Classical and Opera Reviews

Stimmung and Cosmic Pulses @ Barbican Hall, London

20 November 2017

Robert Henke

An evening of works by Karlheinz Stockhausen may not be to everybody’s taste, but the programming of the hypnotic and meditative Stimmung (for six amplified voices and tape-loop) and the noisy and boisterous Cosmic Pulses (constructed from the overlap of 24 tape loops of electronically produced sound) made for an enjoyable and contrasting experience. Both pieces are from Stockhausen’s ‘formulaic’ output, in which he sets up defined mathematical structures of sequential and overlapping musical figures and allows them to run, although the former piece allows for a degree of choice and improvisation on the part of the performers, while the latter is not, in the strict sense, a ‘performance’, merely a public playing of an existing soundtrack that always lasts 32 minutes.

Monday marked forty years since the contemporary vocal group Singcircle’s first performance of Stimmung; since then they have given many live performances of it, including a benchmark recording in 1987, and this was their swansong, as the group will now disband. As always, they gave an accomplished account of the work from the moment each of the singers walked onto the stage, seemingly joining a musical conversation that interested them.

The complexities of the piece require an intimate knowledge of each of the models (51 sections of repeated syllabic material that, for each section, a leader will introduce, some singers will copy, others will adapt, and still others will ignore, continuing to sing material from the previous section), and Singcircle demonstrated their complete mastery of these. In a sense, though, this thorough understanding made for a slightly more ‘knowing’ performance than perhaps Stockhausen intended – there should be a feeling of singers ‘catching on’ to a model – and, in common with many accounts of the work, it occasionally felt too slick, and the ‘magic names’ (names of gods from various pantheons, which are spoken, and are intended to modify the sung syllables) in some models seemed to be adopted rather quickly. This is a small quibble, though, and the overall effect was as trance-inducing as it should be, including some impressive note-bending to create beats (especially during the poem ‘nimm Dich in acht’), and some enjoyable syllabic euphony (the repeated ‘sssh’ sound after the magic name Shiva, the whooshing ‘whww’ sound in another model, the slow plosive incorporation of the consonants of ‘Buddha’, and the combination of ‘haleluja’ and ‘Mixcoatl’). It was also a quietly polite performance, and although the ‘Helena’ model was busy, a noisy and rumbustious section would have been welcome.

Noise and rumbustiousness, though, were fully present and correct in Cosmic Pulses, Stockhausen’s last electronic work, whose 24 overlapping tape loops create a welter of synthesized sounds that begin with a solid metallic noise seemingly created by Aga stoves being thrown around, and go on to incorporate sonorous organ-like chords, plip-plops, quacks, chattering, clanking, helicopter noises, fireworks, a sound like the Millennium Falcon failing to attain light-speed, and, finally, a whirling fluttering. It is, oddly, tonal throughout (the score actually details the notes underlying each sound), and presents the listener with a bracing onslaught that is surprisingly enjoyable, and has a discernible structure that moves form heavy to complex, to light. Accompanying the aural material was a laser show of crossing beams ingeniously constructed by Robert Henke, reflecting – through number, width and colour of beams – the frequencies being played, moving from a few narrow beams in red and green, to a multitude of vast flickering and distorting circles and tunnels in blue, lilac and red. An assault on the senses, perhaps, but such assaults are sometimes a novel and exhilarating experience.

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Stimmung and Cosmic Pulses @ Barbican Hall, London