kontakte” (1959. 1960) with Bryan Wolf, Stockhausen’s personal “sound projection assistant” running the board. It was easily the most thrilling, stimulating, and just plain fun musical event we have attended in a very, very long time.
We were lucky to get seats right behind the sound board, so we could follow along with the score as Wolf and the other conductors for the evening worked their electronics, and seated next to us was a very knowledgeable German fellow who filled in the historical and theoretical background for us that we had expected from the pre-show talk but never got.
Before Stockhausen there were two contemporary pieces, one from Rand Steiger, who teaches at UC San Diego, and another from Georgia Spiropoulos, who is a major figure in Europe for electronic contemporary music. Neither of us cared for Steiger’s piece, “Dreamscape,” which, for me, was as clichéd as that name implies – he was using Max/MSP to do some really basic manipulation of the ensemble sounds, and to my ear it sounded like every parody of “crazy electronic avant-garde music” I’ve ever heard. It was perhaps most notable for the sheer skill of the musicians in playing it, but that interests me about as much as a Joe Satriani guitar solo, and I’ve heard so many more interesting things done by other artists with that software (like Jamie Lidell and Modeselektor) that I wondered how such an award-winning composer couldn’t find more to do with it. Spiropoulos’ piece, on the other hand, grabbed me right from the beginning and held on. Unlike Steiger’s piece, which insisted on throwing everything up against each other and allowing some breathing room in the solos, this piece started with all the instruments emulating the same breath sounds being made by the flautist, and then gradually allowed them to distinguish themselves. As the boyfriend put it, it eventually felt like we were listening in on some ancient rite that was going to bring Cthulhu into the room at any second.
“Kontakte” was the real highlight of the evening. The piece is based on what were originally sounds derived from tape manipulations, with a percussionist and piano for accompaniment (though I should mention that this piano playing included thumping out chords with the elbows, as specified in the score). The sheer ferocity of the sounds was, at times, so startling that I felt like I should run out of the room. Stockhausen’s main idea was to play with the idea of “moments” rather than progressions, and the 34 minute piece made me think of touching down on an alien planet, where you’re thinking “Oh, what a cute little creature OH MY GOD WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING?” Some of the crescendo moments had the intensity of volcano eruptions, and aroused in me feelings of near terror. I could understand how early critics might, at times, have thought that it sounded like a dumptruck load of pots and pans being emptied onto a roadway, but that was part of what made it thrilling; you could either react by saying “god, what a clatter,” or you could let go of your preconceptions and just experience the sound as it came at you.
When I got home afterwards I was in the bathroom, perusing The Rough Guide to House Music that we keep in there, and I was filled with this sense of emptiness; “Kontakte” is nearly fifty years old, and yet it still has this tremendous power and is brimming with ideas. House/club/techno music, on the other hand, is so ephemeral, and so caught up in consumerist culture, that any meaning or ideas within it are easily overwhelmed by everything around it, or it winds up sounding dated and nostalgic. The boyfriend and I have not had any conversations about club music that were nearly as inspiring as the conversation we had about the three pieces we heard, and, in the end, it brought me back around to a very important idea: you shouldn’t care about conforming to the musical ideas of others, but instead you need to forge ahead with your own vision, because that’s the way you create something truly original. Be a little crazy, and the other crazies will want to join you; be normal and conform, and you’ll disappear into the crowd.