Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Mittwoch aus Licht

Birmingham, 25 August 2011

Bactrian camels during intermission. Photo from wikimedia commons, by Jerome Kohl.

This long-awaited premiere completes a massive cycle of experimental music dramas, and while interesting, it seems unlikely to herald the new form of spirituality that its composer wanted.

I can think of no-one more deeply affected by the highs and lows of the twentieth century than the composer Stockhausen, and this may mean that his art will become a museum piece, however influential and futuristic it may have seemed to contemporaries.
This mummification may already be happening, with the final component of his 25-year musico-dramatic ‘spiral’ being performed in Birmingham after many years of failed attempts in more famous locations. Regardless, this is still a significant coup for the enterprising Birmingham Opera Company.

It’s probably best to consider Wednesday (from the ‘Light’ Cycle, comprising works on each day of the week) as a piece of experimental music theatre, rather than approach it with standard operatic expectations.
A formidable amount of exegesis is available on Light, with some of it given to the audience in Birmingham, though I wonder if anyone new to the composer would be able to understand any of it, or make the attempt. Many of the audience members seemed to be fully subscribed Stockhausen acolytes, and could discuss such things as the superformula, with its component parts for the ‘characters’ Eve, Michael and Lucifer.
I think this way of approaching Light, as if it were similar to Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is both a waste of time and demeans the composer’s intentions, though I don't suggest he succeeds in whatever higher intentions I think he had.
For example, the three main characters do not feature in the 6 hour of this drama, except in occasional namechecks. And apart from the Lucicamel, a scene-stealing pantomime planet-shitting camel, all the other characters are ciphers, without distinguishable personalities.
Several hours of this drama involve no character whatever, only musicians playing instruments as if in an orchestra (admittedly one suspended in the air) or in a string quartet (admittedly one where each member is in their own helicopter).
Looking for a plot or indeed any form of non-musical development is surely misguided. The detailed aspects of the music, the motifs, the technologies, whatever, must be taken as the restraints any composer needs in order to produce a coherent soundworld.

So what did Stockhausen intend with Light? I can’t comment too much, as I’ve not seen the other instalments. But who has? Sadly, not even the composer, who died several years ago.  Maybe the best anyone can do is listen to CDs, which is absolutely not the same and may further encourage the mistaken view that the musical complexity is paramount.
So with those caveats, I tentatively suggest that the works in Light represent separate moods, ideas, etc, rather than anything involving a narrative. In this, it reflects the ritualistic original nature of the names of the days, among other things. F
or example, we are informed Wednesday is a day of reconciliation, that yellow is its colour, and so on. Then throughout the piece, these associations are referenced, visually and aurally. In two semi-dramatised scenes, the world and universal parliaments respectively, we experience the destructive impulse (‘Lucifer’) accepting harmony with the creative (‘Eve’) and the synthesising (‘Michael’) impulses. The dramatic thrust is provided by the musical development, rather than through staged events (‘events on stage’ being misapplied as nothing as recherché as a stage would be used). 

So we’re presented with an attempt to create a ritual that is both fundamentally secular yet spiritually satisfying – in other words, an attempt to create something with religious significance, outside any existing religion.
Even the attempt seems peculiarly twentieth-century, perhaps specifically New Age, the milieu that Stockhausen both directly influenced and to which he seems to have converted in his last decades. A zany hippy mentality pervades Wednesday, an eclectic mix of non-European music, popular music, electronic music, and all the rest.
The Helicopter Quartet mentioned previously is both a whacky idea yet thought-provoking, as the logistics imply that music could be made from musicians located on different planets, as Stockhausen remarks in the notes. Art surely cannot get more conceptual than this, but thankfully the music isn’t as uninspired as that term might lead us to suspect. 

And this last aspect – is the music appealing or inspired? – is in the end the most important consideration if this work is not to become a curiosity, influential or not.
Light is an extraordinary combination of techniques in practically every area of post-War art, drama, theatre and music, but the composer primarily intended it to move, to appeal, to achieve something. Did he succeed? Well, I didn’t feel more harmonious at the end of the work, but I would be interested in experiencing it again.
I think this makes it an interesting failure, though I would be willing to change my mind if I could experience the whole thing.

I haven’t commented on the performers and production values, as with something as extraordinary and unique as this, the work itself needs a lot of thought. But I was astonished by Graham Vick’s ability to enthuse a huge team of actors, dancers, singers and instrumentalists, many placed in situations they’ve surely never previously experienced.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Boulez at the Proms

Royal Albert Hall, 20-26 July 2012

Boulez: Dialogue de l'ombre double. Alain Damiens, clarinet. One of the works performed at the Proms.
The electronic treatment in the setting of the Royal Albert Hall can't be replicated in stereo.

A composer of beautiful new sounds, Boulez seems weaker when composing on a larger scale, and in this respect programming next to Beethoven didn't help him.

The achievement that might have been: the Proms had secured Pierre Boulez to conduct his own 'Le marteau sans maître' (masterless hammer) in a late night concert as the culmination of a week of performances of his works by members of the East-West Divan Orchestra. It didn't happen, but I can't say whether the performance suffered because of this cancellation by the great conductor.

This might suggest I need to be more familiar with Boulez' works, though in fact Marteau is one of his most famous compositions, and I've heard it several times. And it presents a problem for me, and I think for any audience, one that might help in assessing this music.

For it is undoubtedly difficult and 'modern' if by this we mean we can't hum it. But many of us also find it beautiful, as evidenced by the silence within the huge Royal Albert Hall during performances last week, interspersed with Beethoven's symphonies.

This beauty is mysterious, something to do with atmosphere and colour, rather than melody, and is a remarkable achievement. Boulez emerges as a master of sounds, and clearly related to Debussy. This is so even when the instruments involved are a violin or clarinet 'orchestrated' by electronics, as with two of the pieces ('Dialogue de l'ombre double' and 'Anthèmes 2').

With music, achieving beauty is sufficient. We don't ask what the beauty is for, to what purpose it is being put. There is no need to question our feelings, to see if they are appropriate. Composers often want more than this, and so set words or attempt to communicate in other ways such as the symphony.

For on the larger timescales, beauty really isn't enough, we need a sense of drama, of struggle, of resolution. We can listen to dance suites, where each dance is beautiful, but our attention wanes. Perhaps it is ironic that Boulez was programmed next to Beethoven, in whose symphonies movements are successfully transitioned into a dramatic whole.

Boulez attempts this in 'Dérive 2', a 45-minute continuous piece of music. It is very beautiful, and doesn't rely on the hypnotic repetition of contemporaries such as Philip Glass, and that impresses in itself. But we encounter the fundamental problem I mentioned above. The composer too refined to employ a hummable melody turns out to be too refined for drama. The piece has no climax, and limited sense of propulsion.

This self-defeating refinement brings me back to Le marteau sans maître. However marvellous the sounds are, I find myself wanting to hear the words if words are set by a composer. And Boulez intentionally sets meaningless phrases by René Char, themselves difficult enough, in such a perverse way that the soprano may as well be singing syllables.

It is a peculiar situation. As theorist and conductor, Boulez has expressed extreme opinions, often amusing and correct. Yet as a composer he seems reluctant to do anything that might seem vulgar, such as interpret a poem or give a piece any of the rhetorical flourishes that make Beethoven's symphonies so successful.

Commending the performers for their playing seems unecessary compared to the thanks we owe them for giving us the opportunity to hear these sensuous works at all.