Stockhausen at the Barbican

Karlheinz Stockhausen
Hymnen [Anthems]

The composer (sound projection)

13 October 2001

Eingang und Formel [Entrance and Formula]
Klavierstuck X [Piano Piece 10]
Mission und Himmelfahrt [Mission and Ascension]

Markus Stockhausen (trumpet)
Frank Gutschmidt (piano)
Barbara Bouman & Suzanne Stephens (basset-horns)
Kathinka Pasveer (alto flute)

14 October 2001 (afternoon)

Electronic Studies I & II
Gesang der Junglinge [Song of the Youths]
Telemusic [Music from afar]
Kontakte [Contacts]

The composer (sound projection)

14 October 2001 (evening)

Freitag aus LICHT [Friday from LIGHT]

Angela Tunstall (soprano – Eve)
Nicholas Isherwood (bass – Ludon)
Jurgen Kurth (baritone – Caino)
Suzanne Stephens (basset-horn – Elu)
Kathinka Pasveer (flute – Lufa)
the composer (sound projection)

15 October 2001

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 October, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Stockhausen retrospectives will always be an event. In 1985, the Barbican Centre’s ’Music and Machines’ introduced many to the most radical investigations into the potential of sound from the 1950s and ’60s. Sixteen years on, a generation for whom ’new music’ is that created via the turntable, sampler and dance-floor came to hear this centrepiece of the Barbican’s ’Elektronic’ festival. Certain of those featured – Talvin Singh, William Orbit and t.a.f.k.a. Aphex Twin – may be more prominent in today’s scene, but none will match, let alone surpass, Stockhausen’s achievement in fashioning electronic sound into an intelligent and expressive means of communication – enriching mind as well as body. The reception that greeted his informal and ’user-friendly’ introductory talks, not to mention his impromptu signing sessions, confirmed that the younger generation had taken this ’father figure’ to its collective heart.

There is no better way to launch a retrospective than with Hymnen (1964-7), Stockhausen’s vast electronic and ’concrete music’ edifice. It represents a watershed between his previous, often highly formalised work, and the more intuitive thinking that now came into play. The most impressive aspect of Hymnen is its sheer inclusiveness, prepared through the increasingly ambitious electronic works that Stockhausen had been creating since the early 1950s. The breakthrough to a more pluralist conception came with the deployment of a short-wave receiver in Telemusik (1966) – which, with its saturation of world broadcasts in an electronic framework, is almost a blueprint for the creative strategy of Hymnen: the ’embrace of humanity’ made actual through the employment of national anthems as its creative nucleus.

The four regions of Hymnen divide into pairs, playing for some 58 and 55 minutes. Each region deploys its national anthems through the process of Intermodulation, isolating one musical aspect of a particular anthem (rhythm, timbre etc) and superimposing it onto an aspect of another. The outcome often transforms these anthems beyond recognition, with only a sense of the ceremonial remaining. Thus Region One proceeds, via a hurtling preamble of short-wave feedback, to a cross-fertilising of the ’Internationale’ and ’Marseillaise’; a spoken fugue on the colour red leads, via a bridge-passage of marsh ducks ’quacking’ the ’Marseillaise’ – for all his grandiose conceptions, Stockhausen has never lacked a sense of humour –, into Region Two.

Here, the ’Deutschlandslied’ is prominent, complemented by a glimmer of ’God Save The Queen’ and the ’Horstwesselied’, whose ’Reich’ connotations might have been heard as provocation, as the studio discourse between Stockhausen and assistant David Johnson tells us via multiple layers of repetition. A montage of African anthems forms a satellite around the Russian anthem, the ’region’ drawing to a close on a broad beam of sound which now sounds the harbinger of so much ’ambient’ music to come.

Region Three further fragments the Russian anthem, into whose orbit enters ’The Star-Spangled Banner’ – complemented at one point by a youthful chant of the ’Battle Hymn of the Republic’. Its refrains encompass the anthems of Israel, Turkey and Ireland, before a magnificent blast of ’retrograde feedback’ sends momentum spinning. The Spanish anthem tentatively emerges as the soundscape gradually loses focus, an ’announcement’ of the Swiss anthem leading into Region Four.

This anthem gradually recedes as, deriving from its final extended chord, the anthem of the ’utopian realm of Hymunion in Harmondie under Pluramon’, assumes centre-stage. As glissandi and mythical names sound out across a void, a croupier emerges to ’call time’. The ’region’, and the work, climaxes in a vast downward spiral, then the alternation of metallic bands of sound with the ’breathing of all mankind’. In an era which was to give us its own ’2001’, what could be more fitting for our own time, one to which Hymnen speaks of a unity we might well draw upon.

The concentration of Stockhausen’s efforts on his opera-cycle, LICHT, for almost a quarter-century has meant more than seven operas. Each instalment consists of scenes and episodes adapted for concert performance, varying greatly in size and resources. Among the shortest must be Eingang und Formel (1978), from the second act of Donnerstag. Trumpeter Michael makes a peremptory appearance, playing his ’seven-limb formula’ – one of three (along with those for Eve and Lucifer) that generate the musical substance of LICHT – before departing.

Two further adaptations followed after the interval. Mission und Himmelfahrt (1978), also from Act Two of Donnerstag, finds Michael engaging with the basset-horn-playing ’Star Maiden’ in a sensual duet of musical reciprocation and caressing harmonies. Ave (1984-5), from Act Three of Montag, initially centres on Eve, playing a rhapsodic basset-horn solo as an alto-flute player makes fleeting appearances from behind a series of screens, before emerging to perform a ritualistic duet of ever closer union – utilising much of the poise and formal restraint of Japanese court drama. The performances from LICHT veterans – Markus Stockhausen, Suzanne Stephens and Kathinka Pasveer, and relative newcomer Barbara Bouman – were as effortlessly assured as, with Stockhausen’s choreography, they were diverting to watch.

Yet the performance of Klavierstuck X (1954/61) in the first half made the remainder of the concert seem decorative, even ephemeral. This is provocative 1950s Stockhausen with a vengeance, transferring his intensive experience in the electronic studio to the human-controlled medium of solo piano. Much of the pianistic armoury of the period – rapid glissandi and filigree playing, forearm clusters and lengthy, overtone-saturated rests – are in evidence, yet employed with an inevitability and perceptiveness that never seems merely iconoclastic. Frank Gutschmidt’s memorable performance had a fine-honed, sculpted intensity; at 34 minutes, proportions were daringly drawn out, but the concentration on expressive ends was never in doubt.The programme of electronic music was a golden opportunity for new-music students and ’electronica’ pros alike to hear this pioneering work in context. Electronic Study I (1953), with its painstaking assembly and combination of sine waves, is now of primary interest as surely the ultimate in integral serialist thinking. The pithy and eventful Electronic Study II (1954) introduces ’sine-chords’ and indeterminate pitches (white noise) into the equation. Gesang der Junglinge (1955-6) remains the first durable electronic masterpiece. The integration of a chorister, singing lines from the ’Third Book of Daniel’, into the enveloping electronic canvas still sounds stunningly imaginative, while the use of ’space’ as a means of channelling the sonic momentum has rarely been so tellingly effected. The work stands as a ’hymn of praise’ from a whole new musical universe.

On to Kontakte (1959-60), Stockhausen’s last truly abstract investigation into the workings and expressive potential of sound. Although the components are reduced to essentials, the transference between ’clicks’ and ’notes’, according to speed of reproduction, ensures a many-layered montage of indeterminate and intelligible sounds across a soundscape of almost tangible immediacy. While the combination of, and moving between wood, metal and skin sounds provides an easily assimilated framework, the density and impact of the sonic masses, as they collide and career between the four acoustic channels, gives a compulsive, liberating quality to the experience.

If Telemusik (1966) sounds almost too well regulated in comparison, the ethos of the music is correspondingly wider. The impact of Japanese culture, and the inclusive nature of short-wave radio, lead Stockhausen towards an archetypal ’world music’, where instances of mainly non-western cultures (too?) fleetingly traverse the high-frequency airwaves which provide an aural continuum. Stockhausen here achieves a balance between the abstract and the representational that he was already expanding in the all-embracing concept of Hymnen.

And ’all-embracing’ certainly describes LICHT, the seven-part opera-cycle that Stockhausen has been working on since 1977. Donnerstag received a memorable staging at Covent Garden back in 1985, since when only some of the many concert re-workings from the cycle have been heard in the UK. A complete performance of Freitag, albeit in a ’quasi-concert’ realisation with five of the ten scenes relayed on tape to an empty stage, was something of an event – enabling a direct assessment of means and ends in this most ambitious of post-war musical concepts.

Perhaps inevitably, the experience fell short of overwhelming. The shortest so far in the LICHT cycle – a mere 151 minutes – Freitag, in the composer’s words, is “about love and the temptation to easily mix races and religion without foreseeing the consequences”. Topical stuff in present-day Western culture, and Stockhausen treats it with a combination of the metaphysical and the representational familiar from earlier in the cycle.Each of the two acts comprises three layers of events: a continuous eight-track layer of electronic music, its pitches derived from the LICHT ’superformula’ and those of the main protagonists Eve and Lucifer; twelve ’sound scenes’ of concrete, pre-recorded sounds which progress through a series of diverse and increasingly incongruous pairings – human, animal and inanimate; lastly, ten ’real scenes’ performed live on stage, relating the story of Eve’s temptation by Ludon, her yielding and eventual union with his son Caino, the conflict between cultures that results, Eve’s repentance and a final chorus of reconciliation.

The electronic component confirms that Stockhausen retains a sensibility to what is possible within the medium that few can equal. While the impact was less purely visceral than the classic works of the 1950s and ’60s, there is no sense that the development of sound resources has compromised his imagination. Moreover, the complexity and richness of what was heard sustained interest during the long spans when an empty stage provided the only visual complement. The ’sound scenes’ were a sometimes-effective foil in their frequently bizarre combinations, though these often seemed too much of an afterthought to actively engage with the wider context.

It was with the ’real scenes’ that doubts emerged as to the dramatic efficacy of Stockhausen’s thinking. As Eve, Angela Tunstall projected her role with absolute assurance; the resonance of Nicholas Isherwood’s Ludon and Jurgen was in telling expressive contrast to Kurth’s incisive Caino. Suzanne Stephens and Kathinka Pasveer provided the instrumental Elu and Lufa, pursuing their commentary with the poise and fluency accrued over years of working on the LICHT cycle. Costume designs were simple in their colour-coding but effective – eye-catchingly so in the case of the ’Elufa’ scene, with what amounted to a ’cosmic bunny girl’ routine – and the stage choreography continued the vein of ritualistic exchange that Stockhausen favours. The scenes featuring children’s choir and orchestra – which apparently need months of intensive preparation to be given live – were relayed on tapes made at the Leipzig world premiere in 1996, and unassumingly integrated into the whole.

Yet only rarely does this protracted meditation on social, cultural and religious concepts transcend its decorous, often indulgent exterior to provoke a deeper, more profound response. The music for the children’s scenes was often embarrassingly twee, presenting Stockhausen more as a successor to Carl Orff than Wagner, while that for the main protagonists suggests that, in terms of dramatic representation, the absolute musical consistency of LICHT may have inhibited a more dynamic, evolutionary approach to vocal writing as the cycle has progressed. Only in the final scene, the postludial ’Choir Spiral’, does something of the aural intensity that Stockhausen once so effortlessly commanded break through – confirming that LICHT is at its most dramatic when drama is internalised and experienced solely through the imagination.

This was a necessary event even so, and large numbers of those who had flocked to the previous evening’s electronic offerings returned to judge Stockhausen’s latter-day thinking for themselves – though not a few failed to return after the interval. For them, as for a likely majority of new-music advocates, here is someone whose earlier achievements command respect for their innovation and durability. If the vast proportions and spiritual ambitions of LICHT are unlikely to similarly outlive their era, the fact that a Western artist still possesses the self-belief to attempt such an undertaking is at least worth recognising. Whatever the verdict as to his continued relevance as a composer, Stockhausen emerged from the evening – and from the retrospective itself – with his iconic status, and his influence as a creative thinker, virtually intact.

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