Stimmung by Stockhausen: Painted hands, a Witches' Sabbath, and Stimmung

Rob Curtis's picture
February 13, 2017 - 10:59pm -- Rob Curtis

On my first trip to Europe, I stumbled across a small art gallery in Vienna while I was exploring the city. Inside was an exhibition of portraits, alongside a display that suggested different meanings for the hand positions of the people in the paintings. The placement of the hands and fingers was meant to convey information about the subjects' social status and profession, and it was fascinating to see similar gestures appear in a variety of different portraits. It felt like I was joining a secret club, being privy to hidden messages left by the artists. Ever since that day, even though I don't really remember any of the specific interpretations given by that exhibit, I find myself noticing people's hands in portraits. Sometimes there are small details there that I would never have noticed otherwise, and sometimes the hands are unremarkable—but it's an added dimension to my experience that wasn't there before I wandered into that gallery.

About ten years earlier, I was floored by polyphony for the first time, and I remember the experience vividly. When I was a kid, taking my first music history course, one of the pieces we studied was the last movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. Near the end of that movement, the theme representing a Witches' Sabbath is played simultaneously with the Dies Irae melody, and I remember being completely blown away hearing both tunes at the same time—not alternating my attention between the two, or listening to the overall harmonies that they made together, but really hearing and understanding two melodies simultaneously. I knew intellectually what polyphony was, and I had played a Bach fugue or two, but listening to Berlioz was the very first time that I really got it, and the first time I experienced it fully. It left such an impression that as soon as I had saved enough pocket change, I bought a copy of the full score and a recording, so that I could see how the whole piece was put together. It was a new way of listening to music, and it profoundly affected the way I listened to and performed music from then on.

I'm enjoying a similar experience to these right now, in learning Stimmung. It's an unconventional piece with some avant-garde techniques that can pose challenges for performers and listeners alike, but it's well worth the investment of getting to know it. Stimmung is musically interesting and entertaining to listen to, but it also explores a new musical dimension—or perhaps not new exactly, but certainly one that is rarely the central feature of a piece. By notating vowel changes with extreme precision, together with numerals to indicate which overtone should be emphasized, Stockhausen turns sustained notes into melody and changes of timbre into motives and themes. As professional singers, we are often called upon to make subtle changes to the way we shape vowels, but never before have I worked to such a level of precision in vowel formation. (Stockhausen notates 21 unique vowels plus a couple of consonants, and—depending on how you count—no language uses more than about 15 vowel sounds.) This has made me much more versatile in other repertoire, and given me substantially more control over my timbre. As a conductor, I've learned over the years to listen for overtones in various contexts, such as in tuning chords, but never before have I been so keenly focused on overtones for such a long period of time as when we're in rehearsals for this piece. I've noticed that it's sharpened my ears in my own rehearsals; as a listener, too, I find myself paying more attention to overtones and timbre.

One of the wonderful things about art is the way that it can change our perceptions, even our perceptions of art itself. Stimmung is an experience that certainly is re-shaping the way that I make and listen to music, and I can't wait to bring this piece to our audiences, presenting them with what might for many be a new way to experience music and sound.

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Jun 1 2017 - 7:30pm
An Edmonton International Choral Festival Concert An exploration of childhood as experienced in... more

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