Stimmung by Stockhausen: Speak while inhaling you say?

Jane Berry's picture
December 16, 2016 - 8:56am -- Jane Berry

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly three months since we met for our first rehearsal of Stockhausen’s Stimmung back in September; I was terrified walking into that rehearsal!!! I had worked so hard and yet felt so utterly unprepared. To begin with, I had absolutely no idea how to go about performing a work that required me to produce overtone melodies that I wasn’t even sure if I was capable of hearing yet. Producing these overtones also appeared to rely directly on ones ability to work their way around Stockhausen’s “vowel square,” the intricacies of which often left me feeling paralyzed, both mentally and physically. Then there was the slight issue that I was also required to whistle these overtone melodies—yeah, no problem, I’d only been trying to figure out how to whistle for about the last 20 years or so to no avail, I could totally master it in just a few months!!!

Initially, these were among my most prevalent fears and perceived challenges when it came to tackling this intense composition, and in all honesty, in many ways I felt as though I was in way over my head.  That being said, I’m not sure if I can accurately describe the number of ways that studying this score has since broadened my horizons, not only as a vocalist but also as a theorist and composer. Now, three months since our first rehearsal, Stimmung continues to be a work in progress for all of us but with three rehearsals now in our pocket and after a lot of YouTube videos, advice from friends, wine, and general experimentation, considerable headway has definitely been made. I can now make overtones consistently, YAY! I can’t precisely create all of my melodies yet but they are coming and correlations between specific vowel placements and specific overtones are now becoming increasingly clear. My whistling continues to need work, but I’ve made some notable breakthroughs and, in general, things are starting to feel as though they are falling into place. And perhaps most importantly, Stimmung is not only starting to feel like a challenge that we are ready for, but it’s starting to sound pretty cool too, and as a group, what started out as tentative apprehension is now starting to turn into genuine excitement and anticipation.

With much of the groundwork having been laid, my current task at hand has been to focus on one of my more difficult individual models, the dreaded model number 27 (shown in the image). There are a number of times throughout Stimmung when individual singers must recite curious settings of German poetry and I am the singer responsible for the poem found in model 27. In this model, I start off by initiating a new overtone melody as usual and I then transition into recitation of a poem that is a mixture of German and gibberish texts. Normally this does not sound as though it would be very challenging but then you must take into account the additional parameters and performance instructions that are so generously provided by Stockhausen.

To begin with, the poem is written in small cursive with no spaces between any of the words since all of the syllables are supposed to be seamlessly connected to one another. Ok, not a problem. Then the poem is also written in a large spiral shape and the shape itself has several implications for how the poem is to be performed. The singer should initiate the poem on a relatively high pitch and as it descends along the spiral, the pitch should likewise descend. Naturally, once they reach the bottom of the spiral and begin to ascend once again pitch should continue to follow suit. Okay, so far so good, pitch is a parameter that most vocalists worth their weight are typically quite comfortable with, so thus far model 27 seems quite accessible. The difficulty for me comes with an additional performance instruction, which states that the syllables ascending on the left side of the spiral should be spoken while inhaling…yes, spoken while inhaling. Hmm, okay ... If you play the didgeridoo or for some other reason have learned the technique of circular breathing then perhaps you might not find this too difficult, but for me this is the most difficult part of the entire work.  This is my big Stimmung challenge. I know that I will eventually conquer this challenge but for the time being “speaking while inhaling” is my temporary Stimmung nemesis. It is also my challenge to ensure that I do not get accidentally institutionalized over the next few months as I have found myself practicing this technique in public on several occasions only to realize that I am often receiving some very ‘concerned’ stares.

As a music theorist and composer, studying this work has also been a very insightful intellectual process. I have always had an interest in graphic scores and contemporary compositional techniques but this score in particular has resonated with my dissertation work, which deals with sensory processing disorders and soundscape composition. By going through the process of training my ear to listen more closely for overtones I have acclimatized my hearing in a way and have essentially become more aware of a part of my auditory environment. Since I interact frequently, in the context of my dissertation work, with individuals who have auditory hypersensitivities, I believe that having gone through a process where I have been forced to intensify my own sensitivity to particular auditory stimuli may perhaps help me to better conceptualize or understanding augmented elements that they may perceive.

Long story short, so far being involved in this production has been an intense journey of challenge, discovery, and memorable comradery. At first if felt a bit like we were all dropped into a musical warzone together, but now it’s starting to feel more like we are en route to accomplishing something that we will be very proud of in the end. I’ve personally still got a long way to go, but this intense learning process has given me confidence and, as strange as it may sound, I’m very much looking forward to conquering Stockhausen’s challenge to “speak while inhaling”.

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