Roll over Beethoven, it's Vorsprung Durch Technik time! The most visionary – and least understood – of modern European composers, Karlheinz Stockhausen talks to Brian Morton about the 'time bombs' he has created to escape from the 'graveyard' of the Western classical tradition. This article originally appeared in The Wire 62 (April 1989).
No modern artist of any stature has shown such concern for the preservation, performance and understanding of his own work as Karlheinz Stockhausen. By the same irony, he remains one of the least understood of modern composers. As influential as Messiaen or Cage, he receives little of the affection heaped on those elder (and older) statesmen.
Part of that is raw Anglo-Saxon prejudice, equation of any Germanic surname with a ready reckoner of dispraise: "harsh", "cerebral", "theoretical", "unspiritual". Stockhausen is still treated with rather casual suspicion, running from charlatanry (the score for Es (It), made in 1968, the year of super-experiment, read: "Think NOTHING/Wait til it is absolutely still within you/When you have attained this/Begin to play/As soon as you start to think, stop/And try to retain/The state of NON-THINKING/Then continue playing") to the charge that he "exploits" his own fantastically gifted children (trumpeter Markus, saxophonist Simon and pianist Majella are seasoned members of his regular consort; his own regular consort, Suzanne Stephens, is the dedicatee of most of his clarinet and basset-horn works).
Hostile critics like to see Stockhausen as a kind of latter-day Wagner, presiding over a comfortably egocentric Bayreuth (much as Pierre Boulez is presumed to enjoy paterfamilias status at IRCAM). As further evidence, they adduce his latest and greatest project, Licht, a massive 'opera' in seven parts corresponding to the days of the week, of which only "Thursday", "Saturday" and parts of "Monday" are currently written, and which will occupy Stockhausen and his extended family for the rest of the century. This looks to critics like a Ring Cycle for the 21st century,the perihelion of Stockhausen's ambitions; God, after all, rested one day in seven.
There is a certain problem in approaching Stockhausen, and that is precisely the extent to which he has already and obsessively charted his theoretical and artistic progress in lectures, notes and, above all, in interviews. There are at least three current collections of 'conversations with the composer', and it's tempting to suggest that it is these that form more of the substance of Stockhausen's reputation than sympathetic listening to his music. The 'libretto' to Samstag Aus Licht is a 200 page analysis of methods and intentions; rarely has a major work been so carefully self-documented.
"I am the first composer to deal with the new planetarian wave of activity in all the media," says the composer while in England for the annual Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. "I've made hundreds of films; for years I earned part of my income by giving talks on the radio. I got used to the fact that most organisers of concerts are now unable to study the music. Even in radio, they are managers. They all expect that the composer will write the programme notes. I didn't want these should be casually written, but that they could still be read in 100 years and help in creating performances. When such demands come when I am concentrating on a new work I do regard it as bothersome but I also pay attention because I believe that every impulse which reaches me has a meaning."
Stockhausen's work-list stretches back to 1950 and includes over 180 (by his own count) performable works. The canon is never static; Stockhausen is an almost fantastically meticulous reviser and rehearser of his own composition, and he is now faced with the irony that some of his early important tape pieces are deteriorating rapidly, without the back-up of a realisation score to allow them to be perpetuated.
"Living in this transition of history it is important to leave
things behind in a rather perfect state and not to leave a mess.
The works will remain when I leave this planet. Until then I
constantly try to improve the perfection of the performances. The
ideal of the romantic composer was the torso, the fragment,
unaccomplished, imperfect. This seems to have some significance for
the bohemian concept of the artist. But I don't like it. A composer
like Anton Webern I greatly admired when I started composing
because his work - even his handwriting! - was so pure. After he
was dead I asked his publishers to get me his sketchbooks and they
sent them to me through the normal mail! I could have simply said
that I had lost or not received them. Later on, they were sold for
a million to some university. Someone allowed fragments to be
performed and I found this absolutely unacceptable. I think if
Webern had known he would have burned it. Something which I do not
want to be performed should not be performed. I want to be the
master of my work."
These days, his company Stockhausen Verlag exists to protect that aim by publishing his complete works as printed scores and on CD. Meanwhile, the composer's occasional references to Universal Edition, his previous publisher, are far from complimentary. Sending precious manuscripts through the post is clearly not his idea of due care and attention.
"I have lost a lot of important documents by lending them," he says, "and in fact the tapes of my early works are now deteriorating. Some of them took me many months to prepare, in the case of Kontakte [1959-60] two years, Hymnen [1966-67] very nearly three years, Sirius [premiered in 1976] four years of my life to make. These I will never be able to reconstruct. I have been unable even to publish realisation scores which would enable musical restorers - that will be a profession for the future! - to remake them. I've never found the time to publish scores which are now 20 years old. I have reserved the next two years to sit down solidly with the score of Momente [1962-64], draw it in pencil and let someone photograph it. It is very meticulous work. Eight days out of ten I have to do labour which is far below my talent, just to make a work perfect.
"If a work is published then people are entitled to play it, but I always recommend that as long as I live, performers contact me or musicians who have worked with me because the score possibly cannot contain the necessary information about the ideal performance. I do so many things in performance which are not in the score. For 100 years, it was the convention to make a crescendo at the end of a duration if it was the end of a phrase. There are hundreds of habits among interpreters which they are not even aware of themselves. In my music, they don't apply. There should never be a diminuendo at the end of a phrase unless it is precisely written. For a performance, the score is distributed among the musicians and we start rehearsing and during the rehearsals generally many corrections are made by me. It takes about 25 performances until the corrections begin to disappear. When I am writing a piece, the interpreter is present. In all the solo works, right from the beginning, I've never written anything except the piano pieces [Klavierstucke I-XI, 1952-56] without someone else in mind. Even there, though I am a pianist myself, I consulted many pianists. Correction is a long, neverending process. Even here, this week in Huddersfield, I have been making corrections to a piece 20 years old."
At 60, Stockhausen was the focus of the 1988 Huddersfield Festival. He was managing to look only slightly ill-at-ease and only slightly disgruntled at the otherwise charmingly Heath Robinson settings. The magnificent Sternklang from 1969 happened in a local sports hall, with set-dressing done by a local garden centre. Stockhausen doesn't risk this piece of "park music" for five groups en plein air any more, but he does appear to be a little wry at his surroundings.
Like Iannis Xenakis, Stockhausen is obsessed with the needs of a
new sound world. He was schooled in what is known as 'integral
serialism', an effort to extent Schoenberg's method beyond simple
pitch to control all the musical parameters. He moved beyond that
into an exploration of its apparent opposite, absolute chance and
indeterminacy. Underlying all his music, right from the
early-catalogue Chore Fur Doris, to the expanding pages of Licht,
there has been a consistent obsession with timbre, and this is
perhaps the key to Stockhausen.
"Dynamics are more important in the changes I make to a score than any other aspect of the sound. But I'm constantly trying to communicate my intentions in terms which are approximate: mezzoforte, piano, pianissimo. I've broken my back for 50 years to rid music of those six Italian terms. I prefer a scale of 100 numbers, like in the new synthesizers, and say I want number 66. There is a problem, though, that synthesizers are only capable of doing what they were made for, and that is pop music.
"It takes hours and hours to make a timbre which no one has heard before, which is not a confectioner's colour. The instruments we have inherited are not suitable to the new timbre composition. The mixing of timbres - like a painter mixes his colours - is no longer enough. The concept that I have of timbre composition is that the timbres are unique for every given composition and are never repeated. The timbres contain in the micro-vibratory world the same laws of generation as the form, the macro-world. This cannot really be done with traditional instruments, so I use traditional soloists only because of their skills, but for years and years I have been composing my own timbres."
Some at least of that impetus came as a result of Stockhausen's very 1960s obsession with 'World Music', a global syncretism of sounds and procedures, but also from his contact with the ritual of Japanese Noh theatre. There is in all his work a strong sense of place, which is why he is a utopian in the strict sense and why it is ironic listening to Sternklang in a hall redolent of sweaty socks and liniment.
"Sometimes I think I am in the wrong place, very deeply. We play in churches, in sports halls, in places which were never meant for music. Even the new philharmonic halls in Germany are not. My music needs spaces where the music is all around the people or where the musicians can move among the people. I hate the fact that the public is sitting in fixed rows facing one monaural acoustical situation; in the extremes that becomes a stereophonic situation, except that the music was not composed stereophonically. If you have a subscription in the Philharmonic Hall in Cologne on the right at the front, you hear cellos for a whole season and nothing else. It's like when a musician actually goes into the auditorium for the first time. All his life he has heard nothing but DUM dum DUM DUM dum and he thinks Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is just like that one part.
"I was born into this transition in history from that entertainment situation to a new exploratory situation. I want to explore new sound spaces and new movements of sound. But they do not believe there is a future for Stockhausen. They want me as dead as the dodo. They want to continue to exploit economically as well as aesthetically this enormous museum of no more than 300 years - or maybe 400, if you include Schutz and Monteverdi - of music. This seems to be enough. People seem to have closed the windows and the doors and said OK, this is enough. But. This is a graveyard.
"Young people are turning away from this world. It has come to the nadir of boredom where people can whistle all these works backwards. We have almost reached the zero point where nobody believes anything, where there is no real communication with the higher world, just a meaningless repetition of words. Our culture needs a culture shock to wake it up, and I think of my pieces as time bombs."
This, from the man, often accused of political diffidence and dereliction, who once dreamed of fusing all of Vienna's lights with a single surge of musical electricity. Is there hope on the cusp of Aquarius?
"Works. Strong works. I have a great desire, which I cannot put in words, to get to a world after this life which is incomparably more spiritual, where music is the main food of the soul."