“Stimmung” works its austere, otherworldly magic via Theatre of Voices
Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote his landmark vocal piece Stimmung during a blizzard on Long Island in 1968 and it was not so far from there, 47 years later, at Carnegie Hall with a snowstorm outside, that the Copenhagen-based Theatre of Voices presented the concert-length work.
If the conditions under which it was heard on Saturday night were coincidental, the conditions under which it was written likely aren’t. Snowbound and looking out at Long Island Sound, Stockhausen conceived of the mysterious and communal setting for a commission from the German Collegium Vocale Köln. Stimmung, the result of that seclusion, comes off like the performance of a ritual. It’s a personal and inscrutable piece, containing hidden erotic poetry written for his wife, names of gods, repeated enunciations of the days of the week and occasional jokes (such as the harmonized enunciation of the word “barbershop” or variations on the pronunciation of “salami”).
The singers took the stage one by one Saturday night, dressed in simple, loose-fitting clothing, and positioned themselves around a low, circular table with an illuminated globe at the center. Projected behind them was a large, orange circle, the two orbs making a strong suggestion of the sun and the moon. Once seated they bowed their heads to the glowing globe, picked up handheld microphones (allowing a bit of reverb Zankel Hall’s acoustic tiling would have worked to prevent) and sang an introductory, prolonged chord with overtones. They were facing each other, not the audience. Those gathered, it seemed, were free to listen, but it wasn’t for them.
The piece revolved around a single, sustained chord, with close harmonies at times sounding like a reed organ, but there were plenty of dramatic arcs within it. Rifts and resolutions, climaxes and retreats, broke the studied harmony, returning time and again to the central chord and variations on “w” based syllables (a few choruses of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” would have fit in quite easily).
Theater of Voices held the session with an empathy and familiarity that befit the coven-like qualities of the piece – understandable given a 25-year history that has seen them give premiere performances of works by Gavin Bryars, David Lang, Steve Reich and Liu Sola. Their congregation was austere but not overly formal, Movements beyond an outstretched hand or nodding head, or the occasional sectin cue, were few.
Likewise, there wasn’t a lot to hang on to in the music. The voices mostly just kept floating past (a catchy two-note whistled harmony stood out) which is why it’s length – about 75 minutes – was important. The piece wouldn’t work in 12 minutes any more than a Christo wrapping would work in 12 feet. The piece requires the listener to submerge into it, to get lost in it. One has to buy into it in order to hear it. The performance ended with meditative repetitions on the core chord, seeming at that point like a mantra being intoned, the six signers bowing again to the globe between them and standing.
They weren’t a scary coven, just one of which the audience wasn’t a member. So rich and thorough is the conception of the music (otherworldly five decades ago and otherworldly today) that we’re fortunate to have Theatre of Voices, an ensemble able to inhabit Stockhausen’s very specific, very secret place, so that we can visit and observe.