Monday, 26 January 2009

Surprised by Stockhausen

If you don't read TV or Radio listings, you sometimes find yourself on the receiving end of a pleasant surprise. (OK, I'm prepared to accept that in this case I'll be in a minority). I turned on the radio in the car the other evening as we were returning from The Lake District to discover I was just in time to hear a performance of a piece I didn't know: Stockhausen's Inori for large orchestra and two mime artists.

I've always been attracted to Stockhausen's music. As a teenager, I discovered a record of an electronic piece, Telemusik, in my local library. This led me on to Gesang der Junglinge – one of the earliest -and still, I believe, one of the greatest- pieces of electronic music ever made. It made such a deep impression on me that from then on even if one of his pieces didn't captivate me at first hearing, I was prepared to spend time getting to know it. I was hooked. I begged -successfully- to be taken to a concert of his music in London for my 14th birthday.

What is his music like? It's full of rich, diverse sounds, tactile sounds, sounds that come at you from all directions, sounds that if you close your eyes, can take you to other planets. It can spend half an hour contemplating a single moment, or cram a whole universe of sound into a few seconds. As Robin Maconie, a long-time champion of Stockhausen put it: “Stockhausen’s music is intelligent, haunting, elusive, intimidating, and curiously revealing, to the performer or listener who is prepared to work for it, of an inexplicable and profound beauty.”

Stockhausen was born in Germany in 1928. His father died fighting on the Eastern front, while his mother, committed to a mental hospital, died in the Nazi's “euthanasia” programme. As a teenager he worked as a medical orderly in a field hospital. After the war he was one of a number of composers who attended the Darmstadt Summer School in the 1950s.

Darmstadt came to be associated with theoretical abstraction in music: it attracted composers who were interested in new ways of composing. Composers were often pictured before blackboards, or alongside electronic equipment. Today, they look not unlike the nuclear scientists of that era: it was as if music, like science post-Einstein, had suddenly become incomprehensible to all but a few. There was something in this: like scientists in their sphere of influence, composers like Stockhausen revolutionised the way musicians could think about time; and just as nuclear scientists changed the world after the Second World War, these men radically changed the cultural landscape. However, I think the created image was detrimental: it drew (and still draws) attention away from the music itself. OK, so it's difficult, but it's a lot more accessible than its reputation leads people to believe. Also, in the popular mind of the English-speaking world at the time I suspect the perception of Darmstadt was tinged by memories of war propaganda: here was another group of Germans and Italians to make fun of. The musician-comedian Hoffnung sent it all up to great effect in his sketches about the fictitious composer, Bruno Heinz Jaja.

Stockhausen was a mystic and this, looking back, is a lot more important when it comes to the appreciation of his music than his technical interest in the construction of it – fascinating though that is. If one is interested in classical music and wants to find antecedents who may help make sense of it, the best place to start is with one of his teachers, Olivier Messiaen – a far more easily approachable -even maintstream- 20th century composer. It's only a short step from Messiaen's rich, dissonant piano-chords to the sonorous bell-sounds of Gesang der Junglinge, and the music Stockhausen wrote for piano owes a lot to the older composer too.

One does not have to share Stockhausen's religious beliefs to appreciate his music. Anyone familiar with meditation will be at home with the idea of a single thing repeated and explored, or the expansion of something from a microcosm to a macrocosm. Both these ideas are used by Stockhausen in the construction of his music, and you don't need to have the processes spelt out to appreciate the affect they have on the music's impact. I heard Inori for the first time in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, with no detailed description of its form. Nevertheless, I found it quite overwhelming.

Oh well, this coming Saturday night on Radio 3 there's more Stockhausen (Hear and Now, 10.30pm): his two-hour electronic work, Hymnen...

Listening to Stockhausen

Where do you start listening? I've already mentioned Gesang der Junglinge. Kontakte (the version for electronics, piano and percussion) is a captivating piece. Mantra is one of my favourites, and then there's always Stimmung. The latter part of his career was dominated by the opera-cycle, Licht. I don't know any of the music from it myself - apart from the spectacular Helicopter String Quartet, excerpts of which can be seen on YouTube. The best advice is to try several pieces, and stick with it.

Stockhausen links

Listen to Inori

BBC Listen Again: this week only.
This begins with a couple of minutes
of Sofia Gubaidulina's violin concerto -
the Stockhausen comes afterwards.

The Stockhausen Website

Revisiting Stockhausen

A good source of authoritative links

Stockhausen FAQ


Jacques de Beaufort said...

didn't he also say that sep. 11 was an amazing work of art ?

that seems reprehensible if true.

Dominic Rivron said...

As Bernard Pullham says on his Stockhausen FAQ(NB, Stockhausen's religious views were rather ideosyncratic):
"At a Hamburg press conference in 2001 Stockhausen said he believed that the destructive activities of Lucifer (the Devil) were apparent in the world today, for example in New York. When asked to be more specific Stockhausen said the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre was Lucifer's greatest work of art. Johannes Schulz of NDR, just one of the reporters in attendance, filed a seemingly malicious report (omitting the word Lucifer and the context of the question) which was subsequently broadcast on German radio. Before the broadcaster had clarified its original mistake other networks world-wide picked up the story, humiliating the composer cruelly and unjustly. Many newspapers set the record straight in future articles, but inevitably these corrections achieved less prominence. Stockhausen wrote how sorry he was his words had been misconstrued.

That the misquote attracted huge media attention did not go unnoticed by some who might enjoy the notoriety."

We obviously aren't writing as people who knew him, but from what I've read I think the misunderstanding of his comments upset him a great deal.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I remember that 14th birthday concert very well - Stockhausen came and sat just one row in front of us in one piece - magic (for you).
Re his supposed comments on 9/11 - there are many composers who had views which do not fit in with our own - other artists too - Wagner springs to mind. I think it should be possible to enjoy the work without necessarily agreeing with the creator of that work. But somehow I think the feeling always remains. In this case I think the media probably got the wrong idea.
I don't find his work easy to listen to - I wouldn't listen of choice but of course during your years at home I didn't have a lot of choice, did I? (You might have listened to it in your bedroom but by golly Stockhausen at his loudest penetrates!)

Frances said...

I can't really cope with his music but what an appalling piece of mischief to misquote like that. Poor man.

Poet in Residence said...

Hi Weaver,
Wagner was the great plagiarist of Italian music. And Der Meistersinger was therefore the peak of Italian opera (Bellini, Rossini, Donazetti being RW's main sources). Straight-faced German opera goers may choke on their frankfurters but it happens to be true.
Composers and writers and their works and ideas are abused, distorted and manipulated something terrible after their deaths. It's a crying shame.

Poet in Residence said...

Q. 9/11 Destruction as a work of art?
A. Yes. And not only art, but also as a kind of advertising, which is a form of art in itself.
And I have seen it. It was at the Venice Biennale in Italy. And it was a large iron girder from one of the so-called Twin Towers. It was lying on the ground in front of the American Pavilion.
Inside, if I remember rightly, were drawings and models of the new tower(s) from Liebeskind and others.

Dominic Rivron said...

Frances: Yes. And he wrote a letter in his youth to Herman Hesse (who he saw as a father-figure) in which he said "...what the certainty ... of being absolutely misunderstood."

PiR: Interesting what you say about Wagner. (I know very little about c19 opera).

Sepiru Chris said...

What a fascinating post!

I do not know Stockhausen well at all; this has already started to change.

I find the media's manipulation of his 911 quote sadly something I'd expect. It takes but one to twist, and the manufactured bombast or sensationalism sells well.

I wonder, Jacques, what the relevance of the reprehensible nature of S.'s comment would be, were it to have been true (and I understand D.R., that it was not)?

A good portion of artistic endeavours revolve around death and destruction- Forget about modern and post-modern art; think about memoria mortis, or symphonies or paintings capturing historic battles.

The oft painted Battle of Lepanto (the third, the first two being Western defeats which are usually glossed over) immortalizes a horrific battle and loss of life. Or think of much of Delacroix's work.

I know, even if we misquote S., he is talking about the act, not the act of memorializing it, but his talk would be the act of memorializing. It would be the act of description.

And is that not the job of artists? To sense things in a certain way, to capture that sense, to distill it, and then to present it? Most art, music, opera, painting, literature, refers to some act or mood or feeling and crystallizes and describes it, for future remembrance.

Personally, I fight strong fights for the right to reprehensible speech anyways, only constrained by tight legislated limits, and I generally fight those, too. But, by profession, I am a Barrister.

And Poet in Residence (I must be cranky today!), isn't intelligent art generally referential? It's why some claim it's elitist; you have to study to understand.

Yes, yes, enjoy it for the beauty it gives you, but then also delve deep and see what lies beneath the surface.

Think of Claudio Monteverdi, for example, and his madrigals, especially Book 2, to take a whimsical example.

"About ere yet the dawn had come", or "Non si levav'ancor l'alba novella" in Italian, is a madrigal in two parts for five voices, SV 40, with lyrics by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso (1544-1595).

The piece hearkens back to Luca Marenzio's (1533?-1599) "Non vidi mai dopo notturna pioggia" which used the fifth stanza of Francesco Petraca's (1304-1374) Canzoniere "In quelle parte dove Amor mi sprona". Heck, Monteverdi even copies the lyrical phrasing of Petrarch's rhythms when he plays with his own lyrics by Tasso.

Most musicians, or painters, or poets do not annotate their work; they expect their audience to know and to think. To research if need be. After all, if we couldn't use what has been used before, how could you write. We are generally using Chaucer's words, and in ways that he likely did not intend them to be used...

Well, this is all said with a big smile on my face and is intended to be light hearted, though serious.

I came by to check out D.R. and thank him for visiting. I quite like what I see over here, too.

Interesting discussions.


I missed the girder, and it seems both obvious and referential.