Insight: NY Philharmonic to perform Stockhausen’s Gruppen… in 2012


In 1993, Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote a piece for a string quartet — a string quartet…and four helicopters. Each player was placed in their own helicopter, which flew above the venue in prescribed acrobatic paths, while audio and video from the choppers were transmitted to speakers and screens in the venue below, where an audience sat hearing the concert. Microphones were placed on both the instruments and outside on the helicopters themselves, as an audio engineer live mixed the sounds of the instruments with the propeller blades.

Stockhausen is one of the weirdest, most controversial, and most colorful cultural figures of the 20th century. His radical avant-garde musical practices played a role in Paul McCartney’s decision to make tape loops for 1966’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” (for his influence on the Beatles, Stockhausen was honored with a spot on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s). Last week, new music geeks everywhere were abuzz with the big news that the New York Philharmonic will be performing Stockhausen’s monumental piece, Gruppen for Three Orchestras, to close their 2011-12 season. Yes, that’s right, three orchestras.

“Great,” you say. “Why should I give a crap?”

Regardless of whether you think you like contemporary classical music, you’ll want to be there for this performance. Stockhausen was part of a new wave of composers who, after World War II, reinvented notions about music, technology, and performance. His 1954 electronic composition Gesang der Jünglinge was one of the first experiments with moving pre-recorded sound through a room in performance. The work calls for a live sound diffuser – basically, an engineer who can manipulate and move sound from speaker to speaker. This is more than just your dad’s quadrophonic stereo system in the 70s, or listening to 5.1 Dolby. As you sit in the venue, the sound literally moves around the room, diagonally across your head, bouncing from speaker to speaker in a choreography that is as essential to the work as the pitches, rhythms, and timbres themselves.

Naturally, it was only a matter of time before Stockhausen tried to replicate this spatial effect with live instruments, and the apotheosis of that spirit is Gruppen (“Groups” in English). Written in 1957, Gruppen situates the audience in the center of a performance space with orchestras on their left, right, and directly in front. As the piece unfolds, the magic is not just in the sounds themselves, but in how they seem to travel around, above, and through the listener, how they envelop the listener, and how each orchestra functions as a component in this three-dimensional web of sound. To do the piece justice, each orchestra must be perceivable as its own entity, while at times synchronizing with the other groups to create a single, unified musical idea.

Gruppen is not an easy piece to listen to. Its last New York City performance in 1965 “sent a fair share of the audience scurrying out of the auditorium.” Written using serial techniques that organize pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, and other parameters into strict numerical and mathematical patterns, it is dissonant, chaotic, and frenetic. But the music itself is only half the piece, and listening to a recording naturally falls flat. Hearing three orchestras play music in three different tempos is a mess when coming out of the same two headphone speakers; in live performance, it is a monster of a musical accomplishment.

The confines of cushy Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center can’t accommodate this setup, so the Philharmonic will go further downtown (both literally and figuratively) to perform Gruppen inside the monstrous Park Avenue Armory at E25th Street. Music director Alan Gilbert will be joined by two composers as guest conductors Magnus Lindberg and Matthias Pintscher themselves, stars of the new music scene. Gilbert brilliantly selected three other pieces that also explore issues of spatiality in music. Pierre Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna seems appropriate, given that Boulez and Maderna joined Stockhausen as the three conductors at the world premiere of Gruppen. Charles Ives was a composer obsessed with how music moves around a listener, even trying to write a Universe Symphony, to be played on three mountaintops with the audience in the valley between. Natural, then, for his practically canonical piece The Unanswered Question to be included in this program, with its three distinct, geographically-placed groups. Gilbert’s most ingenious move is to include the Act I finale from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a crowd scene that is supposed to take place in geographically separated realms, but which is normally restricted by the space limitations of the opera stage.

I can’t promise you that you’ll enjoy Gruppen. You certainly won’t walk away humming any tunes (as there are no “tunes” in the music of Stockhausen!). Watch the video below, from Stockhausen’s erudite and esoteric 1972 lecture on the “Four Criteria of Electronic Music.” In it, the maestro stands in his green jacket looking like an emissary from the future, explaining to the current world how we are supposed to understand and listen to sounds. If you think this is fascinating, weird, trippy, or just plain awesome, just wait until you hear Gruppen live.

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen will be performed June 29-30, 2012, at the Park Avenue Armory. We’ll remind you next year.