Londonist is working with Sound and Music, the national agency for new music, to introduce you to some intriguingly creative events.
In early October we sent some adventurous Londonist readers to experience London Sinfonietta’s performance of Stockhausen’s Gruppen, a post-war composition that requires three orchestras with their own conductors to play at the same time. None of our volunteers were familiar with the piece or had seen London Sinfonietta before, so we arranged for them to meet someone in the know to give them an introduction to the music: Aaron Holloway-Nahum – composer, conductor, teacher and musician, currently working on a new composition with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The evening’s programme was top and tailed by performances of Gruppen – yes, they did it twice. Here’s what our volunteers thought.
How did you feel before the performance – what did you expect?
Isadora: I had no idea what to expect. I did think possibly that the music may be a bit grating if it was modern but even if I didn’t like it I would still stick it out! Also, from the description I expected it to be like a Dolby Surround Sound system.
Michelle: I knew nothing about it. I just fancied trying something new.
Elisabetta: I’d never heard of Stockhausen so it was completely unknown to me. This is not the sort of thing I would choose to see under ordinary circumstances, due to my suspicions of “contemporary” stuff.
Oliver: I felt very excited, the idea of three orchestras playing in harmony was something that (I thought) could only be beautiful.
Nex: I knew Stockhausen was one of the big names in music of last century. I had a teacher, also a composer, who was a big supporter of his music so I was very excited about having this opportunity. Although I didn’t want to know anything about the piece before the concert.
Navin: I got to my local tube station only knowing that there would be three conductors, conducting three orchestras. My mind boggled thinking how that would work. Would they play together or take it in turns? I had no idea!
How did the performance make you feel? What did you make of it?
Elisabetta: I kept thinking it would be very suitable as a Hitchcock soundtrack. It had that subtle quality of being there and not there, almost, and constantly changing. As it went on and reached the end I saw it better suited to a James Bond movie. The horseshoe of orchestras was awesome. I had never experienced the surround stereo effect without amps and other stuff that you plug into an electric socket. This was being created by a bunch of people, directly as I was listening, watching and sitting right in the middle of it. All through the performance I was trying to chase the music, trying to figure out where the next note would come from, and regularly being surprised ‘cos it came from the “wrong” place. I really can’t tell you how exciting that was!
Nex: The first half confused me a lot. I spent more time thinking than really enjoying it. The spatial approach of the piece was really interesting. It was like watching a Kandinsky without having a clue what it’s about. I did enjoy the second half of the concert more after chatting a bit with the specialist and reading the explanation in the program.
Navin: It started gently with the orchestras exchanging notes between them. As soon as your eyes looked to one orchestra, another would start playing as a single musical process passed from one orchestra to another. It was like watching the tennis, eyes darting back and forth. The spatial separation allowed the three orchestras to play simultaneously yet musically separate and different from each other. It was almost as if there was an abstract dialogue going on between them. Unlike the theatre where generally it is best to sit as close to the stage as possible, being sat in the middle of the stalls really enabled you to appreciate the spatial composition. Having the three orchestras positioned as they were gave the impression that you were listening to the best 3.1 surround sound system with the bass coming from all directions too.
Oliver: The performance was very dark. I was surprised as to how little melody there was in the pieces played. Although it was a very interesting to listen to in the long run, as patterns started to arise within the chaos of the three orchestras. Once I listened to the performance a second time, the music seemed to make more sense as more and more patterns started to emerge.
Michelle: The first time round I was a little bit bored. I wasn’t able to disconnect from my brain, thinking about tempos and clever things that I didn’t understand, trying to work out what I was listening to, trying to intellectualise about it so that I didn’t seem silly for not really ‘getting’ it. So I wasn’t able to really enjoy it. Saying that, there were euphoric moments that I was able to disconnect, crescendos of 100 instruments playing at once, sounds swarming across the room chasing sounds. There were moments that I didn’t want to end. At half time I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back. The second half was a repeat of the Gruppen. Gruppen, take two. It’s a lot of work for just one performance so they do two. The second time I really enjoyed it. Like an Alfred Hitchcock soundtrack on acid. Even the less ‘spectacle-crashy-loud-swarmy’ parts (technical term) were more enjoyable second time round.
Isadora: On the first listen to Gruppen I did find it disjointed but in a very positive way. It sounded more like the music underlying tense dark scenes, many different scenes with no obvious conclusion or relief but cinematic in quality and it really gave my imagination a work out. It was exciting to watch and listen to the speed especially to the way the orchestras moved the music around the room. You could see this visually with the orchestra setup and audibly it was similar to throwing a ball (the music) up in the air in and throwing it around the room. On the second listen I began to hear an actual connection between the pieces which did surprise me as I had not noticed it on the first listen. I really enjoyed the performance. I felt opened up to a whole new musical experience and it was not a bit how I imagined earlier.
Was it accessible? Did you need specialist knowledge to enjoy it?
Elisabetta: Gruppen was very accessible, nothing required to enjoy it except a pair of ears. I enjoy music (the arts in general) when they move something in me and make my skin tingle, and during this my skin was crawling. It was electrifying! Aaron was very good. He gave a bit of history behind the artists and suggested other things to try if we liked something. The way he talked about Stockhausen made me think he was the pop musician of his genre, always coming up with some stunt to draw people in.
Michelle: We had the opportunity to speak with the lovely Aaron, also a composer, who filled us in a bit about the piece. Like the fact that there will be three orchestras all playing at the same time, and that it took Stockhausen three years to write, and that he works in funny times (Aaron explained some numbers and tempo’s and things to us that sounded very clever and very complicated). He also mentioned we’d likely not even notice it. It all sounded very exciting and clever.
Isadora: It was very accessible but it really helped to have Aaron there as he was incredibly insightful and very generous with his time and knowledge.
Oliver: I wouldn’t say this performance was easily accessible, and if I had known, I would have done much more research before going.
Would you recommend the experience to your friends?
Michelle: Yes. But only to certain open minded people. People that are prepared to work a little for the experience.
Isadora: Without a doubt I have already!
Elisabetta: Yes. It was stunning.
Oliver: I would recommend going, as it has opened my eyes… and shows that there can be beauty in any music, even when it is seemingly chaotic.
Nex: I will talk about it and maybe recommend to any who are willing to try.
Navin: Hearing and seeing this performance was a great experience. Although it’s not one I would go back to see again in a hurry, it is still something I would highly recommend to friends and family as a first time experience.
Would you try other London Sinfonietta events?
Isadora: I am hoping to book tickets for Hass: In Vain as Aaron recommended it and shall bring some friends.
Nex: I would like to try other similar experiences. Maybe with the Sinfonietta.
Oliver: I would definitely go to other London Sinfonietta events, as they are a very accomplished and talented group of musicians, although I would want to do a lot of research into the music before buying any tickets.
Michelle: Yes. And look forward to.
Have a look at more feedback to Gruppen in this Storify.
Many thanks to Isadora, Michelle, Nex, Oliver, Elisabetta and Navin.
Interested in more events like these? Browse listings in The Sampler.