Monday 31 December 2007


Before I ever came around to deciding whether Stockhausen was the greatest living composer, he was no longer among the living. In a lot of ways he’s the kind of guy you’re really gonna miss in the world of music, also when, like me, you’re not as such trying to keep up with his output any more. It was just nice to know that he was out there, occasionally hearing about some new far out project like the helicopter quartet or the 24 hour “Klang”. He seemed like the last of the ancient giants, the composers determined on making art for the sake of it, without feeling any need to excuse that programme, going ever forward into the unknown without any rediscovering of lush romantic orchestration or simple harmony or any of those cheap post modern tricks. I loved his seriousness, the way he truly felt that what he did was important and adventurous. He seemed like the ultimate “mad scientist” of music, with his cosmic concepts and obsessive technical pedantry, forever engulfed in strange machines and esoteric research. There’s a wonderful picture of him on the back cover of Sirius, sitting by a kind of mixing board overflowing with cords and wires, looking fully lost in art and sound, and yet also highly alert, like he was working with radioactive substances or piloting a spaceship. It’s the ur-image of the machine musician, the mother of all techno geeks surrounded by drum machines and synths and effect boxes, entangled in wires. It completely sold me on Stockhausen when I first saw it, convinced me that I just had to get into this music sooner or later, even if it sounded like utter nonsense to me back then. Stockhausen was such a great and powerful character that it’s sometimes being suggested – a bit like with John Cage recently – that he was much more interesting exactly as such; as a theorist and a colourful eccentric rather than as a composer. Well, I loved Stockhausen the self-important mad scientist, but did I actually like his music? Did I eventually “get” it? I think so, to some degree at least, but it’s certainly a process that I’m far from finished with. Which is also why I never fully knew if he was the greatest living composer, even though I had no doubt that he was among the most fascinating and influential of the 20th century. I’ve come a long way since I first borrowed Sirius from my local music library, shortly after I’d gotten into “electronic music” (which to me, at that point, simply meant Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis and a few other related names with “hits” in the Synthesizer Greatest-tradition), and my uncle told me Stockhausen was one of the most crucial names in electronic music. Obviously I couldn’t see any connection with Jarre/Vangelis, and I even felt slightly emperors-new-clothes-suspicious. It’s one of the only times in my life where I’ve encountered music that seemed so strange and alien to me that I’d no idea how to approach it. I found it extremely indistinct and aimless, and my first reaction was not to take it seriously. Yet, it planted some weird seed in me, something that I couldn’t just shrug off, but had to keep coming back to, slowly letting it grow with time. And now, it’s not as much alien as it’s just kind of really strange, and it doesn’t seem all that intangible any more. I’ve actually become familiar with it, and I enjoy a lot of it without much consideration.

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.

It feels like there’s a lot of things that ought to be said about Stockhausen, but somehow I can’t quite find a firm shape or a clear focus for them, they seem to hover just outside my thoughts reach, still amorphous and nebulous. Much like his music, actually, or my perception of it anyway. And it is pretty late already, almost a moth since he died now, high time I get this finished. I guess everybody else is more or less through with the obituaries by now, and he is slowly returning to the mostly unobserved box he occupied in our mental archives just before he died. I think Licht, even if it’s eventually performed in its entirety, will remain too closely specified and too connected with particular performers, to ever become even remotely as inexhaustible and penetrating as Wagners Ring – the most obvious comparison –, and that’s probably the case for most of Stockhausens music. It’s so grown together with him that it seems unlikely that it will continue to catch peoples attention on its own, and that’s such a shame, because our evaluation of him really ought to be an ongoing process. In a lot of ways I think we still need to catch up with him.