Back in the late-'60s you always could get a discussion going among conservatory-student composers regarding the music of Carter or Boulez, Babbitt or Berio, Messiaen or Cage; but if you wanted to really stir up trouble, you'd just have to mention the name Stockhausen. Not that any of these aspiring avant-gardists had ever heard much (or even any) of his music or more than remotely understood what he was up to, but it was the idea of Stockhausen that roused their youthful anti-conformist spirits. And so it is with Stimmung, the idea, the concept, the back-story having as much to do with the work's perceived importance as its real effect in performance.
By 1968, when Stimmung was composed, Stockhausen's experiments with and new ways of thinking about form and structure and exactly what components of a musical work mattered or didn't matter-that is, rhythm and time and timbre-what should be given to immediacy or chance and what should be precisely directed, and how all of these sounds and pitches and rhythms should be organized, were of great interest to those whose fascination with music depended more on the rational and quantifiable than the emotional and intuitive.
The "score" for Stimmung is by no means a score in the traditional sense but rather is a set of charts and directions. Virtually every discussion of this work makes a point of how it was written "in a snowbound house" on Long Island Sound; how the composer had earlier spent time in Mexico, "sitting for hours" before the structures of Mayan temples; how he'd traveled in the Far East and how the ideas for the unique vocal performance aspects of Stimmung arose from his need to be quiet in the evening while his young children slept.
And so we suspect that somehow we need to know these things in order to appreciate the piece-and we also need to know as much as possible regarding the work's structure and performance scheme, which is complex and concerned with concepts such as phase shifts, timbral mutation, "swinging periodicities", pulsations, overtones, and singers bringing themselves "into identity with" each other. And we-or many of us, at least-find it disconcerting that to fully digest the explanation of and rationale for this musical work takes more time than the actual listening-a sure sign that the composer has you exactly where he wants you, hopefully enamored with, mesmerized by his clever scheme, unsure whether it's a groundbreaking experiment or sophisticated stunt. Regardless, it's more about him than the music, and, we suspect, that's the point.
More concretely, for those who haven't taken the time to acquaint themselves with Stimmung (and believe me, it takes time!), the entire work is based on a low B-flat and its natural harmonics. The performers, six singers (3 male, 3 female), sing sometimes alone, most often together in different combinations, but always sounding a particular overtone of the fundamental B-flat. They work from a "form scheme" and a set of 51 "models" that contain the basic performance material-who sings what pitch, rhythmic and tempo information, vowel sounds, syllables, random words (e.g., days of the week, "Hallelujah", "barbershop", etc.), poems, and a list of 66 "magic names" (drawn from various world religions) that are spoken at various points. Much of the actual performance is not predetermined but involves improvisatory action from the singers; in this case the whole event adds up to 78 minutes of unbroken sound, a continuously shifting tonal/timbral/phonetic landscape that's reminiscent of Tibetan chant one minute and improvisatory theatre the next.
It turns out that the leader of this project, Paul Hillier, was one of the singers on an acclaimed recording of Stimmung from 1983 (Singcircle/Hyperion), and his ambition 20 years later was to re-evaluate works that "had loomed so large in the '60s and '70s and had since gone out of fashion." He believes strongly that Stimmung is a very important work that "redefines the very notion of what a vocal ensemble is for and what it might achieve." In response, he devised a new version of the work-the "Copenhagen version"-and produced it with the intent to "capture the sound of the piece in the concert hall rather than in a purely voice-microphone relationship." In this he, his fellow singers, and his Harmonia Mundi partners have surely succeeded, although I would have enjoyed a bit more distance between me the listener and the six singers. The perspective is a bit too close to allow the "circling", back-and-forth, rising and receding sonic effects their full impact, but there's no quarrel with the vibrancy and clarity of the voices. We hear everything with immediate, room-filling resonance, and the vocalists are uniformly superb.
Proponents of Stockhausen's work-and writers on his music are overwhelmingly worshipful-tout Stimmung as a masterpiece, at once "embracing new musical parameters" and "creating a new genre of vocal production" while also offering listeners a kind of entrancing meditative space. The composer himself describes it thus: "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."
Personally, I think that if you want to experience the true flavor of overtones in vocal music, obvious from listening-no reading of musicological treatises required-you should look no further than the Hilliard Ensemble's recording of music by Perotin (on ECM, including Paul Hillier as one of the singers); if meditation is what you're after, any number of works by Arvo Part (also on ECM) will do very nicely, and again, the music speaks for itself; and if you want to experience the magic of harmonic phase shifting technique, try to hear a performance of Steve Reich's Four Organs, an ingenious and sense-skewing work that really shook up its first audience (in Boston, me included) back in 1971. This is for Stockhausen cultists, the truly curious, and for those who wish to recall the days when even classical music had its own exciting, unpredictable, egocentric, radical elite. "A trip", as you who were there used to say...
- David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
Stimmung is one of the masterpieces of the last half century. Like all the greatest music it is unclassifiable - part meditation, part gigantic motet, part phonetic game - and totally resistant to imitation. Though in essence it is a vast elaboration of a single six-note chord based on the overtones of the note B flat, it never seems to stale in performance, partly because of the extraordinary variety of rhythm, attack and colour that Stockhausen generates within the 51 "models" into which he divides the 70-minute piece, and partly through the freedom for performers that is built in to the score, allowing the singers to decide the order in which the models are sung and where in the sequence a series of 66 "magic names" and four erotic poems are inserted. This is only the third commercial recording of Stimmung; 25 years ago Paul Hillier was a member of Singcircle, the British group behind the second, following the original by Collegium Vocale Cologne, who gave the first performance in 1968. Now, with his Theatre of Voices, Hillier has directed his own version, recorded in Copenhagen last year. As you would expect, its sound world and pacing are much like its predecessors, but the recording places the voices (three female, three male) in a more spacious acoustic than before, far closer to what you experience when Stimmung is performed live, and lending even more enchantment to this extraordinary work.
Andrew Clements, Friday October 5, 2007, The Guardian
Seen and Heard Concert Review
Stockhausen, Stimmung: Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier, director, Jaqueline du Pre Music Building, Oxford, 16.01.2006 (AO)
Entering the darkened arena of the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building, and seeing a glowing white orb on a table on stage a lady in the audience exclaimed "It's a seance!" 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 Part. 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.