Set Controls for the Heart of the Sonne

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Zeitkratzer, the ensemble led by Reinhold Freidl, he who resideth inside a piano, if I’m not mistaken, present this sensitive, sedulous and rather special set of interpretations of Stockhausen’s Aus den Sieben Tagen.

Aus den Sieben Tagen is a set of text-based compositions, mostly short sets of instructions which on first glance might seem to leave a lot up to personal interpretation on the part of whichever group of musicians might happen to be playing it. In fact, as Friedl makes abundantly clear in detailed and fascinating sleeve notes animated by a clear passion for the potential inherent in the compositions there are a lot of ideas and plenty of specifics packed into a few words. The notes really are very illuminating and do a service in casting other recordings of the same works in a new light. One thing that comes across, for example, is that however vague or gnomic the texts might seem at a casual glance, understanding Stockhausen’s own compositional roots in serialism, for example, allows you to grasp their inherent concerns. Friedl shows, quoting Stockhausen scholar Robert Worby, how interpreting ‘Nachtmusik’ serially defines how the material the musicians play is defined very clearly and exemplifies the concerns of these pieces with repetition, sequence, cycles and interaction of non-synchronised cycles of sound against each other. That such cycles and their rhythms are tied compositionally to the internal rhythms and processes of the musicians provides concrete instruction and interaction with time and place and leads, if clearly worked through as here, to a focussed musical experience.

Sound-wise the dark, rich sounds of timpani, double-bass, French horn in cumulative conglomerations on velvet black canvas recall Heliocentric Worlds era Sun Ra, a similar wide-screen chamber sound. In pieces such as Verbindung (also known as ‘Liaison’ in other recordings, i.e. ‘Connection’) the basis of the component rhythms in the physical presence of the performers is clear, the shambling, ambulatory pace and growling low-end roars recalling Tibetan Buddhist ritual music. The form and content of the textual instructions works to induce somatic and cosmic responses in the musicians so positions them, or allows them to place themselves in a position, where they can play in a flowing manner, conduits for energy. Stockhausen’s instructions are explicit in this regard with talk of playing universal vibrations and playing with such intensity you become aware of the heat generated by your body. Intentionally or not these are very yogic approaches and techniques. The mystical aspect of Stockhausen I have heard talked about dismissively, not to mention talk of demagogic impulses, but I do not know enough about this to comment. At any rate Zeitkratzer play these pieces with an admirably open spirit and also generate musically an open spirit, thereby making the most convincing sort of case for all involved: rewarding music.

The final piece out of the five selections presented is the longest at just over 17 minutes. Entitled Set Sail for the Sun it is another heliocentric echo. I have read an anecdote that Stockhausen saw the Arkestra – perhaps around 1970 – and alternately recognised a kindred exploratory spirit and was baffled by the Ra man’s dimensional collisions of avant-garde and what Stockhausen heard as cocktail jazz. The piece asks for the merging of single tones into ensemble sound until ‘the whole sound turns to gold / to pure, gently shimmering fire.’ Which sounds pretty good, I would say. The notes for this piece continue, pertinently, to quote Stockhausen: ‘Musical meditation is not sentimentality, but ultra alertness and – in the lightest moments – creative ecstasy.’ This lightness is understood and induced by Zeitkratzer, levitational in the best ecstatic tradition. The piece builds by its own internal logic and intuition to an almost overwhelming crescendo, but the solar focus and insistence on lightness keep the energy lifting up, cancelling gravity with a Sun Ra ‘Next Stop Mars’ / Pharaoh Sanders ‘Sun in Aquarius’ intensity, Friedl echoing Ra or Lonnie Liston Smith’s piano carnage. Solar fire, indeed – an excellent ecstatic tool for musical meditation.

After listening to this release, absorbing the notes and thinking about the music I went and dug out all the Stockhausen records and CDs I have lying about, including other interpretations of the same pieces. Listening to the 1969 Ensemble Vivante recording of Fais Voile Vers Le Soleil / Setz die Segel zur Sonne for which Stockhausen himself was at the mixing desk and effects controls you’re struck how the merging takes an almost entirely obverse form, the pungent plucks and plunks of tone gradually easing out into transparent laminal sheets – shimmering, yes, but arrived at and articulated in a superficially very different way. The contrast is invigorating and stimulating; this release and Friedl and Zeitkratzer’s work and engagement with it provided different perspectives and contributions to ongoing appreciation and understanding of these pieces, and that’s an admirable and enjoyable achievement.

As Friedl quotes Stockhausen as saying: “I do not want a spiritualist session. I want music.” Luckily for us, the music, through inspired composition and passionate interpretation is rewarding and invigorating, rather than an aural cryptic crossword. It is engaged, specific, nuanced, allusive and multi-layered. That’s my shopping-list satisfied, then.


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