THE music-making at Trinity (now Trinity Laban) College of
Music, now based in Greenwich, has always figured among some of the
finest in London. Under capable leadership and with first-rate
teaching on, not least, its conducting and composition courses,
Trinity often offsets staple diet with rare repertoire, and usually
Karlheinz Stockhausen, doyen of the 1960s avant-garde, whose
landmark (1968) work Stimmung has just been performed by
Trinity Laban, under Gregory Rose's leadership, at the Queen
Elizabeth Hall, on the South Bank, was once anathema to anyone
inclined to the more traditional end of the classical-music market.
It is strange how different things can seem in retrospect. In this
version, a magnificent vocal sextet, Stimmung can now be
seen more as a forerunner to the music of Arvo Pärt - and a
mysterious after-echo of the Greek chorus - than as an apex of ugly
It is a masterpiece of delicacy, subtlety, and challenging
musical elegance, as Rose's 1980s Hyperion recording with his group
Singcircle (CDA 66115) demonstrated. Now Trinity
Laban students have won their spurs with a fine rendering that in
many ways matches the 1980s rendering, when the singers were indeed
arranged "in a circle", each voice feeding off the others, often in
a kind of instinctive osmosis. The work was actually written for
students at the Muzikhochschule in Cologne.
The mesmeric, almost minimalist chanting, the aleatoric sighs
and yelps, brass-like honkings and glissandi have long become a
part of commonplace musical language, even if the ambiguous
Stimmung (it can mean tuning, pitch, temper, feeling,
mood, ambience) still sounds cutting-edge, partly because the
atmospheric "overtone-singing", which Stockhausen - a Roman
Catholic by upbringing -derived from Tibetan monks, feels utterly
fresh and undated.
The text, in which many words are repeated like a mantra, pays
tribute to deities of the world: the Hebrew Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu,
Quetzalcoatl (Aztec), the Egyptian Osiris, and so on. The very
naming of each becomes a kind of spiritually passionate, cosmic,
syncretic invocation of a universal deity, akin to certain later
works by John Tavener.
There are some - once controversially - erotic texts (addressed
to his future wife) by the composer himself, some of them slowly
spoken, which were intended to be along the lines of the Oriental
fusion of the erotic and the divine in, say, the great Sufi poets,
or the Song of Solomon.
What one admires about these young singers is their
sophistication, precision, ability to fall from a massive
sforzando to the tiniest of pianissimi - here
quadruple piano - and to sustain rhythms even where lesser
voices might come badly unstuck. Stimmung contains many
common chords. Making those interesting requires stamina, perfect
pitching, and big talent. Trinity has all these in abundance.