Stockhausen: the composer who makes Wagner look anaemic

His ego knew no bounds … but nor did his operas that feature camels, helicopters and giant pencil sharpeners. As his epic Donnerstag aus Licht comes to the UK for the first time in 34 years, we separate the cult from the culture of Karlheinz Stockhausen

Matched in musical-myth-mania perhaps only by Richard Wagner, Karlheinz Stockhausen is the ultimate conundrum for those of us who believe keenly in shifting classical music culture away from its alpha-male genius complex – but are still enthralled by the music. Do we get to have it both ways?

The German-born composer was the self-mythologiser extraordinaire who had entrancing charisma, bullish intelligence, no shortage of game-changing opinions, nor shortage of confidence with which to assert them. A guru with disciples and rivals, he fostered a personality cult that went way beyond his music to encompass fashion, spirituality, even a galactic origin story. Isn’t this precisely the artist-as-hero narrative we need to dismantle?

And yet I’ve lain under the stars in a park watching the epic theatrics of Stockhausen’s Sternklang, with its astral emissaries dressed all in white. I’ve dragged myself out of bed to experience a dawn performance of Stimmung in the woods outside Darmstadt. This week, I’ll be at the Royal Festival Hall for the first UK performance in my lifetime of Donnerstag, from the gargantuan opera cycle Licht. I find Stockhausen’s quasi-religious symbolism basically tedious, and I’m furious that German white men still dominate the classical music canon at the expense of other essential voices. But I still want to hear his music, and experience the weird collective abandon it permits. The key is sidestepping the cult of Karlheinz.

And it is quite a cult. Stockhausen, who died in 2007, was arguably the last towering artist-legend in classical music, and he sent the tradition out in style. He declared that God gave birth to him on the star Sirius and that he was musically educated up there in the galaxy. For many years he dressed in orange jumpers, then latterly all in white. His late music is a bizarre amalgam of super-strict mathematical process, grandiose navel gazing and far-out spirituality, literally, and he amassed followers around the globe. Miles Davis, Björk and Brian Eno are among the devotees. Composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has described him as “the rock star of my youth”.

It’s worth stressing that at the heart of all his music, no matter how cosmic, is fastidious musical craft. In later life he made vast mystic theatre pieces, but Stockhausen’s penchant for giving listeners an experience of total sensorial immersion predates his astral spiritual awakening in the 1960s. In 1956, his landmark electronic piece Song of the Youths placed an audience inside a pentaphonic cauldron. In 1957, his massive score Gruppen tested a sonic panning effect (in which the music sweep around space like surround-sound speakers) via the forces of triple orchestra more than 100-strong. These were primarily musical investigations, before his ambitions spiralled into outer orbit. He never finished his 24-part cycle Klang: pieces for every hour of the day, each with its own associated colour, performers often rotating like little asteroids revolving on axes of their own. “Stockhausen wants to expand the field of human consciousness,” wrote his idolising student Claude Vivier. “To show us new planets.”

But the grandest of all Stockhausen’s grand epics is Licht – a 29-hour opera cycle that makes Wagner’s Ring look anaemic, and took 27 years to complete. Time must move slowly up there on Sirius. Licht comprises seven operas, one for, and named for, each day of the week, each containing multiple variations on the heptagonal theme. Seven shrubs, animals, precious stones, smells, bodily organs, planets, colours. (Donnerstag – Thursday: Jupiter, bright blue, swallows, a solo trumpeter playing inside a rotating globe). Each opera has its own special staging gimmicks, too. An orchestra seated in the shape of a face for Saturday. Multiple versions of the same music played in different concert halls simultaneously on Sunday, while Friday’s score requires rockets, a woman in the moon, a giant syringe, an enormous raven and a pencil sharpener huge enough to accommodate a man inserting himself into it.

The most infamous moment in Licht occurs on Wednesday – not so much the real-life dancing camel, though there is that, but the helicopter quartet in which each member of a string quartet achieves lift-off in four separate aircraft. The gesture signifies, I believe, the leaving behind of all earthly matter by dint of metaphorical and literal flight. As the music writer Tim Rutherford-Johnson points out: “Even with the greatest sympathies towards Stockhausen’s musical vision, it is hard to ignore that it stretches to the limit the ratio of financial cost to artistic value. The environmental cost, not usually a consideration in productions of contemporary music, is also unignorable.” Which is one reason the premiere in 1994 was cancelled after protests from the Austrian green party. The first ever complete staging was mounted only recently – by Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company in 2012.

The zany details might be great fun in the retelling, but fixating on the cycle’s Technicolor maximalism (as I’ve just done, granted)only perpetuates Stockhausen’s image as a lone eccentric, when in fact he too had lineage. There’s a neat irony in the fact all this grandeur emerged from serialism, a musical method to which Stockhausen subscribed in his early years. Serialism was about stripping away excess and reducing music to essential elements, but it was also about pushing a concept as far as it could go – a kind of tunnel vision that, in the hands of Stockhausen, tunnelled him right out to the stars.

He wanted that unfiltered astral music to resonate inside us, to bypass reason – except his own reason, which was controlling to the end. He never really let go himself, which is possibly why fellow composer György Ligeti accused him of mind-numbing “plannification”. It’s also what saves the late works from insufferably random interplanetary drift. All 29 hours of Licht are developed from an incredibly compact “superformula” – just 19 bars of music that would last less than minute if you played them through but which provide the raw ingredients for all seven operas. The robustness of his craft survived all the spiritual space travel.

Stockhausen championed the notion of a music direct from utopia which could tap an intuitive state in all of us. He said music should be spiritual food, that it should resonate inside us and bypass reason – except his own reason, which, like Schoenberg’s or indeed Wagner’s, was controlling to the end.

In the footsteps of Wagner, Stockhausen populated his operas with earnest allegorical characters – namely Eva, Michael and Lucifer, who represent birth, the quest for knowledge and the quest for freedom. Both composers loaded their weighty Gesamtkunstwerks with mythic tat. There might have been no room for irony in their own self images, but happily we get to engage with these works however we like.

Mostly, we get to engage with the music, and the awesome collective endeavour it takes to stage it. Sink into Donnerstag and you’ll hear wondrous orchestral kaleidoscopics, vocal elasticity, vintage 1970s electronic wizardry. The opera’s stretchy sense of time is genuinely trippy.

The current Southbank series also presents the hypnotic voices of Stimmung, the group improvisations of Für kommende Zeiten (For Times to Come), the ear-warping percussion play of Zyklus and Kontakte, or, for an experience in the most stringent sound experimentation and pianistic precision, try Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing the Klavierstück 9, which begins with a single chord repeated 139 times while gradually fading into the ether. In the end, it’s the prowess of the performers that will eclipse the cult of Karlheinz.

Donnerstag aus Licht is at the Royal Festival Hall on 21 and 22 May. The Stockhausen: Cosmic Prophet season is at the Southbank Centre, London, until 2 June.


Kate Molleson

The GuardianTramp

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