Stockhausen

BASSETSU-TRIO (1997/98)

for basset-horn, trumpet and trombone, duration ca. 26 minutes

The composer (from the CD booklet):

"The BASSETSU-TRIO is a version of the last section of the 4th scene of WEDNESDAY from LIGHT, MICHAELION, which I originally composed for choir, bass with short-wave receiver, flute, basset-horn. trumpet, trombone, synthesizer, tape, and sound projectionist. In MICHAELION, the three wind players play the BASSETSU-TRIO as they circle around the operator (bass singer), who imitates short-wave events in 15 dialects and passes them on to choir singers. The trio is continued by a sextet of choir singers who stand in the auditorium around the audience and rotate. This sextet is also played by the three winds in this present, separate version of the BASSETSU-TRIO. Like the six vocalists, they also leave the auditorium playing at the end – no longer synchronous – through individual exits into the foyer and gradually withdraw into the distance.

"The adaptation of the trio into an independent version for basset-horn, trumpet and trombone was commissioned by Christoph von Blumröder and Imke Misch on the occasion of the international Stockhausen Symposium in 1998 at the Institute for Musicology of the Cologne University.

"The world premiere took place on November 11th 1998 at the university auditorium, performed by Suzanne Stephens (basset-horn), Marco Blaauw (trumpet), Andrew Digby (trombone), K. Stockhausen (sound projection). This music is three-part polyphony, with many tempo changes, very different simultaneous speeds, dynamic envelopes of melodies, types of sound production (ranging from pure noises to many timbres), micro-intervals and sound mixtures with carefully guided harmony developments. The players perform from memory. In the course of many rehearsals, Suzanne Stephens (basset-horn), Marco Blaauw (trumpet) and Andrew Digby (trombone) – to whom I dedicate this trio – worked out the choreography of the playing gestures and the movements in space according to my suggestions. After playing on the stage for quite awhile, the wind players walk into the auditorium one after another, and they simultaneously play the three LICHT (LIGHT) formulas four times […]." (End quote.)

***

The music is available, in a masterful performance by the three musicians who played the world premiere (see above), on Stockhausen-Verlag CD 55. This CD also includes the electronic and concrete music MITTWOCHS-ABSCHIED (Wednesday Farewell). Track numbers in the text refer to the CD.

The work begins with a held chord by trumpet and trombone on top of which a melodic line rises in the basset-horn, stretching all the way from its low register to its highest. It is a long, beautifully fluid and vivid line. After a short pause, at the beginning of track 2, a captivating variation of the second part of the splendid final phrase of the Michael formula (the Michael layer of the superformula *); bar 18 onward) is heard in the trumpet. While it is a remote variation, it begins on the same two pitches (D flat, A flat; forming an ascending fifth) as the original phrase presented much later, in track 15 (at 2’38"; pitches are transposed from the template superformula). The same Lucifer phrase that accompanies the original Michael phrase in the superformula sounds simultaneously with the variation; it is played by trombone on ‘rushing noises’ (see below).

*) in the pdf file, bar numbers and markings that indicate the different weekday segments are added by A.M. For maximal resolution, save file to computer/print out.

Subsequently, for the next 5 minutes (tracks 2 through 8) the music will turn to shorter motifs. Numerous two-note motifs will be heard that have as rhythmic configuration a very short note followed by a markedly longer one, leading to emphasis on that second note. These short motifs may have been inspired by the marked rhythmic characteristic of the first two notes of the Michael phrase just heard, but they can also be derived from other elements of the superformula. Precise note values vary in the two-note motifs, and intervals also change, fluctuating between sevenths and smaller intervals, down to just a second; only rarely intervals larger than a seventh are heard. Pitch movement is either downward or upward.

Consulting the score confirms that the motifs indeed are taken from different layers of the superfomula. The score specifies the movements of the performers, "whose choreography is based on the structure of the composition" (the composer), and makes clear when they play from the same or different layers.

These two-note motifs, mostly coupled to one another into chains of various length, will pervade the music to the extent that it mainly consists of tossing around of such motifs. Less frequently other elements are heard, such as the dynamic fluctuation on a single pitch from the Michael formula bars 1 and 10. In its dedication to building music mainly from just the varied treatment of a single kind of short motifs this first part of the work is reminiscent of, for example, the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony. Yet here the minimization of motif perhaps goes even further.

A substantial portion of the sounds heard are rushing noises (generated by blowing over or to the side of wind instruments), a type of sonority employed quite often in the LICHT cycle. The overall timbral envelope changes dependent on which instruments or instrument combinations produce rushing noises while others play normally; in one brief moment (in track 2) these noises are heard from all three instruments simultaneously. In this section the rushing noises sound particularly adventurous and arresting as they form more continuous lines on longer sequences of short motifs. Yet while these sounds are prominent, most of the playing is still in regular mode. The instruments use a wide register range, which results in significant variations of timbre. In addition, trumpet and trombone use different mutes, and there is selective use of flutter-tongue. As the composer rightfully points out, see above, harmonic developments are carefully guided. The dynamics fluctuate in a vibrant manner; there is constant swelling and deflating, both through held tones (the elements from Michael formula bars 1 and 10) and through sequences of motifs. Also tempi fluctuate, and several accelerando and ritardando passages further enliven the flow. The combination of the imaginative handling and variation of the short motifs, and sequences thereof, with all of the above elements leads to an extraordinarily vivid, colorful and engaging music – the more impressive given the use of such limited material.

Eventually, the music slows down and brings this part of the work to a close (at the beginning of track 9). The three instruments play very slowly in unison, with exquisite harmonization, a figure that appears to be a gentle variation of the final Michael phrase (superformula bar 18 onward) – this segment of tossing with short motifs thus ends on the same drawn-out phrase that it started with. The slow proceedings continue. Alternation between the three instruments of playing in flutter-tongue initiates a passage in which the music turns to isolated tones that are separated by pauses, and which are mostly played in carefully varied unison harmony between the three instruments. A descending phrase leads to playing of the instruments in low register, resulting in the trumpet joining the rough, hoarse timbre of the trombone. The tones become extended, and stasis in this low range appears intent to rule. Yet soon after it seems to settle, the stasis is broken, at first in a slowly grinding rising motion. After a while this motion flows into a rapidly accelerating ascending line that eventually catapults the music towards high register and sets the basset-horn free to pursue, continuing in its high range, an extended melodic line with an excited tone. Just as the music had, in low register, traversed a deep valley, it is now, as a counter-reaction, thrown on top of a mountain range and stays there for some time. The two brass instruments support the excitement of the basett-horn’s playing with diverse brief, pointed interjections, which include several pralltriller (upper mordents), all separated by pauses.

The extended melodic line in the basset-horn is unusual in shape, yet of an elegant fluidity. This long melodic arch is one of those examples that show Stockhausen’s uncanny ability to exploit the melodic potential of atonal music to an extent that is rarely found in the works of other atonal composers.

In the operatic scene MICHAELION, this melodic line in high register forms the transition from the playing of the music of BASSETSU-TRIO by the three wind instruments to its singing by vocalists. There the line (in a slightly less ornate form) is sung by a soprano, while the short interjections still come from trumpet and trombone. All the following music with its presentations of the superformula is sung in MICHAELION by a vocal sextet.

The final phase of the work follows, taking up the second half of the work. A series of four presentations of the LICHT superformula with its three layers takes place. In the first three presentations, the superformula sounds in a compressed form, with a number of melodic elements shortened or omitted entirely. In the last presentation it will unfold very close to its original form – the only time in the entire LICHT cycle that the superformula is heard in this manner, even though it is the compositional substrate for almost all the proceedings in the expansive opera cycle with a duration of about 29 hours. It is no coincidence that the superformula with all its three layers (Michael, Eve and Lucifer layer) is heard as such in MICHAELION (or here, the BASSETSU-TRIO derived from it) as part of WEDNESDAY, the day of cooperation and reconciliation between Michael, Eve and Lucifer. Elsewhere in LICHT, even just individual melodies (layers) from the superformula are hardly ever heard as a whole. One notable exception where all three melodies are played in full at one point or another, but still not all of them simultaneously in complete form, would be MICHAEL’S JOURNEY from THURSDAY. Towards the beginning the solo trumpet plays the original Michael layer of the superformula, the Michael formula, from start to finish. Elsewhere in that work there are instances where two formula layers are played together. For example, at the beginning of the station New York the trombone races through the entire Lucifer formula at fiery speed, while simultaneously the trumpet does the same with the Michael formula.

The first presentation of the superformula in the BASSETSU-TRIO is an abstract one; it displays just some of its general outlines and is sparse in the amount of notes. Yet it is hauntingly beautiful, broad and majestic in tone, with a slight Brucknerian feel. It features sumptuous harmony and color changes by way of alternating prominence of instruments. The final Michael phrase, offered as a variation compressed into just a few pitches, sounds with an almost wistful tone.

Normally the roles of the instruments are assigned to the characters in LICHT as trumpet – Michael, basset-horn – Eve, trombone – Lucifer. Yet in the next two presentations, the second and third, the instruments rotate in their playing of the three layers of the superformula. In presentation 2 the assigned layers are: basset-horn, Michael formula; trumpet, Lucifer formula; trombone, Eve formula. Presentation 3 has the roles as: basset-horn, Lucifer; trumpet, Eve; trombone, Michael. The playing of the Lucifer formula in presentation 3 by the basset-horn in low register results in a dark yet also warm tone.

These two presentations (tracks 13 and 14; score bars 128 and 144 ff., respectively) dive much more into the concrete melodic detail of the superformula than the first one, yet a number of elements are modified or missing. Almost half of the superformula is omitted in these presentations (bars 2, 3 5, 7, 9, 11, 12 and 14), and in addition, various alterations of texture take place. Still, despite the gaps there is some sense of completeness because important signposts, as well as the final phrases of the formula, are maintained. Yet due to the omissions, fusions of elements that are normally separated occur, and one fusion in particular has a powerful effect.

The fusion of superformula bars 8 and 10 brings four pitches in the Michael layer together, three of which on their own are spread over rhythmic pairs or groups of notes. Now they form a striking figure with overall downward motion and strong rhythmic emphasis. It is heard in basset-horn, track 13, 0’17" – 0’25", score bars 134 f., and trombone (particularly incisive), track 14, 0’15" – 0’23", score bars 150 f.; in the abstract first presentation of just general outlines of the superformula the pitches had sounded on single successive notes (trumpet, track 12, 0’09" – 0’14", score bar 121). In the original superformula these rhythmic groups of notes are divided in the middle by the downward ‘cascading’ figure of bar 9, which starts again on high pitch.

The dynamic liveliness of the music of the BASSETSU-TRIO extends also to the playing of the initial two eleventuplets of the Lucifer layer (here somewhat altered rhythmically), with repeated diminishing and swelling of volume. Even more frequent dynamic fluctuation during the playing of these elements will be heard in the unfolding of the superformula in almost original form in presentation 4, even though the superformula itself just prescribes a simple ‘piano’ for this opening segment of the Lucifer layer.

Following the truncated presentations, the playing of the entire superformula in presentation 4 (track 15, score bar 160 ff.) feels like an opening up of the music. Not only are now all the original elements of the opening bar of the Eve formula heard, instead of being partially ‘smeared over’, among others also the wavy figure Michael formula bar 2, the ascending figure Lucifer formula bar 3 and the descending figure Eve formula bar 14 appear for the first time. All of the new elements, while original to the superformula, now appear like welcome ornamentations in the music. The leisurely tempo, slower than in the template superformula, cherishes the appearance of these new elements.

Particularly striking is the elegance of the heterogeneous polyphony, in which each layer flows so differently and has its own characteristics, with the Michael and Eve formulas being more melodic, and the Lucifer formula being more oriented towards plain rhythm and 'noise' components (including counting of numbers, an important symbolism in the opera cycle). There is also great timing of alteration between denser and less dense parts, adding to the suppleness of texture.

Compared to the original superformula, there are some dynamic and modest rhythmic changes, as well as transposition of pitch levels. In addition, there are changes in the Lucifer formula with regard to the texts of counting. The forward counting in Lucifer bar 7 from one to seven is replaced by reverse counting, and the counting from one to thirteen at the end is replaced by rushing noises (at the end of presentations 1 and 2 [tracks 12 and 13] there had been reverse counting). The figure of Michael formula bar 12 now sounds, with specification "whisperingly sing with some voice into the mouthpiece" (of the trumpet), as "Mi-hi-cha-el, Gottes Sohn, Kosmo-Creator, kosmischer Fürst" (Mi-hi-cha-el, Son of God, Cosmo-Creator, Cosmic Prince). There is also a slight alteration in the pitch structure of the final Eve phrase (superformula bar 18).

After presentation 4, the instrumentalists slowly exit the venue in separate directions while continuing to play (like also, for example, in the earlier composition YLEM). As they do so, they repeat the presentations of the superformula (from tracks 12 to 15), but now asynchronously, each concentrating just on their own parts. While the instruments manage to meet again at the final chord of the first presentation, the following presentation (corresponding to track 13, score bar 128 ff.), which begins first with the initial Michael phrase in basset-horn at 0’51" in track 16, introduces significant delay for the opening Eve phrase in trombone, and another delay for the entry of the first Lucifer phrase in trumpet. At the end of that presentation (just before the 2-minute mark of track 16) the instruments now hardly meet anymore before the next one, corresponding to track 14 (score bar 144 ff.), sets in, continuing the temporal shifts between the layers.

The out-of-synch presentation of the three layers of the formula makes it fragmented, with its individual elements standing more isolated on their own. As the players’s sounds are heard further and further away from the stage, eventually the formula fragments appear like signals from afar, and an enchanted atmosphere arises. The music quietly comes to an end when the trumpet, which had been lagging behind, has finished the final Michael phrase, barely heard in the distance.

***

The work has long been one of my Stockhausen favorites. I particularly love the manner in which it displays Stockhausen’s mastery of ‘traditional’ compositional technique, including handling of motifs and harmony, but then combined with the unmistakable and daring adventurousness with respect to textures that I have come to expect and enjoy from this composer.



© Albrecht Moritz 2013


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