Das reboot: At Issue Project Room, an important pioneer of contemporary digital music gets his due

Joe Drew. (via Issue Project Room.)
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Confronted on Friday night with a group of approximately 200 people who surrounded him, clapping with grateful abandon inside Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room, Joe Drew looked a little sheepish.

“I didn’t do anything,” he said, gesturing humbly toward the computer in front of him.

The crowd laughed, but continued applauding anyway.

The truth is, Drew really had done something. Strictly speaking, the foregoing half-hour had merely been a matter of his hitting the “play” button on a computer program, and then ever-so-gently tweaking the eight channels of sound on an attached mixing board. The speaker system, distributed around the walls of the small, experimental club, did the rest of the work—surrounding both the audience and Drew himself with a tumult of complex sounds that never once descended into undifferentiated noise.

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But without Drew’s human administration of that digital program, New York wouldn’t have had its first taste of “Cosmic Pulses,” either—the final electronic piece completed by Karlheinz Stockhausen before his death in 2007.

In his final decades, Stockhausen’s own public performances mostly amounted to what he called the “projecting” of his multichannel electronic pieces (often mixed with live instrumentation, as in the majority of his seven-opera Licht cycle). The need to reproduce this music with this specific technology, in addition to the composer’s sundry other quirks, has meant that Stockhausen’s late music has had difficulty asserting itself in contemporary music’s repertory.

The New York Philharmonic seems to plan one giant modernist coup per year, of late; to end the current season, next June, they’ll play “Gruppen,” Stockhausen’s piece for three orchestras (which play at once, on the orders of three different conductors). But as mouth-watering a prospect as that remains, it’s still early Stockhausen: A piece from 1957 that shows up in music theory textbooks. While the composer fell from fashion starting in the '80s, he never stopped pushing himself in new directions, even when that meant slipping further and further from the classical tradition. All of that late music has been late in coming to New York.

Few pieces of contemporary music are named so succinctly and transparently as “Cosmic Pulses.” It deals out more bumps and breaks than even the most frenetic temples of modern techno might manage in the same amount of time. That’s because the piece is, in reality, 24 individually composed pieces for synthesizer playing on top of each other, simultaneously, at differing tempi that are pushed and pulled in sequence. (“The loops were enlivened by manual regulation of the accelerandi and ritardandi around the respective tempo, and by quite narrow glissandi updwards and downwards around the original melodies,” Stockhausen wrote in his notes. Basically: the thing is kinetic as all hell.) Despite what sounds like a recipe for mania, the piece carries a feeling of exploratory calm—the way passing galaxies might look from the reclined position of an astronaut’s ergonomic chair.

A proper surround-sound listen to a work like “Cosmic Pulses” also reminds you how important its composer has been to electronic music on the whole during that time, classical tradition be damned. The restless quavering of pitches you might find on a 12” single by Lone seems impossible without late Stockhausen, just as Freiland Klaviermusik, the 2010 album by Kompakt Records founder Wolfgang Voigt, resembles a “Klavierstück” re-imagined for the dance floor. The critic sitting next to me reported, afterward, a consistent adagio feeling in the piece’s aggregate groove, while I said I’d been particularly taken with a hyped-up polka rhythm in the speaker closest to us. “Cosmic Pulses” is the rare kind of piece that can do a jig while slow-dancing the listener. And I’d have gladly heard it again, straight away, from another position in the room. (“If it is possible to hear everything, I do not yet know,” Stockhausen wrote after completing the work.)

Though it was the obvious highlight of the evening, “Cosmic Pulses” was not the only piece on the bill; Drew also played a brief solo for trumpet, derived from one of the Licht operas, in addition to projecting another earlier electronic work by Stockhausen, “Telemusic.” This “short but very dense” program was another in a series of smart programming moves from Zach Layton and Nick Hallett, whose “Essential Repertoire Festival” has given the concert-going calendar in December a kick in the ass these last two years running. As preparations begin for Issue Project Room’s move to its more convenient (and presumably deluxe) accommodations at 110 Livingston, in downtown Brooklyn, early next year, here’s hoping that the vision of the venue’s “Essential Repertoire” team also gets an upgrade, by way of being recognized and emulated in the halls of New York’s other modern music institutions.