Ahead of his performance at the Oxford Improvisers ‘From Notation to Imagination’ concert at The Old Fire Station, the super french horn player Julian Faultless talked to OI’s Dan Goren about the challenges and rewards of performing one of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s most challenging works and the questions it throws up regarding the relationship between interpretation and improvisation.
Dan Goren : For those not familiar with Stockhausen’s work Solo, tell us a little about it.
Julian Faultless : Stockhausen wrote Solo between ’64 and ’66 when he was at the very height of his imaginative powers and arguably the greatest living composer writing in his field of music. This is the time of the the brilliant electronic masterpieces, Telemusik and Hymnen. It was also a time when he was interested in giving more performance options to the player. Solo lies at a fascinating midway point between the rigorous serial pieces of the late fifties, early sixties and the pieces consisting of nothing but poetic verbal texts to be ‘interpreted’ by musicians, written soon after Solo.
The piece consists of 36 lines of printed music (visually very beautiful) for any instrument with a three-octave range, along with very detailed performance instructions , which are a little difficult to fathom at first. In performance much of the music is played fragmentarily, so the printed music would often not be recognisable even to a listener familiar with the score.
DG : I understand you’ve performed it in Abu Dhabi recently for the first time, what has drawn you to tackling it?
JF : I am a huge Stockhausen fan (I went to his summer festival in his home town three times around two decades ago) but Solo hadn’t crossed my path, partly because the historic recording done in collaboration with Stockhausen (by the wonderful trombonist and composer, Vinko Globokar) was not made available again after its original release on LP in the 60s.
Two friends of mine, Clare and David Lesser (a fabulous singer and composer, respectively) run an annual electronic at the University of New York in Abu Dhabi. They invited me to the festival but I didn’t have anything suitable with electronics in my repertoire. David suggested Solo. I am extremely happy that he did. It’s been a rich experience getting to grips with the piece, although very daunting at first. So it was David Lesser who drew me to the piece.
DG : Available technology must have made performing this work much more technically feasible. What do you use in your performance?
JF : A crucial part of the piece is that Stockhausen gives highly detailed instructions for the sound of the soloist to be transformed live by four operators manipulating four reel-to-reel tape recorders, with the result being played and moved in space through stereo speakers. This made performances fairly rare.
Recently an Italian composer, Enrico Francioni, worked with an app developer, Alessandro Petrolati, to produce a fantastic phone app which does the job of the four tape operators.
In the seventies, the composer and important electronic-music pioneer, Barry Anderson, produced a highly ingenious invention which replaced the cumbersome four tape machines. Our friend, Lawrence Casserley, one of the Oxford Improvisers, was a close collaborator of Barry’s at this period. Perhaps this will feature in Lawrence’s forthcoming book. I must ask him.
Later, with the advent of digital equipment, Lawrence himself produced a program to replace the four operators and performed the piece many times with eminent soloists such as the bassist, Barry Guy, the soprano Jane Manning and the tubist, Melvyn Poore.
DG : Lawrence Casserley (who worked on realisations as far back as the 70s) says it raises interesting questions about the relationship between interpretation and improvisation…
JF : Stockhausen’s original conception was for the musician to perform with the 6 pages of music on six stands, while following the very detailed instructions. This was almost insanely demanding. The performer would need six brains and six months of doing nothing else but preparing the performance. Stockhausen very soon realised that his original conception was unfeasible and that the performer would have to prepare a version fairly thoroughly in advance. He himself basically gave up on the piece so didn’t supervise performances after the first few.
The problem is that the piece works best if the composer’s brilliantly conceived instructions are followed closely. This is not feasible without considerable preparation of a version.
Of course, what constitutes improvisation is a big topic. One common and not unreasonable definition is ‘composing in the moment’.
As a performer of Solo, there are literally dozens of decisions to be made in preparing the performance. At the macro level, I decide what order the 36 lines are to be played in. At a lower level, given a particular line of music, for example, and extracting Stockhausen’s instruction for ‘elements to be played with medium gaps’, I can choose which ‘elements’ to play from the line and in which order, and I have some freedom over interpreting ‘medium gap’.
In the original conception of the piece, these would have been made or ‘improvised’ in the moment. I have decided to keep some decisions for the performance but I have to admit, not many. It’s more or less true to say that it would be impossible to follow Stockhausen’s instructions without some a good deal of preparation. My version is heavily but not totally prepared.
DG : Thanks for the insights Julian – I’m looking forward to your performance!
From Notation to Imagination
The Loft Room @ The Old Fire Station
Tue 17 March, 2020
7:45 pm – 10:00 pm
Buy Tickets £6 / £9 / £11
Oxford Improvisers performing
SETTE PAGINE SU L’ENIGMA DEL BIANCO by LAWRENCE CASSERLEY
SQUARE DANCE by MARTIN HACKETT