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.
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
A good source of authoritative links
5 years ago