A lot of words circulate in my mind relating to attending the world premiere of Mittwoth aus Licht on Wednesday night…much like Stockhausen’s fabled dreams, here’s a random selection: Unique, Audacious, Excessive, Spiritual, Trekkie Convention, Extraordinary, Capricious, Daring, Ridiculous, Unfathomable, Sleek, Mesmerizing, Technical, Polyphonic Marvel, Unnerving, Contradictory, Illuminating, Mystical, Terrifying, Atmospheric, Ludicrous, Humorous, Complex, Long, Rich, Gesamtkunstwerk, Brave, Showy, Intoxicating, Great Face Painting, Vast Empty Space, Surprising. They would possibly make a good start for a word association game…but I’ll leave that to the readers.
I’ve always found Stockhausen’s work taxing and many times it has defeated me. Additionally his mature work is impossible to experience fully in recorded form, as his Quadrophonic and Octophonic sound installations with meticulous attention to detail create the environment that presents the work in the best possible light. Experiencing such a complex piece in person it feels more like encountering the most ambitious art installation than a purely musical/theatrical event. The sheer scale and wealth of detail makes up for a bewildering, overstimulating evening. One has to come into such a multi layered event with the intention to go along with the, at times outlandish, subject matter and be immersed in the ambience. It seems to me the more the listener puts in the more he takes away, surely not a composer to encourage lazy listening and the whole set up by Birmingham Opera underlined that beautifully. His work is demanding but when staged with such conviction as Graham Vick did, makes for a spectacularly unmissable night out.
Walking through a rough area of Birmingham going past industrial units and factories was unappealing enough and then the skies opened for a shower on Wednesday…it made for an inauspicious start to a long evening. Mind you, being greeted by two camels on entering was an equally baffling and charming start. Argyle Works seems to be the venue of choice for Birmingham Opera and it surely works for Vick’s rough and ready stagings. The industrial, almost untouched look of the factory spaces create a distinctive feel that was greatly in tune with Stockhausen’s aesthetic, they created neutral backdrops for the theatre of the mind, something a gilded opera house could and would not do for Mittwoch.
When the heavy industrial shutter closed behind us and the space plunged in darkness it was an assault on our senses, as if going into self-preservation mode, trying to detect motion in the dark, to smell the air and to look out for performers passing by. The electronic music playing a humming backdrop to the darkness felt like an initiation ceremony into the mind of Stockhausen the lighting concentrating on groups of dancers, two of them scaling the walls and seemingly having a quarrel, a long platform arrives with a distinctive thump giving us a courtly mise-en-scene, dancers crowded on a doorway with one of them climbing on top of them and walking through. The iconography is distinctly opaque but one has to make a leap of faith and go along with Stockhausen and Vick on this journey as after all this is the Greeting. The constant searching for the action becomes a cat and mouse game between audience and cast it remains exciting through the near six-hour duration. The action/stage is alternating through two almost identical spaces with a small passage lit up with yellow neon to continue the theme of hope and love.
The World Parliament section was possibly the most traditionally written (of course sang in imaginary languages and with amplified sound and a long wave receiver) where over 70 singers surrounded us on what looked like umpire’s chairs in signature Wittwoch yellow. Their faces painted in different world flags. The polyphonic writing is truly exceptional and with the added on subtle amplification and use of the complex sound set up it made it an all enveloping experience, after all Stockhausen was after an otherworldly experience over the clouds, this production made him proud. The colourings and provocative stylings, particularly for the soprano, were magnificent displays of the human voice in a most unleashed state. The members of Ex Cathedra gave their all in this very tricky piece and made the room reverberate with the most extraordinary sounds. In the end he smeared their face paint and came down to give a handshake to the audience.
Putting up Mittwoch is a logistical nightmare and it is most obvious during the notorious Helicopter String Quartet. It is impossible to under-estimate how cool it is to have the players showing up and then to watch them on a video link for half an hour as they embark disembark and play each in their own helicopter. Written as the outcome of a dream it makes for a thrilling spectacle. The technical requirements are dazzling on both broadcasting it live and the actual technical side of co-ordinating the four players with a click track and instructions to the pilots. As usual with Stockhausen the work only exists in the live mix in the room as balanced by the engineer in charge (there is a famous CD recording of the piece but it can never replicate the live sound). Unfortunately one let down was the presenter from Radio 1 (DJ Nihal) who was more of an animateur than explaining the process, as the composer specified. It is strange why didn’t they ask the sound projectionist (Ian Dearden) to host this part (as the performance instructions clearly state). His jokes really fell on deaf ears (tiresome mentions of the Stockhausen massive and a reference to mini-bus fetish gives you an idea) as a large proportion of the audience was German, they were more than happy to ignore his parochial humour. But the sheer grandeur and excitement of watching it happen live was uniquely memorable. The Elysian Quartet have to be congratulated for taking it on and bringing their youthful vibrancy against the potentially scary and unpredictable conditions. Also love this picture of the pilots “playing” which they posted on their Facebook account! I wonder if anyone in Birmingham got really angry not being able to watch the awful One Show on BBC One while the helicopters where flying overhead 😉
The Orchestra Finalists section with the suspended musicians was beautifully staged to bring out the humour and playfulness of the ensemble. It’s not every day you get to see a trombonist splashing about in a paddling pool while being carried around on a raised platform while the audience is lying on their back below. Or having wooden birds mounted on long canes dangling centimetres above our heads. The dancers trying to kill a swarm of imaginary flies (clearly audible through the speakers) on members of the audience. It is a pretty nutty way to present this segment! Which was also padded up with paper planes being thrown around (only to end up being eaten by the performers/dancers), two chaps with top hats emitting smoke, a mummy playing a small gong… you get the idea. It was like a fun day for a group of schoolchildren playing the most eccentric musical snippets while yo-yoing from the ceiling. That sense of fun is the saving grace for much of the piece, Stockhausen has an eye for mischief and as realised in Birmingham we all felt part of it (including getting splashed as the paddling pool was going past overhead).
The fifth section was Michaelion heavy with symbolism and a camel that gives birth to the chosen Operator and his short-wave receiver and also shits celestial objects from distant solar systems…yep it’s the most intricate and less lucid part of the work and the final sung section even adorns his tombstone in the cemetery of Kürten. Composed as most of the 29 hours of the whole Light/Licht opera cycle on the formula that Stockhausen devised, a compositional strategy very much in tune with other electronic music composers from IRCAM and elsewhere. Dispersed amongst us where actors splattered in signature yellow paint who contributed ritualistic dancing at the election of the new leader and also helped sing the beautiful staccati notes written for them and expected to be performed en parade. Ah yes, there was also a shoe-shine serenade for the camel and also a huge inflatable bottle of champagne! This section was possibly the only one that felt too long, to the point when the singers came near us carrying, what seemed like, giant pretzels on sticks I couldn’t help but feel slightly hungry 😉
The Farewell was another downbeat segment like the Greeting allowing all of us to wind down, while surrounded by the performers holding up signs with mottos relating to the composer’s ideas throughout the opera and were led next doors for drinks and conversation…
The biggest credit has to be given to Kathinka Pasveer who was a long-term collaborator of the composer and the Director of the Stockhausen Foundation. She was mixing the live sound throughout the evening with great care and created an impeccably well crafted soundscape befitting such an ambitious work. Made even more special being staged on a Wednesday and on the anniversary of Stockhausen’s birth…you can imagine him smiling down from whichever planet he’s moved onto 😉
My photos from the evening
Graham Vick interview in the Telegraph
A piece by Alex Petridis for The Guardian