The piece is written for 3 orchestras which are surrounding the listener in the form of a horseshoe: one orchestra takes up the entire left side, one takes up the entire front side and the third one the entire right side. All the listeners are surrounded by all 3 orchestras (in the stereo recording the orchestras are positioned left, middle, right).
The composer says about the piece:
"Groups (Gruppen) of sounds, noises and sound-noises are completely independent units. Each group moves within its temporal space. Above all in its own tempo."
"The spatial separation of the groups initially resulted from the superimposition of several time layers having different tempi - which would be unplayable for one orchestra. But this then led to a completely new conception of instrumental music in space: the entire process of this music was co-determined by the spatial disposition of the sound, the sound direction, sound movement (alternating, isolated, fusing, rotating movements, etc.), as in the electronic music GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE for 5 groups of loudspeakers, which was composed in 1955/56.
The work is deliberately composed as a whole (no movements) and it is a synthesis of orchestra music, chamber music and solo music."
After an initial phase with more fluid, continuous, relatively relatively quiet music the basic character of the music becomes very clear: it moves forward in small, rhythmically very pronounced groups of sounds (hence the name Gruppen, groups). The sharp rhythmic shaping of the groups is also expressed by the extensive use of light and heavy percussion.
Due to the irregular rhythms and the lack of a stable basic tempo, there is no coherent pulse throughout the piece. That, as well as the distribution of the groups among 3 individually conducted orchestras, facilitates the great freedom in the way the groups can interact with each other. The groups can follow each other, they can overlap with each other, they can accumulate above each other. They can, as the composer says, absorb each other, play with or obliterate each other, repulse or cling to each other, or merge.
But the groups are magically tied together to form one coherent whole throughout the piece, like pearls on a string. There are very short, characteristic figures whose constant recurrence forms a bond between the musical passages. This bond seems further enhanced by the tension created by the specific rhythm/tempo-related structure: the lack of stability in rhythms (which are unusually vivid and therefore draw special attention to their irregularity and instability) and tempo constantly asks for resolution, but a resolution of rhythm/tempo-related tension towards stability does not occur. This tension welds all passages of the music together.
The freedom of interactions in the music which is allowed by the lack of continuous basic pulse and by the sharp rhythmic suddenness of the music also expresses itself in sudden changes in the level of dynamic energy. Energy can rapidly surge or suddenly break out, and as suddenly as energy breaks free, it can give way to more quiet moments or be completely silenced - often only to rapidly give way to the next outpouring of energy. Of course, there is also other music where this takes place to a certain extent. However, the effect of sudden changes in dynamics and/or density is especially powerful in this music because of the lack of one of the most basic constants throughout changes - a stable basic tempo. Also, the effect of those changes on the musical flow is profound because of their unusual frequency. Since quiet passages for solo instruments are constantly expected to give way to louder and denser ones anytime, they sound fragile - and also do so due to the rhythmic volatility in the music.
The instrumentation changes constantly; the passages where uniform instrumentation is sustained over a longer period of time are rare. Even the percussive colors constantly vary. Also this contributes greatly to the everchanging character of the music, leaving no room for settling into a state of stability. When merging or accumulation of groups above each other occurs, the instrumentation can become extremely dense.
Of course, the relation between tension and release shapes the game question-answer between the groups, but for this game also the spatial component of the piece, the division of the music among the three orchestras, plays a dominant role.
The music may sound very noisy and nervous to the uninitiated listener (as it did to me at first), but when the listener takes time to dive into that very special soundworld and to discover the way the groups move and interact, the specific beauty of this music unfolds. After a while I thought: "This music just had to be written. It really has its own, very natural sounding beauty which had to be discovered."
GRUPPEN is available coupled on one CD with CARRÉ (reviewed below) from the Stockhausen-Verlag at http://www.stockhausen.org/cd_catalog.html (CD 5). The CD booklet is extensive and features many wonderful historical pictures surrounding composition and early performances of these works.
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