Kar­lheinz Stock­hausen

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

BBC Music Magazine - - Composer Of The Month - IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MATT HER­RING

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

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.