Unique treat as Pro Coro performs Stockhausen Stimmung

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The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was, in the 1960s, one of the leaders of the avant-garde movement. His cutting-edge music and his exploration of sounds fascinated many musicians and performers, but horrified more conservative audiences and critics.

Then, in 1968, he produced a choral work for six voices and six microphones, the 74-minute Stimmung, which changed classical music history. It is an extremely difficult, if rewarding, work to perform, and consequently one is fortunate indeed to encounter a live performance.

It had not been heard in Alberta until this week, when six members of Pro Coro — Jane Berry, Sara Brooks, Rob Curtis, Kimberley Denis, David McCune, and Caleb Nelson — presented it first in Calgary on Thursday, and then in Edmonton at Studio 96 on Friday under the auspices of New Music Edmonton. They are repeating the concert on Saturday at Holy Trinity Anglican Church.

The word “stimmung” has a number of connotations in German. Here it means “tuning,” but it also has the sense of “mood” and “well-being.” It is built around the harmonics of B flat, and in it Stockhausen explores all the harmonic overtones — there are 108 pitches in all. The singers are required to do overtone singing, in which they sing more than one pitch at a time, and the overtones also come from the interaction of the different voices. There are 51 sections, in which the order of some of the elements are decided by the singers, but the sequence of pitches is fixed.

That’s the technical stuff, but how does it actually sound?

It is an extraordinarily mesmerizing, ritualistic, and often spellbindingly beautiful work. There is a slow, underlying flow of harmonic sound (based on vocalized syllables), rather like Tibetan Buddhist chanting, or the slow undulating flow of some great sacred river.

Out of the surface bubble up individual words sung by individual singers — the days of the week, or the names of gods and goddesses from a wide range of cultures and religions. Some of these words spin off and away, like birds flushed from cover, but usually they set off a kind of ripple effect as they are picked up and turned into rhythmic patterns by the other singers, themselves becoming part of the harmonic flow again.

There are also some spoken poems by Stockhausen himself, which Stockhausen insisted were spoken in German — perhaps fortunately, as they are very explicitly erotic.

What was so revolutionary was that the work sounds tonal, because of that overtone series — which certainly couldn’t be said of Stockhausen’s earlier work, or the 1960s avant-garde in general. This does make the piece hauntingly beautiful, and it also opened Stockhausen’s music to a much wider audience.

At the same time, Stimmung was pushing the boundaries of what could be produced by the human voice, so composers all over the world took note that one could combine elements of more recognizable tonality with the latest musical ideas.

The work is completely unaccompanied, although singers use an electronic drone to keep them in pitch — no mean feat in well over an hour’s music. Pro Coro used the original 1968 ‘Paris’ version, and, as specified in the score, the audience sat around the singers in the converted church that is Studio 96. The singers were each miked into individual speakers set in a circle behind the audience, giving a wide sense of space.

The six Pro Coro singers had been preparing for these performances for eight months, and the results justified so much work. It is a considerable feat to perform it at all, given the scale and the length of the work, the extended vocal techniques needed, and the vocal stamina required.

It was an indication of the quality of this performance that it never sounded difficult, just a natural expression of the human voice.

What particularly came across was the affinity of the work to East Indian ragas. The drone with its fundamental note has its correspondence in ragas, as do the repeated and evolving rhythmic patterns — and what a rhythmic, swaying work Stimmung is. That underlying flow evolves, too, much as ragas do, with a buildup of the harmonic and rhythmic textures towards the end.

Only very rarely did the accuracy of the pitches flag in an otherwise remarkably unified performance. When they did, it was noticeable how the harmonic overlays collapsed, and the multiplicity of sound became grey, like a veil of cloud going across a bright moon.

I have known Stimmung from recordings and the score for more than four decades, and I have been hoping for an opportunity to hear a live performance for all those four decades. Pro Coro entirely justified that wait, in a profoundly spiritual and hauntingly beautiful musical experience. The performance ended with just a human breath, sung on E flat, dying away — the breath that is the basis of our lives.

Review by Mark Morris, Published on: May 5, 2017

© Michael Zaugg 2017