Saturday Drones Club, Part 2: Stockhausen

Saturday 27 January 2007

“This piece goes for 70 minutes!” my friend groaned, looking through the program. After an hour or so of Phil Niblock’s drones at Sketch earlier in the day, we were at another free concert: a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1968 composition Stimmung, in which six singers hold a single chord based on overtones of a low B-flat for the duration.
The piece is an excellent example of the combination of rigorous logic and loony inspiration that comprises much of Stockhausen’s music; its esoteric and irrational material harnessed by a meticulous design. Names of the days of the week, gods from religions around the world, and slightly goofy self-penned erotic poetry, are given means to be incorporated into designated rhythmic patterns at times decided upon by the singers, which in turn generate subtle harmonic combinations as these patterns are imitated or diverged from amongst the other singers.
Unlike the Niblock performance, there were no couches, drinks, or quiet conversation. The singers, three male, three female, sat around a table, facing each other, with microphones to provide slight amplification to better bring out the harmonics in the drones. We sat surrounding them, in hard plastic seats arranged in rings around the cavernous room. A small speaker in the centre of the floor softly played the low drone, to keep the singers in tune. Clearly this would have to be a meditative experience.
My only worry about going to this gig was whether the singers – a group called Intimate Voices, who all have non-music related day jobs – would be any good. Singing softly and holding the same pitch for long periods of time is not at all easy, and excessive deviations in intonation or loudness, or confusion in moving from one pattern to the next, could make the experience interminable. The performers have to learn a new singing style, and jointly work out their own structure for a coherent interpretation. It wasn’t surprising to learn this night was the culmination of 18 months of rehearsals.
I’ve heard the Singcircle recording of Stimmung, and this performance was a bit rougher, as you’d expect in a live setting. However, Intimate Voices gave an interpretation that showed more variety in atmosphere and attitude from one section to the next, unlike Singcircle’s consistently unruffled approach, even during the dirty poems. Intimate Voices’ interpretation was more episodic, with more pauses and breaks between sections: I’m not sure how acceptable this is to the composer. The electronic drone could still be faintly heard throughout the concert, which both filled the gaps in the singing and revealed when singers began to stray from correct intonation.
Despite these small issues, the singers in Intimate Voices made a subtly beautiful, flowing and well-shaped interpretation of Stockhausen’s score. The open form of the work meant that hearing other performances did nothing to prepare me for how the work would unfold, so it was very satisfying hearing the familiar elements arranged into a new form with its own dramatic sense. The visual aspects helped: watching the singers signalling to each other when they were introducing new material, and hearing how it was incorporated into the music.
My friend, who has taken singing lessons and sung in a number of choirs, appreciated the difficulties of the piece and liked the way the six singers kept it together, adding her own statement of approval: “That felt like only 50 minutes!”
A reproduction of the score, and a more detailed analysis of how it is constructed, is available here.