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The Siriusness of here and beyond

The Sound Barrier : Blog

Tonight's blog tells you about some of the themes and musical structure of SIRIUS. The playlist and audio are also available for you to listen back to the music or check out the details of the recordings.

Understanding exactly what Karlheinz Stockhausen meant when he said he came from the star Sirius is more complicated than it might initially seem. For Stockhausen, the spiritual, the spatial, the cosmic, the musical, were all part of the same thing and Sirius was just one of many centres of them all. It reflected just one core of everything he believed in and felt himself to be connected to. He once remarked that this was different for everyone – for some people, their sense of location is within the solar system at which our sun is the centre, while others see beyond our solar system to a bigger system of stars and then, beyond that, others see even this universe as part of a multiplicity of universes that totally transcend our conventional understandings of space and time.

Stockhausen believed in this multiplicity of universes, too, and so that was also a part of where he saw himself as being located, and what he saw his music as being about. So the connection to Sirius was only one of many that mattered to him – as important and real to him as the multiple universes, and as the fact that he had grown up in a small village near Cologne.

So when he composed SIRIUS for electronic music, trumpet, soprano, bass clarinet, and bass in 1975-1977, it was ultimately just one layer of this composer's incredibly rich and multifarious connection with the universality of his spiritual, musical, and cosmic life that he was tapping into and sharing with us. It was not an expression of a delusional mind, but of an open mind, and openness that he believed was only possible when we detach ourselves from too rigid, too unshifting, a grounding in the world of the here and now.

The claustrophobic nature of that here and now is something he portrayed in the opening scene of his opera DONNERSTAG aus LICHT (THURSDAY from LIGHT), set in a brutal, suffocating, oppressed family life of hardship, cruelty, and mental illness: a story told from his own childhood but meant, in the opera, to be every bit as much as universal as the star of Sirius to which its hero, Michael, returns in the final Act, or as the expansive superuniverses that he depicts in the last pieces from his cycle KLANG, composed during the final year of his life.

The claustrophobia of life on this prison planet, as Stockhausen once described Earth; the blinding brightness of Sirius; the unimaginable vastness of superuniverses: all of it was part of the universal human experience, which we can choose to be open to or not. And to help that openness Stockhausen found ways to bring them all to us through his music.

So what does SIRIUS tell us of all this specifically? Part of the answer to that lies in the music from which SIRIUS grows: the tunes of TIERKREIS (ZODIAC), a set of twelve pieces for specially-constructed music boxes, which Stockhausen composed in 1975 to be included in his work MUSIK IM BAUCH (MUSIC IN THE BELLY).

These twelve pieces are serially composed. Each has its own tempo, each starts on a different note of the 12-tone scale, uses each of those twelve notes, and then each has its own character – reflecting the personalities of the constellations that Stockhausen had observed in the people he knew.

All of these tunes are used in SIRIUS, but four of them dominate. These the lead star-signs for each of the four seasons, which are themselves represented by the four soloists: Aries, leading spring and represented by the trumpet; Cancer, leading summer and represented by the soprano; Libra, with autumn and the bass clarinet; and Capricorn with winter and the bass.

These are only some of the connections Stockhausen draws between these four soloists however, and the constellations, seasons, cardinal points, genders, times of the day, stages of growth, and elements they stand for are all part of their voices and stories too. The personalities of the remaining eight constellations, and their tunes, are included in the music as well, within these lead tunes, and polyphonically entwined with them, within the seasons to which they belong.

The seasons themselves overlap and the whole piece, through the four soloists and the three layers of electronic music played by the Synthi-100 (a huge and very rare synthesiser, just new at the time, but still incredibly innovative in what it is able to do, and still fascinating to anyone who is able to locate one) forms a complex seven-part polyphony.

These layers of sounds, all derived from and connected to the TIERKREIS tunes, are shaped principally by the four lead melodies of ARIES, CANCER, LIBRA, and CAPRICORN. These 'head tunes' work as formulas – the approach to composition that Stockhausen had been using since he composed MANTRA for two pianos with ring-modulation a few years before – where the various proportions of the tunes shape the music overall, expanded, contracted, or even, in the case of SIRIUS, sometimes intermodulated with one another, such as where the melody of one is transformed by the rhythm of another through the technologies of the Synthi-100.

The piece tells us, then, something of what Stockhausen felt these stars, which he believed rotated around Sirius, to be all about: reimaginings of the bigger side of ourselves and the space we occupy. In SIRIUS the stars and constellations play with each other, clash, and connect, their positions always shifting and overlapping. Their interactions reflect the personalities of their constellations, which don't follow each other in the easy cycle of the months of the year, but much more in the sometimes unpredictable, untimely, passage of the seasons. They appear where they are not expected, even where they are not wanted, and the music that emerges as a result is always casting new light on what each of them is about.

Just like the endless cycle of the days in LICHT, the cycle of these seasons is endless too and, like the days, has neither beginning nor end. There are four versions of SIRIUS – one that allows any of the four seasons to begin the major central section of the work (which Stockhausen call 'The Wheel') according to which season the piece is being performed in. It is shiftable and the imagery of the Wheel reminds us that it keeps returning to where it has begun.

The Wheel section is preceded by the VORSTELLUNG (The PRESENTATION), where the Sirius mother ship arrives and its four interstellar visitors emerge and introduce themselves and what they represent. Their aim is to renew us, to ignite in us the joys of the senses, to remind us of the diversity of the soul, to preserve our undying hope, to kindle our longing for the light of our home in the stars, as Stockhausen's libretto tells us.

As the four seasons of the Wheel follow their woven paths, this message of optimism and playfulness, and the sometimes naïve humour with which these four cosmic visitors reach down to us is perhaps in part a reflection of the innocence and lack of sophistication they see in us. But in the music, it is far from naïve and this is part of the brilliance of the piece, as it so often is with Stockhausen and especially in his theatre and operatic pieces, where libretti and stage actions are always just a way of manifesting something more profound and complex, making tangible the elevated language if the music. It is a work that you will ideally hear many times, because it's in that astonishing seven-art harmony that the real story of SIRIUS is told.

After the Wheel a 'Bridge' is performed, a different one depending on which of the four orderings of the Wheel has been used. The Bridge returns us to the beginning of the opening season and then transitions into the VERKÜNDIGUNG (ANNUNCIATION) where the bass sings a passage, quoting Christian mystic Jakob Lorber, about the central place of Sirius and the incarnation of the divine on Earth.

Then they leave, and leave us to ponder what we have heard.

The timbres Stockhausen uses on the Synthi-100 are distinctive and, while they arguably belong very noticeably to an aesthetic of the time in which the piece was written, there is a unique and alien sound about them too: notes that sound like they are punching the stars themselves out of the night sky. Again the universal is linked with a futuristic vision of that emerges from the now, and from the cosmic.

SIRIUS is not about a whacky belief in coming from another star. It is about explaining, and allowing us to share in, a connection that we all have with the things beyond what we know, if we are just open enough to notice them. The musicality of Sirius, said Stockhausen, was not an alien thing. It 'related to the natural, organic events on this planet: to the elements – the four elements –, to the movements that we can experience in nature, to the rhythms and to the harmonic principles that one should intensely study – the ecology of this planet and human bodies, the rhythms of the organs of the human bodies, etc.' For Stockhausen, always, the universal and the earthly, the cosmic and the spiritual, were all part of each other. When he said he came from SIRIUS, it was just a different part of coming from here, or from distant universes that were all part of the one cosmos.

The recording I played on the show is the original recording from 1977, the Summer version of the work, starting the Wheel at CANCER, along with the four music-box versions of the four lead zodiac tunes. Both recordings, as well as the scores of all the TIERKREIS and of SIRIUS itself are available from the Stockhausen Foundation for Music.

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