In 1906, Wilhelm Ostwald, future Nobel laureate in chemistry, visited Harvard to give the Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality. Ostwald located a kind of immortality in scientific concepts; “the least individualized things, like mass and energy, are the most durable ones,” he said. By contrast, “The most individualized thing imaginable is the present moment: It is quite unique and will never return.”
At the time, Ostwald was already turning from chemistry toward philosophical speculations: monism, universal languages, a theory of color. Karlheinz Stockhausen put Ostwald’s color wheel on the cover of his 2005-06 piano cycle, “Natürliche Dauern” (“Natural Durations”), the “third hour” of his larger cycle “Klang” (“Sound”), the 24 hues matched to the 24 pitches of the tone row at the cycle’s core. But in Nino Jvania’s performance on Monday — part of this year’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice, and the first US rendition of the entire piece — Ostwald’s ruminations on immortality seemed the better foil: “Natürliche Dauern” is balanced between striking individual moments and gradual, energetic mass.
Instead of a clock-specific rhythmic grid, Stockhausen utilized “natural durations”: the time it takes a piano sonority to fade, the hands to jump across the keyboard, or the pianist to inhale and exhale. The beginning was sparse, notes and chords sharply struck only to slowly fade. Over two-plus hours and 24 movements, activity and density gradually accumulated — the difference between the way individual sounds hang and turn in the air, and the glint or gravity of their aggregation.
The score demands kaleidoscopic technique and stamina. A gnomic, meticulous mosaic of three-note cells turned into tumbling cascades of sharp whispers. A monumental, ecstatic litany — Jvania donning gloves for surging glissandi — was followed by a quicksilver etude, tremolos, and sharp accents. Beguiling effects turn up: for one movement, Jvania played fast, repeated figures with bells on her fingers, kinesthetics transformed into jingling counterpoint; another combined tolling chords with the sound of struck Japanese meditation bowls. Jvania’s performance was consistently compelling, an ideal combination of precise touch, choreographic flair, and calm, keen concentration.
Stockhausen envisioned “Klang” as a 24-part cycle, a different work representing each hour of the day. He only made it to the 21st hour before his death in 2007. Is that why the finale of “Natürliche Dauern” seems so poignant? One by one, individual moments from throughout the cycle return, as if to give them another chance to transcend how things “die out asymptotically into imperceptibility,” as Ostwald put it. Music inherently, inevitably fades; but the decay can be a song in itself.