Karlheinz Stockhausen
Helikopter-Quartett
Montaigne Auvidis

review by Lang Thompson


Though he's spent years trying to one-up Wagner by writing a week-long opera called Licht, Karlheinz Stockhausen (aka Chuckles) still found a little spare time to toss off the Helikopter-Quartett.  As you might guess from the name, the piece is scored "For string quartet, 4 helicopters with pilots and 4 sound technicians, 4 television transmitters, 4 x 3 sound transmitters" and a platoon of technicians.  That it isn't merely a conceptual piece but has in fact been performed is, as Andy Battaglia noted in Salon, a tribute to "the supremely cool state of European arts funding."  Perhaps even more so is that there are three (collect 'em all) recordings:  two in a hideously expensive package from the Stockhausen Verlag and then the budget-priced one that I have from the formidable Arditti Quartet.

The first disappointment is that the helicopters don't produce deep, punchy thumps like those Walter Murch captured for Apocalypse Now, sort of the reverse of the first time I heard Steve Reich's Pendulum Music and expected big swoops of feedback but instead got little twitters.  Perhaps the score's orchestration is a bit Baroquely vague and without Hueys specified, the performers instead went for whatever lighter choppers the Austrian army could provide.  (Then again can you imagine trying to convince your local military commander that your string quartet needs the loan of four gunships?  A new form of martial music awaits.)

But the helicopters do set up background of whirring and chirping for the strings to add sets of glissindi.   Later the performers recite strings of digits (perhaps Chuckles has been listening to the shortwave numbers stations?).  The exact purpose of the recitations is a bit elusive--air traffic controller directions would have been more to the point--and while not necessarily be a bad thing they certainly tend to be a bit distracting.  The piece's overall effect is a bit more, er, floating than the choppy noise you or at least I might expect and presumably that musical parallel to flight might be the intention.  (Oddly enough Marc Blitzstein tried to present something similar with his Airborne Symphony, first recorded by Leonard Bernstein.)  Or maybe Chuckles' just wanted to make a lot of clatter and that's OK too because the Helikopter-Quartett clatters and drones and I'm betting that if helicopters have hidden lives then this is on their hit parade.


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