His Music Was Beyond the Scale

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 8, 2007

There are certain contemporary composers whose music is immediately recognizable. It is unnecessary to listen to more than a few moments of any mature work by Philip Glass, Olivier Messiaen or Brian Wilson (to name three radically dissimilar artists) to know exactly who was responsible for its creation.

But there are other composers whose sounds changed radically from piece to piece -- or even, in some cases, from moment to moment. The late John Cage comes to mind, as does Miles Davis. And so, most certainly, does Karlheinz Stockhausen, who died yesterday at the age of 79.

Stockhausen is likely to be remembered as the central figure in the German musical avant-garde in the second half of the late 20th century. He composed music of extraordinary concentration (his "Piano Piece No. 3" lasts less than 30 seconds) and a massive series of operas that make Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle seem laconic. He wrote both densely organized, precisely notated compositions and conceptual works that leave virtually every traditional musical choice (pitch, rhythm, timbre and duration) up to the performer. He was a pioneer in the development of electronic music, yet one of his real masterpieces ("Stimmung") is a near-motionless, 75-minute study for six solo voices.

A varied output, then, yet strangely unified by the multifaceted and wide-ranging originality of Stockhausen's thought. For it may be said that behind every new work by Stockhausen there was a theory -- and every fresh theory engendered new work.

Not all of his "theories" deserved respect. Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, Stockhausen outraged much of the world when he called the attacks "the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos." "Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn't even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for 10 years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying, just imagine what happened there," he elaborated. "You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 [sic] people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment."

Stockhausen later claimed that he had in fact been horrified by the "art" that smashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and added that it must have been guided by "Lucifer." "He uses his high degree of intelligence to destroy creation," the composer said. "He does not know love. After further questions about the events in America, I said that such a plan appeared to be Lucifer's greatest work of art."(To which one is tempted to paraphrase Frank Zappa: "Shut up and play your ring modulator!")

It would be unfortunate if such bizarre musings from the composer's increasingly fuzzy old age were to keep younger musicians from investigating his early music, which was invariably stimulating and often extraordinary. Take the 1955 composition "Gesang der Junglinge" ("Song of the Youths"), a 13-minute piece for taped sound that was originally intended to be played for an audience surrounded by loudspeakers in every corner of the hall. On first hearing, it may sound like Munchkin babble -- and it drives unsympathetic listeners absolutely up the wall. Still, upon reflection, this is one of the masterpieces of electronic music -- somber, specific and, on some curious level, deeply lyrical. Stockhausen took sung sounds and electronically produced noises and built them into a space-age devotional epic based on the Book of Daniel, the "Song of the Youths in the Fiery Furnace."

For a time, Stockhausen turned his attention to solo piano. The "Piano Piece No. 9" begins with the same brutally dissonant chord repeated 156 times in an endless, calibrated fade-out, while the "Piano Piece No. 10" is as brilliantly virtuosic as any 19th-century finger-buster by Franz Liszt. These are no mere theoretical exercises but works of compelling drama and visceral excitement.

The massive electronic epic "Hymnen" (1968) combined more than 40 national anthems into a two-hour exploration of a vast panoply of sound, while "Stimmung," from the same year, was much more intimate and might be likened to a universal meditation. And a third major work from 1968, "Aus den sieben Tagen" ("From the Seven Days") was entirely conceptual. The "score" for one movement began with the following instruction:

"play a sound

play it for so long

until you feel

that you should stop"

Although the directions went on for another 13 lines, nothing much more specific was provided.

This is silliness, of course; when Stockhausen flopped, he flopped absolutely. Indeed, he had the grandiosity -- and the ego -- of a modern-day Wagner. After 1977, he devoted much of his time to the gargantuan "Licht" ("Light"), an operatic work in seven multi-hour parts. The composer's biographer, Michael Kurtz, called "Licht" an "attempt to create a cosmic world theatre that summarizes and intensifies his lifelong concern -- the unity of music and religion, allied to a vision of an essentially musical mankind."

From the 1950s through the 1970s, most of Stockhausen's music was issued on LP by the Deutsche Grammophon label. Thereafter, the composer took back all of his rights, and the majority of his significant works have been available on CD only from Stockhausen himself, at outrageously expensive prices. As such, for the past quarter-century, it has been easier to read about Stockhausen than to actually hear his music, although a new rendition of "Stimmung" (by the baroque specialist Paul Hillier!) was issued earlier this year, to rapturous reviews.

It was once suggested to Rudolf Bing, the autocratic general manager of New York's Metropolitan Opera, that the conductor George Szell was "his own worst enemy." ("Not while I'm alive!" Bing snapped back.) Stockhausen's parsimonious control of his own music and his disastrous public statements have hurt his present-day reputation enormously. And yet I can think of few late-20th-century composers who are more likely to be explored and debated by whatever passes for the musical intelligentsia of 2057.

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