Stockhausen: The High Road

Monday 4 August 2008

Apologies for this post, which I don’t have time to revise or edit right now.
I went back to the Albert Hall for the Proms for the first time in years, because on Saturday night they promised damn near 4 hours of Karlheinz Stockhausen. This would have been the 80th birthday celebration bash, if not for the composer’s unexpected death in December.
Earlier this year I saw an improvised sort-of performance of Kontakte, Stockhausen’s 1960 electronic composition for tape, with optional parts for live pianist and percussionist. The Proms performance was the real deal – with the 4-track tape spatially projected around the hall, the full complement of microphones prescribed by Stockhausen to fully capture the sound of the live musicians – and to compare this high road performance favourably with the gig I heard in March would be fatuous.
As I said at the time, “This is music which needs curators, institutions – much the same way that many postwar visual artists are dependent upon controlled, neutral gallery space, constant maintenance, and supervision, to present and preserve their works.” In the Albert Hall the tape, nearly 50 years old, gained from having its details revealed, rather than having any flaws exposed. The abundant variety of sounds produced with such a small array of crude equipment was particularly striking. The percussionist and pianist (who is also given percussion parts to play at certain points) acted both as less and more than soloists over a backing tape; they amplified and drew into relief the sonic world and dramatic tension of the original tape part.
You wouldn’t think it possible to find a piece of music suited to the Royal Albert Hall, with its infamous echo and cavernous space that swallows up sounds. Even Stockhausen’s fearsome work Gruppen for three orchestras was tamed by the space. This landmark composition was played twice – to begin and end the first concert – the better for us to grasp its wealth of details and complex interplays between orchestras. However, the visceral impact of Gruppen was dulled by the architecture. As well as the wishy-washy acoustics, the floorplan of the hall forced two of the orchestras into close proximity at the centre of the space, meaning that the players were more surrounded by the punters, not the other, intended way around. To make matters worse, the punters holding standing room tickets were squashed into the reduced isthmus of space between the two orchestras, while the third was up and away on the stage.
The second performance of Gruppen benefited particularly from hearing Kontakte immediately before it, to better realise just how strongly Stockhausen’s writing for musicians had been influenced by his pioneering work with tape and electronics during the 1950s.
Amazingly, the Royal Albert felt like it had been constructed specially for the playing of Stockhausen’s very late (2007) electronic work Cosmic Pulses. Like much later Stockhausen, the piece’s material feels much simpler and less forbidding than the dense abstraction of his music from the 50s. Bell-like sounds, as might be heard on an old synthesiser, tolled and slowly rotated around the circular hall. For the next half-hour, these bells circled the space in ever higher registers at ever faster speeds, building up into a whirling mass of sound that was simultaneously rapturous and intimidating, beguiling and maddening.
You could intuit that there was a process behind the sound, of each strand of sounds obeying certain cyclical speeds and patterns, but that knowledge did nothing the music’s power or mystery. It had the sublime indifference of a natural phenomenon. Looking up into the hall’s dome, pinpricks of light from the evening sky could be seen through gaps in the roof, like a night sky strewn with the stars that figured so prominently in Stockhausen’s music.
The second concert of the night was given entirely to a performance of Stimmung, Stockhausen’s long work for six voices singing harmonic overtones of a low B-flat for over an hour. Early last year I heard a quasi-amateur performance of Stimmung, so again it would be fatuous to say that Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices performance for the Proms was superior. However, they shared a difference from the recording I’ve heard of the piece by Singcircle: a greater sense of drama and physicality than Singcircle’s uniform serenity.
In addition to the strongest overtone singing I’ve heard in a performance of the piece (some punters afterward believed they were electronic effects), Theatre of Voices invested their performance with the solemn informality of a true ritual, unifying the spiritual and corporeal aspects of Stockhausen’s vision as embodied in the text’s inclusion of the names of gods and self-penned erotic poetry (which, in true British fashion, were printed in the programme but not translated).
Stimmung is both so direct and so elusive – another punter has described Stockhausen’s staging instructions, observing that part of his appeal is his disarming sincerity and the “home-made feel” of much of his music and theatre – it seems impossible to define. It is often described as “meditative” but it has an equally stimulating effect, as observed amongst the standing room punters. Many of them were sitting on the floor for the performance, and more and more began lying down as the piece progressed. Then, about three-quarters of the way through, a number of them suddenly felt compelled to stand and take a step or to forward, actively attentive for the rest of the piece.