a dream
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by Simon King



The Arditti Quartet had assembled together. The distinguished ensemble were led by a British violinist, an Australian second violinist, an Irish viola player and a Sri Lankan cellist. The ensemble was renowned for their virtuosic renditions of post-war chamber music. This time they had been commissioned to perform a piece by one of the icons of musical modernism, Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Any piece by Stockhausen waded through new territory – unexcepted avant-gardism was to be expected. Stockhausen had restlessly been producing pieces which attempted to explore new ideas, new sonorities and new structures. This had been Stockhausen’s shtick for over fifty years. Pierre Boulez – his colleague in the fifties – had become a respectable conductor of the whole classical canon. Boulez, once an irascible avant-gardist, had now become a man of the establishment. Meanwhile, Stockhausen kept producing new and unusual pieces which both baffled and fascinated audiences. Whilst Boulez had become deeply connected with society – even receiving large grants from Francois Mitterrand’s government – Stockhausen had retreated from the world in a manner that seemed hermetic and even solipsistic. He claimed that he was born on the star Sirius.

So any piece by Stockhausen would be unusual and difficult to realise. The first violinist, Irvine Arditti, was informed via fax and found it surprising and highly comical. They would perform a ‘Helicopter String Quartet.’ Each violinist would instal himself in a helicopter, the helicopter would rise and they would perform the piece.

Stockhausen had effusively told them that he had a dream about it and it he felt compelled to realise his dream. Stockhausen often dreamt of musical scores in his head. This time, he dreamed about a string quartet performed in helicopters and felt that he must make his peculiar dream come to reality.

The quartet were about to walk out onto the runway. They had been rehearsing under the supervision of Stockhausen for months and months. The rehearsals had assiduous and exhausting. They had been training vocal sounds as well as the highly intricate and complex music.

‘There are many variables,’ said Graeme Jennings, the second violinist. He sported a blue shirt. Stockhausen decided to make them wear shirts based on the colours that the score was written in. ‘We are aware of this. There are variables in any performance, which makes each performance of a piece of music distinctive. The acoustics of the room, the audience and even the mood of the performers that day all play a factor. This time, it is an aerial performance – the first aerial performance in history. We will be discombobulated up there in those helicopters.’

‘I really cannot wait to see my dream… realised,’ Stockhausen gushed. He wore a white shirt, a white sweater and white jeans. ‘This is my first string quartet… I have tried to avoid all of those outmoded 18th century forms – the string quartet, the symphony, piano concerto, violin concerto, piano sonata, etc. I have always tried to use unusual arrangements, but this really is not a traditional string quartet – it is performed in helicopters.’ Stockhausen laughed.

‘In all my time performing in music, this will probably one of the greatest challenges,’ Irvine Arditti said, the first violinist and leader and founder of the Arditti Quartet. He wore a red shirt. ‘I have performed some tricky pieces… Iannis Xenakis, Elliott Carter, Gyorgy Ligeti… Becoming a world-class violinist in the first place was exceedingly hard. But this time we are performing a complex composition… on helicopters.’

‘I think that Karlheinz has always tried to implement real sounds into his music,’ said Garth Knox, the viola player. He wore a yellow shirt.

‘That is correct… I lived through the Second World War…’ Stockhausen replied. ‘And as I heard the bombing, the planes, collapsing buildings, the raids… I always wanted to recreate those sounds in music and in the electronic studio.’

‘Off we go, then,’ said Rohan de Saram, the cellist. He wore an orange shirt.

The performers mounted the helicopters and proceeded to perform their histrionics. The purpose of the music was to follow the sound of the rotor blades as closely as possible. Once the rotor blades began to whirr, the instruments started to emulate them. A camera was placed on the top of the helicopter, which recorded the performing musicians. It was a tricky operation, as three individuals boarded the helicopter. The pilot, of course, sat at the front. The musician sat in the middle of the vehicle. This could be cumbersome, as there wasn’t sufficient room to turn the sheets of the score and it was difficult to move the bow without hammering the window. The sound engineer was cradled at the back of the helicopter, where he fiddled with an array of wires and recording equipment.

The helicopters flew close to each other and zig-zagged each other. The instruments continued to imitate the sounds of the rotors. The helicopters were still flying high up in the air and the violins imitated the rotor with frenetic speed. The string players played a ‘tremolo’ effect – in other words, it created a trembling effect by rapidly moving the bow back and forth over the same chord. It really did sound like the rotor.

As they did this, each player shouted, in a comical and high-pitched voice. The first violinist shouted ‘Eiiiin,’ the second violinist shouted ‘Zweiiii,’ the viola player shouted ‘Dreiii,’ and the cellist shouted ‘Vieer.’ They had head sets on as they did this. 

The helicopters started to attempt to land. As the rotor blades began to decelerate, the string quartet gradually slow down and the dynamics softened. The helicopters began to drop as the strings went quieter and quieter and slower and slower. Once the helicopters landed, the strings emulated the diminishing rotor blade.

Once the performers disembarked the vehicles, Stockhausen dashed over to the run-way. Usually taciturn and aloof, this time he jumped up and down with glee. He hugged the members of the quartet. Music had become aerial and it had become flex-winged. Months of rehearsals and preparations had led to this unique and unusual moment – the first aerial performance.




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