Stockhausen: finally vorbei

Written on December 27, 2007 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

I have read several obituaries now of the unrelenting avant-gardist Karlheinz Stockhausen (who died this month) that quote the British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham’s when asked if he had heard the German composer’s music: "no, but I think I trod in some once."   Ha ha ha.  To my mind, I have always found Stockhausen_1964_2Robin Holloway‘s curmudgeonly take to be judicious. He described Stockhausen’s ultra-pretentious composition Inori as "a kind of Heath Robinson flying bungalow, bristling with quaint quasi-scientific appendages,
celestial tea-strainers and home-made aerials to pick up signals from
Astral Beings."

Astute readers may have guessed I am not a huge fan of this giant of contemporary music. To my ears,  his compositions run the gamut from merely dull (e.g. Stimmung, the first half) to outright painful (e.g. Stimmung, the second half), hitting pompous, self-indulgent, inconsequential and laughable in between. How Stockhausen managed not only to amass, but further to retain any kind of reputation, even as he was inflicting hour after hour of noise bombardment on unarmed audiences, remains one of the great and enduring mysteries of the modern era. It also shows the sorry state to which classical music  has been reduced that a comparison can even be ventured between an untalented poseur like Stockhausen and earlier greats like Beethoven or Brahms. 

Stockhausen was not without consequence, I admit. He made the gulf that
separates what the average concert-going public wants with what the
hectoring philosopher-composer will give them even wider than an
earlier generation of wide-eyed, avant-garde, enfants terrible
(Stravinsky, Schoenberg) had dared dream. Stockhausen was equal in
meting out nonsense to performer and public alike. His early piano
compositions are a model for bad writing: lengthy instructions,
incomprehensible time signatures and utterly capricious rhythms all to
produce a sound akin to two cats fighting on a keyboard. Little wonder
that most pianists refuse even to open the page since all but the most ebullient Stockhausen enthusiasts would hardly know the difference.

From fundamental craftsmanship, Stockhausen helped change the meaning of
the term "composer" to more of noise-monger than anything else. And
one must concede that Stockhausen was adept at producing noises: the
faux-tantric intonations of half-digested Eastern philosophies, with a
dollop of LSD-inspired adolescent profundities, which suffuse Stimmung; the caterwauling of three orchestras in Gruppen,
a piece that should be measured in total number of man-hours wasted; or
the absurdly self-important bombast of Stockhausen’s Licht,
a 7-opera cycle of immodest proportions and indigestible mysticism which
has incomprehensibly been forced on audiences at Covent Garden and La

Stockhausen famously compared the events of 9/11 to a great moment in art. This spectacularly ill-conceived remark led to some controversy, but really no-one should have been surprised. Stockhausen’s trademark has been a kind of delirium of thought, the result of which was noise at various levels that made claim to something great, but was really just noise, whether inflicted electronically (his preferred medium) or the old fashioned way of people blowing, bowing and banging. As the stream of ugly-sounding, pseudo-mystical fatuities in Stockhausen’s Licht cycle go to show, the abstractions of philosophy and spirituality are usually better left to others more equipped. Composers should write music and leave it at that, for the sake of the audience if nothing else.


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