Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Prom 20 21 Stockhausen

Stockhausen’s visionary ideas don’t easily translate into real performance, so this really was an inspired decision on the part of the BBC. The Royal Albert Hall and Stockhausen are a match made in heaven.

For a change, the arena was not the place to be. Over a hundred musicians and their instruments fill the space so there’s relatively little space left for Prommers. This time, those in the upper galleries had by far the better perspective, as they could better appreciate the flowing movement that is the essence of this music. Stockhausen is experimenting with different tempi, different groups of sound, different angles in space. That’s why the piece is called Gruppen (groups). Conceptually it breaks away from the idea of music projected “at” an audience from a fixed, remote position. It uses the performance space itself as part of its design. Even the Prommers packed in around the three orchestras become part of the performance as they buffer the sound and break down the division between playing and listening. Like orchestral musicians, they hear what’s closest, rather than the overall effect. For a change audiences have to “think” like musicians. That’s where good conducting proves its value. David Robertson, Martyn Brabbins and Pascal Rophé are each of them specialists in new music, all sensitive to what Stockhausen is trying to achieve, which is the shaping of a piece greater than the sum of its parts. Hence the individuality of detail, like the tiny voice of the celeste, and a single note on one harp: it’s the groupings and re-groupings that make Gruppen so unusual, making you listen on many simultaneous levels. It was a good idea to hear it twice, after experiencing parts of Stockhausen’s later work, as you could appreciate where the ideas in Klang first germinated.

Cosmic Pulses is the 13th of the planned 24 hours in Klang, Stockhausen’s visionary epic. Stockhausen’s ideas are almost impossible to achieve, but this probably came close. Darkness descended, the dome lit up by tiny lights, like stars – this was Royal Albert Hall as planetarium ! However esoteric Stockhausen’s concepts may be, visual elements are important, and physical space is part of the performance. On the First Night of this season, we heard the mighty Willis organ fill the building with its magnificent presence. That was Messiaen’s Dieu parmi nous. For a few moments we were in the presence of the divine, or whatever you might call something beyond mere human experience. Stockhausen was Messiaen’s student. Cosmic Pulses filled space even more profoundly. Indeed, because this piece is performed by electronic sound desk, the performing space “is” part of the creation. Sound resonates differently in different spaces, bouncing off and back into the specifics of the building’s construction. The Royal Albert Hall itself was transformed into a massive instrument, its very form resounding in dialogue with what Katrinka Pasveer was doing at the mixing desk. She was the composer’s muse and is probably the person closest to achieving his ideas. This kind of music is still so new that we don’t yet have the terminology with which to describe what happens. In any case, Cosmic Pulses at the Proms was an experience, rather than “just” music, and it was utterly unique. For some reason the BBC broadcast a different performance. A pity as this was perhaps the most imaginative “use” of the building, ever. As Mark Berry states in his review, had this been part of the Dr Who Prom, thousands of kids would have been forever imprinted with Stockhausen by having listened for themselves and probably understand far better than some adults with preconceived judgements.

Again to the BBC’s credit, Harmonien, 5th of the 24 hours of Klang, was a BBC commission, at last receiving its world premiere. It’s a trumpet solo. Trumpets are meant to sound out over long distances in space. They have functions beyond the production of harmony. In the Bible, the End of Time itself is heralded by the Final Trumpet as this Proms season has already demonstrated through Messiaen. Conceptually this is important because both composers experiment with new ways of incorporating time and spatial dimensions into music. Marco Blauuw demonstrated why he is one of the great specialists in this kind of repertoire. Technically, this piece is mind-bendingly difficult. He has to hold lines in feats of almost superhuman stamina, which perhaps express ideas behind the piece. The secret is circular breathing, but Blauuw has conquered the physical challenges so thoroughly that what impressed was the fluidity of line, and the soulful expressiveness of his playing.

Kontakteis a familiar “standard” in Stockhausen terms. This version was chamber music, but writ large, for it’s an interaction between piano, percussion and mixing desk- though mixing is a primitive name for what Pasveer, André Richard and other masters of the genre have created. It’s a trio, though not like any other. Like Elliott Carter’s Caténaires, heard on the First Night of this season, it’s about connections, contact points,that change direction as a result of meeting. Caténaires refers to the means by which electricity courses through networks. Stockhausen may well have believed he was a conduit for cosmic forces, but he was formed by connections with others and in turn has and will influence others to come...........

is another Stockhausen “hit”, receiving several performances in this country this year alone. It’s fascinating for performers because it makes them rethink what “singing” is really about. They use their whole bodies to project sound, breath passing from lungs through chest, throat and mouth, shaped by muscles, lips and tongue, by the slightest gradations of volume and timbre. The piece is an hour of barely varied pitch, yet within this there’s an immense range of possibilities. There’s no “progression” in the usual sense of conventional music, for the singers keep the music afloat by passing it between each other, rather like jugglers keep many balls afloat in perpetual motion. Stimmung means tuning, or being attuned with one another. That’s why the singers sit in a circle. What they create comes from how well they are in inner harmony. Even “ordinary” vocal performance is never quite the same as the voice is a uniquely “human” instrument affected by things beyond a performer’s control. In Stimmung this is amplified because it requires such intense interaction with others. Stockhausen sets out strict guidelines, yet by the very nature of human performance they deconstruct with surprising freedom. For me, that’s why Stimmung is so liberating. Rituals follow form, but result in totally unpredictable, irrational magic.

This was perhaps the most interesting Stimmung performance so far, surpassing the performance Hillier and the Theatre of Voices gave in 2006. Explaining why is in itself a challenge. The circularity in this performance was very clear, rather like the sound you make when running a damp finger round the rim of a crystal glass. These singers were passing sound between each other, sculpting the piece, resonating against each other like the sound waves bouncing round the Royal Albert Hall in Cosmic Pulses. The balance between voices was excellent because the natural ranges between voices were well defined. They sounded distinct and melded with, as opposed to being absorbed into, the blend. Although there are plenty of non-words, meaning does matter. It’s just doesn’t have to be expressed as straightforward narrative. Here, to, there was a real sense of suppressed danger. Stimmung is a kind of multi-faith shamanism, an incantation the performance of which is supposed to invoke greater powers. A friend quipped that the BBC should have placed the singers on a platform suspended above the arena, slowly levitating it towards the dome. It’s an apposite idea, for that is how the music “works”. Stockhausen’s notorious “helicopters” piece wasn’t written just for show, but expresses how the tiniest variations keep a line afloat. Stimmung is not so far from Ligeti’s Piano Concerto where subtly different rhythms create an energy which Ligeti called “lifting off like an aeroplane…..hovering”. Stockhausen and Ligeti use sound in a way that seems to defy the laws of physics.

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