Interpreting Stockhausen’s epic Klang

Robert AmesTue 6th August 2013

The London Contemporary Orchestra will perform works from the cycle at the Roundhouse in Camden this month

On August 22, the London Contemporary Orchestra will mark the 85th birthday of Karlheinz Stockhausen by performing works from the composer’s Klang at the Roundhouse in Camden. Co-artistic director Robert Ames writes about interpreting such an iconic and complicated composition.

When we were first approached by the Roundhouse to curate an event inspired by Conrad Shawcross’s latest light installation, titled ‘Timepiece’, we immediately thought of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s monolithic work Klang - Die 24 Stunden des Tages (Sound—The 24 Hours of the Day). It is a cycle of compositions which he worked on from 2004 until his death in 2007. It was intended to consist of 24 chamber music compositions, each representing one hour of the day, with a different colour systematically assigned to every hour. The cycle was left unfinished when the composer died, and so the last three ‘hours’ are missing. The 21 completed pieces include solos, duos, trios, a septet, and Stockhausen's last entirely electronic composition, Cosmic Pulses. We decided that we would like to present a mixture of both purely electronic and chamber works that show the full range of Stockhausen's imagination from the traditional setup of a string trio to the ‘wall of sound’ he started creating in his later electronic works. We finally settled on the 21st Hour: Paradies (Paradise), a world premiere of the eight-track electronic version; the 9th Hour: Hoffnung (Hope), a string trio that will receive its London premiere; the 7th Hour: Balance, a wind trio, which will receive its UK premiere; and the 13th Hour: Cosmic Pulses, one of Stockhausen’s most iconic and famous works.

Of course, putting on a work as important and complex as Klang presents many complications, least of all as a player. Even before putting bow to string, the score of Hoffnung was something to behold: lines of glissandi are set off by spiked notes, incredibly fragile trills flutter, and everything is underpinned by the now very familiar gradations within the piano dynamic range. The feeling of comfort when seeing such a clear score was somewhat disturbed by those phrases where we realised that we were all playing in separate tempi. But that is the challenge we undertook... and after two days in the German provincial town of Kurten with flautist Kathinka Pasveer, surrounded by natural beauty and just metres away from Stockhausen's house, the life and magical detail in the score became apparent.

Working on Hoffnung with Pasveer, Stockhausen's partner and muse, felt like just one of many steps to finding the meaning behind the work for ourselves. Stockhausen composed many works especially for Pasveer. She has a profound understanding of his music having given many world premiere performances and dedicating the vast majority of her life to his music. She helped us to ask many important questions of the music: What role do we play? Are we creators or are we simply tools that deliver the work to an audience and are then discarded by the music? I got the impression that the work really could be played by other instruments, either pre-existing instruments or those created for the express purpose of playing Stockhausen's music. There are no abrupt silences, nor abrupt notes, just sound undulating and unfurling. The trio take it in turn to drop out of the work, yet, even with just two instruments playing, the third is always there, always breathing. In essence we are all involved, even before the work begins.

After six hours in a pristinely white room in Kurten (in which Stockhausen composed Cosmic Pulses) there were moments where disputing 63.5BPM (beats per minute) as opposed to 60BPM threatened to break what had become a beautiful, if still very fragile, understanding of this work. But the intention behind Stockhausen's writing is so compelling that there was no possibility of flippancy, no matter how tempting. What was very clear was that we were putting into action the vision of a man who was intent on treading a path that many shun. Of course, there were moments of repose in our work, where we finally came close to achieving something like the finished article. But no opportunity for respite, no matter how much it was needed, was enough to take the mind from Hoffnung and nor should it have been. With the complete supervision and advice of Kathinka Pasveer we departed for London saturated with hope. This is music to obsess over, to suffer with and to give oneself to totally.

Robert Ames's picture

Robert Ames

Robert Ames is co-founder and co-artistic director of the London Contemporary Orchestra, and also performs regularly as a soloist and chamber musician. (photo: Jana Chiellino)

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