Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Stockhausen, sculptor of sound @ Royal Festival Hall, London

9 November 2008

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

This spectacular performance of Lucifer’s Dance from the opera Saturday in the LICHT cycle was the crowning glory of the South Bank’s excellent Stockhausen festival. Lucifer wants to stop time, is thwarted, dies and is resurrected. So his next plot for world domination involves a ritual dance based on tics, contortions and grimaces.

Of course it’s off the wall, but that’s why Stockhausen is fun. The orchestra is arranged symmetrically in the shape of a face. Four silver tubas form one eyebrow, four golden horns the other. When they move, they make the face wink. Wacky as it might seem, it shows how Stockhausen visualises sound as a pliable mass. The orchestra becomes a bizarre kinetic sculpture, each musician a component in the writhing mass of noise and movement. Music takes shape, in every sense!

Lucifer walks on dressed in circus master guise. The vocal line is “sculpted”, too, not singing so much as guttural groans and waving wails. There’s actually a name for this genre, “Extreme vocalism”. Nicolas Isherwood, the bass, could make a name for himself in the genre. Lucifer’s recitative, (for that is what it is, strangely enough) goes through ten sequences. Each time he calls out a facial contortion, the orchestra acts it out. The musicians bend, pointing their instruments downwards. Others hold theirs aloft, and of course, they twitch from side to side with exaggerated diagonal movements. It’s as though there were invisible muscles pulling back and forth. In fact, much of the time they aren’t actually playing. One percussionist does a kind of morse code. Only one in five beats hit his gong, sometimes it just vibrates from air turbulence.

The music shifts shape, too. “Trnen!” (tears) shouts Lucifer and sagging diminuendos emit, filtering down from the second row below the brass, the “eyes”. When Lucifer calls on the nose, the rock band drummer in the middle, beats a series of snorts. Sometimes the winds “blow” short of their instruments, creating odd gasps and exhalations, sometimes they shout forcefully into them. Orchestral groups function like muscle groups., twitching in unison, forcing other groups to react.

Martco Blaauw, often heard with the London Sinfonietta, walks on with trumpet mutes strapped round his waist. He’s Michael, one of the main figures in LICHT, who, like the angel Michael, confronts the Devil. His duet with sound projection is a duel, with sound as weapon. A ninja-like piccolo soloist emerges, dancing freely, unconstrained by the gyrations in the orchestra. Lucifer counts the hours. He reaches 13! The music explodes. Crazy as it may seem, Lucifer’s Dance has a bizarre logic of its own. It involves “un-learning” conventional attitudes to music, so it’s particularly good to hear it played by student orchestras like this. They won’t forget the experience.

The festival started with Michaels-Gruss (Michael’s Greeting) for solo trumpet. Now it concluded with Michaels-Abschied (Michael’s Farewell). Five trumpeters stood on the roof terrace of the Festival Hall, playing an intricate relay of long, solemn lines, interspersed with silence. The sound reach upwards and outwards, across the Thames, into the cityscape, lit up by millions of lights, like the stars the composer identified with. Gradually, sound fades into the sounds of traffic, into infinity, into the cosmos. Stockhausen doesn’t just sculpt sound with music. He uses the whole environment.


buy Karlheinz Stockhausen MP3s or CDs
Spotify Karlheinz Stockhausen on Spotify

More on Karlheinz Stockhausen
Stockhausen, sculptor of sound @ Royal Festival Hall, London