Karlheinz Stockhausen  

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"Well, what happened there is, of course—now all of you must adjust your brains—the biggest work of art there has ever been." --Karlheinz Stockhausen [...]

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Karlheinz Stockhausen (August 22 1928 – December 5 2007) was a German composer, best known for his work in electronic music and in serial composition. He first came to international attention in 1953 with Electronic Studie I, Klavierstucke, and Kontrapünkte, one year after John Cage had given the world 4'33". A typical 1960s work is Mikrophonie I and II.




Stockhausen and his music have been controversial and influential. The two early Electronic Studies (especially the second) already had a powerful influence on the subsequent development of electronic music in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in the work of the Italian Franco Evangelisti and the Poles Andrzej Dobrowolski and Włodzimierz Kotoński (Skowron 1981, 39). The influence of his Kontra-Punkte, Zeitmasse and Gruppen may be seen in the work of many composers, including Igor Stravinsky's Threni (1957-58) and Movements for piano and orchestra (1958-59) and other works up to the Variations: Aldous Huxley In Memoriam (1963-64), whose rhythms "are likely to have been inspired, at least in part, by certain passages from Stockhausen's Gruppen" (Neidhöffer 2005, 340). Though music of Stockhausen's generation may seem an unlikely influence, in a 1957 conversation Stravinsky said:
I have all around me the spectacle of composers who, after their generation has had its decade of influence and fashion, seal themselves off from further development and from the next generation (as I say this, exceptions come to mind, Krenek, for instance). Of course, it requires greater effort to learn from one’s juniors, and their manners are not invariably good. But when you are seventy-five and your generation has overlapped with four younger ones, it behooves you not to decide in advance "how far composers can go," but to try to discover whatever new thing it is makes the new generation new. (Stravinsky and Craft 1959, 133)
Jazz musicians such as Miles Davis (Bergstein 1992), Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Yusef Lateef (Feather 1964; Tsahar 2006), and Anthony Braxton (Radano 1993, 110) cite Stockhausen as an influence, as do pop and rock artists such as Frank Zappa, who acknowledges Stockhausen in the liner notes of his 1966 debut with the Mothers of Invention, Freak Out!. The Beatles included an image of Stockhausen on the cover of their 1967 Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Rick Wright and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd also acknowledge Stockhausen as an influence (Macon 1997, 141; Bayles 1996, 222). San Francisco psychedelic groups Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead are vaguely said to have done the same (Prendergast 2000, 54), though Stockhausen himself merely says the former band included students of Luciano Berio and both were "well orientated toward new music" (Texte 4, 505). Founding members of Cologne-based experimental band Can, Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay, actually studied with StockhausenTemplate:Fact, as did German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk (Flur 2003, 228). New York guitar experimentalists Sonic Youth also acknowledge Stockhausen's influenceTemplate:Fact, as do Icelandic vocalist Björk (Guðmundsdóttir 1996; Ross 2004, 53 & 55), British industrial group Coil, and British techno artist Aphex Twin. Chris Cutler of experimental British group Henry Cow named Stockhausen's Carré as one of his four most listened-to recordings (in Melody Maker February 1974). Pianist Glenn Gould occasionally played a humorous character whom he based on Stockhausen, and who can be seen in the Glenn Gould Collection videos.


Robin Maconie finds that, "Compared to the work of his contemporaries, Stockhausen’s music has a depth and rational integrity that is quite outstanding. . . . His researches, initially guided by Meyer-Eppler, have a coherence unlike any other composer then or since" (Maconie 1989, 177–78). Maconie also compares Stockhausen to Beethoven: "If a genius is someone whose ideas survive all attempts at explanation, then by that definition Stockhausen is the nearest thing to Beethoven this century has produced. Reason? His music lasts" (Maconie 1988), and "As Stravinsky said, one never thinks of Beethoven as a superb orchestrator because the quality of invention transcends mere craftsmanship. It is the same with Stockhausen: the intensity of imagination gives rise to musical impressions of an elemental and seemingly unfathomable beauty, arising from necessity rather than conscious design” (Maconie 1989, 178).

Igor Stravinsky expressed great, but not uncritical enthusiasm for Stockhausen's music in the conversation books with Robert Craft (e.g., Craft and Stravinsky 1960, 118) and for years organised private listening sessions with friends in his home where he played tapes of Stockhausen's latest works (Stravinsky 1984, 356; Craft 2002, 141). In an interview published in March 1968, however, he says of an unidentified person,
I have been listening all week to the piano music of a composer now greatly esteemed for his ability to stay an hour or so ahead of his time, but I find the alternation of note-clumps and silences of which it consists more monotonous than the foursquares of the dullest eighteenth-century music. ([Craft] 1968, 4)
The following October, a report in Sovetskaia Muzyka (Anon. 1968) translated this sentence (and a few others from the same article) into Russian, substituting for the conjunction "but" the phrase "Ia imeiu v vidu Karlkheintsa Shtokkhauzena" ("I am referring to Karlheinz Stockhausen"). When this translation was quoted in Druskin's Stravinsky biography, the field was widened to all of Stockhausen's compositions and adds for good measure, "indeed, works he calls unnecessary, useless and uninteresting”, again quoting from the same Sovetskaia Muzyka article, even though it had made plain that the characterization was of American "university composers" (Druskin 1974, 207).


Early in 1995, BBC Radio 3 sent Stockhausen a package of recordings from contemporary artists Aphex Twin, Plastikman, Scanner and Daniel Pemberton, and asked him for his opinion on the music. In August of that year, Radio 3 reporter Dick Witts interviewed Stockhausen about these pieces for a broadcast in October (subsequently published in the November issue of the British publication The Wire), asking what advice he would give these young musicians. Stockhausen suggested they should give up repetitions, which he does not appreciate, which he found to be "like someone who is stuttering all the time." He further suggested that "one should not serve any existing demands or in particular not commercial values." Stockhausen was most positive about Scanner's music, which he found "very experimental, because he is searching in a realm of sound which is not usually used for music", but felt "he should transform more what he finds. He leaves it too much in a raw state." Stockhausen suggested an example for each artist from his own works. For Daniel Pemberton, who he criticised for the overuse of tape loops, and whose sense of harmony he found particularly weak, Stockhausen recommended
He should listen to Kontakte, which has among my works the largest scale of harmonic, unusual and very demanding harmonic relationships. I like to tell the musicians that they should learn from works which already [have] gone through a lot of temptations and have refused to give in to these stylistic or to these fashionable temptations... (Witts 1995)

Stockhausen also suggested that Robin Rimbaud, Scanner, listen to his work Hymnen because, although "he has a good sense of atmosphere", "he should transform more what he finds."; in the work of Aphex Twin (Richard James), he suggested "changing tempi and changing rhythms", and that he listen to Gesang der Jünglinge; and, similarly, he found Plastikman (Richie Hawtin) too rhythmically repetitious, and suggested he listen to Zyklus.

The criticised musicians were then invited to respond, and all but Plastikman obliged. Daniel Pemberton was "very impressed considering the time it was done: the 1960s", but wished that Stockhausen would use more basic repetition: "It would be very good to put some Hip Hop breaks under, actually." He concedes, "I know what he means about loops though; that's because I haven't got much equipment." Scanner found Hymnen (which he had never heard before) "very good actually—better than I expected. At the end there's a recording of him breathing. It's quite uncomfortable—like being inside his head." As to Stockhausen's criticisms of his own music, "I take some of what he said about my music to heart", but he "disagree[s] about repetition: I think, as John Cage said, repetition is a form of change, and it's a concept you either agree or disagree with. I like repetitions." Aphex Twin's reaction to Gesang der Jünglinge: "Mental! I've heard that song before; I like it," but he did not agree with Stockhausen's critique, in that he wishes Stockhausen would "stop making abstract, random patterns you can't dance to. . . . You could dance to Song of the Youth[s], but it hasn't got a groove in it, there's no bassline" (Witts 1995).


Perhaps the most caustic remark about Stockhausen was attributed to Sir Thomas Beecham. Asked "Have you heard any Stockhausen?", he is alleged to have replied, "No, but I believe I have trodden in some" (Lebrecht 1983, 334).

See also

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