I just got back from a rehearsal of Stockhausen’s Treffpunkt, part of the gigantic Aus den sieben Tagen. The score is as follows:


Everyone plays the same tone

Lead the tone wherever your thoughts
lead you
Do not leave it, stay with it
Always return
to the same place

Owing to a few absences, we were a trio today: Yours truly on the no- input mixing board (an instrument I’ve never played until today but had always wanted to), fellow composer Schuyler Tsuda on his handmade contraption that fuses a Robert Rutmanian steel cello with a spring reverb, and a classical oboist. It sounds like a long-winded setup for a bad joke, but rather than walk into a bar, we played through Treffpunkt a few times and discussed the possibilities. Next week I think we’ll have some solid strategies to present to the whole group.

As a master’s student—and especially as an undergrad—I spent many hours improvising on a variety of electric and acoustic instruments and using my voice. One of my big regrets about the time I spent in London is that I didn’t seize the opportunity to enjoy and participate in more improvised music. So naturally, sitting in front of a spectacularly rich instrument like a no-input mixer, I was barely able to restrain myself from improvising, especially since Schuyler is a nimble, adroit, and much-practiced improviser. Our oboist friend is new to free improvisation, but she acquitted herself with remarkable celerity. The combination of timbres was actually quite magical.

However, Treffpunkt is not an improvisation: It’s a work, and it has a score that (like any other score) the performer is obliged to interpret with high fidelity. I must admit that it took me a little while to reign in my improvising impulses and settle down into Stockhausen’s instructions; the fact that my command of the no-input mixer is still fledgling didn’t help, because my minimal control of the instrument didn’t allow me to do the things I wanted to in service of the score. I think that facility will come with practice, though. And now that I’m learning a new electronic instrument, my desire to improvise whetted anew, I really want to get back into it. It’s a good feeling.

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7 thoughts on “TREFFPUNKT’ed

  1. jbunch

    a sigh of relief
    I’m so glad that Ashton Kutcher is not associated with your performance of Treffpunkt. But knowing your Waspy and sometimes skittish relationship with popular culture I wouldn’t be surprised to find out you made a few phone calls. :)

    Improv + electronic gadgets tickles simultaneously two of my fancies: making stuff up and blinking lights. But in this case I find myself in agreement with Steven Mackey (admittedly a rare phenomenon) improvisation is the best composition lesson in the world, second only to other, more common modes of performance (in the West).

    PS – It’s truly amazing how many caveats I have to add at the end of every sentence I write (except this one) – (wait, now I’ve added a caveat).

  2. Lisa X

    It is a bit of a stretch to call these kinds of directions a piece. If anything I think it was Stockhausen’s way of claiming ownership over other people’s improvisations both for reasons of copyright and ego. There is scholarship somewhere that covers this, but I can’t remember where.

    Also, I think nowadays using Stockhausen’s (or Cardew’s etc.) name on your improvisation is a common publicity stunt. But be careful, I’ve heard his lawyers are always on the lookout for unauthorized performances.

    I’m not saying that these are not useful avenues to pursue, I just think it is crazy to give Stockhausen more credit than Mackie for your performance.

  3. colin holter

    It is a bit of a stretch to call these kinds of directions a piece.

    In what sense? Where do you draw the line between “a piece” and “not a piece,” in terms of notation? Aus den Sieben Tagen is absolutely a piece insofar as it’s a collection of instructions from which a performance can be assembled, just like Don Giovanni or Carmina Burana.

    But be careful, I’ve heard his lawyers are always on the lookout for unauthorized performances.

    We’re fully authorized, I assure you, but thanks for having our back, anonymous woodwind paralegal.

    I just think it is crazy to give Stockhausen more credit than Mackie for your performance.

    Actually it’s a Tascam, not a Mackie, that I’ve been playing on – but your desire to credit the manufacturers of the instrument is noble nonetheless.

  4. pgblu

    Actually, Lisa X has a fair point about Stockhausen appropriating other people’s improvisations, so it should be addressed.

    If the only work Stockhausen did on these pieces was to write the little texts, then I think the criticism should stand. But that is not all he did. He took responsibility for the first performances of all these Intuitive musics, and formulated the instructions on the basis of his experiences at the intersection of language and musical psyche.

    It’s too facile to dismiss these text pieces as taking the easy way out of writing an actual score — instead, one has to recognize that, at the time these pieces were written, a composer’s willingness to acknowledge the role of a collaborators intuition was a pretty new thing. Of course, free improvisation was not. I am not familiar with the academic literature on Stockhausen as appropriator, except in the polemic vein of Cardew’s famous book — so I hope another contributor might point me toward some reading material.

    In a nutshell, what saves these pieces for me is that they were ‘lab-tested’ by the composer himself. That’s the main thing. But also this: when I consider the alternative ways he could have formulated some of these texts, I can’t help but be impressed with his acumen and his choice of words. Simply reading the texts is a musical experience! I want to perform them, just like when I read a Chopin mazurka off the page, or something similar.

    Admittedly, I don’t know the English translations.

  5. Lisa X

    Where do you draw the line between “a piece” and “not a piece,” in terms of notation?

    I’ve got no line. I tend to prefer situations and people where credit is generously shared over ones where credit is closely guarded. Probably just a matter of taste.

    But as a matter of principal it does seems like a good idea to error on the the side of the workers whenever lost in hopelessly gray area.

  6. pgblu

    Stockhausen was, to put it gently, something of an egomaniac. But what if these pieces had been written by someone more modest? In other words, should our judgment of whether the ‘score’ is the work be based on who takes credit for it?

    We’ve unwittingly made it into more of a legalistic than aesthetic question. And perhaps aesthetic questions as such are passé. But now I’m just yanking your chain.

  7. jbunch

    second thoughts…
    Lisa’s point is not without merit – but it is not an aesthetic question (except in the sense that it is an engagement with the aesthetic apparatus…).

    Related, I remember being told a story about Vinko Globokar refusing to be credited for the New Phonic Art Ensemble participation in a recording of Stockhausen’s Aus Dem Sieben Tagen because of the way Stockhausen sought to “control” the artists’ personal interpretations of his text instructions. This raises a couple questions. On the one hand, how does one square the apparent fact of Stockhausen’s desire for a specific results with the format of the works, which seem to invite a more personal engagement? Should there be a performance practice based on Stockhausen-approved recordings/performer anecdotes? Should we ignore S—‘s own predilections and take the scores at face value? Should we treat the recording Stockhausen supervised as his own interpretations as opposed to the interpretations of the musicians involved (and thus as a separate, particular instantiation of the work, not necessarily attempting to establish an interpretive standard)?

    And as a completely separate matter how do you (personally, in the plural sense) interpret such directions as: “play a vibration in the rhythm of the universe.”?


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