Trans Repetition (Part Two)

Monday 10 November 2008

(Continued from Part One)
Stockhausen himself apparently decided that Trans should be played twice in an evening: a recurring dream, the red light giving it a hellish look. One of Samuel Beckett’s hells, a confined space in which the actors are condemned to repeat their futile actions. A misprint in the programme claimed the second performance would be ten minutes shorter than the first. I wondered if the repeat would suddenly black out in mid-phrase, like the ending of Beckett’s Play.
I previously suggested – in another parallel with John Cage, as it happens – that Stockhausen’s ideas had been given attention, for his good or ill, ahead of his music. The second performance, despite the addition of dramatic baggage to its theatrical presentation, allowed for closer attention to be paid to the writing for the unseen brass and winds, roiling ominously in the darkness, and for appreciation of the work more as music than as just a coup de théâtre.
So why did F announce she hated it as soon as the second performance concluded? She thinks it pushed itself too far, it revealed too much of its workings, and its strangeness quickly became overly familiar. It went from being a singular musical experience to a dramatic narrative, making itself more of an idea than a piece of music. I’m inclined to agree with her, and think it’s more true to its nature to be experienced as one experiences a dream: an illusion that passes before the senses and is gone, its lingering presence felt more than recalled in detail.

As it turned out, F also disliked Cosmic Pulses on its second hearing, in contrast to when we first heard it at the Proms. In the Queen Elizabeth Hall the sound felt too close, and came across as harsh, flat and dull as it hurtled around the relatively more confined space. (The eight-speaker audio system had a few glitches at the beginning, too.) The premiere of Urantia had similar problems, as it consisted of three of the twenty-four layers of electronic sounds that make up Cosmic Pulses, with the addition of a recorded soprano. “Oh my god,” whispered someone in the seats behind us when it was over, but the tone suggested more exasperation than revelation. A kinder environment would probably create the effect of otherworldly awe, but in this hall it became grating.
The larger space of the Royal Festival Hall would have been a much more sympathetic space for these electronic works, as the Sunday night performance of Stockhausen’s early Gesang der Jünglinge proved. All three works had the same method of visual presentation: a small, white spotlight projected onto the back wall of the stage. F didn’t care much for this either, thinking it lacked imagination.

This has all sounded rather negative, but the next post will dwell on the highlights of last week’s Stockhausen’s concerts. The popular assertion that “the rule of thumb must be: the earlier the piece, the better” is as nonsensical as the waning myth that all of Cage’s “chance” music sounds the same.