Stockhausen

MONTAG aus LICHT (MONDAY from LIGHT),
opera in three acts
(198488)

Short and necessarily incomplete synopsis, concentrating on the symbolism of the opera (without trying to interpret it):

MONDAY from LIGHT is the Eve-day, in the same way as THURSDAY and SATURDAY from LIGHT are the days of Michael and Lucifer, respectively. 

MONDAY is a musical ceremony in veneration of the mother, a celebration of birth and the rebirth of humanity.

Eve is symbolized by a huge sitting figure of a woman which is on stage all the time during the opera. Several women are present, preparing Eve for a celebration of birth, a ceremony for the veneration of the mother. From Eve, the mother of humans, 14 children are born, 7 animal-children and 7 heinzelmen (Heinzelmännchen).

"Musical celebration in memory of the painful birth of man,
the monstrosity before re-birth, the bastards before the angels,
the dullness before the truth, the monstrous before the beauty,
the deafness before the musicality."

Following that birth, there is a pram-dance and a pram-race. After lucipolyp tries to destroy the party, he is buried by the women in the sand. However, Lucifer is showing up and to the shock of all women he commands all 14 children back into Eve's womb. A girl's choir sings to Eve: "We sing to move you, to continue to help us, to procreate healthier, more beautiful, more musical human beings. Deliver, give birth EVE, found a new paradise for children." A piano is loaded from a truck between the legs of the huge Eve figure right in front of her vagina and the girls invite the piano player to fertilize Eve for the re-birth with a piano piece.

Seven healthy boys are born from Eve, seven musical children. They are Monday-child, Tuesday-child and so on, until Sunday-child. The girls sing: "Thank you, mother of the world for the second birth from LIGHT."

The children are each taught their own song of the day. Eve's magic is sung when she appears as coeur de basset, playing the basset-horn. A female alto flute player, dressed like a young man, flirts with Eve. Later, the flute player acts as a pied piper, enchanting the children with playing and singing. Finally, the pied piper abducts the children and takes off with them into the clouds. The children can long be heard to whistle and sing Eve's song:

"MONDAY born from LIGHT
ceremony and magic."

During this, the Eve figure becomes older and older, until it transforms into an old mountain.

*****

The choral music (some of it coming from tape) and music for choir and soloists in this opera blows my mind. Already in his early works CHÖRE FÜR DORIS (Choruses for Doris) and CHORAL, two of his very first compositions, Stockhausen has proven to be an exceptional composer for choir. The greatest composers for choir have an intimate understanding of harmony and counterpoint in relation to the colors of the human voice, and Stockhausen had this understanding from the start, apparently in an effortlessly intuitive manner (even though the harmonic language in those very early works was rather conventional). This intuitive understanding obviously has deepened throughout the years with experience, Stockhausen has developed a fascinating own style in the treatment of voice colors, and here we have music for choir or choir/soloists which I consider some of the most sublime music ever written.

It is awesome.

There is a captivating gestural richness in the choral writing, a wealth gathered from the daring exploration of the choral human voice by Stockhausen throughout many works, an adventurousness starting from CARRÉ and going further. There is sublime counterpoint, either between choral strands or between soloists and choir (for example right at the beginning of the first act between 3 sopranos and choir, and later in the juxtaposition of 3 sopranos, women's choir and children with a men's choir). Also, there is a marvelous tapestry of dynamic shadings woven into the singing. The effortless breathing of the music is among the most stunningly natural I have ever encountered in choral music and we are talking about atonal music here.

There are amazing, refined rhythmic interactions between strands, and there is an exceptional subtlety of harmony. Yes, an exceptional finesse of the harmonic fabric in atonal music, a subtlety which in this atonal context gives the music a special kind of strange, seductive beauty. This is one of the musics which just let you stand in awe as to what richness has been added to music by atonality. In fact, I have rarely encountered this kind of harmonic delicacy in tonal choral music. I am tempted to think that in comparison with this music of MONTAG the choral music of most other great composers sounds somewhat crude just a temptation of thinking, but you get the idea. The harmonic network is seductively sustained along the numerous glissandi. The harmonic textures laid out by the girl's choir in act II are simply incredible and magically enchanting. You cannot even remotely imagine how marvelous the music of that girl's choir might be until you have heard it. Where applied, changes of the harmony as a function of dynamics can be extraordinarily beautiful; an arresting example would be the men's choir right at the beginning of act III (Eve's magic).

We are talking about subtlety and beauty here, and the most thrillingly disorienting fact is that all this takes place in the context of totally trippy music, more psychedelic than the weirdest efforts in rock music of the 60s and 70s I know of. It is music with all the healthy and exciting Stockhausen "craziness" and excentricity you can think of. It nearly sounds as if the composer was on drugs when writing this, but I believe him when he disclaims drug use. I doubt that a composer of his level of unbridled musical fantasy (which he constantly has shown already from the 50s onward) needs any other boost than just taking resource to his wild inner self. Stockhausen certainly is "way out there": we should not forget the fact that he comes from the planet Sirius. According to Stockhausen, this is not a joke.

A substantial amount of the perceived subtlety and its impact is actually allowed exactly by the excentricity of the music: the playground for intricate, fascinating and colorful harmonies and counterpoint is widened dramatically by all the impossible possibilities of musical interactions.

The character of choral writing deeply penetrates the opera: often Stockhausen uses the intertwining of solo voices also in a choir-like manner. The three sopranos, always appearing together, often blend / cooperate with / imitate the sustained tones from the choir or form a counterpoint to it as if there was another choral part added, instead of singing in a solo-like fashion, and also in their extended solo-passage (Second Birth-Aria) the intertwining of their voices creates somewhat choir-like textures. The three tenors (no, not those!) in act I, appearing as sailors, sing synchronized in harmony throughout. Also, the three sopranos later sing synchronized in harmony themselves against the three tenors.

*****

In this opera Stockhausen uses what he calls the "modern orchestra". He replaces the traditional orchestra with, according to his description: "Numerous synthesizers and samplers; diverse percussion with mechanical and electronic sound sources; multi-track tapes with pre-recorded instrumental and vocal ensembles and sound-scenes (montages of acoustical events from all areas of life)". There are 3 synthesizer players in the opera, seated on the stage apron.

(The following three paragraphs between [] were edited for content in 2004 by the author.)

[In act I (the longest act) the music from the synthesizers is rather static; they often play drones, quite frequently featuring oscillations or fluctations in timbre or pitch. In acts II and III the synthesizers play more dynamic music; in act II there is at times a veritable firework of synthesizer music unleashed in the long episode "Eve's Song".

When played dynamically as in "Eve's Song", in many instances the synthesizers sound in an obvious manner like keyboard instruments, where a pronounced attack phase on each note is heard (as on piano or clavichord). This differs from the common use of synthesizers where mostly such keyboard character of the instrument is not evident in the sound. In the dynamic synthesizer parts of MONTAG, the build-up of tones with their often pronounced attack phase is fitting for the extensive use of irregular rhythm in the music, the musical play of question-answer and the way synthesizer lines comment on other events.

Also, in this opera (and in other music) Stockhausen exploits the potential of the synthesizer to create a rich spectrum of overtones. This, together with the described keyboard character, contributes to the sound being more obviously "synthesizery" than listeners to usual synthesizer music or rock music employing synthesizers might be accustomed to, but it makes superb sense in the music of MONTAG, adding resonance, vibrance and richness to the sound. Furthermore, the timbres in "Eve's Song" and "The Pied Piper" tastefully emphasize playfulness, in character with Eve and the Pied Piper, respectively, teaching songs to children in these scenes. Particularly in "Eve's Song" the invention of timbre is extraordinary.]

Listening to not just the sounds, but also to the sounds in relation to their musical function, reveals that Stockhausen's use of the synthesizer, although unusual and therefore maybe requiring to get used to, is very inventive and colorful, sophisticated and utterly fascinating. I find myself returning to those passages over and over again.

*****

Humor and playfulness play an important part in this opera. Stockhausen apparently has decided that his operas should be an artistic reflection of life in all its facets, and the importance of these aspects of life is reflected in this opera. The humor also seems natural in a musical environment of "weirdness" (see above).

Stockhausen shows that atonal music is the perfect medium for the expression of humor and playfulness. The jerkiness which atonal music can acquire is very well exploited for playful scenes, and the natural expression achieved here could be paralleled in a similar manner in tonal music only through distortion.

Much of the humor evolves around the presence of children (there is a children's choir too), for example when the children playfully learn their songs of the day or while they are captivated by the pied piper with his music. Sometimes the humor in the opera is bitter. At a certain point a historic voice says:"Since 5.45 in the morning we are returning fire!", with a mass of people shouting "Heil!" (short for: Heil Hitler!). Stockhausen's comment? The flushing of a toilet. But this flushing is so loud and thorough that an inner laugh at that point is inevitable.

*****

The basset-horn (an instrument from the clarinet family, with register in between usual clarinet and bass clarinet; played here mostly by Suzanne Stephens) and the diverse kinds of flute (Kathinka Pasveer) play an important role in the opera. "Eve's Greeting", the introduction to the opera before act I, sounding in the foyer, is for multiple basset-horn and synthesizer. The basset-horn, symbolizing Eve musically, subsequently plays a dominant role in several passages of the opera until in act III the pied piper abducts the children with the flute, after an enchanting flirt of basset-horn and alto flute.

That relatively long musical flirt of basset-horn and alto flute is accompanied by choral singing. Since the instruments are in the foreground and the choir quite frequently sings very softly, a unique atmosphere of sound is the result. It is enhanced by the novel, exciting textures heard from the two woodwinds.

The ending of the opera, "Eve's Farewell" like "Eve's Greeting" heard in the foyer, this time when the audience is leaving is an enchanting musical fantasy for soprano voices, electronic music and piccolo flute. It is a fantasy on Eve's song (MONDAY born from LIGHT ceremony and magic), developing an exceptional wealth of variations and of playing of the flute around the voice lines. This long last part of the opera (about 30 min.) is, as an unusual feature, completely dominated by the ever present sound of the piccolo flute.

Just like in this last part, Stockhausen surprises the listener throughout the opera with new musical experiences (among them, all those textures of singing of choir, choir/soloists too); true to his motto of doing this in every new work which he creates, a motto he formulated more than 35 years earlier, since KREUZSPIEL.

The CD set (5 CDs) is available at http://www.stockhausen.org/cd_catalog.html (CD 36). The recording is of high quality, transparently mixed down onto CD by Stockhausen himself.

The CD booklet is amazing. It contains two hundred pages (German and English) including more than 20 color pictures showing scenes from the opera. The libretto texts are printed as well as detailed descriptions of every scene and of many single scenic moments. This, together with the beautiful pictures, greatly facilitates the imagination of the visual component of the opera and enables the listener to hear the music in close connection with the dramatic-scenic aspects. Reading the libretto alongside the music expands the capabilities of the ear to hear into the fascinating intertwining of voices (several texts are sung simultaneously), a key aspect and an aspect so great about this opera.


© Albrecht Moritz 2000, text edited 2005


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