Sternklang

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007)

Paul Griffiths

On his visit to Japan in 1966 – his first trip to Asia – Stockhausen witnessed a performance very different from those he knew from theatres and concert halls: the Omizutori festival, which takes place annually in mid-March at a temple in the ancient capital of Nara, and which involves not only venerable music but also the drawing of water by night from a well by torch-bearing monks. An observant Catholic in his youth, Stockhausen was familiar with ritual, but this example he observed in Japan, far from home, staying up through the night, struck him deeply. For the next few years, though he went on writing pieces for his touring ensemble to give in regular concert venues, his larger works tended to have a ceremonial character and a metaphysical import. Sternklang (Star-Sound), which he imagined in 1969 and realized two years later, is the most spectacular example: music to take place in a large park under the stars, presented by five groups of performers communicating with one another by way of messengers.

As to the nature of that music, another of Stockhausen’s recent experiences seems to have been fruitful: his encounter with the lengthily sustained harmonies of La Monte Young. In 1959, at the age of 23, Young had crossed the Atlantic to attend Stockhausen’s lectures at Darmstadt; a few years later the roles were reversed when Stockhausen, in New York, visited Young and attended a rehearsal. Young’s long, potentially endless durations and his use of pure frequency ratios (rather than the deviations required by the equal temperament standard in western music), creating a glow of sound, seem to have been remembered by Stockhausen soon after, in 1968, when he wrote Stimmung, a work in which six singers concentrate for more than an hour on overtones of a low B flat. Sternklang is a vast expansion of this idea. Each of the five groups has its own continuous overtone chord, all five chords sharing a middle-register E that resounds throughout the two hours or so of the piece – and throughout the park.

Positioned as far apart as possible, the five groups interpret their chord according to ‘models’ prescribing rhythms and timbres, the latter in terms of the phonetic alphabet. Each model is based on the layout of stars in a particular constellation, allowing the possibility that, on a clear night, the musicians could follow the score as written in the heavens. The messengers, or ‘sound-runners’, as Stockhausen calls them, repeat models as they transmit them from one group to another, while at certain predetermined points all five groups follow the same model, the same constellation. At other moments just one group is performing. Amplification allows the five groups to hear one another, and also to hear a centrally placed percussionist giving signals when to move from one section to another and indicating tempo changes.

Two of the groups who took part in the first few performances of Sternklang were from this country: Gentle Fire and Intermodulation, both of which included musicians who had studied with the composer. The first British performance took place at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 1988 and was given, this being late November, in the municipal sports hall. Stockhausen, who was present, had sanctioned indoor presentations several years before, when plans for a summertime riverside Sternklang in Bonn had had to be abandoned on account of heavy rain. Nevertheless, Huddersfield, like Bonn, managed to replicate some of the features of a parkland setting, with potted trees, astroturf and a dog.

Anyone who has attended a performance of Sternklang – there was one in Cannon Hill Park in 1992, again with the composer at the controls – will have experienced this sensation of music beyond music beyond music, receding in one’s imagination as far as the stars. One might feel again a sense of wonder unknown since childhood, and find oneself embraced in a communal celebration of a kind that, just now, seems like a dream.