The Eurocentric ensemble Zeitkratzer takes on the tough assignments. Here is a group that tackles some of the most controversial and inaccessible pieces of music from the past 100 years, including works by John Cage, Alvin Lucier, James Tenney, and Lou Reed while refusing any kind of corporate sponsorship or distribution. They put on their shows for free and release their recordings on their own label. If that’s not dedication to the arts, I don’t know what is.
Their latest release is devoted to Karlheinz Stockhausen, a thorn in the side of many traditional-minded music enthusiasts. To call his music “bold” or “uncompromising” is an understatement. To some, he stands as the great pioneer of electronic sounds and musique-concrete; to others he was an embodiment of everything that was wrong with 20th century music. It’s fair to say that, even in this present day, his works will continue to meet much resistance. For Zeitkratzer’s collection Old School: Karlheinz Stockhausen, the group tapped into the composer’s anxiety-inspired suite “Aus Den Sieben Tagen,” a work that exists on a highly abstract level. “Unbergrenzt”, “Nachtmusik”, and “Setz die Segel zur Sonne”, three pieces which make up about 70 percent of the album, are the kinds of modern compositions that disregard key, meter, tempo and conventional tonality. They are growing clouds of sound, layers of vague harmonies heaped upon one another, blurring the lines between music and, in the purest sense of the word, mood. It’s quite the thing for Stockhausen to have conjured these out of thin air; it’s also impressive that an ensemble of Zeitkratzer’s size can produce such a dominant sound from piano, violin, cello, double bass, percussion, saxophone, French horn, trombone and electronics. There’s only nine of them (on their webpage, their sound and light engineers notably receive credit in the art of the performance), but the three aforementioned pieces make them sound like there’s almost a hundred of them.
Elsewhere, Old School: Karlheinz Stockhausen turns the spotlight to works that aren’t as wilfully abstract but no less modern or strange. “Verbindung” begins to roll out like the other pieces only to have its nebulousness undermined by short, atonal bursts from what I’m guessing is the trombone. As it drifts towards the halfway mark of 9:22, the work’s sound is punctured by more and more things. The electronics burble more aggressively and the percussion clangs more overtly this time. “Intensität,” not unlike John Zorn’s filecard works, sounds like stuff getting hit and random bursts of noise disrupting the concert hall. At 3:29, it’s the shortest thing here – but it’s also the track most likely to try your patience seeing that is musically resembles a beating.
Zeitkratzer are undeterred in bringing us music of great conflict. Metal Machine Music, Stockhausen – you see where they are headed with this. Hyper-modernism is one thing, creating an enveloping sound in which to present those compositions is another thing entirely. As a document, Old School: Karlheinz Stockhausen makes a strong case for the preservation of such strange sounds. As a listening experience, it is profoundly strange. You could make a solid case that what you’re hearing isn’t music but you can’t deny the fact that you are listening to marvellous things happening.