Total Immersion: Stockhausen Composer Day, Barbican/LSO St Luke’s

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The Independent Culture

As a ‘Times’ television critic in 1979, I regrettably failed to review ‘Tuning In’, Barrie Gavin’s Omnibus film about Karlheinz Stockhausen. So as an ‘Independent’ music critic I’m happy to remedy the omission, on its second public airing three decades later.

Setting aside one’s astonishment that this civilised piece of avant-garderie should have been shown on BBC1 – not even BBC2 would touch it today – one has to admire the clever way this profile tackles its subject.

From focusing on single notes to masses of sound, abandoning the fixed sonic perspective to soar into the universe, and finding his voice as a mystical medium through emptying his mind of all thought – this dandyish provocateur emerges as an amalgam of insufferable pretention and irresistible charm.

The film is framed by a performance of his flower-power anthem ‘Stimmung’, with the singers’ lips shot in intimate close-up, and by a lecture delivered by the composer in a natty little frock-coat: everything reflects the magic which got him onto the cover of ‘Sgt Pepper’.

This made the ideal introduction to the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Stockhausen day at the Barbican, in which, though we didn’t get ‘Gruppen’ or ‘Kontakte’, all the facets of his multifarious oeuvre got an airing.

A wind quintet gave a lovely rendering of his memorial piece ‘Adieu’, and pianist Nicolas Hodges dealt brilliantly with his sometimes rebarbative ‘Klavierstucke’, constructing entire sonic worlds with the aid of pedalled overtones.

The early choral pieces, which gave no indication of what might develop later, showed fascinatingly where he might have gone, had he not become seized by his obsession with the ‘one pure sound’. ‘Kontrapunkte’, written in 1953, came up fresh as a daisy, but I found Stockhausen’s credo ‘Litanei’, which the BBC singers delivered in a rapt Druid circle, impossible to take seriously.

No such problems with his masterpiece ‘Inori’, however: that crazily systematic essay on melody, rhythm, texture, and volume was riveting.

Ironically, the piece which must have seemed most daring when it was made is now the most dated: what Steve Reich and his followers have done with sampling makes ‘Hymnen’ sound horribly creaky.

A montage of national anthems, played in a darkened hall at wildly varying speeds, and tricked out with electronic burps and buzzes: this was like being in the cinema, without a film. Making no excuses, I left before its two-hour course was run.

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