Saturday 2 August 2008

Prom 20: Stockhausen, 2 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Stockhausen – GRUPPEN
Stockhausen – KLANG, thirteenth hour: COSMIC PULSES, for electronics (British premiere)
Stockhausen – KLANG, from the fifth hour: HARMONIEN, for solo trumpet (BBC commission: world premiere)
Stockhausen – KONTAKTE
Stockhausen – GRUPPEN (repeat performance)

Marco Blaauw (trumpet)
Nicolas Hodges (piano)
Colin Currie (percussion)
Kathinka Pasveer (sound projection for KLANG)
Bryan Wolf (sound projection for KONTAKTE)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson (conductor)
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
Pascal Rophé (conductor)

Stockhausen is dead; long live Stockhausen! After a lengthy period in which he and his music – and especially his later music, for which, read the gargantuan LICHT cycle – became distinctly unfashionable in many circles, the composer’s death at the end of last year seems to have triggered a reappraisal. This is just the kind of effort to which the Proms should be contributing; the advent of Roger Wright at its helm may yet rescue the series from its Kenyon-era doldrums. KLANG, or ‘sound,’ will be the title of the Southbank Centre’s forthcoming week-long tribute in November. It refers to his post-LICHT cycle of works, projected to cover the twenty-four hours of the day. Cut short by his death, two sections were given here: the thirteenth ‘hour’ receiving its first British performance and part of the fifth hour its first anywhere. The word ‘Klang’ also points to one of Stockhausen’s greatest achievements –although far from the only one – namely, his manifold pioneering explorations in terms of sound.

GRUPPEN was the Alpha and Omega of this concert. A welcome development of recent Stockhausen ‘performance practice’ has been a tendency to perform the work twice in a single concert. Performances of this tremendous work for three orchestras are unsurprisingly rare, so a second audition grants a welcome opportunity to experience and to comprehend further. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra will adopt the same practice, in a September concert at Tempelhof Airport, which will mouth-wateringly include Messiaen’s Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorem. An important thing to remember concerning GRUPPEN is that it was not intended as a spatial work; rather, the division of the large – though hardly unprecedentedly so – orchestra of 109 players results from the impossibility of directing the musicians in several different metronomic tempi at once. Virtue was made of necessity, however, and Stockhausen’s fascination with the movement of sounds in space was furthered, which in turn furthered his move away from composition with ‘points’ (Punkte) towards ‘groups’ (Gruppen), in which the former parameters of sound – pitch, duration, volume, and timbre – combine and in which some may once again begin to predominate over others. (It is a characteristic of Stockhausen’s works that their names are often extremely helpful in delineating their principal concern. PUNKTE will be performed later this season.) Having stripped not just music but even sound itself down to their constituent elements, he begins, indeed is almost compelled, to put them back together. In the act of re-combination, however, we experience something genuinely new.

The overlapping presentation of groups – 174 of them in total – performed at different tempi is, then, the material of the work. These present performances accomplished that magnificently, for which all three conductors – David Robertson, Martyn Brabbins (at very short notice), and Pascal Rophé – and all members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra should be praised. Something was lost through the positioning of the orchestras, in that very few members of the audience would have been surrounded by them, yet one could nevertheless hear them separately and together, with a reasonable degree of spatial transfer and dialogue. Moreover, timbral clarity was often extremely impressive, especially so given the cavernous acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, which somehow actually seemed to benefit the work. Percussion instruments and even the harps were often strikingly loud, although never un-variegated. Indeed, I was struck not only by confirmation of the importance of the percussion section for so much twentieth-century music, but also by the sheer tonal variety contained and expressed within. Spatial dialogue between the brass instruments of the three orchestras put me in mind of the Gabrielis, although this music grew overwhelmingly with a spellbinding intensity quite foreign to Venetian forebears. The work and performances as a whole exhibited a range from the utmost delicacy to teeming cacophony, rendering us closer to Messiaen than I might have expected. Stockhausen rarely nods to tradition but the dying away of the final horn call presented a perhaps unexpected reference back to German Romanticism. Yet, whatever odd references one might make for oneself – cowbells and Mahler, for instance – the overriding impression was of original genius, in what many still consider to be the composer’s towering masterpiece.

GRUPPEN was composed more than fifty years ago (1955-7, with its premiere in 1958). It remains an enthralling contemporary experience, yet Stockhausen’s concerns would unsurprisingly lead him further and further into the electronic realm. COSMIC PULSES (2006-7), here receiving its British premiere, is a purely electronic work. It may, as Robert Worby writes in his programme notes, ‘be the most spatially complex piece that Stockhausen ever produced’. Stockhausen told Worby in an 1997 interview:

Already in 1958 to 1960 I made a lot of experiments in a special hall in order to find out what speed I could composer for different sounds, what speed they could pass through the space, from one speaker group to the other, and most of the time one is not aware of the loudspeakers any more, but the sounds moving with different speeds in diagonal directions or in a circle, in rotation left-wise, right-wise, or the sound is coming from only one of the angles, et cetera. All the variations became part of my composition as harmony and melody, rhythm and dynamics.

Developments in technology and in Stockhausen’s compositional technique eventually led him to the situation at which he could write COSMIC PULSES. It is made up of twenty-four pitch and rhythm ‘loops’, themselves made up of one to twenty-four pitches, in twenty-four different registers. They rotate at twenty-four different speeds around eight loudspeakers and are ‘successively layered together from low to high and from the slowest to the fastest tempo’. (The clarity of Worby’s notes was most helpful here.) Sound projection was by one of the composer’s two surviving companions, Kathinka Pasveer but this was essentially not a human ‘performance’ at all, something which at the end renders applause a little odd. In the meantime, however, we underwent an extraordinary experience.

Many of the lights were turned off, which enabled one all the better to concentrate upon the sonic extravaganza. (Some of those that remained on, needless to say, were the hideous green ‘Fire Exit’ signs. I should have been tempted to consider ‘Health and Safety’ the three most depressing words in the English language, had not ‘replacement bus service’ blighted my journeys to and from London.) The sounds were of course ever changing yet sometimes, at least, strangely familiar. Purely electronic, one could yet discern the impression – especially at the outset – of an organ. Soon bells or their equivalent could be heard and even, a little later, the hint of a helicopter, which inevitably reminded me of the composer’s notorious string quartet. Sound was constantly moving and swirling, behind, in front, and above. One gained a sense of some great cosmic drama unfolding. We were spectators, or rather auditors, rather than participants, yet it would somehow affect us, even if we knew not how. Was this Zukunftsmusik? Sometimes it seemed more real – i.e., what was actually happening – than art, sometimes less so. It was fantastically, almost fanatically, detailed, yet there was a broader discernible development too; it teemed with strange, new life, or was it death? Of course, it needs no images, yet I wondered how it would work in a state-of-the-art cinema. If Wagner had wished, having created the invisible orchestra, to create an invisible theatre, Stockhausen might have invisible screen action. (It is interesting nevertheless to speculate what a Stanley Kubrick might have done with such music.) I also wondered what the children at the previous week’s ‘Doctor Who Prom’ would have made of this. Free of many adult preconceptions, I suspect they would have been utterly bowled over by it. Was this the TARDIS (‘Time and Relative Dimensions in Space’: oddly Stockhausen-like) I heard before me at one point? At the end, it was as if whatever form of alien intelligence had visited us was taking its leave, not simply in terms of it coming to an end, but in a musical sense of leave-taking and disappearance into some strange beyond.

How on earth – or wherever we might be – might one be able, I asked myself, to deal with twenty-four ‘hours’ of such music? HARMONIEN (‘Harmonies’) rendered the question redundant, for this piece, receiving its world premiere, was very different indeed. Here the sound projection was unobtrusive, simply a matter of projection, for this was to all intents and purposes a solo work. Together with versions for bass clarinet and for flute, it forms the fifth hour of KLANG. It was an opportunity for solo trumpeter, Marco Blauuw, to shine and he took it – with mesmerising musicality, theatricality, and virtuosity. A slow introduction of four intoned notes, between which the trumpeter recites the words, ‘Lob’, ‘Sei’, ‘Gott’ (‘God be praised’), is followed by twenty-four – that number of hours again – melodies, each of which is repeated at different pitches in a loop, which is then in turn repeated different numbers of times, becoming slower and quieter. Such provides the harmonic – yes, harmonic: once again, the clue lies in the title – structure for the work and the entire basis for the trumpeter’s address to what seemed to be treated more as a congregation than a mere audience. For the almost liturgical presentation not only of the words but also of the music, not unlike the call of a shofar, reminded us of the world of LICHT. The various mutes, affixed like a belt around Blauuw’s waist, had a visual as well as a sonic impact. Pitches were circled but, in the midst of considerable pitch repetition, something else was always changing: duration, volume, etc. Once I fancied I could discern a reminiscence of a Bach chorale: not strictly true of course, yet the correspondences one makes are not always merely absurd, for this was clearly a mysterious rite of some kind. Likewise the appearances towards the end of a perfect fifth call inevitably put me in mind of other trumpet calls. And then the observance was concluded.

KONTAKTE (1959-60) was given in its version for piano, percussion, and electronics. (There is also a purely electronic version.) This is another work concerned with the spatial construction of sound. The composer invented a ‘rotation table’, upon which a loudspeaker was placed, whose rotation would enable it to face four microphones placed in a square around it; the microphones were connected to the four tracks of the tape, thereby permitting – albeit with much less elaborate technology – a precursor to the movements in space we had previously heard in COSMIC PULSES. Stockhausen is also concerned here with the relationship between parameters of rhythm and pitch, in the sense that increases in tempo eventually permit the creation of a definite pitch, which becomes higher the faster with greater frequency of the fundamental clicks (or pulses) from the speakers. Nor one should forget – one certainly could not do so in the hall – the premium placed upon virtuosity, not for its own sake, but necessary to further Stockhausen’s explorations. Colin Currie and Nicolas Hodges, with Bryan Wolf on sound projection, presented a veritable tour de force. The music, unsurprisingly, sounded more abrasive, more pointillistic – more human? – than COSMIC PULSES. Webern is still, just about, a discernible starting ‘point’ – in more sense than one. The piano is treated in a largely percussive fashion, rendering this far more a ‘percussion’ than a ‘piano’ work, even when one bears in mind Stockhausen’s preceding Klavierstücke. Hodges sometimes had to play additional percussion as well as his piano part. I could hear the scene being set for pieces such as Helmut Lachenmann’s Interieur I for solo percussion, his first acknowledged work, yet Stockhausen’s spatial concerns added – again in more than one sense – at least one extra dimension. There is a bright, metallic quality to the music, very much of its time. One could almost see through the sound alone a post-war West German radio studio. Indeed, I was slightly taken aback as to how evocative of its time KONTAKTE now sounded. Whether that suggests that it is becoming dated or classicised remains to be discerned. At any rate, the music faded away splendidly into a prolonged silence. That silence might well have come about from the audience’s uncertainty as to whether the piece was finished, but the effect was nevertheless appropriate. It was certainly followed by vigorous deserved applause for the performers. The reprise of GRUPPEN then almost took on the quality of an encore, with musicians and audience alike less tense, more ready to enjoy themselves: a fitting conclusion to a bold and successful concert.