I admit that, just for a moment, when I read the headline about Stockhausen in Milan—Pierre Gervasoni, L'ascension musicale de Stockhausen à Milan (Le Monde, May 8)—I seriously thought to myself, "Stockhausen is going to replace Muti at La Scala?!" Once I had recovered from the shock and actually read the article, I was relieved to learn that it was just about Stockhausen's premiere of a new work in the Cathedral of Milan. The work is only the latest in the tradition of strange musical statements for the feast of the Ascension (my translation):
Tourists who signed up for the tour of Milan's cathedral on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 4, were in for a surprise. The façade, built in the flamboyant gothic style, was hidden by immense gray screens, behind which restoration teams are at work. And, on the inside, the view of the building is impeded by a gigantic white curtain that closes off the central nave, from roof to floor, at the crossing. One might think that Christo was in the midst of wrapping the Duomo. In fact, it was Karlheinz Stockhausen, the contemporary composer most skilled at shocking crowds, who was preparing the premiere of his new work, Erste Stunde (First hour), planned for Ascension Thursday [May 4] at 9 pm.Apparently, the acoustics of Milan Cathedral, and its 18 seconds of reverberation, were a problem. There was a video screen 35 meters (115 feet) high and 18 meters (59 feet) wide blocking the nave, showing a projected image of the organist's hands, with which Stockhausen tried to coordinate the other performers. Stockhausen explained to the author that the overall work calls for 24 different tempi in 24 coordinated registers.
Seated behind a mixing board right in the middle of the nave, orange fleece on his shoulders and pencil in hand, the composer was struggling through the stresses of the dress rehearsal. In contact by microphone with the performers, an organist and two singers who are located in the choir, he interrupts the performance every 30 seconds. At his side, Kathinka Pasveer, eminent flutist of the Stockhausen inner circle, is serving as first counselor to the master and offers some suggestions about balance. Farther away, with a videocamera in hand, Suzanne Stephens, clarinettist and the composer's second wife, preserves these historic moments for posterity.
"The strongest and most complex timbres go with the slowest tempi; the most transparent and lightest with the quickest." And the combination of two different tempi for the two hands of the organist, which was enough to scare away three renowned performers, but not young Alessandro La Ciacera, the cathedral's junior organist. "He has a practicality that allows him to overcome these difficulties," notes the composer, who himself has had to adapt, with the help of the microphone, to the handicap of a very resonant space. "Never in my life have I written the staccatos so carefully, separating them from one another so as to play with the reverberation after the attack."What is the religious symbolism behind Stockhausen's piece being premiered on Ascension? According to the composer, "Asking a performer to break the barrier of time by playing simultaneously in different tempi is like submitting a man to physical disruption allowing him to go in spirit form towards another world."
Who is responsible for bringing Stockhausen to Milan? Pierre Gervasoni describes Don Luigi Garbini, a 37-year-old priest resident at the cathedral, as the director of the Laboratory of Contemporary Music in the Service of the Liturgy, which secured money from a Milanese bank to commission the work, along with a Bill T. Jones dance performance (to the Chaconne from Bach's D minor partita, played by violinist Nurit Pacht: see some pictures with this article) and a Shirin Neshat video, for Pause 2005, an interdisciplinary spiritual festival in Milan Cathedral. Pierre Gervasoni interviewed Don Luigi (Trois questions à Don Luigi Garbini, May 8) for Le Monde. As he tells it, the priest read Pope John Paul II's 1999 letter to artists and had the idea to invite a number of composers to consider the question of the liturgy. Since then he has awarded 25 commissions, from composers including Goffredo Petrassi, Henri Pousseur, Franco Donatoni, Luca Francesconi, Yan Maresz, Luis de Pablo, and Ennio Morricone. In fact, Stockhausen was in Milan last year, too, along with a Mark Wallinger video with music by Suzanne Vega and Oscar Wilde readings; Bill Viola's Departing Angel and Emergence (with the music by Stockhausen).
Pierre Gervasoni reviewed the work (Un édifice rayonnant pour dire la toute-puissance du son, Le Monde, May 8). Stockhausen draws crowds in Europe: by an hour before the concert, the lines to enter the cathedral crossed the piazza, and the audience was estimated at around 2,500 people (my translation):
Plunged into darkness, the cathedral returned to the calm necessary for listening to music. Erste Stunde began with motifs drawn upward, probably symbolic of the Ascension. But Stockhausen is not a composer to linger long in the obvious. His new work, the first he has written for organ, is filled with paths open to the unheard of and with unexpected accents. Young organist Alessandro La Ciacera, who gave a Herculean performance, played like an architect arranging sonic levels with attention to detail but also like a theater director. With the help of little percussive sounds, he broke up the linearity of the main texture of flux. The clacking of a bamboo curtain made a number of listeners jump. The ringing of Japanese bowls reframed the piece in a ritual dimension. The lines of the singers, a siren-like soprano and a falsetto-voiced tenor like an angel [Barbara Zanichelli and Paolo Borgonovo], presented the important words of the German text: Klang (sound) and Gott (God) or Latin taken from the Catholic liturgy, as the keystones of a gothic edifice.The piece is listed on Stockhausen's Web site as Prima Ora (Erste Stunde, or First Hour), from Klang (Sound), the 24 Hours of the Day for organ (or synthesizer), soprano, tenor. Admission to the premiere was free. Who said that Europe's Catholic churches were empty?