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Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung at the Lovely Music festival: A clear, confident performance of a relic of its time

The piece Neue Vocalsolisten perform is like a world-ranking tourist attraction that has been so hyped it has little chance of meeting expectations

Lovely Music: Neue Vocalsolisten perform Stockhousen's Stimmung in Dundalk. Photograph: Ken Finegan/Newspics

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Stimmung

Lovely Music Festival, Dundalk

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung (literally Tuning or Mood) for six voices is the antithesis of what you might have expected in 1968 from one of the lions of the postwar avant-garde. To use a word that once had considerable currency in music reviews, there is absolutely nothing rebarbative about the piece.

Stimmung is a long, slow, meditative work based on a single note and its overtones, those components of musical sound that create our sense of timbre and colour. Without overtones, any pitch has just the sound of a test tone. Overtone singing allows performers to emphasise one or more of the components of a sung note, changing lip and tongue positions to create high, almost whistle-like tones, and even overtone melodies and chords.

The technique is said to have originated in Mongolia, and is known in other cultures, too. Stockhausen said he discovered it while humming quietly at night, in order not to disturb his sleeping children while he was composing.

Paul Griffith’s note for Saturday’s performance by Stuttgart’s Neue Vocalsolisten, at Louth Contemporary Music Society’s Lovely Music festival, in Dundalk, offers a single-word English translation for the multifaceted German word Stimmung. He proposes the usefully suggestive “vibes,” a late-1960s arrival that is rich in appropriate connotations.

Lovely Music: Neue Vocalsolisten prepare for their performance of Stimmung. Photograph: Ken Finegan/Newspics

At the time he wrote the piece, Stockhausen was intoxicated by a recent exposure to Mexican culture, and by his marriage, a year earlier, to Mary Bauermeister, to whom the piece is dedicated. The text, by Stockhausen himself, invokes “magic names” from around the world, the days of the week (which would later become the names of the seven operas that make up his Licht cycle), nonsense syllables and erotic poetry.

The eroticism has always created controversy. A quotation will make clear why. “My phallus is my soul / when I immerse you. / Right at the tip / is where I sit (I really mean when I say ‘I’, my great I) / in my one-man-torpedo bow. / I know nothing else any more, / except that I am in the shining shell, / my eye high up front / – I a bird – mirror of your eyes / even the most subtle emotion. / And I steer – suicide mission – / through your silver fluid. . . . ”

The appeal of a slowly unfolding exploration of what is, in reality, a chord that everyone has probably heard before is high. The tuning in and out of resonances is fascinating, and Stockhausen’s meticulous detailing refreshes the sound world in unexpected ways.

Neue Vocalsolisten’s performance at St Nicholas Parish Church touches all the essentials with clarity and confidence. The amplification, which is such a key part of the work, is sensitively managed. But the piece seems to have become a kind of a relic of its time, and it somehow doesn’t live up to its promise. It’s like a world-ranking tourist attraction that has been so hyped it has little chance of meeting expectations.

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor