Total Immersion … Stockhausen … Hymnen

Hymnen [original electronic version]


Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 17 January, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007)Catching distanced snippets of Inori from the Barbican Hall foyer while waiting for Hymnen to begin is quite a way to whet one’s appetite. This performance of Stockhausen’s Hymnen was part of one of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s “Total Immersion”, the first of “Three Composer Days” (the next two will feature Tristan Murail and Iannis Xenakis.

Hymnen (Anthems) was realised in 1966 and 1967 in Cologne. There is also a version for tape and orchestra. Robin Maconie’s book on the composer tells us that Stockhausen regarded the work as “unfinished”, citing the fact that the composer only used around 40 of the 137 anthems originally collected. Hymnen nevertheless still breathes a feeling of enormous scope. It lasts 115 minutes (a full-blown interval rather than the “lengthy pause” suggested by Stockhausen was inserted at the work’s mid-point – more of that later). Although the idea of pre-extant music being juxtaposed, layered and manipulated by a composer was not new (one thinks perhaps of John Cage’s Credo in Us, of 1942, which utilises the finale of Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony), nowhere, surely, had it been woven into such a grand design.

The idea of an inclusive music for all peoples speaks of typically Stockhausenesque high ideals. One is only surprised that there are no ‘invented’ anthems from Sirius here! Of course, the anthems themselves appear at various levels: ‘pure’ statements (usually in what sounds like transferred recordings, almost always with something else happening concurrently), ‘timbrally altered’ statements, ones with intervallic displacements … and so it goes on until we hear either the mere ghost of an original or a complete transformation (or, on occasion, transmogrification!).

‘Found’ music thus appears on a sliding scale that seems to lead, always, to Stockhausen (something surely confirmed by the feeling of the fourth and final ‘Region’ as purer Stockhausen). Timbral transformations of single lines remind one of “Stimmung” of 1968, while the seemingly random aspect of the processional of anthems seems confirmed as we hear the composer’s own voice as croupier. The work’s terms of reference are wider than just anthems, though – we hear plainchant, sounds with distinct corollaries to football crowds, South American street carnivals and otherworldly, silvery sounds as if from other planets.

The present concert was given in a darkened auditorium, with a single disc of light (representing Stockhausen, or God – or did Stockhausen think they were the same, anyway?) projected on the back of the stage. There are four ‘Regions’, each dedicated to a composer (Pierre Boulez, Henri Pousseur, John Cage and Luciano Berio). The first ‘Region’ begins with Stockhausen’s favoured short-wave radio signals, a sort of sonic primordial soup. The “Internationale” and the “Marseillaise” feature (the latter often speeded up and ascending to high-level tweeting); we hear, in the second ‘Region’, “God Save the Queen” before the Soviet anthem appears out of a flurry of African rhythms – and it is this Soviet anthem that introduces the third ‘Region’.

I like Paul Griffiths’s description of this third ‘Region’ as introducing a “kind of NATO conference” of sound; we also hear Stockhausen in discussion in the studio as the American anthem vies with the Spanish. The Swiss anthem acts as a bridge between the third and fourth ‘Regions’. Here, in the final section, we encounter Stockhausen in his World(s). He referred to the material other than the Swiss anthem in this section using invented language, calling it “Hymnunion in Harmondie under Pluramon” (i.e. hymns-union; Harmonia and Mundi, “harmony of the World”; pluralism-monism). Musically, Stockhausen reduces/transforms the Swiss anthem into a pulsating bass (like a sort of sonic representation of an Earth-Mother) to give a ritualistic feel. He also superimposes blocks of sound – the composer referred to these as “highways of sound”. Extra-terrestrial whistling sits with Stockhausen’s own recorded breathing – which is the final sound we hear.

My major complaint is the insertion of a twenty-minute interval. This was massively disruptive. Not only did it mean the concert finished at 11.20 p.m., it (much more seriously) interrupted the meditative aspect Hymnen that despite its surface complexity, essentially exudes serenity. That cross between receptive state and extreme concentration that is so necessary for an appreciation of this piece is difficult enough to achieve – once there, it should certainly not be interrupted so savagely.

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