On February 21, the Copenhagen-based vocal group Theatre of Voices will appear at Carnegie Hall for a performance of Stimmung, a meditative and exploratory specimen of late Sixties minimalism and eclectic spirituality by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Perhaps no composition of the postwar European avant garde better captures the Zeitgeist of the time. Stimmung was written in early 1968, when Stockhausen was living with his wife and children in a snow-bound Connecticut house, facing the Long Island Sound. Yet the piece recalls his travels among the ruins of ancient civilizations in Mexico and his fascination with Native American and Eastern religions. The six vocalists sit in a circle on pillows, as if to prepare themselves for a séance or group prayer. Their vocalizations are confined to the overtones of B flat, and the singers vary the timbre of their voices, feeling their way slowly through a schema of uncertain duration that is divided into fifty-one sections. Along the way they invoke the “magic names” of various gods and goddesses of world religions, such as Shiva, Gaia, Quetzalcoatl, and Hina-a-tuatua-a-kakai (the Polynesian God of Moonlight). The entire piece lasts just over an hour.
The premiere of Stimmung took place in Paris in December, 1968, but it received its most infamous performance at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in June, 1969, when some members of the audience, including a few rival composers, interrupted the performance with mocking vocalizations, including an occasional bark and meow. Stockhausen angrily left the hall and later blamed the disturbance on “left-radical students” who had judged his work “authoritarian.”
It is hardly that. Known for his ventures into electronic music and for breaking many of the conventions of performance, Stockhausen will always remain one of the great experimentalists of the last century. (Who can forget the 1993 “Helicopter String-Quartet” from his seven-part opera, Licht, which placed the four players in separate helicopters buzzing about in the air?) Stimmung ranks among his most open-form works, a hypnotic study in sound that bears only the most distant kinship to the austere and controlled compositional styles of postwar European serialism. If one can forgive its moments of late Sixties silliness—as for example when a voice suddenly cries out “hippie” or, even less explicably, “barbershop”—the work can be profoundly moving.
The German word “Stimmung” contains the root “Stimme” (or “voice”). It means “tuning” or “mood,” but can also connote “atmosphere” or even “spiritual harmony.” The composer himself said of the piece that during its performance “Time is suspended. One listens to the inner self of the sound, the inner self of the harmonic spectrum, the inner self of a vowel, the inner self.”
Under the direction of Paul Hillier, Theatre of Voices issued a beautiful recording of Stimmung with Harmonia Mundi in 2007. The chance to witness a live performance is not to be missed.
For more information and tickets, visit carnegiehall.org.
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