Sunday, December 9, 2007

Journal: Karlheinz Stockhausen 1928-2007

Posted by John Stoehr on Sun, Dec 9, 2007 at 9:31 AM

From Friday's Guardian newspaper in London . . .

Karlheinz Stockhausen, a controversial giant of 20th century musical modernism whose works were seldom embraced by mainstream concert audiences, has died at the age of 79, it was announced today.

Endlessly prolific, whether in fashion or out of it, he composed 362 works, including the world's longest opera, Licht, a sequence of seven pieces - one for every day of the week. The whole piece lasts 29 hours.

News of his death was released by the clarinettist Suzanne Stephens and flautist Kathinka Pasveer, two "companions" who had been associated with him for than 30 years and performed many of his works.

A lecture Stockhausen gave in 1972 on the nature of sound, which anticipates current sound technology . . .

An example of the kind of extreme modernism held in esteem for much of the 20th century. In this case, a string quartet written by Stockhausen for each musician to perform in his own helicopter . . .

UPDATE: From an appreciation by Tim Page over at the Washington Post . . .

Stockhausen is likely to be remembered as the central figure in the German musical avant-garde in the second half of the late 20th century. He composed music of extraordinary concentration (his "Piano Piece No. 3" lasts less than 30 seconds) and a massive series of operas that make Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle seem laconic. He wrote both densely organized, precisely notated compositions and conceptual works that leave virtually every traditional musical choice (pitch, rhythm, timbre and duration) up to the performer. He was a pioneer in the development of electronic music, yet one of his real masterpieces ("Stimmung") is a near-motionless, 75-minute study for six solo voices.

A varied output, then, yet strangely unified by the multifaceted and wide-ranging originality of Stockhausen's thought. For it may be said that behind every new work by Stockhausen there was a theory -- and every fresh theory engendered new work.

Not all of his "theories" deserved respect. Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, Stockhausen outraged much of the world when he called the attacks "the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos." "Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn't even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for 10 years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying, just imagine what happened there," he elaborated. "You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 [sic] people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment."

Stockhausen later claimed that he had in fact been horrified by the "art" that smashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and added that it must have been guided by "Lucifer." "He uses his high degree of intelligence to destroy creation," the composer said. "He does not know love. After further questions about the events in America, I said that such a plan appeared to be Lucifer's greatest work of art."(To which one is tempted to paraphrase Frank Zappa: "Shut up and play your ring modulator!")

It would be unfortunate if such bizarre musings from the composer's increasingly fuzzy old age were to keep younger musicians from investigating his early music, which was invariably stimulating and often extraordinary. Take the 1955 composition "Gesang der Junglinge" ("Song of the Youths"), a 13-minute piece for taped sound that was originally intended to be played for an audience surrounded by loudspeakers in every corner of the hall. On first hearing, it may sound like Munchkin babble -- and it drives unsympathetic listeners absolutely up the wall. Still, upon reflection, this is one of the masterpieces of electronic music -- somber, specific and, on some curious level, deeply lyrical. Stockhausen took sung sounds and electronically produced noises and built them into a space-age devotional epic based on the Book of Daniel, the "Song of the Youths in the Fiery Furnace."


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