Monday, 3 November 2008

Stockhausen's Alien Xmas ! Asko Ensemble

Day 2 of the Stockhausen week at the South Bank. Forget your inhibitions, this is fun !

Glanz (Brilliance) is KLANG’s 10th hour. Yet it evolves from Harmonien, KLANG’s 5th hour, two versions of which were played on Saturday, 1st November. Effectively then we’ve heard a progression of Harmoniens in various incarnations, from trumpet, to bass clarinet to flute. This new form centres round a core of three players, clarinet, viola and bassoon, and an outer shell of four – oboe, trumpet, trombone and tuba. In the middle of the stage, there’s a “shining sculpture”. It’s a presence in the composition though it makes no sound, for it’s a pivotal force, which seems to invisibly exert centrifugal force on the players, who face it, move round it and circulate in orbits of their own. At one point the clarinet almost breaks away, heeding the call of the more distant instruments, but he’s drawn back, inexorably. It’s like the cellist in Trans, almost.

The external circle of players materialize from other parts of the auditorium, three of them resplendent in robes shining white, unearthly beings like angels, calling out from another plane. Then the central trio break into disjointed snatches of song. Gloria in excelcis Deo, et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis. It’s the old latin hymn most of us associate with Christmas – Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth and goodwill to all. Is this Stockhausen’s nativity scene, a glowing green glass pyramid for a crib ? Even the animals around the stable (or cave, as in some translations) are referenced. The tuba player enters from backstage, playing slowly and gravely “like a bear emerging from hibernation”. No violence here. This bear is adorably benign.

Whatever one might or might not believe, the imagery of Christmas is so deeply etched into our cultural genes that it’s hard to avoid making the connection. But it’s not all that far fetched, because this is a piece full of warmth and goodwill, connecting the human and extra terrestrial. Perhaps the Son of Sirius has produced something that could become a staple for the season. The piece was commissioned by the distinguished Asko Ensemble for the Holland Festival in 2008, but could well become a classic. Why not an alien approach to festive fare, for the sentiments are valid ? This is seriously decent music.

More Stockhausen warmth and wit came with Orchester-Finalisten from 1995-6. This is the second scene from the opera Mittwoch aus LICHT and shows the finalists in a competition for jobs in an orchestra. After the Harmonien progressions, it should come as no surprise that Stockhausen wanted it played twice in succession with different instrumentalists. As it runs almost an hour, that’s probably not practical and might work better fully staged, as intended, with images of the air, the element Mittwoch symbolises in LICHT. No “aerial tour round the earth” here or visual projections, but the music itself was so vivid, anyone with a little imagination could fill in their own visuals, even if they don’t know the context. Courtesy of the sound projection, there are cries of seagulls, soaring over a windswept seascape, the sound of waves crashing on shingle and most intriguingly what sounds like the movement of sand, shifted by wind, amplified to a magnificent roar. Aurally, this creates a vast panorama against which the individual musicians stand out from a line to play their solos.

Each is distinctive, sensitive to the particularities of their instrument, but Stockhausen is playful, setting challenges that go beyond normal playing. The trombone player lies on his back, his instrument held aloft like a jazz saxophone, the flautist bends from her hips. A person dressed as a space alien, swathed in bandages, creeps up behind the double bass player and startles him with a gong. The music indicates it should be a sudden blast causing the bassist to fall over in shock. In practice, he’s more cautious – he knows what the instrument costs and what it would mean to replace it. Though it does detract from the music per se, what Stockhausen is trying to do, I think, is bring out the fun of making music, lively sensations of movement and freedom. It’s complete nonsense that modern music doesn’t allow for humour. Being funny is part of what it means to be human. We all know how Dr Spock and the Klingons in Star Trek can’t even begin to fathom the concept of humour. Humour is part of the emotional spectrum of creative expression. It’s the opposite of rigid classification, rules for the sake of rules, and obsessive conformity. That’s why totalitarian regimes always crack down on comedy and art ! Stockhausen may appeal to the OCD side in many of us, but he’s vindicated by his creative spirits and good humour.

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