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STOCKHAUSEN, Stimmung:  Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier, director, Jaqueline du Pré Music Building, Oxford, 16.01.2006 (AO)


Entering the darkened arena of the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, and seeing a glowing white orb on a table on stage a lady in the audience exclaimed “It’s a séance!”  It was a brilliant observation, for Stimmung is more than just music, it’s a kind of spiritualism.

The piece was written in 1968, a time of revolution and new beginnings.  Many thought it was “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”, when mystical values would make the world a better place.  Stimmung thus captures the mood of shamanistic incantation.  Stockhausen was said to have been inspired by Tibetan Buddhist chanting.   By focusing on the inner reverberations of sound, the idea is that the mind will be free to soar above the physical aspect of singing.  In many cultures, similar chanting is used, often assisted with peyote or other drugs to reach a mind altering state.

The piece, thus, is a 70 minute rumination on a single chord, B flat major, created for six voices.  Words come in short bursts – including Stockhausen’s own erotic poems – but they don’t really matter except as punctuation points along the journey.  This music deconstructs the idea of singing.  Vowel sounds are repeated over and over until they create a wall of abstract sound that mimics some ancient, secret language.  Various techniques are used, such as overtone singing, humming, nasal wails and so on, further removing the result from convention.  Sounds weave back and forth between performers, patterns repeating or changing on a sudden pivot.  This very abstraction means that everything depends on how the performers relate to each other.  As in chamber ensemble, they have to be acutely aware of what the others are doing, adapting their part in relation to the progress of the piece.

Fortunately, the six performers are drawn from Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier’s specialist group for avant-garde choral work.  They have recorded choral music by John Adams and Arvo Pärt.  They also do a great deal of medieval and Renaissance polyphony, which also uses elaborate vocal techniques to create beauty that transcends church ritual.  Christian incantation had a similar spiritual effect as Buddhist, or Hindu chanting.  Hillier himself worked with Stockhausen, and sang Stimmung when he was with Singcircle.  An original member of the Hilliard Ensemble, his feel for the intricacies of voice is impeccable.  This was a clear performance, each voice well balanced and blended.  Part of the effect is deliberately visual, hence Stockhausen’s instructions that it should be performed in semi darkness.  Each performer wears colour coordinated clothing, according to voice type, which adds an element of natural theatre to the proceedings.  From time to time, a performer will raise a hand: stylistically it evokes symbols of acceptance and supplication.  A piece like this depends on atmosphere.  Tonight, Theatre of Voices lived up to their name and made it a credible experience.


Anne Ozorio



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)