From Light to Sound

Friday 14 November 2008

Southbank’s Klang festival was a convincing refutation – with many more to come, I expect – of the lazy canard that in the last thirty years Karlheinz Stockhausen descended from his once-lofty heights to write music that was invariably banal, inane, and absurd. (Similar erroneous assessments were made of Cage in the after his death.)
After completing his monumental seven-opera cycle Licht (Light), Stockhausen began a new cycle of twenty-four pieces called Klang (Sound) – one for each hour of the day. Sadly, he died with only twenty-one of them written, thus thwarting his next proposed project: a cycle of sixty pieces, one for each minute of the hour.
The second hour of Klang, Freude (Joy), is a 45-minute work for two female harpists, who must sing a fragmented setting of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus while they play. The material and form of the piece, as with other parts of Klang, are distillations from works made earlier in Stockhausen’s life, transformed into something completely new. The material is a 24-note row derived from his mid-50s masterpiece Gruppen; the form is a return to moment form which Stockhausen used in the 1960s.
The frenetic activity and complexity of Stockhausen’s earlier music has yielded to clarity and serenity. Later Stockhausen shows greater attention to the innate quality of sounds, and less on constructing relationships between them. Far from inane, the best of the late works show an equal sophistication to the earlier ones, but in a sensual rather than an self-consciously intellectual way. The episodic form and sustained atmosphere of Freude recall his 1968 piece Stimmung, and created a poignant, suspended state of timelessness that recalled the late works of Morton Feldman.
The singing harpists Esther Kooi and Marianne Smit played damn near flawlessly. As is frequently the case with Stockhausen, they were required to play from memory. Such was the level of dedication he demanded from his interpreters. Earlier in the week we had seen a virtuosic display by percussionist Stuart Gerber performing the fourth hour of Klang, Himmels-Tür (Heaven’s Door). For the best part of half an hour he executed an intricately choreographed sequence of attacks on an immense door, specially constructed from panels of differing woods to create a subtle palette of sounds. (Movie excerpt here.) Again, the piece was an impressive melding of music and theatre.
The final concert performance of the festival was Luzifers Tanz, a scene from the opera Samstag aus Licht. Unfortunately we didn’t get the opera staging, with the eighty-odd winds, brass, and percussion suspended in air in the shape of a face(! – nor did we get the musicians’ strike); but the performance by the Royal Northern College of Music was exemplary. It’s a remarkable piece, at once highly diverse and elaborate in its details and defiantly monolithic in its overall presence, following Stockhausen’s bizarre but internally consistent logic as the various sections of the gigantic big-band submit to the will of a cocksure, dinner-jacketed Lucifer. It’s also quite likely the only piece of concert-hall repertoire where the bass singer gets to make devil-horns gesture at the audience.
Oliver Knussen (“I… came to the conclusion that, far from being a hodge-podge of separately-commissioned bits stuck together with mystical glue, as some would have us believe, within [Licht‘s] massive architecture can be found some of the most impressive and compelling hours of music Stockhausen ever composed” – from his programme introduction) conducted the London Sinfonietta for Stockhausen’s last work, completed the night before he died: an orchestral setting of the charming set of tunes he wrote in the seventies, collectively called Tierkreis (Zodiac). True to the end to his principle of questioning convention, the chamber orchestra is arse-about: winds and brass in the front, percussion to the side, strings at the back with the cellos on the left.
Despite being a relatively normal piece by his standards, Stockhausen still managed to fill it with surprising twists and moments of invention (some of which felt a little rough and may well have been revised during rehearsals had he lived). In the penultimate piece, Taurus, a tuba player strolls onto the stage and plays an insolent solo for the orchestra to follow (“quite humorous technician with strong lungs” Stockhausen wrote in an email to Knussen) before standing beside the conductor. He finishes his solo with a flourish and a bow, earning a round of applause from the audience as he strides off-stage while the orchestra plays on.