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Let there be LICHT!

The Sound Barrier : Blog

This week on The Sound Barrier I had the huge privilege of bringing to you an entire show devoted to what is surely one of the greatest achievements in musical, and artistic, history: the mammoth seven-part opera cycle, LICHT ('Light'), by Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007).

Kathinka Pasveer, Stockhausen's close partner and collaborator, who now manages the Stockhausen Foundation, gave me her kind permission to broadcast the selections from LICHT, recordings of which are available exclusively from the Foundation through their online CD store.

LICHT occupied Stockhausen obsessively and almost solely for 26 years. The concept came to him in 1977, when he was commissioned to write a piece by the National Theatre in Tokyo. That piece, called JAHRESLAUF ('Course of the Years') dealt with the notion of the passage of time, and the attempts of creative influences to move time forward, while destructive influences attempt to halt it. These ideas ultimately came to be explored on a cosmic scale in LICHT, where each of its seven operas is named after a day of the week. A revised version of JAHRESLAUF forms the first Act of the Tuesday opera (DIENSTAG). He completed LICHT with SONNTAG in 2003.

LICHT comprises about 29 hours of music. Stockhausen wrote its music, its text and devised all of its stage directions. It has not yet been performed in full, and even its individual components had not all been performed until MITTWOCH was premiered in Birmingham in 2012,. The individual Acts and scenes can all be performed as separate pieces, as can even some of their constituent sections. The instrumental resources required to perform it vary considerably from one opera to the next, sometimes even within the one opera.

LICHT does not have a story in the traditional sense. It does not have a particular beginning or end, nor even any prescribed order for performing its seven parts. Sometimes individual operas, or individual scenes or acts within the operas, might have a story of sorts – but often they are more like rituals than stories.

The cycle is, in essence, based around three archetypal characters – MICHAEL, the symbol of creativity and growth; EVE, the Earth Mother and symbol of birth and femininity; and LUZIFER, the symbol of antagonism and destruction. Each opera is centred around either one character, or some permutation of their relationships.

The philosophical ideas behind the work – essentially about the conflict between creation and destruction, and the supreme role of music in the universe – are derived from a number of sources, principally The Urantia Book, a religious-philosophical text written in America in the first half of the 20th century, and Hermann Hesse's novel, The Glass Bead Game (1931-1943). It is also to some extent influenced by Goethe's Theory of Colours (1810). Colour has enormous significance throughout LICHT, with every character and day having its own colour.

Each of the three characters is represented by a singer and an instrument, and sometimes also by a dancer. The instruments and voices for each are:

  • MICHAEL: tenor and trumpet
  • EVE: soprano and basset-horn (and flute)
  • LUZIFER: bass and trombone

Musically, the work is built entirely out of three basic musical formulas, one representing each of the three core characters. Each formula has twelve notes (the twelve notes of the Western musical scale), except that one of LUZIFER's notes is given to MICHAEL, meaning that the LUZIFER formula has 11 notes, the MICHAEL formula has 13, and the EVE formula 12. If these three formulas are written out, one above the other, they can then be divided into three 'limbs' of twelve notes each, which can also be read vertically, also each including each of the twelve notes of the Western scale: a little like a musical Sudoku. These three vertical limbs can then be further subdivided into smaller limbs, making a total of seven limbs – thereby creating seven formulas, one for each day.

These formulas are then further elaborated, and assigned rhythmic and other musical devices, including ornamentation, additional non-musical sounds, dynamics, etc, all of which are ordered and structured according to formulaic systems. This ultimately results in a 'superformula', upon which the whole cycle is ultimately based.

The superformula shapes the work in many ways. Entire scenes and Acts are based on portions or limbs of the superformula, spread out as droning pedals throughout, while faster versions, or different permutations, are then played out above.

Each of the seven operas begins with a 'greeting' and ends with a 'farewell': typically huge ambient works that capture the essence of the opera people are about to see, or have just seen. Most are performed in the foyer as the audience comes or goes, although some of them are performed in the theatre, sometimes with their own stageplay.

The operas also reflect Stockhausen's ongoing interest in spatialisation of music. Many of the scenes incorporate multi-track taped music played in surround sound (usually octophonic) in the auditorium. This calls for incredibly precise timing, as the live performers synchronise with the taped music. The exploration of spatialisation reaches its heights in the final scene of SONNTAG, which is performed in one hall by an orchestra and in a neighbouring hall by a choir, with the sounds of each being fed into the other at different points in the performance. The orchestra and choir then swap halls and repeat their performances, so the audiences are able to experience the work from both perspectives. Stockhausen originally planned to take the spatialisation even further with a separate scene, to be called LUZIFERIUM, to be performed simultaneously with SONNTAG in a completely different venue, where his character Luzifer is confined to prison: banished, but still listening.

Despite the cosmic themes of creation and destruction that permeate it, LICHT has plenty of lighter (!) moments too: such as in the WELT-PARLIAMENT scene of MITTWOCH, where a janitor interrupts a sitting of the World Parliament with the news that President's car is about to be towed away, or the scene in SAMSTAG where the orchestra stops playing, before the piece has ended, and decide to go on strike – a light-hearted reference to an event that had happened at the world premiere of DONNERSTAG in 1981, where the third act could not be performed because the chorus had gone on strike, complaining that they should be paid as soloists for performing music as complex as this.

LICHT – not just in its duration, but in the enormity of its concept – is undoubtedly one of the largest works of Western music. It brings together not only all of the arts into a synthesised musical whole, but also encapsulates so much of Stockhausen's own musical personality and even of the broader history of music, where the austerity of early music, the complex polyphonies of baroque and classical music, the emotional force of romantic music, and the experimentalism and formalism of 20th century music, all come together.

Throughout the show, I played selections from each opera to give you some sense of the range of music encompassed by LICHT. Briefly, these were:

DONNERSTAG (1978-80):
MICHAELs-GRUSS I: This is the first part of the greeting for Thursday. It is played by brass ensemble in the foyer, while the audience arrives and, in this section, you hear the MICHAEL formula blazing out, slowly, grandly. DONNERSTAG is Michael's Day

FREITAG (1991-1994):
2nd Act (excerpt, including KINDER-KRIEG): Friday is the day of Eve's temptation by Luzifer. The opera is characterised by its multiple layers of sounds: the taped electronic music that plays throughout the opera, with other 'sound scenes' and 'real scenes' imposed upon it. I played here some of the sound scenes, where sexualised objects and couples that appeared in the first act, switch partners in the second. In this scene a racing car unites with a typewriter, and a photocopying machine with a racing car driver. A children's war follows. The music the kids get to sing here is unlike what you might expect from a children's choir in an opera – wild yelping and sliding between notes, punctuated by Stockhausen's characteristic non-voiced sounds.

SAMSTAG (1981-1983):
LUZIFERs ABSCHIED (beginning): This, from the Farewell for Saturday is a kind of exorcism, enacted in a church near the theatre at the end of the opera. Saturday is Luzifer's Day. The Farewell involves 39 monks chanting over the drone of an electronic organ.

SONNTAG (2001-2003):
5th Scene: HOCH-ZEITEN für Orchester (final moments): in this scene, the fifth for Sunday, the performance takes place in two halls, side by side. In one is an orchestra in five sections, and in the other is a choir, also in five sections. The sounds from one hall is fed into the other at different stages throughout the scene, which is then repeated, with the performers all swapping halls, so the audience gets to hear it from both perspectives. We heard the end of the orchestra version. Sunday is the day of the union of Michael and Eve.

MONTAG (1984-1988):
Act 1: Erste GEBURTS-ARIE: Monday is Eve's day, where she is represented by a huge statue of a woman on stage who gives birth to multiple children. Their birth is repulsed by Luzifer. This excerpt is the first birth aria, sung by the three sopranos who musically represent Eve, during the first of two births.

DIENSTAG (1997/1987-1991):
Act 2: SYNTHI-FOU and FAREWELL: Tuesday is the day of war between Michael and Luzifer and here, in its final scene and farewell a kind of ecstatic transformation takes place when a bizarre musician, wearing strange colours, and a long nose and fingers, swings in, amidst a phalanx of electronic keyboards, on which he bashes away while the choir sing in a huge apotheosis, seeming to proclaim the victory of music over war.

MITTWOCH (1995-1997):
Scene 1: WELT-PARLIAMENT (beginning): Wednesday is the day of collaboration and in this, its first scene, a world parliament meets in the clouds and debates the meaning of love.

Scene 3: HELIKOPTER-STREICHQUARTETT: Perhaps the most famous scene from LICHT, this involves each of the four players of a string quartet entering into a helicopter, all of which then circle above the theatre for about half an hour, while the players play in furious tremolos, echoing the rhythms and timbres of the helicopters' rotor blades. So, in a sense, it is really an octet – two violins, viola, cello and four helicopters. The music requires enormous precision from the players as the notes of the formulas are constantly being thrown arpound from one player to the next who, of course, are unable to hear one another so instead must rely on a click track, being transmitted to them by headphones, to keep their precise spot in the score. Their playing is then transmitted back to the audience in the hall via television and audio.

As always, you can listen back to all of this edition of The Sound Barrier, here on the show's website as well as check out the full details of each of the recordings I used, all of which can be purchased exclusively from the Stockhausen Foundation's online CD store.

You can also access an excellent online blog about Stockhausen's music, where you can read more about the musical forces of LICHT as well as about Stockhausen's use of the super-formula.

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