Stimmung by Stockhausen - Continuing the Journey

Kimberley Denis's picture
November 8, 2016 - 2:14am -- Kimberley Denis

We’ve now had two rehearsals of Stockhausen’s Stimmung.  It’s been an interesting rehearsal process full of laughter, questions, confusion and realizations.  Of course I had practiced between the rehearsals, but this is a score where I’ve actually had to re-think my practicing process.

Every singer has their own preparation process.  For my regular singing with Pro Coro, I take time to look up pronunciations for text in other languages; I speak the text in the rhythm of the music; I play my line on the piano and sing along; I analyze the tricky harmonic shifts in the music and determine what part of the chord I am singing so that I can make a note to tune certain chord tunes high and others low; I mark my music making sure to note dynamic, tempo, and key changes and sometimes even draw an arrow next to my line of music, especially in a score where there are multiple parts and my line appears in a different spot than usual; and of course, I listen to a variety of recordings if they are available and sing along so that I can get a sense of how the piece works and learn how I fit into the larger picture.

While some of those methods are useful for Stimmung, there is a whole other element to preparing the score.   Stimmung relies on the singer to sing certain vowel combinations to produce overtones (as highlighted in last month’s blog entry by Sara Brooks).  The trouble is, most of us aren’t really listening for overtones in our regular singing in the choir – instead, we’re listening for actual pitch and trying to ensure that we fit into the context of what we’re hearing.  

Thankfully, Stockhausen provides a guide to help us determine which overtones we should aim to hear and has provided vowels which, when sung correctly, should produce the overtone indicated in the score.

Take for example, model number 29.  

On the left, Stockhausen provides the note that provides the fundamental pitch – this is the note that I will sing.  The “music” is a notated rhythm with the vowels written beneath, using the international phonetic alphabet to notate precisely which vowel should be sung.  In small script above and beneath, there are numbers given which indicate the overtone that should be generated by the vowel.  Overtones generated by tenor and bass voices are written beneath and overtones that I should generate are written above the vowel box.  Because Caleb and Rob will both be singing this model with me, it is important that overtones for both male and female voices be indicated.  

In an effort to be as accurate as I can, I wrote out the overtone melody that I should generate when I sing this model. 

To practice, I sit at the piano and sing the model and play the overtone melody along with myself – the ultimate in multitasking!  Over the 75 minutes of Stimmung, I will sing 22 of the 51 models contained in the score.  This means, to prepare the score, I have written out all 22 of the overtone melodies and will rehearse them independently.

The trouble is that I have never been trained to hear overtones, so how exactly does one learn to sing an overtone melody and ensure its accuracy without actually hearing the overtones being generated? 

Enter the internet!  How did we ever survive without it?  Thankfully, there is something called an overtone analyzer – software which can be downloaded.  I’ve spent many practice sessions, parked in front of my computer, singing vowel sequences and recording them with the overtone analyzer.  Low and behold, I am actually generating overtones!! My neighbours in the apartment downstairs may want me to move by the time we perform Stimmung, but at least I know I’m on the right track!

The overtone analyzer indicates which overtones I am singing and when I play the recording of myself back, it is possible to hear the melodies I am generating.  This provides me with a reference point for practice – I now know what specifically to listen for while I practice and since writing out the melodies and working with the overtone software, I have started to hear the overtones that I sing.  It also helps me determine if I am generating the correct overtone; if I’m not, I can experiment with the vowel and modify it until I can generate the required pitch.  The next challenge will be learning how to amplify the overtones and determine exactly where I need to place the sound in my own resonance – a whole other process that will take its own experimentation and exploration.  Given all of the experimentation required to make this piece work, let’s hope I don’t get evicted – my landlord is my downstairs neighbour!  

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