Stockhausen, Karlheinz

Stockhausen, Karlheinz
Aug. 22, 1928-Dec. 5, 2007
German composer and conductor


Ever since Karlheinz Stockhausen explored purely synthetic music in 1952, his innovations in the composition of musical and extra-musical sounds have become more and more radical. Early in his career he used the then-new medium of electronic music to evolve concepts of form that dispensed with the traditional ideas of development, repetition, and variation. Those concepts led in turn to the creation of a new system of musical notation and a new vocabulary as well as the idea of a spherical concert hall in which music would converge on an audience from loudspeakers placed in every direction. Over the years Stockhausen has shifted from a style that allows for virtually complete control over the structure, sound elements, and interpretation of his works to one that relies a great deal on the whims of chance and improvisation. The wide range of his inventiveness has met with an equally wide-ranging critical response. To some, including the former members of the Beatles, he is a genius and a prophet, to others a sensationalist and a cabaret clown. He has elicited both opinions in the 1980s, and 1990s with his Licht operas, one of which-Mittwoch-is performed with the use of helicopters.

Karlheinz Stockhausen was born on August 22, 1928, in the village of Modrach, near Cologne, Germany to Simon and Gertrud (Stupp) Stockhausen. His mother was confined to a mental hospital, and in 1941 she was eliminated by the Nazis as a "useless member of society." His father, a schoolmaster, was killed in 1944 after serving five years in the army. The orphaned Stockhausen was sent to a state school at Xanten, where, for a time, he had a chance to continue the musical studies he had begun at home. His education was interrupted toward the end of the war when he was drafted to serve as a medical orderly and stretcher-bearer at the front. Not until 1946 was he able to resume his studies, and the following year he graduated from the secondary school in Bergisch-Gladbach.

In 1947 Stockhausen entered the Hochschule fur Musik in Cologne in order to prepare for a career in teaching. While at the Hochschule, Stockhausen supported himself by playing in a jazz combo and by accompanying a traveling magician with improvisations at the piano. Until 1950 he studied piano with Hermann Schroeder and eventually became a student of the noted Swiss composer Frank Martin. In 1951 he moved to Paris to study composition with Darius Milhaud and Oilvier Messiaen. The latter composer, who taught at the Paris Conservatory, also instructed Pierre Boulez, with whom Karlheinz Stockhausen formed a close and lasting friendship. For a while Stockhausen was intrigued by some of the experiments in musique concrete ("concrete music" produced by recording everyday sounds, or their distortions, on tape), but he soon decided it had limited value as an art form. By contrast, the new medium of electronic music seemed to provide infinite possibilities, some of which Stockhausen already had tentatively begun to explore in 1952. He discussed the problems of electronic music in a correspondence he had (conducted with Herbert Eimert at the West German Radio Station) in Cologne, and in 1953, when Eimert concluded the preliminary arrangements for an electronic studio at the station, he appointed Stockhausen as its permanent staff member.

Before Stockhausen's appointment, Cologne Radio had already become a major force in German musical life through its efforts to promote new music. By 1945 it offered nightly broadcasts of contemporary music arranged with the collaboration of such composers as Hindemith, Schonberg, and Stravinsky. Several years later its ample resources were used to commission works by young, avant-garde composers, performances of which were given by orchestras and choirs trained by the station's music department. When Cologne Radio undertook to sponsor the International Vacation Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, composers representing every modern trend had unparalleled opportunities to be heard. Stockhausen himself attended those courses in 1951-the year in which his Kreuzspiel (Crossing Game) for oboe, bass clarinet, piano, and three percussion players had its premiere. It was his first work to have a significant impact on contemporary German music.

Two works composed in the early 1950s- Kontrapunkte (Counterpoint) and Electronic Studies 1 and 2-illustrate the diversity of his experimentation during the early part of his career. The first, a serial piece written for 10 instruments, was conducted by Hermann Scherchen at the 1953 Festival of New Music in Cologne. An immensely difficult work, in which pairs of instruments and extreme note values are played off against each other, it met with a mixed reception. Some years later Stockhausen himself found the piece inadequate, because it seemed far too traditional compared with his electronic music.

Stockhausen's electronic music, even such early compositions as the 1953 Studies, represents a radical departure from the most modern works written for conventional instruments. And although Stockhausen has since written far more complex electronic works, his rationale for switching to the new medium has remained fairly consistent: namely, that it allows a composer to transcend the limits of "preformed instrumental sounds," to create not only the structure of a work but the acoustical elements it employs. In this way it offers a unique opportunity to compose a totally "integrated" work.

On the subject of Stockhausen's intentions, and those of the new music in general, no one has been more prolific a commentator than Stockhausen himself, who has written a spate of articles, analyses, and program notes and has lectured and taught. In the early years of his career, many critics deplored his volubility, but they nonetheless agreed that the unprecedented gap between public taste and contemporary music inevitably put avant-garde composers on the defensive. In the 1950s his lectures and articles also dealt with the innovations of other composers, primarily those of Anton Webern, from whom he derived his "pointillistic" method of composition (one that emphasizes the properties of notes rather than their arrangement). Together with Herbert Eimert, in 1955 Stockhausen provided a forum for other composers of the Webern school by establishing a journal on serial music entitled Die Reihe (The Row). Other articles he wrote during that period concerned the applicability of modern acoustical theories to electronic music. They were based upon ideas he developed while studying phonetics and communications science at the University of Bonn from 1952 to 1954 and were related to his own compositions.

He put his new insights to work in an early piece called Gesang der Junglinge (Song of the Youths, 1956), which is still considered one of his best. Here the fluting soprano voice of a young boy blends with complex electronic sounds to provide a musical setting for a text from the Old Testament's Book of Daniel (the song of praise sung by Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace). At the first performance of Gesang der Junglinge, in Cologne, the music was carried throughout the hall by five loudspeakers.

Innovations of a different kind characterized two compositions that Stockhausen wrote in 1956 for conventional musical instruments: Klavierstuck XI (Piano Piece XI) and Nr. 5 Zeitmasze employed the technique of "variable" or "multivalent" form to allow performers to improvise on the basic elements of composition. In Klavierstuck XI, which consists of 19 fragments, the pianist is free to arrange the fragments at will and to select from a range of designated tempos, touch, and dynamics those he wishes to use. The piece concludes when any one fragment has been played three times. With so much left to the whim of the performer, the composition naturally varies from one performance to another. The same is true of Zeitmasze, which allows the performer to alter tempos and to improvise in passages similar to cadenzas. In the actual cadenzas, however, the material is predetermined by the composer. Tempo is the most unpredictable element in the work, for Stockhausen wanted to demonstrate, as he said, that time is experienced most acutely when "all sense of time is lost." Like the first piece, Zeitmasze belongs to the genre of variable form or "aleatoric" music initiated by the American composer John Cage.

Another problem that engaged the attention of Stockhausen at that time was what he has called "spatial" or "directional" music-the stereophonic rendition of works in concert performance. He first attempted to achieve that effect in 1957, when he composed Gruppen (Groups), a "spatial" work for three orchestras, which had its premiere in Cologne on March 24, 1959. Three orchestras, each with its own conductor, were set up in different parts of the hall, the music converging on the audience in the center. In introducing the music, Stockhausen remarked that the orchestras play "partially independently in different tempi; from time to time they meet in common rhythm; they call to each other and answer each other; for a whole period of time one hears only music from the left, or from the front, or from the right. The sound wanders from one orchestra to another." One of the best taped performances of Gruppen was given at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan, where the spherical auditorium Stockhausen intended for his works had been specially constructed at the German pavilion.

Although Stockhausen had become one of Germany's most talked-about composers by the late 1950s, his music still had not attracted much of a following abroad. In 1958, when he toured the United States and Canada for the first time, critics reported the bewilderment and shock that audiences experienced on hearing his "strange" sounds. Six years later, when Stockhausen returned to the United States, the reaction to his work was far more positive. The main works featured were Zyklus for a percussionist and Refrain, both compositions of variable form music that date from 1959, and Kontakte (Contacts), also composed in 1959, a work combining both electronic and traditional instruments. Critics were struck by the novel use of rhythmic progression in Zyklus and by the intriguing sonorities of Refrain, which, however strange, was unquestionably satisfying. The most compelling work was Kontakte, whose effect on one New York Times (January 7, 1964) critic was that of an "aural landscape of considerable fascination."

The year of Stockhausen's second American visit also witnessed the United States premiere of his musical play, Originale, which was introduced at the New York Avant-Garde Festival in Judson Hall on September 8, 1964. Fully living up to the promise of its title, the play evoked the same laughter, catcalls, and frenzied applause that had greeted it at its German premiere in Cologne in 1961. The cast consisted of acrobats, jugglers, musicians, poets (including Allen Ginsberg), and a variety of fauna (including birds, dogs, hens, and a chimpanzee). It also featured street musicians playing early Stockhausen and a beautiful woman cellist, astride a balcony railing, playing Bach. The objective of the "absurd, improvised drama," according to a critic in the New York Herald Tribune (September 9, 1964), was to add another dimension to Stockhausen's ideas about spatial music by having the entire troupe "personify musical patters" in an attempt to "establish a human bridge with the audience." Although critics felt that Originale failed to elicit the kind of audience participation that provides real communication, they recommended it as a "dazzling display of inventiveness."

Despite his obvious gift for spectacle and showmanship, Stockhausen is often disturbed by the fact that audiences respond primarily to the "paraphernalia" of his compositions and only secondarily to the music, which is his main consideration. As he emphasized in his liner notes for the Nonesuch recording of Momente (1963; revised in 1965), his purpose is to explore the "purely musical range of problems of tone-color composition." In Momente he tried to achieve that goal through the instrumentation: a soprano, four choirs, eight brass instruments, two Hammond organs, and percussion (some of it produced by the chorus). In one version he built audience reaction into the piece by having the chorus shout: "Bravo, bis, awful, marvelous, phony." When Momente was performed on March 1, 1964 in Buffalo, New York, the audience seconded each of those sentiments, and some critics were once again impressed by Stockhausen's musical imagination and by what one reviewer called his ability to "embrace, reorder, and transform" experience.

In Mixtur (1964) Stockhausen carried his experiments with tone-color composition one step further by transforming electronically the sounds of the "live" orchestra. That same year he wrote two works in which microphones are employed as extensions of musical instruments, namely, Mikrophone I and Mikrophone II. Much of the sound in those compositions emanated from the various types of friction produced by "exciting" an ancient, five-foot tam-tam. Stockhausen has remarked that illustrate a point that is central to new music, particularly electronic: the need to devise the materials of composition, not just their arrangement.

By the mid-1960s avant-garde composers had transformed audience receptivity to such a degree that they had acquired a considerable following. Riding the cresting wave of popularity, Stockhausen served as visiting professor at the University of California for the academic year 1966-67 and gave many concerts in the United States. Stockhausen's appeal to that audience has increased since the composition in 1967 of Hymnen, a collage of anthems that yearns for a "oneness" transcending barriers of race, religion, and nationality. In an interview with Peter Heyworth for the New York Times (February 21, 1971), Stockhausen revealed the religious and mystical bent that has governed such compositions as Hymnen, Stimmung (Tuning), and Mantra. Speaking of the need to develop "a technique of getting in touch with the intuitive," he elaborated on the role of the composer as a spiritual guide who, through his music, "brings us to essentials." After the New York premiere of Hymnen at Philharmonic Hall on February 25, 1971, some critics doubted that Stockhausen had achieved those objectives, but even the skeptical Harold C. Schonberg observed that "the music meant a good deal to the young audience, which listened intently and clearly entered into its spirit." He concluded that the audience's reaction might well be the best indication of Stockhausen's stature as a composer.

Stockhausen's status as one of the world's most important living avant-garde composers was further reinforced by of his 1975 work Musik Im Bauch (Music in the Belly), a theatrical piece for six percussionists. In it, the musicians "were arrayed around Miron III, an enormous figure of a bird-man dressed in hippie garb," a New York Times (May 15, 1993) reviewer wrote of a 1993 performance of the piece. "The percussionists … moved like the figures in an ornate mechanical clock, but they played out a peculiar scenario. After a lengthy contrapuntal introduction, three of them turned their energies toward whipping Miron. One took a pair of shears and cut into the front of the figure. Inside it were three music boxes, which were removed, set on a platform, and allowed to play until they ran down." The music boxes each played Stockhausen-composed melodies based on the signs of the Zodiac.

In recent years Stockhausen has devoted much of his time to his grand work-in-progress, Licht (Light), a project whose roots can be traced back to the mid-1970s. The project was described in the New York Times (April 23, 1989) as a "seven-day quasioperatic cycle, with each day of the week having its own opera … [each work dealing] with primordial mythic subjects, the autobiographies of the composer and his extended family of collaborators, wives, children, lovers, and friends writ so large that they enter into the archetypal mythic pantheon." The first three of Stockhausen's Licht operas, Donnerstag (Thursday), Samstag (Saturday), and Montag (Monday), premiered at Milan's La Scala in 1980, 1984, and 1988, respectively. (Donnerstag was also later performed at London's Covent Garden.) As of mid-1998 two of the remaining installments-Dienstag (Tuesday, 1991), and Freitag (Friday, 1994)-had also been completed and performed.

Of the completed Licht operas, Montag has received the most attention in the English-language press, deemed the "most humorous, cheerful, and even grotesque" of the three Licht operas to have been completed at the time it was written. Upon Montag's first performance, Henning Lohner wrote in Opera News (May 1988) that Stockhausen had most certainly composed Montag "with a twinkle in his eye." An opera in three acts designed for 21 musicians (14 solo voices, one mime, and six instrumental soloists), a children's choir, and a "modern" orchestra that consists of six synthesizers, Montag was written as celebration of birth and women. Stockhausen's unusual, free-form interpretation and presentation of these themes is evident in Lohner's description of the opera's first act, "Eve's First Birth," from Opera News: "The curtain opens and a gigantic Eve figure, translucent, sitting by the oceanside, becomes visible… . Humans yet to be born come tumbling out of this figure by mistake as animals of all sorts, causing confusion with their screaming and squealing. Gnomes come riding along in baby buggies, trying to distort the scene even more. Lucifer makes his appearance incarnated as a humanized squid, one side moving in slow motion, the other revolving around it in erratic fast movements. He shows that it was by his wrath and will that these little monsters have fallen to the earth. Washerwomen bewail the error in 'The Great Crying,' which closes [the act]."

Despite the monumental task of composing and staging Licht's seven operas before his self-imposed deadline of the year 2002 (he allowed himself roughly four years for each opera), Stockhausen is precisely on schedule. Of the completed acts that make up for his penultimate Licht opera, Mittwoch, one of most interesting is undoubtedly "Helicopter Quartet." The piece, first performed in the summer of 1995 at the Holland festival, was written for four stringed instruments and four helicopters. During the performance, the four members of the Arditti String Quartet, with their respective instruments in tow, took off from a field outside Amsterdam in separate helicopters piloted by members of a Dutch Air Force aerial stunt team known as the Grasshoppers. Marlise Simons of the New York Times (July 31, 1995) wrote of the ensuing performance: "Somewhat bemused, the audience stayed behind in the theater, with Mr. Stockhausen in their midst, directing the event. At a large control table, he mixed the video images and the haunting tremolos that were sent down from the heavens and projected into the theater. Other sets of microphones picked up the whir of the motorblades, also delivering them to the composer's mixing desk. The audience could follow the event through banks of loudspeakers and television monitors that carried images from cameras aboard the aircraft." The piece, though ultimately well-recieved (Greek composer Yannis Anninos was quoted as saying that "Helicopter Quartet" was "the superb work of a genius"), was nonetheless risky and a logistical nightmare. Intent on picking up only certain sounds of the helicopter, Stockhausen spent several days testing various microphone positions. Further, though the proper execution of "Helicopter Quartet" required each of the four musicians to play in perfect synchronization, the whirring of the helicopter blades made that nearly impossible. Stockhausen solved that problem by radioing to them metronomic clicks from his position on the ground. Stockhausen, who was very vocal about the fact that he considered the pilots, as well as the members of the quartet, to be musicians, was extremely pleased with the work of all involved. "The pilots have done a great job," he told the New York Times reviewer. "I've not heard these sounds before. You had wonderful harmonies in the descent."

Karlheinz Stockhausen has received numerous honors and awards from a variety of organizations, including the Swedish Royal Academy (1970), the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1979), and London's Royal Academy of Music (1987). In addition to composing his music, Stockhausen has found time to publish the annotations to many of his works in a series of books, among then Texte Zu Eigenen Werken (1963), Texte Zur Musik 1963-1970 (1971), Texte Zur Musik 1970-1977 (1978), and Texte Zur Musik 1977-1984 (1988).

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