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Aldeburgh Festival 2008  (9):  Stockhausen ,  Stimmung, London Voices, Ben Parry (director), The Maltings, Snape, Suffolk, England 27. 6.2008 (AO)

1968 was “the Summer of Love” in North America, where Stockhausen was then based, and the “Year of Revolution”  in Europe: tThat year, anything seemed possible, if there was sufficient vision.  So while Stimmung might seem dated now because its earnest idealism may be out of step with the more cynical times we live in,  it is still  a remarkable musical concept.

Stimmung is an experience which  (deliberately) keeps on being re-invented with each performance.  It’s a series of 51 segments  which can be arranged in different ways and like throwing dice, the sequence can fall in many ways. Within each segment there are some fixed points but also much room for choices made in the course of performance.  This isn’t straightforwardly  notated music by any means: Stockhausen gives basic templates, but within them, there’s great freedom of invention and  the  onus remains with the performers, whose artistic responses “create” the piece anew each time. Yet, personal as the artists'  choices may be, the ultimate goal of Stimmung is to rise above ego, and seek a kind of transcendence through interaction. The word 'Stimmung'  means convergence, becoming attuned and  perhaps that’s why the piece is so fascinating. Even with the same group of individuals, no performance can ever run strictly to plan, as the slightest nuance can change the flow of the music. Stimmung is a game of chance, an experience born of the moment in which its made.

It is also influenced by where it takes place and seems to
work best in small womb-like spaces or in settings like the glass-walled penthouse at the top of the Gherkin, the second tallest building in London, which affords a panoramic view of the  skyline.  How it will work in the Albert Hall in August, I have no idea:   tt might inspire something quite different to what we’ve become used to so far. Here at the Maltings in Snape, the raised platform of normal performance wasn’t terribly sympathetic as it divided audience from the performers.  Alien as it may be, you can’t approach Stimmung with the emotional detachment of Spock from Star Trek. Even people who nod off are responding in a valid way, for the slow, constant pulse is meant to be soporific.

The piece attempts surrender to the subconscious. There’s a very fine line between trance states and sleep, so it’s as valid to drift off into one’s dreams than to listen po-faced and intransigent.  There is a lot to be said in favour of late night scheduling, when the Thought Police of the Freud's super-ego loosen their grip and listeners can relax.

London Voices dressed in loose yoga clothing, which reflects the spirit of the piece, and sat on colourful beanbags.  Stimmung is not of course a group therapy session because although it does draw out so much from those who participate, therapy assumes that there’s something amiss.  In a sense, Stimmung is more like ritual magic created by communal incantation and supposedly primitive societies have been chanting together to  raise 'the spirits' since prehistory. Indeed, Stockhausen wrote this piece after spending time in Mayan temples in Mexico where  the Mayans used  to chant themselves into altered states of  consciossness, sometimes using substances that  today would be considered illegal.  Perhaps people who listen to Stimmung while smoking dope aren’t so very  far off the mark !  Stimmung is a spell, and spells work for those who believe or half-believe.  This performance started with a chanted  Om ! and cries of “Hallelujah!” and although this is spiritual music, there’s a danger of it being typecast into conventional religious terms and lulling the audience to think inside the box. But spirituality isn’t necessarily always benign and  Stimmung may also become a rite towards  an elevated plane by traversing the savage chaos of the world.

Stockhausen sometimes specifies details like lip and tongue movements but leaves the performers to choose which materials to work these around.  This means there’s plenty of vocal invention in this work : it’s fun to follow it “singing” along silently so you can appreciate something of the physical effort involved.  The singers use head voice, throat voice and chest voice in different combinations, sometimes deliberately unco-ordinated with articulations of the mouth.  There weren’t too many great vocal  feats in this performance, but pitch was held well, the voices humming together nicely - but without necessarily humming, of course!  The passages of poetry didn’t get as much emphasis as in some performances, so the word “avocado” made many in the audience jump.  Stockhausen’s making connections there between sex and spirituality, but many people might not think of avocados as particularly erotic, especially in this vaguely religious performance. Even so, the outburst  added  a nicely surreal touch, emphasising the element of surprise that’s so fundamental to the piece.

Aldeburgh programming is so intelligently planned that it was good to hear Stimmung in the context of other parts of the festival.  After Bach, Webern and Kurtàg, it was good to hear how economically Stockhausen set out his basic ideas.  He notates the bare minimum, from which performers can deviate, but the essence is simplicity and understatement.  Then there’s the use of time.  Sunday ! Mittwoch, Freitag ! are measures of time, but Stockhausen doesn’t use them sequentially: the altered sense of time is also significant, for the very shape of the each performance can pivot  on barely noticeable changes of inflection. With Stimmung, the process of listening is as important as action.  Stockhausen wanted it  to exist in semi-silence and watchfulness which is why the singers use microphones, so that what they sing can be done at the lowest possible volume, yet still heard by an audience. So, why not have them shout without amplification ? That’s part of the irony because  what the singers hear and what the audience hears are never quite the same:   two people look at an object from different angles and see the something different, but the object itself still remains as an entity.

This year’s Aldeburgh also had a sub-theme of games and play, and Stimmung fits with this sense of freedom and experiment, a form of polyphony which  depends on the interplay of the different voices. Stockhausen is portrayed as a demon in some circles, but heard together with the other music that this year's Aldeburgh has showcased, he becomes very much part of the river of creative imagination that flows from Marchaut to Bach, from Hadyn to Mozart, from  Kurtàg to Cage and beyond.

Anne Ozorio

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