Vol. 44 Issue 4 Reviews
Jack Callahan and Jeff Witscher: Stockhausen Syndrome

Compact disc, 2021, FLEA006, available from Flea, www.newmusicindustrialcomplex.com/.

Reviewed by Ross FellerCD Cover

Gambier, Ohio, USA


The title of this disc is as provocative as the music it contains. Stockhausen Syndrome is a conceptual spoof on the psychological condition known as the Stockholm Syndrome, wherein victims of abuse bond with their abusers. Derek Caterwaul (on alibi.com) describes the Stockhausen variant this way: “Those suffering from the Stockhausen condition believe they’ve obtained a deep appreciation for boring or poorly executed avant-garde performance. This syndrome helps suppress the infuriating realization that someone – likely yourself – is wasting your time, money and/or mental energy.” With respect to the disc under review, the implied Stockhausen condition celebrates, makes fun of, and critiques the aforementioned sentiment.

Stockhausen Syndrome has been touted as “a concept album utilizing an IRCAM-developed ‘assisted orchestration’” algorithm.” Reference is made to Peter Ablinger’s Piano and Voices album, but one also thinks of the politicized text-to-guitar works of the Canadian composer René Lussier. The music on this disc is tightly wound up with textual and vocalized speech and rhythmic patterns. This is replicated on a short YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLDIce9t8zU) that both serves as an infomercial and an extension of the work itself, featuring images of Karlheinz Stockhausen and several pop culture figures over rapid-fire sounds and voices.

There are 17 works on Stockhausen Syndrome, each titled with an Emoji. The Emojis are arranged according to a palindromic pattern that revolves around the central axis of Track 9, which is titled with a down arrow, black box, and an up arrow, suggesting the equivalency of movement in both directions. The Emojis include familiar signs: eighth notes, a computer monitor, red/green/blue graphs, a crystal ball, two different microphones, and several more. Besides the title pairs, the musical, textual, or processing approaches in each pair are also connected. So, the Emoji titles and materials for Tracks 1 and 17 are related, as are Tracks 2 and 16, Tracks 3 and 15, etc.

Track 1 features a fast-paced granular texture using several contrasting instrumental timbres that articulate perfect fifth and octave intervals, which gradually become unglued and distorted. Given these intervals, this track functions as an introductory fanfare for the disc as a whole. Track 17 contains a similar approach, which also makes it a suitable close for the collection. For both tracks one gets the sense that we are hearing vocal rhythms minus the vocals, as articulated by the instruments of a virtual chamber orchestra. One might describe this as an invisible force that leaves audible traces on the extant material.

Track 2 contains three minutes of sampled and manipulated sounds similar in technique to Ablinger’s previously mentioned album. But here the result is much more disturbing, even annoying (in a good way!), reminiscent of the work of The Residents. Some of the voices remind one of those found in cartoons or animated films. The crazed (asymmetrical and distorted) unison rhythms combined with the voices are refreshingly irreverent. Similarly, Track 16 features an informal conversation about the meaning of superheroes, punctuated by the sounds of a chamber ensemble. Interestingly, the materials in-between the spoken text parts get stuck on various sustains, only to be dislodged with the next textual outburst.

Track 3 contains recorded news clip about collusion between Donald Trump and “the Russians.” This is paired effectively with the sound of a bassoon. After the piece is introduced, Callahan and Witscher rife, in cut-up sampled form, on the word ‘collusion’ over a cyclical series of bassoon notes that manage to sound simultaneously broken and funky. Track 15 presents flutes and the voice of President Biden telling a story that can be described as a lot of hot air. The language he uses is also suspect.

In Track 4 we hear an informal commentary about the state of music, as well as conjecture about what a contemporary listener to a Beethoven symphony might have heard. These texts are matched with pizzicato, arco, and tremolo string sounds. Track 14 employs a small wind ensemble to punctuate two male voices conversing about creativity.

Clarinet and flute sounds are first heard alone in the first half of Track 5. Around the halfway point a voice enters, the rhythm of which is used to perforate the wind sounds. In Track 13, paired with Track 5, we hear a voice from a learning to count from one to one hundred recording. At times the voice becomes blues-inflected and sings the numbers. The voice is paired with string sounds. The paired connection between tracks 13 and 5 seems more conceptual than actual.

Track 6 features pulsating amplitude-modulated wind and string sounds that shift unevenly between different sections of the sampled material. At times it lands on or extends a microtonal inflection. There are no voices here, just ‘pure’ instrument sounds that undergo various forms of computer-assisted distortion. The same is true of Track 12.

In Track 7 we hear a conversation about creativity and expression, over a background texture of a keyboard-led chamber ensemble that syncs up with the conversation at the beginnings and endings of phrases. Track 11 features a short vocalization of an English text spoken and sung by a male voice with a French accent.

Track 8 begins with a conversation about Bernie Sanders and the by now familiar accusations of ‘socialism’. This is cut short after the text: “eating the rich” is heard, which triggers an instrumental cadenza articulated by a small, percussive sounding, chamber ensemble. In Track 10 we hear an argument between a man and a woman about the inner workings of dating sites. The man sounds like an incel follower and his voice is appropriately punctuated with gaseous wind and brass sounds.

Finally, we reach the middle of the form with Track 9. Knowing that is serves as an axis of rotation for the structural palindrome that represents the 17 works on this disc, I expected it to be the same played forwards or backwards. But this was not the case. Instead, Track 9 presents 39 seconds of a short text read by a Siri or Alexis voice, juxtaposed over the rhythmically in sync chamber orchestra instruments.

The works on this collection range in length from 20 seconds to five minutes and twenty-eight seconds. They present the listener with a challenging listening experience as we encounter sonic snapshots of culture today, disturbing and ridiculous, but a force to be reckoned with.