This work is the greeting of the opera SUNDAY from LIGHT. It is written for soprano, tenor and orchestra with synthesizer and lasts about 52 min. The title refers to the elements of Michael (Light) and Eve (Water). SUNDAY from LIGHT is about the mystical union of Michael and Eve.
The music has an angelic character, especially in the singing of the soloists, and a soaring quality. With this, Stockhausen takes elements from the realm of traditional aesthetics, yet powerfully redefines them on his own terms – he transforms them within an unprecedented context and generates an entirely new, marvelous sound world (just like practically each work of Stockhausen is an own sound world in itself).
The aesthetics of the music is not comparable to any kind of post-modernism, it is something new, and powerfully so. It is hard to describe, you have to hear it for yourself. To be honest, I find it nothing short of sensational.
This music transforms its elements of traditional beauty actually to an elevated level: I can hardly remember having ever heard such angelic singing before. One of the examples closest to this singing, which comes to my mind, is other music by Stockhausen himself: the marvelous girl's choir from MONTAG aus LICHT. But there the captivating angelicity resides foremost in the unearthily soaring harmonies, and less in an exceptionally floating character of the melodic expression. The floating quality in LICHTER-WASSER is possibly enhanced by the singing of soloists – often in higher regions of their voice registers – instead of a choir.
The free floating, haunting elegancy of melodic expression in LICHTER-WASSER reminds me personally more of certain instrumental music rather than of other vocal music. Some examples are the Adagio of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and several passages in the Adagio of Bruckner's Ninth, as well as Stockhausen's own MICHAELS-ABSCHIED (from DONNERSTAG aus LICHT, see my essay). However, the character of LICHTER-WASSER is very different from all these musics.
Soprano and tenor, accompanied by synthesizer, begin the work with an initial duet which is breathtaking in its beauty. The two singers express themselves soaringly in high registers and in relatively drawn-out notes, with an intertwining of voices which is mesmerizing. The music just melts into the air.
Like here, the voices of soprano and tenor will be in great synergy with each other throughout the work: they either sing alongside each other in harmony, intertwine or alternate their singing in relatively short time intervals. Rarely one of them sings alone for a longer time.
After the initial duet, the section "entrance" (of orchestral instruments) is heard, and the orchestral playing adds a quality to the music which forms a fascinating and texturally fulfilling contrast to the angelic singing. The lower-registered brass and woodwinds are prominent and play with an earthy, gutsy sound, and the higher-registered instruments follow suit with a tone quality which is vivid and exhibits a certain roughness of timbre which you would not expect from an orchestra. The reason for this is that Stockhausen treats the orchestra as a gigantic chamber ensemble of 29 solo players and therefore, due to the lack of doublings, the timbres are not smoothed out; this of course is especially apparent in the string instruments. In addition, particularly from the next section onward, the phrases played have a chamber-music-like intimacy of vividness which is unusual for music played by an orchestra. This also contributes to the earthy quality of the instrumental music, which is in such fascinating contrast to the character of the singing. A main reason why Stockhausen treats the orchestra as an ensemble of solo players lies in the spatial composition (see below).
On the other hand, there is a soaring character in the instrumental playing which greatly complements the singing, even though the unpolished, chamber-music-like quality of tone forms this captivating and lively contrast to the smooth voices.
After the section "entrance" (of the instruments) the instrumental playing takes on a life of its own. In the following sections, the Michael and/or Eve-formulas are heard in the orchestra – the first section for example is called "1.MICHAEL-Welle/1. EVA-Welle" [Welle = wave] to specify which formulas are heard, in this case both. These formula-waves draw attention to themselves, apart from the vocal lines. They begin synchronously, separate polyphonically and meet at further synchronous beginnings, connected by 6 bridges spread throughout the work.
This instrumental life of its own both is facilitated by and enhances the contrast between the different characters – angelic versus earthy – of singing and instrumental playing. Often it seems that the music moves in two separate layers, the instrumental one and the vocal one, although audible points of interaction are mostly present.
The instrumental layer frequently is subdivided in the character of its sounds. On one hand normal instrument playing is employed, on the other hand rushing noises are heard from the wind instruments. These noises are produced by partially blowing in and over (or to the side) of the instruments. They are generated on defined pitches, and thus are capable of creating melodic lines. Of course the rushing noises have an entirely different timbre than the normal wind sounds and do not have their singing quality, and therefore form a layer in the polyphony which is heard as completely distinct from the one created by conventional instrument playing. On one hand these noises draw attention to themselves, on the other hand they are as transparent as to allow for the normal instrumental sounds to be followed entirely separately. This provides an unusual tension in the polyphony. However, the rushing noises are not only heard in polyphony with the normal instrumental sounds, at times they are employed as the only instrumental sounds.
The rushing noises are a fascinating addition to the musical palette and to the polyphonic texture, and they add yet another contrast to the character of the singing of soprano and tenor. They are known from earlier compositions for woodwinds or trumpet in LICHT. For example, they are used extensively in LUZIFERs TANZ for orchestra and in AVE, a duet for basset-horn and alto flute from MONTAG. In LICHTER-WASSER, however, these sounds stand out for the first time as prominent element of ensemble polyphony all along (in the earlier LUZIFERs TANZ, this happens only in select passages). As in AVE and other works, in LICHTER-WASSER there are also other noises generated on the mouthpiece of wind instruments.
The formula melodies played by the instruments are expressed in such a way that the instrumentation changes many times within the melodic lines. Either the instrumentation switches between single phrases or motives, or even the individual notes of the melodies each are played by different instruments. This leads to a beautiful rainbow-like color palette in the presentation of the formulas, giving them a specific kind of richness. This color palette of the music is further enhanced by the contrast between the characters of singing and instrumental playing. Great textures of instrumental timbres gliding alongside each other in polyphony are created.
Already earlier, for example in YLEM, in the final tutti of ORCHESTER-FINALISTEN and partially in GRUPPEN, Stockhausen had treated a larger ensemble or an orchestra as a group of soloists playing together. However, completely new is in LICHTER-WASSER the playing of songful melodic lines by an orchestra treated as a gigantic chamber ensemble of solo players, and the changing colorization within such melodic lines by switching of instruments between single phrases or even single notes.
Throughout the work the singing of the soprano mostly maintains its ethereally soaring character, with relatively drawn-out notes; it carries this character through the several humorous passages as well. A lot of the time, the tenor voice also continues the angelic singing from the beginning, but quite frequently it acquires a more "down to earth" tone. Sometimes, during the passages of humorous expression later in the work, the tenor voice leans more towards the phonetic curves of talking, while it is still more singing than actually employing speechsong, even though the latter also briefly occurs one or two times.
"In the 12 waves, the durations of the two formulas are gradually enlivened, from undivided durations of the formula notes in the first wave to maximally subdivided durations in the 12th M-wave...."
With some delay, the lines of the soprano and tenor voices gradually start to be affected by this more and more intense rhythmic life of the formulas in the instruments, and gain a greater dramatic expression towards the end. Overall, however, the relatively drawn-out notes of the singers create the impression that the music is in rather moderate tempo throughout, even though the rhythms of the instrumental lines become more and more lively the further the work progresses, up to great vividness in the last stages. At several moments during the work an accumulation of instrumental lines flows into a dramatic sweep which carries along the singing, enforces it or responds to it, and adds a captivating urgency to the musical drama.
In the section "exit" – of the instruments – only a few lines played by orchestral instruments are audible at the beginning, while most of the music is played by the synthesizer. This instrument here creates a kind of cosmic music – rich, vibrant and spacious.
The final duet of soprano and tenor ends the work in the atmosphere it started with. Accompanied by synthesizer, the voices sing in high registers, with a magical melting tone, in a freely invented language, phonetically conceived.
During most of the work, the sounds emerging from the synthesizer are very rich in overtones, gently but with penetration adding to the soaring character of the singing. There are no percussion instruments used in LICHTER-WASSER; however, at some points later in the work the synthesizer plays tones that are reminiscent of the attack on certain high-pitched metallic percussion, but then with a considerably more present "decay" phase.
The spatial composition, an essential aspect of the work, can only be experienced live. The instruments are distributed in approximately equal distances from each other throughout the concert hall. The composer:
"The individual notes of both formulas move from instrument to instrument in two spatial layers [...] The musicians play standing facing the conductor, who stands with his back to one of the walls."
In each wave, the spatial movements of the notes are different, resulting in different rotations of the formulas. Sketches for examples of this are provided in the extensive and informative CD booklet (which also features fascinating excerpts from the score). The texts can be obtained from the Suzanne Stephens 2000 report at http://www.stockhausen.org/suzee_8_12_00.html (at about 2/5 into the document). The composer:
"The rotations of the notes in space are related to the rotations of the 9 planets and 61 moons of our solar system, whose names, astronomical characteristics and significances are sung."
I really would want to experience this spatial composition live. But even without this, there is so much to listen to. The complex melodic polyphony, created in interplay between the vocal lines and the expression of the formulas in the instruments, makes this very dense music. It is quite a task for the listener to follow everything. But it may be found to be immediately rewarding, since the music is capable of drawing in the listener so powerfully.
LICHTER-WASSER is available at http://www.stockhausen.org/cd_catalog.html (CD 58). The recording quality is exemplary. Since for the recording the orchestral instruments were spread in space, just like in live performance, the 29 instruments had to be recorded on 29 tracks and mixed down. That this was done with the right balance and with great clarity of sound and instrumental timbre, while retaining believable acoustic information about the recorded space, may be a masterpiece of engineering. The soprano and tenor voices are recorded with convincing timbral purity.
Many thanks to the great efforts of the SWF orchestra who volunteered to work overtime just to enable this recording to be made (see the 2000 report of Suzanne Stephens). The playing of the orchestra is of high quality, with beautiful phrasing that allows for a superbly natural breath of the music, alongside the effective synthesizer playing and the great singing of the soloists.
© Albrecht Moritz 2001, text edited 2005