Sunday 22 November 2015

In the sky I am walking

In the sky I am walking - Rebecca Hardwick, George Chambers - photo Minjas Zugik
In the sky I am walking - Rebecca Hardwick, George Chambers
photo by Minjas Zugik taken at a performance prior to that at the Greengrassi Gallery
Karlheinz Stockhausen In the sky I am walking; Rebecca Hardwick, George Chambers; Greengrassi Gallery
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 20 2015
Star rating: 5.0

An astonishing event based around Stockhausen's challenging work for just two singers

In the sky I am walking - Rebecca Hardwick - photo Minjas Zugik
Rebecca Hardwick - photo Minjas Zugik
In the classic white cube of the Greengrassi Gallery in Kennington on Friday 20 November 2015, tenor George Chambers and soprano Rebecca Hardwick gave us a remarkable programme of music for just two voices, centred on an iconic work from the 1970's, Karlheinz Stockhausen's In the sky I am walking which was written as part of his ALPHABET for Liege. To accompany the Stockhausen, George Chambers and Rebecca Hardwick performed Ode Machines 5 & & from Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning (another iconic work from 1968/71), and a newly commissioned work Black Eyes from the young composer Daniel-Lewis Fardon.

The performance area was set with music-stands (the Daniel-Lewis Fardon and the Cornelius Cardew were performed from music, the Karlheinz Stockhausen from memory) plus cushions, brass bowls (one holding petals), and a pair of bar chimes. The audience was seated on benches around the performers; the event was so popular that extra chairs had to be brought out. Against the gallery's white walls it felt like and art installation rather than a concert. And perhaps that is what it was, at least Karlheinz Stockhausen's work is very much a piece of visual theatre and not just a song-cycle as the composer specified not just notes but the performer's movements.

In the sky I am walking - George Chambers- photo Minjas Zugik
George Chambers - photo Minjas Zugik
Daniel-Lewis Fardon's new work, to words written with Sarah Fallon based on her research into UFO's and alien abduction, had very much to fit into this 1970's performance art-like concept. Though the performers sang from music stands, here was an element of theatre too. Daniel-Lewis Fardon's music used a lot of angularly lyrical cantilena in combination with text-based song. The results had quite an austere feel. The music tonal yet lyrically expressionist with added moments of percussion, non-verbal and unpitched expression too. The music at key moments in the narrative (and there was a narrative albeit a highly poetic one) grew highly rapturous.

Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning was written for The Scratch Orchestra and is one of the gret monuments of British experimental music (a complete performance lasts around five hours). Written in seven paragraphs setting Confucius in Ezra Pound's translation, paragraph five includes ten settings of odes by Conficius. Rebecca Hardwick and George Chambers performed Ode Machine 5 and Ode Machine 7. Cornelius Cardew gave the performers freedom in the manner of performance so that Rebecca Hardwick and George Chambers alternated sections of the two odes (Hardwick singing no. 5 and Chambers no. 7) finishing with the final section of each performed together as a duet. For a composer famous for his graphical scores and the improvisatory freedom of his music, I was surprised at how the writing for the voices almost approached the conventional. This was lyrically expressive music, albeit with an almost expressionist use of wide and awkward intervals. the two odes provided finely contrasting moods and we finished with something hauntingly austere.

Karlheinz Stockhausen's In the sky I am walking is an astonishing work. It was premiered in 1972, written for the performers Helga Hamm-Abrecht and Karl Barkey. They performed it for ten years and during this period Stockhausen made extensive notes about changes, so that in the version we heard, Rebecca Hardwick and George Chambers had combined the original score with Stockhausen's later notes.

There are twelve songs, performed continuously and each setting a text from Marto Astrov's American Indian Prose and Poetry, an anthology. The texts were dream songs, love songs, war songs and dance songs, all short and aphoristic. Stockhausen composed the first song using just one pitch, the second using two and so on, until the twelfth song reveals the full tone row. Though the composer notated both the notes and the performers movements, they have a lot of freedom too in such items as singing the non verbal interludes between the song, the selection of incantatory magic names used, tempos, dynamics and so on.

After the first few seconds of the work you totally forgot about Stockhausen's composition scheme regarding pitches, such was the amazing variety of tone colour, texture, non-pitched & non-verbal sounds that the performers brought to the work. And such was the brilliance of Stockhausen's inventiveness that you never thought about the restriction of writing for just two voices and no accompaniment. His music enabled the performers to create a world which was absorbing and intriguing, and complete in itself.

Stockhausen used the songs to develop a sense of underlying dramatic narrative between the two performers in a sense leading to the final song 'Friends, behold! Sacred I have been made', the sentiments of which were applied to Rebecca Hardwick as George Chambers changed his words to refer to her, and finally after some gloriously rhapsodic moments the two departed, intoning the final words repeatedly with expressive pitch bends, retreating into the distance of the building to such a spectacular effect that we wondered how we would know the piece was over!

Such was the performer's consummate technical that we completely forgot that this is a technically demanding work. Both performers were fully inside the performance and created something tht was truly astonishing.

This was the final performance of Rebecca Hardwick and George Chambers' current tour, but I understand that there are plans for performances next year, so watch this space.

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