Stockhausen & Magic Names Group at Issue Project Room

This past Thursday I was invited to go see Cadillac Moon Ensemble (CME) perform by two colleagues of mine, Evelyn Farny and Patti Kilroy. Opening up for them was Magic Names Group, a troupe of six vocalists founded specifically to perform the work Stimmung, which they performed in excerpt that evening.  They also performed a work written by one of the members, Dafna Naftali, called “Panda Half-Life”, to which I unfortunately arrived at the end of.

This post isn’t about CME or Magic Names Group though, but about how different works by the same composer can completely challenge your views on their compositional worth.  I wrote earlier this year about my extreme economic (and partly philosophical/aesthetic) quarrel with Stockhausen’s Helicopter Music.  Having heard some of his other music, I had come to generalize his work as being typical Darmstadt stuff. Fortunately, I’m constantly slapped in the face by the reality of an individual piece’s merits, so that my prejudices against a composer don’t stay for long.

Though Magic Names Group only performed part of the work, the general effect and structure of the piece was apparent to me regardless of what I know about it before hand.  Here’s what Wikipedia says about the work:

Stimmung is in just intonation. Six singers amplified by six microphones tune to a low B♭1 drone, inaudible to the audience, and expand upwards through overtone singing, with that low B♭’s harmonics 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 9 (B♭2, F2, B♭3, D3, A↓♭3, and C4) becoming in turn fundamentals for overtone singing. It is composed using what the composer callsmoment form, and consists of 51 sections (called “moments”). It is “the first major Western composition to be based entirely on the production of vocal harmonics” (Rose and Ireland 1986) or, alternatively, the first “to use overtones as a primary element” (Rose and Emmerson 1979, 20). An additional innovation is “the unique kind of rhythmic polyphony which arises from the gradual transformation/assimilation of rhythmic models” (Toop 2005, 48).

The beginning drones in the lowest two male voices (The Bass and Tenor II) started off on the fundamental pitch (Bb) and the two voices would shape their mouths in different vowel forms to alter the timbre of the pitch.  These vowel alterations are what create the pitch changes that we hear in the aggregate sound of the overtone series.

The droning in the beginning of the work reminded me of Buddhist chanting and as it flowed into different “Moments” it shifted to the sound of a Pérotin Organum.  As I listened without the referential context of the work (which you can find here), I imagined that each moment was a veritable imitative tour of the world’s religious music.  This is likely because of the in-depth use of overtone series, droning and rhythmic structure of the changing timbres.  The music was enchantingly bizarre, and I’m glad I got to hear it.

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