Monday, 18 June 2012

Yoko Ono, Stockhausen and Light

Tomorrow sees the opening of an exhibition of Yoko Ono's work at the Serpentine Gallery. To The Light is part of the series of events that constitute the London 2012 Festival. As it happens, the exhibition's inclusion in that portfolio of events was not the reason I had been thinking about Yoko Ono's work in the same synapse-span as that of Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose opera Mittwoch aus Licht is being performed in Birmingham under the same umbrella. Neither had I twigged that Yoko Ono's exhibition bears the same name, Light, as Stockhausen's cycle of operas.

Instead, as a musician involved in the performances of Stockhausen's opera, I was trying to think about how one approaches the piece. For me personally - this is a blog and as such reflects my own opinion alone - the greatest challenge in performing this music by one of the previous century's most celebrated modernists is not to do with reproducing the notes of the printed music, difficult though it is. Rather, the challenge is one of understanding the aesthetic of the work: what it means and how the music tries to achieve that. That Yoko Ono is both a contemporary of a similar aesthetic stable and, in passing, a former collaborator of Stockhausen makes her history and work of particular interest.

My route to a better understanding of Mittwoch's position has been to try to learn something about Stockhausen's approach to composition and, consequently, his philosophy - the two are integrated. I have also tried to find out about the circumstances of the conception of Licht. All roads lead to a significant week in May 1968, when, during a personal crisis, Stockhausen turned to texts on the teaching of Sri Aurobindo. The immediate compositional consequence was Aus dem sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days). The relevance of this work is both in the philosophy of the Brahmin which permeates the Vedic-Christian concepts at play in Licht as well as the symbolic parallel of seven days (Licht is comprised of seven operas, one for each day of the week). This and the use of material from The Urantia Book which Stockhausen acquired in 1971 and which triggered the impulse to write the cycle, demand further investigation but probably in a separate blog post.

Above all, Aus dem sieben Tagen is a composition that is rendered entirely in text instructions. In pursuit of getting the performers to act purely on impulse, the score doesn't prescribe an object in notation. This approach is similar to that of the Event Scores of the Fluxus movement, of which Yoko Ono is probably the most famous practitioner. A post-Dada (or neo-Dada) import from Germany, Fluxus initially coincided with the chance compositional aesthetic of John Cage - a figure whom Stockhausen seems to have had a sketchy, equivocal relationship - before really establishing itself as a literary, visual and performance art movement, convened in New York in the early 1960s. Stockhausen joined the movement for various performances during this period, where he would have met Yoko Ono.

The basic idea concerned emancipating art from the formal straight-jacket of performance convention, space and prescription - i.e. notation. Interestingly, one of the more notable events in the history of the Fluxus movement saw the picketing of a performance of a work by Stockhausen, Originale, in September 1964. This performance, in fact:

Remarkably, hardline Fluxus members saw Stockhausen's intermittently careful scoring of the otherwise random events of Originale as contrary to the basic philosophy of Fluxus. One can identify certain technical consistencies extending from such a piece right through to Mittwoch; our music (Michaelion, the fourth scene of the opera) oscillates between being meticulously scored to being marked 'IRR', or irregular, demanding aleatoricism. Where the Fluxus with which Yoko Ono is associated is totally open to the circumstances of location and the involvement of others, the composition of a work like Mittwoch would seem to have an overarching formality.

Ultimately, both Mittwoch and the work of Yoko Ono (especially in the Smile project with which the Serpentine exhibition is concerned) have the same thematic umbrella, that of peace. The opera's narrative is one of conciliation and Yoko Ono's association and work with peace movements both formal and informal is well known, probably the chief reason for her high profile. Of course this was a powerful idea for change in the mid 1960s. The challenge is whether, for all the perennial value of wishing for universal peace and harmony, the counter-cultural message and artistic medium have any similar currency today. I'm sure a visit to the Serpentine exhibition may offer some answers to that.

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