Perfect Sound Forever

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Photo from ECM Records

A Tribute
by Gary Gomes
(February 2008)

Along with Cage, and perhaps his teacher Olivier Messiaen, Shoenberg and Stravinsky, and fellow Messiaen students Boulez and Xenakis, Stockhausen is one of the pivotal figures of 20th century classical music.

Stockhausen was also one of the pivotal figures of post-World War II music. His range of performance and works was astonishing, as was his arrogance and eccentricity. He was one of the pioneers of total serialism in music (although Messiaen produced one work which predated his) and he was a voracious experimenter in all musical idioms, including tape, electronic devices (such as oscillators and the trautonioum, a German variation on the Ondes Martenot).

He was also a pioneer in the development, along with Cage, of introducing chance elements into music, but wanted more control than Cage. On the positive side, he was not afraid to let more cultural elements into his music, including improvisation, which lent some of his work an almost jazz-like air. It is a little known fact that, like Terry Riley and his student, La Monte Young, he also spent time as a jazz pianist shortly after WWII.

This was also a man of astonishing genius, but breathtaking megalomania. Anecdotal references abound. Cecil Taylor (in A.B. Spellman's Black Music: Four Lives) relates that Stockhausen's folks in New York looked like they would threaten to beat you up if you didn't love the music. A well-known bass player, in an article whose source I can't recall (and which may be apocryphal), said he idolized Stockhausen. The musician encountered Stockhausen at a restaurant, pulled together the nerve to approach him, stammered out something to the effect that he admired Stockhausen's music, only to be dispatched with a "Ppfft!" and a dismissive wave of the hand.

On the other hand, we have a man who (along with Albert Ayler) influenced the Beatles (you can see his picture on the Sgt. Pepper cover, and Paul McCartney acknowledged the influence separately), Can (Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt studied with him), Evan Parker, Hugh Davies, Cornelius Cardew, Brian Eno, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis and many more late '60's, early '70's rock groups and later. He was one of the co-founders of the minimalism movement (although this was one very small part of his output), and helped solidify (along with Cage), the influence of Eastern thought and music in the modern classical world. You could also make a strong case that given his experimentation with electronics, he was also one of the putative originators of techno (though he haughtily dismissed such music in his later years).

He was even well-known enough to merit an inclusion in Vivian Stanshall's Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, in which the narrator refers to a babbling of "Stockhausen tongues." Many of his later works had metaphysical and spiritual overtones which many contemporary Western music critics found difficult to swallow. His writing Toward a Cosmic Music, found a bit of currency in New Age circles, but his music was still very experimental and would not have found a very large audience among this audience which favors softer sounds than Stockhausen favored.

Still, despite the eccentricities of his later career, and his rampant (though perhaps justified) egotism, Stockhausen is a major figure in Western and world music and his passing reflects the loss of a larger than life figure who was responsible, both directly and indirectly, for altering the face of music forever, among many idioms.

Some of his more significant works:

"Gruppen" for Orchestra
"Gesang der Junglingen" for tape
"Momente" for Soprano, Choir and 13 instruments
"Mikrophonie I" and "II," "Opus 1970" and "Hymnen" for tape
"Mantra" for two pianos and ring modulator
"Stimmung" for voices
"Zyklus" for percussion
"Helikopter Streichquartett" for string quartet and helicopter(!)

For improvisational groups:
"Bird of Passage"
"Aus Den Sieben Tagen"

See the rest of our Stockhausen tribute

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER