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An uber-composer meets his match

October 06, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

FOR composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who can be very literal when he wants to be, the 1960s ended right on the button. In 1970 he gave up a years-long attempt to tap into the collective consciousness and returned -- big time -- to his own. No more group improvisations. A seer, a German with a dominant grandiosity gene, he decided that his special awareness could itself be, like that of any enlightened being, the collective consciousness. He determined to let his own personal mantra reverberate throughout the cosmos -- and throughout history.

What changed everything was "Mantra" -- composed for two pianos and electronics and premiered by brothers Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky on Oct. 18, 1970, in Donaueschingen, a new music center in southern Germany.

The work lasts slightly more than an hour. It was heralded as a masterpiece by those at the premiere. A recording by the Kontarskys, strictly (very strictly) supervised by Stockhausen, was heralded as a masterpiece by a lot of people. A classic had been born. New principles of writing music were revealed that would lead Stockhausen into creating "Licht," a seven-day (!) operatic cycle he began in 1977 and is just now completing.

That "Mantra" is a masterpiece I believed then and believe now. But at the moment, it is a little difficult to call it a classic.

Tuesday, to open this season's Piano Spheres series, Vicki Ray and Liam Viney presented a rare performance of "Mantra" in Zipper Hall at the Colburn School. Only a small audience showed up for this special event, even though Stockhausen remains a cult figure. Amoeba Records in Hollywood, Stockhausen headquarters in these parts, seems to have no trouble selling the composer's personally produced recordings, which cost about three times the price of a normal CD. But ever more out there, he no longer commands the attention he once did.

No matter. Tuesday's was a first-rate performance of music that, once it starts twirling around a "formula," just gets twirlier and twirlier. "Formula" is the composer's fancy name for a melody, if one with mantra-like aspirations. And, on a basic level, "Mantra" is no more than a traditional theme and variations. But Stockhausen creates an utterly distinct sound world, teeming with detail, that can trick the willing brain into thinking that inner and outer space conjoin.

The pianists have wood blocks and antique cymbals by their sides to tap on from time to time. Stockhausen directed that these textures be electronically mixed with those of the pianos, and with shortwave radio sounds, through a once-clumsy electronic device known as a ring modulator. At Zipper, Shaun Naidoo expertly ring-modulated with a laptop computer.

In the score, Stockhausen goes after his "formula" like a Zen priest meditating on a mantra to find its soul, like a physicist contemplating the quantum nature of matter, like a philosopher looking for the inner meaning of an utterance, like a mad surgeon cutting open living matter, yanking out organs and seeing how long he can keep them quivering.

Quiver they do. Trills become super-trills. Pitches are irradiated into the atmosphere as if each had a plutonium core. Where other composers mean an accent to show a player should emphasize a note and move on, Stockhausen aims to startle listeners out of themselves. Colors are new and brilliant; pianos never sounded like this before.

Stockhausen, of course, takes himself very seriously. The piano parts are exceptionally difficult, and when the Kontarskys played "Mantra," it was no laughing matter. I wonder what Stockhausen would have thought of Ray, a member of Piano Spheres, and Viney, a young Australian pianist on the CalArts faculty.

Their virtuosity went beyond technique (with which they are fully equipped). They added the element of joy, and even humor, as if to say that Stockhausen may be over the top but that "Mantra" is a great piece anyway. I thought they got it just right.

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