As a phenomenon, the 1960s, argues British critic D.J. Taylor in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement, have had “more significance extracted from them than they can decently stand.” That depends on how you define significance and, for that matter, decency.
A revelatory performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1960 groundbreaking “Carré” on Thursday night was presented here in a converted factory as part of Germany’s avant-garde Ruhrtriennale festival. It proved to be the perfect piece to usher in that most revolutionarily indecent — and significant — of decades. Written for four orchestras and choruses that surround the audience, Stockhausen’s score replaced polyphony with a kind of musical polygamy. And the fact that performances of “Carré” are so rare is indication that more than a half-century later, we are still coming to terms with the ways we attach ourselves to what we hear.
Stockhausen got the idea for “Carré” while on a 1958 lecture tour in the U.S. Inspired by the latest developments in electronic music, he recently had begun experimenting with radical ideas about the perception of music by exploiting the common properties between pitch and rhythm, and by turning the movement of sounds in space into a compositional tool.
He wondered about the interaction of time and form. What happens if music is made of instances that obscure structure (which became Stockhausen’s “moment form”) yet such moments are still ruled by the laws of nature in some grand, imperceptible scheme?
For his lecture tour, Stockhausen listened to prop planes as he flew from city to city — sounds, he said, “which last and last and do not change, or change suddenly and briefly.” With these “sounds at peace,” he found, time took on both luxurious and spiritual new meaning.
All this and much more went into “Carré,” and the performance in the Jahrhunderthalle Bochum was meant to show the work as a seminal work for Stockhausen as well as a musical milestone.
The audience sat in the middle of a gigantic industrial site transformed into a spectacular arts space for the Ruhrtriennale 15 years ago. The Bochum Symphony and ChorWerk Ruhr were divided into four ensembles and situated on platforms in the room’s four corners and amplified. Each had an excellent conductor, with the lead being the charismatic Rupert Huber, sporting shaved head and Mr. Natural beard.
In the center of the room was a mixing panel, operated by Kathinka Pasveer, one of the composer’s widows. (Stockhausen practiced polygamy in more ways than one.)
The genius of “Carré,” which lasts 38 minutes and which was played twice (with the audience invited to change seats), is, to a certain extent, a product of its imperfections. For the first time in acoustic music, he hoped to convey the impression of sounds not just coming from different places but actually circulating in the space. He wanted the airplane effect but with physical elevation ultimately leading to spiritual elevation.
Stockhausen had a grand scheme. He produced complicated formulas for distributing pitches, working out rhythms, arranging dynamics, determining attacks and decays, sorting out timbres and moving sound in space. He drew charts and graphs to control not only the big picture but also the smallest details.
Logistically, however, coordinating four conductors and four orchestras, with limited rehearsal time, in an imperfect acoustical environment, meant any number of compromises. Sounds don’t really move, at least not in the way Stockhausen hoped. Meditative, super-long tones weren’t feasible either.
During rehearsals, Stockhausen cut unplayable material and instinctively wrote new bits. This has given “Carré” the reputation of being a fascinating failure. Instead, Bochumers showed, the score can be a sublime conveyance of expressive momentary invention invading admirable formal rigor.
The piece begins with the chorus intoning deep low tones, as though Buddhist chanting. Instruments make flickering, incidental sounds. Activity, like life, goes through cycles of becoming furious and dying away. Textures are ever changing. The ensembles never seem to react to one another; there is no dialogue.
But what happens in one place of the room mysteriously infects someplace else, and breathtaking big swells occur all around. The chorus has no text but sings phonetic syllables, and here and there, the name of one of Stockhausen’s friends. Somehow, everyone swims in the same sonic ocean, and that is transporting.
Pasveer, who programed the three-hour concert, framed the two performances of “Carré” with early and late electronic works by Stockhausen. She opened with “Gesang der Jünglinge” (“Song of the Youths”), which in 1956 gave the first indication of the power of the new five-channel electronic medium to immerse a listener in a cathedral of sound.
The eight-channel “Cosmic Pulses” followed the second “Carré.” Stockhausen’s last project after finishing his seven-opera cycle, “Licht” (“Light”), was a series of 24 pieces for the hours of the day. “Cosmic Pulses” is the 13th hour, and it premiered in 2007, seven months before Stockhausen’s fatal heart attack at age 79.
In it, you can hear the visionary composer take his final mystical plane ride. For half an hour, electronic pulses swirl overhead as if in druggy cosmic play. Movement and sound are inseparable, and a half-hour in, this realm can be magically disorienting.
A full moon shone as I walked out of Jahrhunderthalle. Bochum has no attractions other than “Starlight Express,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock musical that has drawn millions of German fans since 1988, and the more recent and rather different offerings of Ruhrtriennale. On this night, Stockhausen commanded all the starlight.