MUSIC / Once in a blue moon: Jan Smaczny on a moonlit performance of Sternklang

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The Independent Culture
TAKE THE moonlight, a park, willing performers, support from the European Arts Festival and leave the rest to Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Sternklang needs the open air and a clear moonlit night. Two days ago it looked as if the latter would be in short supply, but the gods must have realised that Stockhausen himself would be present and the clouds cleared on Tuesday night to provide the loveliest evening for a good week.

A work which sets out to supply the medium for 'the sinking of the individual into a cosmic whole' and which exists as a preparation 'for beings from other stars and for the day of their arrival' needs a good deal of magic to make it work. And was there magic in Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham on Tuesday night?

Well, of a sort. Much frantic activity and a good deal of enchantment had co-ordinated performers from the Birmingham Conservatoire, the Midlands Arts Centre, Anglia Polytechnic, Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College and Birmingham University, all glued together by the University's electro-acoustic sound system, BEAST.

The spacing of the five groups and central, spotlit percussionists up hill and down dale in a broad expanse of the park not only provided acoustic variety but created a real sense of festival. Each group had its own story to tell and some did it better than others, though all preserved the requisite solemnity stipulated by the composer.

Out in the open, the sounds often dissipated and it was hard to find a precise point where all the efforts of the groups could be heard as one. Under the trees, matters were very different; the sounds seemed to come together much more effectively and from time to time a certain mystical influence seemed to spread itself through the bushes as Stockhausen's chords began to flow, notably a third of the way through when a deep resonance pervaded the evening. Those who had come to exercise their dogs or do a spot of late-evening fishing in the park probably had the shock of their lives, but others were, without doubt, captivated.

The notion of chanting star names against the background of a carefully organised musical structure, a quasi-sacred atmosphere and the rather cheap seeming bon-bon towards the end does seem rather barmy in the cold, realistic air of the 1990s. Twenty years ago it was no doubt far easier to stomach this rather dirigiste music-making in the cause of a cosmic quest. Perhaps if this sort of thing happened more often we might all fall into a more receptive mode in which appreciation was less hemmed in by prejudice, cynicism and sheer joie de vivre.

But Sternklang, if it happens at all, only does so once in a blue moon and for many in the park on Tuesday night the experience was unique and estimable: not a soul I talked to disliked it. Quite what came down to Earth that night as a result of this community endeavour has to be a matter of personal experience. At the very least those who brought this astonishing event to fulfilment can rest secure in the knowledge that they have given Birmingham a night unlike any other.