Karlheinz Stockhausen: Synthi Fou (1991), Kontakte (1959-60)


SIAL Sound Studios, RMIT University
Michael Fowler, Piano and Keyboard
Stuart Gerber, Percussion
Jeffrey Hannam, Sound Projection

Elisabeth Murdoch Hall
Melbourne Recital Centre
7.30-pm, Friday 20 February 2009

Death generally works wonders for composers and Stockhausen is no exception. Since his departure in December 2007 his music has seen many performances, often in surprisingly mainstream settings – there was even a Stockhausen prom last year. That’s not to say his music has slipped complacently into the mainstream: Stockhausen can still shock, as this concert of electro-acoustic works at the new Melbourne Recital Centre attested.

Disappointing was the unannounced scrapping of Cosmic Pulses from the program, a thrilling electronic piece written in 2007 and the final CD document Stockhausen released in his lifetime. Instead we were left at 1991 with Synthi-Fou, a synthesizer Klavierstucke piece written for Stockhausen’s son Simon and part of his gargantuan Dienstag aus Licht opera cycle. Divorced from this context Synthi-Fou lost some of its impact (although how much insight could be gleamed from Stockhausen’s baffling ‘narrative’ is debatable) but as an abstract sound piece Synthi-Fou offered a wealth of intriguing sonic textures. In Michael Fowler Stockhausen has a rivetting interpreter, prancing gleefully from keyboard to keyboard, visibly delighting in the range of sounds emanating from his excessive bank of instruments. Bedecked in Joseph’s technicolour dreamcoat Fowler looked like a cross between Sun Ra and Liberace, and the sound was similarly pitched between wacky invention and kitsch: quick blasts of endlessly shifting synth patches, bleeping and circling the room, making full use of the hall’s multiple speakers. The hall’s architecture added to the enjoyment, jutting ochre blocks staggered like an Aztec temple.

The real excitement was reserved however for Kontakte, Stockhausen’s revolutionary 1960 piece which retains the capacity to awe digitally-savvy audiences half a century after it was composed. Gone were the synths, instead Fowler, on piano and an array of gongs and bells, and Stuart Gerber on drums and tuned percussion, chased a fluctuating mix of tones played on multi-phonic tape. These tones, grey patches of static and steely dub-like pulses, crept up on the performers, anticipating flurries of piano notes and marimba riffs, or creating its own form of bizarre sustain, blurring the line between ‘real’ and ‘reel’ sounds. The piece is very much about sound as ‘contact’, in all senses of the word: between pianist and percussionist; between performers and tape; between those sounds existing on tape; and physically, between piano hammer and string, for example. The performances here were exemplary, Fowler and Gerber’s timing impeccable, the perceptual games played by Kontakte’s acoustic-electronic synthesis yet to be bettered.

Joshua Meggitt


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