New Year New Music! Hooray for BBC Radio 3 starting 2016 with a celebration of Karlheinz Stockhausen! The party started on New Year's Day itself with a unique broadcast of Hymnen, part from the original tapes made for WDR and a performance a few weeks ago conducted by Wolfgang Lischke with the London Sinfonietta, the RAM Ensemble, the Manson Ensemble and Sounds Intermedia. The broadcast is available in stereo and also surround sound, but you should also use your imagination, which is very much part of the creative process. I've heard Hymnen live in a concert hall, but its freakiness works better I think, in a kind of isolation chamber where you aren't inhibited by the presence of "normal" people. This time I listened alone, in the dark, to get the full surround-sound experience, and what a blast it was!
The title "Hymnen" refers to national anthems, which Stockhausen collected, mixing and changing the sounds so they form a vast universe of strange, conflicting harmonies. At around the time Hymnen was written, I used to play around with long and shortwave radio, switching stations in and out, in many different languages, some being deliberately jammed by others. People forget what the Cold War was like, but that context does bear heavily on what Hymnen might be about. Maybe I was preordained to understand Hymnen as a composite of soundwaves beamed off our planet by aliens in Outer Space. The star Sirius, of course, in Stockhausen terms. Absolutely pertinent on New Year's Day when people watch fireworks displays in succession all over the globe and singing Auld Lang Syne, in a strange dialect hardly anyone actually speaks.
Deutschland Uber Alles but do not necessarily pick up on the negative context which would have borne so heavily on Stockhausen and his generation. We hear it as Haydn, knowing that the text was written in 1841 when nationalism was something positive. Similarly the strains of the Horst Wessel Lied are "cleansed", rendered neutral as noise, meaningless without power. So we hear God Save the Queen and the Internationale, but the real message is that things get distorted, and one anthem is intrinsically no more important than the next. We also hear objets trouvées, street sounds from China, and horns that quack like cacophonic singing ducks. We also hear snatches of Stockhausen himself talking, recorded by accident and unplanned which also informs meaning. all blended into a kind of inter-stellar cosmos of electronic and instrumental sound. In "Region 4", Hymnen reaches outwards, words and long screaming sounds projected as if communicating endlessly into space.
Stockhausen is this week's Radio 3 Composer of the Week