A new generation is coming

‘A new generation is coming, which once again plays keyboard instruments. But the keys mean something radically different…’
- Karlheinz Stockhausen about his Klavierstücke, 1984

A new type of keyboard music – it was one of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s flagships. He understood the potential of synthesizers for creating novel sounds, new virtuosities… All these ideas culminate in his character SYNTHI-FOU: the synthesizer- fool, mad about synthesizers, a ‘fou-turistic’ electro-pianist. The role was played at the Opera Forward Festival in Amsterdam this year by 29-year old Bulgarian pianist Ivan Pavlov.

He found himself on stage, armed with fake ears, huge glasses, long fingernails, a wig, and laden with four keyboards attached to his body. By creating phrases in 132 different sounds, SYNTHI-FOU-Ivan had to solve the war between Michael and Luzifer at the end of DIENSTAG from the opera LICHT

Ivan Pavlov is part of the new generation foretold by Stockhausen himself. He is currently studying in the Master Specialisation aus LICHT at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. A degree that has been specifically created to train students in becoming experts in Stockhausen’s music. Their final goal: performing the three days with selections from LICHT in Amsterdam in June 2019. 

Playing, singing, dancing
Young musicians wanting to delve into Stockhausen’s music – not the easiest and not necessarily the most accessible – for two years: it’s a big commitment. But according to Ivan ‘It was really a natural course of events,’ that brought him to this point. Having completed his (second) MA Piano at the Royal Conservatoire, he decided to see pianist Ellen Corver for contemporary repertoire. As he began to build an interest in works that extend the piano technique to singing and dancing, Corver suggested he should try Stockhausen. When one day he brought her Mantra, Corver convinced him to apply for this special Master aus LICHT and study with her…

‘An intimidating group!’

While the audition itself was fairly regular (one piece by Stockhausen, one other contemporary piece and a classical piece), the interview was the part to be reckoned with. For the jury consisted not only of Renee Jonker, head of the course, but also of Kathinka Pasveer and Suzanne Stephens – two of Stockhausen’s closest friends, muses and creators of much of his music. ‘An intimidating group!’

In the past year, Ivan and the other students have worked exceptionally hard. For Ivan, the course entails not only private sessions with Ellen Corver to study fragments from the opera and maintaining his technique on his own with classical and baroque repertoire - ‘They are part of this world, too!’ -, but he also spends several hours a week with the Sound Projection team. They teach and help him to create the sound samples he needs for SYNTHI-FOU by using the 132 sound samples as described by Stockhausen.

Ivan Pavlov as SYNTHI-FOU. Photo: Michel Schnater.

The course is unusual for its content, but also in other ways: ‘It’s not like studying a Master’s degree. We are all musicians working on one project; everything in it is about the opera.’ It’s a long, interesting process, involving people from all over the world.

The first performance of INVASION-EXPLOSION at the Opera Forward Festival was a big milestone for the students: for the first time they got a real feel of the reality of the opera.

Madman, but no joker
While Ivan’s character SYNTHI-FOU is a hilarious madman at first sight, none of it is a joke. The music, timing, movements, gestures, costumes, and intentions are all terribly demanding. Stockhausen was an extremely precise composer, who defined everything to the smallest detail. Metronome numbers are recorded in halves, sample sounds have to be created and recorded to perfection in advance. But not just the music was fixed like this: also the movements, gestures and intentions are to be performed exactly. This is a lot more work than the music of any other modern composer!

At the same time, the musician must feel free in his performance. It has to become him. Doesn’t this tension between restricted actions and musical freedom pose a problem?

Ivan thinks not. ‘Because Stockhausen was such a good composer, the sets of rules he created actually help the performer in his freedom of expression. He developed a completely new musical language that is fascinating to learn. Stockhausen knew exactly what every piece needed, so his descriptions add something very valuable. ’

Perfectly sound
INVASION-EXPLOSION is, like the rest of Licht, fed with a highly abstract symbolism. Everything in the piece has a meaning. But Ivan is not worried about what the audience will ‘get’ from this. ‘Every member of the audience will experience this in a different way,’ he explains, ‘As a musician we can never impose emotion or meaning on the audience. The piece was very well received. During rehearsals, one of the stage managers asked me about the meaning of all the strange props and the symbolism behind them.’ After Ivan’s explanation, the stage manager said: ‘Oh, okay then, that sounds perfectly sound.’ Not so complicated after all.

It is a kind of addiction, isn’t it? Perhaps the other students and I will go on as a group, after the MA is finished!

Ivan Pavlov on his future plans

Different perspective
In studying and performing the music of Stockhausen, Ivan’s musical world has grown vastly. ‘Stockhausen demands of his musicians that they are constantly aware of everything that is happening around them, and of everything that is going on inside them. He proposes a different perspective on music than, for example, Mozart or Beethoven. He opens new rooms in the musician’s conscience – rooms that are useful in any kind of music.’

‘I will surely use the skills I developed in this project for other kinds of music too, though I hope that I will be able to continue working on this particular music and other pieces by Stockhausen. It is a kind of addiction, isn’t it? Perhaps the other students and I will go on as a group, after the MA is finished!'

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