Singcircle Allow Another Opportunity to Reassess the Genius of Karlheinz Stockhausen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stockhausen: Singcircle/Gregory Rose (bass); Robert Henke (laser artist); Kathinka Pasveer (sound projection); Stephen Montague (assistant sound projection); Reinhard Klose (sound engineer), Barbican Hall, London, 20.11.2017. (CC)

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Stockhausen – STIMMUNG (1968); COSMIC PULSES (2006/7)

Sold out way in advance, this inspired coupling of STIMMUNG and COSMIC PULSES reaffirmed the very individual genius of Karlheinz Stockhausen, spanning the composer’s heyday (STIMMUNG dates from 1968) to one of his very last pieces (COSMIC PULSES is the thirteenth hour from the unfinished KLANG cycle and dates from 2006/7).

Although one is electronic and one vocal, there are distinct parallels. STIMMUNG works its way upwards from a bass B flat; COSMIC PULSES comprises 24 layers of electronic material, each layer differentiated by speed and register (it lasts around 32 minutes). But emotionally they are poles apart, with STIMMUNG of decidedly meditative aspect while COSMIC PULSES leaves one breathless: a helluva ride, frankly.

Memories of a Stockhausen Festival Music & Machines at the Barbican in 1985 were strong; the performance there of STIMMUNG by Singcircle had been one of my formative musical experiences. And no-one, surely, quite knows STIMMUNG like Singcircle: this performance marked 40 years almost to the day since they first performed the work, in 1977 at the Roundhouse. Their Hyperion recording is testament to their excellence; Stockhausen himself was involved in the preparation for that 1985 account. No introduction is surely needed for Stockhausen royalty Kathinka Pasveer, herself so close to the composer and in charge of sound projection for this evening.

1985 is a long time ago, but I wonder if my memory was accurate in that this 2017 performance was more finely nuanced overall (and, I think, although I may be completely wrong, shorter than that several decades ago); but sometimes less accurate in terms of pitch attack. Here in 2017, there seemed to be more plateaux of sounds that could viably be described as ‘tender’, and the overtone melodies seemed particularly strong. Performed around a table at the centre of which was an orb of light (Stockhausen himself?), it was almost like a lighted séance. Given that the score includes ‘magic names’, perhaps that’s not to far from the truth: the resonance of those names themselves, from Artemis to Kronos and many more besides, carries its own sense of depth and connection to collective memories.

There seemed to be occasional extraneous noise from the speakers, but that aside this was a remarkable account. The singers of Singcircle here included voices of experience (not always rock-steady) and that of youth, a mix Stockhausen would surely have approved of. The real beauty was in the sounds themselves however; and the physical darkness, aided by the drapery at the back of the stage, focused our attention inwards.

When Schoenberg set the line ‘Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten’ in his Second String Quartet, one wonders if that air was actually ushering in literally the music of other planets. Eventually, perhaps, it did. Stockhausen famously traced his origins to Sirius (and why not; the New Age movement has certainly found its fair share of Pleiadians), and COSMIC PULSES speaks a language that seems to come not of this Earth. At once complex yet primal, the eight-speaker octagonal sound system sent the sounds around the auditorium in a way that was well on the way, surely, to Stockhausen’s ideal of being able to move sounds around so exactly that he could pinpoint a seat and place the sound above that person’s head. That, at least, is what he claimed to aim for, eventually, in a talk I once attended by him. The deep, resonant beginning was heard in simply fabulous sound. The sounds built up until the complexity was such that it was something like hearing a sonic version of the information super-highway. Electronic music had always been at the heart of Stockhausen’s expression and always there is the strong impression of the sure hand of a master at work. To hear it in optimal conditions such as this was a real privilege.

The laser show that came with it, while impressive visually, felt plastered on and superfluous. Robert Henke’s idea was to ‘visually express some of the formal beauty of the piece’: lasers correspond to the eight speakers; each layer emits three beams (which in turn equals the 24 layers of sound of the piece itself) – a ‘geometric sculpture above the head of the audience’. The intent is a laser sculpture that reflects the piece, but with music of such ferocious ambition, scope and, simply, genius, it did seem rather irrelevant. Pretty, but irrelevant.

No doubting the impact of the music, though. Every opportunity we have of hearing Stockhausen’s music is an opportunity to reassess his genius, and each time there just seems to be more to hear. The music of Stockhausen still holds huge appeal, but as far as its significance goes, I strongly suspect we are only just scratching the surface.

Colin Clarke

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