BIFEM: Sirius

Music theatre by Karlheinz Stockhausen
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo TAFE Old Library
10:30pm, Saturday 6 September

The Old Library at the Bendigo TAFE is one of the finest specimens of Victorian-era working men’s college libraries. The beautiful two-storey building features bookshelves on all walls and a fabulous vaulted dome, much like the La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria, but in miniature. The dome is a perfect setting for Stockhausen’s music theatre piece/mystery play/opera Sirius for two reasons. Firstly, it represents social engineering in the service of a cult, namely that of Stockhausen in Sirius and of capital in the educational policies of the Australian government today. The spread of working men’s colleges in the 1800s was about improving productivity without social mobility. This ideology is alive and well in contemporary Australia where the Minister for Education Christopher Pyne talks about deregulating university fees to help students access degrees that are “right for them.” The implication is that only rich people will want to access expensive degrees and only poor people will want to access cheap degrees. Of course, the talk about supply and demand hides the deeper conservative ideology that somebody from a working class background should attend a TAFE course rather than clog up the Melbourne University Juris Doctor program. But the skyward equilibrium of the Old Library’s dome also represents some genuinely lofty ideals. There were many who truly believed in working men’s colleges and university extension courses as means to universal education for its own sake. By the same token, Stockhausen’s belief in a higher life that is in harmony with nature was part of a fairly harmless—if not prescient for the age of global warming—1970s, New-Age ideology.

Make no mistake, Sirius is the most egotistical, self-aggrandising, pseudo-religious tripe ever composed. Wagner’s Parsifal or any of Boulez’s fruitier outbursts in the press cannot hold a match to it. In Sirius, for the first time, Stockhausen effectively makes public his belief that he is from a distant star called Sirius that is populated by higher beings. In the piece, four of these beings come down to earth and (spaced evenly around the balcony of the dome) discourse widely on the cosmic harmony of the genders, seasons and the constellations of the zodiac. The soprano (Tiffany Du Mouchelle) represents the South, water and summer. The bass (Nicholas Isherwood) represents the North, earth and winter. A trumpeter (Tristram Williams) represents East, fire and spring while a bass clarinettist (Richard Haynes) represents the West, air and autumn. A better ensemble for this work could hardly be imagined. Isherwood himself has been performing the work for decades, many times under Stockhausen’s direction. Du Mouchelle was a powerful presence on the balcony of the dome, fluidly accompanying the performance with arcane gestures. It is wonderful to see Williams and Haynes perform again in Australia, their prodigious talents usually taking them far from our shores. The ensemble pitched the performance perfectly, their wide-eyed rapture evincing absolute commitment that could also be taken as an elaborate hipster joke. The spectacle was augmented by costume designer Désirée Marie Townley’s excellent costumes, which teetered somewhere between Flash Gordon and a Jodorowsky film.

As wonderful as it looked and sounded, the audience still had to contend with the music. The music for Sirius is based in part upon Stockhausen’s Twelve Melodies of the Zodiac, twelve cute tunes that Stockhausen composed for music boxes and percussion. In his illuminating talk on Stockhausen’s late work earlier in the evening, the legendary musicologist (and Stockhausen’s teaching assistant) Richard Toop referred to these melodies as “Stockhausen’s twelve-pack of Für Elises.” He questioned whether they could truly carry the 90-minute work. Certainly, having them tinkling along in your right ear for an hour and a half diminished my belief in the musical superiority of these higher beings. As Toop remembers, the original reception was “to put it mildly, mixed,” and the piece should certainly not be treated with reverence today.

As a sympathetic listener I was surprised at how little I could find to appreciate beyond the presence and virtuosity of the performers themselves. One is not even able to excuse Stockhausen’s New-Age diatribe by appealing to the music. Stockhausen gives you so little to latch on to for so long. Over an hour of the piece is taken up by the central “Wheel” of constellations, where all four performers sing and play more or less autonomously while the music boxes whine away in the electronic part. One moment breaks the monotony: when all four performers come downstairs to perform together in the middle of the floor.

Audiences once had Stockhausen’s personal presence, or perhaps that of his cult, to keep them motivated throughout the Wheel of Sirius. Without that aura, there seems little incentive to sit through it. By the end of the performance I felt as though I had just disembarked from a long haul flight and I’m not sure that is how I want art to make me feel. Sirius is not an indictment on contemporary music, but a wake-up call to think about what sort of music we want to make today. To return to the education analogy, once the carrot of capital is taken away, should education disappear too? Perhaps a certain sort of patronising, jerry-rigged education should, but then the dome of the Bendigo TAFE library should shelter the aspiration it represents.

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

1 thought on “BIFEM: Sirius

  1. Very much enjoying your writing about the festival! So nice to have the music discussed in a luxurious space of words – something main-stream media is unable to provide.

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