Stockhausen Syndrome?

By Greg Last edited 147 months ago
Stockhausen Syndrome?
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Is it yet possible to write something about German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen without mentioning his little 9/11 faux pas? (Oh wait, the Guardian just did...) For those of you who might not remember, just five days after September 11, that wacky Karlheinz declared at a press conference that the attack on the World Trade Center was, in fact, "das grosste Kunstwerk, das es je gegeben hat." For those of you with rusty German, that would be "the greatest artwork ever made."

Okay, so he was already backtracking a few minutes later, and he made public apologies, FAR too much ink was spilled on the subject, and there comes a time when you forgive and forget, right? Well, we would, except that the comment seems to just confirm everything we suspected about Stockhausen's complete loss of touch from reality. There are many, many stories that could be related: he seems not to have been joking when he said he believed to have come to Earth from another planet (just like Jesus did...); he lives in a house where all the rooms are irregular polygons of twelve sides; he claims aspects of his compositions come to him in "dreams," which are fairly obviously LSD trips; he is quasi-polygamous. (We're not sure about the truth of that last one, but everyone says so, and we really don't want to run that Google search...) Basically, he's the Michael Jackson of the post-war avant-garde.

Of course, Michael Jackson made some of the best pop music ever written. Stockhausen... not so much. He was a crucially influential composer, a pioneer in many ways. Unfortunately, though, he was also a pioneer in the tragic renunciation on the part of concert music of a heathly, meaningful relationship with its audience - or in his case, any relationship with the real world at all.

His personal eccentricities dovetail with something very wrong with much of his music. And the music was made possible by the Faustian pact with government and high-prestige cultural instutions, whose funding offered the illusion of absolute artistic freedom, at a cost. (Has Londonist complained about this before? We believe we may have...) The situation led to Cornelius Cardew's notorious (a now hilariously dated) denunciation: "Stockhausen Serves Imperialism." We can do without Cardew's Stalinist rhetoric, but you have to admit he has a point.

The sad thing is, some of his early pieces, Gesang der Junglinge and the Electronic Studies, above all, are really wonderful. His reputation among electronic musicians today rests primarly on these pieces, and not on the embarrassing, gimmicky stunts he staged when his Messiah complex started to get out of control. Whatever else he did later, you can hear that at one time he had a very powerful musical imagination. (And we do so relish the story of his getting sassy all up in Theodor Adorno's face at Darmstadt in the 50s.) But then... he wrote a lot of really crap pieces.

Luckily, when he comes to London, he's presenting one of the good ones, Kontakte from 1958-60, the first piece to integrate live performers with pre-recorded electronic sounds. Although it has its opaque moments, there are moments of real aural wit. The other piece on the program Oktophonie from 1990, is an unknown quantity to us, since we gave up listening to the Licht operas and their extracts quite a while ago. But we're willing to give it a try.

There's a possibility, however, that we won't get the chance. Writing about the notrious 9/11 quip, the new Oxford History of Western Music informs us:

Though shocking at the time, the sentiment (or fantasy) was familiar: Hans Werner Henze, in an essay of 1964, recalled Stockhausen "at the beginning of the 1950s" looking down on Vienna through the window of an automobile and gloating "in a few years I will have progressed so far that, with a single electronic bang, I'll be able to blow the whole city sky-high!"

If the Daily Mail gets wind of this, will he get let in to the country?

Last Updated 05 August 2005