Klang: A Tribute To Karlheinz Stockhausen - Weekend 1

London Sinfonietta, Royal College of Music Orchestra/Knussen, Masson

Southbank Centre, 3 November 2008 3.5stars

Karlheinz Stockhausen

The Southbank Centre’s Klang festival, which began this weekend and will continue its run of music, installations, lectures and other events right up to next Sunday night, was originally conceived as a celebration of the eightieth birthday of the extraordinary German modernist mystic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Following his death last December, however, the celebration has become a commemoration, and the impressive line up of performers and events in the festival now stands as a tribute to Stockhausen, one of the twentieth century’s most fertile musical minds.

The festival was introduced with a performance of Michaels-Gruss, given in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall by members of the London Sinfonietta led by Oliver Knussen, one of the instigators of Klang. It was an obvious choice for a festival opener, originally conceived as it was to be performed in the foyer of a theatre before a staging of Donnerstag (Thursday) from Stockhausen’s epic magnum opus Licht, his opera based around the different days of the week. As such, its traditional vorspeil tripartite structure served its rhetorical function well; a stately, ritualistic opening grew into a more intense evocation of Michael’s journey to Bali, before a valedictory final section, replete with haughty ending, brought things to a close. The musical material of this prelude might be slight, but as a public declaration of the festival’s inauguration the piece worked well enough. The headstrong brass lines were given authoritatively by the Sinfonietta, and the middle section’s more speculative (if slightly hackneyed) writing was sounded with an eye to more vivid tone-colours.

The first concert proper took place directly after the free introduction in the theatre of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the focal point of the festivities. In keeping with the comprehensive scope of the festival programme, this particular event offered full-blooded and committed presentations of two works from quite different eras of the composer’s career, both of which we effectively heard twice, as designed. The concert could boast of both esteemed former collaborators of Stockhausen, and also talented young performers from the Royal College of Music. The latter clearly relished the opportunity to engage on a large platform with the music-theatrical fantasies of this modern master.

Suzanne Stephens opened proceedings with a sensual, capricious reading of Harmonien, in the bass clarinet version. This relatively short solo (about 13 – 15 mins) exists in three versions (we also heard it on flute; a trumpet is the final medium), and is the Fifth Hour in Stockhausen’s last work, almost completed at the time of his death, KLANG: The Twenty Four Hours of the Day. This cycle is, like all of the music from the composer’s last thirty-five years or so, as much theatrical as it is musical, and it deals in the same sort of new-age, cosmic metaphysic thought processes and dramaturgy as Stimmung, Licht, Tierkreis and others. In Harmonien, the soloist emerges in darkness, with spotlight illuminating her somewhat elfish costume. She moves around the stage, sometimes rotating in circles, sometimes vibrating with the oscillations of her line, but always portraying with intensity the mystical transcendence of the music-philosophical conception. Presentation is almost as important as musical architecture in some of Stockhausen’s later work, and the conceptual underpinning can sometimes grate. However in the case of the two performances of Harmonien, each given at the start of the two halves of the concert, things remained utterly captivating throughout.

Crucially a very tight construction underpins the composition. The highly constructivist serial writing (the whole of KLANG is based on one twenty-four note series, which can be reduced down to a central six note cell), in which distinct panels of music differentiated by series, gesture, and concentration recur in different relations and in different permutations again and again, remains adjunct here to the force of the argument. The material is not overplayed, the narrative stays strong through to the end, and extended performing techniques (with all the colour they bring) are used always with an eye to how they strengthen the effect of the work.

Suzanne Stephens and Stockhausen

Stephens showed an impressive technical command of the material, but also brought a sense of spontaneity to the performance which very importantly (in that it’s crucial to the theatrical feel of the lone character struggling on stage) created an improvisatory feel. Kathinka Pasveer, meanwhile, was even more impressive in the flute version, where the material, with minor variations, is transposed up a whole step to fit the compass of the instrument. She displayed a more controlled impulse, by virtue of which her performance appeared even more vivid, even more concentrated and poetic than had Stephens’.

The second half of each half was taken up with two startling performances, by the Royal College of Music Orchestra directed (in part, as will become clear) by Diego Masson, of one of the composer’s most infamous works, Trans. The piece brings to the fore the sort of heightened theatricality that dominated Stockhausen’s work from the period it was written on (1971-), and like many other works of his, it originated in a dream. In performance, the piece begins with the curtain being very slowly drawn back to reveal about forty string players, arranged on three levels as in a class photograph, playing a sustained cluster with a fixed look of confused dread on their faces. Behind them, invisible behind a scrim, are the winds, brass and percussionists.

Most important to the work’s impact however is the fact that all are behind a large gauze that is transfigured by an intense violet light. This conceit could be awkward, but in this staging the screen seemed to infuse proceedings with an unbearable drama, and the determination of each of the string players to uphold the illusion of some sort of uncanny possession made the whole thing come off wonderfully. As the curtain was drawn back, and the unwavering cluster began unwinding in our ears, the violet force clouded all on stage with a sort of distance, with a sort of oppressed futility.

This impression of imprisonment is key, in fact. The work seems to me to be playing out a drama of power dynamics, where each of the players is supine in their obedience to whatever higher, terrible power is controlling them (a ne plus ultra version of what orchestral players have to endure throughout their careers in normal circumstances?). The action of the play is limited, but it is telling in its way. First of all a drummer comes out and directs a violist to give a wild and desperate solo. He stops immediately when instructed, with a fearful eye upwards. A cellist, then a violin player, then a trumpet raised above the whole ensemble, each give fervent little explosions seemingly all in vain attempts to impress the immanence guiding them. All the while the large string ensemble winds away anxiously on their notes. The hidden players meanwhile have much busier music, but that busyness is masking an even greater emptiness. Their wild, blustering explosions always circle back to the same ground, and remain within the same material parameters. Despite their obvious attempts to break out of their hold, these musicians are clearly in as dire a bind as the string players (the wild frustration and forceful accuracy of execution required of this hidden ensemble was easily achieved by Masson and the players of the Royal College).

Trans

The recorded sound of a shuttle loom, reappearing throughout and marking off the six important sections of the work, gives a sort of a real presence to the omnipotence dominating each mind. A silence emerges towards the end, before the same tumult rises up again, irrepressible now in its cycle. The curtains draw to a close as this sound continues, ebbing away now, giving a sense of the eternality of the players’ predicaments. Trans was played twice, in an almost identical form the second time and still at about 25 minutes in length, not 15 as the programme stated (the programme for the festival, by the way, is well put together, despite some obvious mistakes- for example the remarkable statement that Sonic Youth released their debut album TV Shit in 1993). The repeat only underscored the impression of inescapable confinement created the first time.

The main performances on the Sunday were less impressive, unfortunately. Sepp Grotenhuis and Ellen Corver, with Jan Panis controlling sound projection, were the two pianists in a somewhat uninvolving performance of Mantra (1971), given at five o’clock in the Purcell Room. The piece is a 70-minute composition that points forward to later concerns. Its hypnotic repetition of serial rows with great freedom in the writing, and its regular, colotomic (this refers to the manner of shaping phrases in much Japanese classical music) division of the form by the two pianists striking a block and some crotales on top of their piano, is noteworthy. There are less theatrics in this work than later, though the antiphonal dramatics of the two pianists at various points, a la Kagel’s Match, are important. These points come notably at 25’, where the two comically compete with the pitting of a repeated three-note figure against itself, and again at about 60’, where they stand to vocalise, and exchange querying glances.

The performance was accomplished, if a little business like in execution, but the spiritual reverie indicated by the title, and by the repetition of certain note clusters and gestures, seemed far off in the constricting atmosphere of the hall. A notable disparity between the cosmic underpinning and the context of performance seemed to dominate. The performance worked best when the ring modulators (primitive electronic devices that alter the frequencies and thus duration and timbre of the piano part through their modification of the signal being transmitted through the mics) on top of each piano took effect and decayed the sound quite involvingly, or when the writing and playing entered into areas of quietude and meditation. The two players were impressively committed to the interplay and affect of the work, but on this occasion at least it failed to grip in the way that the composer’s best music can.

In the main concert of the day, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, themes prevalent the previous night and earlier in the day in the Purcell Room, reared their head again. In Glanz, the tenth hour of KLANG, ideas of agency, theatrics, and their correspondence in the serial operations of the music again dominated. Unlike in Trans, or in Harmonien, where in the first instance the conceit was compelling in its purity, and in the second the music was so tightly organised and integrated, the dialectic of self-determination and behaviour within a determined framework came across as slightly cheap and vacuous.

Asko ensemble

The violist, clarinettist, and bassoon player on stage play around capriciously with some of the same material heard in Harmonien. Again the inventive use of technique as a conduit to colour and interest is employed. The over-blowing and tapping of the clarinet, the circular breathing and intricate compound melodies of the bassoon, and the diverse bowing techniques and fingerings of the viola all create momentary interest (each part was expertly and enthusiastically given by members of the wonderful Asko and Schonberg ensembles). The problem is one of scale. Lasting for 45 minutes, the piece falls apart after about ten, with each new event seeming like an indulgence, like an empty rhetorical gesture of a failed imagination. Four ‘magic moments’ break up the text. An oboe appears in the middle of the hall and peremptorily converses with the players onstage, who all look askance towards the source of the sound. Next, a trumpet and trombone emerge from each side of the hall, and do the same. Third, the players stop to intone at various points the first line of the Greater Doxology (Gloria in excelsis deo etc). After another five or ten minutes, a somnambulant tuba player wanders round the back of the stage, exchanging gentle, slightly perturbed phrases with the three. The piece is not without its moments; some startling moments of consonance occur throughtout for example. The writing for the three main instruments makes good use of the sympathetic colours of each and of the interlocking ranges each sits comfortably in, but the overall impression for me was one of rote, sub-Kagelian music theatre, where the theatre is fatuous to the point of inducing boredom.

This feeling carried on somewhat into the second half, though a late development rescued things to a degree. Orchester-Finalisten is the second scene of Mittwoch aus LICHT (Wednesday from Light), and it portrays the final round of auditions for a place in an orchestra (this work too emerged in a dream of the composer’s). It is very simple; eleven musicians each take their solo, with occasional group interjections in support, whilst a backing track of pre-recorded electronics (featuring snatches of various events from around the globe, such as a mass at St. Mark’s in Venice, a beach scene, and a jet fighter) plays away. The solos are largely simple (the violin plays aggressive glissandi from the Helicopter Quartet for example, whilst the cellist focuses on two simple notes whilst nervously looking around, again, at the thing in charge), with much of their energy coming from the theatrics at their core. The trombone player, for example, plays clownish glissandi while writhing around the stage, whilst the flautist vocalises and skittishly follows the arc of her line with the movements of her body (fabulously realised in this performance). The material is again quite empty, but the piece stays just about the right side of farce to be humorous, and positively bewildering.

The true stroke of mad genius comes towards the end though, when the bass player’s antic gestures are halted by the striking of a small gong, carried by a figure all wrapped up in white, who has just appeared from behind the stage. A french horn player emerges from behind the audience then, plays some notes into the ears of audience members, then joins the lot on stage, who now, in a wonderful coup de theatre all join together in an automaton frenzy to play abbreviated versions of their solos. The absurdity of these events is truly dazzling, and it is fair to say that the conception works, in the final analysis, because of the boldness and inevitability with which the performance moves to its conclusion. The glance back at the composer’s Fluxus flirtations in the sixties that this work contains is too delightful to miss. Everyone involved in this performance discharged their tasks with total conviction, and managed to maintain the pace of absurdity right to the end. It was a success then, but it was a curiously empty success, without any great insight or technical profundity.

Karlheinz Stockhausen

The Klang festival is admirably wholistic in its remit. It is seeking, it would seem, to reflect the hybrid nature of Stockhausen himself- he of the high modernist avant-garde, but also he the avatar of new-age mysticism- by attempting to realise even the most fanciful of his inventions with extreme vigour, and also by including DJ nights, electronic music nights, lectures, family events, and various installations. On Saturday evening a slightly incongruous ‘50s’ jazz pianist entertained people in the foyer after the concert with some gentle, lyric ballads. He alternated with an electronic music DJ, playing sounds more in line with Stockhausen. This was the Darmstadt bar, apparently.

On Sunday families were given the opportunity to investigate the link between Stockhausen and the Beatles (the latter of whom, it has to be said, pinched some of the composer’s ideas around sound collage and tape experiments). A Stockhausen cinema, with seats loosely strewn around and people free to come and go as they pleased, was placed in the corner of the QEH, where people could watch taped lectures given by Stockhausen, and also performances, interviews and documentaries related to him. All this made for a very fulfilling experience. Some fascinating symposia are scheduled for later in the week featuring keynote presentations from the likes of Richard Toop and Robin Maconie. The magnificent agenda of concerts in the main halls (all detailed on the Southbank’s website) is complemented by a non-classical club night on Thursday, and a night of modern experimental music organised by The Wire magazine on Friday. It’s shaping up to be a diverse, inventive festival.

By Stephen Graham

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