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6.1.11

Twelve Days of Christmas: Stockhausen's Mantra

available at Amazon
K. Stockhausen, Mantra, X. Pestova, P. Meyer, J. Panis

(released on September 28, 2010)
Naxos 8.572398 | 67'33"
In 1969 your moderator was knee-high to a grasshopper, and experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was on a car trip in New England. He heard a melody and wrote it down on an envelope, with the idea that it would be the basis of a musical work, "one single musical figure or formula that would be expanded over a very long period of time," as he put it in 1971. This theme of 13 notes and a series of other musical parameters became the musical kernel of Stockhausen's Mantra, a work for two (augmented) pianos in 13 sections that expand and realize that initial melody. Stockhausen's works list (.PDF file) says that the score calls for two pianists (with wood blocks and antique cymbales, or crotales) plus electronics (2 sine-wave generators, 2 ring modulators, 2-track tape rec., 6 micr., 2 x 2 loudsp., mixing console / sound proj.). The performers also have to shout together at one point. This may seem an odd choice to finish out the Twelve Days of Christmas, but there is something exotic and otherworldly about the piece, as performed in this excellent recent recording, that seemed to fit Three Kings Day.

Stylistically, Stockhausen's earlier works have the greatest appeal to my ear, where there is still rhythmic pulse and harmonic variety, and not too much outright weirdness: put Mantra into the same category as pleasing works like Tierkreis (1974/75) and the vocal piece Stimmung (1968). Dutch sound technician/projectionist Jan Panis, former assistant to Stockhausen, created the first digital arrangements to create the electronic component of this piece, with the composer's approval. The sound effects, created by the piano sound being routed through microphones and digital processing before reaching the ears, include echos, distortions, buzzing, ringing, and manipulation that creates something akin to the percussive sounds of a prepared piano or of the gamelan. The result produced by the adventurous Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo, while not recommended for people who get a rash at dissonant or off-putting music, is hypnotic. A fine introduction to Stockhausen and experimental music for anyone interested in such a thing.

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