Karlheinz Stockhausen: the name itself is enough to terrify even the most hardened lover of contemporary music. Stockhausen — the composer who gave the world a piece for four shortwave radios, another for string quartet and four helicopters, and a gigantic cycle of seven full-length operas (not yet finished) based on a book he claims he received from extraterrestrials — is arguably the only living composer who continues the “modern” tradition of writing music intended to insult, offend, and even frighten its audiences. And yet violinist Andrew Jennings and his wife, pianist Gail Jennings, plan to perform a piece by Stockhausen — in fact, a portion of one of the extraterrestrial operas — at their recital on Friday, February 7, at the U-M School of Music.
Not to worry: Stockhausen’s Tierkreis (The Zodiac) is about as scary as oatmeal but not nearly as filling. According to Andrew, “Tierkreis started out life as a set of twelve little pieces [Stockhausen] wrote for music box as a present to his daughter. They are haunting, simple, and have been favorites of mine for a long time.” Stockhausen has made transcriptions of Tierkreis for every conceivable instrument that can play in the treble clef: violin, lute, guitar, harmonica. Perhaps wisely, though, the Jenningses have declined to play the whole ninety-six-minute work. After all, even simple and haunting Stockhausen is still Stockhausen.
They have sweetened the program with two pieces by Sibelius — a charming sonatina and a delectable waltz — plus a lovely transcription of Schubert’s delightful Trockne Blumen (Faded Flowers) Variations. Andrew admits that the Schubert, best known as a work for flute and piano, is not really a transcription: “I am just playing it straight from the flute part. I have heard the piece for so many years played by my daughter that I hardly needed to even look at the music.”
The most virtuosic work on the program is Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s three Myths. A group of astoundingly difficult pieces from 1915, Myths uses nearly every advanced technique available to the violinist — double and triple stops, quarter-tone trills, glissandi, harmonics — to heighten the expressivity of the soaring, passionate melodies and lush, impressionistic harmonies. As a kicker, Andrew will be playing his transcription of Alban Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano. “I fell in love with the piece, and this is just really an experiment,” he says. “I’m not sure if it will work, but the music is so wonderful that I doubt I can do too much damage.”
Nor, one suspects, will even the Stockhausen — haunting, simple Stockhausen — do the audience any damage.