Monday, 18 July 2011

A student experience of Stockhausen

When I was a student at the Royal College of Music in London, one of the professors strongly held the opinion that no potential professional musician should go through college without having played some "modern" music (i.e. something atonal or similarly unpleasant-sounding). Like the music or loathe it, I think he had a good general point, in that musicians owe it to the composer to give a new piece the best possible performance, and to be appropriately trained to do so.

Anyway, one term, he managed to arrange for the college symphony orchestra to play Stockhausen's Carré. (Carré means "squared" in French.) This was a square piece, for 4 orchestras positioned in the 4 corners of the hall. The conductors stood in the corners facing inwards so they could see each other and coordinate the beat, and the orchestras faced outwards each towards their own conductor, with the audience in the middle. Each orchestra was a couple of desks of each of the strings, a varied selection of woodwind & brass, an 8-voice chamber choir, and pretty much a full symphonic percussion section. Maybe a keyboard or two thrown in for good & useless measure.

The piece hadn't been performed in London for 15 years. We soon discovered why.

I can honestly say that this is the only piece I have ever played where for the entire duration of the music I couldn't actually tell whether I was playing the right notes or not. The singers had tuning forks more or less permanently to their ears to try and help them pitch their notes. There were really no cues you could take from the players around you.

The students rapidly took a fairly lighthearted approach to rehearsals, to the annoyance of the professors. There was a harpsichord player in the 4th orchestra, who rapidly cottoned on to the fact that nobody could hear her over the percussion, and practised Bach and Handel throughout the rehearsals.

We all assumed that nobody would want to come & hear this junk, even though RCM concerts were free for the public. When we filed into the hall for the concert, we were astonished to find the place absolutely packed with people standing in the gallery.

We later discovered that someone had publicised the concert in a modern music magazine, and because it was so long since the piece had been played in London, all the atonal music junkies had come to hear it. In London, there are just about enough Stockhausen fans to fill a medium sized concert hall if they all turn up on the same night.

Anyway, all went fine in the performance, we made a raucous din for about 30 minutes. The problem came towards the end. The conductor of the 4th orchestra got lost and out of time with the other three. As a result, in the 4th orchestra we finished about 30 seconds early.

Nobody noticed. We got a standing ovation and a rave review from the Times music critic.


  1. Hi Jonathan

    So when was this perf of CARRE at the RCM, which you write about? I remember Royal Academy of Music doing CARRE in the 1980s, but whilst I remember RCM doing STockhausen's Gruppen for three orchestras, I don't remember hearing about Carre at the RCM.

    thanks, Mark Stratford

  2. I was at the RCM from 83-85. If I recall, they did Carré in the spring of 1984.