Stockhausen

AVE (1984/85)

for basset-horn and alto flute


AVE is a woodwind duet with a duration of about 23 min. that spans the entire scene MESSAGE from the 3rd act (EVE'S MAGIC) of the opera MONDAY from LIGHT. In the opera, a mixed choir is simultaneously involved in the musical action and in the action on stage, and all are accompanied by a so-called modern orchestra (for that orchestra, see my essay on the opera).

The composer (from the CD booklet):

"AVE was composed from January to March 1985 at the Leisure Lodge, Diani Beach (Kenya) and is dedicated to Suzanne Stephens (basset-horn) and Kathinka Pasveer (alto flute). [...]

"Four subscenes follow one another without a break:

EVAs SPIEGEL (EVE'S MIRROR)

"EVE appears as basset-horn player. She plays, absorbed in herself, acompanied by an invisible flute in the distance.

NACHRICHT (NEWS)

"The flute approaches. The two call each other.

SUSANI

"The basset-horn player then performs the solo SUSANI and dances for an audience which in her imagination surrounds her.

"At the same time, the alto flute plays SUSANI'S ECHO, an equally independent solo having completely different charcteristics and moods. While playing, she moves hidden in a semi-circle around the basset-horn player. From time to time part of the flute, or a hand, or a foot can be seen.

AVE

"After loudly whispering the numbers one to thirteen, a female alto flutist disguised as a young man rushes in. The two now play a duet having 7 stages:

"touching and getting to know one another; / greeting and arguing with shouts (but also with kissing noises...); / singing, playing and tongue clicking around each other; / speaking with each other through the instruments; / seducing each other; / weeping and cheering up again; / yearningly sighing, at last dancing with each other and uniting.

"They end in an entwined pose."

The composer adds:

"For AVE, I spent several hours daily for three months, trying out new micro-scales, voiced and voiceless ("rushing") consonant timbres with the two musicians. Quarter-, sixth-, eight-tones and numerically undefinable intervals of up to 26 steps within a major third (quasi "13th-tones"), together with all the indescribable timbre changes occur in this new composition.

"To this are added the movements which are integrated in the music.

"Even while composing for these traditional instruments, I constantly felt like a student on the threshold of a new development in instrumental usage."

A music of grace and fluidity

In several works of LICHT, for example in MICHAELs REISE, KATHINKAs GESANG or LUZIFERs TANZ, given passages often concentrate on a rather tightly circumscribed set of appearances or variations of formulas or formula fragments, which may then change when proceeding to another passage within the work.

In AVE, however, new lines and phrases are generated from the formulas in a continuous process all the time (in the basset-horn part of the section SUSANI, for example, this is achieved with so-called three-voice formula composition, see booklet of CD 32). In addition to this, in AVE, as also in numerous other parts of LICHT, the music sounds very melodic, to a high degree possessing the connective and singing quality of pitch successions commonly experienced as melody.

These two features together lead to the effect that the music especially in the strand created by the basset-horn seems to move along as a kind of "endless melody" showing exquisite freedom and flow. The melodic lines in both instruments are full of elegance yet also imbued with earthy energy, a synthesis most beguiling.

Of course, also in other New Music with solo parts, for example in concerti, the solo part(s) not infrequently seem to behave as "endless melodies", deriving their flow not from thematic development that would be circling around and elaborating on a confined amount of melodic material, but rather from what seems to be a free gestural narrative. Yet upon closer inspection, frequently this gestural narrative is circling around a more or less confined set of figures itself. Thus it is not really open and free and as such cannot create something that makes an impression of "endless melody". Also, even if the gestural narrative is rather free, the succession of pitches created by this narrative often appears like just that, a more or less fluid succession of gestures, and less like "melody" in the sense described above. In AVE, however, the gestural narrative seems to be truly free and open, spinning forth from one moment to another with the creation of ever new gestures, figures, expressions and these mostly are very melodic sounding.

Naturally, also here some recurrence of gestures is found, but nonetheless a remarkably open narrative is composed. First, often the recurrence of gestures is spread out over such distances that the impression of circling around gestures is avoided, especially in the part of the basset-horn. Second, once circling around gestures occurs (more frequently in the part of the flute than in that of the basset-horn), it happens in relatively short blocks that are not later repeated in character. Such an open succession of non-repetitive small blocks of course is very conducive to the creation of an open narrative. Third and very importantly, once a succession of similar or related gestures occurs, that entire presentation often is admirably shaped into an elegant overarching flow thus focusing the attention on a longer-stretched overall line instead of on the repetition of gestures.

Thus, in AVE the free flow, the generous expansion, and the mellifluous breathing, singing, soaring of lines constantly create an actual impression of melody in the common sense what is more, an experience of true "endless melody". This is the more remarkable as the melodic lines are not built on just small intervalls by which they could create a sense of endless flow working as a kind of self-generating automatons. Rather, they frequently use wide, expressive interval leaps and not only that they cover a wide register range as well.

In the lines played by the basset-horn, multiple sudden switches between lower and higher registers are evident in some passages (see for example the also by CD track indicated sections A-C, P of SUSANI, among others). These register changes, executed in a most elegant and fluid manner, contribute to the impression of effortless and free-spirited movement of the melodic lines through musical space. Also, the register changes lend a special kind of expressiveness to the music.

The melodic lines played by the alto flute often incorporate trills or (quasi-) repetitions of other fast-moving small figures. Due to this, they often acquire a circling character (yet see the characteristics described above), and overall the liveliness of pitch fluctuations in the flute textures seems to create the sonic equivalent of a butterfly vividly moving through the air. Or, as the composer put it for the flute part in the section SUSANI, "the melodies are filled with twirling tendrils" (booklet of CD 28). Such character of melodic lines is at times taken over by the basset-horn. In the section NACHRICHT the basset-horn extensively plays trills and the two instruments, to a certain extent, switch character as it were.

The character of the music combines playfulness with soaring melodic expression, the latter especially in the higher registers of the basset-horn. The soaring of tones is enhanced by vibrato, small slower pitch variations, and even glissandi over a very narrow pitch range.

Microtones play an important role in AVE, see also the comment of the composer above. An example from the score is reprinted in the CD booklet (beginning of the section AVE). The use of microtones strongly contributes to the perceived subtlety of melodic lines.

Also on a larger scale of musical motion, the subtlety of melodic lines shapes the architecture in an admirable way. Listen for example, to the intricate and drawn-out manner in which the music slowly regains liveliness towards the end of the work, after the soothing rushing noises by the basset-horn (see below). This is marvelous, refined larger-scale detailing of music.

Basset-horn and alto flute often move in entirely independent voices against each other, causing total polyphony an impression that two different musics play simultaneously. Such textures are especially heard in SUSANI, see also the composer's comment above. However, the instruments often meet as well, responding to each other in gesture or musical motion. The status of basset-horn and alto flute as two equal partners in the polyphony is also facilitated by the fact that both are woodwind instruments, and therefore operate with similar characteristics in generating musical flow.

Sometimes imitative passages of great nuance are heard, such as at the beginning of the section AVE when, in a delayed entrance, the basset-horn somewhat mimics in a remote, elegant manner the opening figure of the alto flute. It almost seems like a process of the instrument nestling into the musical fabric.

There is little, if any, harmonic friction between the two instruments. Since the polyphony is very dense, this helps keeping the music transparent the harmony in AVE is very open sounding.

Rushing noises

In AVE there is, besides the usual instrumental sounds, extensive use of rushing noises, which are generated by partially blowing in and over (or to the side) of the instruments. Such rushing noises are heard with varying frequency during instrumental passages in LICHT (they are also generated by voice heard in vocal passages of the opera cycle), and AVE is one of the works where the frequency of their occurrence is quite high even though there are also longer stretches of music where they are absent.

The function of these rushing noises is diverse and can be viewed both from purely abstract-musical and from expressive angles:

From a purely musical view, they create tension by their contrast to the normal sounds of the instruments generating a contrast sound/noise, as in other forms it has been important in Stockhausen's music already in the 1950s. This tension plays out differently in distinct applications of the rushing noises.

When employed as short gestures, the rushing noises can create tension by "breaking" or subdividing a melodic line, just like pauses in music. Presumably this is what the composer means when he speaks about one function of rushing noises as "colored rests" ("gefärbte Pausen"), see for example Texte zur Musik, Volume 9, p. 254. However, unlike in pauses of music as silence, there remains more connectivity in the music since "the music plays on" an intriguing kind of pause is thus created.

Also, this kind of pause acquires a special function once two or more different polyphonic strands in the music are heard: a "colored rest" in one strand remains easily audible when the music in the other strand continues without pause. This contrasts to the situation given by usual pauses in music, pauses of silence. When those occur in one strand, they may more easily be covered up by the continuation of the music in another strand.

On the other hand, as opposed to or in addition to functioning as "colored rest", the rushing noises can also create melodic lines themselves, because they play on defined pitches that can vary, just like normal tones. Even glissandi of rushing noises can be generated.

When melodic lines are created by rushing noises, they can fulfill a particular function in polyphony with other instruments that play normal sounds. Since of course the rushing noises have a different timbre and do not possess the singing quality which defines many normal instrumental sounds, they form a layer in the polyphony which is heard as completely distinct from the one created by normal instrument playing. On one hand these noises draw attention to themselves, on the other hand they are as transparent as to allow for the layer of normal instrumental sounds to be followed entirely separately. This provides an unusual tension in the polyphony (in LICHTER-WASSER such an application occurs in an extended manner).

In terms of shaping musical motion, rushing noises can also act to calm down the music, or in the exactly opposite way, they can act to "heat up" the music again. The flow of a melodic line containing rushing noises can sound especially beautiful depending on the context, the resumption of the singing motion of tones after a rushing noise may make that motion sound particularly free.

In addition to the musical functions described above, the rushing noises can also acquire decidedly theatrical-expressive functions. Some of the most pronounced rushing noises in AVE are actually best appreciated in these functions. It should not be forgotten that AVE is not an abstract duet of two woodwind players, but, being part of LICHT, it is operatic music (see above). Not surprisingly, several of the expressive meanings of the rushing noises became much clearer to me by seeing the work performed live. In that situation the operatic aspects of the work were also made visible, in the gestures of the performers and in their movements across the stage.

To name a few examples of the very diverse expressive functions of the rushing noises in AVE:

Not far into the first section of the work, the basset-horn, which is absorbed in herself (himself), makes a pronounced, gruffly gesture on rushing noises that may be seen as a signal to the flute to leave her (him) alone the flute is temporarily silenced by it. Later, in the section SUSANI, the two instruments play a kind of game question-answer with rushing noises, apparently in an attempt of mutually probing approach. In the section AVE, there appears to be a kind of love-making scene between the two players: the basset-horn makes a clearly steamy approach to the flute who only after a while gives in, indicated by her own steamy rushing noises. Shortly thereafter, the flute makes stuttering rushing noises which seem to signal shock about what they just did (she recedes from the basset-horn across the stage, audible on the CD in the movement from right to left). In the final passages of AVE, the basset-horn soothes the flute with rushing noises, before both instruments eventually unite in their music.

Many other examples of rushing noises occur in AVE, and in quite a few cases meanings in analogy to the ones described above may be found. As diverse as the use of the rushing noises in AVE is, even this work, however, does not exhaust all the expressive capabilities of these noises. For example, in OBERLIPPENTANZ (for piccolo trumpet solo or with orchestra/ensemble) it is heard that they also can vent anger or protest. It is remarkable what diversity in human expression the composer has succeeded to portray with rushing noises.

It may take some time until the listener is able to hear the rushing noises integrated into a total musical experience alongside the normal tones, instead of just as "weird distractions", but once this level of listening is achieved it turns out that they clearly add another, important dimension to the music.

Also other noises are used in AVE. Among those are kissing noises, produced on the mouth pieces, as well as tongue-clicking and noises made on the instrument keys. Diverse vocal articulations from the players are also heard, some of these in close connection with instrumental sounds (singing through the instrument while playing). One passage features the sound of light footstomping, coming from dancing movement, beneath gently "cooking" music in the instruments a beguiling combination.

Musical richness

The music of AVE is very rich. Horizontally it is immensely varied in its "endless melody", and vertically the intensity of the polyphony is high even though only two instruments are playing. Since often the two instruments play parallel musics, the musical argument many times becomes extremely dense. It takes concentration to follow everything simultaneously, also due to the refinement of the melodic lines.

The contrast between the graceful melodic fluidity of the music on one hand and the frequent use of rushing noises on the other hand is another fascinating and elemental source of musical richness. The sumptuous melodic flow is subdivided with greatly varying frequency by the rushing noises (and also by the other noises described above). This subdivision adds even more character and complexity to the melodic flow, as well as considerable tension. Often the subdivision by rushing noises only takes place in the lines played by one instrument, while the other plays on with normal tones throughout. Engaging polyphonic textures are generated by this.

Performance and recording

AVE is available at http://www.stockhausen.org/cd_catalog.html (CD 35). Suzanne Stephens (basset-horn) and Kathinka Pasveer (alto flute) give a performance that flows effortlessly, is very expressive and radiates joy of playing. The 1991 recording is clear in sound. It highlights the inner details of the instrumental sounds (the instruments themselves carry microphones and are amplified in any performance), yet also puts the musicians into a believable perspective as being playing on a stage. The frequent movements of the musicians on stage can be perceived clearly and palpably in the stereo panorama.

The same CD 35 from Stockhausen-Verlag that contains AVE also features OBERLIPPENTANZ (version for piccolo trumpet, euphonium, 4 horns, 2 percussionists) and the Trio Version of TIERKREIS.

For those who want to listen to the music in even more detail, the sections EVAs SPIEGEL and SUSANI are also available on recording as parts for basset-horn alone (CD 32). Furthermore, SUSANIs ECHO, the flute counterpart to the basset-horn in the section SUSANI, can be heard by itself on CD 28.

*****

With thanks to Michele Marelli and José Carrero for helpful discussions. Playing the basset-horn Michele gave, together with Karin De Fleyt (alto flute), a marvelous performance of AVE during the Stockhausen courses Kürten 2001 which I attended.


© Albrecht Moritz 2002, text edited 2005


Home