AMN Reviews: “aus Licht”- K. Stockhausen [2019 Holland Festival, Amsterdam]

This year’s Holland Festival   presented what may have been its most ambitious undertaking ever – a marathon performance of selections from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s   magnum opus “Licht”.  “Licht” is a cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week, that Stockhausen wrote over a twenty-five-year period. While individual operas and scenes from this cycle have been and continue to be performed, a staging of the entire cycle which runs over twenty-nine hours in a single place is generally considered to be impossible. The Holland Festival presented the first ever staging of more than half of “Licht” in a single place. Fifteen hours of music was selected from the cycle and performed over three days at the Gashouder in Amsterdam. Several additional hours of electronic music from “Licht” was also presented for “dedicated” listeners before and after each day’s performances. This three-day cycle was presented three times from May 31 to June 10. I never thought I would ever be able to hear so much of Stockhausen’s work performed in one single event and I was lucky enough to attend the June 4-6 performances. It was an absolutely spectacular concert event.

Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of the major innovators of the twentieth century. In many ways his vision of a dramatic musical work greatly differs from opera. “Licht” does not adhere to a linear plot, it is modular, with no definite beginning or end. Each piece of music, in each of the individual operas within the cycle is autonomous and therefore can be performed by itself.  Stockhausen wrote his own libretto and while it is based on familiar mythology the main characters are archetypes that represent universal forces – Michael as love, Lucifer as light and Eve as life itself.  Stockhausen portrays these universal forces with both singers and instrumentalists. The work asks the instrumentalists to not only play what is often very difficult music, but to be in costume, move, sing and perform various gestures as they play his virtuosic score.

The entire work is based on a structure of three musical layers with each layer representing one of the major characters. This structure or “super formula” as Stockhausen calls it, serves as the sonic foundation for all of the pieces in the entire cycle. The scores also specify a great deal of detail for each dimension of the performance and specifically defines many of the production parameters – costumes, scenery, lighting, imagery, colors, symbols, sound projection, gestures, movement, dances, and so much more.

The experience Stockhausen creates is a kind of ritual theater that has been influenced by much of our planetary culture. But this work is not a completely somber affair. It explores all of the facets of life from love to war to humor. Among the humorous characters in this work is “Synthi-Fou”, an Elton John like figure whose synthesizer solo feature is a bit like Sun Ra channeling the phantom of the opera and then there is the “swallow pair”, a clarinet duo that are decked out in tails with antics not unlike the classic Marx brothers.

While the “Licht” cycle frames eternal questions, Stockhausen does not attempt to answer these questions for us, instead he illustrates them in his own unique way and invites us to experience his reflections on the eternal. All of this is to create his personal vision of a musical theater filled with magic and ritual that can appeal and be understood by everyone on this planet. The result is a timeless masterpiece.

In my opinion the Holland Festival’s production of “aus Licht” succeeded in bringing to life much of Stockhausen’s vision.  It was an incredible music theater experience. I found the elegance and subtlety of the staging, video, lighting and costumes highlighted the ritual aspects of the performance while creating a beautiful open atmosphere. While live performance always reveals aspects of a work that are just not captured by recordings, hearing many of these pieces live was a revelation.

Each day began with optional electronic music for dedicated listeners. The electronic music was beautifully diffused around the circular room in the Gashouder  through a twenty-four channel system with one hundred loudspeakers carefully surrounding the room. Hearing Stockhausen’s electronic music in this space diffused by a specially trained team revealed dimensions that just aren’t audible on the recordings. It was a wonderful way to begin the day. This was followed by films of grade school children explaining the story and drawing pictures of the characters. Despite my not speaking Dutch it was clear that the children understood the story and it was a nice light hearted way to set the stage for each performance.

Most of the performers were conservatory students and many were children. Each of the main characters, Michael, Eve and Lucifer were portrayed by several different performers and there were so many musicians (about 300) that were part of these performances rather than singling out any of them I would rather just say that all of the musicians played and or sang beautifully and performed with real passion, power, presence and conviction. They were all incredible. There was nothing about this production that was “student” or “amateur”. From end to end “aus Licht” was a world class professional performance and production.

While “aus Licht” was promoted as a marathon it never felt long to me. When each day ended I was excited and eager to hear more. When it was all over I found myself wishing that I had gotten tickets for all nine nights and experienced the three-day cycle three times.

This week Arte posted several clips from the Holland Festival production of “aus Licht”.  The five clips are short but are very well filmed and have high quality stereo sound. The first clip is of the “Girl’s Procession”. While this clip is just a few minutes from a thirty minute piece it should be enough to demonstrate the tremendous talents of the girls choir and the beauty of the overall production.

Clip two is a short excerpt from “Lucifer’s Dance”.  It features one of the larger ensembles on the second stage with the brilliant soloists engaged in a powerful dramatic performance. The staging made use of multiple stages plus various configurations of the room.

Clip three is a short excerpt from the very last piece “Angel Procession”. Notice that the configuration of the room in each clip is different and was often changed for each scene. This clip demonstrates the effectiveness of the lighting, staging and costume design when combined with the spectacular adult choirs. It was a somewhat solemn but powerful way to end the three days.

Clip four is a short excerpt from the infamous helicopter string quartet. Yes, it’s a string quartet where each of the strings are in their own helicopter and the performance is beamed back to earth. The sounds of the strings are mixed with the sounds of the helicopters and diffused around the room. Many reviewers portray this piece as nothing more than unnecessary excess but in doing so I think it misrepresents the piece. It is a serious work that is also a fun spectacle. You can hear Stockhausen’s own words on the piece in this video from the Holland Festival’s archives from when they first presented it in 1995.

The final clip is a short excerpt from “Michael’s Journey Around the World”. It features a very large ensemble with the trumpet soloist Michael and the clarinet duo “swallow pair”. That fades and then we hear a very short excerpt from “Thursday’s Greeting (Michael’s Greeting)”.

If you viewed all of the clips you get a sense of the variety and magnitude of both the musical and production forces required to perform “aus Licht”. You should also notice that the soloists and the choirs are not reading any music. Everything has been memorized and internalized. This kind of performance requires an enormous commitment from the musicians. As you can imagine presenting a work of this size and scope would have many challenges. So how did the Holland Festival pull this off? Well according to the program notes it started in the spring of 2015 when the head of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Henk van der Meulen and colleague Renee Jonker pitched the idea to the Holland Festival as a way of having students from the conservatory perform selected pieces from the cycle. Holland Festival Artistic Director Ruth Mackenzie and music programmer Jochem Valkenburg were interested and they proposed that the students perform all twenty-nine hours of the entire cycle! This was then handed off to the festival head of production Sigi Giesler.

As they explored what it would take to produce the entire cycle they realized they would need help and they enlisted Pierre Audi of the Dutch National Opera to be the projects director. This delegation then met with Kathinka Pasveer and Suzanne Stephens of the Stockhausen Foundation for Music to discuss the project. After many meetings, by September of 2016 they realized that their best shot was to produce selected pieces from the cycle. So, they worked to select pieces from the cycle from which they could construct a dramaturgically coherent collection of scenes. As that was happening the Royal Conservatory established an “aus Licht” Master’s program to train students with a solid Stockhausen foundation. Then Pierre Audi and the Dutch National Opera took responsibility for this massive project with the Holland Festival co-producing. Kathinka Pasveer then signed on as the music director.

With less than three years to go they kicked off fundraising and the project moved forward.  The project plan had more than four hundred and fifty rehearsals, with more than two hundred and fifty students and thirty-seven soloists, plus all of the various creative and production teams.  Nearly four years later in May 2019 the work of more than six hundred people had come to maturation and rehearsals for the final production began at the Gashouder and a slice of the impossible became very real!

“aus Licht” was an incredibly memorable experience. I am very grateful to all that contributed to bringing it to life. The Holland Festival showed its courage and commitment to contemporary music by investing the time and resources necessary in presenting this great work and by building partnerships with The Dutch National Opera, The Royal Conservatory, the Stockhausen Foundation for Music, and many others to ensure that the production of “aus Licht” would be a major success. And it absolutely was! My hope is that “aus Licht” was not a one-off. I hope that this partnership will come together again soon and perform “aus Licht” again. Maybe even add another day or present another collection of different selections from “Licht”. Perhaps this production will inspire someone to try and present an even bigger slice of the impossible!

Chris De Chiara

 

 

AMN Reviews: Elliott Sharp – Plastový Hrad (2019; Infrequent Seams)

Sharp_Plastovy_Hrad_COVER_1400x1400_James_IlgenfritzComposer, improviser and multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp has been a major voice within the downtown New York music scene for decades. Timbre, dynamics, motion, shape and rhythm are always in play in Sharp’s compositional and improvisational practice. His music is a kind of avant-garde “groove” that combines algorithmic thinking with interpretive and improvisatory intuition. His latest album “PLASTOVY HRAD” presents three very different compositions that feature the bass clarinet.

 

“Plastovy Hrad” is for chamber orchestra with bass clarinet soloist. The composition was commissioned by the Brno Contemporary Orchestra as part of the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the formation of the Czech Republic. In this piece Sharp builds a kind of labyrinth that is somewhat dark and relentless. The bass clarinet soloist is a lone voice that wanders the labyrinth commenting and questioning as it moves through its ever changing surroundings. The cimbalom is prominently used to provide a counter voice to the bass clarinet.  The use of the cimbalom also gives the piece bits of Czech folk sounds that pierce the dark textures often revealing bits of light.  It’s a really interesting piece that is well recorded.  Both the soloist Lukasz Danhel and the ensemble perform with a great deal of power, conviction and subtly.

“Turing Test” premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2012. It is performed by the voices of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and the bass clarinet of Gareth Davis. It is a kind of mini-opera where disembodied voices try to understand who they are and where they are. While many of the techniques in Elliott Sharp’s musical language such as cells and looping appear to be at work here, they are used very differently than in other works by Sharp. In this piece Sharp uses these techniques not to construct actively evolving dense textures but clear melodic segments of counterpoint and chords for the voices. Gareth Davis’s wonderful bass clarinet is used to comment and question the voices as they continue their test. It’s a wonderful piece that is beautifully performed. I look forward to hearing more work in this vein from Elliott Sharp.

“Oumuamua” is a graphic score for bass clarinet and electronics. In this piece the bass clarinet is processed by the electronics in real time. In many ways this piece resembles Sharp’s solo electric guitar work, in that there are repeated fragments overlaid in a constant forward motion that occasionally collapses into a sustained sound mass.  The use of electronics here is really interesting in that they are both transformative and interactive. The bass clarinet transforms into clusters of floating sounds that dissolve into duets between the bass clarinet with sounds that resemble berimbau, saxophone and organ. It’s an interesting and wild romp that features Elliott Sharp’s excellent bass clarinet playing.

All in all, “PLASTOVY HRAD” is a really interesting and diverse album that presents three different faces of Elliott Sharp, one of America’s most interesting contemporary composers.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Sound American No. 21 “The Change Issue”

Sound American is an online music journal that trumpeter, composer, writer, Nate Wooley began publishing in 2012. The journal generally focuses on radical experimental music. Each issue is organized around a topic or theme. Sound American’s content is as serious and as high quality as any music oriented academic journal but without any of the trappings of academic writing. Contributing writers are critics, musicians and thinkers whom are able to communicate their ideas in plain language.  Issues have focused on musicians such as Anthony Braxton, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, David Dunn, Don Cherry, Christian Wolfe, and Cornelius Cardew. Topics such as Gospel Music, Networking, Instrument Building, Ritual, Jazz, and Propaganda have been explored.

The current issue Sound American No. 21 “The Change Issue” is a bit of a departure from the previous volumes. Nate Wooley remains the editor but has expanded the operation in terms of organization and formats. Behind the scenes Sound American has now expanded to more of an institutional framework with both advisory and editorial boards. Along with the freely available web version there are now print, print and audio, and digital subscription formats. The high-quality print format of Sound American No. 21 “The Change Issue” is beautifully done. The issue features words by or about Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, Ornette Coleman, Nicole Kaack, Bradford Bailey, G. Lucas Crane, Jennie Gottschalk, Ambrose Akinmusire, Mats Gustafsson, Peter Margasak, Terry Riley, Kim Brandt, John Cage, Josh Sinton, Edgard Varése, Marc Hannaford, John Zorn, Matthew Mehlan, Million Tongues Festival, Alex Mincek, Lester St. Louis, and Steve Lehman.

Sound American is a great resource for anyone interested in experimental music. I find the journal’s writing to be passionate, informative and thought provoking. Each issue invites readers to explore new sounds and new ideas written by some of today’s most interesting writers, thinkers and musicians. Visit the site and check out the current issue. Browse the archive of back issues. You will most likely find yourself visiting the site again and again. If you find Sound American to be as valuable as I think it is, then please consider subscribing.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

Sound American 21: The Change Issue

Sound American is very excited to announce a new step in our growth as one of the preeminent music journals in America. Beginning on May 6th, we’ll be releasing each issue in print form. Although we will continue to make each issue available for free online at www.soundamerican.org, we are taking a step to meet the long-standing demands of our readership to make each issue available in a physical, collectible form.

Designed by Mike Dyer of Remake Designs (designer of the recent Donald Judd: Writings publication), each issue is:
– Printed using offset lithography in a special Pantone color throughout (which will change each issue)
– Bound with the highest quality thread-sewn binding, using cold glue and Otabind™, so the book lies open and stays completely flat, and will last for a lifetime.
– Printed on Holmen paper, an excellent Swedish stock
– Printed by die Keure, one of the finest book printers in the world in a limited edition of 500

Sound American 21: The Change Issue will be released on May 6th online and in print.  The Change Issue is the first in a new editorial format and features words by or about Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, Ornette Coleman, Nicole Kaack, Bradford Bailey, G. Lucas Crane, Jennie Gottschalk, Ambrose Akinmusire, Mats Gustafsson, Peter Margasak, Terry Riley, Kim Brandt, John Cage, Josh Sinton, Edgard Varése, Marc Hannaford, John Zorn, Matthew Mehlan, Million Tongues Festival, Alex Mincek, Lester St. Louis, and Steve Lehman.

AMN Reviews: Nate Wooley “Columbia Icefield” [Northern SPY NS 112]

Inspired by the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains trumpeter Nate Wooley set out to explore “ … large structures that have a feeling of being really large and slightly disturbing, but also, natural, … it’s not an attack on our senses. We understand it.”  On “Columbia Icefield” Wooley’s amplified trumpet is joined by drummer Ryan Sawyer, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn and guitarist Mary Halverson. The three compositions on “Columbia Icefield” while unique in content and form seem to share an overall point of view or perhaps mood. The recording itself also contributes to this overall mood. The album’s mix beautifully exploits the stereo field to project a big and open sound that still seems close and intimate.

The album opens with “Lionel Trilling”, a piece that seems like it would make a great soundtrack for a journey by train to visit the ice field. The piece slowly builds up from very deliberate but somewhat overlapping melodic and rhymical patterns on the guitars. The interplay between Halverson and Alcorn is very tight and balanced. These patterns could be imagined as representing the sounds of the train. They are eventually joined by other patterns played by the drums along with the very effective use of the amplified trumpet as percussion. This builds up over time but not in a sentimental or obvious way.  The train continues to climb till out of nowhere ethereal voices arrive and the mood abruptly changes.  They have arrived and set out to explore the expanse in a floating dialogue. This gives way to a new section of contrapuntal questions and episodic improvisations till it is time to leave and then we get back on the train to return to where the journey began.

“Seven in the Woods” is a piece where its shape slowly forms over time. It begins as an abstraction of what it will become with a slow counterpoint of melodic fragments between the guitars and muted trumpet. When the drums finally enter it tries to subvert the developing shape with march like rhythmic attacks. Eventually the drums give in and all of this abstraction crystallizes into a soulful melodic hymn accompanied by beautiful brush work from the drums. The piece then moves through a series of wonderful moments with solos from each of the musicians. Eventually it begins to fall back apart but is interrupted by the guitars with chiming church bell chords that slowly fade away.

The last piece “With Condolences” starts slowly and quietly but as the sonic conversation grows it becomes more and more animated over time. As it builds up into a chatter, spoken word lyrics emerge and push it back into a more reflective instrumental conversation that slowly winds itself down.

The playing by each of the musicians on “Columbia Icefield” is nothing short of outstanding. I hope that Nate Wooley is able to do a lot more recording with this particular group. As an ensemble they demonstrate real chemistry. Make no mistake “Columbia Icefield” is a great album. So, do your ears a favor and spend some quiet time listening to “Columbia Icefield”.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

Shelter Press Releases “SPECTRES”

Shelter Press with the support of INA GRM has published the new book “Spectres Composer l’écoute / Composing listening”. This book is the first in an annual series. The first edition features writings in English and French by François Bayle, Jim O’Rourke, Daniel Terruggi, Stephen O’Malley, Elaine Radigue, Chris Watson, Brunhild Ferrari, Beatriz Ferreyra, Espen Sommer Eide, Drew Daniel, François J. Bonnet, Régis Renouard Larivière, and Félicia Atkinson.

Each issue of “SPECTRES” will have a different subtitle / focus.  “This book has been conceived as both a prism and a manual. Following the “traditional” arc of electroacoustic composition (listen—record—compose—deploy—feel), each of the contributions collected together here focuses in on a personal aspect, a fragment of that thrilling territory that is sonic and musical experimentation.

Although the term “experimental music” may now have be understood as referring to a genre, or even a particular style, we ought to hold on to the original use of this term, which was based more on an approach than on any particular aesthetic line to be followed. The experimental is first and foremost a spirit, the spirit of the exploration of unknown territories, a spirit of invention which sees musical composition more as a voyage into uncertain territories than as a self-assured approach working safe within the bosom of fully mapped out and recognized lands.”

More info at Shelter Press

AMN Reviews: René Lussier “Quintette” [Circum-Disc Microcidi012]

Prolific and eclectic guitarist René Lussier’s credits include more than sixty film soundtracks and more than thirty albums.  Lussier’s music, while drawing from a variety of contemporary experimental musical ideas, has a unique sense of melody that is colored by the frequent use of folk like “clogging” motor rhythms that are injected with the power and energy of rock. In addition to his work in experimental music and free improvisation Lussier  has performed and recorded with several groups including Conventum, Les 4 Guitaristes de l’Apocalypso-Bar, Fred Frith’s Keep the Dog and The Fred Frith Guitar Quartet.

Lussier’s latest album “Quintette” finds him in the company of drummers Robbie Kuster and Marton Maderspach, Julie Houle – tuba/euphonium and accordionist Luzio Altobelli.  Lussier assembled this group at the end of 2016 and they have been rehearsing and performing ever since. His concept for this group was to create music where the written and the improvised live together allowing each performer a lot of freedom while preserving the character of the original composition. Lussier’s arrangements continually shift roles across the instruments as the music’s modules are overlaid on one another. The result is ten pieces of tuneful, energetic and imaginative music that is simultaneously precise, frantic and wild. “Quintette” is an album that I believe should turn up on many “Best of 2018” lists. Highly recommended!

Chris DeChiara