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This is the version recorded in Paris, and not the “Singcircle” version, when I don’t know what version of a classic minimalist piece is, I just go for the first recording available. This is mindblowing, btw. -Ian!

Many people wouldn’t find this very promising. Six singers sit in a circle and for more than an hour chant the notes of a single chord. To be more precise, they chant a B flat ninth chord, which at least is more tangy than simple B flat. But still — more than an hour with only one chord.

There’s yet another dimension, though, that takes this music into the realm of science or metaphysics. The singers aren’t really singing a chord. Instead, they’re intoning a low B flat and six of its overtones, overtones being . . . well, how can I explain this? Sing or play any note, and nature generates other notes above or around or inside it. These are the overtones. They’re always present, but not always tangibly audible — except that the music I’m talking about makes them audible, bringing them front and center. (They generate the ninth chord.)

But now I fear I’ve made this music sound more abstract than it really is. The piece I’m talking about is “Stimmung,” a 1968 composition by the lost star of the classical-music avant-garde, Karlheinz Stockhausen. I call him the lost star because in the ’50s and ’60s he and Pierre Boulez jointly ruled European avant-garde composing. Up through the ’70s, the prestigious classical record label Deutsche Grammophon recorded every note he wrote.

But then Boulez ascended into something like classical-music sainthood, and Mr. Stockhausen more or less disappeared. He wrote a piece that was to be conducted telepathically, and another that he said was given to him by beings from another planet. Later on he launched a series of seven large operas, which proved too gigantic a project for the classical-music world to swallow. Finally he took the recordings of his music back from Deutsche Grammophon and made them available (at exalted prices) only through his Web site, which isn’t even set up for online sales. You have to mail a check to him in Germany.

Thus he made himself obscure. But his music still can be performed, and a new “Stimmung” recording by Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices, just released on the Harmonia Mundi label, made me celebrate the man and wish that at age 79 he could have a comeback. This is actually the third recording of the piece; Mr. Stockhausen himself produced the first in 1970, and there was another in 1986 by a group called Singcircle, which shows the music has some life. Stimmung can mean “tuning,” “mood,” or “atmosphere,” and it is closely tied to stimme, the German word for voice.


Hazel Dooney’s short arty film using Stimmung as a score.

I’m sure not everyone would love the piece, but it rested, charmed and fascinated me. Sometimes the sound seems absolutely still. But then something happens, and the music gets active. New things happen all the time; that’s one reason I found myself listening with such great happiness. Sometimes the new things are really zany, like a voice singing nonsense sounds over and over, faster and faster, higher and higher, till it’s just a squeak.

Which means that there’s more than just the B flat ninth chord. Rather crazily, Mr. Stockhausen asks the singers to intone the “magic names” (his words) of various gods (“Ahura-mazda!” “Vishnu!”), or sometimes the names of the days of the week. Sometimes they intone Mr. Stockhausen’s own erotic poetry, mostly in German. And the overtones do more than just produce the B flat ninth. Each time they sing any note at all, the singers have to produce specific overtones, which they do by changing the shape of their mouths. This sounds as if they’re singing many vowels — a, e, i, o, u, but with oddball nasal resonance.

All this isn’t as nutty as it sounds. These instructions generate the new things that keep on happening, which in fact the singers choose completely on their own. All Mr. Stockhausen provides are possibilities, and an overall scheme in which he divides the music into 51 sections and tells the singers which of them sing in each, and which one takes the lead. So each performance has a lot of spontaneity.

The best of the three recordings, I think, is the Stockhausen original, where the singers sound most relaxed, and most at ease with the overtones, which with quiet rainbow resonance hover all around the notes they sing. But the newest version also drew me in. (I’d avoid the 1986 performance, which sounds too peppy, and not spiritual enough.)

What can you do with this music? You might, quite seriously, try lowering the lights and even burning incense while you listen. “Stimmung” works for meditation. But you could also listen more objectively, perhaps with headphones, with the same delight and concentration that you’d bring to an absorbing book. As the music peacefully unfolds, you’ll never guess what’s coming next. But I think you’ll always be satisfied.

-Greg Sandow, Wall Street Journal

DOWNLOAD:
Karlheinz Stockhausen-STIMMUNG (1968)
320kbps

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5 Comments

  1. wow…i convinced myself i didn't like stockhausen after hearing "klavierstucke," but this piece is wonderful.

  2. Hi, I just wanted to note that something "funny" happens at model 6… is there anything to be done about it?

  3. FIXED! I upped a one file rip of the Stimmung performance!

  4. Is there any way to reup this?I love this blog!James

  5. Re-upped!


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