An Intriguing Encounter with Stimmung

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stockhausen: Theatre of Voices (Else Torp, Signe Asmussen, Randi Pontoppidan, Wolomydr Smischkewych, Jakob Skoldborg, Jakob Bloch Jespersen), Ian Dearden (sound design). Hall One, Kings Place, London, 9.2.2018 (MB)


A Stockhausen performance in London, indeed anywhere, remains an event. Mittwoch in Birmingham went so far beyond a mere event, that I am sure its memory and its ongoing reality will remain with me for the rest of my life. From Chöre für Doris to Klang, you may count me in, not least since there is so much I have yet to experience in the flesh. Stimmung, believe it or not, fell into that category prior to this Kings Place performance. Whereas my companion was already something of a veteran, having attended previous performances in Riga and in London, I had never been in the right place at the right time.

Now, however, I was. It was certainly an event – and a musical event at that. However, the experience of Stimmung live reinforced the suspicion I had long held that it was unlikely ever to be the Stockhausen of strongest appeal to me. I am afraid, try as I might, I cannot help but nod agreement to Boulez’s observation: ‘Oh yes, the endless chord, how German.’ Or rather, the obvious Rheingold reference apart, how very un-German. Not that Stockhausen’s apparently minimalist foundation – that B-flat ninth chord in just intonation – proceeds in minimalist fashion, but I keep wishing it would develop into something else. My problem, I am sure, but even in so intriguing a performance as this from Theatre of Voices, I sometimes found it a bit of a trial.

Presentation was exemplary. Wolomydr Smischkewych led the singers and ultimately the audience in an initial exploration of overtones, from which this listener – and, briefly, singer – learned a great deal. Whether on a vowel sound or, ultimately, revealingly on a US American pronunciation of ‘weird’, new sonic universes seemed to open up before our ears – and throats. Such was a reminder that for all the New Age baggage to the work, perhaps more of an irritant to some of us than to others, the idea of overtone singing came to the composer from hearing his nine-month-old son, Simon singing in his Connecticut cot. I also heard so much of the foundation for later spectralism. For all the talk of Aztec temples and so on, there is always another side to Stockhausen, a mythology that is not quite what it seems. In that, of course, he is far from unique.

The performance was perhaps more attuned to the dramatic qualities, or at least possibilities, of the work than I had expected. For me, that was a definite advantage; the road to La Monte Young et al., whilst I have nothing against it, is not the easiest for me to take. (My companion, by contrast, wished for something still more laid-back, trance-like.) I loved the moments of decision, if you like, generated by the demands of moment form in performance. The closer it came to the actual theatre not only of, say, Boulez’s second book of Structures, but also of Stockhausen’s own Inori and even Hymnen, whose procedures began to seem, to sound closer than I had expected, the more enthralled I was. At other times, I felt a little like someone observing a rite – in this setting, with the performers on stage rather than in the round, something akin to a séance – which not only did I not really understand, but also did not really know how or even whether to enter. At times, I could not help but wonder whether something a little stronger than the wine I had drunk in the bar beforehand would have helped. There was no gainsaying, though, the excellence and commitment of the performances of this, Theatre of Voices’ own ‘Copenhagen version’ of 2006. If I felt bemused, even a little nonplussed, I should certainly give it another try. But first, I think, some Boulez…

Mark Berry

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