Saturday, 12 June 2010


Amongst a recent donation of interesting modern classical music to the Exeter Oxfam music shop was a copy of the Theatre of Voices recording of Stockhausen’s Stimmung, which was released in 2007, and which has now found its way onto the online shop. Theatre of Voices is a vocal ensemble which was founded by the baritone singer Paul Hillier, who was also a founder member of the Hilliard Ensemble. It’s not his first recording of the piece; he took part in the Singcircle version which was recorded in 1983 and released on Hyperion Records in 1986. The Theatre of Voices release is only the third official recording of the piece to have been made, the Singcircle version having followed the original 1970 Deutsche Grammaphon one recorded by the Collegium Vocale of the Rheinishce Musikshcule in Cologne, for whom it was originally written. Actually, the availability of three recordings of one piece counts as extreme profligacy when it comes to the Stockhausen oeuvre. He bought the rights to all of the old Deutsche Grammaphon recordings of his music and released them in newly mixed versions on his own Stockhausen Verlag label, allowing him to exert control over all facets of his own music, from sleeve design to notes (which generally include detailed instructions as to how you should listen to the music) to distribution (these CDs are only available through the online Stockhausen shop). The Singcircle and Theatre of Voices versions of Stimmung were also approved by the composer, who perhaps took a slightly more relaxed approach to a piece which allows a significant degree of input from the singers. Indeed, the fact that the singers are given a wide range of vocal content from which they can make their choice in any given section means that any particular version will vary significantly from any other. Each will have its own atmosphere.

The piece was composed in the snowbound winter months of early 1968, whilst Stockhausen was living with his wife Mary Bauermeister and their two young children. So as not to disturb them, he began composing by humming to himself, and as he puts it, ‘began to listen to my vibrating skull’. He began to hear the overtone melodies which arose naturally from the sounds made within the vocal cavity, resonating on the roof of the mouth. These were the kind of universal sounds which he recognised from his trips to the far east, in Tibetan chant and the throat singing of northern nomads, and in instrumental form in the ancient Japanese court music of gagaku, and which he incorporated in the electronic pieces Telemusik and Hymnen. Here, the sounds were produced entirely by the human voice alone, however, any tonal transformations being effected through the physical manipulation of the vocal cavity.

Stockhausen was also influenced by a recent trip to Mexico. The imaginary landscape across which the piece’s ritualistic vocal drone drifts is a wide Mexican plain dotted with Mayan temples. Stockhausen was impressed by the sense of harmony outlined by the temples’ symmetrically stepped mass, and translated the sense of a mathematically determined structure into musical form. He talked of feeling as if he had entered the past and become a Mayan as he gazed at the temples, and he was clearly absorbed by the site to an uncommon degree. The sense of a direct communion with the past, and the quietude of the subsequent New England winter in which he allowed his ideas to naturally rise to the surface, channelled by the necessities of circumstance, was very much a period of calm before a storm. Mary Burmeister left him later in the year, and he responded in an almost comically melodramatic fashion by going on hunger strike. This only lasted a few days, but inspired a series of compositions which moved towards an even greater openness to chance elements, which were grouped under the title Aus Den Sieben Tagen. Burmeister had played an influential part in steering Stockhausen towards an increasingly dominant interest in mystical modes of thought which, in common with many others in the dying days of the decade, became ever more random and indiscriminate. If Chesterton had said that once people stopped believing in God, they would believe in anything, then much the same could be said for the period when they turned away from the comforts of consumerism and tried to return to some idea of the sacred. Stockhausen’s nadir when it came to embracing half-baked, instantly cobbled together mythologies for the modern age was reached via his fascination with the Book of Urantia, which weighs in at a hefty 2,097 pages in which to waste your precious time. Prolonged exposure to such cosmic debris presumably prompted Stockhausen’s declaration that he was in fact not from Earth at all, but from the Sirius system. At least Sun Ra claimed he was from Saturn from way back at the start of his musical life. The Urantia mythos fed into the largely impenetrable world of his Licht cycle of ‘operas’, which occupied him from 1977 until shortly before his death in in 2007. There is something childlike both in his reaction to his wife’s departure and in the way in which he drew the material for his grandest work not from the world around him, but from a book which encouraged its readers to lose themselves in a self-absorbed fantasy of ‘revelation’. Oddly enough, it is just this childlike quality which makes Stimmung such an approachable and instantly absorbing work. This could be said of other Stockhausen works, which lack the aridity of some of the other avant-garde works of the time, and have a theatricality and richness of sound which opens them up to the untutored ear such as the one which I possess (although I’m sure Stockhausen would have been horrified at the idea of anyone approaching his music without thorough prior preparation).

Stimmung means tuning, which could be interpreted as being either musical or mental, or more likely both. It also incorporates the world stimme, which is German for words. This is a vocal piece for six singers built around words and the vocal sounds which are their building blocks. The piece is essentially an extended drone rooted to a ground level of B flat, a long drawn out chord formed of natural overtones which the words seem to arise magically, fluttering about before settling down once more. The idea of tuning highlights the meditative qualities of the piece, which is akin to a mantra, complete with nonsense syllables. The lack of harmonic change lends to a feel of suspended time, of an ongoing flow which is tuned in to the hum of the cosmos, the music of the spheres.

There are 51 sections to the piece, which overlap each other rather than coming to a definitively determined end. Each section incorporates a number of ‘models’, words or phrases which are chosen by the ‘lead’ singer indicated in the score. Each singer has a number of these from which she or he can choose. Others then take up the incantation, which goes on to give the section its particular character, both through the associations which the word carries, and through its abstract sound qualities. This division into discreet parts, each allowing the performer considerable leeway as to which choice they will make in navigating their way through the piece, immediately brings to mind Terry Riley’s classic of early minimalism, In C, which employs a similar model. Some of the sections in Stimmung include readings of Stockhausen’s erotic poetry, taken from 1967 (the year in which he appeared on the Sergeant Pepper cover, of course). There are also ‘magic names’ which are introduced at various points. Again, these are chosen by the indicated singer from a selection which with which they are provided. They are taken from the gods of various world religions. On the Singcircle version which I’ve heard, Buddha and Quetzalcoatl turn up in unlikely proximity, the sounds of the latter broken down and worked over with sensual pleasure. These are introduced to add a particular charge which changes the atmosphere of the piece, shifting the dynamic of the flow, or ‘retuning’ it.

Performances tend to use amplification in order to enable the singers to articulate the sounds with the necessary softness (they sometimes lower to a hushed whisper). A tape recorder is sometimes used to provide a steady background harmony to allow for tuning. These are the only electronic elements, but the music does display the concentration on the nature of sound characteristic of electronic music. Indeed, the breaking down of words into their syllables, and the play with the transformation of vocal sounds, is reminiscent of Stockhausen’s earlier electronic work Gesang Der Junglinge, which worked its magic through the manipulations of a choirboy’s voice on tape. Stimmung has been performed in some interesting venues. It was played 72 times during the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970 in a spherical hall circled with 50 speakers, around which Stockhausen, seated at his central mixing desk, moved the sound. In 2005, Singcircle sang it from beneath the glass-roofed tip of 30 St Mary Axe, better known as The Gherkin, as the sun set over the London skyline. In 2007, it was sung in the entrance hall of the British Library, a blend of sound and setting which brings to my mind the scene in Wings of Desire set in the Berlin Library, in which the angels listen to the hum and susurration of minds absorbed in reading. It’s a piece of music it’s well worth losing yourself in. You can find it here. Tune in.

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