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 Bront√ęs, 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.