Stockhausen Day – 2: Stimmung

Stimmung [‘Copenhagen’ version]

Theatre of Voices
Paul Hillier
Ian Dearden (sound projection)

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 2 August, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2008)Stimmung is for six amplified singers and is truly a ‘one-off’ not onlyin Stockhausen’s output but also in the context of Western European music.

The technique of ‘overtone’ singing is one to be found in places such asTibet and is often associated with religious or ritualistic invocations.

In the 1960s, Karlheinz Stockhausen had become acquainted with what would now betermed ‘world music’, finding perhaps its fullest expression at thattime in the electronic pieces Hymnen and Telemusic.

Stimmung was composed during February and March 1968 in Madison,Connecticut following a lecture and concert tour of Hawaii and Mexicoand features, throughout, the distinctive sound of ‘overtone’ singing.

Whilst writing the music, the composer would try out the sounds forhimself. Careful changing of vowels causes the harmonics of the givennote to change, thus giving Stimmung its characteristic anddistinguishing timbral spectrum.

At various points, ‘magic names’ (actually those of gods and tribaldeities from around the world – excluding references to the Judeo-Christian tradition) are called out and the sound of that name is’explored’ rhythmically and phonetically. The sounds of the names arewonderful in themselves – Sing-Bonga (the Bengali Sun God) andMunganagana (Australian Wind God) have particularly haunting musical implications.

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2008)Also featured are six poems by Stockhausen of a gently erotic nature, which are spoken by individual singers. Although the programme providedthe German texts, prudishly no English translation was given!

The entire piece – of some 70 minutes-plus duration – is based around one chord. The variety of sounds, however,contained in this work is truly astonishing. Stockhausen describesStimmung as “certainly meditative music”, though Robert Worby’sprogramme note states that “Stockhausen did not compose to provide us with soothing ambience, to help us relax and ease our cares”. Actually, a ‘soothing ambience’ is just what was provided by this performance. Technically assured and with the singers at ease with the music’s exacting requirements.

The blend of ”cool meditation” (Robin Maconie’s description) andoccasional moments of humour, which seemed to bemuse the attentive audience, was delivered by Theatre of Voices in a completely convincingmanner.

In his performing instructions for Stimmung, Stockhausen writes: “Onemust by all means inform the responsible persons early enough, that thehall must be absolutely quiet (for example a noisy air-conditioningsystem must be turned off)…”. A useful monition for all concerts, one might think.

On this occasion, Stockhausen’s requirements were not fully met. There seemed to be a persistent note sounding for a while at the start. Thismay have been the pre-recorded chord, which the singers tune into. Itshouldn’t be audible to the audience and disappeared after about aquarter-of-an-hour only to be replaced by a low-pitched hum, the originof which I do not know. These didn’t overly distract; though, in the music’s pregnant silences, one could here these sounds unintended by the composer.

A number of people walked out during the performance – one couple withinfive minutes of it starting – as they had done, one must report, in the previous Stockhausen concert earlier in the evening.

At least there wasn’t an incident such as that which broke up an early performance causing the composer to declare: “Stimmung will yet reduce even the howling wolves to silence.”

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