Marking the tenth anniversary of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s death the Barbican Centre mounted two remarkable works conceived at opposite ends of an equally remarkable career – two vast vocal and electronic soundscapes, both daringly radical yet seemingly of their time.
Six amplified singers sitting around a low table lit by a solitary spherical lamp in a shrouded auditorium contributes to the special aura of Stimmung; as does its seventy-minute mix of erotic poetry and magic names (“Grogoragally”, “Uwoluwu”, et al) transmitted via vocal overtones. It makes huge demands where stamina, breath control and a relaxed musculature are essential requirements. Not least is the bewildering complexity of the piece (pitches and timbres are serially ordered while tempos are organised according to the proportions of the overtones) which prompted the cancellation of the 1968 UK premiere due to the unexpected number of rehearsals. Now, after a forty-year association with the work Singcircle has pretty much nailed Stimmung, although with a mix of young and mature voices here, there were occasional divergences in tuning and differences in vocal weight (despite excellent work from sound-projectionist Kathinka Pasveer) which made for some uneasy moments.
Quibbles aside, Singcircle performed with enthusiasm and conviction, masters of vowel distortion and timbral spectrum. While I marvel at Stockhausen’s innovation, I remain unsure of his claim for Stimmung to be meditative music and I certainly felt no soothing ambience. As abstract ritual the work intrigued, but it was the human element that held my attention.
Perhaps that’s why Cosmic Pulses (2007) – his final purely electronic work, part of the Klang sequence exploring the twenty-four hours of the day – prompted my subdued response, fascinating and powerful as its hallucinogenic journey was. Its full-frontal assault on the ears played through eight speakers spread around the hall was not mediated by the knowledge of its twenty-four melodic loops within a pitch-range of seven octaves. Impressively ingenious as the mathematical construction is and the consequent acceleration through its thirty-minute span, I remained unmoved. What did make sense in this orgiastic clamour (Scriabin would have loved it) was the thought that Stockhausen believed he was descended from astral beings on the planetary star Sirius.
Despite colourful moments at extremities combining earthbound organ-groaning with bird-like fluttering, much seemed unremitting and, to my ears, the work collapsed under its own weight. Fortunately, Robert Henke’s superb laser show was a thing of wonder, a visual interpretation of unmistakable brilliance that quite literally illuminated the work’s underlying structure and dazzled.