Musikfest 5: HU is a sound of joy

Jesse Simon

viernes, 12 de octubre de 2018
Berlin, martes, 18 de septiembre de 2018. Philharmonie. Stockhausen: INORI. Winnie Huang and Diego Vásquez, dancer-mimes. Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy. Paul Jeukendrup, live sound. Peter Eötvös, conductor
Karlheinz Stockhausen © 2005 by Kathinka Pasveer

Musikfest ended as it began: with a ritual. Nearly three weeks after Pierre Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna had transformed the auditorium of the Philharmonie into the vessel for an immersive ceremony, the same space served as the venue for Stockhausen’s INORI, a work described by the composer himself as an ‘Anbetungen’, an act (or acts) of worship. The ambitious piece, scored for a very large orchestra and two dancer-mimes, was given a performance of exceptional conviction by the orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy under the direction of composer, conductor and longtime Stockhausen colleague Peter Eötvös.

There is no way to describe INORI without it sounding at least faintly ridiculous. Even Stockhausen’s own description included in the programme booklet, which largely eschews the work’s spiritual side, is full of enough conceptual formalism and numerological fanaticism to make it sound forbiddingly inaccessible, if not downright bizarre. The fact that INORI can be (and, on this evening, was) prefaced by an eighty minute film – longer than the work itself – explaining the complex structure and the significance of the ur-syllable HU (which makes a crucial appearance late in the piece) does nothing to make it seem less daunting.

Stockhausen may have had a sense of humour about the reception of his persona, but he was unwaveringly earnest about his concepts and compositions, almost defying his audience to take them any less seriously. With even the slightest hint of an ironic smirk, a piece like INORI would fall apart completely. Yet for all that its conceptual baggage flirted with self-parody, the piece itself was not merely accessible but thoroughly enjoyable, an immersive work of theatre with engaging music and a clear dramatic arc that one could appreciate without the benefit of explanatory texts or films.

Not surprisingly, the performance demands are somewhat unconventional. In addition to the large orchestra, augmented by a vast assortment of bells and chimes more commonly associated with Eastern spirituality than Western concert halls, the work also calls for two dancers – or, more precisely, dancer-mimes – who accompany the piece with a series of highly specific, fully notated hand gestures. The dancer-mimes spend most of the evening on a platform at the centre of the stage, elevated some two and a half metres above the conductor (the bell player sits at a table directly underneath the platform). Stockhausen, who left nothing to chance, included a ground-plan for the stage layout complete with precise measurements, a practice to which he world return in parts of Licht.

The piece itself was divided into five sections – Rhythm, Dynamic, Melody, Harmony and Polyphony – separated by brief ‘Pause’ and ‘Echo’ passages, and the content of each section, down to the precise metronome markings and dynamic gradations, were outlined in a formal scheme. The ingenuity of the plan was certainly there for anyone looking for it, but the pleasures of INORI were arguably best experienced by surrendering to the sound and spectacle. For anyone who hadn’t read up on the details beforehand, the first section could have passed for a work of minimalism or, at a stretch, a field recording from the old Nonesuch explorer series: the bells and chimes imparted a slight gamelan feel, while the low brass clusters contained distant echoes of Tibetan buddhist rituals.

The first section consisted of imposing yet discrete musical events that rose up and subsided, leaving only the resonance of the bell; although the orchestral texture and the underlying rhythms began to develop and transform, the changes were slow and subtle. The dancer-mimes knelt on their platform, sitting on their heels and accompanying each strike of the bell and expression from the brass with a different hand gesture. The two of them – the woman wore white and the man wore black – acted mostly in unison, moving their hands and turning their heads in the same direction; occasionally they would mirror one another. At the end of the section, as the strings propelled the rest of the orchestra toward a climactic moment, the dancer-mimes pushed themselves upward, still kneeling but now fully upright.

The second section left the meditative brass clusters largely behind in favour of shimmering strings, droplets of metallophone and elegant piano passages. When the dancer-mimes reached a point where they were able to rise to their feet, the orchestra celebrated with a profound exclamation, a fanfare of sorts. If the earlier sections had been monolithic and insistent, the animated strings and fluid woodwinds of the subsequent section introduced a greater melodic diversity without interrupting the work’s essential solemnity. The dancer-mimes, who now sat cross-legged, remained largely immobile with arms outstretched.

When the dancer-mimes gained the ability not just to stand but also to move, the orchestra grew very excited. The male dancer-mime climbed down the steps at the front of the platform and attacked an object that had been sitting at the front of the stage for the entire evening, somewhere between a cushion and a bellows, with three slashing blows. He returned to the platform and stood with the woman as Mr Eötvös pushed the music to its greatest heights of complexity and ecstasy. When it fell away, the dancer-mimes intoned a single syllable: HU. It was the moment the piece had been building to since the beginning, and it was strangely exhilarating in its simplicity. The dancer mimes, having attained both movement and speech, spent the remainder of the piece leaving the stage with slow methodical steps, as the orchestra faded away; in the final moments there was only the sound of sleigh bells, which were shaded almost imperceptibly into silence.

There was, in the end, a simple dramatic logic in INORI that existed alongside its myriad complexities. In the course of just over an hour, the dancer-mimes, a kind of creation-myth ur-pair, learned to rise, to stand, to walk and ultimately to speak, and the orchestra responded to their achievements with ever greater intensity of expression. In some of the more emphatic moments, one could detect some of the same spiritual ecstasy that pervades Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. Like that work, which moved from cult-classic to concert-hall staple over the course of seven decades, one could almost imagine INORI becoming a transcendent concert-hall experience to an as-yet unborn generation of music lovers. For all its technical specifications and performance logistics, it had a madness that bordered on magical


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