Opera + Classical Music Features

Interview: Gregory Rose, Singcircle: “There’s the hippy angle to it… six people sitting round a ‘camp fire’ singing vocal harmonics”

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung, very much a child of post-serialist experimentalism, has, since its first performance in 1968, achieved somewhat of a cult status, not least because of a seminal recording made of the piece by the contemporary vocal music group Singcircle in 1987. On 20 November – 40 years, almost to the day since Singcircle’s first UK performance of the piece at the Roundhouse – the group will convene for the last time, to give a sold-out performance of the work at the Barbican Hall.

musicOMH recently interviewed Gregory Rose, a founder member of Singcircle, and convener of this November’s performance, to explore some aspects of the work’s continuing attraction, and to look to its future without its early UK champions.

OMH: It’s 40 years since the Roundhouse performance in 1977; why stop now?

GR: The first performance of Stimmung (by Collegium Vocale in Cologne) was given in 1968; Simon Emerson and I visited Stockhausen, initially to spend a couple of hours with him discussing the work, and how Singcircle might approach it – but this turned into two days! Although I had studied the score extensively, Stockhausen told me that I could not possibly perform the piece without hearing a recording. Forty years of performing the piece [GR himself has participated in over 50 performances]. feels like a good round number on which to bow out.

GR – who is the force behind Singcircle – is now concentrating on his composing career, and in ten years time (another logical end-point), he feels that he may not want still to be singing.

OMH: Will the forthcoming performance contain any members of the original line-up?

GR: I will be the only member singing from the original six singers who performed it in 1977. Groups such as Singcircle are always changing their membership; another couple of the original singers expressed interest, although they were unable to fit it into their schedules; three singers for the Barbican performance, though, besides myself, are long-standing members of the group; two singers are relatively new to the piece, and were, until recently, students at Trinity Laban.

OMH: What do you think makes Stimmung such a cult piece?

GR agreed that the euphonious nature of Stimmung set it apart from some of the spikier aleatoric pieces of experimental music to come out of mid-20th-century modernism. It is essentially 51 ‘bars’ (or sections) of the same seven-note chord (six of the notes are provided by singers, over a continuous electronically produced low B-flat) – although not all of the notes of the chord are always present. The performers sing a series of syllabic ‘models’ (repeated nonsense words, names of deities, days of the week, and random words such as ‘phoenix’) to these notes, allowing the vowels of the syllables to create overtones to the fundamentals. The result is a hypnotic, meditative sound-world that changes, yet remains constant.

GR: There’s the hippy angle to it, of course – it’s six people sitting round a ‘camp fire’ singing vocal harmonics. There is also the love poetry and the ‘new-age’ appeal of the magic names [in some of the models, erotic poems are recited; in others, names of gods from different religions are spoken; these change the nature of the syllabic material like the ripples formed by pebbles thrown into a pond].

OMH: Stimmung has acquired a slight reputation for being performed in unusual venues; what, for you, was the most unusual setting?

GR: Liverpool Anglican Cathedral thirty years ago. It was slightly uncomfortable to be reciting the poetry [five of the poems, in German, are somewhat libidinous] in such a building. A memorable performance was at the top of The Gherkin in 2005. Just as we were singing the model with ‘diff daff’ in it [this is the sixth poem, whose onomatopoeic words represent the flight of a large bird] a flock of pigeons began circling outside in the dusk. The loveliest building we performed in was the House of the Blackheads in Tallinn, just after Estonia gained its independence.

OMH: The piece could best be described as a scaffold of instructions, within which the performers have some freedom to improvise. Stockhausen was notorious for being a stickler about following his instructions to the letter (he even specifies the size of the cushions that singers should sit on). Now that Stockhausen is no longer alive, do you feel that, as with many other works, performers will feel free to bend the rules more?

GR: The rules can be bent, I think – as an in-joke, in the early performances by Collegium Vocale they replaced the homophonic declaration of ‘Donnerstag’ with the word ‘Barbershop’. I encourage Singcircle members to play with the material (particularly with pronunciation or force of delivery) within the rules, and some other groups take this even further – adding to the list of magic names, for example. But generally, I don’t think that – apart from them sitting on stools or chairs instead of cross-legged on the floor – performers will break the rules, although 20… 30… 40 years from now, it’s possible that groups might take the piece along another pathway.

[GR agreed that, even within Stockhausen’s lifetime, some diversions from the original format had been made.] The Barbican performance (echoing one that Stockhausen himself oversaw there) will see the performers onstage. The original concept was for a concentric-circle arrangement (impossible in many concert halls), in which the singers sit in a circle in the middle, surrounded by the audience, who are, in turn, surrounded by the six loudspeakers that broadcast the harmonics picked up from the voices by microphones.

OMH: When, in the piece’s history, was the decision taken to prepare a version in advance?

In Stockhausen’s original conception, the models were not allocated in advance to the bars/sections, and the performers would simply pull out models as the performance progressed, and sing them. Given that most of the models require some of the singers to ‘transition’ (that is, move from one to another in steps), this sets a severe challenge for performers.

GR: Performing the piece in the way intended caused many problems; it would have been impossible to do the piece justice, as the singers would each have to know the detail of all 51 models by heart. From very early on, then, each group has, for each performance, decided in advance the order of models, and rehearsed their ‘version’. This has given rise to the published ‘Paris’ version sung by Collegium Vocale for the première, although it seems odd to publish such a thing, as part of the enjoyment of the piece for performers is the lengthy and challenging process of deciding the order of models for their own version.

OMH: Because of its challenges (understanding vocal-harmonic production; understanding the rhythms, tempi and pitching; understanding how to read the International Phonetic Alphabet in which the models are written) Stimmung is often seen as a piece for ‘professional’ performers. Many similarly challenging vocal works have now been adopted and performed by amateur groups. Is this possible for Stimmung?

GR: Absolutely. Any group can perform any music. Stimmung needs a lot of hard work [Singcircle spent many months working on their first performance], but if people are committed to wanting to perform the piece, they can do it.

• More about Singcircle can be found here.

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Interview: Gregory Rose, Singcircle: “There’s the hippy angle to it… six people sitting round a ‘camp fire’ singing vocal harmonics”