Simon Smith remembers vividly his first encounter with the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen. The piece was “Trans,” a composition for orchestra and recorded sound that the German composer, a giant of mid-century contemporary music, wrote in 1971. “It was immediately like nothing I’d ever heard before,” remembers Smith. “Once the tape starts and all this weird stuff starts going on, you're just being taken on this wild ride.”
Smith, an Edinburgh-based pianist famous for his interpretations of Stockhausen and György Ligeti, will perform a selection of Stockhausen’s “Klavierstücke” (“piano pieces”) at MIT's Killian Hall (Room 14W) on Sept. 23 to kick off the new season of MIT’s Sounding Series. The 19 pieces — of which Smith will perform 10 — are both subtle and daring in their experimentations. Though Stockhausen’s reputation is sometimes boiled down, wrongly, to the aforementioned “weird stuff,” the “Klavierstücke” reveal other Stockhausens — probing, delicate, and occasionally peculiar, but never pedantic. “I like the idea of challenging people's conception of what Stockhausen's music is,” Smith says. “So I feel like being a bit of an evangelist.”
It’s hard to encapsulate Stockhausen’s career in a handful of compositions or even describe it with a few well-chosen adjectives. Over the course of six decades he became known (perhaps branded) for a flair for the theatrical, most famously in “Helicopter String Quartet”— a string quartet that was, indeed, performed in helicopters and broadcast to the audience below — but also in compositions like “Trans,” which required the musicians to execute strict choreography while playing.
But beyond that, Stockhausen was fascinated by the finest particularities of sound: its behavior in space, its microscopic topography, its exquisite mysteries. He explored these ideas in everything from the “Klavierstücke” to his groundbreaking electronic compositions. It is thanks to his experiments in electronica especially that the Beatles and Björk are counted among his many admirers in popular music. “When Karlheinz harnessed electricity into sound and showed the rest of us, he sparked off a sun that is still burning and will glow for a long time,” Björk wrote in The Guardian in 2008, a little less than a year after Stockhausen’s death.
The “Klavierstücke,” likewise, burrow into the piano’s acoustic possibilities. “He really delves into very fine nuances of touch or piano resonance or pedaling,” Smith says. “A lot of people think in the piano, you just press the key down and you get a note, and that's it.” But in the “Klavierstücke,” Stockhausen mines the minutiae of a single note — how it differs with the pedal down versus halfway down, for instance, or with other keys pressed silently to bring out sympathetic resonances.
Needless to say, the pieces require certain extended techniques that can be very challenging to execute. Smith describes the feat as “a parametrization of all the elements, which makes this horribly complicated result that you have to realize with just two hands and one brain.” But the outcome can be sublime. Smith calls “Klavierstücke VII,” a “brilliant example,” adding: “It has this crystalline purity, and everything is so finely worked and thought about. And it's really kind of concentrated music. It's beautiful in the way a Chopin nocturne is beautiful — it's that same fixation on timbre and delicacy of playing and nuances of playing.”
Smith’s favorite portion of the program is the show-closer, “Klavierstücke XIII.” The piece is 35 minutes long and the quirkiest of Smith’s selections, with a score that requires the performer to vocalize and reach inside the piano to pluck the strings.
"I really wanted to do number 13 because it's completely different, in a lot of ways, from the rest,” Smith says. “For me, that's where it's at. That's the music that I really love.”
The “Klavierstücke” also offer an opportunity for Smith to combat what he sees as popular misconceptions about Stockhausen, among them that his was “dry, academic music” in which beauty was overshadowed by ideas. But, says Smith, “I'm hard pressed to think of a more emotionally-driven composer.”
Stockhausen’s music “has an atmosphere. I can’t exactly put my finger on why or how,” Smith says. “But as soon as it starts you've been taken to a different place, or a whole new environment where things are going to happen which you wouldn’t necessarily expect.”