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20 Jul 2013

Stockhausen at the BBC Proms

The Royal Albert Hall was made for Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. BBC Prom 11 2013 featured Gesang der Jünglinge and Welt-Parliament from Mittwoch from Licht.

The Royal Albert Hall is an imposing building, designed on a grand scale. It is built in an unusual circular shape, which can cause acoustic problems. But it's ideal for Karllheinz Stockhausen's grand visions. The BBC Proms have done Gruppen four times, despite the logistics posed by the use of three orchestras. In 2008, there was an astounding Cosmic Pulses, the 13th Hour from Klang. Stockhausen sculpted sound. At the Royal Albert Hall, he had a huge canvas onto which he could project his experiments. The shape of the building means that sound waves have to travel longer distances than they might in a smaller auditorium. As they bounce off the walls and reverberate, the sound changes, becoming ever more subtle. Architecture becomes a component of performance.

In Gesang der Jünglinge (1955/6), the performers "are" the audience.The "music" happens when an audience processes the aural stimuli around them. The building goes dark. What's happening? Is the show over, one might ask? Slowly, out of the gloom emerge disembodied sounds, coming from many different, unexpected directions. The "performer" is a recording of a young boy, made many decades ago. He's an old man now, but on the tape he's immortal: another Stockhausen concept. The tape is spliced into myriad fragments and reconstituted into something completely different. Gesang der Jünglinge is the great great great grandfather of DJ mixes. Once Stockhausen himself adjusted the balances and frequencies at the mixing desk. Now his disciple Kathinka Pasveer does the sound projection. Stockhausen decreed that the stage should remain empty but for a few desks, to emphasize the idea that performance isn't something passive, but as blend of what's happening at the sound desk and what we hear, wherever we might be seated in the performance space.

Gesang der Jünglinge is based on a story in the biblical Book of Daniel, where three youths are condemned to die in a fiery furnace. But they're saved by their faith. In a heatwave, the Royal Albert Hall becomes a furnace. So the audience experiences the piece as all-round sensory endurance, in a way no-one could have imagined. The oscillating electronic sound waves quiver like flames. When disjointed words leap out “Sonne, Mond, Mund…..Frost und Eis, Frost und Eis”., we feel life-restoring deliverance just as the youths in the furnace might have felt. Karlheinz Stockhausen, wherever he is, must have been looking down with glee.

Last year, the Birmingham Opera Company produced the first complete UK performance of Mittwoch from Stockhausen's grand saga Licht. For this Prom 11 in 2013, the singers, Ex Cathedra, with Jeffrey Skidmore (director), recreated the first scene, Welt-Parliament. It was a good choice because the segment focuses on the variety of voices and vocal techniques. This is an extension of Stockhausen's concept of breaking sound into cells, reconstituting them into something new. Stockhausen is also deconstructing the idea of language.We hear words from recognizable languages, and randomly-generated noise. Just as in life, our task as listeners is to process for ourselves what we hear, not to take things as given. There are allusions to chorale, complete with liturgical bells, and red herrings, like when a man in a reflective jacket who materializes from the back of the Royal Albert Hall and calls out about a car with a number plate MITT2013WCH (!) Eventually, a consensus of sorts emerges. "Licht!" most of the singers conclude. The singers file out gravely. One remains "And now the next scene will follow" he says, but you have to decipher because he stutters to an extreme degree. Yet again, Stockhausen's breaking sound into minute fragments, so we have to really listen, not sit by passively and coast.

Although we're not likely to catch the complete 30 hour Licht anywhere soon, by studying fragments like this in detail, we can put together something of the whole, bit by bit. Indeed I wonder if Stockhausen meant for us to listen in this way, cell by cell, in random order. In conventional opera we follow a narrative where time and meaning are compressed. Stockhausen's approach replicates the way we experience real life. We put our own narratives together by listening and re-listening, backwards and forwards in time.

Anne Ozorio

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