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Heard/Read/Seen in writing out loud 11 min read

At 19:07 the
helicopters flew
over the Pont
Neuf
The Elysian Quartet performed
Karlheinz Stockhausens
Helicopter String Quartet in
Paris, for the 2013 Nuit
Blanche
Theres a string quartet.Theres a helicopter and a pilot for each
of the four musicians. (That makes four helicopters and four
pilots.) Together with their instrument the musicians board the
helicopters. They start playing as soon as the rotor blades begin
to turn. Once all are well up in the air, the string players get to
hear a click-track through the headphones that they are
wearing. They then continue to play their parts along to that
click-track, which is used to synchronize their playing. While
playing, they will only hear themselves, the click track and

PARIS, PLACE DU PONT NEUF, OCTOBER 5TH 2013, 18H50


Remove from Collection Edit
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their helicopter. They can not hear the others playing. A video
image of their performance inside the flying helicopter is
transmitted to some location on earth, together with the sound
of their instrumental play mixed with that of the helicopters
rotor blades. Down there a mix is made of the transmitted
signals. The mix is what the audience gets to hear. The video
images of the flying musicians is what the audience gets to see.
This, in short, is the set up of Karlheinz Stockhausens
Helikopter-Streichquartett, written in the early 1990's.
Musically it may be not among his most noteworthy creations,
but the helicopters do make it tremendously spectacular.
Which surely is the reason that it has become one of the
German composers best-known pieces, though still relatively
few will actually ever have heard the quartet, not even as a
recording.
The quartets main structural elements were derived from the
super formula for Licht: Stockhausen made the Helikopter-
Streichquartett the third scene of the Wednesday in his cycle of
operas, one for each of the seven days of the week . But then, if
you really want to, you can derive almost anything from Lichts
super formula. Maybe even four helicopters.
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For the string quartets music Karlheinz let himself be inspired
by the rhythmic patterns and the sounds brought forth by the
squeeshings and swooshings of a helicopters rotor blades
(which, as already said, during a performance are also mixed in
live: each of the helicopters rotors has its own microphone,
and Stockhausen considers that the pilots steering the
helicopters are as much musicians as are the string players). It
accounts for the somewhat excited and nervous sounding
result a Dutch newspapers review of the works world
Karlheinz Stockhausens Helikopter-Streichquartett. The first page of the score.
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premiere in Amsterdam in 1995 called it hot tempered of
four string players that during most of the piece perform manic
tremolos in criss-crossing glissandi,which, from time to time, are
accompanied by Stockhausian counting, one of the signature
elements of Licht.
Given a number of fine musicians like the four stringers of the
Elysian Quartet, playing the notes is the easy part. The difficult
part is getting all of the technology to work; and overcoming
the organizational and bureaucratic obstacles that a live
performance of the piece will encounter. And contrary to what
one might think, with the passing of the years it is not getting
easier to perform the piece. Though there will be more and
more young, ambitious and adventurous string quartets eager
to give it a try (if only because the high visibility that the
gimmick-y side of a performance in helicopters will give them),
finding the right machines to fly in is getting more and more
difficult. Like all technology also helicopter technology is
advancing in a rapid pace. Most modern helicopters are no
longer generating the quantity and sort of rotor blade noise
that makes them suitable candidates for a Helikopter-
Streichquartett performance. Within not too long only well
conserved vintage machines will be left to do the job: collectors
items, museum pieces; which is why this Stockhausen piece is
running into the same sustainability problems as a whole range
of other technology based art.
It makes it the more remarkable, as well as a sign of the quickly
growing popularity (indeed!) of Stockhausen as a composer
(and as a legend), that over the first weekend of this years
October there were no less than two different performances of
the Helicopter String Quartet: one in Italy and one in France.
The Arditti Quartet (who premiered the quartet in Amsterdam
in 1995) did the piece for the opening of the 57th Music
Biennial of Venice, on Friday October 4th. And on Saturday
October 5th, the Elysian Quartet (who last year performed the

2
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piece four times as part of the world premiere of Mittwoch aus
Licht in Birmingham) flew Stockhausens helis over Paris.
The French premiere of the quartet was produced by Chiara
Parisi, director of the cultural program of the Monnaie de Paris
(the Paris Mint), and also artistic director of the Nuit Blanche, a
free annual Parisian all-nighter dedicated to fine art and
culture. Intended to mark 50 years of Franzsich-Deutsche
Freundschaft, as well as being very much a public relations and
marketing move, the event was announced with a lot of silly
hyperbole (re-creation of the greatest musical performance of the
20th century, etc.), and quite a few of the onlooking Parisians
on the Pont Neuf could be heard grumbling that inside the Mint
they were throwing a party that was being paid for by their tax
money.

1
The Pont Neuf in Paris shortly before the Stockhausen Helikopter-Streichquartetts takeoff
(Saturday October 5th 2013, 18h35)
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For there was an inside and there was an outside.
The intimate on-invitation-only inside was in the lavish salle
Dupr of the Conti Palace on the Quai de Conti, home to the
Paris Mint. Here the performance could be followed via the
video images that were shown on a couple of hi-res screens. It
was also in the salle Dupr that the sounds were being mixed
and made audible over a fine installation (the sound projection
was taken care of by Ian Dearden and David Sheppard, aka
Sound Intermedia).
We, le peuple,gathered outside at no more than a couple of
hundred meters from there, where, on the Place du Pont Neuf
an outside screen and a series of not-really-brilliant sounding
outside speakers had been installed. The screen was relatively
small, quite a bit smalleror so it seemed than the one put
up at the Place de lHtel de Ville for the screening of soccer
matches or the Roland Garros tournament, though the crowd
that gathered on the Pont Neuf on that cloudy Saturday
evening (always on the brink of rain) was many times bigger
than even the biggest crowd that I have seen watching tennis in
front of the town hall. Properly following the performance in
sound and vision on the Pont Neuf was possible only for those
that had come early enough to be able to sit or stand reasonably
close to the screen.
The helicopters of course should have done their takeoffs and
landings in full view of the many, many spectators. But well,
ok, one can understand that the Parisian prefecture considered
this to be one bridge too far, even for a celebration of 50 years
of French-German friendship. Therefore the helicopters and
the Elysian quartet started their trip about eight kilometers (in
a straight line; about ten by car) to the West, at the Auteuil
Hippodrome.
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It took the technicians a considerable while before they
managed to adjust the images outside to fit the screens size,
but once this was done also the outsiders were able or rather:
forced to follow in close up the rants of French radio &
television personality Franck Ferrand, who was given the role
of moderator and acted it out inside the Mint.
Stockhausen made this moderation an integral part of the piece
and scripted its outlines in the score: before the start of the
performance, the moderator should introduce the string
players to the audience and provide a short description of the
technical sides of the performance; after the helicopters have
safely landed, the players re-join the moderator, who then is to
introduce also the pilots to the audience. The moderator
conducts a conversation with pilots and musicians, at the end
of which the audience is invited to pose questions they may
have about the piece and its performance.
Thats the idea.
Kurz und sachlich.
A Stock-Ausen helicopter just landed at the Auteuil Hippodrome, October 5th 2013,
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The Parisian event was webcast by ArteTV. Though I am not
sure whether all of it was also webcast, the screening on the
Pont Neuf lasted about two hours, of which only half an hour
comprised the actual performance. We spent much of the
remaining time watching three of the musicians in the back of
a mini-van, looking out of the side windows, pulling up and
adjusting their pants, scratching their heads and giggling
during the ten kilometer drive from the Auteuil Hippodrome
back to the Conti Palace. During that time moderator Franck
Ferrand regularly wondered out loud whether it might be
possible also to hear the musicians in the back of the van.
Yesterday during the rehearsal listening to them in the car was
really interesting, he said. But apparently no, this was not
possible. We did not get to hear the musicians. They just
continued to giggle and smile.
I doubt, though, that we missed much. In a short publicity clip
for the event on Pariss official YouTube channel, Jennymay
Logan (violin) tells the viewers that she feels really peaceful
playing music in a helicopter, because its kind of white noise
going on around you, and you block it out and youre just
focussing on the music and your place in the music. And
Emma Smith (violin) observes: When the weather is nice, it is
almost spiritual. But when the weather is bad, its horrible.
Most musicians have little interesting to say about music, at
least not in public. So just let them play
Meanwhile the moderator desperately tried to think of more
things to say. He had already recited twice all he had read about
Stockhausen and the piece while preparing for the evening
(and I dont think he heard an awful lot of Stockhausen before
landing this gig), bombarded us with all possible superlatives
and exaggerations, never stopped mentioning how very
special, extraordinary and of great historical importance the
event was that we were about to witness, or just had witnessed,
and how very, very difficult its technical realization was. Of
course this annoyed me. And it annoyed quite a few of the
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others who were watching and listening around me, most of
whom actually seemed to know Stockhausen and his music
pretty well. A lot better than Franck.
After a while one then also gets sort of fed up trying to see the
whole circus on the screen as a campy theatre play, no matter
how fun(k)(n)y it is to hear a Frenchman repeatedly pronounce:
Karl Eins Stock Ausen
I dont think it was only me.
When the pilots and the Elysian Quartet finally arrived to make
their grand entre, quite a number of the special guests had
already left. On the screen the salle Dupr looked empty when
the moderator asked the musicians the question that all that
time had been burning on the tip of his tongue.
ow was it? , Franck exclaimed.
After this, also the little audience that was left in the Paris Mint
had no more questions. And outside, on the Pont Neuf, nobody
was asked.
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It was not the string players fault that, as the evening
progressed, it became more and more difficult to escape the
impression that in this Parisian rendition of the Helikopter-
Streichquartett, Stockhausens music was merely a sideshow
and that what really mattered was the staging of a spectacle to
greater glory of the organizing and financing powers.
No, it was not the string players fault. The Elysian Quartet did
a marvelous job. Judging from the parts that outside on the
Pont Neuf we were able to hear, they performed the piece
masterfully; or whatever: they did it with genuine enthusiasm,
love and a lot of bravura.
So again: what more could one ask of them?
Oh yes, the helicopters. The helicopters did fly over the Pont
Neuf, around 19h07, only three minutes later than originally
announced. But when they did, they were flying so high that
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those that came to the banks of the Seine to see a swarm of
helicopters must surely have been disappointed. There was
little more than four tiny flies that, for less than a minute or
so, aligned high up in the air over Henry IVs head.
And no, it was not easy. And yes, the performance was plagued
by a number of technical problems, the least of which was a
lighting problem in one of the helicopters. Rather more
dramatic were the glitches that at several points during the
show caused series of loud electronic crackles, followed by
longish interruptions in the transmission of the quartets sound
and video.
This must be the reason that there is still no video of the
Parisian Helicopter String Quartet up on Artes web site. It is
also the reason that I am pretty happy that I managed to
Around 19h07 the helicopters flew over the Pont Neuf, like an afterthought.
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capture it all on my digital Zoom, thusquite unintentionally
creating a fine piece of phornograpy.
Arte does not show you the video, or did not get the permission
to do so. Their Nuit Blanche video screen is and remains black.
But you can listen to my one hour documentary field recording,
and re-experience the Helikopter-Streichquartett exactly as it
sounded on Saturday October 5th 2013 on the very middle of
the Place du Pont Neuf.
Almost daily, on Berlin based web Radio On.
You have my permission.
FURTHER READI NG
At 19:07 the four helicopters flew over the Pont Neuf Slightly extended
version of this same article; includes list of all performances of the Helicopter
String Quartet, and embeds the ArteTV video, that now has been put (back)
online (for as long as it will remain available).
via Caroline Carstens on www.harsmedia.com
Suggest a link

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Screenshot from the web site of ArteTV, October 11th 2013
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The SoundBlog's log of things read, heard, seen; by Harold Schellinx. (Dutch
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Updated October 12, 2013
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