The Transistor Radio of St. Narcissus
John Wallace (trumpet)
Andrew Powell (live electronics)
No recording dates/locations supplied
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: February 2003
CD No: DEUX-ELLES DXL 1039
Throughout his career – for some 50 years now – Karlheinz Stockhausen has been at the forefront of electronic music, producing works such as Gesang der Jünglinge and Kontakte which have become classics of a genre in which he was a pioneer in the 1950s. It is therefore somewhat ironic that the Stockhausen piece included on this CD is the only one that does not use electronic sounds of any kind. Michael’s Farewell is the final music of the Thursday opera from the cycle he has been working on since 1977 entitled Licht. It was conceived for open-air performance, to be played as the audience leaves. When the opera was produced at Covent Garden in 1985 (sadly – and disgracefully – the only complete instalment of Licht to have been staged in the UK) this practice had to be abandoned following complaints from the local residents! Five trumpeters placed on rooftops or balconies play phrases – or “limbs”, as the composer prefers to call them – from the theme that represents Michael, the featured character in Donnerstag, sometimes with long pauses in between. On this recording, this is achieved by overdubbing, but it has to be said that, given the original purpose for which it was conceived, it does not make for the most interesting listening as a purely aural experience.
Stockhausen has produced a substantial body of work for trumpet – with and without electronics – composed for his son Markus. Since 1991, however, Stockhausen’s own recordings have not been readily available as he has preferred to distribute them via his publishing company. Interested listeners wanting to explore this repertoire are directed to Stockhausen-Verlag. CD43 of the Stockhausen Edition includes a number of his trumpet compositions.
The remaining pieces on this Deux-Elles disc are all indebted to Stockhausen’s own examples, not surprisingly since the three composers have either studied, assisted or performed with Stockhausen. The Andrew Powell and Tim Souster pieces are most notable for their use of electronic sounds in dialogue – and sometimes in conflict – with the assured and authoritative trumpet playing of John Wallace, producing some fascinating sonorities which must surely be well-nigh impossible to reproduce in a concert, especially as overdubbing and trumpet-sampling are employed.
Plasmogeny II seems to suggest a journey from darkness to light, with some particularly ominous bass sounds. The initial high-pitched cluster-like electronics are striking, but I found the ending less than effective as the music seems to lapse into a style best suited to a late-night news programme rather than a convincing resolution of the musical argument.
The Transistor Radio of St. Narcissus, at 24 minutes, is the longest piece on the CD and whilst there are some gripping moments – not least the menacing electronic sounds which open the piece and, later, some mesmerising echo-effects for the flugelhorn (used here in place of the trumpet) which hint at triadic harmony – the piece does not fully sustain its length.
In Echo III, Roger Smalley explores the device of tape-delay, where the soloist’s music is recorded immediately and played back so that the trumpet engages in counterpoint with itself – an idea first deployed by Stockhausen in Solo, dating from 1966. Smalley’s music is eminently effective and its deployment quite intriguing.
All the works recorded here are supremely well-served by John Wallace who commands a resourceful technique, and an infinite variety of tonguing, to produce sounds one does not associate with the trumpet, such as deep pedal notes. Acoustic and electronic sounds are very well integrated and recorded, and Andrew Powell’s programme notes are helpful and informative.
This CD is well worth exploring by the open-minded (and eared) and the adventurous who might then be prompted to investigate the Stockhausen repertoire previously mentioned.