Revisiting Mikrophonie I

Article excerpt

STRAVINSKY EMBRACED THE SAYING 'Credo quia absurdum'. This is a musical statement. In a literal sense it means ? believe because it is inharmonious' - because it does not fit the pattern. Stravinsky may be saying that harmony is a human construction, and therefore incomplete. Or that life involves change, which in music is distortion or dissonance. He may also be paraphrasing the uncertainty principle, that there are truths of which we can never be certain or precise, and can only take on trust.

What matters is not the object but the principle. Of the story of Noah and the Flood Stravinsky also remarks 'Noah is mere history [...] less important than the Eternal Catastrophe'.1 He approves of a philosopher's quip suggesting that 'When Descartes said "I think" he may have had certainty; but by the time he said "therefore I am" he was relying on memory and may have been deceived'. Why would a composer choose to agree with such a statement? Today, instead of trying to figure out what he may have intended by these remarks, their message and the message of The Flood are obscured in a fog of futile biographical conjecture over whether the composer could have been capable of saying them.

The message of my book The concept of music is that we have to learn to talk about music in new ways.2 The new ways mean, for example, taking the statements of composers and their music at face value. As a teenager in the early 1960s I was drawn to Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, and Cage, and astonished to discover that this was a music few people cared to discuss. After university I travelled to Paris to study with Messiaen, and a year later to Cologne to take classes with Stockhausen, Pousseur, Luc-Ferrari, Aloys Kontarsky, Eimert and Zimmermann. It was the same in Europe. Nobody knew what this music was about. But like the unblushing bride in Bartok's opera Duke Bluebeard's castle, I was determined to know. I wanted the doors to be unlocked. Paul Klee had unlocked the doors for understanding modern art, and Le Corbusier for modern architecture. The challenge was to do the same for modern music.

The phrase 'Credo quia absurdum' perfectly describes my relationship to Stockhausen 's Mikrophonie /for solo tam-tam and six players, composed in 1964. And to Descartes, whose aphorism is not only about the reliability of memory, but also about the reliability of language. What the philosopher said was 'I think, therefore I am'. He does not say 'Je parle, donc je suis' (? speak, therefore I am'). Nor does he say 'Je m'écoute parler, donc je me comprends' (? hear what I am saying, therefore I know what I am talking about'). The excluded middle here is language and the act of speech. It is also a remark about music.

My first encounters with Mikrophonie I took place at open rehearsals in an attic classroom at Cologne Conservatorium in 1964. At the time I said to myself, the person who can explain this work can explain anything. Today I would put it a little differently, and say that the music explains everything. My impressions of Mikrophonie I were written up in an article published in an early edition of Perspectives of New Music* I was hoping there might be a reaction. Thirty-six years later, the work and my commentary are still filed away in what New Zealanders call 'the too-hard basket'. As late as 2008 a leading Stockhausen expert and former editor of Perspectives admitted that he had been unable to understand why I had been so taken by the work all those years ago.

In Stockhausen on music the composer describes his excitement at discovering the great variety of sounds that can be produced on a tam-tam with a variety of kitchen implements and captured with a microphone.4 Mikrophonie /is presented to the listener as a Darwinian exercise in the origin and classification of acoustic species, and by inference as a vindication of a serialist approach to a new science of musical relationships. Many of the 80 generic sound names in the score and reproduced on disc are identifiable with animal species: the roar of a lion, a barking dog, a quacking duck, the song of a humpback whale. …