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The course of the years, and the kaleidoscope of the apocalypse. New Year's Eve with Stockhausen and The Sound Barrier!

The Sound Barrier : Blog

As always, the playlist and audio for this edition of The Sound Barrier is available for you to check out the details of the recordings and listen back to the music. The audio will be available for six months after the time of broadcast.

New Year is a peculiar time. For many people, maybe even for most, it represents a strange mix of hope and disappointment, with all its revelry leading to hangovers, its resolutions leading to failures to keep them. It happens year after year, and yet so many people, maybe even most, do the same thing, over and over, somehow imagining that somehow this time there will be a different outcome. Allegedly (although probably not actually) Einstein's definition of insanity.

Insane though it may be, it keeps happening. It is the course of the years. And just as the music of last week's edition of The Sound Barrier taught us that time passes in its own way, at its own pace, the music of this week teaches us that its course is an inevitable one, and it happens everywhere.

Karlheinz Stockhausen's theatre piece DER JAHRESLAUF (THE COURSE OF THE YEARS) was composed in Japan in 1977. It marked the beginning of Stockhausen's conception of what was to eventually become his massive opera cycle LICHT (LIGHT): seven operas, one representing each day of the week; and a slightly elaborated version of DER JAHRESLAUF appears as the first Act of DIENSTAG (TUESDAY), the cycle's day of war and conflict.

DER JAHRESLAUF tells of the progress of the years where, both on stage and in the music itself, things move in different time layers, representing the passage of the millennia, the centuries, the decades, and the years. On stage it is through dancer-mimes who move at different speeds, back and forth, along four huge numbers that are marked out on stage, indicating the year of the performance. In the music it is through the different paces of the sounds composed for each of four small ensembles, one representing the passing of millennia, one the passing of centuries, one that of decades, and one of years.

Throughout the piece, four 'temptations' bring time to a standstill. The first is an offer of flowers to each of the mimes marking the progress of time. The second is food. The third is the distraction of a honking motor-cycle, and the fourth that of blues music with a strip-tease act. Each time, the music stops, the action on stage stops. But each time an 'incitement' urges time to progress again. At the first it is a little girl who asks the audience the applaud to restart the action and the music. The second is a lion's roar that startles the players into action again. The third is an offer of money to the winner of the course of time, and the fourth a crashing thunderstorm that, like the lion's roar, startles everyone again to action, playing more loudly than ever to drown out its noise.

In the opera version of the piece, these temptations are instigated by Lucifer, the rebel spirit who despises the compromised world of humanity, and the incitements are the work of Michael, the cosmic creator who loves humans and sees them as the vehicle for progress. But in this original incarnation of the work, this is all anonymous, as if the at powers that seek to stop time, and those that set it in motion again, are part of its fabric, as universal as time itself.

The original version of DER JAHRESLAUF was composed at first for an orchestra of Japanese gagaku instruments, and its world premiere was in this form in Tokyo in 1977. But at the same time Stockhausen also indicated Western instruments as alternatives, and this version was premiered in Paris in 1979. The Western instrument version is the one most often heard, and the only one commercially available on recordings, both as the independent piece, or as the First Act of DIENSTAG (where, incidentally, it is differentiated from the independent piece by having the article "DER" dropped from its title and being referred to simply as "JAHRESLAUF").

The gagaku version was revived in Tokyo in 2014, and this is the version that I brought to you on this special New Year's Eve edition of The Sound Barrier. The instruments it uses for its four ensembles are three sho for the millennia (three harmoniums or synthesisers in the Western instrumental version); shoko and three ryuteki for the centuries (anvil and three piccolos in the Western version); kakko and three hichiriki for the decades (or bongo and three soprano saxophones); and taiko, gakuso, and biwa (or bass drum, electric cembalo or synthesiser, and guitar in the Western instrument version). So in either version, the instrumental combinations are extraordinary and the colours that emerge as they navigate their ways through differently-paced musical time patterns create a unique sense of both change and stasis coming together, of things moving slowly and quickly at once, as microtonal glissandi slide from one point to the next, in the colours and textures that even in the cultures that generate them seem alien, unprecedented, always new.

This very unique performance of DER JAHRESLAUF with gagaku instruments filled the first half of this week's show and, while it marked the course of time, the second half marked its end with a work that is also rarely heard, particularly as an independent piece. Again it was, as might be expected, by Stockhausen.

UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE (INVISIBLE CHOIRS) is perhaps the most elaborate and magnificent piece of background music ever composed. It was created to be played back in octophonic sound, around the audience, during the first and third Acts of DONNERSTAG (THURSDAY), the first of the seven LICHT operas to be composed. In the first Act that playback is quite soft and, although this is much louder in the third Act, even there the audience will miss much of it, with the rest of the music that comes from the live orchestra, choir, and soloists tending to dominate their attention.

But thankfully Stockhausen also created the piece to be listened to on its own, and composed a few small additional passages to be included in that version.

As an independent work, UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE should be played in a darkened room with a starry firmament projected onto the ceiling and walls. It is an apt way to listen to this music that really could be the songs of stars and galaxies, enormous in their scale and brilliance, their intricacy and resonance, with up to 180 voices and up to 36-part harmony, surrounding, engulfing the audience.

A work of this magnitude and musical complexity – a complexity that plays out not only in the vocal parts of the choirs, and their many extended vocal techniques, including tongue-clicks, whistles, and whispered counting, but also in the sound projection of 14 layers of music across eight channels – could never be performed live, and so is always recorded first onto tape and then played back. So far, this has been done only once and it is this recording, mixed down to a stereo version for CD, that I brought to you on tonight's show. Even though this stereo mix-down is just a shadow of the octophonic magnificence, it is still an extraordinary, immersive experience and one well worth turning off all the rest of the New Year's noise for.

The texts that Stockhausen used for UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE are mostly in Hebrew, but partly also in German. They are from various non-canonical (and one biblical) texts, lifted from The Ascent of Moses, The Apocalypse of Baruch, and the Bible's Leviticus. They tell of the end of time, but not in the doomsday sense of Armageddon but rather as the beginning of something new and incomprehensible, something timeless and resplendent, emerging out of the shattered horrors of the end.

The music itself brings together the 'formulas', small but creatively dense pieces of genetic musical coding, that represent the three central characters – or archetypal forces as they really are – of LICHT: Michael, Eve, and Lucifer. In UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE those formulas are rarely distinguishable from one another, as if all the diversity and universality that they represent has become entwined, and now reflects back to us, kaleidoscopic.

The music is presented in 35 distinct moments, and you can listen to these each as self-contained, as well as to the overall sense of narrative that they tend to form, as the music seems to move from the darker timbres of its beginning to the brighter ones of its end, where the choirs sing of everything arrayed in joy.

Whatever 2017 has been for you, and whatever you hope 2018 will be, works like both DER JAHRESLAUF and UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE remind us that, against time and the universe, we are pretty small. That's not such a bad thing to keep in mind because it tells us that the window in which we can find ways of making a difference, of progressing, of not doing the same thing over and over and expecting it turn out differently, is tiny and that we need to make something of it. But when we look through that window and see, or even just imagine, what lies beyond it, then even the sky is no longer the limit.

Thank you so much for whatever time you have been able to give to The Sound Barrier throughout 2017. I never know how many people listen, or how many read this blog, but I always feel there is a connection there – whether it be by the comments that are made into the studio from time to time, or via the show's Facebook page, or my own, or through the contacts I have with some of you from time to time throughout the year – and it is always great to know that that connection is being made somewhere, and that the music is being shared.

My thanks, too, to the many musicians and composers who have come into the studios at PBS throughout the year to share their music and ideas with me and with The Sound Barrier audience. It has been marvellous, as it always is, to be able to meet and speak with so many hugely talented and adventurous artists who are keeping new music alive and thriving, both here in Melbourne and beyond.

And special thanks particularly to Kathinka Pasveer and Suzanne Stephens at the Stockhausen Foundation for Music in Kürten, Germany, who not only give me permission to broadcast their recordings of Stockhausen's music, but are so endlessly supportive and generous in answering any questions I have (and I have many) about Stockhausen's music and about the recordings, which are available mostly exclusively from the Foundation's online CD store. Kathinka's and Suzanne's ongoing work in bringing Stockhausen's music to the world is invaluable, and especially so for me when, as I have noted before that music plays such a central and prominent part in understanding and shaping all that I believe is good and vital in new music today.

To every one of you, and more, may the course of the years treat you well, and may the invisible choirs of the cosmos sing their song for you with all the colour and adventure they can muster!

Happy 2018.

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