At the Proms: Stockhausen and Wagner

Jeffrey Skidmore and Daniel Barenboim rise to the formidable challenge of staging Stockhausen and Wagner at The Proms.

Prom 11 – Stockhausen (Jeffrey Skidmore)
Prom 15 –Wagner (Daniel Barenboim)
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7
 
As musical ghouls-under-the-bed go, it doesn’t get scarier than Wagner (too long) and Stockhausen (too complicated). Yet if ever there’s been a time to face those fears, it was last month at the BBC Proms. Music-making of exceptional, ecstatic virtuosity made urgent what is too often academic, dissolving terrors and challenging us to find difficulty amid so much joy.
 
There’s an elegant symmetry in how Wagner’s Ring and Stockhausen’s Licht have ended up in dialogue at this year’s Proms. Both monumental opera cycles, composed over almost 30 years, span the gamut of human experience and emotion, not to mention many hours. The Proms are a festival made for larger-than-life works. Even as the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustics can so bafflingly defeat a musical classic, they can also amplify a problem piece, generating a spatial drama that can’t be matched anywhere else.
 
This was certainly true of Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge” on 19 July. An early foray into electronic music, the work was projected (rather than performed) from a mixing desk at the centre of the hall by the composer’s protégée Kathinka Pasveer, while the stage remained empty. To make the stolid, Victorian hulk of this venue disquieting is almost impossible, but as the ghostly sound of choristers from Cologne Cathedral, recorded in the 1950s, echoed from empty galleries all around us, the sense of the uncanny was palpable in the physical vibrations of the speakers set up around the hall to transmit Stockhausen’s soundscape. Immersed in the voices of trebles who are no longer boys, we felt a dated technological exercise become something altogether richer.
 
This was just the warm-up for “Welt-Parlament” – the opening scene of Mittwoch, one of the seven operas that make up Licht. Last year, it was performed complete with actual helicopters and camels (each opera has a web of associated symbols, including elements – air, in this case – and animals) in Birmingham. The extract staged at the Royal Albert Hall maintained its energy in concert.
 
In a high tower, a UN-type assembly debated the nature of love in surreal, often deliberately incomprehensible fashion. The excellent Ex Cathedra choir’s voices, divorced from humanity by the use of microphones, did battle with the hollow babble of metro - nomes. The sound was less about melody or harmony than it was a woven texture, through which moments of lyricism occasionally burst (the tenors’ odd paean to love, a solo soprano’s pirouetting coloratura). It was music at the edge of its definition but, under Jeffrey Skidmore’s understated direction, the choir and soloists found both beauty and wit among the abstraction.
 
There is nothing abstract about Wagner’s Ring cycle, an epic folk narrative spread across four nights of opera. The composer’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art”) is in direct conflict with a semi-staging such as Justin Way’s but, with this cast, the drama’s all in the music.
 
Whatever his weaknesses, Daniel Barenboim is among the finest living Wagnerians. With a hand-picked cast and the Staats - kapelle Berlin orchestra, he is perhaps the finest. At the performance of Die Walküre on 23 July, the orchestra’s strings swelled thickly and its brass had a sheen, even at fortissimo, to rival the glint of the Nibelungen gold. Barenboim paced their arcs of emotion with absolute mastery, allowing momentum to build as Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) and Siegmund (Simon O’Neill) tumbled forwards into their incestuous love and pulling back during the tender conflict between Bryn Terfel’s Wotan and his daughter Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme),whom he must condemn to the flames.
 
Terfel, Kampe and Eric Halfvarson (as the warrior Hunding) all found humanity in a tale that can too easily remain distant among the gods – but the night was Stemme’s. Bounding onstage with her terrifying “Hojo- to-ho”, this was a Valkyrie who needed no winged helmet to announce her identity. The echo of her battle cry will linger long after the Proms season has ended – a whoop of triumph at having vanquished so many musical demons.
It doesn't get much scarier than Wagner and Stockhausen. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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With everything from iPhones to clothing turning monochrome, is the West afraid of colour?

If modern design appears particularly achromatic, it only reflects the "chromophobia" which courses through the history of Western thought.

To many English observers, 1666 – the year that the poet John Dryden christened the annus mirabilis, or “year of miracles” – wasn’t especially miraculous. The country was gripped by plague and, after a hot, dry summer, the Great Fire cut a swath through London. But for Isaac Newton, then still a student, it did prove illuminating. It was in 1666 that he first used prisms to prove that white light was not a pure, indissoluble substance but was made up of different coloured rays. This was such a profound challenge to the prevailing world-view that even Newton was shaken. “I perswade my self,” he wrote, “that this Assertion above the rest appears Paradoxical, & is with most difficulty admitted.”

The belief that colours are inferior and therefore naturally subordinate, rather than fundamental, was not new in Newton’s day, nor did it end with his discovery of spectral colour. A pattern of chromophobia – an aversion to colours – courses through Western thought.

Writing in the fourth century BC, Aristotle argued: “The most attractive colours would never yield as much pleasure as a definite image without colour.” For Renaissance artists, this idea was defined by the division between disegno, drawing or design, and colore. Disegno was the foundation of any serious artistic endeavour. The preference for achromatic, “intellectual” form is also evident in architecture. Despite rock-solid evidence from the 19th century proving that Greek marble buildings and statues were once brightly painted, the classical ideal has remained anachronistically bleached. And while modernist and postmodern architects have made some use of colour, the primacy of form is unmistakable in the work of everyone from John Pawson to Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito.

A broad cultural dislike of colour is curious because, speaking in evolutionary terms, our ability to see it has been crucial to our success. Colour vision in primates developed between 38 and 65 million years ago and makes us better able to find ripening red and yellow fruits amid green foliage. Neurons devoted to visual processing occupy much more of our neocortex real estate than those devoted to hearing or touch. Estimates vary but the Optical Society of America has suggested that it may be possible for humans to distinguish between up to ten million different shades.

And we have put this skill to good use. Bold colours have been used by many cultures to mark temporal and spiritual power. Tyrian purple, a rich, reddish dye said to resemble clotted blood, was made using an extract from two different kinds of Mediterranean shellfish and was beloved by emperors in the ancient world. A single pound of dyed cloth would cost a skilled craftsman three years’ wages and became steadily more expensive as the shellfish became rarer.

But even as such saturated colours were coveted, they also elicited disgust. The manufacture of many, including Tyrian purple, involved ingredients such as stale urine and dung. Dye and paintworks were relegated to the urban fringes. Increasingly, the wearing of bright colours was seen as vainglorious and ungodly. Protestants indicated their humility by whitewashing over jewel-coloured murals and smashing stained-glass windows in churches, and by restricting their sartorial palette predominantly to black. An echo prevails today in men’s suits: colours are largely confined to small accessories such as ties and white shirts are held up as the ne plus ultra of refined sophistication. (The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs went one better, opting for a uniform of identical black turtlenecks.)

One reason for this distrust is that colours are difficult to conceptualise. Do they exist physically, or only in our brains? Does everyone see them the same way? Colours have been maligned as chaotic, fickle, irrational and female. The early Christian thinker St Augustine of Hippo accused them of “a seductive and dangerous sweetness”.

Our ambivalence to colour, however, has profited white. Like black, white has not been classed as a real colour since Newton. It has almost become an anti-colour. Take Apple, for example. Although Sir Jony Ive is usually credited with the company’s love for monochrome products (it was certainly Ive who brought this to its apogee), the trend predates his arrival. It can be traced back to the “Snow White” design language developed in the 1980s. Today, as consumer neophilia demands that technology be continually refreshed, Apple’s higher-end products are available in the smallest range of colours – usually just white, black and, for the Asian market, gold – while those lower down come in a slew of fruity brights.

White is not only big business for Apple. In 2014, a Californian man named Walter Liew was found guilty of 20 counts of economic espionage and sentenced to 15 years in jail for selling the secret to a very special shade of titanium-oxide white, used in everything from luxury cars to tennis courts, to Chinese firms for $28m.

Perhaps the final word on the matter should go to Le Corbusier. In 1925, the great modernist recommended that all interior walls should be whitewashed, to act as a moral and spiritual restorative. But he wasn’t just advocating white for white’s sake: although he continued to dabble with colour, he disapproved of it, too. “Let us leave to the clothes-dyers,” he wrote, “the sensory jubilations of the paint tube.”

“The Secret Lives of Colour” (John Murray) by Kassia St Clair will be published on 20 October

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad