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New York, New York


A New York harpist trying to figure things out - and the mishaps and adventures that inevitably ensue.

Playing Stockhausen made me feel like a goddamn superhero

Kathryn Sloat

A couple of months ago, I played this crazy piece with my harp duo. At the end of his life, Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote this epically long chamber music cycle called KLANG, each movement representing an hour of the day (actually he died before completing it; there are 21 hours in a Planet Stockhausen day). The harp movement is a work for two harps called Freude. It calls for all sorts of weird things - hitting the strings, playing with guitar picks, counting in wild meters, and singing (!!!) in (specifically Germanic) Latin. 


All of my degree recitals were hard, and took a lot of work, but I never struggled so much with a piece of music before Freude. The counting is crazy - there are passages with measures that go: 9 and 1/2 8th notes, 3 eighth notes, 5 8ths, 4 8ths, 1 16th note, 5 quarter notes... and on and on. Looking back on the score now, I'm still in disbelief that we actually played these rhythms mostly right. Rehearsing was difficult - my partner Christina and I live six hundred miles away from each other, so we have to find ways of coordinating our time together around both of our busy freelancing schedules. Stockhausen wrote Freude in a way that feels like it's really one giant harp, not two normal sized ones, which means that the parts don't really make sense when they're not played together. The way Christina and I usually rehearse is that we learn our own parts very well before we get together, and then practice together for a few intense days before a performance. That strategy didn't really work for Freude - we had to get together multiple times over the course of a few months, and then before the performance we spent almost two weeks hashing things out. It was exhausting, so much harder and more time consuming than our normal shows. 


What really frightened me was the singing. My relationship with my singing voice is fraught - I've never had a very good ear for music, and I almost didn't get into my top choice college because my aural skills were so lacking. I struggled a lot in aural skills classes, failing one semester and passing by the skin of my teeth the rest of the time (side note: what a weird turn of phrase, right?). I had a theory professor who picked one person every day to perform a singing exercise in front of the class; each time I was chosen ended in failure and a very embarrassing meltdown. Consequently... I have a lot of anxiety about singing in public. I have never done karaoke, and I won't even sing in the car if there's another person present. When I realized I would have to sing in Freude, I was scared, but also strangely excited that I would have the chance to face this fear. 


Actually performing the piece from start to finish felt like running a marathon - forty minutes of insane counting, singing in strange harmonies, pounding on the harps, etc. By the time we finished I was hoarse, pouring sweat, and hungrier than I've ever felt in my life. It was so hard, but the payoff was huge - after we performed this piece, two nights in a row, I felt POWERFUL. It was the highest of performing highs I have ever felt - we had run a marathon, climbed Mount Everest, conquered Rome, killed the kraken - we could do anything. I wasn't scared of anything, and after Freude, everything would be easy in comparison. 


After a couple of months, this confidence high has inevitably worn off. I'm still nervous about the prospect of singing in public. I'm anxious about all the music that I'm signing on to learn for next year. I'm still afraid to ask my crush out for a drink. But whenever I have something difficult that I have to do - whatever it is - I take out my Stockhausen score, and remind myself that everything is easier in comparison.