Review: Birmingham Opera: MITTWOCH aus LICHT

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
Element: air
Sound: singing
Voices: soprano–tenor–bass
Instruments: basset-horn with flute–trumpet–trombone
Sense: sight, especially the right eye, pure reason
Colour: bright yellow, iridescent in all colours
Animal: dove–camel

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.

ETUDE (1952)

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.

54 thoughts on “Review: Birmingham Opera: MITTWOCH aus LICHT

  1. It’s not unlike what Scriabin had in mind with his unfinished “Universe”. Stockhausen has succeeded in achieving immortality in a most spectacular way. Now to start my cycle of 12 operas, one for each month. Hmm, let’s see, January…

  2. “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.”

    I think ‘religion’ hits it on the head. You’re either in or you’re not. If you are, great, and it can obviously be extremely meaningful. If you’re not, there’s not much that can induce you to suspend your critical faculties sufficiently that you can see what the sect and its various acolytes and disciples are on about.

    I’ve heard said in various quarters things concerning Mittwoch along the lines of ‘well, of course the music and the drama aren’t up to much but that’s not the point’. I oversimplify of course. But still… does it _have_ to not be the point? What a shame that would be.

    1. Thanks, Carl, for articulating the unease I likewise feel about reading all these reports (I haven’t seen the work; I’m in Switzerland at the moment). It seems all about suspending critical intelligence and judgement, and all the remarks I’ve read about ‘theatricality’ sound odd to me: the challenge to logocentricity inherent in postdramatic theatre is one thing, but good postdramatic theatre is still ‘about something’ that’s worth thinking about. What I get here are proto-fascist and quasi-religious and messianic redemption myths wrapped up in megalomaniac visions. It may be overwhelming, but is this what we really want?

      1. In a lot of ways you’re right, Björn. It certainly is a dazzling spectacle. I’ve been thinking about this for the last hour or so, trying to see what wiggle room there might be between head and heart. Here goes:

        Isn’t most art slightly megalomaniacal? Music and theatre more than others?

        There are certainly aspects of this that are quasi-religious: the participation makes the audience more like a congregation. And the overall shape resembles a religious ceremony. But at the same time, the audience is inhabiting the same dramatic (and musical) space as the work, which I think mitigates the sense of being preached at. We’re all on stage.

        Whether its good quasi-religion or bad boils down to the message that is being transmitted, and the subsequent behaviour that might be engendered, doesn’t it? The things I took away – spiritually, if you like – were all positive, however ephemeral. I don’t have a desire to read the book of Urantia or start a cult.

        Finally – I don’t have a problem with messianism or redemption as dramatic subjects.

      2. I don’t have a problem with the religious thinking behind Stockhausen’s operas, any more than I do when listening to Messiaen or Machaut. I was at the Friday performance as well as a performance of Sonntag last year and what struck me most at the end was that both left the audience in a sort of state of euphoria. They weren’t ”believers” on the whole, but we had all been profoundly affected by a profound musical and theatrical experience that was both grand and imposing in its overall scope, yet also intensely immediate and personal in the way the performers communicated with the audience.

  3. Well, I put that bit in quite late on, as I was aware of how I was starting to sound. Obviously Stockhausen attracts a cultish dimension more than others. And maybe I have unwittingly been sucked into it (at least for a day or two?). But I think what I was trying to get at here was to explore quite non-cultish, relatively pragmatic musical and theatrical aspects to the work’s construction that struck me very powerfully, and that I found very moving at the time. (And that I hadn’t seen any other reviewers mention; and that seemed like a non-threatening way in for anyone with a passing interest.)

    I would strongly disagree with the sort of comment you quote. Actually, I think a lot of the music is up to much and – at least in the hands of someone like Graham Vick, who has to take a lot of credit – so is the drama. And the two are more or less inseparable in any case. Sure, there are other things one might get out of it, but I don’t think you have to. And KS himself, I think, would put the music/theatre side of it first.

  4. This line (which I noticed reading the libretto on the train home) is pretty troubling though. From Camel-Dance:

    Sopranos 5 and 6: “Are the two camelopederast? Yes, my … Lu-ci-trom-bo-phil … point three… Who is the woman, who is the man cametrombonophil? Who knows? Lucitrom-trombone paedophiliac lupogay. Most Cameltrombofans are progaylon.”

  5. Very interesting to read, even if a very long way from my own response (which I do intend to put on my blog if I get time in between everything else). I’m sceptical about any music from any period which doesn’t really allow for an approach and attitude on the part of listeners which is not 100% concurrent with the composer’s world-view. Stockhausen spent a large part of his life surrounded by fanatical admirers, which is rarely a healthy thing, and seemed to lose sight of any other possible attitudes or perspectives – including most of those which developed from the 1960s onwards. He maintained the mindset of a 1950s mystical guru who embraced technology, and his lapsed Catholic faith (as overwhelming for him as for Messiaen) transmogrified into a similarly all-embracing vision which inconveniently had little to do with any actually-existing or even imaginable world. It is one thing to attempt a type of art which embraces the possibility that things could be different (I would say most of the best art of any type does this to some extent), quite another to believe that one is able to give full shape to a future utopia. The latter possibility almost invariably produces kitsch, and there is plenty of that in Mittwoch. Though he was still in many ways a deeply skilled composer who had some measure of the potential of the sounds and materials with which he worked, and a theatrical sense was not absent either. In their own way, I feel Welt-Parliament and Orchester-Finalisten have a coherence and an identity make them relatively compelling, but the rest of the work is pretty disappointing. Again and again I was thinking about the self-importance and pretensions of 1970s progressive rock.

    One specific thought on the above: ‘Set your parameters wide enough and they can encompass the universe. Channel them skillfully and they can shape whatever you want.’. I can’t go with that, at least not in Stockhausen’s case. I don’t believe anyone can musically ‘encompass the universe’, but in Stockhausen’s case (including in the earlier works) it is so vividly apparent to me how his own solipsism blocks out so many parts of the universe. Just listening to some of his contemporaries, let alone work from the same period in other musical genres, makes that apparent.

    1. Ian – thanks for your view. I would be very happy to read more!

      On the question of universe/parameters, I meant this as a theoretical possibility (or even just poetic license on my part), but actually I think in practical terms it would probably require an infinite number of parameters…

  6. I would hope it’s possible to use our intelligence and sensitivity as listeners to separate what we might find beautiful and inspiring from what we might find ugly and unacceptable, even when they intermingle in the same experience, as of course in the case of Wagner. Any artist who puts him/herself on the line as fearlessly and completely as Stockhausen did, in a society like ours which is riven by contradictions, is going to produce work which is itself riven by contradiction. But “proto-fascist” is going much too far. As Tim quotes above, “Theme: love–friendship–cosmic solidarity”. Much discussion around Stockhausen seems to assume that you either have to buy into the whole mystical/ideological package, or reject it all as poisonous raving, and this from people who wouldn’t think of taking such an unnuanced line with the “St John Passion”.

  7. I wouldn’t call this or other works of Stockhausen ‘poisonous raving’ by any means, just somehow rather exceptionally naive in its own way, and mostly detached in way which precludes me from the highest level of engagement. A theme of love-friendship-cosmic solidarity certainly is not in itself a bad thing (though I’m not really sure what ‘cosmic solidarity’ is), but I’m asking how this is meaningful in a world fighting over food, arms, territory, access to the bare necessities of housing, sanitation, etc. Love and friendship are not separable from equitable distribution of material resources, and a lack of these two things is often tied up with a corresponding lack of material well-being.

  8. I wonder why the Michaelion soloists didn’t play in Orchester-Finalisten? The score is quite explicit on the subject. It would certainly have given an important extra bit of continuity…

    1. LIkewise the singers in scenes 1 and 4 (?). I think it was probably just for practical reasons, but I agree it may have made a difference – particularly since the trombonist in OF (eg) was so vividly characterised.

  9. The abusive lines directed towards Luzicamel and Trombonist provide contrast, I think, with the ready praise from other delegates. They are appalling words and associations, but i guess dramatically they simply represent ignorant rantings and prejudice towards an outsider. Gradually everyone comes towards the acceptance of the Operator of course.

    My reaction to much of the debate here is that the religious have never had any monopoly on the philosophical questions that art can provoke, and the themes of Mittwoch (and Licht) include the ascent of man which have their roots in human nature, dreams and evolution, rather than any particular myth or belief system that someone has invented.
    One reviewer (who had attended the performance) considered the staging to be about “Believers” and a “Cult” who descend into madness. I felt he might be having problems with the meaning of fiction! Like those who think Harry Potter promotes witchcraft.
    I am sure that it would be more true to say Graham Vick and the composer intended the drama to apply to the adventure of mankind in general and that most audiences would recognise that. We all struggle, we all get frustrated, some of us go into space… but we all feel the need to further ourselves, and cooperation can lead up to the next stage, though we don’t even know what that will be like. In the last scene Stockhausen gives us an imagined alien future beyond the earth which is a challenge to the imagination, but if we have understood the ascending direction of the drama from the beginning, it is pushing us beyond the known, and prompting ideas of breaking through the boundaries of this universe.

  10. Hi Carl, Ian, Richard, Bernard, nice to see you all discuss again.

    As for the spiritual dimension of Stockhausen’s music, “religion” and “cult”, honestly it is not that important to me, even though I am religious myself (I am a practicing Catholic, while I am also a scientist, a biochemist *)). I care about the music, and the imagination in it. If I thought Stockhausen’s music was not great *as music*, I would not be interested. I have never seen myself as part of a “cult” when it comes to Stockhausen. I also agree with much of what Bernard said here.

    Apart from quoting the composer, my article about Sirius,

    contains just a few dry words in a single sentence regarding what the plot of the work is about:

    “SIRIUS is a kind of science-fiction story in which four messengers from Sirius land on Earth, teach the humans about the music on that star and after that take off again into space.”

    Other than that it is a detailed guide through the music several pages long. Stockhausen liked the text anyway.

    *) I have written a review of the impressive and highly promising research on the origin of life by natural causes for, a leading evolution website:

  11. Regarding Mittwoch, I had always thought of it as the weakest part of the cycle. Thus I had ambivalent feelings about even going to the premiere; after all, I had to hop over the ocean for this and it really would have to be worth it for me. While I have always loved Welt-Parlament as not just one of the most radically innovative works (it makes most other avant-garde sound, well, less avant-garde in comparison) but also one the musically very best works that Stockhausen has ever written in his entire career, and I loved the electronic Wednesday Greeting too, I never much liked Orchester-Finalisten and the Helicopter quartet. I had hoped that perhaps the operatic live performance would open up the latter two for me. It did fortunately, so it was worth it. The spatial projections made so much more sense of the music, and the humor in Orchester-Finalisten came through. There had been some discussion on the web about the double bass solo not being very funny — well, the live performance by the player in Birmingham showed that it was not just funny, but hilariously so. In general the musicians appeared to truly enjoy themselves in that piece, which was infectious. I really loved the scene this time (I went to both the Friday and Saturday performances).

    I had never heard Michaelion before, and it was the one disappointing scene for me. The vocal writing just seemed too generic. None of the vocal and melodic magic of Welt-Parlament, Duefte-Zeichen, Freitag or, when it comes to more conventional vocal drama, the first act of Donnerstag. I had always loved the Bassetsu-Trio for basset-horn, trumpet and trombone that is part of Michaelion, but the music of that outstanding piece got somewhat drowned out in the scene.

    Welt-Parlament was pure magic. The outstanding performance by Ex Cathedra — aided by the fantastic spatial projection of the miked sound, faithful to actual singers’ location, which allowed you to hear so many details — only confirmed for me why I think so highly of that piece.

    1. Hi Al – I think I’d agree with pretty much all that sentiment. You’re right too about the Bassetsu-Trio getting lost. A rare passage (whether due to sound projection or the original score) when the different layers lost their definition.

      1. The final scene appears very difficult to bring off theatrically, and I agree the Bassetsu trio was visually obstructed by delegates which didn’t help my listening at all. Perhaps the trio should have risen up high in the air to orbit the operator at the finish rather than trundle around on those tables behind the others. In the production the staging had somehow became progressively more intimate and friendly before Michaelion This was through the recognisable language in World Parliament, the humour, handshakes, waving, splashing and photos exchanged with the orchestra finalists and ultimately the moderation Q&A with the string quartet / pilots. After all the ready smiles at the second interval the effect of the more traditionally laid out scene 4 (Michaelion), was distancing, (possibly appropriately because of the alien setting), but perhaps unavoidably and regrettably. Relating surround sound to drama mostly at one end of the hall was tricky and a shock after the earlier scenes had gradually drawn me in so wonderfully. The scattered delegates among the audience felt more tokenistic than the integration of each previous space. So after attending the preview I decided to sit very near the lighted stage for the premiere (and so nearly was crushed as the stage suddenly moved up towards the middle!) It was certainly more exciting to be near the action than away by the sound desk, but the dramatic content remained obscure towards the end when the Bassetsu Trio is included. Stockhausen’s planning for the ever changing number of singers on stage is very complex here I believe, so the solution to more effective staging might still be a way off.

  12. The theatre of Mittwoch reminds me very much in the structure and ambitions of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ll explain what I mean, although film has certainly previously been cited as an influence upon Stockhausen’s compositional techniques.
    If you know the film, it follows four stages of Man’s development, from the discovery of tools, to reaching the stars and beyond. Each section of the film ends with the appearance of a symbolic monolith that leads as a gateway to the next stage. The film has four parts 1. The dawn of Man, 2, TMA-1 (a discovery on the moon), 3. Jupiter Mission, 4. Jupiter and beyond the Infinite.
    The final section of the film is the most imaginative, as it consists of a mind blowing light show, followed by a kind of rebirth image of a foetus floating among the stars.
    Stockhausen’s Mittwoch (in this production) traced an upwards progress from the Greeting onwards, the World Parliament atop their ladders, succeeded by the flying orchestra finalists, and the helicopter quartet (like space pioneers) and then of course the alien Galactic finale in which messages are being received from somewhere else!
    The film moves from one section to another firstly via a very famous ‘jump cut” and then Title Headings after each appearance of the enigmatic monolith. Mittwoch in Birmingham has the Yellow lit Door to link its scenes (and it was available to use to enter every scene after the Gruss, though not practical for everyone to choose it every time).
    Now Stockhausen’s philosophical ideas are maybe different than the circular proposal at the end of 2001, but I feel a resonance between the profundity of the symbolism of both works.
    Incidentally the astronaut’s breathing at the end of 2001 is very reminiscent of the composer’s breathing at the end of Hymnen Region IV completed a year earlier.

    1. Bernard – thanks for all your comments. I like your characterisation of an increasingly “friendly” progression through the first 3 scenes. This seems a better way of describing what I described as “a complete demolition of the fourth wall”.

      I too was sat right at the front for Michaelion, and nearly got decapitated by the stage …

  13. I’m not sure that characterising Stockhausen’s operas in terms of science fiction is a very helpful idea, even if it’s one that’s indulged in by many productions of his staged works (“Sonntag” for example, would have been improved if it hadn’t been decided to put performers in “space suits” wherever possible). While the evocation of imaginary worlds is something that Stockhausen and SF movies have in common, the latter tend to rely heavily on cinematic visual effects while Stockhausen’s “other planets” are engendered in the audience’s mind – if at all – largely through the sounds and structures of the music (particularly apparent in Graham Vick’s relatively “rough” staging, which made no attempt to disguise its setting, again unlike the “Sonntag” production), and the imaginative engagement asked of the audience tends to discourage any tendency to experience it as “escapist entertainment” which is essentially what commercial movies have to be, whether or not there’s also a symbolic or allegorical dimension.

    “Escapist entertainment with a symbolic or allegorical dimension” would also be one way of describing many kinds of religious ritual (cf. Marx’s characterisation of religion). Again I think it’s unnecessary or unhelpful to see Stockhausen’s theatrical visions in such terms. Recalling the composer’s words on the improvisational music of “Aus den sieben Tagen”: “I don’t want a spiritistic sitting – I want music! I mean nothing mystical, but everything quite direct, from concrete experience.” The sense of euphoria that many of us experienced through this performance has in my opinion a lot more to do with the “concrete experience” of having engaged one’s senses, intellect and imagination over an extended duration and in ways that expand the perception of what musical sound and form and physical presence can be, a sense of human possibility. Viewing it as a (pseudo-)religious experience, with all that this connotes, either in order to debunk it or in order to legitimise it, runs the risk of categorising it too neatly.

  14. You are right, and the sci-fi elements were mostly incidental to the large structural tableaux scheme that I tried to compare in my comment. ( but 2001 is pretty unique as an “intelligent” example of its genre).
    It is also interesting to compare the 4 scenes of Mittwoch with the 4 scenes of Samstag. Jerry Kohl referenced Paul Klee’s 4 dimensions of art ( dot,line,plane,space) when reviewing the scenes in the Samstag premiere, (1984) and for comparison Mittwoch gradually opens upwards as the scenes follow each other. In terms of the electronic music the moving layers are even more complicated spatially in the last scene than in Orchester Finalisten (where they are organised strictly around the six cubic walls). So in Michaelion for example diagonals, spirals and meanders across the space are included, adding to the richness, and complexity of that composition. Pushing the boundaries anew, as Stockhausen’s final acts tend to.

    1. (I don’t know sci-fi cinema well enough to comment definitively, but I do know enough to state that 2001 is not unique as an “intelligent” contribution – Planet of the Apes and Solaris leap to mind just among contemporary examples.)

    1. That link is truly a recommended read!. The duo performance from Aus den Sieben Tagen, particularly Aufwarts ( upwards) was very good at the Conservertoire and fascinating in context with the music of Mittwoch.

  15. Yesterday I re-listened to Orchester-Finalisten on CD, and my suspicions about the performance were alas confirmed: the ASKO-Ensemble performance as a whole is clearly inferior to the spectacular one by the musicians in Birmingham. To begin with the good news: the soli of oboe, clarinet, bassoon, tuba, trumpet are good or very good, but even these are mostly less outspoken than the Birmingham performance; overall, the ASKO-Ensemble performance makes a more, for lack of a better word, timid impression. This is vastly exacerbated in the soli of cello, viola, trombone and double bass; interestingly, these are also the ones where humoristic elements are most important. While the musicians in Birmingham clearly had enormous fun and really assimilated the spirit of the music, the ASKO musicians appear to just go through the motions, “doing what they are told”. The most devastating difference is in the cello playing on CD and in Birmingham. Halfway through the solo, there are forceful and intentionally “ugly” strokes in low register, deliberately shattering any aspirations at “elevated, sublime virtuosity”. These were executed by the Birmingham player with utmost conviction and heft, yet the ASKO player only remotely and timidly alludes to a proper execution of this passage. The violin solo on CD also lacks the outspoken gusto of the Birmingham performance. The Birmingham flute solo may have lacked the impressive clarity and definition of Kathinka Pasveer’s playing on the CD, but the player made up for that with an arresting sheer weirdness of some of the sounds; Kathinka does not go to these extremes.

    When I will write about the work in a few years (not a top priority of mine at the moment) the Stockhausen-Verlag performance will be a “tough sell” compared to the vastly superior Birmingham performance of the music. Now I understand when in June Kathinka wrote to me in an email from Birmingham about “wonderful musicians” what she really meant.

    It rarely happens that an “official” Stockhausen performance, like the Orchester-Finalisten CD, so obviously lags far behind how it could or should sound. The only other drastic instance that comes to my mind is the 1965 Momente perfomance. In my text on the work,

    I had written that, compared to the 1972 Europa performance, the well-regarded 1965 performance almost sounds just “like a tentative run through the score”. After I had sent the text to Stockhausen, the composer did not protest against this harsh assessment. For anyone interested in more detailed reasons why I came to this judgement, see the end of the link I just provided.


    What I did notice when re-listening to the CD is how well the electronic (concrete) music blends and even interacts with the soloists. This is an aspect that I had paid little attention to in Birmingham where I was captivated so much by the instrumental soli as such. Even when surges in dynamics or activity in the electronic tape are delayed in response or “anticipatory”, they still feel as interactions with the soloists’ playing.

  16. What I also wanted to express with my comparison of the Orchester-Finalisten CD with the Birmingham performance:
    While the spatial presentation in Birmingham and seeing the scene in a live operatic format may have opened up the work for me, for a substantial part it may also simply have been the superior musical performance in Birmingham and the understanding of Stockhausen’s humor by those musicians, an understanding that the ASKO-Ensemble was sorely lacking or could not properly express. I can only imagine what a contrived impression the presentation back at the world premiere in 1996 must have made, which was played by the ASKO-Ensemble as well.

    1. Thanks for your kind comments, Al. (Also for your text on “Mittwochs-Gruss” which I’ve much enjoyed reading.) I was at the first performance of “Orchester-Finalisten” in Amsterdam and it did indeed seem clumsy and schematic, and lacking in any kind of drama – in particular, the tutti chords played by the ensemble seemed like pointless token gestures, and the soloists’ playing seemed to have very little relationship with the electronics, apart from the obvious one of the vocoder-treated concrete sounds tracing out the sequence of central pitches also used by the instruments. That evening was a low point in my relationship with Stockhausen’s music. (In general I felt that his “half-staged” performances were highly problematic – several times after seeing such things – “Montag” in Amsterdam, the electronic version of “Kathinkas Gesang” in Paris – I came away bitterly disappointed, only to change my mind later when first hearing the CDs.) What I saw and heard in Birmingham was basically a different piece. But I’m sure that just on the technical level of achieving an integrated mix, this piece will have required quite some time and experience for optimal solutions to be found.

  17. I appreciate your comparison with the CD and agree that the Birmingham solo performances were outstanding.
    Having attended the UK premiere at Huddersfield 1996, I can remember the Asko being riveting in their live performance, although the concert staging of chairs in a semicircle ( no flying) and less than ideal sound projection (because of the theatre shape) was far less coherent. In Kürten 1998 Stockhausen analysed the piece daily and presented the electronic music in a near-ideal cubic set-up. He even live-mixed recordings of the (Asko) soloists, attempting to move them in space authentically from his sound desk (warning students that it was an approximation of a performance).
    After Birmingham it seems that there is no substitute for flying enthusiastic fine musicians high in the space, to encourage such rare and memorable virtuosity!

  18. It is interesting to read the different reactions to the ASKO performance by Richard (in Amsterdam) and Bernard (at Huddersfield) — perhaps their approach to the music had improved greatly by the time they were at Huddersfield. In any case, for me the rather disconcerting dark days with respect to Orchester-Finalisten are over as well.

    I am glad, Richard, that you enjoyed my text on Mittwochs-Gruss. I was struck by a particular passage in your link, where you write:

    “One of the most striking aspects of LICHT is that the serial structure spans such an enormous range of time-levels, from the entirety of the seven works to the smallest details of each component scene or act, and that this superimposition of vastly different time-levels is something one hears and experiences clearly, obviously more clearly the more of it one hears. I could put this the other way around: in order to be able to experience such a range of time-structures it’s necessary to work with long and intricately-organised durations, longer and more intricately-organised than most composers (or for that matter promoters or commissioning bodies) are prepared to consider. To realise such ideas on a practical level requires the development of ways of working which use the exigencies of the musical world we have to live with, in order to point beyond them. So, while LICHT consists of a whole conglomeration of components which may be performed separately, its most fascinating and memorable qualities come completely into focus only in the context of an entire evening. I was quite surprised when attending a complete performance of Sonntag in Cologne last year, for example, to find what a powerful cumulative effect was created by the whole sequence, even though it seems to consist of closed and disconnected structures, performed between two different spaces and even with the order of the final two acts being interchangeable.” (End quote.)

    I had been in Cologne for Sonntag too, and I was wondering about this powerful cumulative effect by the whole sequence of scenes in Sonntag (I remember Jerome Kohl mentioning to me something similar about Montag) and which, if I understand you correctly, you connect with the different ranges of time-structure in the work. I personally cannot hear all those different ranges, and ask myself if you could provide some hints about how to approach this.

    (The only instance where I can hear the enormously slow time scale of the greatest formula stretching over an entire opera is in Weltraum, the electronic music of Friday, but only after having analyzed it while writing on it (together with Jerome Kohl, see my article) and I can hear bits of it in Luzifers Abschied from Samstag, but that is on the somewhat smaller scale of just one scene. Yet I do not experience a powerful cumulative effect with regard to the different time scales.)

    1. The “cumulative effect” I was talking about in Sonntag was more of an impression of coherence which I assume to have been the result of the systematically-planned structure extending past the level of single scenes to the whole opera (and of course the whole cycle too), rather than something consciously and specifically perceptible on a first hearing, as it was in the cases of Montag and Freitag (and the Oktophonie-based component of Dienstag). I believe that in the case of Sonntag further acquaintance would bring this aspect to a more conscious level, but at this point I don’t have recordings of the whole thing so I’ll have to report back on that another time…

  19. 1996 is long ago, and I was at the time hugely impressed by ASKOs’ stunning performances of Xenakis so I was very receptive to them ias performers. I cannot really compare that performance 16 years back with the fresh experience of the Birmingham soloists, so different was the staging for a start!. I think your comparison with the CD recording is the most objective one.

    1. Perhaps, Bernard, but not necessarily. I do think that my comparison of the CD with the Birmingham performance, fresh in memory, is quite accurate. However, the recording of the solos for the CD was made quite early, when even not all of the electronic music was finished — rather odd, when you think about it. The CD booklet states that the recording of the solos was made between April 5 and April 14, 1996, and the electronic music was produced between April 1 and June 7, 1996. It may well be that the musicians’ performance greatly improved between then (and the Amsterdam premiere) and Huddersfield. So if you thought that the live performance in Huddersfield was riveting, the possibility is certainly there that this impression is grounded in actual facts.

      1. Your observation of the recording of the CD soloists being made before the electronic music was finished is very revealing. For example the opening notes of each recorded solo appear in sequence at the start of the electronic music, not played live, and it is to these sounds that the 11 main soloists introduce themselves by flying in or as in Birmingham waving their instruments in greeting. That in the CD Stockhausen reused exactly the same recording for these elements and the dubbed on soloists suggest an opportunity for later expression and interpretation was missed. In short, were the CD solos recorded wile listening to any electronic music at all, or merely a click track?
        Furthermore the world premiere in Holland was presented as two rounds (following the composers idea for concert performance) though this was not done on the Asko tour. The competitive element of two rounds of Orchesta Finalists is not part of the Opera, but it reminds me how important it is that the soloists are very personally expressive.

  20. I should qualify my remarks about not caring about the spiritual dimension in Stockhausen’s music. While i do not identify with it, and indeed do not care too much about it on an existential level, I certainly do have some intellectual fascination with it, also expressed in my Introduction to Samstag where I explore the diverse influences on the spiritual narrative in Licht — the observations there have been greatly enhanced by Jerry Kohl’s contributions. (I find the Licht mythology certainly more interesting than the one of Sirius.) There I also had a strong interest for the sake of truth to point out that the Urantia book is not the only inspiration for Licht, and that it may perhaps not even be the single main influence — notwithstanding the fact that the composer himself may have given, or at least not have contradicted, that impression.

    From the text:
    “In this context it should be pointed out that the message of LICHT does not appear to revolve around particular religious beliefs. Rather, it is concerned with universal concepts regarding human nature, the relationship of humans with God and the battle of spirits and minds. As the framework for this message, the opera cycle uses a specific spiritual mythology, created from familiar religious elements – as an example, the “mystical union of Michael and Eve” from SONNTAG has parallels in the teachings of “mystical union”, e.g., of the soul with God, in several of the major world religions, but is not found as such in any religion (and, by the way, not in the Urantia Book, either).”

    So I am not even sure that Stockhausen really literally believed all that stuff, like in a religion, even though he may have strongly identified with the mythology that he created. After all, Stockhausen had written in the program note to the world premiere of Himmelfahrt (Ascension): “I pray to Saint Michael, that I may someday ascend – like Jesus did – into Heaven which, like music, is invisible.” So why would he even refer to Jesus and the Christian belief of the Ascension, if Michael was so all-important and the ruler of “our local universe”, quasi a Urantia-type replacement for Jesus? Perhaps he changed his mind later in life, but that may be too easy an explanation.

    In that context I also have to disagree with Ian when he says above:
    “I’m sceptical about any music from any period which doesn’t really allow for an approach and attitude on the part of listeners which is not 100% concurrent with the composer’s world-view. ”

    I think that it is a myth that Stockhausen expected the audience to have an approach and an attitude that was 100 % concurrent with his world-view. Mine certainly isn’t, and from my text on Donnerstag that Stockhausen read he probably knew that I did not share his views. At the beginning of the text I make some deliberate remarks comparing the Michael mythology with mainstream Christian beliefs. I would not have felt compelled to make such comments had I been a “disciple” of the alleged “cult”, would I?

    1. A brief postscript on the “myth” Al mentions: it’s always struck me as somewhat strange that people assume they’re expected to “believe in” the divine beings (for want of a more suitable term) put on the operatic stage by Stockhausen, but not those put on stage by Monteverdi or Wagner or Messiaen (etc.).

      1. Well, in Monteverdi, Wagner or Messiaen I find lots of other aspects to relate to even if one disregards some of the particular religious/ideological elements, or comes at them from another angle. But I’m not sure what’s left from Michaelion, say, if one does that. The music seems laboured and simply a bit dreary to me, and I’m not sure what else there is to get out of the dramatic scenario, staging, or whatever (or a combination of those things).

        Though at the same time, I would find it hard to completely disregard the reactionary religious or political dimension to the earlier composers – the work can remain worthwhile despite these things, but perhaps not regardless of them.

  21. I agree that those dimensions shouldn’t be disregarded. I would say that no sufficiently deeply-thought art is completely without such contradictions, whether or not the artist is consciously aware of them. But whether one finds the other aspects worth one’s attention is a question of “taste and memory”, isn’t it? What you say about the three other composers I would have no hesitation in saying about Stockhausen.

  22. Sorry, my “precisely to the point” comment referred to Richard’s post:

    “it’s always struck me as somewhat strange that people assume they’re expected to “believe in” the divine beings (for want of a more suitable term) put on the operatic stage by Stockhausen, but not those put on stage by Monteverdi or Wagner or Messiaen (etc.).”

  23. At this point I should address an internal contradiction that I discovered in what I said before.

    I said that I don’t care that much about the spiritual dimensions in Stockhausen’s music. On the other hand, I also had written in my Introduction to Samstag that I quoted: “In this context it should be pointed out that the message of LICHT does not appear to revolve around particular religious beliefs. Rather, it is concerned with universal concepts regarding human nature, the relationship of humans with God and the battle of spirits and minds.”

    In that sense I care about the spiritual dimension in Stockhausen’s music because I care about these general concepts, also because I am a religious person. I do not, however, existentially care about the specific spiritual mythology in it. What is more, even though I care about that spiritual dimension in my personal moral and intellectual life, when I listen to the music it strictly interests me as music. It does not become any better or worse, any more or less interesting *as music* with or without the spiritual dimension attached to it.

    I listen to Bach cantatas not because of their religious content, but because I find them to be extraordinary music (if i find them spiritually uplifting that’s an added bonus, but I do not seek that out). I do not care that Bartok was an atheist: I deeply love his music and that’s that. My interest in the music rises or falls with the merits of the music alone.

    On that note, I have to agree with Richard:
    “What you say about the three other composers I would have no hesitation in saying about Stockhausen.”

    Yet I agree with Ian as well when he says:
    “Well, in Monteverdi, Wagner or Messiaen I find lots of other aspects to relate to even if one disregards some of the particular religious/ideological elements, or comes at them from another angle. But I’m not sure what’s left from Michaelion, say, if one does that. The music seems laboured and simply a bit dreary to me, and I’m not sure what else there is to get out of the dramatic scenario, staging, or whatever (or a combination of those things).”

    As I said, my interest in the music rises or falls with the merits of the music alone, and if Michaelion does not sound musically very interesting (at this point it does not to me either), no amount of spiritual elements or mythology in the music will redeem that situation.

    1. Stockhausen’s own religious sensibilities filled his need to explain the nature of creativity and the ideas he drew from the subconscious. His statement that he was a transistor receiving musical signals from beyond is revealing as a religious way of thinking, especially so when he so readily proposed musical activities as a path to evolution and higher thinking. The mysteries of dreams and truly creative ideas of are equally relevant to those who are less religious. The humanist will be full of wonder that the subconscious comes from within man himself. Religious models are an attractive mechanism (allegory) for explaining the presently or eternally unknowable, and as such are not only of interest to those who share and develop them.

  24. This thread has obviously been inactive for a long time, but I figured I’d post anyway since the email alerts to participants might still be active.

    I have now listened a few times to the finally available Michaelion CD. I am thoroughly confused, in a good way. The music is so much better than I had experienced in Birmingham live from the same performers, and I do not know why I just didn’t hear the quality in the live setting (and I had attended twice!). Perhaps I was too distracted by the visuals, or perhaps the sound projection was lacking, or both (I’ll discuss this further below) — the other three scenes of which I had known the music beforehand had made a much more favorable impression on me.

    What I had been most disappointed about in Birmingham was that the vocal textures seemed so mundane (except for the final vocal sextet of the last 10-15 minutes). What I experienced appeared to stand in sharp contrast to the originality and distinctiveness that I was used to from Stockhausen’s other vocal music (and which also stands out, thankfully, in the vocal music of Richard Barrett who has contributed on this thread). But what I now hear on the CD is yet another example of that exciting originality in Stockhausen’s vocal writing. Only a few short passages strike me musically as more pedestrian, as it were.

    For some reason I also did not appreciate the complexity of the vocal textures in the live setting, to the point where I did not understand what the fuzz was all about with respect to the alleged staggering performance of the London Voices. Now the complexity is blindingly obvious to me. Why didn’t I hear that before? Overall, Michaelion now seems to me a substantial, major work in Stockhausen’s catalog.

    I am always a little nervous when in Stockhausen’s operatic scenes the electronic music, which I mostly enjoy best as standalone work, becomes background. Yet what strikes me in Michaelion how effectively moods are set by the electronic music. This allows me to more easily accept it as background.

    A main reason for why I could not sufficiently appreciate the music live was probably, as already mentioned, visual distraction. My first encounters with Stockhausen works with an intense visual component have mostly been only partially or not at all successful. I got acquainted with Sirius for the first time live at the Stockhausen Courses 2000, and while I did like the music, subsequent listening to the CD was so much more revealing. Harlekin for clarinet at the Courses 2001 was a total bust for me, and only listening to the CD made me appreciate the work, until I became, to this day, enthusiastic about it. Himmelstuer was fun to watch, but the visuals were clearly distracting for me, as in that instance I was consciously aware of during my first encounter with it at the Courses 2006, and I found the music rather boring until after a few times listening to the CD, upon which suddenly it became riveting. The subtlety of the musical proceedings is on another experiential, initially disconnected plane from the more robust theatrics of the work (similar can be said about Harlekin). The overarching problem in all this is for me sensory overload. I understand that Stockhausen wants to enevelop the listener in an all-encompassing experience, but I can only appreciate the total package layer by layer. For example, after already having loved Ave for basset-horn and alto flute from CD, I found seeing it as an operatic scene in at the Courses 2001 riveting and revealing. Given this, now that I intimately know the music, I would also like to experience Harlekin and Himmelstuer again live. I am certain my appreciation of the theatrical effects would now be much greater and would not distract from the music. — Only Engel-Prozessionen was successful for me from the beginning as a total package, in my first encounter with it at its world premiere at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam 2002 as an operatic scene. But then, the ‘action’ there is rather limited (while the colors of the performers’ robes in Amsterdam were spectacular and created a strong sensory experience).

    The sound projection of Michaelion was also problematic. While at Welt-Parlament in Birmingham there was a slight amount of distortion of sound, the overall sound was really great and totally involving. Yet the larger amount of distortion in Michaelion wore me down, and projection was not as crystal clear as it had been in Welt-Parlament, possibly due to the technical challenge of projecting performers running around.

    Yet I am still not sure if the visual distraction and the problems with sound projection alone fully explain why I had such a poor impression of the music in the live operatic setting.


    Listening to Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler the last few days has also put Michaelion’s impact, now obvious from the CD, into sharper focus for me. Hindemith’s opera is one of the most spectacularly fluid, distinctive, and in fact melodic, examples of “open-ended”- or “endless”-melody-style tonal operas that I have heard. It is one of the operas that have impressed me the most so far, perhaps also because of its unforced, natural (much more than usual), yet nonetheless decisive and firm dramatic expression. Yet as excellent as this opera is on its own terms, the sheer dazzling invention by Stockhausen in Michaelion with regard to vocal textures and melody goes that one step further. Even though I hesitate to say that Michaelion is “better” than Hindemith’s opera, the invention there does provide that extra edge of excitement and wonder (which is also a good part of what in general has made Stockhausen’s music, from the 1950s through the 2000s, so consistently attractive to me through the years). Interestingly, both Stockhausen’s and Hindemith’s vocal textures (and again, Richard Barrett’s), each in their own way, have that effortless connection to vivid and natural human expression that often appears so elusive in lesser vocal music (and particularly in a lot of atonal vocal music!).

    As for following the libretto, it was essential for the Hindemith, since otherwise the musical proceedings could be understood in only a limited manner (my father recently has attended a highly acclaimed performance of the opera in Vienna where they showed the text on screen, something that appears to become more and more customary). For Stockhausen, just listening to the vocal textures as such was highly satisfactory, and having the libretto in hand does not necessarily enhance the experience by much. Even with reading the libretto while listening the texts in Michaelion are hard to follow, since different voices sing different texts simultaneously. This raises the question in how much Stockhausen was really interested in immediate clarity of content, as opposed to just general outlines of a principal idea or of a symbolic plot, with details available to those who are additionally interested in studying the texts outside of the actual experience of the music. Similar questions can be asked with respect to other vocal works by Stockhausen, such as wide stretches of Festival from Donnerstag or Lucifer’s Farewell from Samstag, and also with respect to the vocal music of Richard Barrett, where the texts are often in foreign or even ancient languages (e.g. in Dark Matter or Construction).

  25. I have forgotten to mention that, with regard to visual distraction, the cheap looking production (with the giant champagne bottle for Luzikamel made from plastic as the anti-climax) was clearly a turn-off.

    Graham Vick’s production has been praised by many reviewers, but unjustly so, I am afraid.

  26. It’s in reality a great and helpful piece of info.

    I’m glad that you shared this useful info with us.
    Please stay us up to date like this. Thank you for

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s