Stimmung at 42

Today I listened to Stockhausen’s 1968 composition Stimmung for the first time in about 30 years, and I thought the piece held up pretty well. Scored for vocal sextet, Stimmung is Stockhausen’s take on overtone chanting, in which a singer, by manipulating the shape of the mouth, causes overtones in a sustained note to become more prominent. The effect is sometimes uncanny, in that a single voice seems to be sounding two tones – a low fundamental and a higher pitch which is in fact simply an overtone. The technique is associated with Tibetan monks, and has long been used by David Hykes in a group called the Harmonic Choir. (I remember hearing them at New York’s St. John the Divine during my Columbia days.)

Although Stimmung is sometimes spoken of as a piece built on a single chord, that is no more the case than it is in Schoenberg’s “Summer Morning by a Lake” from the Five Pieces for Orchestra. Stimmung is about the play of the overtones, not the sustained chord. It is a spectralist piece before there was spectralism. Yes, in a sense Stimmung is a kind of minimalist work, and Paul Hiller, the artistic director of the Theatre of Voices, whose excellent recording I listened to, compares the piece to Terry Riley’s In C. There are similarities in the way the pieces both depend on the performers moving with a certain degree of flexibility through a series of modules prescribed by the composer, and Stimmung does rely on brief repeated figures. But it is not about process in the manner of the classic works of minimalism. There is too much fantasy at play here for a minimalist piece: poems are recited; various deities are invoked; and the days of the week are named in different languages (perhaps a foreshadowing of Licht, Stockhausen’s cycle of operas named for the days of the week);. The music at times sounds like devotional chanting, at other times like a work of electronic music, for the sound of the overtones is similar to what happens when a synthesizer’s low pass filter sweeps over the harmonic spectrum of a low sound, with the filter set to emphasize its cutoff frequency. When the names of the gods are introduced, the phonemes that make up the name are picked up by the singers who are chanting a repeated overtone figure. It is as though the name Quetzalcoatl, for example, colors the repeated figure, adding percussive sounds, bringing out additional harmonic content. Or is it that the name is heard through the filter of the overtones? What is the figure? What is the aural scrim through which we listen to the figure? I feel certain Stockhausen relished that ambiguity, that rejection of dualism. It reminds me of the spot in his Momente where the solo soprano says “is near and far – at once.”

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