Sunday, August 03, 2008

Proms: Stockhausen Day

My feet are killing me. Three hours is a long time to stand up. One thing Stockhausen isn't into is the ten-minute modern piece that sits embarrasedly on the edges of a lot of orchestral concerts. If I was ten years younger I'd have gone to the film screenings and discussions that formed the first part of the Proms Stockhausen day, but I' m getting on and have domestic concerns like getting the shopping done and recovering from the sort of hangover I never used to get after a night playing ukulele in a pub, so I skip all that and go straight to the first concert of the day.

I first heard Gruppen about 10 years ago, when it was performed by the CBSO in Birmingham. Then, as now, the piece was given twice; this works very well, as the piece is so much about the spacial placement of sounds that shuffling about to a different spot for the second performance seems almost a necessity to start to have a proper sense of it. So this is the third time I've heard it.

It doesn't grab me as much this time as before; we're standing in a very crowded arena, with all the really tall people in front of us obscuring any view. Two of the groups have been placed in the arena itself (hence the crowding), but they're at the front end, close to the stage where the third is, so there's very little scope to get right in the middle of the sound field. This seems like poor planning. Wouldn't it have been better to have them at the back, or even construct platforms over some of the stalls? It's not as if they're full, although the turnout's quite respectable (I'm reminded of the adage that there's no hall like the Albert Hall for looking half-empty when it's half-full). That would have left both more space in the arena and more space between the orchestras. As it is, it feels like I'm only really hearing half a performance, only getting a dim sense of the interplay between the groups. And the iconic brass chord that hockets around towards the end doesn't seem to take flight, quite.

There's some shuffling as the players leave the stage (and arena), and I'm briefly distracted by a man in an orange T-shirt (which I think of as a sure sign of a wanker) telling his girlfriend how this is what it's all about, all pop music is crap, the Beatles are crap . The next piece is purely electronic - Cosmic Pulses, the 13th Hour of Klang, the cycle Stockhausen was working on when he died last year. it's always a slightly odd experience, sitting in a concert hall listening to disembodies sounds, but then again Stockhausen's so wildly ambitious in what he does that what seems awkward in lesser talents seems perfectly proper here. The hall is in almost total darkness, and the pinpricks of light coming through the dome make it feel like we're looking up at the night sky searching for UFOs, appropriately, as it turns out.

There are 24 loops repeating at 24 different speeds (I read later in the programme notes - one occasion where I should have read them before, I think). From the point of view of the listener, there's a swirling, pulsating mass of sound hanging in the air above us, and it's maybe closer to the aural equivalent of looking at a sculpture than listening to a conventional piece of music. I change my mind about it at least three times during its 32 minute course, at first fascinated by its whirling texture, and overwhelmed by the experience of hearing the sounds swoop around in such a large space. Then as it continues it seems to become oppressive, and I wonder if this isn't a perfect demonstration of the megalomania that many wild accuse Stockhausen of, the sense of himself as God. Certainly I feel like I'm a tiny mortal gazing up at an ineffable and indifferent universe. I feel pinned down by one enormous ego, forcing me to accede to his will. Perhaps this is the sound we will hear when the aliens arrive from Sirius to take over our world. By the end, as the loops gradually complete their cycles and the texture thins out, I'm filled with wonder again, as the skies seem to clear.

The solo trumpet of Harmonien, part of the fifth hour of Klang, follows, and it seems like a breeze blowing though the hall after the swirling dense clouds of Cosmic Pulses. It's a very simple piece, essentially a succession of elaborately embellished melodies that seem heartwarming in their straightforwardness.

Finally, an interval! I've heard some wonderful music, but I've been standing up for an hour and a half, and I'm grateful for a chance to sit for a bit. When I go back in I still can't get into the middle (although that tall man who stood in front of me and farted all the way through Cosmic Pulses has managed to get there - honestly, there's no justice), so I settle for a position right by the other orchestra in the arena. At least I'll get a view of something this time. I become aware of a voice droning on behind me. The wanker in the orange shirt (who talked all the way through Cosmic Pulses, by the way - obviously not so enamoured of Stockhausen that he feels the need to listen that hard) has moved too and is still behind me! I'm obviously being punished by the cosmic forces for my doubts earlier on.

Kontakte seems like a glimpse into another world. I've seen old black and white film of this sort of thing in the 50s, a couple of men surrounded by percussion bashing away in the heart of a tape maelstrom, and here it is, brought forward into the living colour 21st century. It is dated in only the way as yesterday's vision of tomorrow can be. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - I love old sci-fi movies, and this has something of the same innocence about it, an excitedness in Creating the Future that remains inspiring rather than laughable because, well, a lot of the future (your present) was created here. The taped sounds' movement through space is of course less sophisticated than a recent work like Cosmic Pulses, but this was created, after all, at a time when computers barely existed, let alone anything that was available to a musician to play with. It seems somehow to have passed through being dated and become in its way timeless.

Gruppen's much better the second time round - whether this is because it's played better or just because I'm in a better position I couldn't say, but it suddenly seems to come into focus, and the drama of the interaction of the three groups seems more apparent. Although the percussion section's maybe not the ideal place to be right by if you want to hear anything else when they're in full swing.

Afterwards, I reflect on how there often seems in Stockhausen's music to be a moment, near the end, when the violent, thorny textures subside, and something more introspective and lyrical comes through, a lyricism that he tries to suppress but can't entirely. If you ignore the received wisdom about his fearsome reputation and just listen, you come to the conclusion that he is in essence a Romantic composer.

It's been a long evening, but I can't miss the opportunity to hear Stimmung live. It's a piece like no other, by Stockhausen or anyone else (although LaMonte Young would probably disagree with me on that). I'm annoyed by the Radio 3 woman who comes on and subjects us to one of those slightly inane introductions you get on the radio. I don't want to hear this drivelling bollocks, I want to hear the fucking music, thank you. Fortunately it doesn't last long, and the performance begins. The stage is set up according to Stockhausen's strict instructions, the singers entering silently one by one (only one person didn't get the hint in the announcement that the long silence at the start is integral to the piece and tried to clap them on) and sitting in a circle on cushions on a rug in "earth colours" (beige) round one of those globe lights that was so popular in the late 60s.

It's easy to make fun of this sort of thing, but it works because it's done with sincerity, and it highlights the home-made feel that a lot of Stockhausen seems to have, which gets derided by some but to me is an essential part of his appeal.

That one chord, slowly changing through time, punctuated only by occasional speech, is an extraordinary thing to experience, lying on your back staring up at the ceiling once more. There's a terrible wrench when it finally winds down to its close, and I have to run out as the applause starts to catch the last train home. I feel awake, and don't want the evening to end. That chord gets inside you and resonates, so that long after the performance is over it still seems to be sounding, buzzing inside your skull as you walk home.


theartofcriticism said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
petemaskreplica said...

I agree, you're definitely not normal.

Ben.H said...

I like your comment about the "home-made" feel about a lot of Stockhausen's work. When it became too obvious to ignore in his later theatrical pieces, it added another perspective to his other avant-garde tendencies.

You did all look very cramped in the the standing room at the first concert. Mind you, my girlfriend loved Stimmung despite the berk behind her kicking her seat most of the way through.

theartofcriticism, I have read all your writings, which means I can now spread all the false information about you I want and you cannot legally put me in your case.

petemaskreplica said...

Thanks, Ben. It's the quirky, slightly am-dram feel of a lot of the theatrical stuff that makes it charming rather than egomaniacal for me :)

I've removed theartofcriticism's comment. He can say what he likes, of course, there's no reason why I should have to put up with it here, though.