“Other Planets: The Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen”
Robin Maconie
The Scarecrow Press (London and Lanham, MD: 2005)

From the Preface

The present commentary continues a conversation that began in 1964–1965, in the composer’s composition class in Cologne. . . . The issue in 1976 was whether contemporary music could be discussed intelligently, and more generally, whether it was music at all. . . . The problem was to discover appropriate terms of reference and a new approach. If that could be shown to work for the music of the most difficult and controversial composer now living, it might also change our perception of the history and development of Western music in general.
. . . As the aesthetic and technical consistencies of Stockhausen’s musical evolution become clearer, a latent philosophical has also begun to emerge. . . . Among other issues, it addresses the status of the artist in modern society, the historical aspirations of German nationalism, and more specifically a defense of the role of post-Enlightenment European culture in the wider world. That such an agenda is a necessary ingredient of genius is open to consideration, and certainly deserving of further inquiry. That it entails maintaning attitudes and beliefs that are not always easy to deal with in today’s world, is also true.


From Chapter 6: “Watching Time”

“Kontra-Punkte for ten instruments (says the composer) originated from the idea of resolving the antitheses of a many-faceted world of individual notes and temporal relationships to a point where a situation is reached where only that which is homogeneous and unchanging can be heard.” As always, Stockhausen’s choice of terms is artful; the remark implies both a general and a specific statement. That in pointillist music contrasts act to cancel one another out and produce a neutralized result is generally true; but paradoxically the statement refers to Kontra-Punkte as solving the problem by actually eliminating the contrasts as a structural determinant of the work (which is really quite witty). In the context not only of his own Punkte, but of Boulez’s Polyphonie X as well (sharp observers should also note the criticism implied by Stockhausen’s choice of title, though Boulez seems to have forgiven him), Kontra-Punkte comes as a gesture of relief: “a plague on trying to serialize orchestras! I’m going back to the piano!” In Stockhausen’s terms this is a work that is not determinedly symmetrical, in threes, meeting then retreating, but instead cheerfully one-directional, indicating a new dynamism (though a true pedant would say that Kontra-Punkte is going forwards and backwards at the same time, since while the resolution of diversity in unity for Stockhausen is a conceptual advance, in Boulezian terms going back to the piano amounts to a retreat.)

From Chapter 19: “Rites”

Inori is not about religion, but about the expression of musical relationships in an abstract but coherent language of gestures, some of which happen to coincide with prayer attitudes. Without the music, the religious symbolism of the gestures is incoherent. With the music, the contemporary message of a solo dancer on an empty stage is powerful enough on its own terms. Imagine, for instance, a rediscovered scene from Wagner’s “Ring” cycle in which the hero, dressed in white, white-faced like the Pierrot of Jean-Louis Barrault in Les Enfants du Paradis, but with a touch of Harpo Marx, all alone on an empty stage, gesticulates to the Bayreuth audience like a spirit figure trying to communicate from Valhalla, but whose voice can only be heard as a strange and beautiful slow-motion music issuing from an unseen orchestra below the stage. The emotional territory of such a conception unites Wagner and Samuel Beckett with the desperate but also sublime silence of a Garbo close-up from the silent movie era. (It would also make gripping television.) Outside the movies, the authentic poet of self-contained movement who comes readily to mind is Merce Cunningham, who not only looked like a more athletic Harpo Marx, but who also composed his ballets in quasi-serial permutations. . . . (The list of movements notated for Cunningham’s 1969 ballet Canfield, as a matter of interest, also includes “stumble.”)

From Chapter 25: “Montag”

In 1985 and 1986 Stockhausen took time out to record the concertos for clarinet in a major KV622, and for flute in g major KV313 by Mozart, and also the trumpet concerto in e flat major by Haydn, with Suzee Stephens, Kathinka Pasveer, and Markus Stockhausen respectively as soloists, and the conductor himself conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. While of interest to the specialist for the sake of the cadenzas specially composed for the recordings, these interpretations deserve wider recognition on their own terms, not only for the understated eloquence of the solo performances, and their balance and grrace as ensemble recordings, but for the insights they offer into the characters of clarinet, trumpet, and flute in LICHT, and into the roots of the triple formula in classical music. . . . Among many beautiful features of the clarinet concerto, the carefully managed relationship of detached and legato lines, between the clarinet and violins, is a particular delight; a first movement cadenza draws attention to the scale passages that connect this work with the basset-horns of Montag aus LICHT, whereas the cadenza to a delicately nuanced and wonderfully poised slow movement is reduced to an austerely intervallic statement that manages not only to express a spiritual kinship with the idiom of In Freundschaft, but also to hint at an emotional distance that seems actually very poignant. The trumpet themes of the equally familiar Haydn concerto are suddenly perceived as prefiguring the Michael formula. . . . Kathinks Pasveer’s intensely focused interpretation of the flute concerto brings out the same detail of interval and attack modes as in “Kathinkas Gesang,” . . . while the demurely measured final movement rondo hints at the Pied Piper ending of Montag itself.

From Chapter 27: “Freitag”

[On Komet als Klavierstück XVII] In what may be construed as a response to the growth of an internet “sample and download” culture, the new work authorizes a keyboardist or computer operator of composition software to create a personal work against the backdrop of the “Kinder-Krieg” music. The choice of title, a comet being a symbol of doom, and of the particular scene, in which the children of opposing tribes play at fighting among themselves, express a point of view also voiced in the tenor’s terrible cry “Eva! Unserer Kinder!” (in other words, “What is the world coming to?”), and in the tolling bells of doom that accompany the tape. . . . The player is instructed to compile samples, specifically the sounds of toys, on which to improvise decorations on the pitches audible in the tape. The improvised elements should also “elucidate” [sic] the tempi and beat patterning of individual measures. Then again, as in “Mission Impossible” the follow-up to an invitation to play the game, “if you choose to accept it,” is presumably the composer’s fervent hope that “this recording will self-destruct.” Though the relationship of performer to tape is arguably a return to Stockhausen’s original plan for Kontakte, and again for Hymnen mit Solisten, by definition the workplan contains no new ideas, leaving the composer‘s presence in the new work as relatively unquantifiable.