Lockdown Tape #35

Lockdown Tape #35 features Karlheinz Stockhausen's SOLO for Melody Instrument with Feedback.


Melvyn Poore explains, why he chose this piece:

As a student at the University of Birmingham, England in the early 1970s, I rapidly discovered what we then called ‘contemporary’ music: Webern, Cage, Stockhausen, Boulez, Feldman, Partch, Varèse and many more. I was particularly interested in finding pieces to perform on the tuba - it was, after all, the only instrument I could play with any skill - and was looking for ways of freeing it from the burden of being the bass instrument. I was not interested in “shovelling minims”, as John Fletcher described much of his job as tubist with the London Symphony Orchestra. I wanted to play the instrument like a trumpet or a violin, I wanted to modify it - physically and electronically - so that it stopped sounding like a tuba!

With this in mind, I came across Stockhausen’s SOLO for Melody Instrument with Feedback. The piece is based on a tape-delay system, as we know and love from the works of Terry Riley (Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band), Steve Reich (It’s Gonna Rain, Come Out), James Tenney (Saxony, et al.) and many other composers of the period. In this configuration of two tape recorders, a microphone signal is recorded on one tape recorder, the sound then being transported (on the tape) to a second tape recorder where it is read from the tape and sent to loudspeakers. Often the signal would be sent back (this time via a cable connection) to the first tape recorder to be re-recorded: this is the origin of the feedback which Stockhausen mentions in the title, not to be confused with the howling feedback which occurs when the microphone gets too close to the loudspeaker. The duration of the delay is determined by both the distance the tape has to travel between the two tape recorders and the speed of the tape. In this way, a single performer can build multiple layers of material and play for extended periods of time.

In 1976 as part of my Masters programme, I was able to play a recital on my tuba. I wanted to perform Stockhausen’s SOLO and I had obtained a small grant of fifty pounds from the University to build the feedback system to enable a performance of the work. Stockhausen wanted more than a simple delay system and thought up a much more complex way of using tape-delay structures which fitted to his compositional technique. This involved having six different playback heads all reading from one tape which is transported by a single tape recorder. In addition, three assistants are required, to operate the various faders controlling the signal paths. What was fascinating for me at the time was that Stockhausen intended his system for live performance.

The mechanical problems involved in such a system are enormous and no-one managed to solve them before digital technology came along. I remember that my delay system sounded ghastly - lots of wow and flutter generated by a tape recorder which was under massive stress - but I quickly came to understand Stockhausen’s aims and problems: it was not possible to construct a mechanical system which would realise his wishes in an artistically satisfying way.

Later, at Salford College of Technology, I researched the use of digital technology for musical performance purposes. It occurred to me that a digital system would be perfect for a realisation of SOLO: not only would the complete catalogue of analogue aches and pains disappear, but also the quality of sound would be vastly improved by keeping all signals on a digital level. At the time, I could not get my hands on sufficient resources to realise this and had to wait until 1993, when I had a residency at the Institut für Musik und Akustik, ZKM, Karlsruhe where I was able to work with an IRCAM Signal Processing Workstation (ISPW) and the software Max for the first time. This was a fully digital system, implemented on a hardware basis which was available on the open market - provided you could come up with lots of pocket money...

The ISPW was a revelation and I was soon trying out my version of SOLO. I still needed to have one assistant, but it was possible to programme almost everything that Stockhausen wrote in the score and make a musically satisfying result. There were, however, still some aspects with which I was not happy.

I only had to wait a little longer before Max (later re-christened max-msp) was transported to the Macintosh computer and I was finally able to afford one myself and work on projects from home. I integrated the piece into solo tuba recitals and was able to play it without assistants, the computer taking care of everything. I offered it to my colleagues at Ensemble Musikfabrik and we performed a version for violin in my Montagskonzert on September 30, 2013.

Recently, I began thinking that, after all the work I have put into realising SOLO, I should at least have one recording out there. Well, here it is.

Melvyn Poore, May 2020