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Karlheinz Stockhausen - R.I.P.

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I was really surprised and saddened to hear that Karlheinz Stockhausen had died. So many great artists have died recently: Derek Baily, Ligeti, Luc Ferrari, Bergman, Antonioni. There's something really haunting about revisiting someone's work with the knowledge that they're now a historical figure.

Although I only really like to listen to maybe a third of his music and there's no doubt he was a bit of a megalomaniac, I can't help but be in awe of the sheer musical imagination and utter ambition of this man. He seemed to have an inexhaustible wellspring of original ideas that were completely uninhibited by the scope of anything ever attempted in musical life on this planet. Aside from being one of the absolute innovators of electronic music, Stockhausen spent 30 years writing the worlds longest opera cycle (Licht, at 29 hours), including a string quartet calling for each musician to perform inside a flying helicopter and sung texts written in his own invented language. He pioneered spatialized sound, writing several pieces for multiple orchestras and, at the 1970 Osaka world expo, helped design the world's only spherical concert hall built with 50 groups of loudspeakers surrounding the audience in 360 degrees and in 3 dimensions. Not to mention the countless ideas he contributed to contemporary music theory: moment form, unified time field, variable form, etc. .

Through some freak circumstances (perhaps only the musical and intellectual climate of the 1960's could've produced this phenomenon) the pop world thought this deeply weird music was hip. The Beatles included Stockhausen in their collage for Sgt. Pepper's and tried to incorporate some of his tape manipulation techniques into their studio work (Revolution #9 being a prime example). In the 70's, musicians with as much cultural cachet as Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and Pink Floyd all declared that they took influence from him. Members of krautrock bands Can and Kraftwerk studied with him, and many years later (quite possibly thanks to reading liner notes and interviews with the above mentioned artists), everyone from Sonic Youth to Bjork, Aphex Twin and Radiohead all consider themselves fans. Amongst 20th century composers, perhaps only John Cage has as much claim to widespread influence.

I think the thing that is appealing about Stockhausen's music as opposed to a lot of the other mid-century European high modernists (Pierre Boulez, for example) is the musical images that occur in his work. Almost every Stockhausen piece has a moment where some timbre or unlikely combination of sounds jumps out of the speakers and grabs you. It was like he would hear imaginary sound possibilities in his head and then try to figure out ways to make them happen in the real world. He seemed to compose from his intuition and pull his ideas from deep within the unconscious, while most avant-garde composers were subjigating every sound to the confines of a strict system and making very dry and boring music. Stockhausen certainly wrote his fair share of serialist music and always found ways of incorporating serialism into his work in some regard, but he was never as dogmatic about it as the others. He also experimented with indeterminacy and aleatoric music. It was often like his pieces themselves were such ridiculously epic concepts that the system was serving the piece rather than the piece serving the system.

In total he wrote over 350 pieces so if by chance you've never listened to him here's my own recommendations for good entry points to his work:

Gesang der Jünglinge ("Song of the Youths") - (1956) - This piece for boy soprano and electronic media set the new music world on fire when it debuted in 1956. It was the first time that the human voice had ever been used in conjunction with electronic sounds and still has a very powerful and haunting effect. It was also one of the first multi-channel electronic pieces and was musically richer and technically superior to any electronic music that had been made before. You can listen to the piece here.


Kontakte - (1960) - for piano, percussion and electronic media. This piece crystallized Stockhausen's theory of the "unified time field" as explained in his essay "The Concept of Unity in Electronic Music". Basically this attempts to break down the wall between micro and macro-cosmic structure, so that the large units of time in the piece (phrase structure, form) are unified with the small units of time (rhythm, pitch, and timbre). All of these properties are morphable, so that a sound that begins as a discretely pitched tone lowers in frequency until it becomes a rhythm with characteristics determined by its timbral qualities, etc.

Hymnen - (1967) - Considered by some to be his masterpiece, in Hymnen, Stockhausen tried to create a "music of all countries and races" by taking recordings of national anthems of the world's countries and transforming them to make a massive electronic piece. It's interesting that although Stockhausen is perhaps the quintessential modernist composer, Hymnen has an undeniable quality of postmodern collage or pastiche. It is a classic of the 60's and can be read on multiple levels: as 60's psychedelia, as part of the growing practice amongst artists of incorporating found objects into their work, as radio drama, as a early example of cultural globalism, etc.

Mantra (1970)- For two ring modulated pianos, this piece combines the pianistic virtuosity of his early Klavierstucke pieces with the sensual beauty of his electronic music. In it, Stockhausen takes two melodies and slowly transforms them both through serial process and electronic modulation that often sounds remarkably similar to Cage's prepared piano.

One of articles I read about his death featured people who knew or met him telling brief stories about what kind of a person Stockhausen was. One of them said something to the effect of that with his death, 20th century music dies as well. I think this is an apt observation; in a way he was kind of the last person carrying on that tradition. Goodbye Karlheinz. Goodbye 20th century!

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