Stockhausen

WELT-PARLAMENT (WORLD PARLIAMENT), 1995

This a cappella work is the first act of the opera WEDNESDAY from LIGHT.

The choir is located at the left and right of the stage. The president of the World Parliament (the conductor) has an own microphone, as do the tubular bells which sound as signals at selected moments of the work. Those are played by the conductor, who also needs a small wooden hammer for the purpose of calling for order. In the middle of the stage hang at least 4 microphones amplifiying the choir soloists who walk there for singing their solo parts.

This set-up explains why the voices of the president and the choir soloists often tower above the voices of the choir.

The bell sounds, and numerous individual voices recite, in German speechsong, key and cliché words for a discussion of the World Parliament about love, creating at times a very dense texture. All voices sustain their speechsong on a single pitch, making the whole scene a texturally intricate, but musically stern sermon. After some time, the bell sounds again and all voices collectively change to another pitch. In this whole initial phase of the work, the shifting of voices against each other is amazing, as are the changes in density of texture and the surges in volume. The addition of the sound from ticking (electronic) metronomes brought in by each choir singer except the tenors, with each metronome set at a different tempo, gives the whole scene a strange but fascinating and musically effective underpinning.

Some time after the pitch change, the bell sounds a third time, and at once the voices abandon the concentration on single pitches and start moving freely within their pitch ranges, thereby creating a clear sense of musical release.

But what is heard is still far from "normal" singing. The singing of a part of the women's choir proceeds in regular and lively pumping pulses (pulses formed by single sounds/syllables) which shift in their movements up and down the pitch scale. In a vivid manner, the pulses undergo frequent accelerandi and decelerandi which enhance the flux of energetic momentum in the music. Other parts of the women's choir and the men's choir sing slower moving figures most of the time. There are moments where the figures in the male voices provide nearly physical thrusts of propelling energy. The president opens the debate in the very first part of this choral singing.

The composer:

"The world parliament is in session. The president opens WEDNESDAY from LIGHT. He announces the debate:

"Wohorld parliament: love is our issue here.

"In unknown languages, the world parliamentarians sing in 12 groups, all with different rhythms. The sound of their languages begins with the dark [u] and in several spirals very gradually moves to brighter vowels reaching [i], always in connection with different consonants.

"Every now and then, individual parliamentarians step forward, walk to the empty space between the two halves of the choir and in the local language intelligibly sing their declarations about love to the choir singers and for short moments also to the public. Each time, the president comments, and the choir of parliamentarians reacts to this with characteristic leaps in the dynamic level and envelopes."

(The local language mentioned is German in this case.)

So it turns out that the singing in pulses mentioned above is singing in "unknown languages", which gives the composer unlimited freedom for an appropriate phonetic sculpting of phrases, according to the needs of the music in every moment.

A rare, exceptionally vivid dynamism of musical breathing is unfolded, in terms of building on pulses, surges of volume and phrasing, while the overall character of pushing forward is unique among all the choral music I know. The rhythmic propulsions from the women's voices at some points remind me of the pumping pulses during the episode of coming back from the other world in Xenakis' electronic music "La Legende D'Eer" remarkably, Stockhausen achieves a similar texture with human voices. As the composer mentions above, from time to time soloists proclaim their verses about love during all this, commented upon by the president, and they will continue to do so.

Even though sporadically faster propulsions from the male voices are heard, most of the time they keep singing slower-moving figures. Towards the middle of the work, however, the faster propulsions briefly switch in their entirety from the women's choir (which, in other patterns, continues singing) to the men's voices, albeit now without the movements up and down the scale; yet soon these pulses very much slow down while keeping the rhythmic attack intact. At some stages, dramatic pauses from the entire choir are heard.

Finally, all voices flow into one chord, and then solely all tenors sing, a group of them in traditional sounding close harmony while another group provides a more removed counterlayer which spreads out the total chordal texture in the singing of the same phrases. A magical moment, creating a subtlety and harmonic tension which far transcend those of most traditional close harmony singing, while a lot of its character is retained.

After this, the choir gradually returns to rhythmic pulsations, yet of a different character than before creating a sonic picture of layers of sound that fluctuate with rhythm. Gradually the texture becomes more and more voluminous until it seems like a wall of sound, vibrating with life (it reaches its climax when the coloratura soprano sings).

Then an episode follows where the women's choir alone sings in exciting irregular rhythm, creating a tense game of leaping forward and holding back. At first, this game is enriched in another section of the women's choir by quick pulses in regular rhythm, yet with driving leaps in volume, but later these leave the irregular pulses alone in spreading their penetrating musical effect.

At a certain point, a part of the women's choir supplements the music with rushing noises (something like ssss or sssshhh but in many phonetic variations of timbre, creating unobtrusive yet fascinating colors), and alternating parts of the women's choir will continue to do so for the next few minutes, stretching into the following passages until the janitor stomps onto the scene (see below).

After an accumulation of passages for solo singers on top of the choral singing, women's voices continue to generate relatively quick pulses against slower moving male voices (a situation recurring throughout the work, but with ever-changing musical expressions); passages for solo singers continue to be interspersed into the music. At a certain point, the texture woven by the female voices becomes very dense and continuously flows in intertwining threads; these move in irregular rhythmic patterns and frequent but subtle leaps of volume. A fascinating sonic picture is created. The visual equivalent would be for me the continuous up-and-down as well as oscillating/trembling movements of a beautiful and large cloth horizontally hanging in the wind, a cloth with a light yellow-orange color (my association with the voice colors). The male voices continue to counter-balance with slower movements of gently urging and penetrating presence. Again, the exceptionally vivid dynamism of breathing of the music, in terms of phrasing and surges of momentum, is striking.

Finally, for another time all voices flow into one chord, and a janitor stomps breathlessly onto the scene, in a funny manner bringing all the accumulated seriousness of art to a halt. He proclaims in a local German accent (!) that a certain car is on the verge of being towed away. It is the car of the president of the World Parliament, and the coloratura soprano is summoned up to be the substitute president. She accepts that offer with all the musical theatricality you might expect from her.

The choir restarts with great urge and in an almost desperately fiery fashion, and at a certain point the female voices press on with short lines of successions of very quick pulses, falling and rising in pitch, which are expanding on the urge and excitement of this passage and the music in general. The male voices provide, in slower thrusts of energy, the stabilizing force and fundament to the music, as it is so powerfully executed on numerous other occasions in this work.

After some time, all the voices of the choir collect their forces into a single musical stream, becoming more and more synchronous. This stream finally flows into one big swoop of first a crescendo and then a descending glisssando. The endpoint of this musical effort is the return of speechsong on a single pitch as at the beginning of the work. All walk out while they continue their singing. A bass stops and stutters to the audience: "Yeah, and now the next scene would follow!" Then he trudges out, as the singing of the choir dies away in the distance.

*****

Overwhelmingly convincing this is one of the best and most fascinating choral works I have heard. It sounds to me as being on the very leading edge of modernism, or should I simply say: it sounds to me like great Stockhausen?

The CD is available at http://www.stockhausen.org/cd_catalog.html (CD 51). It features admirably clear sound and is excitingly direct; on a very good stereo the illusion is created that the singers are standing right before the listener in striking presence, but not with an unnaturally exaggerated perspective.


© Albrecht Moritz 2000, text edited 2005


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