About this Recording
8.572398 - STOCKHAUSEN, K.: Mantra (Pestova-Meyer Piano Duo)
English 

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–2007)
Mantra for two pianists

 

“One day I had to drive from Madison, Connecticut, to Boston, it was September 1969. There were four people in the car, I was sitting next to the driver, and I just let my imagination completely loose…I was humming to myself…I heard this melody…I had the idea of one single musical figure or formula that would be expanded over a very long period of time…I wrote down this melody on an envelope.”

Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1971¹

Thus was born Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mantra for two pianists². During the latter part of the 1960s such journeys were a major part of Stockhausen’s life. He spent a great deal of time touring internationally with his own ensemble, the Stockhausen Group, performing what he termed “Intuitive Music”, for which the only composed material was either a brief text or a structural plan. Although in many ways this was the zenith of his fame (his image had already appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s album) Stockhausen was becoming increasingly disquieted by disagreements within the group over who really was the creator of this music—composer or performers. He silenced such disputes with characteristic decisiveness by writing his first fully notated work for many years, Mantra. The era of intuitive music was at an end.

Mantra is significant as the first mature example of Stockhausen’s ‘formula’ technique, an approach to composition which was to dominate his output from Mantra in 1970 right through to his death in 2007. But Mantra is also music theatre: two pianists face each other, their pianos on either side of the stage: this is not just a duet, it is a dialogue, a double act, a duel. During the performance the players strike crotales and woodblocks, make adjustments to electronic controls, stand and chant mystic syllables, and engage in a musical drama that ranges from the most intense depths of human experience to slapstick comedy.

While Stockhausen’s formula technique represents a return to the quasi-serialist approach of much of his earlier music, it nevertheless retains a good deal of the sense of freedom, transcendental mysticism and playful, abandoned inventiveness which characterized the heady days of the Stockhausen Group. This combination of closely worked structural detail and wildly imaginative invention demands a great deal of the performers, who must maintain absolute technical precision while embracing the vast range of dramatic—even comic—musical characterisations through which the composer’s imagination soars.

Stockhausen’s formula technique is admirable in its simplicity, and Mantra is its exemplar: the piece begins with a short musical idea—the ‘mantra’ (Track 2 of this recording). Within this simple fragment of music may be found the seeds for the material of the entire piece, but in microcosmic form. It is based on a melody of thirteen pitches (a serial twelve-tone row with the first pitch repeated at the end—a favourite Stockhausen device), superimposed upon its inversion. This is then continually repeated and expanded—not developed or varied in the classical sense, Stockhausen insists. Instead, it is stretched horizontally (that is, in duration) and vertically (that is, in pitch intervals). Each note of the mantra has its own duration, dynamic and—crucially—its own musical characteristic. It is these thirteen characteristics which grow to become the defining materials of the work:

1. A regular repetition
2. B accent at the end
3. G sharp ‘normal’
4. E upbeat-group around a central note
5. F ‘tremolo’
6. D chord (stressed)
7. G accent at the beginning
8. E flat ‘chromatic’ link
9. D flat staccato
10.C seed for irregular repetition ‘Morse code’
11. B flat seed for trills
12. G flat sfz (fp) - attack
13. A arpeggio link

The many repetitions of the mantra appear in different expansions at different levels. The most extreme temporal expansion lasts for the whole piece, and thus controls its large-scale structure. Each one of the thirteen notes, with its dominant characteristic, becomes the basis for a whole musical section. So section one of the piece is based on ‘regular repetition’, section two on ‘accent at the end’, and so on. The section based on ‘irregular repetition’ is especially striking, being underpinned by the irregular repetition in recordings of Morse code shortwave transmissions. Each of the thirteen sections of the work also contains a whole version of the mantra (again with its thirteen characteristics), and within each of these shorter versions we hear twelve still quicker repetitions, 156 in all. There is also yet another layer, played on crotales which sound out the thirteen notes of the mantra, and their dominant characteristics, at twice the speed of the ‘supermantra’, once forwards and once backwards.

Central to Mantra is the electronic transformation of the piano sounds using ring modulation, whereby the sound of each piano is modulated with a synthetic tone tuned to the central pitch of each section. This is the slowest mantra of all, whose pitches are heard not directly, but only through the transformation of the piano timbres. The degree of sonic transformation depends on the interval between the synthetic tone and the piano note: with simple intervals (octaves, fifths…) the transformation is subtle, but with more complex intervals (semitones, major sevenths…) it is more dramatic, resulting in metallic, bell-like sounds and quasi-vibrato. Since the mantra within each section begins and ends on this same central pitch, we hear a timbral ebb and flow which is somewhat akin to the idea of tension and resolution in tonal music, and which Stockhausen himself has likened to tonal cadencing, or breathing.

This arrangement, with the same ‘gestalt’ present at every level, is an eloquent demonstration of Stockhausen’s theory of time, in which he asserts an equivalence of pitch, rhythm and form as different scales of periodicity in a unified time continuum. It is also very like the recursive structures found in fractal mathematics and throughout nature, where the pattern of veins in a leaf match those found in the stem, branch and tree. Such infinitely recursive structures guarantee an unparalleled unity of form and content.

The original analogue equipment specified by Stockhausen is no longer readily available, and this recording is the first to use digital technology, with equipment specially designed by Stockhausen’s former assistant Jan Panis, and approved by the composer. Mantra now has a new lease of life for a digital century, thus helping to ensure that future generations are able to continue to enjoy performing and listening to this most remarkable of works.

After more than an hour of endlessly imaginative transformation of its original material, Mantra concludes with a moment of profound reflection and almost classical composure, as the mantra itself is quietly intoned for the final time. Now untransformed, and devoid even of its thirteen characteristics, it closes on a final, poignant, and undeniably tonic A. The impact of this understated concluding return of the original idea has been compared with that of the aria da capo from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and indeed the comparison with Bach might be taken further: as with Bach, Stockhausen’s music in the years immediately following his death is less widely known than it was at the peak of his career. Perhaps its optimism, idealism and experimental daring, so characteristic of the 1960s which gave it birth, now seems less relevant in our more pragmatic, even cynical era. It may be that, like the music of Bach, it will fall to some future generation to rediscover this music of genius, and for Mantra to be widely and fully acknowledged as the timeless masterpiece that it undoubtedly is.


Andrew Lewis

 

¹ Jonathan Cott, Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer (London: Picador, 1974), p. 204.
² ‘For two pianists’ is Stockhausen’s original designation, but the piece is really a trio including a sound projectionist whose equipment the score stipulates should be ‘completely inconspicuous’.


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