Once again the cité de la musique, Paris newest grand hall, brings us a 20th century masterwork: Momente, by Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Stockhausens 110-minute Momente -- like his Gruppen (see our 1998 review) or Boulez Repons (see our 1995 review) -- is one of those masterworks so rarely performed as to be shrouded in mysterious sanctity (some of which is fostered by the composer himself). To their credit, the cité de la musique has shown an admirable enthusiasm since their grand opening in 1995 for programming these heroic and monumental pieces, and their commitment appears to be more than appreciated by the Parisian new-music public, who have made these (and many other) events sell-outs. Nonetheless, each of these works owes something of its celebrity to its size and complexity, to its horrendous demands on performers and organizers alike. And none of these works is actually that satisfying to listen to, no matter how epochal or historically significant. So it was with mixed feelings of excitement and dread that we joined the expectant crowd (le tout-Paris of new music) for Stockhausens Momente, written between 1961 and 1964, revised briefly in 1969 and 1972 (the Europa and Bonn versions), and again revised in 1998 for this production, sponsored in Paris by the Festival dAutomne, and with the participation of the Foundation for Arts and Culture of Rhénanie-North Westphalia (Germany).
The chorus arrives on-stage, dressed in beige; informal; casual. The audience applauds, and to our surprise, the chorus begins to applaud as well, and thus begins the piece. The clapping will continue throughout the piece: for rhythm, for approbation, for humor, for noise, for background, for the beat.... its an omnipresent device, varying from strictly musical to entirely theatrical. At isolated moments, the basses will dissolve into paroxysms of laughter, or the soprano will break into screams. But the impression is of large blocks of sound, huge solid sections succeeding one another at 5 or 10 minute intervals, an effect of broad washes of monochrome surrealism on a white background.
Precision teamwork and synchronized choreography hold the piece together despite the almost impossible challenges of this non-developmental form. The Cologne-based chorus rehearsed four hours a day for six weeks to learn this hair-raisingly difficult music. Rupert Huber, a Stockhausen expert (sanctioned by the man himself) conducted with military precision and German concentration. And that accuracy was enforced rigidly by the composer, who became furious when a final dress-rehearsal on the ponderous 110-minute work went into overtime by three minutes!
Given Stockhausens legendary fascination with electronics, there were surprisingly few effects: principally a light amplification of selected chorus members, the soloist, the percussionists, and two synthesizers. The two synths, with their hopelessly out-dated wah-wah vibrato and 1970s cheesiness, are the only clue that this otherwise strongly modern work is actually three decades old.
The theatrics are a bit too loony and exaggerated for my taste, and contrast poorly with the subtleties of the music. The raucous and literally foot-stomping ending seems inappropriate after such a rich but monochromatic tapestry of sound. The music is by and large discreetly visual; only the beginnings and endings degenerate into cheaply sensational theatrics/melodrama. (Komt Herein!....) But in general, the brilliant soprano Angela Tunstall reveals, minute by minute, new layers to her vocal technique; new dimensions to her acting.
The piece is exciting both for its details and its large scale, and--impressively--both are clearly audible over a long time-span. During all this, the audience listened with rapt attention, applauding like crazy when it was over, particularly for the soprano and for Stockhausen himself, who climbed portentously onto the stage to accept the accolades he so richly deserves.
The vocal parts, half-percussion, half-singing, involve counting schemes that even today (or maybe especially today, in this climate of simplified tastes and reassuringly familiar harmonies) would make a solo percussionist blanch. Throughout the piece, a bar marked 5 seconds may contain 6 beats, as the next one, marked 4 seconds contains 7 beats, and the next one, to keep us on our toes, is marked circa (sic!) 3.5 seconds, and contains 9 beats. No problem for your average percussionist, but can you imagine trying to get four independent choruses to sing these in sync?!
Quite what the definition of opera should be at the end of the twentieth century is hard to say; true, the form has enjoyed something of a revival since the end of the 60s, and Franco Donatoni's much-heralded opera buffa Alfred, Alfred (the title refers to the hospital in Melbourne in which the composer found himself in a diabetic coma in 1992) is the latest in a long line of operatic ventures by hitherto predominantly instrumental composers--Glass, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Jarrell, Turnage... That said, if operetta literally means little opera, then this is operettina--at just over twenty-five minutes in length, the evening has to be padded out with a film consisting of snippets of rehearsals, snatches of interview with Donatoni, and assorted semi-surrealistic (and seemingly irrelevant) tableaux vivants from the composer's Antecedent X. Even with this, the show lasts barely an hour. Hardly the epic opera cycles of Glass and Stockhausen... Whatever happened to that long-lost genre music-theatre? If this is opera so are Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King and Henze's Voices, to say nothing of the major recent works of Heiner Goebbels.
Alfred, Alfred consists of seven (very) short scenes--all arias except for the choral finale--interspersed with six equally brief interludes each for voice and solo instrument. Eight singers and a small instrumental band--here Holland's excellent Nieuw Ensemble--are all that is called for in terms of resources, and the on-stage decor consists of three hospital beds. Chamber opera might have been more apt a term.
The libretto, basically recollected fragments of dialogues overheard by the composer as he lay immobilized in Melbourne, with lines such as I'll take your blood pressure, give me your arm and I don't like new music... Beethoven, Verdi and Wagner are too modern... I stop at Bellini just doesn't cut it. Nor do the clichéd nurse costumes and stage business, both presumably the composer's idea rather than director André Wilms'. In fact it's Donatoni's show all the way; not only do we get his amusing on-screen anecdotes (his spaghetti carbonara tale is touching), shots of him wandering aimlessly around the rehearsal space (yes, this is one of those tedious self-referential show-within-a-show concept movies), but he's also there on-stage in bed, in his eternal red shirt and braces, the central--albeit non-speaking--protagonist in his own work. Personally, I think there's something to be said for artists and writers who avoid the glare of publicity (Beckett) or even disappear altogether (Pynchon).
As for the music, it's typical recent Donatoni, genuinely buffa elegant European set-theory shot through with echoes of Stravinsky, with the added extra element of annoying nods and winks to the classical opera repertory, in the form of all-too-evident quotations, prompting the expected titters from cognoscenti in the audience. Humor is not an easy thing to handle in an intra-musical context--the easy joviality of Haydn may be present in some Ligeti and Dutch free jazz, but the self-conscious megalomania of most contemporary composers rarely produces anything capable of provoking genuine spontaneous laughter. Donatoni's music is light (without being light music--it makes no concessions to easy listening) rather than funny. Our laughter at his retelling of his hospital anecdotes is unforced and human, while the self-conscious knowing sniggers of those fortunate enough to spot the quotes is forced and pretentious. The introductory film dragged horribly and was only saved by the incorporation of the composer's 1996 Refrain as occasional accompaniment. Indeed, instead of splashing out what must have been an enormous amount on sets, screens and silly Liberace outfits for the band, Alfred, Alfred could have been modestly staged in a concert version, along with four or five other recent Donatoni gems excellently played by Ed Spanjaard's fine ensemble. Go buy the records instead.
As luck would have it, I was halfway through Fernand Ouelette's biography of Varèse when I received Bob Gilmore's long-awaited volume on Harry Partch. As biographies go, they could hardly be more different: Ouelette's grovelling hero-worship, woefully short on facts but full of gratuitous praise for his subject and padded out with reams of vapid meaningless critics' reviews, contrasts sharply with Gilmore's no-frills, no-bullshit approach. As subjects for biographies, there are several intriguing parallels between Varèse and Partch (which led me to continue reading the two books concurrently for a while): both men realised at about the same time that new instruments and new tuning systems and technologies would be necessary for their music to advance. But whereas Varèse busied himself in the late 30s/early 40s conducting baroque choral music (one imagines that he had no financial problems as such), Partch chose to (had to?) take to the road as a hobo, eking out whatever existence he could, either by proofreading for local newspapers or picking plums. For a long time the only one of his instruments he could feasibly carry with him was the Adapted Viola-as his instrumental arsenal increased over the years, subsequent moves became ever more difficult and costly-quite apart from their fragility, the instruments also suffered from long periods in storage, attacked by heat, humidity, insects and rodents.
Partch's first break came in 1934 when he received a $1500 grant from the Carnegie Corporation, obtained thanks to help from the Guggenheim Foundation's Henry Allen Moe (with whom Varèse corresponded frequently, incidentally). This allowed him to visit Europe and ultimately meet W. B. Yeats, an adaptation of whose translation of "King Oedipus" was the object of Partch's fellowship application (the projected recording later ran into difficulties when the Yeats estate, after the poet's death, was reluctant to give the composer the go-ahead, despite a letter from Yeats himself giving his approval). However, on returning to the States, Partch had to take to "riding the drags" once more, and it was only when a friend lent him a house at Big Sur, an area later frequented by Henry Miller and the Beat Generation, that he was able to get down to work on his theoretical treatise, "Monophony is Expounded", which, after numerous rewrites eventually became "Genesis of a Music" in 1949.
Bob Gilmore's discussion of Partch's microtonal theory is refreshingly concise and easy to follow (though readers interested in music theory are strongly encouraged to check out Gilmore's articles on the subject in Perspectives of New Music Vols. 30 and 33), and one arrives at an understanding of the logic underlying Partch's 43-note scale (though I must admit to being somewhat dubious concerning the composer's extrapolation of the Otonalities and Utonalities-taking Helmholtz as a starting point and throwing in the indigestible dialectics of the subharmonic series as expounded by Riemann seems a bit dodgy). Still, theory apart, a work such as 1943's "U. S. Highball", combining direct and touching slabs of hobo reality ("it comes from the guts"-Ben Johnston) with the extraordinary sonorities of Partch's instruments, sounds as if it could have been written on another planet.
The subsequent twists and turns of Partch's career, his confrontations with the academic environments on whom he came to depend, and the brutal honesty of his thorny correspondence with friends and patrons alike, are all chronicled by Gilmore with openness, candour and love. Perhaps he could be persuaded now to write the definitive biography of Varèse... (By the way, the two did eventually meet in New York in 1958, when according to Partch: "he liked the film Music Studio so much he almost embraced me.") As the Partch centenary approaches in 2001, let's hope this outstanding biography may stimulate more interest in the man and his music.
(review by Dan Warburton)
see also our interview with Ben Johnston.