Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007)

Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1975A giant in the modern music world passed away last week: Karlheinz Stockhausen. He seemed to appear in every chapter of the modern music books I studied in grad school, such was his influence. I had always thought him a realist and pragmatist, so I was surprised (and touched) a few years ago when our friends Nandini and Thomas gave me a sort of “call to creativity,” attributed to Stockhausen, which was quite spiritual. I then learned he was both a rationalist and a mystic, attributes that seem difficult to reconcile but somehow make sense.

In 1995 British modern music magazine Wire sent Stockhausen some tracks by electronica acts (Stockhausen was an early pioneer of electronic music), including Aphex Twin and asked for his response. The article was called Advice To Clever Children. Here’s part of his response:

I wish those musicians would not allow themselves any repetitions, and would go faster in developing their ideas or their findings, because I don’t appreciate at all this permanent repetitive language. It is like someone who is stuttering all the time, and can’t get words out of his mouth. I think musicians should have very concise figures and not rely on this fashionable psychology. I don’t like psychology whatsoever: using music like a drug is stupid. One shouldn’t do that: music is the product of the highest human intelligence, and of the best senses, the listening senses and of imagination and intuition. And as soon as it becomes just a means for ambiance, as we say, environment, or for being used for certain purposes, then music becomes a whore, and one should not allow that really; one should not serve any existing demands or in particular not commercial values. That would be terrible: that is selling out the music.

Clearly this was a man who took his art seriously! I wonder if he disliked Satie, the originator of ambient music (“furniture music,” as he called it).

About Aphex Twin he said he should immediately stop with all these post-African repetitions, change tempi and at least have a direction if there had to be repetition. For each of the artists, he recommended a piece of his own to listen to for ideas. Aphex Twin’s response was irreverent and humerous:

I thought he should listen to couple of tracks of mine: Didgeridoo, then he’d stop making abstract, random patterns you can’t dance to.

The article is funny and it’s easy to dismiss Stockhausen as not understanding the context of electronic dance music, but I think it’s to his credit that he took the exercise seriously enough to think about their works as compositions to be critiqued instead of dismissing them outright. What’s fascinating is that in ’95 Aphex Twin was making fairly repetitive drum machine-based loopy tracks and over the next few years became more and more abstract to the point sometimes of alienating all but the most dedicated listeners. I don’t know if he just got bored with what he was doing before or if he took Stockhausen’s advice to heart after all. Stockhausen’s aversion to machinistic repetition are put into relief by this quote from the well written Guardian obituary:

Stockhausen recalled how as a boy he heard marching songs played incessantly on the radio [in Nazi Germany]; an experience which left him with an abiding hatred of regular repetitive rhythms in music.

To be thorough, I should say that while this may be true, it’s also been part of the zeitgeist of avant garde music since the beginning of the 20th Century, or at least since World War I, when composers reacted against the atrocities they had experienced as well. It would be interesting to follow the schism where dance (that is, non-modern, popular dance) was left behind by the avant garde and taken up by the rest of the music world.

I’m not sure how I’ve been influenced by Stockhausen. I have only a couple of recordings, one of which is the Helicopter String Quartet, performed by the Arditti String Quartet. Musically it’s not something I return to often, but the idea is magnificent: each member of the quartet plays aboard a separate helicopter (yes, in flight!) and the audio and visuals are shown on stage for the audience on the ground, including the sound of the rotors. It’s such a crazy idea and spectacle — the very fact that it could be pulled off is amazing to me. It certainly showed me how the barriers we construct around the concert can be broken in dramatic fashion. I think his influence on me has been indirect, as he was tremendously influential on previous generations of composers, especially in his feeling of the importance of music in society, and in striving to create something new.

The highest calling of mankind can only be to become a musician in the profoundest sense; to conceive and shape the world musically. — Karlheinz Stockhausen

Photo: Stockhausen Publicity photo 1975. Chrysalis Records

The Helicopter Quartet (excerpt) as performed by the Austrian Ensemble for New Music.