DRURY DUTY: "The hardest thing is really to follow his suggestions very specifically," says Stephen Drury.
There's a page in the "score" of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Aus den Sieben Tagen ["From the Seven Days"], one of the famously obtuse German composer's weirdest creations, where the ensemble is instructed to "play a sound with the certainty that you have an infinite amount of time and space." In a later section, he directs musicians to "play a vibration in the rhythm of the universe." The score has no staff, no notes, no compositional absolutes.
This weekend, the renegades of Boston's Callithumpian Consort team with New England Conservatory's [nec]shivaree ensemble to essay Aus den Sieben Tagen in a marathon performance at NEC's Brown Hall. The Consort has made a name for itself performing and recording pieces by big names in new music (Iannis Xenakis, Steve Reich, John Zorn), but taking on Sieben Tagen promises to be a new kind of challenge.
I meet Stephen Drury, NEC prof and the nominal leader in this endeavor, at a coffee shop outside Harvard Square a day after the group's first rehearsals. This will be the Consort's last year in fly-by-night mode — next year it'll be planning a formal concert series well ahead of time, working on programming themes, and even printing brochures.
"This just seems like a good way to have that last, loosely structured blowout for a while," says Drury — and loose it shall be. Audience members will be free to come and go throughout the performance, which will start at 3 pm and will likely run at least six hours.
Drury is having his way with the 15 "text compositions" that make up Sieben Tagen. "Clearly, there are some pieces that we won't be doing. The one where people have to fast for four days: no. There's also a theatrical piece in the first section. It's not good."
What remains after edits is still no walk in the park. Stockhausen (who died in 2007) is a man of countless stories that trump hyperbole — he wrote a string quartet that requires musicians in four helicopters and claimed in interviews to have been trained on the star Sirius in a past life. He had worked with "intuitive" or "process" music prior to Sieben Tagen — his Kurzwellen described ways for musicians to react while manning the controls of short-wave radios — but the method he developed for Sieben Tagen, during a near-suicidal hunger strike in 1968, requires a different approach. Instruments are hardly ever specified. In Stockhausen's own recordings you'll find Electroniums, conch shells, sandpaper, and rocks rolling around in bowls of water right alongside traditional concert instruments.
"This set the standard in any kind of textual compositions," says Drury. "With Cage or Christian Wolff, they have pieces that are methodical sets of instructions — set up the following systems in order to turn this piece on. Sieben Tagen is not a recipe or an algorithm."
Which brings us to the first round of rehearsals, which the group — cellos, horns, and electric guitars played by guest musicians like Mission of Burma's Roger Miller, Greg Kelley, and deconstructed-cellist Vic Rawlings — refer to as "meetings."
"The hardest thing is really to follow his suggestions very specifically," Drury points out. "They seem very hazy and proto–New Age, but they're actually very specific. They just don't have dollar amounts attached. 'Play a note inside someone else's note' is specific, even though it's not specific."
So how do you know if you're doing it right?
Drury laughs at the idea. "By the time they've performed it, it's too late to decide if it was successful."
CALLITHUMPIAN CONSORT AND [NEC]SHIVAREE PLAY STOCKHAUSEN'S AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN | Brown Hall, New England Conservatory, 290 Huntington Ave, Boston | February 22 at 3 pm | free | www.newenglandconservatory.edu