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‘Licht’ Unleashes a Helicopter String Quartet
An extremely rare performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s sprawling spectacle — or at least 15 hours of it — is coming to Amsterdam.
By Ben Miller
May 24, 2019
AMSTERDAM — There was a palpable buzz on a recent afternoon in the Gashouder, a big, round former industrial building in a park on the west side of Amsterdam.
A buzz, that is, beyond the four helicopters whose steady drone was being relayed through banks of speakers set up to rehearse a crucial part of “Aus Licht,” a marathon performance of selections from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s eye-poppingly extravagant, never-fully-performed, seven-opera, 29-hour “Licht” cycle. (Divided into three hefty evenings, it runs from May 31 through June 10.)
Four women walked onto a stage inside the building. A moderator explained that they were the Pelargos Quartet, and they were about to perform from inside the helicopters everyone was hearing.
The women walked out a side door. Above the stage, four screens flickered to life. The audience saw worried-looking men wiping raindrops from a passing shower off the helicopters, which were idling a few hundred yards away.
The quartet members took their seats inside the copters, lifted their instruments, and began to play. One by one, each transmitting to her individual screen, they lifted off, playing and chanting, while the industrial ports on the outskirts of Amsterdam flew by beneath them.
If you’ve heard of Stockhausen, it may well be because of this bit of “Licht”: a Dada ballet for fume-belching helicopters and string tremolos that plays on the tension between the careful planning (not to mention financial and carbonous resources) needed to perform it and the pure, gonzo joy inherent in its conception.
Fantastical enough to envision on its own, it is just a tiny part of “Licht” (“Light”), into which Stockhausen poured almost all his musical output between 1977 and 2003. (He died, at 79, in 2007.) “Aus Licht,” a production of the Holland Festival in collaboration with the Dutch National Opera, the Royal Conservatory of The Hague and the Stockhausen Foundation for Music, will present 15 hours of the work across three newly assembled programs. In an interview, Pierre Audi, the director, called it a “helicopter journey” through the piece.
The seven operas of “Licht” — each of which represents a day of the week — present a series of interactions between three main characters and their interlocutors: Michael, the archangel, who represents love; Lucifer, the fallen angel, who represents light; and Eve, who represents life. Elements of Michael’s story echo Stockhausen’s troubled childhood: Michael learns from his father and mother to love music, then watches his father die in combat and his mother be committed to a mental hospital. (Stockhausen’s father died in World War II, and his mother died during the Nazi period in the mental hospital where she had been committed.) Later in the cycle, elements of traditional plot fall further away, and the piece develops a more symbolic, ritualistic aspect.
Each of the three characters is associated with a melody or “formula,” much like a Wagnerian leitmotif. In Stockhausen’s unique high-late-modernist compositional style, these formulas are then expanded, inverted and built upon in an extension of serial technique, so that every pitch, timbre and volume arises organically out of them.
Though this may seem like a dully rigid way of generating 29 hours of music, Stockhausen’s work in practice has wild, sensuous, almost Surrealist flair. After his bold early experiments in electronic music and the unusual physical arrangements of ensembles, his style grew more idiosyncratically spiritual, dealing with grand, obscure messages from the cosmos and performed largely by musicians (and family members) close to him, and for whom he became something of a guru.
In both “Licht” and “Klang” (“Sound,” a cycle representing the hours of the day, which he worked on from 2003 until his death), he assigned colors to different sections, associating them with moods and tones. From his earliest works, he was fascinated with the voices of children.
The “Licht” score includes sections scored for children’s and adult choruses, synthesizers, hundreds of brass players, orchestras, solo singers and, of course, the helicopters. These sections were mostly given individual premieres by Stockhausen’s own ensembles, and only later received staged productions. Each of the seven operas has been presented at least once, but never have all seven — or even a selection this large — been performed together.
Staging elements from “Licht” is not easy. Stockhausen composed the work to, and sometimes beyond, the limits of possibility for directors, designers and musicians. In addition to the notes, each score contains extensive stage directions that are difficult to execute — to say the least.
Some sections call for two separate halls, with the ability to open and close the visual and sound barrier between them. Some call for silver aircraft to crash on the stage, and for chrome-color walls to be sliced by lasers to reveal a surface of rock crystal. The 2012 premiere of “Sonntag” (“Sunday”) at the Cologne Opera contributed to a budget deficit so large that the theater’s director was forced to resign.
Mr. Audi’s “Aus Licht” staging uses light, smoke and video to approximate some of these more spectacular effects, but still required extensive building in the raw warehouse space where it will be presented; the audience will move to face performers moving among multiple stages, sometimes gathering in the center and in the aisles.
Producing even these selections will require hundreds of musicians, including 194 Royal Conservatory students, 14 of whom have been studying the piece in a special “Aus Licht” master’s program. Including technicians, 680 people are needed to bring the project off, and each day’s rehearsal schedule has stretched 12 hours or more. Mr. Audi, 61, predicted that this is more of the music than will be performed again in his lifetime; the financial requirements, in an era of austerity, are simply too high.
Stockhausen’s work has a reputation for spiky intellectual difficulty, but Mr. Audi shrugged this off. “It’s not an intellectual drama,” he said in a break between rehearsals. “It’s believing in myth, in ritual, in spirituality. It’s the naïveté of a children’s world, from which everything springs and to which everything goes.”
“It’s brilliant,” he added, discussing the gravely beautiful “Angel Processions” from the final opera, “because you think you’re seeing shamanistic priests. And then suddenly, there’s a whirling, crazy woman on the other end of the room doing something else. And that’s part of the wackiness of the thing. He saw life. He put himself on his own planet.”
The Gashouder, decked out by the designer Urs Schönbaum with scaffolded stages and arcs of LED lights that can change color at the flick of a switch, glowed fiery red. Cameramen followed the groups of musicians as they ran, lunged and struck poses throughout the space, playing complex chords from memory and wearing metal headpieces loosely resembling radio towers. (The costumes were designed by Wojciech Dziedzic.) This section, the one originally intended to feature the crashing aircraft and laser-decimated chrome wall, still felt gripping and apocalyptic amid light, projection and smoke.
“If we want to bring this up to date,” said Elisabeth Lusche, a trumpet student in the “Aus Licht” master’s program, “what is the limit that we’re pushing now? How can we keep this true to what Stockhausen wanted, while still finding way to be extreme in the present?”
She said the master’s program, taught by Kathinka Pasveer, Stockhausen’s widow and the project’s musical director, along with other key Stockhausen collaborators and interpreters, had given students the opportunity to delve deeply enough into the forbidding technical demands of the music to develop interpretive agency.
“When we have the rehearsals,” Ms. Lusche said, “Kathinka’s motto is always just to ‘play it perfect and beautiful.’ And at the beginning we were like, ‘Yeah, O.K., look at the score. I would love to do that!’ But now that we’re here, it’s something that’s finally clicked. And so what started as a joke, now it’s happening.”
When asked about that “perfect and beautiful” comment, Ms. Pasveer smiled. “It’s true,” she said. “There is a feeling new music must be straightforward. But Stockhausen was very emotional also, and it must always sound beautiful. Never ugly.”
She said teaching a new generation of performers to meet Stockhausen’s demands, which emphasize the physical, performative aspect of instrumental playing more than many other composers, brought her joy.
“These pieces are our children, my children,” she said. “And if they only depend on me, they die with me. So it’s important to see that after a long period of study, others can play this music so beautifully. The piece is alive. The child is alive.”
Later that night at the Gashouder, the Cappella Amsterdam and a second choir of master’s students rehearsed “Angel Processions.” The main choir, divided into small groups singing in different languages, moved slowly around and toward the center of the room, down aisles glowing blue with light and smoke.
The screens were back on, showing paintings of angels and close-ups of calligraphy that faded into live video of the singers. The student chorus, arranged in a circle around the periphery, sang a steady drone, getting louder and softer, cutting across the harmonies, creating strange new chords.
By the end, the small groups had united in the center of the room, lit by golden light. Ms. Pasveer, dressed entirely in white, sat, looking down at her score and then up at the performers, smiling. Everyone sang in unison, their voices echoing off the high ceiling. When they stopped, the sound hovered in the air for a moment — like a helicopter, or an angel.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/24/arts ... erdam.html
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