White Camels Can't Dance
Nick Richardson · Stockhausen's Helicopters
Mittwoch aus Licht is the only opera I know of that calls for a Bactrian camel trainer. It’s also the only opera to feature both a helicopter-borne string quartet and instrumental soloists on trapezes. Stockhausen seems to have believed that the quality of a work of art is closely related to the effort expended in making it, and that goes for all involved: composer, musicians, audience. Tim Souster told a story in the LRB twenty years ago about Stockhausen overseeing the installation of Christmas tree lights at his estate in Kürten: he instructed his hapless assistants to arrange them according to the Fibonacci sequence in the middle of a screaming gale.
Mittwoch was the second to last opera of Stockhausen’s seven-opera cycle Licht to be completed, and the last to be performed in its entirety. Until the Birmingham Opera Company’s brave new production, it had seemed too daunting – a few stage directions too far – though each of its parts had been performed separately. The Helicopter String Quartet premiered in June 1995 at the Holland Festival. The premiere was supposed to have happened a couple of years earlier in Salzburg, but the Austrian Green Party campaigned to have it cancelled on the grounds that it would create too much pollution. Holland didn’t mind, apparently, because the Dutch atmosphere is already so loaded with marijuana smoke – that’s according to the BOC’s Helicopter String Quartet ‘Moderator’, whose role, though not his lines, was written into the score and played by Stockhausen himself.
The BOC’s production probably doesn’t look as glam as a composer with Fibonacci fairy lights might have imagined. Despite the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent and the months of planning, rehearsal and engineering, it feels pleasingly lo-fi. So much the better. Mittwoch exploits a tension between cosmic grandeur and slapstick. And so does the venue, the Argyle Warehouse, a disused chemical factory in the heart of industrial Birmingham: approach from one side and you pass through a recently yuppified enclave of cafés and urban art galleries; come from the other and it’s all factories, forges and scrap yards. The building’s as cavernous as a cathedral, but retains the forklift markings, pipes and employee safety notices of its previous incarnation. When I arrived on Thursday afternoon, the Bactrian camels were chewing Custard Creams outside.
The director, Graham Vick, has obeyed the crackpot spirit of Stockhausen’s libretto, if not the letter. The first section of the opera is an hour-long electronic piece that Stockhausen had intended to be listened to ‘in a dark auditorium’: ‘undisturbed listening in the dark with eyes closed is a prerequisite for profoundly experiencing the music’. In Vick’s version, sudden shafts of light momentarily illuminate surreal vignettes: a crowd of pregnant women shuffling towards men with arms stretched to heaven; an escapee from a Louise Bourgeois sketchbook sewing men into egg-like sacs. For the second section, Vick arranges a choir of 36 – the ‘World Parliament’ – around the crowd on yellow umpire’s chairs, their faces painted as national flags. Stockhausen is at his best, I think, when he writes for voices, and the ‘World Parliament’ section contains the best writing of the whole opera. The delegates debate the theme of the day, love: voices of dissent break away, are reabsorbed, and break away again. The score calls for a janitor whose ‘alarmed shouting’ interrupts proceedings. Vick’s janitor is a car park attendant in a yellow tunic who announces that a car is parked outside illegally; the ‘president’ of the parliament follows him out muttering.
Many of the problems that Stockhausen foresaw with the staging are solved by the sheer scale of the Argyle Warehouse. He worried that the individual voices of the 36 parliamentarians wouldn’t be heard clearly if they were onstage with radio mikes. Vick has them sing in the round with the crowd sat on the floor. How to get from here to a scene in which a handful of solo instrumentalists play from trapezes suspended over the audience? Lead the audience through to yet another enormous chamber where the trapezing soloists are already perched and waiting. During the trapeze scene – Vick’s craziest – a man in flippers and snorkel is wheeled through the audience in a paddling pool to replace the trombonist on his roost: you couldn’t do that at the Coliseum. Meanwhile morning-suited undertakers wander about the space with smoke billowing from their top hats, as do bandaged mummies with tam-tams and a man with a Lufthansa jet strapped to his head.
The staging of the final few sections is relatively restrained, or as restrained as they could be given the madness of the score. The Elysian quartet introduce themselves and are hustled out the back with a cameraman to their helicopters: they ascend, play and come down again hitchlessly for their interview with the ‘Moderator’. The Guardian’s reviewer called the helicopter string quartet ‘musically and dramatically’ the ‘least interesting element’ , but it was fantastic on Thursday night, particularly at take-off, the strings’ vigorous tremolos locking with the throb of the rotor blades and the warm, bass hum of engine. (You can watch the opening night rendition online.) The string quartet was followed by ‘Michaelion’, which is set at the ‘galactic headquarters for delegates of the universe’. A soprano sings that a new president is being sought. Eventually, the candidate arrives on set. It’s the Bactrian camel, who introduces himself in recitativo, tells everyone that he wishes to bequeath them the spirit of Camael, then shits seven planets. (I should probably say that it’s not the real Bactrian camel that comes onstage at this point; the real camels are there to make you think that it is. Real Bactrian camels are notoriously tone deaf.)
What does it all mean? According to Stockhausen it’s about the reconciliation of Michael, Eve and Lucifer and its representative scents are mastic and frankincense; its flower is golden yellow rudbeckia. In other words, it’s all vague enough and elaborate enough for you to make of it what you will, and madcap enough to ensure that your interpretation’s a good one. Stockhausen did say that Mittwoch is about ‘co-operation’, which to me makes sense. The 36 delegates collaborate, despite themselves, in harmonious hubbub; sounds collaborate with each other to create new sounds: the strings with the chopper blades, the sounds of the trapezes with field recordings; and the helicopter string quartet manage to stay together despite the longest odds. And of course just staging the thing is a major feat of co-operation, as BOC’s curtain call, at which cast members outnumber audience members, makes clear. That this unpretentious company can swing through one of modern music’s most intimidating frontiers, and do so with such gritty panache, is remarkable. Luzicamel kosmisch GeräuschGalaxiescheich!