Man listening to God, Gregory O’Brien

Gregory O’Brien follows the comet-like trajectory of Karlheinz Stockhausen through the sky above Dannevirke.

Early last December, I was up a ladder at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery overseeing the installation of a vast sculptural work by Elizabeth Thomson. This was Flight Test – 3000 zinc leaves individually attached to the gallery wall, arranged in diagonal rows so the perspective resembles that from an aeroplane as it approaches or takes off from a runway. In the midst of proceedings, a gallery employee passed up to me a piece of yellow paper, upon which were written three words only: STOCKHAUSEN IS DEAD

With the vertiginous Flight Test unfolding before me, this seemed a strangely apposite situation in which to hear of the death of the German avant-gardist/composer/visionary. The leaves, with long aisles of whiteness between them, resembled an orchard stretching upwards to touch the nothingness/everythingness beyond. Knowing I was writing something about him for New Zealand Books, Stockhausen’s biographer, the New Zealand-born musicologist and writer Robin Maconie, had phoned the gallery and left the message.

Within hours of Stockhausen’s death, the composer’s official website (www.stockhausen.org) was buzzing with valedictions, his closest acolytes bidding him farewell and saluting a life’s mission “to bring celestial music to humans, and human music to the celestial beings, so that Man may listen to GOD and GOD may hear His children”. Indications were that some less than clear (although obviously heartfelt) thinking would be accompanying the composer heavenwards. Striking a more persuasive note a few days later, the Times obituary concluded that Stockhausen’s oeuvre, while not exactly fashionable, “must be the most fertile in ideas, if not of perfectly achieved works, of any composer of the 20th century”. We’ll have to wait for the dust to settle to see about that.

Central to any future evaluation of Stockhausen’s standing, Maconie’s biographical survey Other Planets (2005) presents the composer’s life as a broad landscape instead of a narrow stream. Rather than typecasting Stockhausen as a space-traveller on a singular trajectory towards a distant cosmos, Maconie offers us a figure shaped, directly and indirectly, by a vast array of influences: historical, political, philosophical and musicological. The pattern that emerges from Maconie’s book makes me think, again, of Elizabeth Thomson’s Flight Test, with its myriad associations across different disciplines – physics, optics, acoustic science, horticulture and Eastern thought – and its sheer nerve.

Around the same time Maconie was writing Other Planets (his third book on Stockhausen), he was also taking a far more general look at the Western musical tradition in a very different book – one that sits almost midway between Other Planets and a personal anthology like Grant Smithies’ annotated hit-list, Soundtracks (2007). Motivated by “a lifelong ambition to restore intelligent conversation to classical music through a transfusion of ideas from the familiar worlds of design, architecture, computing, fashion, the movies, and favourite TV shows”, Maconie’s The Way of Music (2007) is a guide to listening which seeks to energise its readers as well as illuminate its subject. Maconie has described the book as a “paper website”, offering – somewhat forebodingly, I think – “aural training for the internet generation”.

The book’s form is unusual. He begins with a series of 101 aphorisms about a dog barking. Next, he links each of these to a wide range of topics relating to the musical production and the process of listening. As the book’s preface states, he wants to aid “attention recovery, aural comprehension, and higher reasoning, while at the same time awakening self-confidence and appreciation of traditional musical cultures, through a repertoire of programmed exercises in critical thinking and listening.”

The longest section of the book, ‘Sound Bites’, is a pithy, intelligent ramble through 101 musical samples. Beyond the world of Stockhausen and the 20th century avant-garde, Maconie is at least as good when writing about popular music. So the surfer of this “paper website” glides from Handel’s Water Music to the Star Wars theme to Gertrude Stein reading a poem to a Scott Joplin rag.

Frequently branching out beyond the world of music, the author explores adjacent cultural terrain and finds terms of reference all over the show. As well as being incisive, he is often witty: “The grand organ and the symphony orchestra are the sumo wrestlers of classical music, so any work combining the two is likely to turn into a contest of strength.” Elsewhere Maconie notes that “music is about information management”, then offers, in Zen haiku mode:

A musical instrument
is a storage device.

 

The book will, I have no doubt, prove as interesting and relevant to writers and visual artists as to musicians. Discussing a 16th century choral work by Thomas Tallis, Maconie notes:

The vowel sounds express the emotion of the song, while the consonants deliver the meaning …. vowel tones are purer, stronger, and more coherent signals in the mid-frequency range, whereas consonants are noises having only the power of a whisper.

 

That would be a useful line of thinking to introduce to a poetry workshop. Later, Maconie draws our attention to the fact that “punctuation marks are a form of musical notation, since they direct the rise and fall and also the timing of a reader’s voice.”

Beyond such specifics of sound production, he presents an all-encompassing notion of creativity – the function of art being, he states, “to convey a sense of exceeding the bounds of reality”. That was certainly an end Stockhausen had in mind, as did Beethoven.

There is something very reassuring about hearing this kind of talk coming our way from the provincial hinterland of Dannevirke, where Robin Maconie has been living since his permanent return to New Zealand in 2002. It reminds me of the triumphal period of the provincial New Zealand avant-garde when Janet Frame was ensconced in Stratford or Levin, dreaming and writing the Maniototo or the Carpathians into existence.

It is an interesting and varied road that brought Maconie back to New Zealand. In the late 1950s he studied under Don McKenzie and Frederick Page at Victoria University. (The Way of Music is dedicated to Page; his earlier The Second Sense: Language, Music, and Hearing is dedicated to John Mansfield Thomson, for whom he worked during the initial stages of the journal Early Music.) While studying in Paris with Olivier Messiaen in the 1960s, Maconie gave the French composer some recordings of native New Zealand birds, which led to the songs of bellbirds, tui and kakapo being incorporated into Messiaen’s later works. As a composer himself, Maconie produced the soundtrack for Tony Williams’ 1962 short feature, The Sound of Seeing and, four years later, provided electronic music for an hour-long radio adaptation of Graham Billing’s Forbush and the Penguins. (Lately, he has collaborated with Les Cleveland on a cycle of folksongs – yet to be performed. He also continues to write verse for children.)

Maconie crops up in Landfall 78, where he contributed (at Charles Brasch’s behest) an essay on experimental music in Europe. This was around the time Maconie became embroiled in a spat with Douglas Lilburn, whose electronic composition The Return he had criticised harshly, but not unreasonably, in the journal Third Stream. (Philip Norman provides a lively account of this altercation in his landmark biography of Lilburn.) Maconie subsequently spent time as music writer for The Times Literary Supplement and The Daily Telegraph. As well as lecturing in Auckland, he has held teaching appointments in Oxford, London and at the Savannah College of Art and Design in the USA.

With the town of Dannevirke now functioning as an unofficial centre for Stockhausen studies (and Maconie has been particularly in demand since the composer’s death), provincialism and cosmopolitanism could be seen to have reached a new and surprising realignment. Janet Frame would enjoy this – as she would the fact that three years after the appearance of Maconie’s book The Second Sense, a covers band of precisely that name was formed and is currently gigging around Waikato and the Bay of Plenty.

A few years back, Maconie gave a lecture at the City Gallery in Wellington, largely based on his The Science of Music (1997). Fortuitously, the podium was set up directly in front of one of Colin McCahon’s late word-paintings, Is there anything of which one can say, Look, this is New? (1982). Maconie had known the painter back in the 1960s; he even has a walk-on part in Gordon H Brown’s biography. Letters between Maconie and McCahon reflect a shared anxiety concerning the problem of communicating ideas of genuine artistic value and integrity to the general public.

That problem has been constantly addressed by Maconie throughout his writing life. As he delivered his lecture in front of McCahon’s musical/visual/verbal score, it struck me that Maconie’s function was that of a conductor – not just in the orchestral but in the electrical sense. He was a conveyor and regulator of the flow of ideas and energy. His commentary was remarkably attuned not only to the physical presence of the canvas, but also to its otherworldly harmonies – an abrasive yet somehow numinous quality you also find in Stockhausen. Like McCahon, Maconie – as writer as well as speaker – is an immensely practical, at times demanding, yet persuasive guide to both the world around us and the “other planets” contained therein.

 

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