Stockhausen: Gruppen

performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under
Friedrich Goldman (I)
Claudio Abbado (II)
Marcus Creed (III)

“a landmark in 20th-century music . . . probably the first work of the post-war generation of composers in which technique and imagination combine on the highest level to produce an undisputable [sic] masterpiece”

(Smalley 1967, 794).

in Gruppen … whole envelopes of rhythmic blocks are exact lines of mountains that I saw in Paspels in Switzerland right in front of my little window. Many of the time spectra, which are represented by superimpositions of different rhythmic layers—of different speeds in each layer—their envelope which describes the increase and decrease of the number of layers, their shape, so to speak, the shape of the time field, are the curves of the mountain’s contour which I saw when I looked out the window.

(Cott 1973, 141)

You know, since one large-scale serial work wasn’t complicated enough, let’s talk about three at the same time…

Long before Karlheinz Stockhausen took to the sky or started his enormous Licht cycle of operas, the ‘Nr. 6’ in his oeuvre was already an enormous piece. From what I’ve read, the conception of Gruppen (‘groups’) was kind of the result of a purposeful getaway. He’d received a commission from the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln, but had been too busy working on Gesang der Jünglinge and finally moved away to a small village in Switzerland to have a place to work quietly on it. This image on Wikipedia shows the beautiful, quaint little town, and likely similar to the view he’d have had out the window of the attic in which he stayed. The article continues:

Surrounded by the splendour of the Graubünden alps, he created the entire plan of Gruppen, “with a completely new conception of musical time” (Stockhausen and Frisius 1989, 320)

Coming off of Gesang, it seemed the composer originally wanted to include indeterminate music along with electronics, but that idea was later scrapped. From the second quote that opened this article, it is apparent that the beauty of the surroundings had a large impact on the composer, who ultimately decided not to include the electronics or indeterminacy, but worked some of the electronic music into the orchestral parts. Ultimately, there were three entirely independent orchestras, each with its own conductor, performing apparently entirely independent music, a total of 109 players and 3 conductors, so we’re not talking three full-sized orchestras, but still a logistic complication.

Obviously difficult to perform spatially, with each of the three orchestras sitting and situated independently from one another, the work was premiered on March 24, 1958, with Stockhausen, Maderna, and Boulez conducting the respective three orchestras. Interestingly, the same night saw the world premiere of Boulez’s third piano sonata, performed by the composer, between the two performances of Gruppen. Why two?

My understanding (I read somewhere and now can’t find it) is that the two performances were to let the audience move to new seats and re-experience the piece from a different vantage point among the orchestras. If you haven’t noticed or heard, Stockhausen was a man with many ideas, and the description above of rhythmic layers and time fields and all the rest…. speaks to the composer’s exciting and quite interesting ideas about the existence of music not just as sound, but as time and space.

The orchestras are “deployed in a horseshoe shape to the left, front, and right of the audience.” This structuring was apparently to delineate clearly the sometimes related but still independent existences of the music in the three groups. The composer himself says of these relationships that:

The various groups in a composition have various proportional features—various structures—but they are interrelated in that the properties of one group may only be understood by comparing them in degree of relationship with the other groups… (Stockhausen 1963a, 63)

So what does all this mean? How can we navigate and/or analyze it? Well, for one, you could just sit down and listen to it, but we’ll talk about that later. First, Wikipedia and elsewhere tell us that this massive work, like Il Canto Sospeso, also uses an all-interval series, shown below:

What other properties of the all-interval row do you see?

We’ve talked before about being able or unable to identify the qualities fo a series or of these more technical musical qualties and functions from just listening, but this takes it to an entirely new level. A more…. straightforward serial piece may be difficult enough to comprehend, much less one of this size, organized into three independent parts. The result, as you may imagine or are currently hearing, is what might seem like  just a jumble of noise… In fact, almost as much is stated in the Wikipedia article, quoting the composer as saying it’s “too dense for the listener to be able to accurately distinguish individual notes or their order of succession (Stockhausen 1963c, 250–51)”. This raises an obvious question, then, to listeners like myself…. “Why do it if it’s indistinguishable?” Well, let’s look at one more statement about the work before we move on:

Consequently, the importance of individual notes is relatively low, so that sonority, density, speed, dynamics, and direction of movement become the main features for the listener (Smalley 1967, 795).

I feel this work is a splendid ending to the Darmstadt series I’ve been working really hard (I promise) to prepare, despite the paucity of solid, informed material in these last few articles. I think it’s suitable for a number of reasons. First, it’s enormous. There’s no getting around that. Second, it’s also the latest of the works we discussed, getting its premiere in 1958. It’s also kind of cool that the other composers we’ve talked about participated in the premiere of the work, conducting the other two orchestras alongside the composer.

But mainly, I want to say I have nothing intelligent to say about this work or how it sounds, except that it may be the most beautiful chaos you’ve ever heard. The works in this months’ series have gotten more and more complicated, from Messiaen’s non-serial piano or quartet works to Boulez’s solo piano and then his song cycle, through to Nono’s bigger pieces, and now this. And what this progression of pieces outlines is a trajectory of me, the listener, slowly surrendering to the complexity of the music at hand, cerebrally and creatively crying uncle to what is at once almost wholly incomprehensible and yet still fascinating music.

The recording I have (included above) nicely channels the sounds to the left, center, and right of the aural space created by the headphones to recreate, as best as possible, what is arguably the most compelling (or at least interesting) aspect of this work, its spatial quality.

Of course, it must not be ignored that this could very well be the most pretentious drivel that has ever filled the space of a concert hall, ridiculous nonsense masquerading as recondite genius, but who am I to say?

Curl up on a couch or a bed or your favorite chair or spot of the floor with a good recording and a nice pair of headphones. Listen to the sounds that were written down on paper, arguably with some deliberation and purpose, and decide for yourself. Is it beauty or bollocks?

And with that ends our Darmstadt series of pieces for July of 2016. There will be a wrap-up post, so stay tuned for that and more.


Below are some additional references for the work at hand that you may enjoy:

A very detailed description of the work from the composer’s official website

A very detailed blog post from Ed Chang, with terrifying visuals of audio analysis, score samples, charts, and all the rest

And this below (if it works properly), a little widget with the score of the work from Scribd, if it displays properly.


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