This review was written within 24 hours of seeing MITTWOCH, and my first Stockhausen opera, for the first time. It feels at the moment like one of the most incredible works of art I have ever witnessed. If there is the tone of religious zealotry in any of what follows, then at least let me say that it comes from what is in my heart, at the moment. Feel free to take issue in the comments. But even so, in a world in which so much – too much – new music sounds the same, it is pretty special to experience something that no one else could have conceived, let alone have written down.
MITTWOCH is the last part of the LICHT cycle to be staged, which I think makes it the last of all Stockhausen’s works to receive a full performance (
unless some parts of KLANG are outstanding? nope – Lukas Hellermann tells me musikFabrik have performed all the completed parts). As such, it felt like a pretty good place from which to appraise Stockhausen’s overall life’s work.
The greatest of the postwar serial composers, Stockhausen explored its implications further than anyone, and for far longer. In LICHT, serial thinking – or the parametrical thinking to which it gives rise – becomes the path to a true Gesamtkunst. Set your parameters wide enough and they can encompass the universe. Channel them skillfully and they can shape whatever you want.
Whereas an early work such as KREUZSPIEL uses gamuts of pitches, durations and dynamics (bounded externally by a top and bottom extreme, and internally by the size of their incremental steps), LICHT uses divine principles, rituals, elements, voices, instruments, colours, senses, animals, etc. Some of those that define the dramatic, thematic and musical form of MITTWOCH are as follows:
Divine principle: intuition–harmony
Theme: love–friendship–cosmic solidarity
Instruments: basset-horn with flute–trumpet–trombone
Sense: sight, especially the right eye, pure reason
Colour: bright yellow, iridescent in all colours
Another continuing thread in Stockhausen’s output, and one enabled by the serial method, is his love of polyphony. Not in a 16th-century sense of the word, but as the simultaneous sounding of multiple things. Early on he had, and evidently retained throughout his life, an exceptional gift for superimposing musical materials without them drowning each other out or losing overall definition.
A final touch is purely a sonic preference. Stockhausen had an evident love of short, repeating sounds, that when played slow judder like machine-gun fire, and that speed up to scraping and buzzing before transcending their own rhythmic constitution to become pitch. KONTAKTE is a study on precisely such sounds; COSMIC PULSES is another. KLAVIERSTÜCKE IX and GRUPPEN approach them again from different angles. Sounds like these occur throughout MITTWOCH, whether as buzzing bees, disintegrating electronic drones, tremolo strings, shortwave radio signals, helicopter blades or a stuttering singer. The sense of sonic unity that is engendered is quite staggering.
I say all this not because it is of musicological interest, but because it informed my experience of the work, and indeed provides clues both to how the work functions as a piece of music theatre, and how it relates to the rest of Stockhausen’s career-long output.
His is an art of enlightenment, of revelatory transformation through the juxtaposition of objects. So instrumental competitions, bees, the laughter of children, paper aeroplanes, a meeting of delegates from the countries of the world, octophonic sound projections, kites, doves and the cosmos in MITTWOCH are all points within the same space, defined by parameters such as swarming, buzzing/juddering, air, flight.
Family-like, or thesaurus-like, each is partly an expression of the other’s genetic code, partly something new. In isolation they might be ordinary, but collectively they articulate a unique expressive space. The listener/audience’s role is to navigate their own path, construct their own meaning from this (an interpretation of serial music as aleatory that M.J. Grant has delineated through much early serial music). Think of the Google Translate game: pass a single text through enough languages and its meaning will be transformed. However, some unexpected common thread will remain.
At the heart of it all, the sound and theatre of a string quartet (or: a human-responsive tremolo-glissando multiplicity-unity machine) in helicopters (or: altitude-swarming-rotation-judder-vision machines) is perfect. It couldn’t be otherwise. Musically it is probably not the composer’s best work; ecologically it raises troubling questions for the responsible limits for all major works of art. But as a coup de théâtre it is spectacular, and utterly integrated into the themes of the work.
A word on the moderator. Radio 1 DJ Nihal had his critics from the off. After watching the live stream at home I would have been among them. Yet having seen him in the flesh, in his third performance, and with a more responsive audience (fewer fanboys after the first night?), I’m prepared to think differently. His tone wasn’t right on Wednesday, no. But it was greatly improved by Friday – most of the flat jokes were gone, he was more relaxed with the audience and he seemed to have built a real rapport with the players. (Sadly, because of the weather, the pilots had to whisk the helicopters away and weren’t able to participate in the Q&A.)
It’s a peculiar role (possibly unique?), and questions have been asked since Wednesday about why he was picked to do it, and not someone more obviously informed about Stockhausen’s work, someone more in tune with contemporary music in general. (It should be added that his enthusiasm for what he was a part of, at least on Friday, seemed absolutely genuine.)
From what I understand, Nihal was on Graham Vick’s teamsheet early on – before the Elysians themselves, for example – so we have to conclude that this scene was built, to some extent, around his personality and experience. In the end, it worked pretty well for me. So much of the opera is about ascent (towards the cosmos or the divine?) that the presence of the mundane – questions from the audience, etc – struck me as a useful counterpoint. Theatrically, the opera also undertakes a complete demolition of the fourth wall, culminating in the Farewell, and of which the Q&A/reality TV section of HELIKOPTER-STREICHQUARTETT forms a part. On the night I felt this was not unrelated to the ascent image, or to the general theme of change or transformation, processes undertaken by the audience as much as the characters. (Not forgetting that the musicians throughout are as much characters themselves, even if they are just “playing” the role of “violin 1”.) It was also intriguing that the Q&A, despite being completely out of the composer’s hands, kept returning to this theme: how repeated performances of the work was changing the players’ and pilots relationship to it, for example.
Another difficulty shared by many – including myself – was with the final scene, MICHAELION, in which the cosmic parliament chooses a new leader, the camel Lucicamel, out of whom emerges a new president, the Operator, the translator (via shortwave radio) of cosmic information. A series of delegates from distant galaxies present themselves to him before they are dispatched into the universe, singing of consensus and love.
This is the first scene to present anything like a coherent plot, and it is clearly meant to present some sort of narrative resolution to some of the themes of the rest of the opera (as well as to hook it all back into the overall LICHT cycle). However, there is an issue straight away because its dramatic arc hinges on Lucifer’s transformation at the end of this scene – “Mankind, hear: MICHAEL EVE are healing the World, LUCIFER will be around through the music of LIGHT” – but within MITTWOCH at least Lucifer has not yet been a presence (or indeed have Michael or Eve), so there can be no investment in his transformation. The principles of change, unity, perhaps even healing, can easily be discerned in the preceding scenes, but only in a more abstract sense. Connecting them to the character narratives of the overall cycle seems arbitrary when the opera is heard on its own. Strange as it may seem, given the presence of a planet-defecating camel, a president of the universe holding a cheap radio and a series of inter-galactic representatives playing children’s toys, I had the feeling that Stockhausen hadn’t gone far enough here: his weakest scene was the one that came closest to conventional theatre.
There were too many highlights to list. The level of technique and imagination that oozed out of every minute of this 6-hour performance was something to behold in itself. Vick’s staging was engaging, often extraordinary and only rarely incomprehensible. By taking the sensible decision to view Stockhausen’s staging demands as broad indications rather than unbreakable script he was able to strip away many of the complexities on which previous productions had foundered. Indeed, walking into the two vast, unadorned halls of the Argyle Warehouse in which MITTWOCH was performed, simple and endlessly flexible, unlike any opera house, you wondered why no one had thought of this before.
Kathinka Pasveer, Stockhausen’s partner and musical director for this performance, also deserves special mention. MITTWOCH, as is probably clear by now, would be nothing without the spatialisation of its music. As the sound projector for most scenes, Pasveer’s influence on its musical success was profound.
There wasn’t a duff performance all night. The Elysian quartet were heroic (and ashen-faced) in their battles with the inclement skies over Birmingham. The moments of synchronicity as they played, kilometres apart from one another, were amazing. And as game participants in the reality TV show that framed their playing, they couldn’t be bettered. London Voices, who sang the epic, complex and athletically physical MICHAELION from every corner of the space were remarkable. As were the twelve soloists (eleven airborne) in ORCHESTER-FINALISTEN, among whom special mention must go to trombonist Andrew Connington for his frolics in the paddling pool, and bassist Jeremy Watt, for his impersonation of treefrogs and a sailing ship. However, special notice must be reserved for the 36 singers of Ex Cathedra, whose energy and control over the 45 a cappella minutes of WELT-PARLAMENT were breathtaking, and the astonishing solo performance of Stephen Menotti as Trombonut, the trombonist who charms, dances with, fights and loses to Lucicamel, before recovering to play out the remaining 30 minutes of the opera as part of a trio with bassett horn (Fie Schouten) and trumpet (Marco Blaauw). All in character, and all from memory. A total badass.
As MICHAELION ended, the auditorium dissolved. With the stage completely emptied, the action rose out of the audience, as the extras who had been there all along as passive participants in the MICHAELION drama stood to reveal yellow placards on which slogans and imprecations had been written in black marker: “Listen,” “Peace,” “Lucifer is changed.” With the electronic music of MITTWOCHS-ABSCHIED playing behind us, we exited one last time into the first hall where we began, where an after-show party had already started: waitresses served drinks, and the cast (still in costume, but out of character) mingled and chatted freely with members of the audience. The carnival the work had always been tending towards was complete.