Conductor Duncan Ward on Stockhausen's Gruppen

On Saturday 30 June we will be heading to the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern for the first time to perform two epic sonic works – Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum and Stockhausen's Gruppen.

We asked one of the three conductors for the evening, Duncan Ward, to tell us a bit about his preparations for conducting Gruppen and what to look out for if you're experiencing this avant-garde work for the first time.

Please introduce yourself!

Hello! I’m Duncan Ward, a British conductor and composer, lucky to be involved in an increasingly exciting range of projects with orchestras and opera houses such as Orchestre de Paris, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen & Glyndebourne in repertoire from Haydn to G.F.Haas, Louise Farrenc to Kaija Saariaho and much more in between.

Could you explain a bit about your role in Gruppen?

There are three orchestras and three conductors required for this extraordinary piece. Simon Rattle, Matthias Pintscher and myself shall be conducting one orchestra each, and jointly steering the unwieldy ship that is the three orchestras combined. For a piece which is rarely performed due to the extravagant forces involved, it’s a happy coincidence that this summer I actually get to conduct the work three times: recently in Hamburg with the Vienna Radio Symphony, and following this outing at the Tate we will then perform it again at the Lucerne Festival in September.

As a conductor you’re used to working alone. How do you have to adapt to working with the other two conductors?

The coordination between the three conductors is probably the most distinctive and challenging aspect to this piece. Often the three orchestras are playing in completely different (and constantly fluctuating) time signatures and tempi, but at all times whilst conducting your own part you are having to be visually aware and reacting to what the others are doing in order to keep it all in sync.

It’s chamber music for conductors I suppose. Perhaps the strangest feeling in conducting the piece is not being quite as engaged with the musicians of your orchestra as you would normally be. In Gruppen 97% of your brain cells are tied up with the visual coordination between the conductors, and the constant micro-adjustments required in navigating your own orchestra’s path to ensure a successful performance.

Is there a hierarchy to the orchestras? Or are all three equally key to the work?

The orchestras are a very similar size and the musical material is spread evenly between them. At various points in the score different conductors are ‘leading’. It’s up to the other two to make sure their own musical material is in sync with what the ‘leader’ is doing so that the crashing tutti chords or mutual moments of silence coincide as intended.

Are there any ways in which you prepare for modernist/avant garde works that are different to how you work on a classical or romantic symphony?

In essence I think the role of the conductor is the same regardless of the repertoire: to get to the heart of the composer’s intentions and engagingly communicate them to the audience. So whether it’s a modernist or a classical work I will spend a lot of time poring over all the details of the score, thinking about the phrasing, structure, and tempi and how best to bring the narrative of the piece to life.

The radically different aspect of preparation necessary for Gruppen, however, is that the conductors need to practise by themselves without any other musicians present. Three conductors sat in a room frantically waving their hands at each other in silence is a strange sight indeed, but absolutely crucial to the success of this piece. Stockhausen recommends six such sessions of two hours each!

What are you particularly looking forward to about this performance at the Tate Modern?

The Tate holds many childhood memories for me of all sorts of exhibitions. As a teenager one of my own pieces was performed by members of the National Youth Orchestra in front of the Miro painting which had inspired it. The Turbine Hall is an overwhelming space and I also love the fact that members of the public simply visiting the gallery may stumble across this crazy music.

Do you have any particular views on performances of works in unusual places/outside of traditional concert halls?

I find it a really exciting opportunity to bring works to different audiences in contexts that might provide an alternative insight into an experience of a piece. As a student in Manchester I remember holding an orchestral rehearsal in the middle of a shopping centre and turning round to find a whole crowd of children conducting along behind me.

Will the space in which this is being performed present any challenges to you and/or the musicians? Or the audience?

Gruppen requires a huge performance space in order to have the orchestras sufficiently distant from each other so that the audience can enjoy the surround sound spatial effects. The Turbine Hall really is a HUGE space though, especially in terms of it’s length and the amazing height of the ceiling, so the extra reverberation will undoubtedly make it challenging for the musicians and conductors to hear the other orchestras clearly across the space. Luckily, the coordination and synchronisation is done visually between the conductors so this challenge should not affect the audience’s enjoyment of the piece.

What advice would you give to someone listening to Gruppen for the first time?

The audience will be standing for these performances so I would advise people to move around and enjoy the different aural perspectives they can find, as you would never get to do this in a ‘normal’ concert. That said, don’t expect an epic noise the whole time from these vast forces: the majority of this piece is actually quite intricate and subtle as the ideas and sonorities get passed around the space. My other thought would be don’t necessarily feel a need to ‘understand’ it: it’s a scintillating ride if you just let the sounds from all around wash over you, and the climax with the brass and percussion letting rip from all sides is a thrill.

And if people are hooked after this performance, what works would you advise them to seek out next?

If you’re up for the unexpected then exploring some more Stockhausen certainly wouldn’t go amiss. Check out his Helicopter String Quartet, for instance, and get yourself along to the Royal Festival Hall next May for his monumental opera Donnerstag aus Licht complete with greeting music performed in the foyer on the way in and five costumed trumpeters playing from the rooftops as the audience leave. On the other hand, if you’re interested in what sounds the brightest emerging composers are now getting from orchestras, then the LSO’s own Soundhub and Panufnik Scheme events would also be well worth a try.

 The concert at the Tate Modern is currently sold out, but will be recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast later that same evening and streamed in binaural sound on the Radio 3 website.