How much do we understand now about Karlheinz Stockhausen, fifty years on from his glory days in the 1960s? Certain works or titles of works, like Stimmung and Gesang der Junglinge have filtered into the collective musical psyche, but performances of his works since the turn of the century have become a rare thing. Despite this, his influence has remained important, not only for classical musicians, but also with popular musicians. The impression he gave in the 1960s that appealed to people like Paul McCartney, Frank Zappa and Björk, was of a rebellious and glamorous figure, whose beliefs about overturning the musical establishment and compositional techniques, were held with religious fervour. As time went on though and musical tastes became more conservative in the 1980s, Stockhausen’s ideas began to seem increasingly wacky. However, the quality of much of his music-making, as was witnessed in the brilliant production of his opera Donnerstag aus Licht in 1985 at the Royal Opera House, has sometimes been lost amid all the hype.

<i>Stimmung</i> © Mark Allan
© Mark Allan

So, all credit to the Barbican for showcasing two works, the famed earlier work Stimmung (1968) and one of the composers very last works, finished in 2007 shortly before his death, the electronic composition, Cosmic Pulses.

Stimmung is a work of around 75 minutes, performed here by Singcircle. The six singers employed produce multifarious sounds based on the note B flat and its harmonic series. Various ‘magic’ words emerge from the melange, punctuating the work, which otherwise runs continuously despite being subdivided into 51 sections. The effect is both hypnotic and intimate, like a social event without speaking. It is very much a product of its ‘flower power’ time, and as such perhaps enjoyed most under the influence of some chemical substance.

Singcircle, directed by Gregory Rose, who worked with Stockhausen extensively from the 1980s, gave the most concentrated and yet relaxed performance. Everyone looked as if they were enjoying themselves, the technical challenges and stamina needed, very much under their belt. Seated around a low table with a warm glowing spherical lamp at its centre, the effect of a relaxed conversation was even more emphasised. This gave the work a most civilised air, which rather contradicted the composer’s reputation as a destroyer of musical traditions.

<i>Cosmic Pulses</i> © Mark Allan
Cosmic Pulses
© Mark Allan

However, Cosmic Pulses, that followed was another matter. There was nothing polite or civilised about this electronic assault on the senses. This is Stockhausen in universal mode. Played through eight speakers spread around the hall, carefully orchestrated by the composer, the content of the score consists of 24 loops, in a pitch range of seven octaves. The mathematical rotation and combination of these loops produces the effect of steadily speeding up over nearly the whole span of the work, before it all quickly unwinds.

But these technical explanations mean very little when faced with the experience of hearing the work. The opening sounds are deep and earthy but as they increase in speed and higher pitched sounds are introduced the effect become increasingly urgent and extra-terrestrial – as if we are hearing the sound of the whole universe. This builds to a speed and intensity that the sounds coalesce and out of this aural soup wisps of ghostly sounds seem to be unintentionally generated. To add to the theatricality of the evening a laser show, designed by artist Robert Henke, filled the hall with shafts of light which developed in complexity and variety at the pace of the music. At its zenith the aural and visual show was truly overwhelming. A literally mind-blowing experience, produced faultlessly by all concerned.

Perhaps the full house gave a message to programme planners that there is an audience for stunning avant garde work, particularly when it comes to the larger than life creations of Stockhausen.