Karlheinz Stockhausen; 79; Bold Melder of Note and Noise

Avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen during a performance at the German pavilion at Expo '70 in Japan.
Avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen during a performance at the German pavilion at Expo '70 in Japan. (Associated Press)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 8, 2007

Karlheinz Stockhausen, 79, an avant-garde German composer who influenced a generation of musicians with pioneering electronic music and whose reputation was damaged by provocative statements about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, died Dec. 5. Members of his family announced his death in Germany, but the cause was not reported.

In the 1950s, when he combined electronic sounds with the human voice and musical instruments, Mr. Stockhausen defined a new form of music. His influence was felt in classical music, jazz and pop, among musicians as diverse as Pierre Boulez, Miles Davis, the Grateful Dead and Bjork.

Mr. Stockhausen composed a daringly original form of music that abandoned standard notation and structure in favor of chance encounters of sound. He won critical acclaim early in his career, if not always eager listeners.

Public opinion seemed to converge in outrage in 2001, after he commented on the nature of the terrorist attacks: "That minds accomplish in one act something that we in music can't dream of, that people rehearse like mad for 10 years -- totally fanatically -- for a concert and then die. That's the greatest work of art there is in the entire cosmos."

Mr. Stockhausen was stunned by the angry response, which led to the cancellation of concerts in the United States and Europe. He claimed he was referring to the works of Lucifer, a devil who figured in some of his compositions. Ultimately, he issued a full apology.

His music was often dauntingly difficult and sometimes featured as many as four orchestras playing simultaneously. He interspersed electrical tones with hand claps, grunts, whispers and shouts until, in his words, "the distinction between sound and music disappears."

One of his most ambitious works, a seven-part opera called "Licht" ("Light"), took him almost 30 years to write. When he completed it in 2005, it was 29 hours long. His 1995 "Helicopter Quartet" was performed by musicians in four helicopters hovering over an outdoor audience.

"He is, in some ways, the musical Christo," Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott wrote in 2000, "exploring wild ideas that stretch the usual concepts of musical time and space to the limits; and yet, like Christo's art, there's often an eerie sense of dreamlike beauty in his music."

By the 1990s, however, Mr. Stockhausen's early luster was fading. Roger Scruton, a British philosopher and musicologist, derided him as "a pseudo-intellectual hippie-mystic with a liberating gift for creating utter nonsense."

Although Mr. Stockhausen often said he was from a planet circling the star Sirius, he was actually born in Modrath, Germany, on Aug. 22, 1928. His mother was sent to a psychiatric hospital when he was 4 and was executed nine years later as part of a Nazi euthanasia program. His father, a schoolteacher, was killed while fighting in World War II.

Mr. Stockhausen, as a teenager, was also in uniform during the war, carrying stretchers and working in a medical ward. To support himself after the war, he sold black-market cigarettes, worked on a farm and played piano in nightclubs for a magic act.

He had early dreams of being a writer but switched to music at a conservatory in Cologne. He spent a formative year in Paris studying with composers Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud.


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