Almost everything that German 20th-century composer Karlheinz Stockhausen has done has invigorated or fascinated me in a number of different ways. I stumbled across an LP of his legendary tape piece Kontakte in the public library and was forever fascinated by this electronic music that predated everything we’ve come to accept as modern in music by almost fifty years. Actually, “predated” is the wrong word — he started it all, although with that recording he was looking to create a pure sound that was unfettered by any earthly constraints whatsoever. He succeeded wildly.
Mantra is in many ways far more conservative, but it’s no less startling and lovely. Dating from 1971, it shows how Stockhausen went from pure sound to flamboyant and sometimes iconoclastic usages of more traditional instruments (in this case, two pianos), but combined with electronics and non-musical instruments (a short-wave radio) to yield a new whole. It’s rare in that it’s both abstract and warm, coolly precise and playful.
The heart of Mantra is a short musical phrase of several sections and thirteen notes total, played once plainly at both the beginning and the end of the piece. Each of the sections of the piece that follow takes each note and uses its properties — its tone, duration, loudness, etc. — and uses that as the modifying factor for the whole section. The piece is played upside-down, backwards, and just before the closing there’s even a meta-version in which all of the changes are simultaneously superimposed on each other.
From the notes to the composition:
In each of the thirteen large cycles of the work, each pianist tunes in a sine tone to the central pitch around which all the mantra transformations are centered. The first pianist presents the upper thirteen pitches of the mantra in succession, and the second pianist the lower thirteen pitches, the mantra-mirror. Every first and thirteenth pitch of each recurrence of the mantra is thus identical to the mirroring sine-tone; hence they sound completely consonant, and thus completely natural — like piano notes.
Depending on the intervallic distance of the other mantra pitches from the mirror pitch of the ring modulation, the modulated notes sound more or less dissonant, and have spectra unlike the piano (minor seconds, minor ninths and major sevenths produce the most dissonant modulator sounds, octaves and fifths the most consonant). Hence one perceives a continual respiration from consonant to dissonant to consonant modulator sounds, resulting from the precisely tuned relationships between the modulating sine tones and the modulated piano notes.
The modular sounds that Stockhausen speaks of here in his notes is a ring modulator, which is used to produce the sum and difference of the frequencies provided by each piano. The modulation is mostly subtle, but at least once it’s used in a highly climactic, violently dissonant section that marks a turning point for the whole structure. There are other additions: miniature cymbals and wooden blocks used to provide dissonant punctuation of their own, and at one point the pianists are to sing, in long, whooping calls reminiscent of the vocalizations used in classical Japanese music.
The use of the electronics also appears to vary depending on the performers — the recording I have, by New Albion, de-emphasizes the use of the electronics in favor of a strong, sustained performance by the two pianists, Rosalind Bevan and Yvar Mikashoff. The “standard issue” version of the piece was performed by the brothers Aloys and Alfons Kontarsky (the recording that Deutsche Grammophon issued, which has since been reissued directly through Stockhausen Verlag), but apparently Stockhausen’s favorite recording of the piece is not currently in print, with Dutch pianists Ellen Corver and Sepp Grotenhuis. Since writing this article, I was able to obtain another recording on Wergo, with Andreas Grau and Gotz Schumacher, with an even more commanding presence and forceful playing.
Yet another version, courtesy of Naxos, features Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer, with the electronics virtualized via a laptop running Max/MSP. This may be the best version yet in technical and aesthetic terms, although I have yet to track down the version by the Wyttenbachs and see how that holds up.
One of the things that comes to me most clearly when listening to Mantra is how it signifies Stockhausen’s ultimate rejection of stochastic or random factors in his music. It is formally composed from end to end, not subject to broad interpretations by the players, as per previous works, where no two performances came out the same. He had plumbed the well of randomness rather dry with a slew of compositions that used improvisation or chance operations (as per John Cage, one of his greatest friends and musical co-conspirators), and it had gotten to the point where the randomness was more than the music itself. And some of that randomness, too, filters into the way Mantra unfolds: just when it seems there’s total chaos going on, we hear something in the way the piece is evolving that provides us with the guiding principle for that particular moment in the piece. It’s a little like driving in what you believe to be unfamiliar territory, only to see a landmark you recognize, albeit from a different angle.
An easy analogy would be to say that Mantra is for me the musical equivalent of a painting by Mondrian or Kandinsky, but in fact I don’t see Mantra as being something mathematically precise, squared-off. Think of it almost as a musical version of Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mt. Fuji. In every picture, the mountain is present, if not always in the form we expect it — just as in every part of Mantra the central theme casts its shadow and makes its hand felt, modulating every note, tangling the waves that issue from the speakers behind the pianos.