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Stockhausen Day at the Barbican

Adieu & Kontrapunkte
Kalvierstucke Nos I-IV, VII and IX
Choral, Chöre für Doris & Litanei 97

Guildhall New Music Ensemble/Richard Baker
BBC Singers/David Hil
Nicolas Hodges, piano

LSO St Luke’s, London 17 January 2009

This major lunchtime concert (2 hrs 15 mins) was happily given at St Lukes, one of the best venues in London, and was sold out. It was an unique experience, not quickly to be forgotten.

The Guildhall students gave highly polished accounts of two works for chamber ensemble. Kontrapunkte 'made Stockhausen's reputation' but remains hard to engage with as a listener. I found myself more responsive to Adieu, a memorial piece for wind quintet of considerable beauty, marked by abrupt interpolations and long silences.

Nicolas Hodges gave a selection from the Klavierstucke, which I had found exciting through the Kontarski brothers pioneering LPs, but seem to have faded from the repertoire (apart from No 9, heard earlier this month in Benjamin Powell's PLGYA recital). I confess that despite Hodges advocacy they were less compelling on re-acquaintance. You can sample them on your computer.

Most memorable was the contribution of the BBC Singers, who raised the temperature in the second half. Choral & Chöre für Doris (1950, before Stockhausen went to Darmstadt, which changed his life) were glorious to hear, the choir stretched across the back of the platform in two long rows.

But Litanei 97, overlong at c.20 mins (it felt like more), represented Stockhausen at his most pretentious and stretched our patience and sympathy. Given in a choral speaking style (reminding me of doing Greek tragedies and Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral at school), the singers were dressed up in floor-length cloaks with gold collars and sleeve decorations, and required to circulate around marked circles, stamping from time to time, and needing video-assistance to keep in touch with the singing conductor in the middle.

The composer's own embarrassing and grandiose text told us how Stockhausen believed that he did not 'make' his music but received it as vibrations to be translated (rather like Scelsi, who likewise believed himself to not be a 'composer').

The complicated requirements to use specified registers in Litanei 97 made the choral speech great to hear for the first ten minutes or so, but the piece long outstayed its welcome, and decided me not to risk Inori with mime dancers in the evening. The singers finished by mingling with the audience and distributing pages of the score - see illustration :-

Peter Grahame Woolf

Stockhausen – Inori and Hymnen

Barbican Hall 17th December 2009


A “formula composition”, said Stockhausen, was one where a basic idea generated ever expanding forms. Stockhausen’s Harmonien, for example, morphs through different instruments and ensembles. Inori is an extension of Mantra, a dialogue for two pianos. The same basic concept applies, where ideas are passed between performers, examined and passed on for further development.  Perhaps all music stems from similar basics, but with Stockhausen, the process is drawn out, so it can actually be witnessed in operation.  Inori is full of incident, descriptive and eventful. It’s music that begs for film – if only Stockhausen had written it for cinema!  Here, two mime artists mount a platform and act out the “conversation”.

Kathinka Pasveer was Stockhausen’s muse, so with Alain Louafi [pictured] we were getting as authentic an event as possible. Despite the crisp playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under  David Robertson, who has a real affinity for Stockhausen, Inori is drawn out rather long, a conceptual experience rather than wholly musical.


Even more conceptual was Hymnen. Total darkness in the Barbican Hall, only a projected circle of light at the top of the stage. Was this a symbol of the moon or just a circle of light, like a spotlight without performer ? That’s why Hymnen works so well, for me, anyway. It is a game of illusion, provoking myriad different interpretations.  There aren’t any performers as such. The music materializes invisibly, projected from electronic mixes at the sound desk.  But what do these sounds signify? We hear snatches of anthems like Deutschland über Alles. Obviously, Stockhausen was no Nazi. Perhaps he’s recreating very early memories, for the sound is distorted, fragmented, incomplete. We‘re confronted with our own assumptions by what this music “means”.  We forget that the words were written in 1841 and the music is in fact by Haydn. When we listen, we’ve added our own modern connotations. Similarly, Stockhausen throws in snatches of what we recognise as “God Save the Queen”. That, too, has a past life of its own, disassociated from present meaning.  Stockhausen then skewers that idea by throwing in the Internationale and The Star Spangled Banner for good measure. They are too well embedded in the music to be simple commentaries on politics and power.


Are they “music” at all ? The electronic fragmentation dominates the narrative, such as it is, so the hymns are heard through a filter of unreality. It’s like playing with the dial on a long wave radio, catching indistinct snatches of sound from distant radio stations. Somewhere, someone is listening to a “real” programme, but all you hear, fiddling around with the dials, is what floats around in space on sound waves. Two very different aspects of “listening”. And what are we actually listening to?  Concrete music or particles of sound circulating through the ether like atoms, accidentally picked up in transmission?


For me, that’s why Hymnen works so well. It’s powerfully conceptual, turning the experience of listening on its head. What we “hear” comes from what we hear within our own minds as we filter what we “receive” and turn it into something we can make sense of. Or not, as the case may be. “We” are the performers, so to speak.


Yet again, Stockhausen, despite his reputation for being a control freak and autodictat, shows his subversive, humorous streak.  The last part of Hymnen revolves around the sounds of someone snoring. It’s too regular to be anything but a mechanical reproduction, it’s not “real” snoring.  Sometimes vast, somnolent chords crash in round the snoring, but it remains unchanged. Then snatches of Stockhausen’s voice are heard, cheerfully cajoling. Is he trying to wake the snorer ? No chance, this is tape loop, it can’t be changed that way.  


Personally I loved Hymnen, and came out feeling refreshed. Not so most of the audience, many of whom left part way. But that, too, is the choice Stockhausen offers.  Many of the anthems quoted in Hymnen were played to captive audiences who had no chance to walk out.


Anne Ozorio   

Sample Hymnen on youtube at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=o0aeagbZBRs and the whole from BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 31 January at 11.00 p.m...

For a very full review of this Stockhausen day, do see Mark Berry in The Boulezian [Editor]


Another report of the whole Total Immersion Day


The Barbican's day of 'Total Immersion' in Stockhausen invited a reconciliation between his early, acclaimed works and his mystifying later career. This was the tone of the first concert, at least, a peculiar mix of gilt successes (Kontra-Punkte and the Klavierstücke), oddities (Adieu, Choral and Chöre für Doris) and one late baffler (Litanei 97).


Adieu set the lopsided ball rolling. Wind quintet is an odd medium: it's vibrantly coloured but struggles with profundity. Its best repertoire (Stockhausen's own Zeitmasze notwithstanding) is lighthearted and ironic. It is, therefore, a strange ensemble to set a memorial for but, as often with Stockhausen (the piece was written in memory of the son of Wilhelm Meyer, an oboist who had championed Zeitmasze), the pragmatic inspiration came first and the notes would have to follow as best they could.


This pragmatic approach is one of the most distinctive qualities of Stockhausen's overall output. Adieu is an uncharacteristic cut-up of Mozartian cadences and microtonal fogs, but it somehow works. Stockhausen's ear preferred the obdurate, and crude, but this gives his music a unique immediacy. It sounds at first so wrong and so unreflective, but it is presented so vividly that you can't help accepting that the 'wrongness' must be in one's own preconceptions and not in the music. The two short early works, Choral and Chöre für Doris, date from a time before Stockhausen had found a way to project that confidence but their naivety hints at the unwavering forcefulness that would soon come: Choral is an early attempt at serialism, and its simple repeating statements of a melodic row over a homorhythmic harmony is brazenly elementary.


Perhaps the historical placement of Stockhausen's early works at the forefront of a musical revolution – wherein they can be regarded as masterpieces or travesties without the bother of having to listen to them – has softened their edge and brought them closer to us, an advantage not given to the later works, which remain to be heard. But now that it is possible to hear past their reputations let's not forget how peculiar those earlier pieces are. These supposedly formalistic works continually undermine themselves with surprise twists and unexpected moments of drama. They pose some of the most awkward challenges to any norm of musical listening, and in this way open up imaginative worlds far greater than their immediate surfaces.


Litanei 97 was the most recent and strangest offering of the day. Highly ritualised, its score dictates every detail down to choreography and costumes. The aural aspects were quite simple, in fact: a long text by Stockhausen was recited by the choir, whose rhythms, registers and glissandos (but not pitches) were notated. Each verse began with a sung introit and the striking of Japanese temple gongs. The theatrical side might have been better done – the BBC Singers moved as surely as a teenager at his first school disco – but the music was surprisingly effective. I don’t know if I liked it, but for all its simplicity it filled and shaped its 25 minutes very successfully.


The complexion of the day was now changed and moved from this extremity, through the magnificent Inori to, several hours later, the sound of the composer’s breath at the end of Hymnen. When it was last performed at the Barbican, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, I found Hymnen’s egotism quite nauseating. Three days before the end of the Bush era, I expected to hear it quite differently. This time the composer’s many interventions (his voice, his breath and his unravelling of the world’s national anthems) sounded like insecurity rather than dominance. There is no sense of polyphony in Hymnen: events happen one after another, somehow finding enough energy to push through to the next minute. This again is a naïve, unreflective way to compose, and requires a leap of faith from the listener. Yet I knew that it worked when, during the final minutes, as a drastically slowed-down Swiss anthem transposes into the composer’s breathing, I found my own breath had become just as slow and deliberate and that the piece had not stamped me into submission but it and I had become one with each other.


Stockhausen had a gift for the large-scale, single-minded form, which I think may be the strongest feature of his later music. Inori – 75 minutes long, with the orchestra divided into high and low instruments either side of an elevated platform, on which stand two mime-dancers – is a classic introduction to the type. Its plan is of a slow movement from rhythmicised single pitches to complex polyphony, through which it hopes to convey a vague, new agey, global spirituality: the title means prayer, invocation or adoration, and the two mimes perform an endless sequence of prayer gestures from around the world. Any cynicism was again blown away, however, by the absolute assurance of the music (and an exemplary performance). I don’t know anyone else who could have written music like this, whose plan is so banal, whose aspirations are so twee, that yet speaks so powerfully in an unmistakable voice.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson