WORCESTER — From three sides of Alden Memorial’s main hall, the brass mutter to each other; a few set anchor on longer notes, but the conversation disintegrates. Douglas Weeks resets the discourse, encourages the players to amplify their dynamics. The next time around, the muttering gives way to fluid waves; the three conductors lock together; brass chords begin to roll back and forth across the hall, keening and deep.
At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Gruppen” is coming together.
It is a week until performance. On Nov. 10, at Mechanics Hall, members of the WPI Orchestra and the Claflin Hill Symphony will give the Worcester premiere of Stockhausen’s modernist tour de force. First performed in 1958, “Gruppen” is a landmark in musical complexity: 109 players are divided into three near-identical orchestras, each with its own conductor, each, more often than not, playing at its own rate.
The score, both briery and sparse, intricate and sweeping, is an exceptional artistic and logistical dare. It is, also, rarely encountered. Sunday’s will be only the third Massachusetts performance of “Gruppen.” New England Conservatory mounted the work’s American premiere, in 1965; the Tanglewood Music Center gave a performance in 1993. WPI might seem an unexpected member of that club — the school doesn’t even offer a music major — but, then again, what better place for such a challenge than an engineering school?
Rehearsing the piece is as much an exercise in project management as it is a musical endeavor. The three conductors — Weeks, a teaching professor, the director of the WPI Orchestra; Samantha McGill, a 2009 WPI graduate and the assistant director of the school’s Concert Band; and Paul Surapine, the founder and director of the Claflin Hill Symphony Orchestra — communicate by microphone. Both players and conductors are tasked with on-the-fly navigation between multiple layers of coordination. As Weeks puts it: “It’s like a war with three generals.”
Weeks is pairing “Gruppen” with the “Academic Festival Overture” of Johannes Brahms — partially as a vehicle for the full WPI orchestra (only about two-thirds of the ensemble is playing in the Stockhausen), partially as a preemptive peace offering to less adventurous audience members, but also as a frame for the presence of “Gruppen.” The semester-long immersion in Stockhausen’s intricacies is an ambitious realization of the educational relationship between technology and creativity. What was initially a bit of a hard sell to the students, according to Weeks — “It’s not a lot of pretty melodies” — has become a project with more-than-usual resonance for an orchestra of mathematicians and engineers.
“It’s not extracurricular,” Weeks says. “It’s a natural fit.”
“Gruppen” is, after all, a supreme piece of musical machinery. The vogue in 1950s avant-garde music was total serialism, the ordered 12-tone row instigated by Schoenberg now being used to control every parameter of a piece: rhythm, dynamics, articulation. But the application of the row tended toward the arithmetic, the results pixelated, pointillistic grids. With “Gruppen,” Stockhausen set out to remake serialism from the ground up.
At the core of “Gruppen” is the realization that the ideas of pitch and duration are merely the product of different time frames, that, as the speed increases, beats per minute turn into cycles per second, and a pulse turns into a tone. Stockhausen decided that the proper rhythmic analogs of serial pitches were not rhythmic values — quarter note, eighth note, sixteenth note — but tempi: The notes of the row had their counterpart not in discrete units of time, but in varying rates of music flow.
Stockhausen derived a fearfully precise, logarithmic scale of tempi — 60 beats per minute, 63.6, 67.4, 71.4, all the way up to 120 — each tempo associated with a chromatic pitch. The pitch determined the tempo, the octave register of each pitch, high or low, and the ratio of each successive interval determined how long the tempo would be in play — and where different tempi enter in temporal counterpoint.
The three-orchestra, three-conductor format was actually the simplest way to realize Stockhausen’s complex weave. In practice, the experience is rather like a higher-dimensional game of telephone: Surapine picks up Weeks’s downbeat, but then takes off at a different speed, producing cues off of which McGill brings in her orchestra at yet another rate. If the tempi are right, the three ensembles will often independently arrive at the same musical signpost. (In rehearsal, these moments turn into minor victories: “We just ended at [rehearsal number] 14?” McGill calls out. “Yup,” Weeks says. “Yup,” Surapine says. Small cheers of triumph ensue.)
But “Gruppen” is not just a game of tessellation. The genesis of the piece echoed 19th-century Romantic obsessions with nature and landscapes. Holed up in a Swiss village, Stockhausen traced the outline of the view of the Alps through his window and used it as a guideline for the work’s overall contour. The organizational structure shifts from deterministic to inspirational: at certain points in the piece, all three orchestras embark, in combination, on non-serial flights, explorations of sounds and ideas that, in Stockhausen’s words, “could not be accommodated by the system” — the expert programmer turning around to become the software’s end user. The construction of “Gruppen” traces a technological process: observation, analysis, application.
The piece makes the leap from theory to praxis expressive. Intensely intellectual on paper, “Gruppen” is intensely physical in performance. The lines of communication — conductor to conductor, conductor to player, player to player — form their own network of body language. The contrast between the three conductors is its own drama: McGill whipping through complex sequences with brisk dexterity; Surapine athletically throwing his whole body into each entrance; Weeks more phlegmatically sweeping the air from beat to beat. The trio spent much of their preparation practicing with recordings, but the piece only started to fall into place at sessions where each would conduct and sing their portion of the score along with the other two. (“I wish someone had recorded it,” McGill says. “We could have sold copies.”)
It would be easy to say that WPI’s is an unlikely performance of “Gruppen,” except that all performances of “Gruppen” are, in a way, unlikely. It is a formidable amount of work for 20 minutes of music (even if those 20 minutes are, as they will be on Sunday’s concert, performed twice). Weeks realized, with some amazement, that he had been preparing for this one piece for almost exactly a year. McGill and Surapine have been practicing their parts for months. The students have been at it since September, the work even spawning a handful of independent study projects. Jeffrey Means, who conducts the Boston new-music group Sound Icon, and who will be lecturing on “Gruppen” as part of the concert, talked his way into the orchestra just to have a chance to play the piece.
Over 50 years later, any presentation of the piece is still an event, a blue-moon confluence of aspiration, effort, and, maybe, just a little bit of madness. Maybe none of the students on Sunday’s concert will go on to musical careers. They can still claim the experience of realizing one of music’s most singular, uncompromising, crazy, sublime set of blueprints. “At their reunion, 50 years from now, what are they going to remember?” Weeks insists. “They’re going to remember that they did ‘Gruppen.’ ”Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.