Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Stockhausen Tierkreis Trans, London Sinfonietta, RFH

Stockhausen Trans from the 1973 film "Trans ,...und so weiter"

 Stockhausen Trans and Tierkreis (Zodiac) with the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Pascal Rophé. at the Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday.  Stockhausen is important because he reminds us what music might be. Throughout human history, music has always served an extra-musical function.  Stockhausen's creations are "total experience" on many levels.  Trans came to Stockhausen in a dream, full of portent, its meaning elusive.  Behind a curtain of gauze, the orchestra sits, facing the audience. They don't interact with each other or with the conductor, but reflect the audience mirror image.

The seating plan is significant, too - the musicians are lined up in rows, double basses at each end, in symmetry.  The vaguely grid arrangement develops diagonal patterns when the bows of violins are dragged as slowly as possible, the players’ arms held as rigidly as possible. It's as if the players are suspended in time, operating like machines calibrated by some invisible metronome.  What sounds do we hear ? The drone of bows, repetitive click clacks of percussion, a strange drone-like pulse. Perhaps we're in some infernal mechanism. One recurrent theme, the  movement of pods, similar to the shuttles in weaving loom.  The shuttles move in fixed formation, arranging disparate threads to form fabric, which can then again be transformed into other objects. The shuttles don't change, ever, but what they produce keeps changing. This idea of inanimate forces surfaces again in the image of a toy, a wooden drummer-boy. He clearly isn't real to us, but to children, he's an object of wonder.   Stockhausen's sounds hypnotize, freeing the mind from analysis. To "get" Stockhausen, it helps to think like a child, questioning, without rigid preconception.

Snippets of Ravel, Stravinsky and Schumann are woven into the piece, too, as familiar points of reference which disappear before they can quite be grasped. At various points individual musicians are drawn out of the mass : a trumpeter climbing a ladder in the background (the only visible non-string player), violinists who stand up and play weird disharmonies, and most memorably a music stand that’s wheeled on stage, causing a cellist to suddenly break ranks and play what’s on the stand. As the stand is removed, he tries to follow it to keep playing, When it’s gone he sinks back into the mass.  “All that rigid conformity, yet the unruly individual can’t be repressed !” said my ever perceptive companion in 2008.  Indeed, what the strings are playing are unnaturally slow extended figures, their functions seems almost more ritualistic than musical. The music wavers vertiginously : the musicians heads flop from side to side. They are automatons, collapsing like a pack of cards ! Suddenly all sound is sucked into nothingness, and the players are caught freeze frame for so long the wait itself becomes unsettling.

Trans is theatre, and surreal theatre at that. It is also concert and anti-concert.  The players are working "in concert" but the concert isn't what they do but how we in the outside perceive what they're doing. "Trans", as in transition, transference, etc. Stockhausen's conundrums are part of the total experience. Block out the mental puzzles and miss the point.  I don't know if the London Sinfonietta will be doing Trans twice in succession, as Stockhausen wished.   By now, we're used to his oddball quirks,  to get it first time round, but the idea of two Trans together reiterates the idea of things happening in interlocking patterns.   The first time I experienced Trans, it was done twice with Harmonien, also done twice. Half the audience ran out ! But the joke was on them. It's supposed to be mind bending.    Please read more here. 

The first time I heard Tierkreis (Zodiac), I hated it and groaned when Oliver Knussen gleefully turned to the audience and said "Let's hear it all over again !"  I still don't like Tierkreis because it's too obvious. Each sign is described in fairly straightforward form. Taurus, for example, roars like a bull.  But many people like Tierkreis for that very reason - it’s hilariously funny ! No surprise it's an Ollie favourite.  Enjoy !

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