Gentle Fire: Explorations (1970 – 1973)

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Some archival releases are historically important, restoring a significant musical movement to present-day consciousness. Others can throw accepted history into a different light, making the past a deeper, richer source for new inspiration. As a modern musical experience, listening to historic recordings of the avant-garde is often an excercise in intellectual curiosity, or a dark form of amusement: the interpretations and performances are often unpolished or uninformed, at worst incompetent and, even at their best, often drily literal (and sometimes no worse for that). It’s a rare and exciting event when the archaeological trip works equally well as a compelling new release.

Gentle Fire: Explorations (1970 – 1973) is a superlative example of all that is best in archival box sets. Paradigm Discs has form for presenting ‘lost’ music at its most potent; this set has been years in the making and all the work has paid off in spades. In late twentieth century avant-garde music, the British group Gentle Fire is often mentioned but seldom heard. Active in the late 60s and early 70s, they remain best remembered for a small vinyl legacy: their recording of Stockhausen’s Sternklang and a German LP of pieces by the New York School. CD reissues are piecemeal and/or capriciously expensive. Explorations is three CDs of Gentle Fire recordings which, as far as I can tell, have never been publically available in complete form. Even if you are familiar with the 70s LPs, everything’s an ear-opener.

Disc one tackles familiar territory: previously unreleased performances of Cage, Stockhausen, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown and Toshi Ichiyanagi, all from 1970 or 1971. The typically rough-hewn electroacoustic sounds of the period are all present and correct, yet it all sounds less stark or abrasive than other contemporary avant-gardisms, even compared to their own LP. The only repeat here is Brown’s Four Systems, given an ingeniously austere realisation with Hugh Davies applying band-pass filters to a droning string ensemble (other group members Graham Hearn, Richard Orton, Richard Bernas, Michael Robinson and Stuart Jones filling in on whatever instrument is needed). There’s more detail in the Electrola LP, but the recording here is more focused on a coherent musical statement than on numbering off each of the score’s elements. It’s this emphasis on using open scores to produce a fully realised piece of music instead of “exploring possibilities” that sets Gentle Fire apart from other experimental music groups of the time. The disc starts off with a small surprise, with Christian Wolff’s For Jill instructing the performers to concentrate on combinations of selected notes into chords – an unusually traditional material compared to his better-known group realisations. An ensemble of home-made instruments by Davies et al nudges Wolff’s score back into the uncanny.

Two selections from Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen (Aufwärts and Treffpunkt) show the strength of the ensemble’s musical vision. They’re not afraid to “lead the tone wherever your thoughts lead you” as enjoined by the score, even as Stockhausen heavily directs those thoughts towards convergence. Their idea of “always return to the same place” is a lot more conceptually open and makes the piece soar in unexpected ways. Similarly with Aufwärts, where unlike with at least one other ensemble, they would not agree with, let alone solicit, Stockhausen’s guidance on what “the rhythm of the universe” might be. (Incidentally, there’s a great article in The Wire going over Gentle Fire’s history with the surviving members, including the whole “working with Stockhausen” experience.) Ichiyanagi’s Appearance threatens to get aggressively harsh but never lets up the suspense, with judicious use of ring modulators and sinewave generators creating a bleak, ominous landscape out of trumpet, cello and electric organ. Cage’s Cartridge Music does get appropriately rowdy, amping up small sounds into a cavernous roar. It’s a live recording and the audience is plainly amused by the antics required to produce some of these noises, thus fulfilling Cage’s wish that electronic music be at least as theatrically satisfying as live acoustic performance.

The second two discs are the real revelation, featuring compositions by individual group members and two large “group compositions”, each one shocking in how they interect with both their own time and ours. The pieces bring a healthy dose of the Cagean, Fluxusy extremes of the US avant-garde into the distinctly more genteel British millieu. It was a fertile period, sort of post-Cage but pre-Nyman, and Explorations expands this field hugely, beyond the usual assumed constraints of process music and the assumed freedoms of AMM. That skill for mixing acoustic and electronic comes into its own here. Stuart Jones’ Ruthie’s Piece sounds almost contemporary, using isolated piano sounds with heavy ring modulation against soft cello harmonics to create what could pass for 21st-century ambient. Richard Bernas’ Almanac For September is a more restless work but it also sets muted piano against cello harmonics, using purely acoustic means to alter tone and resonance in ways that resemble electronic processing. In Michael Robinson’s 2 Pianos Piece the composer is joined by Richard Bernas in a lop-sided process of repetition and augmentation that would fit alongside works by John White or Christopher Hobbs. Graham Hearn’s Centrepiece takes a rudimentary idea of “soloist with tape loops” and interprets it as a haunting, evocative soundtrack of muffled organ lost amongst the remnants of run-out grooves on old records. It’s a long, long way from the academic exposition of novel compositional structures.

The two group compositions push into new territories, with performance verging on installation. Group Composition VI (unfixed parities) from 1973 has the ensemble electronically transmitting and modifying speaking voices, filtering and disrupting speech with modified telephone equipment to create a dense, barely intelligible verbal soundscape. Its sonic novelty is ripe with the implications of technology, reproduction and intervention, information overload, alienation and spatial dislocation. As a dispassionately prophetic work, it’s a thrilling and disturbing space for meditation. In fleeting moments it recalls various Alvin Lucier compositions. Group Composition IV originated on the Pyramid Stage at the first Glastonbury festial in 1971 and is here recorded at the Roundhouse in London the following year. It features the gHong, a large assembly of suspended metal rods which can be played collective and coaxed into a wide array of complex sounds, augmented by various additional instruments, including Davies’ own homebrew springboards and a VCS3 synthesizer. This recording takes up the entire third disc, sounding and resounding for over an hour of deeply textured sounds that are simultaneously monumental and delicate. It’s a glorious thing.

Sound quality ranges from good (the concert recordings) to great; the cleanup work is seamless and transparent. The CD version comes in a slick box and a hefty, well-edited booklet with plenty of pictures, full documentation of who did what where and when, and a complete reprint of Hugh Davies’ essential essay Gentle Fire: An Early Approach to Live Electronic Music. Exemplary. I think a second pressing is on the way.

Later thoughts on Mittwoch aus Licht

Thursday 9 July 2020

The morning after I saw Mittwoch aus Licht in Birmingham, I turned on the news and heard that Neil Armstrong had died. Suddenly, the Helicopter String Quartet made sense to me; in particular, the instruction that the scene be introduced by a compere who then leads a Q&A session with the performers and the audience after the quartet has been played. Like so many aspects of Stockhausen’s operas, it seemed an inexplicable but surprisingly rewarding decision to frame the scene in this way. Why single this scene out for audience explication? Next morning, it all became clear.

All mankind went to the moon; Armstrong was our delegate. The astronauts brought back photos and moon rocks for us to marvel over and discuss. Stockhausen couldn’t get all of us hovering in the air over Birmingham, so he brings the musicians and the pilots back to the audience so we could ask them what it was like. Birmingham Opera Company just streamed a video of the entire opera over the weekend and this line of thought came back to me. I didn’t write about Mittwoch at the time – it was all overwhelming and took too long to get down in words. Besides, many others wrote so well about it. In particular, there was analysis of the double image presented by the opera, which the production didn’t make overt but was present enough for the observant audience member to detect, in disconcerting glimpses.

The Helicopter String Quartet is a key part of the double image: like the moon landing, a technical triumph of ultimately limited value. The central figures of Licht – Michael, Eva and Lucifer – are largely absent from Mittwoch until the final, complex scene. Instead, we witness humans coming together in noble endeavours that are thwarted by their own vulnerabilities, compromised from the start by flawed premises. Each success, whether sending a string quartet into the air, a “world parliament” reaching agreement, or orchestra musicians passing audition, is heavily qualified by mundane, material considerations and circumscribed by limited vision. The Licht operas function as 21st century mystery plays: in Mittwoch, we witness humanity acting on its best impulses yet stumbling in the dark without the guidance of the divine. When the great planet-shitting camel (work with me, here) makes its entrance in that last, complex scene and starts singing in the signature bass tones of Lucifer, it’s a warning that we have been led astray.

Stockhausen: Kontakte (Barton/Rhys)

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Some physicists hope that evidence will be found that contradicts the Standard Model, opening up an entirely new understanding of how the universe works; in the meantime, the theory remains disappointingly consistent. At times, it can seem that a vast swathe of electroacoustic music over the past sixty years has simply been a matter of spinning off variations of elements from Stockhausen’s Kontakte. Alternative pathways are investigated, but Kontakte persists as its own standard model. Its brilliant use of sound and space, its theatricality, the innovation born of thorough application of an elaborate internal logic make it irresistably seductive to a composer; perhaps dangerously so, for with its appeal to the imagination comes the implication that its methods are irrefutably correct. The last time I heard it live in its piano/percussion incarnation was in a concert in Berlin last year, and when it came up while describing my holiday to a friend she sighed “Not that again.”

A new recording has now been released as download only by All That Dust. This follows up on their previous download releases of works by Babbitt and Nono, which suggests that this Kontakte shares a mission to re-examine and renew works from the past. The GBSR duo of percussionist George Barton and pianist Siwan Rhys play the instrumental parts, accompanied by the four-channel electronic tape. This is a binaural recording, so even in this stereo presentation the spatialisation of sound is notable. The sound quality is wonderfully clear and detailed, which suits Barton’s and Rhys’ playing style admirably.

When I’ve listened to recordings, it’s almost always been one from the 60s (Caskel with Tudor or Kontarsky) so my judgement might get clouded here. The technology of the time makes it almost inevitable that one of the ‘contacts’ referred to in the title is in the connections between the electronic and acoustic sounds – certainly to modern ears. GBSR have described their own approach in detail, describing it as “the key work in the piano and percussion duo repertoire.” It’s a telling remark, placing the focus firmly on the instruments over the tape part that gets so much attention. They proceded to ‘internalise’ the piece, playing from memory; an approach that Stockhausen himself came to demand with regularity over the following years. The result is strongly theatrical despite the absence of visuals, combined with an immensely detailed and colourful sound. Details I hadn’t focused on before, even in live performances, stand out here. Perhaps the playing approach allows for a slight but significant feeling of spontaneity to the instruments, even though the tape cannot really allow it. Wood or skin sounds come out distinctly organic in contrast to the electronics; piano and metal have their own unique characteristics, too.

It almost feels a little weird, finding these little flecks and splashes of new colours in the once familiar texture. (Even in the concert hall, the piece can tend towards homogeneity in parts, owing to the composer’s passion for constant activity at the service of a theory.) If Barton and Rhys are somehow taking liberties, then I’m for it. Stockhausen built a career out of finely-judged transgressions, so it’s nice to keep him weird.

Samstag aus Licht in Paris

Tuesday 16 July 2019

A friend of mine once attended the summer school Stockhausen hosted at Kürten each year. When he told me about it, we joked back and forth about the ridiculousness of it all, the cult atmosphere, the white outfits, the harem, the cosmic consciousness, the megalomania. I asked him what the course was like and he suddenly got serious. “It changed my life.” He then stressed that he didn’t mean just music, he meant life itself.

Having experienced four of Stockhausen’s Licht operas now, I can fully understand my friend’s attitude. The premise is hopelessly overambitious, the substance absurd to the point of offensiveness, the execution demands the preposterous. And each time, the audience (sometimes with the performers) ends up milling around outside the venue afterwards in a state of euphoria.

After getting enthused about the Le Balcon’s staging of Donnerstag aus Licht at Southbank, I looked them up to see when they planned the next instalment of their proposed complete cycle in Paris, only to find out it was happening this summer. It was a short but unforgettable holiday. Le Balcon has been taking a relatively practical approach to staging these spectacles, so I was worried that the relatively stripped-back approach would take the edge off Samstag, which places a heavier reliance on theatrical presentation over libretto to tell its story.

No fear of that. Each scene depicts a single, bold image, detailed in music and gesture more than words. It is almost childishly simple. Of the three Licht protagonists, Samstag takes Lucifer as its subject, and your immediate hopes that this will make the opera suitably badass are pretty much fully rewarded. From the first scene where Lucifer stalks onto the stage, bangs out an ominous chord on a piano and summons his musician, this production captured the right mix of hermetic esoterica and giddy coups de théâtre. (Bass Damien Pass pulled off the portayal of Lucifer as self-possessed arrogance covering a deep-set core of anxiety.) Over the following scenes, the piano was pressed into service as a podium and then, end on, as a protruding tongue from a grimacing, demonic face. The use of projections was highly effective, illuminating the music and its underlying symbolic conceits without cluttering things up.

That theme of transformation was strongly present again. In Donnerstag, it is largely confined to the stage but from Samstag onwards Stockhausen turned his attention to transforming the audience. Le Balcon ran the first three scenes together into an unbroken span of three hours. Even on that supremely hot weekend, the punters stayed focused and enthusiastic throughout. (Props to the elderly lady who strolled away afterwards, bedecked with explosive debris from the first scene as a trophy.) The final scene of Lucifer’s exorcism and farewell took place in, and in front of, a nearby church. At six PM we were all calmly taking our seats in a concert hall; by eleven we were in a mob on the street rapturously cheering while passersby were inadvertently sprayed with debris by coconut-hurling monks chanting St Francis’ Salutatio Virtutum. “What’s going on?” one tourist asked me. We’ve exorcised Lucifer, have some coconut.

Stockhausen For Times To Come

Monday 10 June 2019

The Stockhausen fest at Southbank which started with Donnerstag aus Licht reverted to business as usual with a quick tour of the standards – Kontakte, Stimmung, Klavierstücke, Mantra – with one notable exception: a Sunday matinee in the Purcell Room of selections from Für kommende Zeiten, given by the always-adventurous ensemble Apartment House. A sequel of sorts to the notorious set of “intuitive music” compositions Aus den Sieben Tagen, the short texts that make up Für kommende Zeiten are less metaphysical than those of its predecessor and more focused on musical means. They are also much less known, sufficiently obscure that even freaky music buffs who like Aus den Sieben Tagen never seem to have heard of them.

It shouldn’t be hard to appreciate that Aus den Sieben Tagen is truly composition, not conditions for improvisation. The texts set rigorous conditions for the musicians’ mental state and receptiveness and to play intuitively from those conditions instead of a fully-articulated score. Damned if I can tell one from another though, when listening to most of them. Für kommende Zeiten is more explicit and so allows for a more obvious identity to each piece, but even so the nature of that particular identity can be open to interpretation. It takes a concentrating mind to make music from Stockhausen’s instructions with an approach that remains faithful to the meaning in the text. It’s too easy to lapse into self-absorbed noodling or a dry technical exercise, with the composer’s strictures crowding out any other concerns. Conversely, particularly in the case of Für kommende Zeiten, any straying from the score becomes especially obvious, even when the texts work through images and allusions.

For this event, Apartment House consisted of Rhodri Davies on harp, Simon Limbrick on percussion, Philip Thomas and Kerry Yong on piano and keyboards, with Anton Lukoszeveize on cello. Their playing was exemplary in making a coherent, satisfying musical experience while still feeling spontaneous – “intuitive” as Stockhausen would put it. Whether Stockhausen would have recognised or approved this interpretation is another matter; part of the freshness of this gig was the sneaking suspicion that he would not. He did tend to impose a sort of aesthetic austerity coupled with expressive technique. Apartment House favoured clearer, simpler (but not easy) gestures, which gave everything a more open texture throughout.

Eight pieces from the set of 17 were played, each one overlapping to make a continuous work that lasted around 75 minutes. It was nevertheless very clear when one piece gave way to the next, through a combination of smart sequencing and playing that combined fidelity to the score with imaginative interpretation. Beginning with the blindfold piano duo Interval, the isolated sounds were taken up by the others to create Elongation and then gathered together again for Bird of Passage before spreading out into sustained harmonies for Presentiment. Japan allowed breathing space, with more silences and added rainsticks to match Stockhausen’s evocative little poem, before the harmonising resumed in various patterns through Halt, Spectra and the more agitated Vibration to reach a conclusion.

Gentle use of electronics, amplification and extended techniques further distnguished and coloured each piece without distracting from the overall cohesion of the five instrumentalists. The punters in the surprising well-attended stalls appeared to enjoy it and it seemed to be over in less than an hour, which is always a good sign. This piece is about half a century old; can it now be considered safe? Stockhausen’s intuitive compositions still have the reputation of being a bit beyond the accepted limits of the avant-garde, but there’s so much about them now assimilated into musical practice. Despite this, Stockhausen always manages to imbue his music with a wayward silliness that leaves you with some nagging doubt that there’s some other level to it that we’re still not getting, yet.

Donnerstag aus Licht on Southbank

Tuesday 28 May 2019

A head full of pseudoephedrine and gin was never going to be an obstacle to enjoying a second performance of Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht. If needed, there were plenty of empty seats around Royal Festival Hall to loll around in but once again I found myself sitting attentively through the whole thing, even when it should have been soporific, by all rights.

This production, by French company Le Balcon, is the first of what is intended to be a production of the complete Licht cycle in Paris. The performances were just fine, while the staging was minimal, if not rudimentary. It was at least a massive improvement over the staging in Basel a few years back, which was less concerned with illuminating the drama than sheepishly rationalising it away. It’s no bad thing to have a stripped production of a Stockhausen opera – it suits the mystery-play nature of his theatre – but a bit of audacious spectacle would make for a better match with the music.

Experienced on stage without the Basel dramaturgy running interference, so much more of the drama inherent in the music was revealed; not just that overall theme of transcendence, which Basel tried valiantly tried to extinguish, but in recurring motifs that changed from one appearance to the next, allowing the audience to at least intuit some development in Stockhausen’s often tortuous parables. Using a bare orchestra stage, lighting and a few props, the music was trusted to carry the burden of the drama. It’s remarkable how different a place the stage seemed in Act Three compared to that in Act One.

Things I’d forgotten: Stockhausen’s use of musical space. Act One seems the most conventional, yet for most of its hour duration features just three voices in counterpoint against a soft, almost droning tape. Solo interjections from trumpet, basset horn and trombone are rare and brief. Like an x-ray of a traditional opera. Later, the held chords, sustained for ages with no dramatic foreground, aural or visual. Perhaps the real subject of the opera is simply the triumph of holding one’s nerve. I’d still like to see a production which can afford to be more ambitious without getting in the way.

Donnerstag aus Licht in Basel

Tuesday 28 June 2016

As with Cage, so with Stockhausen: composers who upset the musical establishment are told their music will not survive them. On Sunday I was at the new production of Stockhausen’s opera Donnerstag aus Licht in Basel. This version featured many performers from a new generation who brought out the depth and feeling within Stockhausen’s score and made the many technical demands seem natural to them. Stockhausen’s legacy continues to propagate without his physical presence.

As the first opera written in the Licht cycle Donnerstag is the most conventional, although already straining at the limitations of the opera hall. It foreshadows how later parts open out into the world while also immersing the audience deeper into a less compromising insistence on his idiosyncratic cosmology. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that the opera is a work of transformation. In unison with Michael’s emergence from the appearance of a relatable, if not typical, childhood into a spiritual presence in the universe, the matter of the opera steadily leads us from drama to religious contemplation. The music moves from drama to symbolic explication and meditation. Stockhausen’s later music has a remarkable ability to convey elements commonly associated with minimal music – timelessness, communion – while still generous and abundant with activity and detail. The soloists, chorus and orchestra in Basel all carried this duality beautifully.

Tragically, the staging of this production was incapable of escaping its earthbound origins, in conception and in execution. At critical points it betrayed a failure of nerve, with fatal consequences. The Greeting in the foyer and the first act started with intrigue and promise, establishing the material foundations of Michael’s first appearance (even though the Greeting’s 70s lounge suits didn’t connect with the Act I’s tracht and dirndl). Things go horribly wrong during Michael’s examinations at the end of the first act, which here were perversely interpreted as medical examinations as Michael succumbs to madness, same as his mother. The second act, Michael’s Journey Around the World, is thus set in a mental hospital; or rather, a 1970s caricature of a mental hospital. The ensuing antics are hackneyed and the use of mental illness to explain away Michael’s journeys and encounters is the middlebrow version of the tired old fallback of “it was all just a dream”. The whole second act becomes something of a bummer, which I’m pretty sure should never be the desired affect in a Stockhausen opera.

Throughout the opera, the scene returns to a dumbshow repetition of Michael’s childhood. Even in the third act Michael cannot move on from this display, and so the transformative essence of the opera is lost. This failure of Michael’s becomes a failure of this production. The director has taken a 1970s religious opera and regressed it to a 1930s expressionist psychodrama.

To honestly address Stockhausen’s operatic vision, one must fully commit to it – however bizarre it may be – if it is to work at all. Time after time this staging pulled its punches, retreating to a comfort zone of irony and psychology instead of grappling with the thornier issue of how to present a 21st century mystery play and the difficult implications of taking the text seriously. In Act II and the first half of the third act the action often becomes muddled, fussy and fidgety, as though to distract from the music. Michael’s homecoming in Act III is undermined by prolonged stage business which resorts to simply disregarding what is being sung.

Things on stage improve greatly when genuine conflict is introduced on stage through Stockhausen’s own libretto, as Michael confronts various manifestations of Luzifer. Finally, the action on stage returns to illuminating the music. The concluding scene is also handled very well, at last allowing the audience to focus in stillness on what has gone before. By this time the production has almost redeemed itself. Even here, though, the various personifications of Michael appear as in youth, from the first act. The director just cannot move on.

You can set the New Testament in a bowling alley in space for all I care, but if you present the Gospel as the story of one man’s journey to overcome obstacles in search of self-fulfilment then it will seem worse than strange, it will seem shallow and ignorant. No new light is shed.

So often in the Licht cycle Stockhausen takes banal and simplistic scenarios and somehow manages to elevate them through his music and his sense of experience shared through an audience. Too often this staging in Basel took elements of the mystical and fantastic and beat them down into the banal.

Abundance versus Excess: the Proms, part 2 and Stockhausen

Tuesday 8 October 2013

I just remembered I never got around to talking about seeing Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht in Birmingham last year. That needs to change soon. What sticks in my mind the most about it was the ending, the aftermath. Despite a very different opera with a very different approach to production, both Mittwoch and Sonntagpremiered the year before in Cologne – left the audience in a common state of euphoria. The punters and the performers mingled about long afterwards, everybody just beaming.

Since then I’ve wondered how much of this effect on the listener was down to the music and how much to theatre, the spectacle, the sense of occasion. One of the Proms concerts this year gave me a chance to find out, by repeating Ex Cathedra’s performance of Welt-Parlament in a concert setting. As part of Mittwoch, this scene is one of the highlights. As a stand-alone work on the stage (as opposed to surrounding and wandering through the audience) it’s equally effective, holding attention throughout it’s babel of languages and small dramas, the individual voices united by a common musical and ideological resolution. Ex Cathedra nailed it both times, and they sold Stockhausen’s requisite moments of pantomime without being arch.

More Stockhausen: August at the Roundhouse, with the London Contemporary Orchestra. Four selections from the Klang cycle, including Cosmic Pulses, the extraordinary electronic work for 24-channel surround sound that’s ideally suited to circular spaces. When I first heard it in the Albert Hall in 2008 it was one of the rare pieces that actually sounded good in the venue, and it was just as overwhelming in the Roundhouse.

Cosmic Pulses was the last piece in a long night that ended late. The gig started with the premiere of the 8-track version of Paradies, with two works for live musicians to follow: the string trio Hoffnung and the wind trio Balance. I’ve heard a recording of Hoffnung and wasn’t impressed – Stockhausen’s writing for solo strings always seems a bit wan compared to his other music. The trio from the LCO make a much better case for it. Balance is better still, and came with the added theatrical aspect of watching the bass clarinettist play while wearing a pretty cruel pair of platform heels.

I don’t think the heels were Stockhausen’s idea. As frequently noted in all the publicity for the gig, the musicians’ costumes were designed by Vivienne Westwood. Punters were issued coloured glasses to match the colours Stockhausen associated with each piece, and there was a slightly precious dégustation menu selling hors d’oeuvres before each piece. By coincidence, Conrad Shawcross’ kinetic light sculpture Timepiece was installed in the space, which should have ideally suited the music. It was all a great idea, in keeping with Stockhausen’s ideas of sensory immersion. Unfortunately the more opulent trappings sat uneasily with the stripped, seatless space of the Roundhouse, and the designer namedropping grated against the overtly devotional aspects of the music. The swinging of the sculpture’s lights overhead started to become an annoying distraction, the breaks between each piece made the evening drag. Also, Cosmic Pulses aside, the music wasn’t Stockhausen’s A-grade material.

Still more Stockhausen: last weekend, the London Sinfonietta with a killer performance of the landmark work Gruppen. This was a different kind of sensory overload, one which shows the difference between excess and abundance.

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.

The Day After SONNTAG

Friday 29 April 2011

I went to Cologne to see Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera SONNTAG aus LICHT, the culmination of his epic LICHT cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week. Only now has this opera been given a complete, fully-staged performance, some eight years after its completion and three years after the composer’s death. So much vague pronouncement and speculation has surrounded the LICHT project, based on what often seems so little direct experience, that I had to see it for myself.

Having said that, it seems impossible to discuss SONNTAG without going into a description of what happens in each of its five lengthy scenes, interpreted in this case by La Fura dels Baus, the same guys who did that version of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre I saw a while back. At the same time, it seems rather pointless to just give a rundown of what each scene contains: this will surely be covered in greater detail elsewhere. Some audience descriptions are online, along with video and photos of the production.

SONNTAG is an opera with no plot, not even any dramatic tension; not does it attempt to work on the audience to extract a catharsis as so much theatre which passes itself off as ‘ritual’. It matches perfectly a description I once read of Stockhausen’s earlier Sirius: “a sci-fi mystery play”. Each scene presents a tableau, depicting the spiritual aspects of all creation, in Stockhausen’s own peculiar vernacular.

I went into SONNTAG at noon on Easter Sunday and left at 9.30 that night. The next morning I went to see the service at the Kölner Dom, which included a performance of Liszt’s Choral Mass, and saw again much of what I had experienced the previous day. The use of word and music in affirmation of belief, the smoke and scent of the incense, the occasional chimes, the processions and movements of the clergy and of the congregation, the different colours of light suffusing the haze above the altar, from the sunlight streaming through Gerhard Richter’s windows, to the conclusion where the congregation turn to embrace each other. All of these aspects were present in Stockhausen’s opera. The connections between the two should not be at all surprising, but it was a powerful reminder that so much of what seems outlandish in Stockhausen’s music theatre has been an established part of life for centuries.