Sunday, 6 October 2013

Helipkopter-Streichquartett on Pont-Neuf

What, I found myself wondering more than once this evening, would Henri IV have thought about all this? There he stood, le roi galant, enbronzed mid-trot upon his horse, rather ostentatiously looking askance as four loud speakers whirred and a giant LCD screen flickered. How would this famous homme politique, le vert gallant as they called him for his knack with the ladies, what would he have made of Stockhausen's grand conceptual fillip? 

A string quartet, you say? (Henri wouldn't have known what a string quartet was, of course. Or if he did he would have imagined something containing a viol da gamba and a lute). And each member of the quartet is sat in a different helicopter, just hammering away as it takes off and flies away? (Nor, unless perhaps if he happened to have stumbled somehow upon the notebooks of the Doctor Mirabilis Roger Bacon, would he have know what a helicopter is but we'll let that slide for now) Well, Henri might have said scratching his chin, I've got to admit it's something. But does it compare to the canal I put right in the middle of a park in Fontainebleu?

My mind would drift leisurely to such matters during gaps in the transmission, of which there were a few. For a long time, the cameraman seemed content just to point his camera up at the sky and film the clouds. It was as if this was the only way to represent the purity of Stockhausen's idea. Wow wow wow, as Pierre Arditti is famously quoted upon first being told about it by Stockhausen. 

His dream. That's how it came to him. Le fameur rĂªve, they said over the tannoy while the players were still strapping in and tuning up. No afternoon reverie, no wistful idea chanced upon in the free gambol of idle thought. A real dream dreamt knee deep in the sand dunes of sleep. I see a string quartet, and each player is sat in a different helicopter. They play, they take-off, they fly around. Wow wow wow. 

But what if, Arditti supposedly continued, what if they were to play on a stage, with a sound recording of helicopter noise playing over the PA? Maybe there could be a video… No. Stockhausen wasn't having it. He had a dream. And if it wouldn't be sullied then by some cheap effects, why sully it now with all the messy business of reality with its harnesses and seat belts and wires and headset mics? Film the clouds! Perhaps he was right…

I didn't know where they were taking off from. The programme said go to Pont Neuf, so there I was. I had entertained images of the helicopters taking off from right under the bridge, swooping up over Henri's statue, over the spot where Denis Lavant breathed fire in Les amants du Pont-Neuf and where Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of the Templars, was burnt at the stake. They didn't do that. They took off from some park somewhere else, pretty far away. 

We followed them on our LCD screen as it coughed and spluttered in split-screen. The coarse tremolo of the violins would crackle and fade, the roar of the cello wavered, blipping in and out a bad phoneline. Finally the image fell apart, finally it reconstituted itself. Never quite sure if we were hearing quite or all what we were supposed to, still we stood, or we sat. Were we listening to a concert or were we simply waiting for the racers to zoom past?

But stand or sit we did, and in our hundreds. Maybe thousands. The bridge looked full, packed with this sudden new audience for modern music. Why, David Stubbs once bemoaned, do people get Rothko but don't get Stockhausen? Well, here they all were, the missing crowds. Getting it. Stockhausen. Or at least, there

Until they all flew past, the four helicopters. Just a few minutes off their appointed time. Really high up. Far too far away for the ambient noise of the rotors to compete with the broadcast sound. Four little black dots on the sky, all in a line. And we whooped, and we pointed, and we aimed our cameras, and on the screen the second violin whined away at the top of its neck and the viola ground down upon the earthy roots of its C string, and on they went, minding their way. 

Almost immediately, so did the audience. The strings played on, chewing furiously on each slurred note, and everyone shuffled off. As if all these however many hundreds of people, all they'd come to see, all they'd really wanted, was to see four little black dots in a line upon the sky, disappearing into the distance.