Helicopter String Quartet

[See also related Stockhausen Helicopter articles by Mike Silverton and Grant Chu Covell.]

Walt Mundkowsky

[April 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:4.]

Karlheinz STOCKHAUSEN: Helicopter String Quartet. Arditti String Quartet (Irvine Arditti, Graeme Jennings, violins; Garth Knox, viola; Rohan de Saram, cello); Grasshoppers Show Team (helicopters). AUVIDIS MONTAIGNE CD MO 782097, distributed in the US by Harmonia Mundi USA.

When, in his entertaining motley, La Folia, Gregorio Paniagua juxtaposes harpsichord and chain saw, he provides an apt segue to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1992-3 Helicopter Quartet. [La Folia, Paniagua directing the Atrium Musicae of Madrid, Harmonia Mundi HMC 901050.] The product of a commission Stockhausen couldn’t accept (“The string quartet is a typical genre of the 18th century”) and a later dream, the work places the members of the Arditti String Quartet in separate airborne helicopters. Their playing is synchronized by a click-track and sent back to four towers of video monitors and speakers (one per musician). The video images are static — the “face, hands, bow, instrument” of each player — and so is the music: long-held tremolos that match the rhythm of the rotor blades.

One is tempted to compare Helicopter Quartet with a durable line of program music — battle pieces for solo harpsichord; Biber’s Sonata violino solo representativa (1669), which conjures up an entire bestiary; Honegger’s Pacific 231 and Mossolov’s Iron Foundry; the art-rock group Wire’s Drill. Of course, all these employ purely musical means (and are a great deal shorter!), making wit a crucial component. Not so here; as our editor says, “Thoroughness über alles.” But it’s naturally unfair to judge the work’s impact when the audio track is divorced from the accompanying spectacle.

This fine-sounding CD is a simulation; the musicians were recorded in separate rooms, with the helicopter sounds mixed in later. Only 31:51 long, it’s sold at half-price and is probably as complete a view of the piece as most of us require. Those who become fascinated should proceed to and order the two-disc set, which includes the premiere (1995, Amsterdam) and this studio taping, along with voluminous documentation. There’s also a 76-minute film (directed by Frank Scheffer) that follows the preparations and performance at the Holland Festival.

Helicopter Quartet is also part of a larger picture, as Scene III in the Wednesday production from Light, the vast seven-opera cycle that has occupied Stockhausen since 1977. (When completed, it’ll dwarf Wagner’s Ring — in length, anyway.) Wednesday, the sixth of the series, receives its premiere at the Bonn Opera in a couple of months.