I’m a bit concerned about my first live encounter with avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), aus LICHT at the Holland Festival. I’m not that keen on electronic music, a field in which Stockhausen was a pioneer. In his seven-opera cycle LICHT (Light), one opera for each day of the week, there’s even a character called Synthi-Fou, the Synthesizer Maniac. I needn’t have worried. LICHT, composed between 1977 and 2003, is electronic, acoustic, grandiose, intimate, and every combination thereof. aus LICHT is fifteen hours of highlights from the 29-hour magnum opus. It’s a chance to immerse myself in the weird and wonderful sound world Stockhausen, three days in a row, at Amsterdam's Gashouder. This cavernous, circular, industrial venue lends itself to works like Stockhausen’s that require spatialisation, the three-dimensional manipulation of sound.

<i>aus LICHT</i>: Day 1 © Ruth & Martin Walz
aus LICHT: Day 1
© Ruth & Martin Walz

Initially, the Holland Festival, Dutch National Opera and the Royal Conservatory of the Hague dreamed of presenting the whole cycle, but there wasn’t enough time or money. Still, €3.6 million and 400 performers, half of whom are students, is pretty massive. Without having seen a second of aus LICHT I already admire the performers after reading about colour-coded dynamics, microtones, fractional time signatures and stopwatch-timed entrances. Since I can’t claim to know how Stockhausen is supposed to sound live, this is a reaction to the performance rather than a formal review. I believe that any kind of music, even serialism, with it foreswearing of emotional origins, must stir its audience without tons of explanation beforehand. Nevertheless, a few basics won’t go amiss. 1. The main characters are derived from the Christian creation myth. The Archangel Michael is a force of positive change through music, Lucifer is the personification of evil, and Eva an earth mother and lover. 2. Characters are co-interpreted by singers, instrumentalists and dancers. For example, Eva is a soprano, a basset horn player, and a dancer. The score prescribes their movements and gestures as well as their music. 3. There is no plot, but a series of scenes. 4. All the music in the cycle is derived from a “superformula” consisting of three tone rows, one for each main character. 4. Stockhausen wrote the libretto, most of which is in German.

<i>aus LICHT</i>: Day 1 © Ruth & Martin Walz
aus LICHT: Day 1
© Ruth & Martin Walz

Part 1: Michael consists of excerpts from DONNERSTAG (Thursday). DONNERSTAGs GRUSS, a halting brass octet, serves as a prelude. In the autobiographical MICHAELS JUGEND, Michael’s parents teach him about music and hunting. Then, as in Stockhausen’s own family, tragedy strikes. Stockhausen’s mother suffered a mental breakdown and was euthanised by the Nazis. His father went missing in action during World War 2. Soprano Pia Davila (Eva/Mother), bass Maciej Straburzynski (Lucifer/Father) and tenor Georgi Sztojanov (Michael) depict these horrific events with riveting performances. They sing, aspirate and fire volleys of phonemes while executing precisely timed gestures. Eva’s institutionalisation and the disintegration of the family are spine-chilling. Their trios are the only passages before the intermission with which I can engage. The rest of the music reiterates itself with variations and increments that are too refined for my ears. I can appreciate the experimental inventiveness of Michael’s encounter with the bird-woman Moon Eva, basset horn player Denise van Leeuwen, and his music school admission exams. But I also think Stockhausen became enamoured with new sound forms to the point of overindulging. It doesn’t help that, apart from the costumes – part flower child, part fantasy – the semi-staged production is visually disappointing. Strips of light criss-cross the walls and, predictably, change colour. Not exactly cosmic. Performers are projected live on huge screens to ensure no-one misses anything, but the decision not to have subtitles is a mistake. “I’ve no idea what’s happening,” I heard a slightly bewildered woman saying. If you have no German, all you can do is try to decipher the gestures.

<i>aus LICHT</i>: Day 1 © Ruth & Martin Walz
aus LICHT: Day 1
© Ruth & Martin Walz

Things take off after the break with Michael’s orchestral world trip, MICHAELs REISE UM DIE ERDE. Trumpet player Jerome Burns as Michael is impossibly virtuosic and oozes personality. His musical journey is signposted with video clips. There’s the jazzy, post-industrial clangour of New York, the heady sounds of Bali, and bellowing brass and urgent rhythms of dangerous, exciting Central Africa, A pair of swallows in the shape of two nimble clarinettists in floor-sweeping coat-tails weave absurdly through the orchestra. When Michael finds his basset horn-playing Eva, a tender, playful duet ensues. At the finale, the venue comes into its own when individual instruments are electronically made to emanate from different compass points and echo themselves. After this bravura display, we cool down with five trumpets blowing the soothingly repetitive DONNERSTAGS-ABSCHIED above our heads. Sleep, then Part 2.

***11