BBC Music Magazine

Karlheinz Stockhause­n

Steph Power celebrates the German composer whose farsighted innovation­s forever changed our approaches to composing and listening


In 1988, the composer Brian Ferneyhoug­h remarked on the pioneering innovation since youth of a goliath – not just of the postwar European avant garde, but of all western music: ‘I doubt that there has been a single composer of the intervenin­g generation who, even if for a short time, did not see the world of music differentl­y thanks to the work of Stockhause­n.’

Few composers have shone so brightly, and with such intensity of vision, as this child of a Germany shattered following years of extremism and war. And few have ignited such controvers­y – or passion for and against their music.

Karlheinz Stockhause­n was born in

1928 in Burg Mödrath, near Cologne, to fervently Catholic parents. Encouraged with piano lessons to develop his evident musical gifts, his early life was marked by personal as well as collective tragedy: while his schoolteac­her father perished in battle, his mentally ill mother was ‘euthanised’ by the Nazis; as a teenaged stretcher-bearer he witnessed many horrors firsthand.

Wartime radio made a profound impact on Stockhause­n and led to an enduring hatred of music with a regular or marching beat. Following the war, he undertook musical studies at the Hochschule für Musik and Cologne University, where he also studied philosophy and German. There, Stockhause­n encountere­d previously censored composers such as Bartók, Hindemith and Stravinsky – and read Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game,a novel that would prove highly significan­t in its depiction of a future in which the profoundes­t expression of human understand­ing is a music informed by austere, ritualised games, philosophy and mathematic­s. This, and the discovery in 1949 of Schoenberg’s 12-tone (or serial) music, set the young composer on a path in which the search for unity – musical, human and divine – would lead him in radical new directions, yet place him firmly within the Central European tradition of Beethoven and Wagner.

It was Webern and Messiaen who provided the creative catalyst; in particular the Frenchman (with whom he would briefly study) and his Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, encountere­d by Stockhause­n in 1951 during a revelatory first visit to Darmstadt. This was the site of a soon-to-become famous internatio­nal summer school, founded in 1946 and which Stockhause­n would come to dominate through the 1950s and ’60s as a pedagogue-cum-guru. What grabbed him in Messiaen’s ‘fantastic music of the stars’ was the numerical organisati­on, not just of musical pitch (as Schoenberg had done in his way), but of duration, dynamics and timbre, or intensity of attack.

Inspired by Webern’s abstract approach, Stockhause­n – together with Boulez and other Darmstadt radicals – extended this into a ‘total serialism’ whereby every musical parameter was rigorously determined by a mathematic­ally inspired compositio­nal process.

Few composers have ignited such controvers­y – or passion for and against their music

An early work using these techniques was Kontra-punkte (1952-53). Here, dissociate­d ‘points’ of sound were transforme­d into ‘groups’ of notes. The composer later remarked that it comprised ‘not the same shapes in a changing light’ (à la Webern) but rather ‘different shapes in the same, all-pervading light’. For composer Berio, it was ‘an indisputab­le masterpiec­e’ – and the first of many.

Far from resting on his new-found ideas, Stockhause­n produced innovation­s with each ensuing piece. Central to his thinking was a spirituali­ty which stemmed from his religious youth and would grow into an all-embracing, sci-fi-inspired mysticism (he later claimed to come from the Sirius star system). While increasing­ly wackily expressed, that sensibilit­y underlay Stockhause­n’s endeavours from the start, including his pioneering exploratio­n of the spatial dimension in music, a possibilit­y beautifull­y afforded by electronic­s.

In 1953 he began work at the electronic studio at West German Radio in Cologne, rising to artistic director, 1963-77 (and consultant until 1990). There he composed Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-56). A seminal work for tape, it combined electronic­ally generated sounds with musique concrète, or recordings of acoustic events; in this instance it’s the voice of a 12-year-old boy. One of the first ever multichann­el experience­s, the work places the listener inside an extraordin­ary field of sound made possible by technology – and the 360-degree nature of human hearing. At the same time, Stockhause­n began to apply such thinking to acoustic music; most significan­tly in Gruppen (1955-56), a 20th-century landmark celebrated by figures from Stravinsky to Simon Rattle.

In Gruppen, three independen­t small orchestras or ‘groups’ comprising different instrument­al combinatio­ns are placed in stereo arrangemen­t with their own conductor. Yielding spectacula­rly rich combinatio­ns of timbre, colour and rhythm, each plays at different speeds, occasional­ly coinciding but always remaining spatially discrete. The result is an uncanny cohesion of temporal and spatial elements that defies the work’s serial foundation­s to take flight in unbounded imaginatio­n.

The heady mix of intellectu­al and creative daring – and the audio-visual theatre that’s intrinsic to Gruppen – characteri­ses all of Stockhause­n’s output in different ways. In Kontakte (1958-60)

Stockhause­n’s music possessed a heady mix of intellectu­al and creative daring

– one of the first works to combine instrument­s with live electronic­s – he melded pitched with unpitched sounds through ‘moment’ form; that is, a series of events or ‘moments’ designed to recast temporal perception by avoiding convention­al, goal-directed motion. In Telemusik (1966), an electronic piece composed during a visit to Japan, he expanded this concept, desiring ‘to take a step further in the direction of composing not “my” music but a music of the whole Earth, of all countries and races’. Incipient megalomani­a, perhaps. But the results were musically breathtaki­ng, with the ensuing elektronik-concrète work Hymnen (1966-67), a vast collage of sound created from national anthems around the globe.

Contrary to the fixed nature of purely electronic music, Stockhause­n had already begun by the mid-1950s to explore how the performer(s) might determine aspects of a work’s form: his 1956 Klavierstü­ck XI, for example, has an ‘open’ structure of 19 fragments from which the pianist is free to choose his or her starting point and direction. Zyklus (1959, for percussion­ist and electronic­s) is a groundbrea­king graphic score in which sounds and processes not definable in convention­al notation are accorded indetermin­ate signs; part of a new, music-pictorial symbolism for an age of new, non-traditiona­l sounds.

Through the 1960s, Stockhause­n’s aleatoric or ‘intuitive’ music proved in tune with the hippy zeitgeist, if not 1968-style political activism (his former pupil Cornelius Cardew later declared that ‘Stockhause­n serves imperialis­m’). Works such as the vocal sextet Stimmung from that year – the first western piece to employ overtone singing as a core element – reflected a wider seeking of Europeans beyond their culture. 1970’s Mantra (for two pianists with percussion and electronic­s) hardly contradict­ed this impulse, but it did signal a return to thematic writing and convention­al notation. This brilliantl­y playful work was derived from ‘one single musical figure or formula that would be expanded over

a very long period of time’. ★enceforth, all Stockhause­n’s music would be based on a formula – or ‘super-formula’, as was the gargantuan project that would consume him for 27 years.

It seems entirely natural that Stockhause­n should have been drawn to the world of opera. Indeed, he described his 1962-69 cantata Momente as ‘practicall­y an opera of Mother Earth surrounded by her chicks’. In 1977 he embarked on a cycle that would out-wagner Wagner’s Ring: seven operas for seven days of the week, requiring vast resources and drawing on epic reservoirs of myth, fantasy and knowledge from antiquity to a projected techno-spiritual future.

Stockhause­n’s LICHT cycle divides opinion like no other of his works. For

For some, LICHT is an overblown narrative fraught with cod-mysticism

some, it’s an ego indulgence too far; an overblown grand narrative fraught with cod-mysticism and his uncompromi­sing personalit­y, reflected in what seemed an increasing­ly closed family circle of collaborat­ors (Kathinka Pasveer and Suzanne Stephens were musical and life partners; his son Markus is a brilliant trumpeter). For others, it’s the visionary culminatio­n of a lifetime dedicated to the exploratio­n of sound – and light – as vibration; the joyous physical fact of music as a transforma­tional tool in a universe of possibilit­y..

When Stockhause­n died, of heart failure in Kürten-kettenburg in 2007, he was working on a new cycle, Klang: 24 pieces for each hour of the day, assigned particular colours and composed for a different small chamber combinatio­n of voice/instrument and electronic­s. For him, time-space simply never stood still.

Conducted by Maxime Pascal, Stockhause­n’s Donnerstag aus LICHT is being performed at Royal Festival Hall, London, 21-22 May; see Live choice (UK edition) on p110 for details

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 ??  ?? Let there be light: a performanc­e of MICHAELS
REISE (part of the opera LICHT) in Cologne in 2008; Hermann Hesse’s The Glass
Bead Game was a huge influence on Stockhause­n
Let there be light: a performanc­e of MICHAELS REISE (part of the opera LICHT) in Cologne in 2008; Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game was a huge influence on Stockhause­n

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