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: The Cloudwatchers – S/T [Unexplained Sounds Group]; Ståle Storløkken – The Haze of Sleeplessness [Hubro HUBROCD2616]

Forms by themselves are inert things: accumulated conventions and materials that, for all their inertia, are nevertheless available to be appropriated and made newly meaningful through the projects and programs that somehow have need of them. The Cloudwatchers, a quartet of musicians working in Spain, and the Norwegian keyboardist/composer Ståle Storløkken each take an awareness of the conventions and materials of classic electronic avant-garde and cosmic music and creatively reimagine them as something authentically their own.

The Cloudwatchers’ membership comprises Andrés Alonso (electric guitar and bass, digital synthesizers and audio processors); Iván Cebrián (analogue synthesizers and audio processors); Coco Moya (voice, analogue synthesizers and audio processors); and Jaime Munáriz (analogue synthesizers, electric guitar and audio processors). The group’s overlapping instrumentation—three of the four play analogue synthesizers, and all four engage in audio processing—doesn’t prevent them from creating rich soundscapes of varying colors. The three long, untitled pieces are constructed around more or less fixed harmonies; as a foundation this may seem simple, but with this kind of music what matters isn’t complex harmonic change but instead changes in texture, timbre and voice. Sometimes, as in the first piece, the voice is human, oscillating in microtones around washes of synthesizer and echo-drenched guitar. The dominant voice on the second piece, by contrast, consists in a modal keyboard melody floating lightly over the gravitas of a slow beat and densely-layered background texture. The closing piece features luminous sounds and culminates in an ostinato for sequencer—a clever recontextualization of an old convention from space music.

Like the Cloudwatchers, Storløkken’s natural point of reference is the classic electronic music of the 1960s and 1970s, but also like the Cloudwatchers, he doesn’t try to recreate those sounds through direct imitation but rather by indirect hint and allusion. With The Haze of Sleeplessness he sets out to make a soundtrack for a non-existent film, the better to let the listener dream his or her own characters, plot and setting. Each of the seven pieces is a tone poem in itself, but taken together, all add up to a collectively coherent suite which—in a coincidental parallel to the Cloudwatchers’ final track–ends in a sequencer-driven flourish.

 

 

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: Milton Babbitt – “Philomel” [ATD4], Juliet Fraser – Soprano, & Luigi Nono – “La Fabbrica Illuminata” [ATD5], Loré Lixenberg – Mezzo-soprano

All that dust is a new independent label based in the UK that is dedicated to producing high quality releases of contemporary music. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign they have recently released five recordings. In this initial batch of recordings two of the five are high quality binaural recordings. Binaural recording is a recording technique that aims to create a 3-D stereo sound field that represents the listening experience of actually being in the room during the performance. It is best experienced with headphones or ear buds. Binaural recording is a very effective way of capturing the experience of a performance where there is a live performer(s) with multichannel tape/electronic accompaniment.

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ATD4 is “Philomel” a serial composition from 1964 by Milton Babbitt that utilizes recorded synthesizer with both live and recorded soprano voice. The piece is one of the earliest works to use the synthesizer and is considered to be Babbitt’s best-known work. Its text is taken from a poem by John Hollander and its three sections are based on Ovid’s myth of Philomela. A tale of a women who is the sister in-law of a king whom rapes her. The king has her tongue cut out so that she cannot talk and then imprisons her. Her sister discovers the truth and helps Philomel escape. As they are pursued by the king the gods intervene and transform her sister Procne into a swallow, the king into a hoopoe and Philomel into a nightingale. The piece is a dramatic representation of Philomel’s transformation.

Babbitt used synthesizer and voices in a four-channel tape accompaniment to try and make the listener feel trapped in the music, as a way of conveying Philomela’s inability to escape her fate. The four channels act as a moving sound ensemble. The music is both very rhythmic and colorful with a great range of synthesized timbres and with a very demanding virtuoso part for soprano voice. The pieces mood is tentative and shattered but despite the stories horror the music is never sentimental in its anger or sorrow. As the piece progresses the mood shifts more to bewilderment at the transformation that is taking place.

On this recording “Philomel” is beautifully performed by soprano Juliet Fraser.  Her voice is very expressive, with great tone and incredible control. She is not simply singing to a recording but is actively interacting with a four-channel ensemble. Fraser is able to make this performance feel as if she is driving this ensemble while bringing this piece to life. Juliet Fraser is an accomplished performer of early music and new music. She has performed with many ensembles and has recorded for Hat Hut, Neos, Kairos and many other labels. Fraser is also one of the principles of All that dust.

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ATD5 is “La Fabbrica Illuminata” it is a powerful work for voice(mezzo-soprano) and four-channel tape from 1964 by Luigi Nono. This binaural recording captures a fantastic performance by mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg. Lixenberg is an accomplished voice in contemporary and experimental music giving more than a thousand performances around the globe. Her voice has a beautiful tone that is rich with both power and subtlety. Lixenberg has performed with many of the world’s leading ensembles including the Ensemble InterContemporain, BBC Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and the Tokyo Philharmonic.

“La Fabbrica Illuminata” came out of Nono’s work on a large-scale musical theater project depicting the conditions of factory workers. It utilizes texts by Guilaino Scabia and a fragment of Cesare Pavese’s poem “Due poesie a T.”  The mezzo-soprano voice sings a commentary on situations that are represented by the tape as it illuminates the conditions of factory work. The tape’s sound scenes are meant to represent the injustice and unfairness of capitalism to the working classes. While this description may make it sound like this piece is just some 60’s agitprop, it is not. It is much more than that. “La Fabbrica Illuminata” is a highly original piece that surrounds the listener with sonic scenes that can be dramatic, poignant and hopeful.  Even if you do not understand the language of the voices or appreciate the sentiment of the texts, the drama and intensity of the piece is clear.

“La Fabbrica Illuminata” is structured in three sections. The first section slowly builds from fragments and chants with the soloist appearing and disappearing while singing fragments of the texts. The section slowly builds up to an industrial crescendo. The second section is more reflective, often mysterious or dream like. The live voice sings while surrounded primarily by electronically processed voices occasionally punctuated by echoes of the illuminated factory. In the final section the tape is silent and the solo voice sings and intones verses taken from Pavese’s poem. Leaving us with a little bit of hope for the future as she sings “ … it will not be so  always  you will find something “.

In “La Fabbrica Illuminata” the listener is surrounded by sonic scenes that move into and out of one another. At times it can be dramatic or mysterious or even surreal. The four-channel tape makes use of electronic sounds, concrete sounds of factory noises as well as voices that go through multiple transformations.  Sounds move around the space to create distance and depth. As sound masses move into and out of one another it is as if we hearing sonic thoughts enter, unfold, transform and dissipate as another group appears. Nono wanted the listener to feel as if they were inside the sounds and to confuse them so that they are unsure of where the sounds are coming from. The experience of listening to this binaural recording on headphones achieves that. There is a wide dynamic range on this recording so don’t crank the volume up to much the first time you listen to it.

Binaural recordings are a unique way to present multi-channel works. In this time where so much music is listened to in the personal space of ear buds, binaural recordings provide the listener with a unique 3-D listening experience. For those of you that are afraid of Babbitt’s reputation as a serial composer of extreme mathematically based music, or Nono’s much maligned reputation as a composer of leftist agitprop, check your assumptions at the door and put on your ear buds and enjoy two of the twentieth century’s most spectacular sonic dramas.

Highly recommended!

Chris De Chiara

 

AMN Reviews: Daniel Barbiero, Ken Moore, Dave Vosh – “transparent points on four axes”[pyr260]

Transparent-Points-on-Four-Axes-cover-768x768“transparent points on four axes” is a studio collaboration by Daniel Barbiero on double bass, sylosynth app and microbrute synthesizer. (Yes, AMN Readers this is the same Daniel Barbiero that frequently posts reviews here on AMN.) Ken Moore on STEIM Crackle Box, minimoog, emax sampler and various percussion. Dave Vosh on analogue modular synthesizer. It is a very interesting album that is bound to be the best free download you will get all year. It has been released on pan y rosas discos. A netlabel out of Chicago that focuses on experimental, noise, improvisation and weirdo rock.  It has a catalog of 260 releases all of which are free downloads.

The eight pieces on “transparent points on four axes” each began as a single layer of either a composed or improvised track to form a ground layer from which each of the participants then added additional layers. The use of this ground layer provides an underlying sense of direction as each piece’s dialog develops and unfolds. The pieces have a great deal of sonic and textural variety and the album is very well recorded and mixed. There are pieces that are driven by exceptional bass playing with lyrical use of bowed harmonics and the extreme upper register of the bass. Other pieces seem to be driven by more sensitive and nuanced percussion. The analog synth work is really interesting because it can at times give the pieces that retro analog early electronic music vibe, however I think that it really works on this album because it completely avoids the repetitive sequencer driven drivel that is currently being produced by so many contemporary musicians using analog and modular synths.

“transparent points on four axes” is a really interesting listen of solid contemporary experimental  music and it is free. So grab it and enjoy it!  And maybe poke around the rest of the releases on pan y rosas discos and explore some new sounds.

Highly recommended!

Chris De Chiara

 

AMN Reviews: Mari Kimura – “Voyage Apollonian” [Innova 958]

kimura-coverComposer/performer Mari Kimura is a violinist that has earned international acclaim in both standard and contemporary repertoire. She is one of contemporary musics finest interactive computer music specialists and has premiered many new interactive works from composers such as Jean Claude Risset and Robert Rowe. Her latest effort “Voyage Apollonian” is a compilation of her recent work featuring six original compositions and arrangements of pieces by Brazilian composers Egberto Gismonti, Joao Bosco and Hermeto Pascoal.

Kimura’s current work makes use of her many years of research and collaboration with leading institutions such as IRCAM, into the use of new technology for interactive computer music and technological extension or augmentation of the violin. Working with IRCAM and Liubo Borissov, Kimura has developed a glove that uses various motion sensors to transmit the motion of the bow into the computer via WiFi. The motion sensing technology is able to detect gestures such as pizzicato and various types of bowing. This motion or gestural control is then used to interact with custom software. Kimura uses this ability to communicate to the computer her expressive intentions in real time. This allows her to control the real time signal processing of her violin as well as the ability to use gestures as cues or triggers that interact with the computers software.

The title track “Voyage Apollonian” has kind of an impressionistic or spectral feel to it as it alternates between various pizzicato and bowed phrases in a kind of call and response. This alternation develops as a kind of interplay between phrases and their articulations. By using the gestural control of the glove/bow, Kimura is able to choose in real time which software signal processing techniques – doubling, reverb, echo, harmonization, etc. she wishes to apply to the phrase she is playing as she is playing it. But this gestural interaction is not just limited to signal processing. On her arrangement of Hermeto Pascoal’s  “Bebe” Kimura uses the sensor technology to cue the virtual pianist as it plays a vamp for her to solo on. This allows her to dynamically control the length of the accompaniment for her improvised solo.

In addition to her inventive use of technology, Kimura’s compositions also bring her own unique twists to familiar forms. For example in “Bruer Vivant” Kimura paints a passacaglia with bits of “Romanticism” mixed with dazzling contemporary electronics. “Canon Elastique” is a two voice canon where the glove/bow gestural control is used to modify material she has played after it has been delayed by software forming a second canonic voice. However the result is not a simple echo or a minimalist texture. The technology allows Kimura to change her musical past in real time by the way in which she articulates the first voice.

Mari Kimura’s sonic explorations are not just limited to using technology with the violin but extends to discovering and perfecting new acoustic techniques. She has developed an innovative extended bowing technique that is able to produce subharmonic pitches that sound up to an octave below the violins lowest string without re-tuning the instrument. While she uses this technique throughout the works on this disc it is prominently featured on the only unaccompanied acoustic piece on this CD “JanMaricana”.

“Voyage Apollonian” covers a great deal of territory; from Brazilian sambas and jazz to unaccompanied violin with subharmonics to new musical interfaces with interactive computer technology. Despite the use of cutting edge technology and new innovative acoustic techniques the music on this disc does not sound very “technical”. The use of technology is at the service of the performer and has been carefully designed to be flexible and expressive. In Kimura’s hands the results are a highly expressive music that is warm and organic, rich in color and nuance. Highly recommended.

Chris DeChiara

AMN Reviews: Todd Dockstader – From the Archives [ Starkland ST226 ]

Dockstader_Booklet_ Printer Spreads.inddThe world was reintroduced to outsider electronic music composer Todd Dockstader in the 1990’s when Starkland reissued most of his work from the early 1960’s on two CD’s. The Starkland discs were met with widespread critical acclaim. Stunned by this newfound interest and acclaim for his work Dockstader returned to composing. In 2002 Recommended Records reissued additional work from the 1960’s on CD. Dockstader then teamed up with David Lee Meyers (AKA Arcane Device and Pulsewidth) releasing two CD’s on Recommended Records in 2004 and 2005. During 2005 -2006 Sub Rosa released a three CD set from Dockstader entitled “Aerial”. Many believed that this was to be his final work. Todd Dockstader passed away peacefully on February 27, 2015 surrounded by his friends and family while listening to his own music.

“From the Archives” is a posthumous release of new work by electronic music composer Todd Dockstader. When Dockstader passed away in 2015 he left behind a computer full of new work totaling more than one hundred fifty hours. Daughter Tina Dockstader Kinard enlisted enthusiast Justin Brierly to go through the material and select fifty pieces to send to Thomas Steenland at Starkland. Steenland selected fifteen pieces for this outstanding new release.

The compositions on “From the Archive” were composed during 2005 – 2008. They demonstrate Dockstaders growing comfort with the computer and his original imaginative style firmly finding its way into the digital sphere. The pieces cover a wide range of sonic texture and are generally less ethereal and atmospheric then “Aerial” which was Dockstader’s last release during his lifetime. What set Dockstader’s compositions apart from many of his contemporaries is that his work is focused on highly imaginative constructions of organized sound as opposed to the use of sampled sound collage or synthetic extensions of the traditional composition world of “do re me” that continues to dominate electronic music. Dockstader’s compositions had a kind of cinematic drama in their construction and this continues to be the case with the pieces on this new volume – “From the Archive”. In this new work we are treated to a subterranean prelude of ringing filters in “Basement Passage”. The sounds of a choir of ghosts singing and wailing in whispered tones on “Whispered Smooth”. Contrasting cinematic edits between real and imagined sounds in “Todt 1”. “Anat Loop” is a subtle construction of glitch and loops. Then there is the noisy, rhythmic, almost industrial sonic assault of “Big Jig” and so much more.

Todd Dockstader’s “From the Archives” is one of the best releases of 2016. It provides us with an hour of new music from one of the masters of sound art. “From the Archives” will make long time Dockstader listeners extremely happy and will hopefully bring his incredible work to many new listeners. Thanks to the efforts of Tina Dockstader Kinard, Justin Brierley and Thomas Steenland we have the chance to hear this new work and to enjoy it for many years to come.

Highly recommended!

For more information – http://www.starkland.com/st226/index.htm

Chris De Chiara