The late Karlheinz Stockhausen had this crazy idea, as he so often did, to explode the concept of traditional music. For the third scene of Mittwoch from his opera cycle Licht, premiered in 1995, he put the four members of the Arditti String Quartet into four separate helicopters and had them play a new piece of his music while flying about in the air. The music of the Helikopter-Streichquartett's four parts was then mixed together for the listener to hear as a united whole. In this new DVD, directed by Frank Scheffer, we see Stockhausen speaking about how the work came about, because of his lifelong dreams of flying. This is in spite of the fact that he consciously chose to avoid all traditional forms and arrangements, never accepting commissions for a piano or violin concerto, for example. He admits that the work was his first and probably his last string quartet. We now know that it was.
Helicopter String Quartet, with the Arditti Quartet, directed by Frank Scheffer
(released June 24, 2008)
Medici Arts 3077508
We also see Stockhausen rehearsing the Arditti Quartet on the piece, and if you still believe that music like Stockhausen's music is just chaos, the composer's painstaking attention to detail in these rehearsals will change your mind. Every note, every inflection, every facet of intonation and rhythmic precision is scrutinized and corrected, just as musicians always do with any kind of music. From the notated parts, four melodies are traced out by Stockhausen with colored lines for the instruments. The particularities of this work tested Stockhausen's controlling instincts: we see him discussing the possibility (and cost) of rehearsing the work at least once in the helicopters, to make sure it works. Just how to make a cellist fit into a helicopter so as to be able to play is a challenge that has to be worked out, and then many electronic issues are involved, to receive the audio signal from the helicopters (including the sound of the rotors, captured by an external microphone on each helicopter) and mix it together.
The score is set to last 18 minutes and 36 seconds (although Stockhausen's Web site now lists the duration as "circa 32 minutes," incorporating changes made after the premiere), coordinated with a start signal in the players' headphones and with each sound carefully mapped (Stockhausen explains much of it with the score in hand). In this absorbing DVD, one has an impression not only of the work but of the nature of Stockhausen's creative manner. He appears brimming with nervous energy and moved by apparently random coincidences, finding significance in the details of his dreams and in numbers, even the registration numbers on the four helicopters. At one point, he speaks about how he hopes he will eventually have a body capable of sensing more than a human body can. Hopefully, he is out there somewhere, making something beyond music in the cosmos.
Excerpt from Helicopter String Quartet (see other related videos)