Stockhausen

WOCHENKREIS (CIRCLE OF THE WEEK), 1986/88

for basset-horn and electronic keyboard instruments,
duration about 25 min.


(For another article on music recorded on Stockhausen-Verlag CD 32 (Music for clarinet, bass clarinet, basset-horn), see Libra.)

The composer (from the CD booklet):

"The CIRCLE OF THE WEEK originates from EVAs LIED (EVE’S SONG), a scene of my opera MONDAY from LIGHT.

"In February and March 1988, Suzanne Stephens (basset-horn) and Simon Stockhausen (synthesizer) arranged a version for basset-horn and synthesizer based on the original score. In subsequent rehearsals with me, this version found its final form.

"The basset-horn, EVE’s instrument, plays a dialogue with electronic voices […]"

A form scheme for the work is presented, which includes as its core seven songs of the week, one for each day from Monday through Sunday, and their repeats. The songs are preceded by preludes, and separated from their repeats by interludes. The composer continues:

"In each Prelude, the SONG which follows is sketched out, then the SONG OF THE DAY begins. Characteristic elements of a SONG are pronounced in the Interlude, and in the repetition (SONG 2) the basset-horn plays a pointed reminiscence of the SONG, in which the electronic voices become clearer.
Each song has its own intervals, figures, timbres.
The 7 Songs of the Days form – in a long phrase – the three-layered musical formula out of which the entire work LIGHT is developed.

"CIRCLE OF THE WEEK is dedicated to Suzanne Stephens and my son Simon. The two of them performed the world premiere on July 17, 1988 in Rio de Janeiro at the Sala Cecilia Meireles during a cycle of 7 concerts of Stockhausen works."

***

EVE’S SONG, the scene of MONDAY from LIGHT that WOCHENKREIS derives from, is composed for basset-horn, 3 synthesizer players, 7 boys of the days and concrete sounds (from tape). Here the basset-horn player, Coeur de basset, teaches each of the 7 boys of the days their song (in Song 1 of each day), and the respective boy sings the melody that he just learned in Song 2 of the day.


Days of the week

Before discussing the characteristics of the music as it sounds, let us briefly examine where the musical material for WOCHENKREIS comes from.

LICHT (LIGHT) is an opera cycle about the seven days of the week, featuring as the three main musical protagonists Michael, Eve and Lucifer. There are seven segments in the 19 bars long LICHT superformula, on which the opera cycle is based, which each are ascribed to one of the days of the week, c.f. Kohl, Jerome (1983-84) "Stockhausen at La Scala: Semper Idem sed Non Eodem Modo." Perspectives of New Music 22:483–501. The segments are as follows:

Monday segment, bars 1-3
Tuesday segment, bars 4, 5
Wednesday segment, bars 6, 7
Thursday segment, bars 8-11
Friday segment, bars 12, 13
Saturday segment, bars 14-16
Sunday segment, bars 17-19

The LICHT superformula with markings added by me that indicate the different weekday segments is accessible as pdf file here:
http://home.earthlink.net/~almoritz/superformula-weekdays.pdf

(If the picture is not sharp – reason: Adobe reader set to open within web browser window – download the file to your computer. For maximal resolution, print out.)

There are seven songs for the seven weekdays in WOCHENKREIS. Each song introduces elements from the superformula corresponding to its weekday segment; material from each of the three layers of the superformula (the Michael, Eve and Lucifer layers) is used. For example, the Monday Song incorporates elements from bars 1-3 of the superformula (Monday segment), the Tuesday Song presents elements from bars 4 and 5 (Tuesday segment), and so on. In later songs, while they each introduce the new elements corresponding to their days of the week, elements from previous songs are also used. For instance, in the Wednesday Song we hear again the ascending signal-like motif from Michael formula bar 4 (Tuesday segment, appearing in the previous song). The Sunday Song begins in the synthesizer with a concatenation of the wave-like motif of Michael formula bar 2 (Tuesday segment) and the cascading motif of Michael formula bar 9 (Thursday segment). With a slight delay, this combined phrase is polyphonically countered in an elegant manner by the opening motifs of the Eve formula (Monday segment).

Given that in each song the introduction of the corresponding weekday segment of the superformula takes place, now perhaps it also becomes clearer what the composer says above:
"The 7 Songs of the Days form – in a long phrase – the three-layered musical formula out of which the entire work LIGHT is developed."


Extraordinary melodic narratives

The principal melodic lines are played by the basset-horn, yet in some instances a brief synthesizer introduction is part of them, such as in the Wednesday and Sunday songs. In the former, synthesizer phrases also become part of the perceived main melodic line during the presentation by the basset-horn (more so than in the original EVE’S SONG). At times the melodies in the basset-horn are polyphonically countered by the synthesizer in a dazzling manner, most strikingly in the Tuesday and Thursday songs.

There are very heterogeneous elements in the melodic lines that constitute the songs. The heterogeneity comes for a large part from the sequential combination of elements from the three individual formulas, the Michael, Eve and Lucifer formulas, which overall, and within the individual weekday segments, differ strongly from one another in their character. In the superformula the three individual formulas are stacked in a vertical manner to sound simultaneously, yet here the elements from the three formulas are combined in a horizontal manner. The heterogeneity also stems from disparity of elements within each of the three individual formulas.

The melodies are playful, as in the original EVE'S SONG they are also sung by children. Among the many diverse elements that combine to form the melodic lines heard in this work perhaps the following ones stand out the most:

1. ‘Jumpy’ phrases with interval leaps that are pronounced by size of interval or by rhythmic context. The jumpiness comes to a large part from the interval leaps being towards just short high or low notes, after which the pitches mostly return right away to a level close to where they started from. The widest such leaps are in phrases derived from the ‘yodel’ figure in Eve formula bar 13 (part of the Friday segment). On the other hand there are phrases with interval leaps that stretch towards more sustained high notes as a momentary endpoint, such as the figure Michael formula bar 4 (part of the Tuesday segment; occurring at first in the Tuesday song).

2. More or less extended phrases that are just rhythms on or around a single pitch. They mostly stem from the Lucifer formula that is mainly concerned with rhythm rather than melody. Yet some of these elements also come from the Michael formula, see the Friday and Saturday Songs (introducing elements from bars 12 and 15 of the Michael formula, respectively). The pitches are either kept constant like in the appearance of these phrases in the superformula, or they fluctuate around a fixed pitch in microtone increments.

3. Fluidly ascending or descending lines, like in the second part of the figure Eve formula bar 1 or in the cascade-like descending phrase of Michael formula bar 9. An example of a combination of features 1 and 3 would be the phrase Lucifer formula bar 14 (Saturday segment) with its grace note as a very brief excursion to higher pitch in an overall descending line. Combinations of fluid ascending and descending elements into wave-like figures are also heard, like in the opening phrase of the Eve formula or the figure that begins bar 2 of the Michael formula.

Often the disparate elements, which also tend to sound on different rhythms, are directly fused to one another without any pause in between, for example at the beginning of the Monday Song, where the opening wave-like Eve phrase transitions into a rhythm on a single pitch (also from the Monday segment, Lucifer formula). A striking example of a spectacular transition, with dissimilar phrases barely separated by just short pauses, occurs in the Tuesday Song, where the ascending Michael signal (formula bar 4) is fused to an elegant variation of the figure in Lucifer formula bar 5 via a three-note motif with score marking "frech" ("sassy"). At other times, tension created by a bit longer, always meticulously judged, pauses helps to bind contrasting elements together. Frequent tempo changes in some of the songs add to the character.

In effect, the vastly heterogeneous elements are combined against all odds into compelling melodic narratives, featuring a flow of remarkable ease and often consummate elegance. Without intention to exaggerate, I would have to say that the result are melodic structures that are among the most unique and amazing ones that I have heard – in any music, be it pre-classical, classical, romantic or modern. The work, with its songs, preludes and interludes, stands out for me as one of the most extraordinary melodic inventions ever composed. (Yet I should mention that I did not arrive at this conclusion right away; at first I found the melodic language simply too bewildering.)

The melodic invention alone would make the composition a highlight in Stockhausen’s oeuvre, yet another main aspect of the work, as realized in the performance on Stockhausen-Verlag CD 32 C that features synthesizer timbres worked out together with the composer, is its unique and enticing sound.


A magical soundworld

The basset-horn not only presents a wide range of expression in regular playing, but plays microtones as well. It is impressive how in the introductory Coeur de basset the music effortlessly keeps up the suspense over more than two minutes duration, even though its basset-horn part is mainly composed just from alternations of ascending and descending lines, often gliding along on microtones (the initial ascending motif is from Eve formula bar 1).

The instrument also frequently plays so-called ‘rushing’ noises. These noises are regularly found in LICHT and, more generally as ‘colored’ noises, they are in fact composed into the superformula that is the substrate for virtually everything that happens musically in the opera cycle. This is one of the compositions where rushing noises from basset-horn are implemented in a particularly elegant manner.

The synthesizer sounds are remarkable. They are immensely varied, and show enormous sophistication. Timbres, attack components, decay, glissandi, are all carefully selected, and in many cases the resulting sounds are entirely unique. Let me describe several examples for timbres. (Note: they tend to sound more expressive over loudspeakers than over headphones.)

The synthesizer plays the opening of the work, the descending and then ascending lines of which mirror the motion in the basset-horn lines in Coeur de basset that will follow. Starting from a sustained tone at constant pitch, there is a downward glissando that is played with a wheel on the synthesizer. The glissando begins suddenly in accelerated motion, only to equally abruptly settle into a much more leisurely slide in pitch. The ‘shift’ in sound around that transition of glissando speed is intriguing, and I do not remember something similar in other music. In Coeur de basset the synthesizer seductively switches back and forth between generating accordion-like sounds and similar timbres that are reaching towards a more electronic character. Close to the beginning of the section there are strange sounds that evoke an impression of drops splashing onto the ground, while appearing more as musical tones rather than as noises.

In the Monday Prelude there is a sequence of sounds evoking someone ‘walking’ on a bouncy surface. A bit later in the same prelude we hear something like a magnified, resonant version of sounds that arise from exciting a series of strings inside a piano by hand. The Tuesday Song presents percussive sounds reminiscent of a xylophone. Yet the sounds lean towards more glassiness than the timbres coming from that percussion instrument, or they contain timbral components creating a slightly hollow ‘pop’, resulting in a peculiar and lively color. The heterogeneous polyphony of these percussive sounds with the basset-horn is spectacular. At the end of the song a sustained synthesizer chord is heard. When it appears in varied form in the repetition of the song, it sounds similar to a saturated chord coming from an orchestral violin section, but sweeter. The sweetness is accentuated by slight fluttering of the tones. Like me you may find the sound enthralling.

The Friday Interlude begins with a glassy cascade of sounds that have some attack phase, flowing into a smooth, sustained chord of also glassy character, featuring slow overtone glissandi. I find this entrance of sounds so addictive that I often hit the rewind button just to right away experience it again. The beginning of the Sunday Song features alluring percussive sounds that are also glassy in a pronounced manner, giving them an uncommon shiny character. At the end of the same song an arpeggio-like figure of similar yet slightly duller percussive tones is heard where the overtones of each of the separate sounds independently are glissandoing upwards, rendering a strange pearly character to this sequence of sounds.

In the beginning I was less than enamored with the synthesizer sounds. I did not like the tendency towards overtone-rich, bright sounds that at first hearing appeared to make some of the sounds too much dated towards that era of first digital synthesizers (the sounds were composed in 1986/88). Yet over time I started to appreciate the sophistication of the sometimes strange but always fascinating sounds, often paired with uniqueness, and also their deeply rooted musical functionality. The particular synthesizer sounds chosen here also accentuate to perfection the playful character of these songs, which in the opera are sung by children after they have been introduced by the basset-horn. Now all the sounds seem so ‘right’, and another rendition using different sounds would really have to be extraordinary in order to convince me of its own value.

Like the basset-horn, the synthesizer plays rushing noises as well, and the utmost refinement with which the synthesizer develops its own array of such sounds is arresting. The rushing noises from the synthesizer often harbor a fluttering or trembling character, resulting in captivating local ‘micro-timbres’. The ending of the Friday Song is astounding. While both basset-horn and synthesizer play rushing noises in unison (a phrase of the Lucifer formula), the noises from the synthesizer have an attack component that creates an impression of the sounds being ‘hammered’.

As indicated in the introductory section of the score of WOCHENKREIS, Simon Stockhausen prepared the timbres for his performance of WOCHENKREIS together with the composer. He uses for his performance a sampler to play back sounds that were programmed by Stockhausen together with Michael Obst for EVE’S SONG, from which the work originates (the 3 players there were Obst, Simon Stockhausen and Michael Svoboda), and he introduces a wide array of new and exciting timbres as well, several of which are among the ones described above.


The art of melodic allusion

In the preludes and interludes the formula elements from the seven Songs of the Week are often varied to such an extent that the variations become mere allusions to the elements original to the songs. For example, the Tuesday Interlude presents a sequence of repeats, slightly ascending in pitch, of the motif from Michael formula bar 4 rhythmically ‘shortened’ in such a way that the characteristic signal-like quality of the motif is disguised and only the melodic contours are preserved. The Thursday Prelude presents an unbroken sequence of varied repeats of the downward cascading motif from Michael formula bar 9 that exhibits an elegantly ‘rolling’ character. The Sunday Song presents the immensely beautiful Michael phrase from bar 17 of the superformula. The preceding Sunday prelude alludes to it in a transcendent manner, softly letting the prominent ascension in pitch in one of its motifs continue one seductive step further. In a similarly alluring manner, in the Sunday Interlude the basset-horn appears to hint at the Michael phrase (superformula bar 2) that is heard in the synthesizer at the very beginning of the Sunday Song. In the same interlude, the repeated gentle ascensions in the synthesizer, spanning a wide pitch range, seem to remotely allude, in inversion, to the descending Michael phrase (superformula bar 9) that is heard at the beginning of the Sunday Song as well. The sound of the synthesizer has a marvelous timbre, and an enchanted atmosphere is created when gradually it not just diminishes in volume during the varied repeats of the ascension, but also becomes softer and more reverberant in tone.

While in the preludes and interludes the variations of elements often remain recognizable as such, at times there are transformations that make from original elements entirely new music. For example, the Monday Prelude introduces a ‘jumpy’ motif featuring two low notes that flank a much higher one. This new motif is derived from the wave-like opening phrase of the Eve formula, extracting just its outer three pitches.

All of the seven songs of the week are presented twice, yet in the repetition with changes in sound (see above). While most of the repetitions preserve the melody of the first presentation of the song, extensive variation as in the preludes and interludes is heard in the repetition of the Wednesday Song. For example, while at the beginning of Wednesday Song 1 the motif of Eve formula bar 6 (with the first two notes carrying over from bar 5) is heard in its entirety, the beginning of Wednesday Song 2 only alludes to it in a sophisticated manner, presenting just a ‘shadow’ of the original motif. Similarly, while in Wednesday Song 1 the ascending signal from Michael formula bar 4 (Tuesday segment) is played, the corresponding passage in the repetition of the song only hints gently at the ascending interval leap, by just playing the high note. The beginning of Thursday Song 2 also just contains a faint reminder of what had happened at that stage in the first presentation of the song, while the rest of the melody is identical.

All the subtle allusions to elements original to the songs are immensely artful, and they expand the magical aura of the composition considerably. The unique and strange melodic beauty heard in this music, be it in the melodic lines of the songs themselves, or in the captivating melodic allusions elsewhere, makes this one of those works by Stockhausen that puts true novelty once again into sharp focus, and may seem to make a good portion of other avantgarde music sound ‘old’.


Sounding away

The last part of the work, "Ausklang" ("Sounding away"), begins with basset-horn sounds "like happy laughter" (score marking) that are reminiscent of the "bird cries" at the end of HARLEKIN for clarinet. The synthesizer fittingly accompanies these "bird cries" with a sustained sound featuring at first a rather open vowel component related to [a]. There is a separate upper layer superimposed on the sound as well (it enters after a few seconds). After some time the basset-horn sounds become more subdued, while the sustained synthesizer ‘vowel’ sound recedes and also changes its timbre towards a more muted color; the upper layer gains in strength. The shift in color takes place so gradually that at first it goes unnoticed. As this happens, other sounds are added from the synthesizer that are similar in timbre to the basset-horn and alternate between two pitches close to one another. The alternation of pitches little by little slows down over the extended stretch of time that these sounds are heard and finally subsides; the basset-horn had stopped playing already earlier. Long after this, the sustained synthesizer sound also fades away. The slow gradual processes in this last part, both in terms of change of musical activity and of timbre, bring the work to an enchanted close.

***

The recording on Stockhausen-Verlag CD 32C is of great sound quality. Suzanne Stephen’s playing exhibits both technical mastery and immense musical sensibility. Her interpretation of musical accents in the score, as well as the clarity of her playing, are admirable. Simon Stockhausen is outstanding as synthesizer player and sound wizard.



© Albrecht Moritz 2012


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