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Whispers from Another Universe

New York
Wade Thompson Drill Hall, Park Avenue Armory
06/05/2024 -  & June 12, 2024
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Excerpts from the opera Licht: Montags-Gruss – Unsichtbare Chöre from Donnerstag – Mittwochs-Gruss (North American Premiere)
Karlheinz Stockhausen (Recording Conductor), Kathinka Pasveer (Sound Projection), Urs Schönebaum (Spatial Installation and Lighting Design), Robi Voigt (Video Design), Reinhard Klose (Sound Engineer), Pierre Audi (Original Concept)

Part of Licht (© Samuel A. Dog)

I like invention, I like discovery. But being quiet and meditating on sound is something completely different and will be discovered very soon by a lot of people who feel that the visual world doesn’t reach their soul anymore. I became aware that all sounds can make meaningful language.
Karlheinz Stockhausen

Many decades ago, Karlheinz Stockhausen visited Bangkok on the way back from Japan. Alas, his informal concert at the Goethe Institut was canceled at (an electrical short). So I was saddled (ha!) with chaperoning he, his girlfriend and I up to his hotel room where we (or mostly he) talked for two or three hours. Before going home, I asked a probably inane question.

“So, summing up, what’s the difference between Good Music and Bad Music.”

In a hemidemisemiquaver, Stockhausen answered: “Good music changes your life. Bad music doesn’t change your life.”


Last night’s performance from his twenty-nine-hour magnum opus, Light (which took him 30 years to compose!) didn’t meet that benchmark. But the mega-Gargantuan son et lumière encompassing the 55,000 square‑foot Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall, the sounds pulsing through a 16‑track recording system (this for an invisible choir), and the shaking, vibrating lights from 50‑odd pin spots, 25‑foot‑high visually antiphonal screens and a laser‑like light around the whole auditorium made this–to say the least–epic.

Not Seventh Century B.C.E. Homeric epic, but 27‑Centuries‑Later electronic epic. (At times I longed for the Iliad.)

While the Park Avenue Armory has been devoted over the last two decades in producing these epic productions, one still feels, in a Jungian memory, its original purpose. In 1861, the Armory was erected to enlist, teach and–in this hall with its 80‑foot ceiling–to drill recruits from the North to fight the Rebels of the South. One can almost hear their boots and muskets vibrating on the floor, their war‑chants echoing to the walls.

These were hardly the sounds of Karlheinz Stockhausen. In fact, it’s verily impossible to give verbal replicas of his choral and orchestral sounds for three excerpts from Licht. The explanations in the large program book spoke about choruses in Hebrew and German, basset‑horns electronically manipulated, and hundreds of other auditory quanta.

One didn’t hear the choruses (save for muffled 16th Century polyphony in the first piece, the occasional shout in the second). The basset‑horn was disguised so thoroughly that even that basset‑horn aficionado with the greatest ears in history, Mozart, wouldn’t have recognized it.

Nor did the six program-book scores make any sense. I’m pretty good at reading scores, but Mr. Stockhausen hid his sounds behind mathematical graphs.

Yet one cannot possibly denigrate his massive talents. The “white noise” behind the voices sounded like static slowly‑moving noises. But like the inaudible quiet silence behind Maserati Gran Turismo, ten‑thousand parts were moving.

At times, Stockhausen the religio/magician came out. In the last piece, artificial bells and/or chimes erupted. Yet they couldn’t have been real. Instead of temporary reverbs and overtones, we heard endless reverbs, overtones and endless under‑tones.

Yes, emotional. But more important something with which we could identify. With a lesser composer, we could think of being put in a trance. Stockhausen was wishing for something else.

The aural legerdemain was one thing. The animated lighting was equally fascinating. One screen was constructed of five vertical columns. The other was ten cinderblocks leading to a flat top. The first section showed pure shimmering lime green. Green pin‑spots, green motions on the screen, greens against the borders around the arena.

Next was black and white. First the flickering hues were like a monster bonfire, the flames black, the spaces white. Next they could have been Hubble telescopes of black holes and galaxies.

More of Licht (© Samuel A. Dog)

Third I imagined the second roiling boiling second movement of Debussy’s La Mer–this from the bottom up! The blackness at the bottom, the foam at the top. And at the end, all orange with a huge orange disk in the ceiling.

Finally I realized what sound and space and color related to. Alexander Scriabin pictured a symphony which (if I remember) lights hung from the planets, orchestras were sited on mountains, choruses were spread around the world. (For reasons unknown, this never happened. Was it financing problems?)

What the Park Avenue Armory produced, with the amazing technical staff above, was an extravaganza not to understand, but to experience, to encounter.

Granted some in the audience simply endured and then walked out. I don’t know what they expected. Not having heard this before, I came and expected nothing at all. So everything–the lime green, the orange disk, the sounds of bells, the invisible chorus, the huge Armory spaces–were each mini‑spectacles, adding up to an extravaganza as indescribable as the Universe next door.

CODA: Here are the following performances: Part I (Montags-Gruss, Unsichtbare Chöre & Mittwochs-Gruss): June 5 & 12 (7pm); Part II (Freitags-Gruss & Freitags-Abschied): June 6 & 13 (7pm); “Marathon” (music from Parts I and II): June 8 & 14 (4pm). The latter is six hours and a half long with a one‑hour dinner break.

Harry Rolnick



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