The first time Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen für drei Orchester (Groups for Three Orchestrs, 1955–57) was performed in London – in 1968, at the Royal Festival Hall under the direction of Pierre Boulez – Peter Heyworth of The New York Times was astonished to see the audience thronged with young people of bohemian appearance, surfaced, apparently, from ‘every hippie hole in London.’ The tight, astrakhan-collared coterie that had hitherto represented London’s audience for avant-garde music were reportedly miffed by this invasion of ‘the sort of young people who have been packing the Roy Lichtenstein show at the Tate Gallery,’ the critic wrote.
Fifty years later, Gruppen made a return visit to London, and this time, perhaps fittingly, it came to Tate. In staging it in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, the intention was explicitly to foster links between two audiences: an idea that had first come to Sir Simon Rattle five years ago, visiting the gallery with his artist son. ‘People very happily go to the most avant-garde art exhibitions and get what they can out of it,’ he explained in an interview ahead of the performance. ‘This type of really difficult contemporary music is something that you actually have to seduce people to come to.’
As he took the podium to introduce Gruppen last Saturday, Rattle described it as ‘as much an installation’ as it was a composition. As per the title, it’s scored for three orchestras, made up of members of the London Symphony Orchestra, and three conductors (Rattle, Matthias Pintscher and Duncan Ward). At Tate, each was placed on their own platform, and the audience invited to move around and between them as they played.
It’s a monster of a work, one you experience at an animal level, but beautifully so. Rather than a barrage, the experience is like being suspended within a Calder mobile, or floating deep in the sea: there are eddies, flurries of movements, suggestions of catastrophe, drifts, darts, sparkles and throbs. Moments of quiet feel interstitial rather than still.
Moving through the space between the orchestras offers an intimate relationship with the musicians. You can stand so close that you become intensely aware of the performance of a single individual within the 109-strong throng. At the same time you also become peculiarly sensitive to how much you are missing, how impossible it is to consume this work in its totality. You could revisit it endlessly: it’s a work that rejects a definitive audience experience. I could have gorged on it over and over again.
Audience is the wrong word: we were not just listening. What Gruppen creates is a public. Perhaps uncoincidentally (the Turbine Hall being a prime site for the art of interaction and shared experience) a similar distinction between audience and public has been made in the past by Philippe Parreno. ‘You can find an audience for pretty much anything. A public comes together,’ he explained in an interview with Tom Eccles. ‘When you go to see a movie, you’re always a bit embarrassed by the people in front of you, because you want to chop off their heads in order to read the subtitles. This is the audience. When I go into an exhibition, or a museum, I don’t mind the presence of the other. They are part of it.’
Acoustically, the closest experience I could relate to this staging of Gruppen was Despacio, the ‘perfect’ sound system designed by James Murphy and 2ManyDJs with audio engineer John Klett. Despacio, presented as a sculptural arrangement of seven speaker stacks through which its creators play vinyl-only DJ sets, debuted at Manchester International Festival in 2013. Like Gruppen, the experience is of an incredibly refined, individual relationship with sound. The music is opened out, with each stack revealing its own audio segment, and ‘sweet spots’ positioned around the space.
Similarly, moving between the orchestras of Gruppen brings different elements to the fore: the buzz of muted trombones, reverberations of a gong, disconcerting jangle of an electric guitar. Despacio is not a superficial point of comparison: Igor Stravinsky, in 1959, cited Gruppen as an example of composition influenced by the development of stereophony: ‘When I listen to this sort of music I find myself looking in the direction of the sound, as one does in Cinerama; therefore ‘direction’ seems to me as useful a word as ‘distance’ to describe this effect,’ the composer wrote. ‘But a more profound influence of stereo will come when composers see that they have to construct an independently interesting ‘middle dimension.’’
The performance of a modernist composition in a museum thronged with modernist sculpture made me think, too, of Mark Leckey’s Big Box Statue Action, which he first performed in 2003 with a speaker stack and Jacob Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel (1940–41) at Tate Britain. And I wondered what exchange was occurring unsensed by us, between the sound and the statuary – did the work move the Brancusis? Did it shake the Giacomettis? Were they, too, part of its public?
Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen für drei Orchester (1955–57) and Olivier Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (I Await the Resurrection of the Dead, 1964) were performed by the LSO at Tate Modern, 30 June 2018.
Main image: Sir Simon Rattle conducting Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen für drei Orchester, 1955–57, performed at the Tate Turbine Hall, London, 30 June, 2018. Courtesy: © Doug Peters / PA Wire