Stockhausen Edition no. 31
(Unsichtbare Chöre)

Karlheinz Stockhausen – “Unsichtbare Chöre” from “Donnerstag aus Licht” (1979)
Chorus of the West German Radio, Cologne; Karlheinz Stockhausen [cond.]. Suzanne Stephens [clarinets in sections 20 – 22]
Stockhausen 31. Duration: 49:10.

Lights go down, a starry firmament is projected and the atmosphere is dense in emotion and star-reaching in quantum leaps across the 2 degree Kelvin abysses of interstellar space…
It was the 8th of August 2001 at the Stockhausen Courses in Kürten, Germany, and Stockhausen offered us the complete and ultimate opportunity of experiencing “
Unsichtbare Chöre” from “Donnerstag aus Licht” in its pure tape version, dedicated to James Ingram. In “Thursday from Light” the “Invisible Choirs” are heard in Act I – “Michael’s Youth” – and in Act III – “Michael’s Homecoming” – in Scene I; “Festival”.

Stockhausen in his atelier with James Ingram 1985
(Photo: Clive Barda)

Even though this is the music of stellar energy-waves welling back and forth through a space beyond comprehension, I can smell the scent of fresh blood of ancient offerings and the smoke rising from the altars of old, when the communion with God was direct, physical and of immediate, decisive importance.
This unique choir music, arrived at through months and months of intense arranging and balancing by Stockhausen, can be received like the resounding inside your mind of angelic conversations, at the service of God, and the focal core of this mystic web of voices reaches deep down into the center of human and angelic existence, far beyond the temporal and unreal confinement of bodily shapes.

In Kürten in August of 2001 we were surrounded by loudspeakers, and whether we took Stockhausen’s word for good and listened with eyes closed, or affixed our gaze in the moon that he projected for those in fear of the dark, the experience was a very strong one, as we floated and soared in the midst of the angelic choirs, the “
Invisible Choirs”.
A CD reproduction in a two-channel rendering of this all-embracing music, which is supposed to surround you, cannot give any clue as to the ultimate experience in Kürten, but it may serve you well anyhow, enabling you to listen in the stillness of your room, maybe even through headphones. Whichever method you choose, the music will provide an intense and unique sound experience, and since the human (or is it angelic here…?) voice always comes very close to the listener in a strongly physical way (though the force of this music is mainly spiritual), the body of the listener will vibrate inside-out in beat with the “
Invisible Choirs”, and dependant of the refinement of each listener’s associative framework of experience, this music will open up different spiritual outlooks to each person. It will bring you as far as you are worthy of as of now, and no one can ask for more, really.

The peculiar progression of the music, in different layers – time layers – brings about a stark, graphical vision of sharp strata moving above and below each other, all in the same direction, but at different speeds, like layers of ice pushed above each other by the force of the sea in spring or the immobile shale that constitutes the movement of pre-historical clay, frozen in time. Another vision that “
Invisible Choirs” give me is that of lava moving slowly but relentlessly under a crevassing crust, through which you can catch glimpses of the hot and dangerous matter, which no human tissue can resist.
It’s as if Stockhausen has tapped in to a jet stream of universal spiritual power in his work; a spiritual power that really is too strong to approach for a being enabled solely by the fragility of life, but which has to be transformed down to a current not fatal to us. Maybe “
Invisible Choirs” is that transformer, delivering that grand spiritual experience to us in a transformed current of a humanly conceivable charge.

The hands of the Maestro
(Stockhausen correcting the score of
"Thursday from Light" 1985)

The method that Stockhausen used when he achieved “Invisible Choirs” can best be described by himself, and I quote from Albrecht Moritz’s analysis of “Invisible Choirs”(to which I sincerely direct the reader for a more detailed insight into the work), found at Stockhausen’s homepage, where Moritz provides a translation from Stockhausen’s “Texte zur Musik”, Volume 8:
I conducted the rehearsals and recordings with the choir of the WDR Cologne. For the entire work, which lasts about 50 minutes, I have copied on the 16th track of a 16-track-tape the beats of each bar with impulses. The choir was recorded on the remaining 15 tracks. With pitch differences and accents of the impulses I clarified on the click-track all bar divisions and tempi. During the recording I heard the click-track over headphones and conducted. For three weeks I rehearsed the WDR-choir in split sessions, and on that occasion the voice groups were recorded separately. Always all voices of one group sang. For example all tenors were recorded on one track, then all tenors with a second polyphonic layer in a second track, then all tenors on a third track; the same method was applied for all basses, all altos and all sopranos. At some moments I even have overlaid one voice group four times with itself.
With this recording technique, with which everything always proceeded perfectly synchronously, I thus realized in three weeks a rich polyphonic work. Afterwards I mixed in another studio for six weeks an 8-track version with eight loudspeakers, which stood in a circle around me in about 2 meters distance at ear level, as well as with a 16-track-playback tape machine and an 8-track recording tape machine.
During that process, I copied voice groups together on several tracks, I balanced - always standing - the dynamics (which was the most time-consuming) and per formal section I changed the positions of the choral groups around me. Day after day I listened and mixed for 8 hours a new original for performances. The result is reproduced over 8 or 8 x 2 loudspeakers, located around the audience.
... A choir could never sing a work like
UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE live. At some moments up to 180 voices are synchronized. When all are present, the WDR-choir has 48 members. Also, a live performance of combined choirs could hardly ever achieve such a polyphonic synchronicity, pitch accuracy and dynamic balance as the recording of UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE possesses them. The recording technique of our time thus creates an entirely new musical quality

Invisible Choirs” is such a unique choir work that it should not really be compared to other works, but I find that some aspects of the structure, with blocks moving at different levels, in and out of focus, beneath and above each other with pauses inserted, reminds me in some small measure of Petr Kotik’s 6-hour work “Many Many Women”, presenting texts by Gertrude Stein. This comparison is not really justified, since the works are very different, but they do have some aspects in common. Kotik’s work is, however, an ensemble piece for a small number of voices and instruments, and it was recorded live. Choral works by György Ligeti and Luciano Berio might come to mind here and there too, but only peripherally, and not with any really significant similarities, the likeness being only superficial and shallow.

The pauses that sometimes – just a few times - occur in “
Invisible Choirs” are so full of the resounding memory of the blocks of sound that just passed, that an inner inertia of the silence forcefully transports your perception towards the starting point of the next block of sound. It is very peculiar how you sort of soar and sail across these silences with the fresh memory of the just silenced music resounding in your mind, until you connect to the next block of sound. There is a clear trajectory detectible through these silences! Very strange!

Jerusalem 2001:
The (alleged) tomb of Jesus
(Photo: Gesine Schauerte)

Though the fabric of the choral web often comes at you in dense, bulging curtains of sound, one behind the other, the clarity always matches up to the density. This is a startling, seemingly impossible quality, which probably is a very hard-earned effect of Stockhausen’s intense refinement and calibration work, as he welded the torrents of voices together into these masterly, incomparable vocal tapestries of angelic beauty.

The four texts of the “
Invisible Choirs”, which spiritually color the music, are:

1. “Judgment Day” from “the Ascent of Moses”, sung in Hebrew:

Then shall My reign begin
over all My creatures
and then shall be the end of
and when he goes, with him will go all sorrow
the Lord in Heaven will rise up
from His throne
and the earth tremble
the sun no longer bring forth light,
the points of the moon shatter
and the circuits of the stars be thrown into confusion
and Thou Mankind shall be content
God shall raise ye up

2. “The End of Time” from “the Apocalypse of Baruch”, sung in German:

In their time
shall appear miraculous things.
They shall see the world
that was first invisible to them.
They shall also see the time
still hidden
when they shall live in the heavens
like the stars
clothed in beauty
as splendid as the light,
as brilliant as the rays of the sun

3. “The End of Time” from “the Apocalypse of Baruch”, sung in Hebrew:

Mercy shall fall like balm
and the pains and sighs of affliction vanish from mankind
and joy shall cover all the earth.
The wild animals shall come forth from the forest
and allow themselves to be led by the small children

4. “Hymn” from “Leviticus” sung in Hebrew:

The heavens shall rejoice
and the earth exult
and the clouds be glad
He shall open the gates of paradise
and cast away the sword
and fears from mankind
and then
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
shall rejoice
and I too shall rejoice
and all the saints will be arrayed in joy