Icy Voices Hooked on Phonics
Like many of his peers in the avant-garde, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–2007) conceived of his pieces as full-blown conceptual events, in which context and structural ingenuity are often as important as the notes. One of his string quartets requires each of the four musicians to be stationed in a different helicopter. Among his later pieces are long, deliberately obscure operas that are extended meditations on each day of the week.
The beguiling choral work Stimmung, written during the winter of 1968 in a snowbound house on Long Island Sound, isn't quite so outlandish. The concept here is about syllables and their overtones, and what happens to a single indivisible kernel of sound—the repetition of a vowel, say—as it is repeated. Inspired by the technique known as "overtone singing," Stockhausen studied which elements of speech produced particularly striking sounds, and wrote short passages in which a primary tone, usually produced at whisper-like low volume, triggers fantastical clusters and far-flung extensions of the root chord. In some ways, the piece, which is usually performed with the singers in a circle, explores motific development in ways similar to those of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations—except where Beethoven poured forth an endless stream of melodic elaborations, Stockhausen uses chanting and long tones and mouth and throat effects (captured by positioning the microphone extremely close to the singers) to create stunning and majestic sweeps of sound. The textures become the variations.
"Stimmung" means "tuning," and one of the piece's challenges has to do with pitch: Each singer is tasked with sustaining his or her tone as the harmonic scheme changes ever so slightly (or radically) around it. The Copenhagen-based Theater of Voices, led by vocal-ensemble magician Paul Hillier, magnifies the contrasts and collisions, savoring the magnetic pull of adjoining half steps. They render Stockhausen's rippling waves with remarkable clarity, drawing listeners into each isolated fragment of its icy soundscape. Their singing makes the piece accessible, but beware: This can be creepy on headphones.
Released: 2007, Harmonia Mundi
Key Tracks: "Model 1," "Model 4," "Model 27"
Catalog Choice: Gruppen, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln (Peter Eötvös, cond.).
Next Stop: Luciano Berio: Sinfonia for Eight Voices and Orchestra
After That: Nico Muhly: Speaks Volumes
Book Pages: 744–745