The first Stockhausen record I bought was Kurzwellen. It’ll never be one of my favourites, still sounding too uniform and one-dimensional for a record lasting almost two hours (the length is doubled as it has two different versions of the piece – something that’s hardly necessary), but I’d never sell it and it feels good to have it, it’s something that becomes a little bit more inviting and rewarding each time you hear it. And there’s a lot of Stockhausen records like that, too harshly abstract to be really loveable, yet also so fascinating that you keep going back to them. There’s a few doing nothing for me – like Momente or Prozession – and then some that are straightforwardly amazing and wonderful, like Stimmung or Sternklang, and of course there’s the cannonised works that are exactly the groundbreaking modern classics that they’re said to be, but maybe not that much more, like Gruppen, Hymnen or Gesang der Jünglinge, containing no lingering mysteries, just solid, powerful modernism.
The thing about Stockhausen that seems most mistaken and out of proportion to me is his status as a kind of electronic godfather. It’s something he didn’t quite know what to think of himself, I guess, at one time criticising techno artists for their repetitiveness, at another simply answering “yes” when asked by the german magazine De:Bug if he invented techno. The time he spent working with electronics of any real consequence was pretty much a small phase in a long career mostly dedicated to more traditional instrumental writing, from the serial determinism of his early chamber pieces, over the “intuitive” works based on improvised ensemble play, to his later preoccupation with opera and choir. And even though I definitely think Hymnen, Kontakte and Gesang der Jünglinge are among the best examples of the post war avant garde going electronic, I’m actually more interested in Stockhausen as a “traditional” composer, more fascinated by the works where he’s creating unearthly soundworlds with more or less earthly instruments. Or voices, as in Stimmung, which is my favourite of his, and one of those rare pieces where you’re just mesmerized, holding back your breath as not to disturb the otherworldly beauty.
His real greatness, to my ears, is exactly in this area where he’s a sort of a bordeline case within the traditional classical world, almost too far gone and esoteric to belong to it at all. Even someone like Penderecki seem rather old fashioned and retrospective by comparison, his extreme noisescapes related to the expressionistic outpourings of the late romantic school, whereas with a great deal of Stockhausen, it’s like there isn’t really any ties with any tradition. Things like Gruppen and the early chamber pieces obviously belong to the modern lineage, and his electronic pieces are clearly a part of the early electronic avant garde, but after that, he not only didn’t sound like anything else, he didn’t even sound like he had come from anything else. This is even the case with something like the monumental opera cycle Licht, or at least the parts I’ve heard, which are hardly recognizable as opera in any conventional sense. The only part of it I know in depth is Donnerstag, an overpowering work containing some truly strange and mysterious music (sometimes sounding like ethereal space jazz), as well as some parts that are actually rather silly, as you’d often find with the later Stockhausen. Equally idiosyncratic are the solo pieces for clarinet – Harlekin, Traum-Formel etc. –, you’d think that with something as specific as that it would at least sound a little related to some existing sound world, but it’s actually some of his most odd and enigmatic creations, thoroughly alien and deeply intimate at the same time.