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Karlheinz STOCKHAUSEN (1928-2007)
Stimmung (1968) [78:02]
Theatre of Voices/ Paul Hillier
rec. Stavnsholtkirchen, Copenhagen, Sept. 2006
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU807408 [78:02]
Experience Classicsonline


Stimmung, which literally translates as ‘tuning’ but has other, more ambiguous meanings, was originally conceived during the early months of 1968 in Madison, Connecticut. During those heady days of radical modernism, events at which this sort of music was performed were more often referred to as ‘happenings’ than concerts, and it’s possibly wise to still think in those broad terms when listening to this piece.

Written for six unaccompanied voices (three male, three female), the music is built around the note B flat and its associated harmonics, emerging as basically a single chord that, Feldman-like, grows, shifts and alters imperceptibly but tellingly.  During the course of the chord’s ‘journey’, the singers recite and transform speech sounds based on various ‘magic names’ (mainly gods and goddesses) and faintly erotic texts written for Stockhausen’s  partner, Mary Bauermeister. Some of these words, when audible, are slightly baffling, even embarrassingly dated, though luckily the worst of them (‘…my phallus is my soul when I immerse you…in my one-man-torpedo-bow) are in German, so those of us with only a vague working knowledge of the language are spared. That said, it is a hypnotic experience once you ‘give in’ to the music’s shape and sound world. This is as much because of the sheer variety of attack and colour that Stockhausen generates within the 51 seamless ‘models’ (sections) that the piece is structured around, as it is the quality of the performance. The composer does give a certain amount of freedom to the singers, and in this version – now known as the Copenhagen version - Paul Hillier and his colleagues really make the most of the playful vocal extremities they are called upon to execute; at various points, for instance, the voices sound for all the world like a didgeridoo, surely intentional. It’s thoroughly fascinating, and if anybody knows the piece well, Hillier certainly does. He was part of baritone Gregory Rose’s group Singcircle, who recorded their own subtly different version for Hyperion some 25 years ago. Courtesy of my local library, I have been able to sample that disc, and very good it sounds too. I have to admit to preferring the acoustic the Theatre of Voices are given, more spacious and perhaps more akin to what you might hear live, which can only help a piece of this nature.

This was a trend-setting work in its day, part of the hippy culture of experimentation in the 1960s. That it has survived this long, and had a new recording -the third - is testament to the actual quality of the music on offer. I have seen it referred to as ‘part meditation, part gigantic motet and part phonetic game’, a nice description of a work that is pretty unique. If you are the more adventurous type, you might find yourself as transfixed as I was, especially using headphones in a darkened room.

Tony Haywood


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