The Day Before SONNTAG

Tuesday 3 May 2011

The evening before Easter Sunday I was sitting in a bar, quite unwittingly thinking over what I’d been wanting to write for some time about the various concerts I’d been to lately. Besides getting a little bit drunk I was jotting down notes about gigs I’d been seeing, and thinking over what Robert Ashley meant when he said, “Recitals are a curse.

At first, Ashley’s critique has some superficial similarity to Glenn Gould’s “Let’s Ban Applause!“. So much of Gould’s opinions on live versus recording are rubbish, I thought, scribbling down a few points about what I’d experienced at the Xenakis gig at Southbank a few weeks ago, or at Exaudi’s performance of Cage’s Song Books a week before that. Yes, I have some caveats about live performance; but I’ll get to these points another time.

Ashley, inevitably, pursues the point further, out of my comfort zone.

As a member of the audience you are a consumer and a consumer only…. Whatever it is, you are not part of it. You have been a watcher. The recitalist hopes that you have been entertained. But you have not been included….

The composer does not have the idea of including the people who come while the music is being enacted. We have lost the idea of the rituals that remind the people who come that what is happening is only a small part, a “surfacing” of the continuing musicality of everyday life.

At the time I was considering these problems, it didn’t occur to me that the next day I would witness Stockhausen’s earnest attempts to include the audience in SONNTAG aus LICHT. His approaches were characteristically unsubtle. The opening scene, Lichter-Wasser, specifies that the musicians proceed through and are stationed amongst the audience, with the singers given circuits to follow around and between audience members. The final scene, Hoch-Zeiten, as staged by La Fura dels Baus, threw punters in amidst five groups of dancers and, surrounded by rotating projections of video and music, left everyone to fend for themselves.

In between, at the composer’s behest, we were surrounded by processions of choirs, censers of various fragrances, and illustrative projections (three-dimensional, in this case). As we left the theatre and walked out into the park or loitered around the entrance, Stockhausen’s farewell music played on through loudspeakers outside the building. Walking along the Rhine afterwards, I could still hear occasional faint snatches of it when the breeze blew the right way. Even in his conception of the work, Stockhausen intended SONNTAG to be performed over three nights, compelling audiences to return to a common place of communion.

The LICHT cycle is intended as a ritual of worship, and consistently strives to impress upon the audience the spiritual essence of all creation and the interconnectedness of music and spirituality. Towards the end we even saw Stockhausen’s list of “issues and challenges for Humanity”. There are ten of them: the comparison to commandments is irresistable. “1. Humanity must pray.” “3. Humanity must support cosmic art music.” “7. Humanity must use sleep for contacting the angels.” Stockhausen’s music is dedicated to the task of creating a spiritual context for itself, to validate the meaning it carries.

Beneath all this effort lurks Ashley’s issue and challenge for the audience. If the music is foreign to you, there is no emotional connection for you to recognise it as part of your life. “We should expect that the audience is a part of the music, and this is not true, even if the audience is entirely music students. This is the dilemma of contemporary music. The ritual has disappeared. The event is hollow.” Stockhausen’s grand plan to create a new ritual was perhaps, as I’ve previously suggested, doomed before it could begin.