Momente, Karlheinz Stockhausen

by tacet

“He who kisses the Joy as it flies / Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.” William Blake’s aphorism was in Stockhausen’s mind when writing Momente from 1962-69, a work which is at the forefront of one of the most notoriously radical oeuvres of all time – and one which has become a byword in popular culture for the laughably avant-garde. Indeed, with Momente, Stockhausen began to build the violently hostile reaction to his work into the music itself; much of the piece’s dramatic effect derives from the suggestion of open confrontation between composer and his public detractors.

The concept of “moment-form” on which the work is modelled is best described as consisting of something followed by a completely different thing. Momente is designed to explore the “feeling” rather than the “thinking” aspects of music, in contrast to the composer’s earlier works, which were based on mathematical formulae. This is not to say, however, that it resorts to artistic debasement – it rather achieves an eerily familiar feeling through new means. The successive “moments” are not even delineated by harmonic or rhythmic change but rather by timbre and colour, which are made to function structurally. The four choirs not only sing but also laugh, whisper, murmur, speak, exhale, and play strange musical instruments, including drinks cans and Volkswagen spanners (which kept disappearing leading up to the premiere, since most of the chorus drove Volkswagens). This exploration of previously uncharted musical waters means it would be misleading to call Momente “atonal”, since its approach to harmony is as if tonality had never existed.

The new ideal of form explored in Momente implores us to lose ourselves in each little island of sound without worrying about large-scale repetition. The libretto is a surrealist collage of Biblical passages, literary quotations, fairy tales, letters to the composer, and nonsense, which all explore the subject of love in a linguistic tapestry of sensory pleasure rather than contribute to any linear narrative. Stockhausen’s delicate structure of inter-“moment” associations answers a need to break free from what he saw as an illusory causality in music, an approach not worlds away from the “total serialism” of Boulez and Babbitt. Both give the impression of a higher order controlling the musical narrative as opposed to the traditional cumulative processes.

Most of Stockhausen’s music seems to be a direct comment on the musical condition itself, in that he aims consistently at metaphysical questions embodied by music’s temporal dimension. One of the most striking aspects of Momente is that it sounds like an opera in its heartfelt insistence and dramatic contrasts, but does not depend on chronological sequence for its effect. Indeed, in its amorphous mix of genres it attacks the passivity induced by conventional opera, and rebels against the concept of a unified and integrated “work”. In this light it reveals itself as a musical corollary to its clear literary analogues, which include the stream-of-consciousness novel and the Theatre of the Absurd, thus expressing not universal truths, but rather the overriding postwar sentiment of man’s tragic dislocation and alienation.

Below is a recording of Momente followed by a brief listening guide.

Considering its emphasis on visceral sonic impact, Momente is best suited to immersive listening. However, several “moments” are worth pointing out as an introduction.

The structure is built around “K”, “M” and “D” (Klang, Melodie, Dauer – Sound, Melody, Length) moments, which orientate the music towards timbre, melody and polyphony respectively. Broadly speaking, “K” music tends to resolve, “M” music to evolve, and “D” music to sustain.

The use of a solo soprano, shielded from the abrasive choirs surrounding her by electronic organs and percussion, indicates that Stockhausen has something personal and subjective to divulge. This dichotomy is noticeable from 4:58 to 8:15, interspersing the solo’s ravings with pillars of assertive, masculine, Gamelan-like music in the choirs, percussion and brass.

The passage at around 14:55 is an interesting “KM” moment, mixing together the salient features of both categories, including soprano solo and male chorus, in an enigmatic and meditative coalescence of sound.

31:10 is a clear “D” moment – female voices and otherworldly electronic organs eventually drop out into a bottomless void before an “MD” section, which mixes pitches and noises equally.

In spite of the work’s claims to anti-causality, the ending (55:41–) at first seems to transcend its antecedents, at least in terms of sheer volume, before disappearing into ephemerality. Momente ultimately becomes a victim of its own cliché.

This authoritative recording comes from the Cologne Radio Broadcasting Choir conducted by the composer. Stockhausen has conducted (or heavily assisted in) every subsequent recording, meaning that the aleatoric nature of the work has been somewhat limited in its interpretational scope. The needed variation has rather come from the several versions of the score available.

Stockhausen’s huge catalogue of 370 individual works can seem very daunting. The momentous Gruppen of 1957 for three orchestras is worth exploring, as is his most celebrated foray into electronic music, Kontakte. 

Artwork: The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dalí

by Joel Sandelson