Saturday 20 July 2013

Stockhausen - GESANGE DER JUNLINGE / WELT-PARLAMENT (from MITTWOCH AUS LICHT) – BBC PROMS, Royal Albert Hall, 19.07.2013

Performed by Ex Cathedra / cond. Jeffrey Skidmore. Sound projection by Kathinka Pasveer. (Also referenced: Helmut Lachenmann, 'Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied' / Gustav Mahler, 'Symphony No.5', performed by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra / cond. Jonathan Nott / with the Arditti Quartet.  BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, 15.07.2013.)

Perhaps it’s too easy, or too obvious to say this, but the Visions of Karlheinz Stockhausen would seem to emerge from an egomania based on a particularly old-fashioned, though still prevalent notion of genius, albeit not often these days presented in such nakedly pompous terms – the great artist from Sirius in touch with cosmic vibrations, which he translates into music; apparently with far less of a twinkle in his eye or tongue in his cheek than Sun Ra in his claims to be from Saturn, far less of a play with the traditions of 50s sci-fi, big-band jazz, the history of African-American music as a signifying resistance to oppression; more the vaguely cultural imperialist mystical windbagged ramblings of a rich old white man. The combinations of this egomania with a kind of hippie ‘world-music’ mish-mash of various forms of mysticism and religion passing off for the concern with collectivity with which the music of composers such as Luigi Nono or even the more open-ended scores of post-Cageian associates of the Wandelweiser group much more actively and specifically engages, mean that any encounter with his later music in particular increasingly have to be taken with a pinch of salt. The same could be said, I suppose, of the religious framing of the near-entirety of Messiaen’s output, equally grandiose in its marshalling of large orchestral resources or long spans of time; but I can’t help finding that there is something to do with Messiaen’s continued engagement with the presentation of time’s progression, or non-progression, the structural blockiness of his music, the pleasure of its textural surface in musical terms that don’t need to be related to any of its various scenarios, borrowed from fairly traditional scriptural sources, that makes it easier to listen to on its own terms than Stockhausen’s. ‘Welt-Parlament’, the a-capella choral work which took up the majority of tonight’s programme, is the second scene from ‘Mittwoch aus Licht’, the ‘Wednesday’ section of the enormous operatic cycle which occupied him for nigh on thirty years, and which is by turns self-consciously excessive, wacky and grandiose. In almost all the reviews of the piece (staged as part of the complete ‘Mittwoch’ in Birmingham last year), some minor discomfort or uncertainty is expressed about how to place the tone of this congress (the Welt-Parlament are holding a session in which they debate the meaning of Love); after concluding that the scenario and the dialogue that takes place within it is a hippie continuation of pieces such as ‘Stimmung’ or ‘Hymnen’, it is praised for its scope, for the staging, &c., &c, as if we were thankful for its very existence, rather than attempting to get under the skin of some actual problems that might exist for and with it.

I mean, for sure, it can be hard to know how to take the piece: it seems impossible, for example, that lines like “Love is cosmic glue” or injunctions to “find love” in your inner voice, which is the voice of God, or some-such, could have been written with a straight face. “Love is forgiveness” sings one of the parliamentary soloists; “Not always” replies the President, to which the choir respond with elongated “Ach-So”s. The historical and moral stakes of Love itself, in political or theological terms, are nowhere present in such utterances; nor, it would seem, are they intended to be. Regardless of the rather baffling tone of the libretto, though – which seems somehow to sit too comfortably for satire, and, if satirical, remain uncertain of its target -- the fact that much of the music is sung in invented future languages at least removes some of the dramatic absurdity: taken on its own terms, the choral writing is often beautiful, in a post-Ligeti, post-Stimmung way, with ripples of sound travelling down the rows of singers. For Stockhausen’s sense of spatial dynamics, largely due to his pioneering work with electronic music, is always in play, as it was in the initial diffusion of ‘Gesange der Junlinge’ from speakers around the Royal Albert Hall, its watery electronic bloops and bass booms and phased or pitch-shifted shards of the solo choirboy recording which is its source emerging unpredictably from different points of origin. If that piece could be criticised by the use of that rather amorphous, but frequently-deployed pejorative term ‘dated’ – impressive for its logistical achievement at the time, though many of the sounds could be easily recreated using simpler electronic means, now – one might also add that its structure doesn’t seem as sharp or as tense or as thought-through as it might; there is none of the wrenchingly tense silences present in the music of Helmut Lachenmann, none of the drama of Nono’s late-60s tape pieces, but rather, a kind of meandering quality, excited with the possibilities for creation that the technology and basic concept have created, but not always quite sure how to progress through and with them.

Returning to the notion of space, we might also witness also the entrance and exit of the choir at the beginning and end of ‘Welt-Parlament’, mumbled mass voices gradually fading in and out to the discrete accompaniment of the electronic metronomes each singer carries; some strange versioning of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’, perhaps, though without engaging that work’s teasingly questioning relation to patronage and the labour of its performers. (Stockhausen’s relation to the massive riches heaped upon his music would seem to have been that these were perfectly in line with the cosmic excesses his vision demanded, the most extreme of which is perhaps the entirely tedious ‘Helikopter String-Quartet’ which also forms a part of ‘Mittwoch’).

In terms of the ‘Welt-Parlament’ scenario – this debate on love by a variety of international representatives, taking place, I believe, somewhere literally above the clouds – there’s scope, one would have thought, for a music of debate, even of dialectical confrontation – though as the theme of ‘Mittwoch’ is reconciliation, or, as Stuart Manconie puts it in his book on Stockhausen, a kind of middling, or middle-ground, following the wars of ‘Dienstag’, that’s less the focus here. What happens in the end is that the so-called ‘debate’ on love leads to the airing of certain platitudes over a general hum of assent, sometimes with theatricalised gestures of indignation or disagreement on the part of the performers – which, however never really present themselves in the music; this hum sometimes focuses around droned centres, syllables stretched and thrown around the choir, invented languages or magic names intoned somewhat in the manner of ‘Stimmung’ (‘licht’ gets repeated a lot, seemingly associated with a particular hand gesture that looks a bit like a poorly-done gang symbol; Stockhausen goes bloods-and-crips), and sometimes allows space for coloratura exercises, little solo interventions. Perhaps this is intentional: speeches / arias as demonstrations of a flaunted technical skill that masks the lack of any significant message or contribution, epitomized by the temporary election of a female president (as the manifestation of the cycle’s Eve) when the male president runs off to prevent his car from being towed away; this election celebrated with a self-congratulatory delight in the mere mechanism of election itself, the appearance of correct process without any real consequence outside the self-enclosed ritual of the government chamber. Given this, and given Manconie’s potentially useful notion of a kind of banal middling, we might posit that Stockhausen is, however gently, humorously sceptical of his own quasi-internationalist visions, which it’s also easy (and probably correct) to see as extended hippie hang-overs; the vision of the galaxy-president as a camel-version of the cycle’s Lucifer, shitting out planets, in a later scene, or the announcement-‘interruption’ that the world-president’s car is being towed away in ‘Welt-Parlament’ would seem to mix in a kind of child-like poking of fun at authority figures – even as Stockhausen himself, it might be argued, remains, to a certain extent, the most absurd authority-figure of all, a child playing with his toys in the supposed interests of humanity as a whole, to whom, he, as the supreme artist Lucifer, has come to bring Licht. [*]

Yet there is never really any sense that Stockhausen is aware of what is at stake in the questions of government, community, internationalism or even universalism that his scenario breezily touches on. The alternation between soloist and choir might, of instance, have a long history in relation to, say, Greek dramatic art or to Bach’s Passions, for instance – or to its instrumental manifestation in the concerto form – but that’s never really exploited or dealt with apart from in the potential satire of the solo-as-display I’ve suggested above might be present. Similarly, the gender segregation of the choir (apart from two male singers (counter-tenors?) among the women’s side) would suggest a rather un-reconstructed notion of Love, or, indeed of parliamentary governance. Debate as un-dialectical self-congratulation; the appearance of an attempt at collective governance as precluding any actual necessary engagement with its practical implications. This might be seen as a send up of the impotent fake internationalism of the U.N., but I don’t think Stockhausen’s ‘politics’ traveled that far. Certainly, there’s no sense of that critique being made with the notion of the struggle for an actual internationalism behind it: Stockhausen was no communist. If ‘Hymnen’, for instance, wanted to be the twentieth-century version of the ‘Ode to Joy’, its internationalism was equally fake, and, as Adorno puts it of Beethoven’s work, partial, non-universal: see here Konrad Boehmer’s critique of the political-leanings of the anthems selected by Stockhausen, and his utopian vision of an “irrational petty-bourgeois supra-nationality." By contrast, Helmut Lachenmann's 'Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied' - performed at Monday's prom in a choice pairing with Mahler's Fifth Symphony - provides an engagement with the history of German national identity in music, through the transformation of Haydn’s Emperor Quartet into an anthem associated with bombastic chauvinism, an ethical fragmentation and consideration of the appropriation and complicity of a ‘pure’ music with repellent nationalist ideologies, which might provide us with a better vision of how one might address such issues.

It would be possible to argue, of course, that the climaxes of Lachenmann’s piece occasionally reached a fairly traditional kind of modernist angst-bombast. A few years ago, indeed, the composer-improviser Radu Malfatti expressed discomfort with this aspect of Lachenmann’s music in an interview for Dan Warburton’s now-defunct Paris Transatlantic magazine: “for me, his pieces are still hopelessly old-fashioned, the structures and the forms tumble around in 19th century-idiomatics: with all his beautiful sounds [by ‘beautiful’ Malfatti here means Lachenmann’s use of extended techniques in order to further the range of instrumental material available, rather than in what he would call a ‘regressive’ sense], I still hear rondos, climaxes, anti-climaxes, and so on.” Yet, against Malfatti, I would argue that, like Mahler’s, Lachenmann’s climaxes highlight their own status as moments of ‘power’ or force or angst as the weak and ineffective moment that, as clichés, they are. The issues surrounding connections between nation, music and mass murder that ‘Tanzsuite’ attempts to address, through its scrupulous re-working and stripping away to a last ghost gesture of German song material, might be said to express itself in two forms: first, an almost-nothing, in which, say, the entire texture is reduced to the whisper or scrape of a violin bow being drawn across the body of the instrument, barely audible in the extended space of the concert auditorium. This almost-nothing, however, always implies climax, a layering of additional instrumental over smaller groups or soli (as implied by the concerto grosso form) – thus, rather than any ‘still, small voice’, it is invariably fraught with the tension of an anticipated return, of an extension that never settles comfort, always liable to interruption or discontinuation but too extended to remain an easily-assimilated interlude. Second, a full-blown climax, which, however, implies its own dissolution back to fracture, to that ‘almost-nothing’, and thus seems to contain something hollow within it. The fairly large orchestra on-stage, then, always seems reduced, impotent, those climaxes sounding out an attempt at bombast that comes across as over-compensation, and through such a move – the inhabitation of fullness and large-scale exaggeration by extreme forms of reduction, and vice-versa – Lachenmman’s piece becomes a dialectical engagement with the orchestra as a particular ensemble category. One could, if one were being crude, apply some crude fascism metaphor to the orchestra , its members swaying to the charismatic will of conductor and composer, everyone with their particular role and their right place; more specifically, though, ‘Tanzsuite’ is an engagement with the presentation of a ‘national music’ that becomes associated with particular orchestral sounds (see, for instance, Adorno on the use of brass within the ‘New German manner’ of the Wagner / Bruckner school), as forms of false collectivity which, in its splintered re-fashioning of how such an ensemble might sound out, is fully engaged with questions of musical form choked with layers of corrupted historical sedimentation.

If, initially, then, Lachenmann’s use of climax and of the resources of the orchestra might at times seem to slip into what Malfatti calls a ‘regression’, it is precisely those moments which ensure a critical and dialectical relation to musical history and to regression itself. The fact, meanwhile, that Stockhausen avoids climaxes of that kind – the feeling of ‘Welt-Parlament’ is somehow oddly serene – suggests, not a ‘progressiveness’ or an escape from the tired clichés of 19th-century German Romantic music, but that less is at stake. For Lachemann, exaggeration is always musical, accomplished through gestures and textures of amplification or reduction, and their mutual exacerbation of each other, while for Stockhausen, exaggeration occurs mainly through pin-pointed theatrical gestures – the amplified blowing of kisses, the cartoonish car-towing interruption, the setting off of multiple electronic metronomes, the stammered announcement of the next scene by the fat singer left on stage after everyone else has accomplished their beautiful exit. Too often, these moments (primarily comic) feel like spectacular gimmicks, little moments of frisson designed to play against the expectations of a stuffy and stagnated opera house; yet this is all they remain, little moments, talking points for reviews, rather than immanent engagements with musical tradition and its attendant social rituals. It’s not too dissimilar from Werner Herzog’s descent into an essentially empty collection of self-consciously ‘wacky’ gestures in ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’: moments designed for crazy Nick Cage / crazy Werner you-tube clips in a manner little different from the compilations of the most absurd moments from the crappy Cage-starring remake of ‘The Wicker Man.’ Stockhausen can at least be presented as a charming curiosity, a mad scientist, a crazy inventor, a quasi-celebrity who makes extreme statements about 9/11 and writes music to be performed in helicopters; fun to think of as existing, even if one would never listen to it in any depth. Lachenmann’s sustained engagement with musical history and with form, even if it might not seem to challenge the bourgeois formal boundaries and parameters of its concert hall setting, is a more sustained and serious questioning of that setting and with that which is heard in the setting, and one that is primarily concerned with listening, rather than with egomaniacal ornamentation, with the frisson of bourgeois frippery. While the outraged reactions of cultural conservatives whenever a piece of contemporary music is somehow slipped into the Proms programme are hardly a reliable gauge, and while Stockhausen, as a far more famous public figure and a frequent target of bile, is also frequently attacked, the twitter outrage over Lachenmann’s piece suggests something of the way in which, outside any consideration of its structuring principles – merely, that is, on a ‘surface level’ – it remains fundamentally more challenging and troubling in its affect.

Up on cloud nine or on Sirius B, with stars in his eyes, I suppose Stockhausen was never going to be connected enough to music’s historical stakes to attempt anything like this. Still, to return to 'Welt-Parlament', I kept wanting, even as the spectacle and the music itself were impressive enough (though the choral language felt, oddly, rather too comfortably conventional in its beauty, too safe in its affect), a music that could take the potential for debate within that form and really delve into formally; some version of the extended debating scene from Ken Loach’s ‘Land and Freedom’, or the debates in Peter Weiss’ ‘Aesthetics of Resistance’; or Plato’s Symposium; or some sense of what Love might mean in theological or political terms, as in J.H. Prynne’s extended, word-by-word close-reading of George Herbert’s ‘Love III’. What love might mean in terms of hunger and consumption and individual and community, negotiation and gift, the economics of personal relation, and so on. But mainly what I got, in the end – and though I’m certainly glad there have been two Proms performances of contemporary music in one week, before the onslaught of Britten and the queasy-banal propaganda celebration of Royal-Baby-coinciding ‘Britishness’ – was feet heavy with cosmic glue.

[*] [A further note on Stockhausen and humour]

For Adorno’s Mahler, moments of parody and the grotesque are often entwined with those which should be – and on the surface might superficially appear to be – tinged with grandeur or power or force, the undercut bombast of brass climax as revealing the pain at “unappeased suffering” rather than a distanced laughter at the naturalized, never-changing perpetual motion of that taken to be the world’s unchangeable course: the omnipotence and omnipresence of capital and the exploitation of labour. Stockhausen’s humour has no such moral basis - that essential component, also, of real, engaged and effective satire. Rather, his is the playing around of precisely that bourgeois subject who imagines a distance and a freedom from "the world's course" that alienated labourers are not allowed to have. Charming as it might be, it is of the same impulse as his egomaniacal view of himself as conduit for humanity’s advancement and best interest: Marx’s bourgeoisie, in ‘The German Ideology’, mistaking the interests of a particular economic and social group, a particular class, for the interests of the whole.