Stockhausen: Total Immersion

Tuesday 20 January 2009

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.

Also: Hymnen streaming online!
Excerpts from Lecture on HU (video) and Inori (audio) on the Stockhausen website.