Stockhausen

DER JAHRESLAUF (THE COURSE OF THE YEARS), 1977

This text was edited by Jerome Kohl

According to the composer,

"JAHRESLAUF was composed for 4 dancer-mimes, an actor, 3 mimes, little girl, beautiful woman / Gagaku orchestra, tape / sound projectionist. ...It was commissioned by the National Theatre in Tokyo. The staged world premiere of this version, with the dancers and instrumentalists of the Imperial Gagaku Ensemble, a Noh actor, 5 actors, 4 musical assistants, and sound projectionist took place at the Japanese National theatre in Tokyo on October 31st 1977." [Booklet to CD 29]

Further performances with European instruments followed in Europe. The recording on the CD was made the day before the world premiere of the concert version with European instruments. The work is scored for three harmoniums, anvil, three piccolos, bongo, three soprano saxophones, bass drum, harpsichord and guitar.

The performance duration is specified as ca. 50 min., the duration of the CD is 46'07".

This is most unusual, exotic-sounding music. The sound character is in part a result of the use of instruments from Gagaku music in the original version, instruments for which similar sounding substitutes were sought for the version with European instruments as heard on the CD. The entire sound palette makes an incredibly intense, insistent impression, heightened in its effect by often circling and sometimes (quasi-) periodic patterns of musical gesture. In essence, Stockhausen succeeds wonderfully here in maintaining the insistent sound traits of Gagaku music while employing different and very original textures. The tempi of some layers in DER JAHRESLAUF are often considerably faster than the generally slow-moving music of Gagaku, and the rhythmic phrasing also frequently departs radically from the usually very pronounced legato playing in Gagaku. The combination of harmony and timbre in this work leads to sound envelopes of a strange beauty.

The sound character of the harmoniums as played here is astonishingly similar to that of the soprano saxophones in terms of penetration and timbre. This is a parallel to the relationship between the Japanese shô (mouth organ) and the hichiriki (shawm), to which the above European instruments most closely correspond.

According to Stockhausen, "THE COURSE OF THE YEARS draws with pure musical energies, waves, rhythms, the togetherness of the time layers, the formants in the spectrum of time."

About the contents the composer says:

"THE COURSE OF THE YEARS simultaneously depicts as four musical time layers millenniums (3 harmoniums), centuries (anvil and 3 piccolos), decades (bongo and 3 soprano saxophones), and years (bass drum with harpsichord and guitar).

"Four temptations bring it to a stand-still, and each time an incitement sets it in motion again. In a performance, these temptations and incitements become audible as sound-events and words over loudspeakers."

With a few modifications, the music of DER JAHRESLAUF is incorporated into the first act of the opera DIENSTAG aus LICHT. This act is called JAHRESLAUF (without the definite article) and adds singing roles for the antagonists in that opera, Lucifer and Michael, as well as a final procession of all musical participants during which they leave.

*****

For the entrance of the musicians there is a tape with polyphonic ringing of Geisha bells, which Stockhausen played and then synchronized. The rhythmic patterns are intricate and intriguing.

The long first TUTTI features the piccolo flutes leading the music with the fastest time layer; they play rhythmically very vivid figures formed from short notes, which in a complex process gradually climb up the pitch ladder, such that statistically ever higher notes are played. The soprano saxophones form an important countervoice, playing more drawn-out sounds rich in glissandi. Bongo and bass drum at times set accents, and guitar as well as harpsichord first hold back but gradually make a more and more prominent and lively contribution to the music. The harmoniums play long-drawn-out chords.

An interesting feature of the music in this section is a tendency toward levelling out the differences between the time layers in which the instruments play. A little over halfway through this section one or two flutes switch into a slower, more drawn-out mode of playing which comes closer to that of the soprano saxophones, and the livelier participation of guitar and harpsichord towards the end, more resembling the liveliness of the piccolo flute voices, also contributes to the impression that different layers in the music "meet in the middle", so to speak.

Given today's fashionable tendencies towards easy categorizations, some might call this whole passage minimalist music because all changes proceed in such a gradual manner, using quasi-periodical patterns. However, this would be an utterly superficial characterization. The music is far too complex in its proceedings and far too irregular in its patterns to be called that. Just following the intricate leading part of the piccolo flutes by ear is already quite a task, let alone following all the instrumental interactions in context.

In the first temptation we hear three persons running across the stage and pausing several times at different locations on the stage, offering the musicians flowers. A man's voice (Stockhausen) explains for whom the flowers are intended, and that none of the musicians wants them.

The timing of all the sounds, the steps, rustling of clothes and the voice, fills the event with tension in an uncanny way (the only instruments playing are the harmoniums, who softly sustain chords). Even in this acoustic interruption of the music by a foreign, nonmusical element, Stockhausen's innate sense of tension and drama is palpable, a sense which lays a vital foundation for the success of his musical compositions.

This interrupting event is followed by the first incitement, in which a little girl comes running in, rapidly clapping her hands, and urges applause from the audience to encourage the artists to continue.

The music restarts with the second TUTTI. At first this resumes the main characteristics of the first TUTTI from before the temptation/incitement episode, but soon a solo emerges in the first piccolo flute. It has a beautiful, somewhat exotic flavor, with many phrases of sequences of falling notes. The flute is accompanied gently by harmoniums and anvil.

The third TUTTI a first "group solo" of the soprano saxophones ensues, where these instruments play in unison with a howling, defiant tone, enhanced in its impact by the accompaniment of the piccolos, playing trills throughout. The phrases played by the soprano saxophones are quite lyrical in their expression, yet the continuity of the musical flow is impaired by all the phrases ending on a short note, followed by a pause (the accompanying music always continues in the piccolos). This constant stopping/starting of the flow of phrases played by the soprano saxophones imbues the music with an intense atmosphere.

The second temptation begins with the loud ringing of a table bell (used for signalling the beginning of meals) and the sound of a trolley rolling in is heard. A man's voice slowly says: "A cook with exquisite food". The second incitement is the roaring of a lion.

A harpsichord-guitar duo follows in which the two instruments have a conversation, accompanied mainly by harmoniums, bass drum and bongo. At first, one or the other of them presents its arguments with the other mostly being silent; they seem to listen to each other. From the beginning, however, it seems that the harpsichord has the lead and the guitar gives the counterargument; soon the harpsichord starts to run its own course musically, with the guitar trying to follow and comment on the proceedings of the harpsichord. While doing so, the rhythmic patterns laid out by these two instruments seem to run counter to each other.

The long fourth TUTTI with harpsichord-guitar duo sees the harpsichord taking the lead in the music for good and the guitar mainly accompanying. The harpsichord plays insistent figures in mainly circular motion, with practically no interruptions in the musical flow pouring out from it. However, that flow exhibits a lively "breathing" in tempo: a considerable amount of the time is spent either speeding up or slowing down. Remarkable musical tension is created by this means, a tension greatly enhanced by the interaction of the soprano saxophones with the outpourings from the harpsichord. These instruments play several intense and drawn-out crescendi on single chords, leading to climactic outbursts supported by the bongo, outbursts that always cool down in descrescendi. The crescendi of the soprano saxophones interact with accelerandi or heightened activity of the music in the harpsichord.

The third temptation is loud car-honking (four chrome horns with rubber bulbs which, when squeezed, honk four different pitches) going on quite densely for a while. It may be no coincidence that the honks sound somewhat similar to the tone of the soprano saxophones. They fit right in. The circling gestures of the honks on the other hand are reminiscent of the figures in circular motion played by the harpsichord in the previous section. The third incitement comes from the little girl announcing that the winner of the course of the years will get 10,000 marks, and she asks the musicians to continue to play.

In the fifth TUTTI the music restarts, accompanied by honking and the noise of a motorcycle, in a similar manner as it ended in the fourth TUTTI. Quickly, it quiets down while the voices of the soprano saxophones start to stand out in the music, leading to the second group solo of the saxophones within the TUTTI. The saxophones now start out with a considerably mellower, softer quality than in their first group solo, then gradually raise their voices to a howling tone as before. Their unison playing is very melodious, with their phrases, which are fluid this time, coming close to weaving one continuous melodic line.

Then the first soprano saxophone alone plays a long solo, consisting of three of Stockhausen's earlier formulas in succession. These are the HARLEKIN, the INORI and the MANTRA formulas. The accompaniment by the harmoniums is enchanting, and the bongo comments on the music in an elegant, often gently subdued manner. The presentation of the INORI formula is especially beautiful. A piccolo flute plays the first and last echoes of this formula and, at one point, also a reminder of the ostinato-like pulses found in some presentations of the formula in INORI.

The fourth temptation introduces "radio entertainment music" from tape (slow blues), raucously played by a dance band; a man's voice laughs with a mixture of spitefulness and astonished joy about what he sees and chortles, lecherously: "Stark naked!" (In the quasi-concertant version and in the opera a naked woman appears at this point.) The fourth incitement is a thunderstorm that fades away during the next musical passage:

The beginning of the sixth TUTTI is an explosion of sound after the thunderstorm. There is frenetic activity in bass drum, bongo, soprano saxophones and harpsichord, enhanced in its effect by feverish, continuous trills in the piccolo flutes (reminiscent of the accompanying music during the first group solo of the saxophones) that alternate between higher and lower pitches. The soprano saxophones play dense sequences of excited, relatively high-pitched dots of sound, at first forming something like rapid successions of small figures. Over time, the sequence of these dots gradually becomes less dense and relaxes into somewhat lower pitches; finally it transforms into single-tone droplets. The bongo and the harpsichord follow this same path towards musical relaxation, and it becomes clear after a while that we are dealing here with an elaborately composed, very slowly unfolding (over three minutes) decrescendo-decelerando. The tension throughout this whole process is not only held up by the carefully controlled gradualness of change in the instruments' gestures, but also by the undiminished presence of the piccolo trills throughout and by the sustained chords from the harmoniums.

Finally, the music subsides into a short passage labelled "Ruhe" (calm), in which the harmoniums are prominent, while soft sounds from piccolos and short sound droplets from soprano saxophones are heard, as well as individually spaced chords from the harpsichord, with pauses in between.

From there, the final crescendo sets out, stretching over approximately the same time as the sixth TUTTI with its elaborate decrescendo (about 3 min.), and is thus experienced as a reversal of the former process. The sounds from flute and soprano saxophones increase in density, loudness and excitement, the harpsichord speeds up from playing individual chords to a more constant flow of figures in interaction with the guitar, after some time the bongo starts to support the process by some energetic gestures, the chords from the harmoniums become more intense in volume and color and, finally, achieved in a stunningly seamless musical process, we encounter a similar level of frenetic musical activity as at the beginning of the sixth TUTTI.

This frenetic activity at last flows into the final chord, where the similarities between the sounds of harmoniums and soprano saxophones eventually are fused into one single bright color.

*****

These last sections of DER JAHRESLAUF can be seen as a further development of the extended, linear processes of crescendo/densification of sound dots and their reverse in the text composition YLEM, written five years earlier. However, the additional complexity and through-structuring of these processes in DER JAHRESLAUF, made possible in this work by their formalization as a notated score, make them appear as new entities.

These structures are especially attractive in their dynamism: A new form comprised of an extensive and complex decrescendo-decelerando built from sequences of small figures or sound dots, and a long crescendo with a powerfully directional motive force that in essence is a parallel to large crescendi in grand symphonic structures but with a distinctly new approach, using the same kind of building blocks as the decrescendo-decelerando.

As for the final crescendo, it should be noted that in modern music, another crescendo of gigantic proportions, which also uses sequences of small figures or sound dots in its build-up, at least is found in "Tombeau", the last section of Boulez's Pli selon pli. There the crescendo, also brilliantly composed, stretches over an even longer time than the final crescendo of DER JAHRESLAUF. However, the principal distinction of structure is that the latter after the initial, more tentative stages has a far more sweeping, goal-oriented (one might say, "symphonic") momentum.

*****

DER JAHRESLAUF is heard on CD 29 of the Stockhausen Complete Edition. The playing is lively and expressive, and the recorded sound is excellent and very present; only the voices on tape sometimes sound a little less than convincingly natural. The low-frequency impact of the bass drum is limited.

The character of playing and the balance of the instruments is often quite different from JAHRESLAUF in DIENSTAG aus LICHT, such as to make this recording very worthwhile even for those who have or intend to acquire the opera.

One difference in the balance is that the harmoniums are usually less prominent than the synthesizers/samplers (substituting the harmoniums) in the DIENSTAG recording. This turns the attention of the listener to other instruments. For example, in the second group solo of the saxophones the synthesizers/samplers in the newer recording are predominant, and a lively polyphony between the synthesizers/samplers and the soprano saxophones is evident. However, on the present CD, the melodic lines played by the latter instruments evolve more clearly. In the sixth tutti, the decrescendo-decelerando is more convincing in this recording, whereas in the DIENSTAG recording the dominance of the synthesizers/samplers and the rather subdued playing of the other instruments somewhat clouds the decrescendo process.

The musical processes in the harpsichord-guitar duos are considerably clearer and more intensely portrayed on the present CD. Also, the final crescendo here is stormier in character and more filled with raw energy than in the DIENSTAG recording. There however, that crescendo has an uncannily organic character of its own and in the final analysis is no less urgent in its development. It takes about 15% more time to unfold. In terms of instruments, I prefer the harpsichord on the older version to the synthesizer/sampler substituted in the DIENSTAG recording. On the other hand, I do prefer the sound of the synthesizers/samplers used as a harmonium/shô substitute in the latter recording to the harmoniums on the present CD. Essentially, the sound character of the synthesizers/samplers is kept very similar to the harmoniums (and the Japanese shô), but is richer in overtones, and the overall impression is that of a more intense, rich sound. And that sound even more impressively corresponds with the sound of the soprano saxophones. On the present CD the bongo plays a far livelier role overall, whereas in the DIENSTAG recording the bass drum is considerably more dominant.

Finally and importantly, of course, the sound-events between the musical segments are partially different from those in the opera where most of the male spoken parts are sung, and other sung passages are added as well as a final procession of the musicians.

 

© Albrecht Moritz 2003


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