In February and March of 1968, Karlheinz Stockhausen sheltered with his family in a snow-bound house facing the Long Island Sound in Madison, CT. According to a letter written some fifteen years later, Stockhausen recalls his two young children requiring quiet around the house, and so, faced with the demands of avoiding noise-making during the day, he took up the practice of humming to himself, listening to overtones. Out of this imposed quiet in a wintered-in space Stimmung was born. Looking out over the icy view, Stockhausen wrote Stimmung while thinking about a recent trip to a much more temperate climate, a month-long ramble amidst Mexican ruins.
A meditation on the overtone series for six vocalists and six microphones, Stimmung relies on a loose network of texts: erotic love poems that Stockhausen wrote for his wife, a series of “magic names” which reference a broad spectrum of global mythologies, and days of the week, all liberally interspersed with individual syllables and phonemes. “Stimmung” literally means tuning, but as Paul Hillier, founder and director of the Theatre of Voices, points out in his program notes for the piece, the word has the wider context of “tuning one’s soul.” Throughout the piece, melodies based on the pitches of the overtone series of B-flat undergo kaleidoscopic shifts of texture and timbre, articulated via an array of texts ranging from the spiritual to the physical.
On Saturday, February 21, 2015 the Theatre of Voices gave a rare performance of Stimmung at Zankel Hall. Though a concert work, Stimmung has strong theatrical elements. In this performance the singers entered slowly one-by-one, with ceremonial pauses, eventually coming to sit on cushions arranged in a ring around a table lit by a large globe. Behind the vocalists the lighting designer cast a vibrant orange circle fringed with radiating red and blue rays. A tremulous field of pitches sustains the piece’s texture, with the “magic word” utterances acting often as exclamatory, expository moments. Aside from the beauty and sensuousness of the vocal techniques, the piece centers on the intricate communication between the singers. Stimmung uses 51 “form schemes,” which determine who leads a section, which performers sing, and fundamental pitches, and the performers match these 51 form schemes to 51 “models,” which introduce new overtone melodies. Because the singers must frequently pass cues, there’s a sense of sounds passing ritualistically around the circle, a kind of solemn yet enthusiastic circulation of syllables and patterns. This heightened communication coupled with frequently unintelligible phonemes or text fragments give the piece an interesting tension, a simultaneous sense of both comprehension and incomprehension. Gods and magic words are invoked, but so is nonsense.
Throughout the 70 minute work, I was struck by the spectrum of vocal techniques that the performers handled with such virtuosity: keening, whistling, laughing, sliding, chattering, yelling, and speaking all combined in complex, tremulous textures. Reich called this Stockhausen’s “La Monte Young” piece, which seems apt enough; I found myself listening in a meditative trance after a while, the varied details subsumed in an otherworldly wall of sound.