From the Sleevenotes: Stimmung

Daryl Runswick, who sings on this recording, writes about Stockhausen’s composition Stimmung, in sleevenotes from the CD Prima Facie PFCD153 Stockhausen: Stimmung

Stimmung CD cover

Improvised? – yes, though within strict guidelines laid down by the composer. There are 51 sections – Stockhausen calls them ‘models’ – each led by one of the six singers, and Stockhausen always prescribes which singer comes next. He does not, however, prescribe what music they sing. Sure enough, he has composed the 51 models – very loosely, allowing for improvisation – but the current lead singer is to choose, in real time during performance, which one to do. When a particular lead singer begins her or his chosen model the others have to recognise it and join in. When the lead singer feels this model has gone on long enough she or he hands over to the next lead singer and the music slowly transforms into the next model. When all the models have been sung the piece ends. If the singers happen to be feeling particularly laid-back this could be after some hours. Stockhausen intended Stimmung to be done from memory without scores as a sort of sacramental game. Indeed there is no score, just a wad of unbound sheets containing the 51 models, some erotic poems written by Stockhausen and the names of 77 gods from world religions. The poems are given to specific singers but the gods’ names can be inserted ad lib by any singer who wants to, and when a name is called the other singers have to modify what they are doing to incorporate the sound of the god’s name: all this while chanting a single chord with overtone singing. Performing Stimmung is indeed like playing a game, with amusement and sometimes even hilarity at the unexpected things that turn up. You can be singing a sweet, slow chant when suddenly someone shouts COATLICUÉ! at you (track 5 on this recording) and you have to absorb that into what you’re singing, days of the week, all sorts of seemingly unconnected but curiously apposite interjections.

When Electric Phoenix prepared their performance of Stimmung in 1983 there had been many performances (and at least one recording) since the work’s premiere in 1968, none of them up a mountain – all in concert halls and studios – and not one of them properly improvised. The ideal of assembling (and paying) six singers to live together for weeks memorising 51 sections which might occur in unimaginable possible orders was patently absurd. Every performance this writer knows of had much of the improvisation removed. The ordering of the models was laid out in advance and the interjections planned and rehearsed like any other score. Stockhausen himself partook of this dereliction, issuing a printed version giving a ‘preferred’ order which could be put on a music stand and read as if it were a piece of Schumann. I’m sure he did this to increase the number of performances his piece would get, but in doing so he emasculated the concept.

In 1983 Terry Edwards, director of Electric Phoenix, commissioned an English trans- lation of the poems and nonsense rhymes in Stimmung (Stockhausen wrote them in German) and asked me to prepare a version of the work as close as possible to hisoriginal intention within the bounds of financial reality. Given Electric Phoenix’s busy schedule memorisation was out of the question but I was determined the ordering of the sections should be improvised. To that end I cut out the 51 models from the master sheets with scissors (they are printed as blocks of small rectangles, see illustration) and stuck them onto cards which I inserted into a card-index box. Each singer was given a complete set in their own box. When it was their turn to lead they could riffle through the box, choose a model and start it. The others would quickly recognise the model, find it in their own box and join in.

This simple device ensured an improvised ordering of the models and on this recording, made live in concert in April 1997, that is exactly what you hear, plus the poems in English. Every Electric Phoenix performance of Stimmung had a different improvised ordering. The frisson this produced was felt not only by the performers but also the audience, who can be heard here laughing their appreciation. Would that a means of shuffling the models on CD could be found for your listening pleasure…

But when all’s said and done Stimmung is nothing more than a very long drone on a chord of B-flat nine. Six notes. After one performance in Aberdeen, Scotland, a reviewer wrote, ‘Listening to Stimmung is like staring at a brick wall for more than an hour: but how fascinating each brick becomes.’
Daryl Runswick