Simanaitis Says

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I HAVE FOUND something more outre than Wagner’s Die Ring des Nibelungen. True, The Ring Cycle is 17 unique hours filled with Valhalla’s Gods and Goddesses, the Nibelung underground’s evil dwarves, offspring of these folks’ encounters with mortals, and occasionally even a mortal, sort of.

I delight in The Ring Cycle antics. So, to my eyes, it takes operatic high jinks to outdo them. And, wouldn’t you know, it was another German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, who achieved this honor.

Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1928–2007, German composer, known for his electronic music, aleatoric music (employing controlled chance), and musical spatialization (the projection and localization of sound). For more, check out this YouTube. Image by Kathinka Pasveer.

Music authority Nick Slonimsky wrote of Stockhausen, “He investigated the potentialities of musique concrète and partly incorporated its techniques into his own empiric method of composition, which from the very first included highly complex contrapuntal conglomerates with uninhibited applications of non-euphonious dissonance as well as recourse to the primal procedures of obdurate iteration of single tones, all this set in the freest of rhythmic patterns and diversified by constantly changing instrumental colors with obsessive percussive effects.”

That and helicopters too. Four of them. A video trailer gives a sense of Stockhausen’s style, in all its musical mayhem.

“An Operatic Spectacle with Helicopters,” by Ben Miller, in The New York Times, May 26, 2019, describes Aus Licht, a 15-hour selection of Stockhausen’s 29-hour epic. Aus Licht is being performed in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam’s Gasholder, from May 31 through June 10. The massive (and expensive!) work is a production of the Holland Festival in collaboration with the Dutch National Opera, the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and the Stockhausen Foundation for Music.

Violinist Hadewych de Vos is one of the “Helicopter String Quartet” in Aus Licht, a 15-hour series of selections from Stockhausen’s 29-hour opera cycle Licht. Image by Janiek Dam. This and other images from The New York Times, May 24, 2019.

The full work’s name is Licht, Die Sieben Tage der Woche. And Light, the Seven Days of the Week, logically enough, consists of seven operas. Which is about where logic ends in describing it.

A scene from Aus Licht. Image by Michel Schnater.

Like The Ring Cycle, Stockhausen’s opera uses leitmotifs, musical themes associated with the opera’s characters. Unlike Wagner’s Telefonbuch of characters from hither and yon, Licht has only three principals and their interlocutors: Michael, the archangel, who represents love; Lucifer, the fallen angel, who represents light; and Eve, who represents life.

Also unlike Wagner’s use of Norse legend, Stockhausen’s Licht has autobiographical overtones with Michael’s father dying in combat and his mother going insane. “Later in the cycle,” reviewer Ben Miller notes, “elements of traditional plot fall further away, and the piece develops a more symbolic, ritualistic aspect.”

I won’t say where—or why—the helicopters come in. But, at one point, four women walk onstage with instruments. After being introduced, the Pelargos String Quartet exits by a side door to where four helicopters are warming up. Each woman boards a helicopter, which then soars upward in formation.

Live, from above Amsterdam. Image by Janiek Dam.

Back in the auditorium, four giant video screens illuminate above the stage, each showing one of the quartet creating airborne music. As Miller notes, ”One by one, each transmitting to her individual screen, they lifted off, playing and chanting, while the industrial ports on the outskirts of Amsterdam flew by beneath them.”

As Anna Russell says in her Ring Cycle analysis, “You know, I’m not making this up.”

Image by Michel Schnater.

Wagner’s Gods, Nibelungs, Valkyries, and Rheinmaidens are entertaining, but they’re so Norse saga. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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