14 November 2018

Karlheinz Stockhausen's Mantra

Karlheinz Stockhausen was a German composer who until recently, was for me, just an encyclopaedic entry. I haven't really had the chance to listen to his music, neither as a recording, nor performed live. I knew that he was well-known for one of the early proponents of incorporating electronic music into the contemporary classical repertoire, as well as being the composer who introduced controlled chance as well as spatialisation. Nevertheless, I never had the chance to listen to any of his works, until Musikfest Berlin this year. This year, I attended three concerts in the festival, and one of them was a performance of Stockhausen's Mantra for two ring-modulated pianos.

This is quite an interesting work: there are three performers altogether. There are the two pianists: Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich. The pianists have in addition a set of antique cymbals as well as a wood block. And then there's the sound director, Marco Stroppa. This work is quite long, lasting about an hour and fifteen minutes. And it definitely pushes your definition of music.

See, there's no obvious melody. Instead, it feels like a collection of soundscapes strung one after another. There are definitely clear segments, and peaks and troughs, with the excitement coming and going. And this ring modulation is definitely weird, but in a very quirky and positive way. It's actually very mathematical if you think of it, the idea of manipulating the acoustic and physical properties of a musical instrument in an artistic way. It absolutely creates a very different soundscape, something not your typical piano would produce.

And yes, there were people who walked out. I honestly don't understand these people. Do they not do research on what concerts they attend? If you blindly buy a classical music ticket in Berlin, you might be surprised. Not every performance sounds stereotypically pretty.

In any case, this was a great introduction to Stockhausen's music. I will definitely bookmark him and seek out other concerts and performances that might feature his work. And yes, Mantra is actually quite old, having been composed back in 1970. Yet it feels very modern, and something that I would have guessed was written within the past decade.


  1. I wouldn't walk out. Sometimes, you just have to challenge your own perceptions of what's art, what's music, etc.

    1. Zhu,

      Me neither. It's the same reason why we travel perhaps, we want to see how things can be different. And by doing so, it's challenging our preconceived notions about things, and allowing us to see what else is out there.