Photo: Ryan Hartford
“Every now and then, the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash for reasons that nobody really understands at the time and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.” – Hunter S. Thompson
1969 was a watershed year. It was the social and political turning point when we saw the “other side of the mountain” and hope and despair collided. The 1960s didn’t really end until we left Vietnam and Richard Nixon resigned. It was a long slow fall. How you remember the 1960s depends on whether you came of age at the beginning or the end of the decade. Either way the struggles that took place are still with us today. For those who were born in that era it is often colored by a selective rosy nostalgia. The great paradox of the 60s is that despite (or maybe because of) the revolutionary social upheavals and political violence, the assassinations, the war, the urban uprisings, and the elevated aspirations and shattered dreams that accompanied them, it was also a visionary time of enormous creativity and innovation in the arts and sciences. Art mattered. Theater mattered. Literature mattered. Journalism mattered. Music mattered. Not just as entertainment or commerce but as a cultural, political, social and spiritual force. Music was the place where composers and musicians converged across the boundaries of genre, culture, and generation to speak for the present and to the future, to make history and leave a legacy.
This is the theme of 1969, a multimedia concert performance created and developed by Andrew Kupfer, Nigel Maister, and Alan Pierson, the creative directors of Alarm Will Sound, a twenty member music ensemble committed to innovative performances of composers at the forefront of contemporary music from modernist to minimalist, rock ’n roll to electronic and beyond. The idea for 1969 came about when Pierson stumbled upon a story about a proposed concert of Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Beatles as a result of a series of exchanges between John Lennon and the eminent avant-gardist. A meeting was to take place in Lukas Foss’s New York apartment on February 9, 1969. Unfortunately, due to the worst blizzard of the decade Manhattan came to a halt and Lennon never arrived.
Suppose it had come to pass. What would that have been like? What ground would have been broken? What new kinds of music would have emerged from such a collaboration? Alarm Will Sound took that daring step and one further. 1969 brought together not only John Lennon and Karlheinz Stockhausen, but Luciano Berio and Leonard Bernstein in an exhilarating multi-dimensional assemblage of music, words, and images that amplified the structures and ideas of the works at the center – Stockhausen’s Hymnen, Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Unfinished Music, Bernstein’s Mass, Berio’s Sinfonia, and the Beatles Revolution 9. They combined excerpts from these works and others including the Beatles A Day in the Life and Tomorrow Never Knows, Berio’s version of the Beatles Michelle, Jimi Hendrix’s legendary Star-Spangled Banner, Berio’s politically controversial Traces, and Stockhausen’s challenging tonal meditation Stimmung, to produce a symphonic sound work that illuminated the complex relationships and interfaces between composers and musical works of and ahead of their times.
But 1969 is much more than just a great concert. It contextualizes the music with the composers philosophical views about the role music should play in the lives of the listeners at that moment in history and in human experience as a whole. The actors that played Stockhausen, Berio, Lennon, and Bernstein engaged in a frequently passionate debate that was reflective of their own cultural backgrounds and age. Like the musical excerpts, the dialogs were based on material drawn from the writings, interviews, and actual conversations of the four principle players and reassembled into a coherent narrative. Despite their differences they shared the desire to push music in radical new directions in form and content, and in so doing the composers each captured the essence of the era. This was effectively enhanced in the performance by vintage footage of the significant people and events of the era projected continuously onto three large screens. Rather than idealizing the 60s as one big party with images of pop art, girls in miniskirts and white boots, Merry Pranksters and painted VWs, the photos documented the struggles for justice and peace. The now famous and familiar images in various combinations functioned as a visual “score” similar to the way a soundtrack serves to heighten emotions in a film.
It opened with a visual animation of number 9 to the first two verses from the Beatles classic Day in the Life. “I read the news today, oh boy…” along with contrasting images of the moon landing and Nixon, arms aloft in victory, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, martyred in death, the Black Panthers ready and armed, Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Berrigan brothers, and the aforementioned composers along with the Beatles, Yoko Ono, and Igor Stravinsky.
At first glance Lennon and Stockhausen seem an unlikely pair. But putting aside surface appearances we will discover how much they had in common and how the idea of revolution in one form or another lies at the heart of all their work. The German-born Stockhausen proposes a cosmic spiritual revolution with “music that will make people aware of the Whole.” He sees this in idealistic and abstract terms. “What more can a composer do than create musical worlds which realize the divine mission of one united world?” he asked. In Hymnen (Anthem) an electronic and concrete work, composed in 1966–67, and elaborated in 1969 Stockhausen melded national anthems into an entirely new form as an expression of unity, a coming together of diverse histories in a single shared humanity. Universality was to be achieved not through uniformity but an integrated transformation.
Inspired by Indian activist Sri Aurobindo, Stockhausen perceived his creative process as a spiritual mission, while John Lennon’s response expressed his “let it be” counterculture values. “It was a groove,“ he says of meditating eight hours a day during the Beatles Indian sojourn studying transcendental meditation. “The whole world wants to relax more!…We’re going to sell the whole idea of transcendental meditation to everyone. That’s how we’re going to use our power.” But their exposure to Indian music also expanded their musical compositions into new territory. The parallels lie in Stockhausen’s Stimmung (1968) or “tuning” in which six singers vocalize overtones in a range of pitches. The overlapping drone-like repeating patterns result in a deeply meditational experience for listeners and performers alike. The piece also incorporated incantations of erotic poetry and we might easily consider Stimmung to be reflective of the hippie rituals and musical polyphony stretching from the 1967 Summer of Love in Golden Gate Park to Woodstock in the summer of 1969.
But perhaps the most radical aspect of Stockhausen’s legacy was not his cosmic vision but his use of tape recorders as a compositional and musical instrument. This was a major influence on the Beatles as Paul McCartney explained. Inspired by Stockhausen’s “plick plop” piece (Stockhausen’s electronic composition Gesang der Jiinglinge written in 1955-56) McCartney introduced the use of tape loops because he was “sick of doing sounds that people can claim to have heard before, “ and Lennon concurred that he and Paul “are very keen on this electronic music “ Stockhausen’s influence came into realization in Revolution 9, and even further when Lennon and Yoko Ono made Unfinished Music improvising for many hours with two tape recorders and her vocalizations.
Despite Lennon’s ambivalence expressed repeatedly throughout the 1969 production, that he “is bored by politics”, politics and revolution played a major role in his and McCartney’s music as evidenced by both the lyrics of Revolution which became a kind of anthem for a generation in search of an alternative, and in the discordant sonic anarchy of Revolution 9, both released in 1968 on the Beatles “White Album”. Revolution was not about the violent upheaval that became the mindset brought on by desperation at the end of the decade, but rather about achieving a different state of consciousness.
Thus the long-haired British rock idol and the austere German visionary were not that far apart in their creative missions. Both understood that radical form could not be separated from radical content.
Enter Italian composer Luciano Berio who tells us “Art is always an attempt—an experimental attempt—not to create new or difference, but to transform real life.” Berio arrived at Mills College in Oakland, CA to teach in 1962. The college was a hotbed of history-making musical experimentation, in a year of political activism at neighboring U.C. Berkeley. At the same time the nationwide Civil Rights movement brought Berio face-to-face with the politics of race in America. Given the history of art and politics in Italian modernism, it is not surprising that his response was a sense of responsibility as a composer at “so grave and so crucial” an historical moment, to take up the cause. Having been commissioned by the Library of Congress to write a chamber piece for instruments, Berio instead set out to make a grand opera about “the Negro struggles” called Traces featuring a large chorus of black singers. He intended to confront and challenge white audiences. But they never got to see the work as it was deemed to be too shocking, profane even. Which of course is another way of saying too politically provocative, incendiary. Thus it remained buried in the archives of the Library until the 21st century.
Berio’s revolutionary spirit remained undaunted and he went on to compose Sinfonia commissioned by Leonard Bernstein for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic in 1968. The final 1970 version can be recognized today as a seminal postmodern work, and in many ways the model for Alarm Will Sound’s 1969. In Sinfonia , a symphony in five movements, Berio quotes, appropriates, samples and intercuts the entire panoply of modernist music – Debussy, Ravel, Mahler, Stravinsky, Schonberg, Stockhausen, Berlioz, Berg, and Boulez, including his own 1968 O King dedicated to Martin Luther King, then remixes and rearranges the pieces from one movement to another. Also mixed into this sonic montage were fragmented texts drawn from Samuel Becket, James Joyce, Claude Lev-Strauss and others.
“A revolution is interesting insofar as it avoids like the plague the plague it promised to heal.” Daniel Berrigan
By the second act of 1969 it has become clear that the structure of the concert performance mirrors the content. We have also arrived at the turning point marked by a live rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner. As it ends with a mixture of static, feedback and an explosion Lennon asks, “I want to know what you’re going to do after you’ve knocked it all down?” To which Stockhausen replies, “Every revolution is destructive. You must destroy something to do something new,” He turns on a reel-to-reel tape deck playing a short section of Hymnen as an answer.
For an emotional Leonard Bernstein, as a politically liberal American artist this was not sufficient to meet the crises at hand. “We, you, I, every one of us, must rouse himself from his numbness, and make change happen. Anything else is simply irrational, because it is suicidal.“ How is he to resolve the opposing forces of tearing it all down and coming together? His answer was Mass created for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC as a direct response to the Nixon administration and its policies. Ironically commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy, Mass was the ultimate affront, both artistically and politically. As a coalition of musical forms that ranged from rock, gospel, folk, and jazz along with 12-tone serialism, a full symphonic orchestra, solemn hymns, and chorales including Street Singers and a Boys Choir, it represented the diversity of American society and culture and its divisions, not only then but even more so today. With a cast spanning a spectrum of race, class, and gender, it visually reflected the protesting masses in the streets. As an extravagent theatrical spectacle it questioned the necessity of God, challenged the authority of the Church, offended the Establishment and those in power, and was declared dangerous by the FBI. Nixon did not attend the opening. The critics hated it.
In the last section of 1969 the critical derision of their works was interspersed with the composers’ explanations and justifications of their Utopian ideals. The mockery didn’t defeat them. They continued to debate, to question, to search for answers and to believe in the power of music. The piece concluded with their philosophical musings.
It is worth remembering that in the late 1960s these composers all had international recognition, but they did not rest on their successes nor squander their influence. Instead they took risks, asked probing questions in search of answers. They are all dead now but their work lives on, as does their message. Alarm Will Sound’s 1969 embodies that message and that spirit and brings it into the present, reasserting the independent life and value of an artwork beyond and separate from its maker. In consideration of our current national crises, 1969 is an especially illuminating and relevant work. The complex layers of sounds, words and images create a conversation and a debate about values and meaning. About artistic integrity, about social consciousness, about having the moral courage to stand for something bigger than yourself, about not giving up. It demands that we pay close attention and listen carefully. It reminds us that history matters, and that we need to revisit it over and over in order to understand the present, and change it for the better. It offers us hope.
“If music could stop wars and lower the price of bread, we wouldn’t need it anymore. But since we live and die in a world where people buy bread, make wars and music, we must continue asking ourselves about music and the price of bread. “ – Luciano Berio
“If the Beatles or the Sixties had a message, it was to learn to swim. Just swim, period. Anywhere. In any sort of music. You make your own dream. And once you learn to swim, swim.”- John Lennon
“You know, the whole cosmos explodes, and contracts, and explodes. It breathes.”-Karlheinz Stockhausen
Alarm Will Sound / Andrew Kupfer, Nigel Maister, Alan Pierson — 1969
Center for the Art of Performance UCLA
Saturday, January 27, 2018