NEW MUSIC STUDIO SIX-FOUR, Melba Hall, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne
by Jennifer Bryce
This was the inaugural concert of a group, Six-Four, from the New Music Studio of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, led by Peter Neville. The two pieces in this concert explored a question that occupied composers in the mid to late 20th century: what is the future of form in sound? Traditional musical forms had been structures such as sonatas and symphonies and these had often continued to provide a musical framework even when the organisation of sounds was taken outside of the familiar diatonic scales of Western music (set pitch spaces, tones and semitones) – Debussy used a scale without semitones, Schönberg used tone rows, but most of these composers used traditional structural forms. The two composers who were represented in this concert, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Terry Riley experimented with form in very different ways.
I can remember when Karlheinz Stockhausen visited Melbourne in 1970. He gave a lecture/demonstration in Wilson Hall at the University of Melbourne. I can’t find a record of the program given. Apparently conservative music critics of the day lambasted his work. What I do remember about that evening is that I came away with a much better understanding of ‘music concrète’. It’s possible that Stockhausen’s percussion piece Zyklus was performed – I recall a lot of percussion and he demonstrated how he could record and manipulate the sound of a huge gong. I can still clearly remember the sound of that resonant gong coming backwards.
Six-Four performed Stockhausen’s Plus-Minus 14 (1963). No laptops in the 1960s, apparently Stockhausen traced the early ideas for this piece on the sand of a Sicilian beach. But it is mighty complex. The work has been described as ‘elastic’. Before we went into the concert we asked how long it would be. Peter Neville, the director, couldn’t give a precise answer, because the length would depend on how it was played on the night. The music is written in a set of seven grids featuring seven different sets of sound material. These range from precisely pitched sound with hard timbres to timbrally indeterminate sounds rich in noise or sound of the softer variety. I may have this wrong, but I assume that the ‘softer variety’ would include the flutter tonguing of the flute and muted sounds made by the trumpet. Instruments are not prescribed by the composer – on this occasion there were flute, clarinets, bassoon, saxophone, horn, trumpet, violin, ‘cello, pianos, electric guitar and lots of percussion. And I think that the grids outline ‘events’ that grow and decay, as Maconie says, ‘Material is systematically accumulated and eroded, in a process resembling a game of chess, where central and secondary notes either expand and proliferate, or are reduced until they disappear.’ [Maconie, Robin. 2005. Other Planets: The Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.]
The second piece to explore form in sound was composed a year later (1964) by Terry Riley, an American composer who is interested in jazz and classical Indian music. The Stockhausen performers were joined by a trombone and a harpist. Riley’s piece, In C, for me did not show a lot of Indian influence as the whole piece seemed to be held together by one note (a C) played perpetually for about half an hour. In C consists of 53 short, numbered musical phrases, lasting from half a beat to 32 beats; each phrase may be repeated an arbitrary number of times and each musican has control over which phrase they play: performers are encouraged to play the phrases starting at different times, even if they are playing the same phrase. The piece starts with a C Major chord and this was played by violin and ‘cello, then there are progressions to other harmonies, but all with the persistent C as a basis. I’m not quite sure how the musicians know when to stop but, as in jazz, this seemed to be a mutually agreed decision and everything quietened, even the repetitive C, until there was silence. https://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2013/jan/28/terry-riley-contemporary-music-guide
Riley is recognised as one of the first minimalist composers and, as I listened to this piece, which I enjoyed, I could hear how his work may have influenced composers such as Philip Glass.
This series of concerts is a welcome innovation. I learnt a lot and found it useful that the question of form in music acted as a uniting theme. The next concert, like this one, is free, although bookings through Event Brite, are essential. It will feature Australian composer Chris Dench with music for recorder, guitar, voice, clarinet and vibraphone.