Stockhausen is 70 on August 28 1998.
We reproduce a tribute to him from his 60th anniversary, originally published in Classic CD 5.
The radical work of Karlheinz Stockhausen has often been a
problem for audiences, who perhaps feel that scraping an
ice-cream carton across a tam-tam cannot be called music.
Robin Maconie, the country's (UK) leading Stockhausen expert,
presents the case for the defence
MUSIC is the most conceptual, least substantial of the arts. You can't see it, you can't touch it, you can't sell it to the Japanese. Nevertheless it makes you think. That makes music both mysterious and powerful, and new music, where the ideas are strongest, is more compelling than practically any other aesthetic experience. For a conceptual artist, there is nothing insubstantial about Karlheinz Stockhausen. Tall, powerfully built, the features at 60 are softening round the edges, but the eyes can still glare with the same searchlight intensity of the Wunderkind of 35 years ago. His voice, surprisingly soft and lilting, ranges in tone from baritone sax to basset-horn, the tenor relative of the clarinet which he has rescued from obscurity and for which he now writes extensively. When Stockhausen grins - which is often - he looks just like the Cheshire Cat in Tenniel's illustration from Alice through the looking-glass, and just like the Cheshire Cat, the grin has a tendency to linger for a long time after the rest of him has disappeared.
No other composer I know works so prodigiously hard. We have become used to major composers conducting their own music, but how many have also mastered the art of recording, or do their own mixing, or publish their own music in elegantly engraved and painstakingly annotated scores? Even to be able to write some of this music down at all is an extraordinary conceptual achievement. Before Stockhausen, nobody had even dared to attempt a score like Zeitmasze, where at times there are five woodwinds each playing at a different tempo. (The nearest, Elliott Carter, gets around the problem of co-ordinating four different tempos in his First String Quartet by fitting them all into an overall time-scheme, but the price he pays is the loss of individual freedom for each part.) For me, Stockhausen's problem-solving ability and the obvious brilliance of his solutions were fundamental attractions. You get an instinct for quality that keeps you convinced in spite of the fact that often you haven't a clue what the work is about.
My first encounter with Stockhausen happened when I was still a music student in New Zealand in 1959-60. Having just discovered Webern, I was totally knocked out by the Stockhausen Piano Pieces I-IV which were newly published by Universal Edition. Just by looking at the score you could sense the energy and authority in this music, qualities a world away from the austere precision of the Webern Op. 27 Variations. On the technical side, these Stockhausen bagatelles made extraordinary demands of a pianist's timing and technique. But what did they mean? Even Boulez's Piano Sonatas, behind their angular facade, could be construed as virtuoso exercises in the tradition of Liszt and Scriabin. But not Stockhausen. There were the facts of the notes, and the power of the impression they made, and that was that. A year or so later I heard the Cologne premiere of Kontakte for piano, percussion and four-channel electronic sound on a late night relay on New Zealand radio. That was enough. Anybody capable of inventing music as baffling and complex as this had to be good. So it came about that in 1964 I found myself in Cologne enrolled in Stockhausen's New Music Courses, six months of practice sessions and seminars given by Stockhausen himself along with some of the most experienced practitioners of the avant-garde (Henri Pousseur, Luc-Ferrari, Aloys Kontarsky, Siegfried Palm, Christoph Caskel, Herbert Schernus, Francis Pierre, Aurèle Nicolet, and information scientist Georg Heike of Bonn University).
If a genius is someone whose ideas survive all attempts at explanation, then by that definition Stockhausen is the nearest thing to Beethoven this century has produced.
Reason? His music lasts. The early works still scintillate. They have not become fashions because they have not been successfully copied, and no-one has copied them successfully because no-one else has adequately sussed them out. Nevertheless, like great vintages, their attractive qualities are now beginning to reveal themselves more with the passage of time, as performers and audiences alike become more attuned to the aesthetic of the 1950s and 1960s, not to mention disenchanted with the rapidly fading efforts of younger generations
The other proof of genius is a continued ability to provoke. As long as I have known Stockhausen, there have always been critics and associates panning the latest composition. It's always the latest work, never the last-but-one. In 1964 the latest composition was a full-length piece for solo tam-tam and six players, Mikrophonie I. People were appalled at the idea of making an entire piece out of a single tam-tam (well, yes, with a couple of microphones, filters, etc.). And yet today I can't hear a dog barking in the street without knowing exactly how that sound can be reproduced using a plastic ice-cream box scraped down a tam-tam surface. In 1968 the latest composition was Stimmung, a ritual for six voices based on a single chord. Boulez said "how typically German, the endless chord". Stravinsky was said to have remarked that it called for the musical equivalent of a parking meter. In Holland, a performance caused a near-riot.
Times don't change. At its German premiere Monday from LIGHT, the third and latest opera of LIGHT, Stockhausen's monumental seven-opera cycle, one opera for every day of the week, was dismissed by a number of critics as latter-day Humperdinck, on account no doubt of its fairy-tale elements and a harmonic language at times reminiscent of the nineteenth century.
The story of Stockhausen starts with World War 2. As a schoolboy conscript he used to listen secretly at night to Allied broadcasts of American big band jazz. Later, as a field hospital aide, he played piano requests Casablanca style for the wounded, in between taking cover from phosphor bomb raids and stretcher sorties to retrieve casualties from the front line. The theatre of war, and its accompanying music of bombs, gunfire, marches, bugles, radio, crowd emotion, and individual suffering, changed him for life. Becoming a composer at 20 was a decision to work out in musical terms the awe-inspiring drama he had lived through. Not for him the production of entertaining diversions for the well-to-do, but the necessary task of confronting the realities that most music is designed to avoid. Confronting, and by sheer force of will, resolving their contradictions. Not an easy task for the composer or listener. Reading Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game was a revelation: it described a mysterious art of composition allied to mathematics, and capable of unlocking the secrets of the universe. Its name? Magic theatre.
Stockhausen read philosophy at university, taking to heart the medieval doctrine that connects the surface appearance of things to their hidden divine purpose (not at all a bad idea for musicians to learn, given that music is the perfect expression of transience, appearing from nowhere and as rapidly vanishing into oblivion). In principle it means that whatever images and impressions music may arouse in the listener are in fact incidental to a formal agenda which may remain more or less hidden. In practice the drama played out on the surface often gains the upper hand. By hidden agenda is meant, in part, the serial method associated with avant-garde European music in the 1950s and 1960s. Serialism is often represented as a cheap substitute for creative thought. It's not true. Serialism is the only rational way of finding out all the possibilities inherent in a given set of variables. It means that a composer is no longer the prisoner of his limited intuitions, but is obliged to come to terms with all sorts of expressive options that he would otherwise never have thought of in his wildest imaginings. But it is more than that too. Serialism also means that the quality of your music ultimately depends on the quality of the variables you start with, meaning your ability to make musical distinctions. In turn, that forces you to examine exactly what is meant by distinctions. That way you learn some very surprising things, for example that the wave-form associated with the sound of a tenor drum is not very different from the wave-form associated with the sound of a finger-cymbal, or of a short note on the flute. Once you learn about these objective similarities, it changes the way you compose.
This concern with understanding and defining musical relationships first came to a head when Stockhausen spent a year in Paris studying musique concrète. Under Pierre Schaeffer the GRM (Groupe de recherches musicales) was pursuing quantities of so-called research in a vain attempt to classify recorded sounds by intuitive rule of thumb, without any reference to scientific method, the upshot being that nobody could ever really find where anything was filed, since the sound filing system was based on ad hoc assumptions: people made it all up as they went along. Returning to Cologne Stockhausen enrolled in classes in communications sciences at Bonn University. His professor, Werner Meyer-Eppler, was a decisive influence at a crucial stage. From him Stockhausen learned to isolate the fundamental particles of speech and how they combine into language. Out of these studies emerged in 1956 the five-channel Gesang der Jünglinge ('Song of the Young Men in the Fiery Furnace'), the first electronic masterpiece in its own right.
Later experiments in the electronic studio of Cologne radio led to the composition of Kontakte, in which synthesised sounds are shifted up and down a sliding time-scale and undergo changes in instrumental character from drum-like to marimba-like, or from fuzzy-edged to sharp and metallic. In this extraordinary work the real instruments - piano, marimba, drums, cymbals, woodblocks, gong, tam-tam and others (but not bass drum) - define points of reference in an electronic sound-universe in constant flux: the composer is saying that what an ordinary listener perceives as 'piano' or 'tam-tam' or 'bongo' or 'jingles' can be understood as movable locations on a universal frequency scale, just as the different elements that make up the phenomenal universe are identified by astronomers as absorption lines at different locations on the electromagnetic spectrum.
For the listener familiar with the 100 or so compositions already on LP the CD medium is a revelation. This has always been 'close-miked' music, to be experienced from the inside, as it were, and conventional concert performances and LP technology tend always to focus attention on the aggressive features of musical performance and ignore the subtler but equally calculated resonances of instrument and voice. The inner life of sound is now dramatically revealed. The listener for whom Stockhausen is a new experience is thus at a real advantage over the long standing enthusiast, being able not only to hear the music with fresh ears, but to hear it revealed in unprecedented clarity.
For piano lovers the Bernard Wambach set of complete piano works (Vol 1: Pieces I-VIII, Koch Schwann 310016H1; Vol 2: Pieces IX-XI, Koch Schwann 310009H1; Vol 3: Pieces XIII XV, Koch Schwann 310015H1) is an excellent introduction, splendid performances exploiting the extended dynamic range of CD to the uptmost. Each piece has a personality, but my particular favourites are VI, which has jazzy undertones, X, an explosion of deliriously exuberant technique including cluster glissandos up and down the keyboard, and XI, a 'mobile' consisting of sections that can be played in any order (on the CD it appears twice). The Wambach/Ardeleanu/Rensch coupling of Kontakte (instrumental version) with Zyklus and Refrain is especially welcome (Koch Schwann 310016H1), demonstrating the feedback of ideas from electronic to instrumental domains. Kontakte is a monumental achievement; listen for the 'contacts' of the title, as the instruments catch hold of the electronic sounds as they spin through the air, and play along with them. Moments of frenetic activity are followed by periods of lazy calm, remembered images of summer afternoons lying in the fields with small planes buzzing overhead. Zyklus is the acknowledged virtuoso piece for solo percussion, a dramatic encounter of classical order and improvisatory free will: in this recording the stereo separation of instruments ranged round the soloist is exciting to hear. Refrain, frozen chords for piano, vibraphone and celesta, interrupted by spontaneous shivering arpeggiation and strangled cries in quasi-Japanese style, will always be associated in my mind with images of the earth as relayed by satellite, a music both elevated and timeless.
Stimmung, available in a Singcircle recording (Hyperion CDA66115) awakens all sorts of ritual associations. Monotone chant is as old as religion, and survives in the folk music of the jew's harp in Country and Western music as well as in the vocal music of outer Mongolia and Tibet. The key to this outwardly static music is language, which alters the timbre of a carrier tone in a way a listener can eventually learn by meditation to hear as harmonic melody. Allow yourself to be drawn into the harmony, and from the inside listen outward to what the ancients called the spirit of the higher harmonics, a pure and disembodied music floating above.
Two exceptional examples of intuitive music from 1969, text pieces from Stockhausen's From the seven days, will particularly interest professional musicians and studio engineers for their quality of spontaneity and for their unusual combinations of instrumental colours ('Verbindung' and 'Setz die Segel zur Sonne', Ensemble Musique Vivante/Masson, Harmonia Mundi HMA190 975). Impressively disciplined performances, they communicate the emotion of the instant with great immediacy. In the second, 'Set sail for the sun', the listener suddenly recognises an extended commentary on the coda to Kontakte, the electronium taking the tape part.
With the series of clarinet pieces of the late 1970s, written for Suzee Stephens, Stockhausen adds a new choreographic dimension to the recorded sound (Amour, In Freundschaft, Traum formel, issued as DG 423 378-2, now available as a Stockhausen-Verlag 2-CD set SV27). In these works the musical structure is as it were 'written in space', the player's movements reflecting the melodic contour up and down, and the dynamic contour by movement from front to back. These studies are also preliminary sketches for the blending of musical and scenic action of the opera cycle LICHT, now half-way toward its scheduled completion date of 2002. Two operas, Thursday and Saturday from LIGHT reveal an unaccustomed elegance and refinement of tone. Images from the composer's past are woven into a mythical scenario perhaps best understood as a spiritual reliquary as it might be encountered many thousands of years hence. In these works, as in Gesang der Jünglinge, Stimmung, indeed all of Stockhausen's word-settings, what matters above all is the aural impression created by the texture and composition of the sounds: if you try to understand the meaning of the work through the meaning of the text, you will be disappointed and, more importantly, distracted. Children aged five to ten know exactly how to listen to this music.
In Saturday from LIGHT Stockhausen's collaboration with La Scala is beginning to show signs of an Italianate sumptuousness and suppleness of expression. Here are some of the most awe inspiring ensemble set-pieces of recent times: a ferocious introductory fanfare (a real chorus of MGM lions), followed by a Dante-esque vision of hell in an animated 'wall of sound' polyphony performed by an American symphonic wind band perched precariously like bats in a wall-high scaffolding, arranged in the shape of a face which is supposed to be Lucifer but is really the Wizard of Oz (University of Michigan Symphony Band; Harmony Orchesta; Handel Collegium Cologne, originally DG 423 596-2, now available as Stockhausen Verlag SV34). Finally, the magical ceremony of casting out the devil, modelled on an experience of ancient Japanese ritual but imbued with the composer's subversive humour. The sound of a myriad clattering clogs circling above and around the listener in an already highly resonant church environment is hypnotic; the coconut-breaking which follows, an inspired gesture of Zen head-banging into higher consciousness.
Copyright © Robin Maconie. firstname.lastname@example.org
Robin Maconie is author of The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen (Oxford University Press 1976, 2nd revised edition 1990, 3rd edition in preparation), editor and co-author of Stockhausen on Music (Marion Boyars 1989), and collaborator with Barrie Gavin in the production of the BBC 'Omnibus' 1981 Stockhausen film portrait Tuning in. He studied under Messiaen 1963-64, and with Stockhausen, Pousseur, Eimert, Aloys Kontarsky, Bernd-Alois Zimmermann and others 1964-65. His most recent publication is The Science of Music (Clarendon Press, 1997). He is currently Professor of Performing Arts at Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia.