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.

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

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear