Karlheinz Stockhausen: radical play
September 15, 2012
My first experience of Stockhausen was sneaking a day off school to hear concerts in the Barbican’s Music and Machines series in early 1985.
Karlheinz himself was there for introductions and to do the sound projection. I think he charmed me right from the beginning with comments like “for those of you listening on the radio … please do not adjust your sets … what you hear is what I have composed”. I’ve tracked down a 1985 photo of him in London with Suzanne Stephens and they really do look like just my type of people.
We were introduced to the early electronic studies, Gesang der Jünglinge, Kontakte, some improvisatory pieces from the sixties involving shortwave radios that struck me for the terrible vulnerability and courage demanded of the performers, and an incredible performance of Hymnen, scrambling national anthems into a world-sound-tapestry.
I loved hearing Radio 3 people announce the comedy instrumentation of pieces from the earliest days of electronica: “and now here’s … for three sine wave generators, six potentiometers and ring modulator with orchestra.” (In contrast, in a 1985 Radio 1 interview Stockhausen praised the Japanese people for making modern synthesizers available to all, “so much more interesting and useful than pianos that are always out of tune”.)
Later the same year came Donnerstag aus Licht at the Royal Opera House. Bizarrely, this was my first ever opera, and I distinctly recall sitting in the front row of the stalls (never again since!) next to a lady who described an installation project she was working on with Yoko Ono, and who commented in the interval “how else can we compose, in the space age?”. I also remember that my dad, who kindly came to collect me, had been chatting outside in Bow Street during the performance to Michael Tippett’s chauffeur.
My first opera was exceedingly striking, including a journey round the world on a giant meccano set, our hero tweaking the nipples of Moon-Eve to extract sweet notes from her basset horn, Lucifer storming around the auditorium hollering “Narr, Narr” with hugely trilled r’s, and finally the enchantment of the Abschied, played by solitary trumpeters from high windows and rooftops around Covent Garden.
Looking back, those were exciting times. I went to university just a few weeks later, and I must have talked a lot about Hymnen, Donnerstag, and all the rest, to largely uninterested people. There was soon a standing joke about ‘Tim music’ and I’m sure Stockhausen was firmly at its core. (As he became more generally the symbol of modernist strangeness.) My musical education had progressed from The Beatles->Jean-Michel Jarre->Mahler->Bartók->Stockhausen in the space of a couple of a years. It’s hard to keep up that pace of shock and revelation.
So for me Stockhausen was always a hugely accessible composer, far more so at first than others of his (musical) generation such as Boulez and Carter. And I think the distinction was the palpable sense of play, both from the man and his music. The names of his works sound like a translated trip to Ikea: Expo, Fresco, Harlekin, Komet, Spiral, Stop, Sukat, Thinki, Zyklus … And I can recall another characteristic Stockhausenism from a talk: he wanted to have such control over sound that he could send notes over to wake up any dozing audience members.
Stockhausen was most famously a pioneer of electronic music, though he also innovated with sound spatialisation (which makes him brilliant for the Albert Hall), and with a type of improvisatory and conceptual music making very much in the spirit of the sixties. His influence on non-classical musicians has been huge – from the Beatles to Kraftwerk to Aphex Twin – and he sits alongside Steve Reich as one of the great underground streams feeding into dance music.
One of the first pieces to demonstrate the expressive, communicative possibilities of electronics was Gesang der Jünglinge (1956), which combined synthesized sounds with recordings of a boy’s voice, creating a continuum of timbre.
The combination of prepared electronic sound with live performance quickly became a concern of Stockhausen and others, leading to Kontakte (1960), a groundbreaking work that brought together an intricately layered, bubbling, gurgling synthesized composition, itself astoundingly varied in texture and timbre, with live piano and percussion.
Stockhausen considered his piano pieces to be his sketchbook, and they are often where the most abstruse experimentation took place. Klavierstuck IX (1961) has become celebrated and notorious for its long fibonacci repetitions of a single chord. But as with most Stockhausen there is a collision of fantasy and rigour; the effects deployed in this piece are as much about mood, contrast, and ritual as they are about radical serial technique. In fact this piece made me realise that of all composers it is perhaps Messiaen who has most in common with Stockhausen in terms of overall musical personality, in his mystical play with bold extremities of sound. The Catalogue d’Oiseaux in particular often comes close to the Stockhausen sound world.
Stimmung (1968) is probably my favourite Stockhausen work. It’s a tender, mystical, nocturnal, erotic, comedic vocal sextet which elaborately explores harmonics using as its source material the names of dozens of gods from cultures around the world. It’s Stockhausen at his most gloriously trippy and hippy and has endlessly inspired me. I love that it was born in the same year as me. Though evidently it didn’t inspire the woman who fled, screaming “I can’t take anymore!”, halfway through a QEH performance I attended sometime in the nineties.
In the late sixties Stockhausen moved decisively away from formal complexity and the spiky sound world of serialism, and experimented with radically improvisatory music, creating numerous works that were simply sets of instructions, often cryptic, very much of their time, and reminiscent of many of Yoko Ono’s mysterious performance suggestions. An example is ‘Es’ from Aus den sieben Tagen (1968):
Wait until it is absolutely still within you
When you have attained this
Begin to play
As soon as you start to think, stop
And try to retain
The state of NON-THINKING
Then continue playing”
There are recordings, but it seems quite ridiculous to suggest one, as the intuitive process is so personal. These are really meditative exercises using sound; something to do, not buy on record.
In a way these pieces represented a crisis point, like Webern’s prior to the invention of serialism, and Stockhausen rebounded from it in the early seventies with his adoption of ‘formula composition’, a technique that I will refrain from explaining but which resulted in a very different sound world with much more overt melody, ideally suited to creation of very large forms and a more theatrical sense of instrumental characters.
Between 1977 until 2003 Stockhausen composed Licht, an opera cycle of unparalleled enormity. But before I share some extracts from that, in complete contrast here are some of the tiny zodiac pieces from Tierkreis (1975). Originally composed for music boxes (to be extracted from the belly of a giant bird in a ritual theatre piece), they are played here by a trio drawn from Stockhausen’s inner circle of devoted soloists – Suzanne Stephens, Kathinka Pasveer and his son Markus. The music boxes can be obtained from Stockhausen-Verlag for 310 euro each and could make lovely presents.
The final two sound clips are from Donnerstag and Mittwoch aus Licht respectively. Firstly Michaels Reise um die Erde (1978), in a recent staging by La Fura Dels Baus.
And finally the Helikopter-Quartett (1993) from Mittwoch! The Helikopter-Quartett is just one scene from Mittwoch, and by no means the most eccentric, but it has become, as usual with Stockhausen, both celebrated and notorious. It’s emblematic of his later work, and in fact of all his work, for drawing together ritual theatricality, utter disregard for practicality, playfulness, and of course a hint of the divine. The audience inside the venue is intended to see a live video relay from all four helicopters as they circle above, with one performer in each.
Birmingham Opera Company audaciously gave the world’s first complete staging of Mittwoch just a few weeks ago, in an abandoned chemical factory, to wide acclaim. I was sadly unable to go, but here are some first hand accounts from the LA Times, OperaCreep and Boulezian.
Over the years Stockhausen has dropped in and out of my life, and I’ve sometimes abandoned him for long periods when he’s seemed less relevant or less subtle than other composers I’ve come to love. Those were probably periods when I’d become less receptive to the visionary side of art.
I remember as a student my friend Heiko and I writing on some ridiculous pretext to Stockhausen-Verlag and being excited to get letters back signed by Suzanne Stephens and Kathinka Pasveer. I’m sure I still have mine somewhere. And I recall a few other performances from those times. Karlheinz wished us all “happy musical space journeys” at the 1988 Huddersfield Festival, where he was guest of honour in his 60th birthday year. It’s always felt quite personal with Stockhausen.
I’ve listened to a lot of his music while preparing this, and I’ve tried to relax from thinking about history and technique and simply note down the words that come to me. Theatrical, playful, melodious, meditative, spacious, bold, mischievous, startling, ritualistic, amorous.
It’s such a very different experience to the scintillating frenzy of Boulez, and different again to the darker, earthbound ritual of Birtwistle, so strongly influenced by Stockhausen. Even in highly formalised serial works like Kontra-Punkte there is a not-very-buried sense of disorderly madcap that is completely alien to other major modernists.
Ultimately I see Stockhausen’s work as radical play. Despite all his technical innovation, despite being the leading theorist of his generation, I hear his work as the music of an innocent, a child-man, someone apart from the musical world who combines astounding boldness with bountiful mischief and humour. He also combines relentless rationality with equally relentless mysticism. And the more I write about him the more I recognise myself in these dualities, so there’s no wonder I feel a strong connection.
Stockhausen was part of a generation following the second world war who seemed to demand utter destruction of the artistic part. As he put it: “At the middle of the century an orientation away from mankind began. Once again one looked up to the stars and began an intensive measuring and counting.” At a certain level his genius depended on being utterly disconnected from worldly reality. And yet there was obviously a charismatic force of will (not to mention practical intelligence) needed to make these works actually come to fruition in concert halls and chemical factories.
I’ve often thought of Stockhausen as having a knack for creating beautiful, startling music almost regardless of how barmy his ideas sometimes were. And as the narrator of the recent Birmingham production of Mittwoch said, “this is as bonkers as it gets.”