The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Although Karlheinz Stockhausen formally renounced the Catholic Church in the ‘60s, he never really abandoned its fundamental tenets; or more properly applied them to how he viewed his ideals of sonic alchemisation. A very pertinent question might be: given his love of Stravinsky and Milhaud co-existing with his adoration of Webern and Bartok, and given his apprenticeship as a danceband and nightclub pianist in post-war Cologne, why does he continue to have such a problem with rhythm or repetition? A latent fear, perhaps, of the inhuman treadmill of the concentration camps? He was orphaned during WWII, but never came near the camps; after the war he studied at the Cologne Hochschule für Musik under the Swiss composer Frank Martin, who had lately begun to incorporate 12-tone concepts into his works (e.g. 1944’s Passacaille for orchestra) with philosophy as his secondary subject. Aware of, and a fervent student of, the Second Viennese School – Schoenberg in particular – his key moment of transition appears to have been the 1951 contemporary music study programme at Darmstadt. There the Composition Seminar was due to be given by Schoenberg, but the 77-year-old was gravely ill. His place was taken by none other than Theodor Adorno, not only the Frankfurt School’s leading philosopher but also a former student of Alban Berg, who frowned somewhat upon new developments. In particular that summer the Sonata for Two Pianos, composed by the Dutchman Karel Goeyvaerts and performed by the composer and Stockhausen, excited Adorno’s bile no end. In the first of Stockhausen’s five-volume Texte series, there is a hilarious account of how Adorno pleaded and yelled at the two newbies to tell him what this music meant. A detailed description by Goeyvaerts of the exceptionally precise musical design behind the Sonata – fundamentally, successive registral note/tone placements converge from each end of the piano keyboard towards middle C, and then spread out again (a horizontal structure which, for example, Gorecki adapted, albeit tonally, to a vertical structure for his Symphony No 3) – failed to quell the ire of Adorno’s negative dialectics. Having recently acted as musical director for an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the Marxist industrialist had to content himself by angrily dismissing Goeyvaerts and Stockhausen as “Leverkühn and his famulus” – a precise echo of the mode of attack which the reformed Maoist Cornelius Cardew deployed a quarter of a century later in his sidesplitting book/polemic Stockhausen Serves Imperialism.

A more important consequence of Stockhausen’s attendance at Darmstadt ’51 was his exposure to the more robustly Catholic Messiaen’s Quatre Etudes de Rythme, in particular to the second of the four sections “Mode de Valeurs et d’Intensités.” The latter is based on a set of 36 notes subdivided into three 12-tone subsets. Each subset has a specific duration, intensity of attack and dynamic level associated with each of its pitches. The unification and seeming solidity of this structure attracted Stockhausen, and influenced his essential concept of a piece of music acting as a metaphysical divine creation whose components are consistent but whose individual approaches are always variable.

This was nothing like the aleatorics and complete openness of the Buddhist John Cage; Stockhausen allows freedom within his structures, but never for a nanosecond denies that there must be structure, or relinquish his hold upon the structure. He continued to study under Messiaen, simultaneously doing fieldwork at the electronic music studios of, first French, and then West German, radio. Communications theory and phonetics were also studied; and while early works like Kreuzspiel show how he methodically worked towards this end, his first indisputably major work is the 1956 composition for processed boy’s voice, electronics and five loudspeakers, Gesang der Jünglinge.

The presence and positioning of the five loudspeakers in this piece are crucial, for the processed sounds move and communicate between the speakers in a very precise fashion. Superficially it sounds like a battle; on one side, the boy’s voice cut up, manipulated, modified, his message deconstructed into seemingly arbitrary successions of vowels and consonants. Amongst other things, this is the birthplace of sampling and cut-up in music (hear Bobby Byrd’s voice being cut up into its elements in a very similar fashion on Eric B and Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul”), but there is a subtext. Towards the climax of the piece, the boy’s voice is multiplied a hundredfold (Dollar’s “Give Me Back My Heart”) and the electronics become more frenetic and forceful, almost threatening to drown the “humanity” completely. Then the voice suddenly becomes comprehensible and we realise that we are hearing a hymn of praise out of the Book of Daniel (the Men in the Fiery Furnace). Thus is humanity reaffirmed in this most seemingly inhuman music – what Houllebecq tries but fails to grasp in Atomised.

For someone so inimical to rhythm, Stockhausen’s late ‘50s/early ‘60s works are as percussion-orientated as he got without ever submitting to the concept of rhythm itself – 1960’s Kontakte being the most famous example, but mention should also be made of 1959’s Zyklux; 17 pages of score for a solo percussionist which can be read and played in any order (but Terry Riley it isn’t); and the various Klavierstücke for piano which, again, can be performed in no set order.

In orchestral terms – and here Stockhausen is revealed as being as artful and emotional an organiser of large ensembles as Stravinsky or Mingus, here is where I feel his art reaches a peak – he adopts the very Mingusian progress of breaking down the orchestra into smaller, self-reliant groups with their own “position in space” but who continue to interact with the other subgroups. An immediately drastic example of this approach can be found in 1964’s Mixtur for five sections of orchestra and a ring modulator to process and recycle the sounds produced by the instruments, thereby creating a larger structure, much of which was not actually being “played.” There are 20 “moments” (Stockhausen’s nomenclature for what he terms as “slices of musical time”) in the piece, and, again, though the order in which they occur is not of primary importance, the inner musical logic of the piece is apparent throughout. This approach is taken to greater and larger extremes by pieces such as Gruppen (1957, for three orchestras), Carré (1960, for four orchestras and four choirs) for which Stockhausen provides the structure and overall outline of the piece but, as with Renaissance painters, leaves the mechanics and “composition” to the performers (and in jazz, Gil Evans used the same approach for pieces like 1960’s “La Nevada” and 1975’s very Stockhausen-esque “There Comes A Time”) and 1964’s shattering electronic coming of age Momente (redesigned and expanded to even more stunning effect in 1972).

His best-known work was trailed by 1966’s Telemusik, in which he fuses various types of folksong and what would later be cheapened by calling “world music” – but there is respect here instead of mere politesse, and the desired “song of the Earth” is almost attainable. But 1967’s Hymnen is likely to remain his key to the kingdom; what may be the most important and influential, and also the least listened to and least understood, piece of music of the last 50 years. Dictating, amongst other things, the groundwork for the next thirty years of pop music (via the Beatles through to sampling), this two-hour work assembles and reshapes a series of national anthems, though the emotion remains tempered by Stockhausen’s insistence upon the priority of process (“how”) over material (“what”). The tenor of the piece develops slowly but steadily over its duration and the sonorities are never less than compelling. Listening, we do not feel that a laboratory tutorial is being conducted; rather, like Jonson’s reformed Alchemist, we see a determined groping in the dark towards a gloriously illuminated result; and indeed its climax is amongst the most overwhelming and orgasmic of musical climaxes, wherein an avalanche of slowly descending electronic glissandi engulfs the listener (imagine the end of “A Day In The Life” played backwards and multiplied by a million). It is a moment of catharsis rarely achieved in music and may well represent the ideal towards which so many Ambient, or indeed Rock, wannabes foolishly stumble.

in 1967, Prozession followed; more or less a compact Greatest Hits, with samples taken from all of his previous works. Since then it is not quite right to say that Stockhausen has retrenched – 1970’s Mantra for two pianists and processed electronics is a violently arresting study, a Munch to the Cezanne of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos III; 1968’s Stimmung for rapidly stuttering choir is probably more fun to participate in than to listen to – but that his Catholicism remains undimmed in a corner of his work which resists opening up to the wider world. 1976’s Sirius was released and marketed as a pop record, complete with soft-focus close-up cover photo, in an attempt to capture the Mike Oldfield/Vangelis audience, but to no avail. And since 1977 he has dedicated himself, foolhardily, to his seven-opera concept Licht (one for each day of the week). At the time of writing Stockhausen is 74 and has produced only four of the seven operas, all of which contain interesting and sometimes beautiful individual moments, but none of which hangs together as more than a quasi-New Age curio.

But none of this should deter from the undeniable magnificence and inescapable importance of Stockhausen’s finest work – he is as deft and large-minded an organiser of sounds and musicians as Phil Spector, but unlike Spector there is a warmth to Stockhausen’s grandeur; you can embrace the music rather than simply admire it. Is it “anti-rave”? Only if you subtract the originator of rave – Stravinsky – from the equation. Stockhausen subtracted the rhythm, but only to provide space to create his own.

Collecting Stockhausen on record is an expensive business these days. Stockhausen has retrieved the rights to all his music and released them in elaborately-designed packages, the price of which is likely to send a severe chill through your bank balance. And the Deutsche Grammophon vinyl originals – unless you are old enough to have bought them at the time of their original release, or lucky enough to have a parent who did so – now go for similarly absurd prices on ebay and elsewhere. If you have to go for one, then get Hymnen; the DG 2-LP original remains a masterpiece, and I have seen it second-hand for about £50. The 4CD update is also compelling, but doesn’t really tell you anything you didn’t already know – and, as bought new, will cost you more than twice the second-hand vinyl price. In truth, as with free improvisation, there is no substitute for hearing the music performed live; to hear how the acoustics and musicians interact, what part the audience has to play in experiencing the sounds in the multi-directional form in which they were intended. Stockhausen’s Texte writings (DeMont Schauberg, 5 vols, 1963-85) are required reading for a full understanding of how his music works; but for a good one-volume guide you could do worse than 1975’s The Works Of Karlheinz Stockhausen by Robin Maconie (father of Stuart). Cardew’s Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, if you can find it, is inadvertently uproarious misanthropy worthy of Celine.

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