Monday, 4 August 2008


Listening to the performance of Stimmung by Theatre of Voices at the Proms this Saturday just past, I almost cursed the New Seekers and Bucks Fizz for not having the gumption to do a cover version – certainly it could scarcely be further out there, or anywhere, than the former’s Tommy medley or the latter’s “My Camera Never Lies” – since in any version it is a deceitful lullaby; you can lie back and let the microphonic and vocal overtones and undertones feed through you, only to be jarred by a sudden surge of rasping dissonance, or the hint of a meaning above “just intonation.”

I won’t go through the compositional and organisational mechanics of Stimmung here since this should be about how Stockhausen’s blue colours my air; enough to say that in the cupped cautiousness of Singcircle’s mid-seventies Paris Version or the more confident and overt theatricalism of Paul Hillier’s subsequent Copenhagen Version – the latter has been recorded but is still best experienced live, as it was on Saturday, with the vital room for mistakes and intuition – we can discern six people sitting in a room, around a table like the Knights or the Brontës, quite unlike the room everyone else is in now, and how their stories intermingle into one slow and subtle attestation of unattributable faith. Or you could simply view it as eighty minutes or so of long, self-phasing drones interspersed with occasional mutters of variable volume.

Certainly the Paris Version came to my teenage attention at more or less the same time as Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians – a comparison at which Stockhausen would instantly have bridled, since he would have argued Stimmung as being the natural extension of one word, or even one syllable, rather than repetitive rhythms; nonetheless, polyrhythms and repetitions provide Stimmung with its vital mechanics, though the speed is necessarily far less busy and workmanlike than Reich’s. Yet its patiently unfolding meadows are a joy to absorb, not least because of the hindsight which allows us to discern the processional garbling of meaning into reverberative syllabic fascination as it would subsequently be filtered through Kraftwerk and Faust and even unto Timbaland and the Neptunes. Some of Stimmung is very sensual indeed, which is hardly surprising since many of its “words” are based on erotic love poetry that Stockhausen wrote for his wife in – guess the year, can’t you? – 1967, and the twelve most sensitive ears on the planet may go so far as to spot the Van Morrison in Stimmung; once more, when least you’re expecting it, The Word reveals itself – “Barbershop!,” “Thursday!” And how could I get this far without acknowledging the unending humane drone which begins and ends Escalator? If Music For 18 Musicians exposes the industry behind making music, then Stimmung prolongs and emphasises the art and for many still provides the easiest starting point for one of this past century’s most remarkable aesthetic arcs.


skandalon said...

For the second time, I feel compelled to offer up a comment on what always reads to me like a very personal journal: the last time was your appraisal of Electronic's "Forbidden City".

It was on the basis of your direct recommendation that I bought tickets and rode the train down from the Chilterns to see Prom 20 and 21 on Saturday night. With the exception of a very old LP of Carré that I'd rescued from a skip outside my old school's music rooms, taken home and listened to in abject bewilderment at the age of 17 or so, Saturday night was my first contact with any of Stockhausen's music.

Gruppen was a thrilling, bristly thing: that incredible RISE UP RISE UP in the brass sections shortly before the end, pinpricked moments later by the coincidental Simpsons interval the guitarist somehow played with a straight face. The premiered pieces both suffered, I assumed, from my seat at around nine o'clock to the stage, the electronic piece in particular proving (like the dark storm of SunnO)))'s ritual falling apart at last year's Nightmare Before Christmas, witnessed from the front of the stage) almost unbearable, but there was something magical in its final grinding moments. Kontakte was simply joy and catastrophe, the electronic treatments making me realise what a solid line there is between this and things as important to me as Squarepusher's Music Is Rotted One Note. Stimmung, meanwhile, was simply something Other altogether. I was sitting a bit nearer the stage this time. I remember being shocked when I realised it had begun. I remember wishing that I could sing with them. I remember ... everything, actually. There is a wholeness to the piece, to the performance. The way a Name is introduced and spreads chattering through the singers as if they are remembering it happily for the first time...

Actually, yes: I spent much of the following Monday defending Bill Drummond's The17 project to a couple of people who'd taken umbrage at his perceived rejection of recorded music. There's something there, too, something about what he writes in the first The17 Score - "You only remember that it had existed and that it had been important to you and your civilisation. And you long to hear it once more." - but I couldn't say what it is. I don't think I have the words yet, or the living.

All of this you know, since you were there too. However, I think there's a good probability that this only happened to me because of you - as with many of my important musical experiences of the last three years or so: Escalator, The United States of America, The Brotherhood of Breath, Robert Wyatt, Scott Walker, Chill Out itself - and not having any other means of contact, I wanted to say 'thank you' somehow. So, regardless of how bloody daft or fawning I appear: thank you.

Marcello Carlin said...

Hey, no worries; your reactions and comments are never bloody daft, indeed very much the antithesis of "daft" when that adjective is used in the wrong, non-fun sense!

And certainly such comments go a considerable way towards reminding me why I carry on with writing this blog and also writing elsewhere on the internet; the hope that my words are strong and convincing enough to encourage readers to find out more about the music I write about for themselves (which is the main reason why I haven't made this an mp3 blog, even though I've had scores of emails asking that I do - the idea is to see whether my writing can stand up well enough on its own and convey the character of the music under - examination? No, too much of the laboratory there - celebration is a far more fitting term.

Your words too are richly evocative of the events of last Saturday and I can only concur that the cumulative sensory impact of all these exchanges - the gradually cohering conversation, as though they are the first human beings learning to speak, the shared joy when they find and build on their new common language. I don't know whether you were at the Messiaen Prom the weekend before but that was similarly overwhelming, albeit in a decidedly different way.

There are things I'm itching to say and write about The17 but I suspect writing about what they're doing may well be missing the point. Perhaps I ought to be singing with them...