Stockhausen, Sirius, and Self-Belief

Monday 26 March 2007

It’s the highfalutin’ equivalent of a fight breaking out on a football pitch: the premiere of Stockhausen’s Trans staggers to a halt amidst a chorus of hoots and hisses from the audience. Some incensed concertgoers jump the gun and unwittingly start booing before the end, quickly subdued by insistent shushing and the last, unexpected sounds of the orchestra. Once everyone’s certain it’s finally over, the crowd, impatient but still disorientated by the stop-start finish, rises in partisan crosstides of cheers and catcalls. For several minutes the two sides battle for supremacy, the boos and hisses drowned out by cheers, the cheers drowned out by boos and hisses – all of it preserved on the CD release, as though it were part of the music.
Edward Winkelman recently posted on his blog about the importance of self-belief in the arts, and whether all art is to some extent a game of confidence.
Reportedly, an influential Chelsea art dealer was asked once what characteristic she felt separated the artists who would feature prominently in the history books and those who would be lucky to be footnotes. Representing several who’ve already entered the history books, she responded that the ones who make it, wake up everyday, look themselves in the mirror, and say “I’m the best fucking artist in the world” before heading off to their studios.
Mind you, the heading off to their studios is no small part of their success, but the belief in the importance of their work is something I’m beginning to believe might be crucial to that level of success as well….
If not arrogance, then at least wholesale delusion seems to be an asset. Stockhausen, a composer confident enough to instruct musicians when they were playing correctly in the rhythm of the universe, was asked sometime in the early seventies that chestnut dear to clueless journalists, “Where do you get your ideas?” Unexpectedly, he answered in all seriousness that all his music was dictated to him by his ancestral supreme beings from a planet in the Sirius star system. He then spent the next thirty years of his life writing a seven-day opera detailing his cosmological revelations.
Trans, however, is a piece so unusual that even Stockhausen himself is incapable of explaining it, saying merely that it came to him in a dream he could transcribe but not interpret. It doesn’t get played very often, so I made a point of going to see it at Blackheath Halls last month, where students from Trinity College were staging it as part of a new(ish) music festival.
The orchestra is directed to play from behind a scrim, bathed in dim purple light – Blackheath Halls doesn’t have a proscenium on its stage, so instead of the scrim they filled the room with fog. Three tiers of string players faced the audience; in the violet gloom behind them, rows of other musicians could vaguely be seen, following a conductor hidden behind a screen. The string players created a dense veil of sustained tones that masks the sounds that emerged from the stage behind them. Occasional, mysterious solos erupted from the orchestra, for no explicable reason. A loud, shuttling sound thundered across the room at unexpected intervals, as a random punctuation.
Audience and orchestra, equally lost in the purple fog, partook of the event in a state not unlike the suspension of disbelief required to embrace the enactment of a myth. Its alien weirdness and denial of rational meaning suspended judgement, the music and its theatre an unquestionable, unalterable fact to be experienced. We all deferred to the indomitable arrogance of Stockhausen, an arrogance that was necessary to trust that he could put across a work he could not understand, without a safety net of explanation or justification.
As a piece of theatrical irony, the student orchestra looked nervous and uncertain of their place on stage, as though overwhelmed by the audacity of the work and plagued by doubts that they could successfully pull it off. At the end of the piece many of them had a stunned expression of disbelief at their success. The music itself had been powerful enough to transcend their lack of self-possession, treating them as vessels, receiving dictation from higher beings.