Stockhausen

AM HIMMEL WANDERE ICH (IN THE SKY I AM WALKING), 1972


for two singing voices (both female, both male or female/male)

For the composer’s remarks on history, character and structure of the composition, also called Indian Songs, see the
pdf with excerpts from the booklet to CD 21 from Stockhausen-Verlag. These booklet pages also contain examples from the score.

***

For over a year, long after writing on Stockhausen’s HARMONIEN and the Trios derived from this work, I still listened to these works regularly, especially TREUE, BALANCE (both are woodwind trios) and HARMONIEN for trumpet. And I continue to listen to these works from time to time, the fascination does not lose its grip on me. I have discovered a lot of new and exciting music in the meantime, but rarely have I heard anything that is at this same level of originality and ‘otherness’ compared to other music. As I wrote in my essay, this music breathes in a unique manner. Stockhausen is just in a category of his own when it comes to innovation in music.

IN THE SKY I AM WALKING is another work that is highly original, and I do not know of any vocal music that is similar. Like HARMONIEN and the Trios it employs loop-like configurations of circular repeats to form a structural narrative, but it does so in other ways. In HARMONIEN and the Trios directional structures are formed from strings of loops mainly using overarching dynamics, the tension of pauses and processes of acceleration and deceleration. In the currently discussed work the loops are less strict, and less strictly directional. Often the musical phrases that are repeated as a loop are longer. The relationship between loops and other elements is also specific to this music.

The work employs variations of melody and sung text in the loops, which is achieved in several ways. For example, the score asks for occasional insertions of other elements during loop repeats. Also lengthening of notes, or pauses within the loops, by which notes/words are omitted, are suggested (both ad libitum; freely, as desired). Tempo variations – accelerandi and decelerandi –, as well as dynamics, with crescendi and decrescendi, also shape the structures in a manner different from HARMONIEN and the Trios.

IN THE SKY I AM WALKING offers an intoxicating mix of unison and quasi-unison singing, canon-like structures, and completely heterogeneous polyphony. While a good amount of the music is strictly notated, the score allows for considerable freedom of choice by the performers when it comes to certain features.

There is a fluid motion in switching between the diverse manifestations of polyphony – divergent or more parallel lines – as well as homophonic passages. The loops form a guide along which much of the music develops; sometimes they are heard in both voices, sometimes just in one against which the other develops its own narrative. The experience of polyphonic ebb and flow in this work is quite unlike any other.

On the large scale, the work develops an opening up of melody, see also the composer’s remarks linked to above. In the first part, just one pitch is sung rhythmically, the second one alternates between two pitches, in the third one there are three pitches and so on, until the twelfth part presents all pitches of the row. The restriction of pitch motion in the beginning lends a sternness of character and ritualistic flair to the proceedings that is captivating.

"The work is composed as a musical-scenic unity" (the composer). Most of the time, the two singers sit on a rug with legs crossed, but there is also sitting in a corner by one singer (fourth part), ecstatic dance by the other (seventh part) and
brief lying on the floor (sixth part). At the end, both singers slowly walk out while singing. Movements, which also occur while sitting, are notated in the score.


Two recordings of different versions of the work

There are two officially released recordings of the work. One is with Helga Hamm-Albrecht (mezzo-soprano) and Karl O. Barkey (tenor) under the supervision of the composer himself, made in 1977 and
available from Stockhausen-Verlag (CD 21). The other one is with Nicolas Isherwood (bass-baritone) and Isabelle Soccoja (mezzo-soprano), made in 1998 for the Mode label. Nicolas Isherwood had a long-standing friendship and work relationship with Stockhausen, and the two singers rehearsed with the composer.

There are no dynamics and tempi specified in the score notation itself. Twelve forms of dynamics are specified for the composition, and the interpreters decide on a version that specifies the order of the dynamic forms (the performance on the SV recording was worked out in collaboration with the composer). The same holds for the tempi.

In some sense it can be said that there is a leading and a complimentary voice. This other voice sings in a somewhat less continuous manner, and at times comments on the first one. In the Stockhausen-Verlag (SV) recording the female singer is the leading voice, in the Mode recording the male singer leads. In the latter the male voice is also dominant in prominence and volume, in the earlier recording the two voices are very much in balance. The SV recording is sung more slowly, and – to successful effect – elaborates on certain passages more, as the composer allows for certain passages to be repeated "ad lib[itum]", as often as desired. The later recorded performance on Mode is more concerned with the architectural sweep of the music. Both approaches have their own merits and charm; interesting are also the differences in chosen placement of dynamics between the two versions, a few of which will be discussed below. The SV recording sounds very intimate. The Mode recording seems to play in a somewhat larger acoustic, and features an often rather operatic drama in the male voice while the female voice offers a more intimate counter perspective. Both performances are excellent in their own way, different as they are.

Both recordings feature first-rate sound. On the SV recording the startling, transparent presence of the singers over a high-quality speaker system is perhaps even greater; it is truly remarkable, among the best I have heard. Dynamics are outstanding in both recordings, yet also here the SV recording features perhaps even more startling moments. The SV recording is also available on YouTube, yet at substantially lesser sonic quality (compressed digital audio).

When I first got to know the work, it was exclusively from one of these two recordings. When I then heard the other performance I found it initially boring, but in the meantime it has gripped my imagination and has become a favorite as well. First impressions can deceive.

There is a third performance available to listen to and to see,
a video with Frauke Aulbert and Julia Mihály singing, with beautiful execution of movements and theatrical elements as indicated in the score. There is excellent humor in the bird call episode of the ninth part and in the fairytale of the tenth part (see below). Unfortunately it is of barely adequate sound quality. The vocal performance of the two female singers is at least very good, as far as I can discern given the lacking sound quality. It won prizes at the Stockhausen Courses in Kürten, Germany in 2009 where the performance was filmed.


Guide through the music

The first, relatively brief part [Dream Song] begins with the title sentence of the work, "In the Sky I am walking / A Bird I accompany" on a single pitch, but with the singing of the two voices rhythmically shifted against each other. It is remarkable how Stockhausen creates tension from this, even though mainly just a single pitch is heard. Yes, mainly, because as so often in his music, he makes exceptions to the strictness of structure. There are brief exclamations on other pitches, and also an up/downward glissando.

The second part [Love Song] expands the pitches to two, with zig-zag motion in the main voice. Also here rhythmic play drives variation and tension, as will be the case in much of the subsequent music as well. The secondary voice sings much more drawn-out notes, creating friction against the leading voice, and only once switches between the two pitches, moving upward. Towards the end it detours into a brief exclamation.

The third part [War Song] starts with an ascending three-note line "Let us sing", but then mostly uses the expansion to three notes in zig-zag melodic lines like in the previous part. Both singers repeatedly ask "Is this Real?". Polyphony on diverging melodic and rhythmic contours leads into a brief episode of unison singing ("real" on two pitches) and from there the singing expands into the juxtaposition of "Is this Real?" with "this life I am living" on once again greatly diverging contours of melody rhythm and tempo. The spirited polyphony continues through new juxtapositions of lyrics, and the singing becomes more and more animated. Eventually the two singers join again in long-stretched unison singing of "[this life] I am living".

The fourth part [Love Song] begins with "no matter how I try to forget you / you always come back to my mind". For a while the leading voice expands on numerous repeats of the second part of the phrase, while the secondary voice interjects in a completely disparate manner exclamations of snippets of above text, and whispers "erotic things to a lover that one does not say directly to him (her)" (score). Eventually the two singers join for a quasi canon on "and when you hear me singing" that gradually accelerates in tempo. During those repeats on a loop, both singers divide the phrase differently in terms of accentuation of lyrics and melody, thus creating interesting contrast and tension. The process is finally stopped and the music continues with unison singing, divided by pauses, of "you may know I am weeping for you".

The fifth part [Song sung over a dying person] commences with "you are a spirit". After a brief passage of (quasi-) homophony, the voices again diverge, to greatly varying extent. Voice solos are interjected as well. After a while there is another quasi canon, on the words "In the place where I sit / I am making you". Tempo and voice successions fluctuate (in the Mode recording this episode is only short, whereas in the SV recording it is extensively elaborated). A greater freedom of pitch motion becomes apparent, now that five pitches are available. The exclamation at the end of the quasi canon, "A spirit", completes the sentence sung. A few other exclamations end the part.

Isolated vocal utterances continue into the sixth part [Opening prayer of the sun dance]. After a while, the leading voice, for the most part slowly, sings "grandfather a voice I am going to send / hear me all over the universe", while the second voice hums extended wordless tones, changing pitch in an infrequent manner. The leading voice further asserts "I will live / I have said it", and the secondary voice mostly just comments with isolated brief exclamations. Towards the end it becomes silent.

At the beginning of the seventh part [Peruvian Dance Song], the rather brief silence by the secondary voice leads the leading voice to sing "wake up man [woman], rise up man [woman]". Following a few other phrases the leading voice sings "May the death arrive", turning into "May the dance arrive" which will now be pursued as a theme. After the leading voice has sung repeats of this phrase on varying melodic gestures, the other voice sings "you must dance" while the leading voice switches to wordless syllables like "ta-ka-ta-ka da" and dances. The now provided further opening up of pitch space into seven pitches accentuates the expressive freedom. Finally the brief dance ends by the appearance of Death behind one of the singers, upon which they react with "What a chill!", "What a wind!", in (quasi-) unison singing of the words isolated by pauses.

The eighth part [Plaint against the Fog] presents long-drawn phrases ("don’t you ever / you up in the sky") with varying divergence of voices. This is followed by "don’t you ever get tired of having…". Eventually, the word "clouds" is repeatedly intonated, mostly with one voice singing it straight while the other improvises on the vowel by varying vocal inflection and glissandi – "shaping the notes in the form of clouds" (score) –, all to beguiling effect.

In the ninth part [A song by Nezahualcoyotl] close connections between the voice lines are explored in a yet different manner. The lyrics are:

I am like the quetzel bird
I am created in the one and only God
I sing sweet songs among the flowers
I chant songs and rejoice in my heart.


At first the singing is very slow, yet as the text is repeated twice following the initial presentation, the tempo markedly accelerates. A full-blown melody unfolds on the now available nine pitches, yet still moves along in a circling, loop-like manner. While both singers are active most of the time, the voices alternate in singing the melody. The respective counter voice simultaneously sings the same lyrics, but on considerably restricted pitch motion – in fact on a single pitch. At times also one of the singers briefly drops out, only to quickly join again. The friction that arises from all these proceedings is arresting. – This part ends with different vocal utterances, including whistling and exclamations. They imitate bird calls.

In this part the two recorded versions differ dramatically in dynamics. The SV version is sung quietly, whereas the performance on Mode mostly presents the proceedings with loud voices even though dynamics vary. Both interpretations are fascinating.

The tenth part, as allowed by the score, radically differs in the two performances, and presents different fairytales. In both recordings, the respective stories are vividly narrated in engaging speech-song full of humor.

The performance on Stockhausen-Verlag features the telling of the story of an old, poor woman who one day finds a large black bird trapped in a rock crevice. The bird asks her to take him with her to be his bride. The old woman asks him what she should do with a bird as husband, but he says he is a bewitched prince and he would die if she does not take him with her. The woman has mercy with him and does that, and eventually they are both transformed by the father, the king, into a prince and a young princess. The leading voice (soprano) does the telling with a half-whispering voice, with humorous interjections by the tenor.

In the performance on the Mode label, an authentic North American Indian tale of the hunter and the bear is narrated. A male bear, upon encountering a hunter, throws him in the cave where he and the female bear live. He eats the hunter’s dog. The group of hunters from which the lone hunter had separated shoot the male bear. After seeing the dead dog they think their friend must be dead too. Yet the lone hunter stayed in the cave with the ‘mama bear’, they "did interesting things" and children were born, half bear, half man. The humorous imitations and interjections by the female singer make for a masterful performance.

In both versions the narrated text is interjected, as specified in the score, with individual, isolated syllables of the text:

You, whose day it is, make it beautiful. Get out your rainbow colors, so it will be beautiful.

This text apparently gives the tenth part its name of "Song to Bring Fair Weather".

The eleventh part [Love Song] expands to 11 pitches, and features generous melodic contours. The melodic fabric features a beautiful web of weaving in and out of voices, which shape the melodic polyphony with variations against one another. To stunning effect, the polyphony is guided by the instruction in the score, "independent, not synchronous". The play of voices is initially guided along descending and ascending lines by the text: "I lie down with thee – I rise up with thee". Yet as it later moves to other lyrics, the singing still follows similar melodic shapes. The part ends on a soft (SV recording) or a more firm note (Mode) with unison singing.

The twelfth part [Song of a Man who Received a Vision], which is the longest one with 9 to 10 minutes duration, starts with "friends behold", with the first word sung solo and the second one in unison. It then contrasts with the much faster text "sacred she has been made", sung by the secondary voice on a zig-zag melodic line which moves with great kinetic energy in large interval leaps. The melodic line rotates in circles through the music in loops that undergo accelerandi and ritardandi. A polyphony of great contrast results as the primary voice answers to this with much slower singing that also goes through accelerandi and ritardandi. The polyphony turns to close friction with an interplay by the two voices of "sacred I have been made / sacred she has been made". "Friends behold" returns in a urgent fashion in the middle section of the part. In the Mode recording the urge is quieter, given the choice of dynamics in this version. In the SV recording the drive of "Friends behold" leads to a dramatic climax. At the climax (or in the Mode recording, as this passage ends) "sacred I have been made / sacred she has been made" is reintroduced with long-drawn singing. Now it sounds in an alternation of unison singing and solo singing of one of the voices. The two performers slowly walk out of the venue and continue singing while doing so, until their voices vanish in the distance.


© Albrecht Moritz 2019


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Additional links:

Alphabet für Liège - Wikipedia

[contains Indianerlieder (In the Sky I am Walking)]

Stockhausen: Sounds in Space: ALPHABET for Liège, AM HIMMEL WANDRE ICH