I’ve just returned from a week in Rome. It was good to get away from the freezing drizzle of London to a milder soaking, of a type that made me nostalgic for winters in Melbourne, back in the days when it rained. Actually, it made me nostalgic for Melbourne coffee too.
Right now I really need to find a new job, but there’ll be at least a couple of posts over the next few days. Stand by for photos of quaint old Fiat 500s and the world’s wussiest gladiator.
The Stockhausen: Total Immersion post is finally ready, immediately below. This blog won’t be updated again until the end of next week, so in the meantime please entertain yourselves with this innovative example of Australian TV continuity from the Good Old Days:
The lingering question is: after three concerts on Saturday, after the week of gigs in November and the two Proms shows, have I had enough of Karlheinz Stockhausen yet? Not at all.
My long-suffering girlfriend agrees, on the whole; although she disagreed with me about Inori, one of the two major performances of the weekend. This piece was written in the early 1970s and, being a 75-minute work for large orchestra and two mimes, is sometimes pointed to a sign of Stockhausen’s encroaching, messianic loopiness that mars his later reputation.
Inori develops ideas from Stockhausen’s earlier, equally monumental but better-known works – the ritualistic experience of Stimmung and the use of formula composition in Mantra – and so points the way to the Licht operas, which exploit both aspects to the fullest possible extent. Inori‘s formula is a 15-note melody from which all attributes of the piece are derived. It’s interesting that for all of Stockhausen’s arcane impulses, he still wants to communicate with his audience. The ‘melody’ is heard first as rhythm alone, with the orchestra articulating and colouring a single, repeated G. The formula slowly reveals itself, section by section, adding dynamics to the rhythm, then harmony – all derived from the formula itself. In the latter half of the piece the melody itself is finally heard, before being elaborated in a formula-derived polyphony.
This is some of Stockhausen’s most powerful music; its static blocks of orchestral colour, processional qualities, and air of spiritual devotion rather than personal aggrandisement make it feel more Messiaenic than messianic. The spiritual and ritualistic element of the piece is made clear by the presence of the two mimes, who perform in unison a choreography of prayer gestures, whose increasing complexity further reflects and elucidates the underlying formula, expanding it into another dimension.
The girlfriend was put off by the mimes. She thought they were a distraction, and stranded the work as a relic of the times in which it was written. She also disliked the way the two of them (Alain Louafi and Stockhausen initiate Kathinka Pasveer) performed in slightly different styles, not exactly in synch. I thought this helped the performance, as it emphasised each individual’s devotional communion, over the need for a perfect surface appearance – but I may be arguing from ignorance.
The two mimes performed on a platform constructed above the conductor – a rather ungainly and rickety-looking affair, painted hospital blue. It’s apparently very old, dating back possibly to the first performance thirty-odd years ago. Stockhausen’s acolytes were insistent that the platform be reassembled exactly the way it had been done every time before, much to the annoyance of many in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, to say nothing of the health and safety reps. This incongruous juxtaposition of the dilapidated platform with such finely-crafted music became a feature of Stockhausen’s music theatre.
In any case, we all had a better time of it than the BBC Singers earlier in the day. The afternoon concert ended with Stockhausen’s late choral work Litanei 97, a piece which like so much later Stockhausen demands extra-musical skills from the performers. It suffered from some uncertainty amongst the singers as they were required to circle around the hall, and the conductor struggling with an errant temple gong that made a break for it across the floor about halfway through.
The evening ended with an airing of Stockhausen’s 2-hour electronic work from the late 1960s, Hymnen. It’s one of his most famous and celebrated pieces, yet it’s also curiously inaccessible these days, both to actually get hold of and hear, and to understand.
The basic premise and material are well-known: recordings of national anthems from around the world are electronically deconstructed. The philosophical implications can easily be imagined, and Stockhausen pursues the utopian ideal with all the simplistic confidence particular to his generation. What is particularly notable, and disturbing, is the emphasis on destruction throughout the work, as familiar sounds are repeatedly pulverised beyond recognition.
The result often feels more like some new kind of anti-music. Stockhausen’s compositional methods of the time created an apparently free-form narrative that drifts and digresses from one moment to the next, including large negative spaces of near-static and metafictional comments on the compositional process itself.
Sitting in the dark for such a long time, contemplating the strange mix of familiar and unfamiliar sounds as they moved around the four speakers in the hall, was a perculiarly compelling concert experience. The white spotlight from the November gigs was back, but sitting with eyes closed or nursing a plastic cup of rioja removed this distraction. Hymnen works in a way that Stockhausen would not have intended, especially now that its Cold War politics have dissipated. It is an ambiguous, elusive essay on entropy – of social structures, of music, of the world and sound itself – and on the vanity of human wishes, whether to achieve power or to remove it.
Yeah, but it’ll be a bit spotty over the next week or two. In the meantime, here’s Dormobile Number Seventeen, a fine left-hand drive specimen spotted on the same block and Numbers Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, and Twelve.
I’m back again. I was going to update the blog with posts about finally getting to see the Rothko show at the Tate gossip about the impending Stockhausen gig at the Barbican, as well as preparing some new music webpages and oh who am I kidding I got sacked today.
I’m back. Sorry I haven’t updated the blog much lately but I’ve been busy what with finally getting to see the Rothko show at the Tate and gathering gossip about the impending Stockhausen gig at the Barbican, as well as preparing some new music webpages and oh who am I kidding I’ve been watching darts all weekend.
This year’s champion is the splendidly-named Ted Hankey, who made a comeback after losing it at the oche last year when Aussie Simon Whitlock’s weapons-grade mullet mesmerised him into punching the dartboard. Ted attributes his renewed success to a rigorous training regime of cutting down from ten pints before a match to three. I’m not making any of this up. Looking at his photo, it’s scary to think he’s only a year older than I am.
It’s not normal for a nation’s press to care about a cricket series on the other side of the world that doesn’t involve said nation. Unless I checked the fine print in the sports sections of the papers, the British media would offer me no clue as to the Australian test team’s performance – which is perfectly natural. However, in the past few weeks the BBC’s sports reports have become increasingly concerned with the current series of Australia versus South Africa. British newspaper columnists are quietly excited at the prospect of Australia losing the third test and no longer being the number one cricketing nation in the world.
The fact that the England team are ranked at number five and had no part to play in their former colony’s potential downfall is irrelevant: just the fact that someone has beaten them is a source of vicarious satisfaction. It’s like the instinctive barracking by a neutral country for whoever is playing against the USA at the Olympics, writ large.
New year’s resolution: stop making promises. A late offer of a car trip through the countryside over the weekend crueled my plans for staying home updating a silly old blog.
Also, I’ve thought about offering my own review of 2008, as others have done, but unlike last year no neat list comes to mind. For a number of reasons both within and outside of my control it was a sketchy, underwhelming year. Not enough travel, not enough art, not enough pleasant social intercourse.
For the greater part of the year I was preoccupied with legal hassles involving the dodgy dealings of a real estate company who lost some money I’d paid them, which they decided entitled them to send the bailiffs around demanding I pay them again, plus interest. So for me, when I think highlights of the year, I think of taking those chancers to court and watching the judge smacking them – almost literally.
Apart from that, the thing that really sticks out is, a year after his death, just how important Stockhausen is to music, and probably to the arts in general. Over the past year his name has come up again and again. I saw and heard more by and about Stockhausen in the past year than in the rest of my life put together. In fact, I’ll be hearing more later this month.