Unappreciated?

Stockhausen just died. I’ve always gotten a big kick out of his music. And I think — maybe controversially — that he’s been underappreciated in the classical world, and found his most important fans outside it.

How could he not be appreciated in the classical world, when any history of music after 1945 will tell you that Stockhausen and Boulez were the two kingpins of the European serial and post-serial avant-garde? In the ’60s and beyond, everything Stockhausen wrote was recorded and released by Deutsche Grammophon. There were many books about him.

But look what happened after that. Boulez, thanks to his conducting, became a revered uncle in the mainstream. His entirely unobjectionable music gets widely played. Ligeti and Berio, the other two top composers in that European world, are connoisseur favorites. The New York Philharmonic is doing a Berio series this year. And, sure, that’s especially possible because Berio wrote agreeable adaptations of older classical works, and because his biggest hit, Sinfonia, was famously commissioned by the Philharmonic. But I’d guess it’ll be a long time before the Philharmonic features Stockhausen.

Some of this, of course, is Stockhausen’s own fault: He got bitten by the ’60s, and took himself way out of the classical box, in pieces like Stimmung, in which six singers chant a B flat ninth chord for more than an hour. (Even if this hurt him in the classical world, I’d call it a virtue. Did Boulez feel the ’60s, even for a moment?) He wrote pieces that touched on real weirdness. One asks for a telepathic conductor; another claimed to be dictated by beings from another star.    His best-known new piece in the last three decade was a seven-opera cycle, Licht, which (even though five of the operas were produced) was too much for the classical world to swallow. (The whole thing, 29 hours long, is supposed to be staged next year in Dresden and in Essen in 2010. Though I can’t find any current reference to the Dresden event. Does anyone know if it’s still on?)

Stockhausen took his recordings away from DG, and sold them only through his own website, at exalted prices. Nor did he seem to grasp the Web. You can’t buy the CDs online. You have to send a check to Germany. (Though, to be fair, a British Stockhausen site sweetly announced its discovery of PayPal, and accepts online orders, which it sends on to Stockhausen HQ.) Thus Stockhausen effectively removed his music from circulation.

He had his charlatan moments. I remember hearing him speak in the ’70s. He talked about Aus dem sieben Tagen, a collection of pieces whose scores are verbal instructions. In one of them, everyone sits without playing, until their minds stop thinking. Then they play. Deutsche Grammophon recorded these works, and in the recording session for this one, hardly anyone played at all. No surprise! So Stockhausen changed things, so the recording wouldn’t – unacceptable! — be silent. Another piece asked the musicians to play something in the rhythm of the universe. (Or something like that. I don’t remember the precise directions.) A pianist, Stockhausen said, didn’t know what that meant. “Think of Webern!” Stockhausen said he told the man. “Play something like Webern!” Which of course violates the premise of pieces like these.They’re  supposed to be about the process of playing them, and shouldn’t be reinterpreted as a shortcut to recordable results.

But his music can be wonderful. Stimmung has been recorded three times; the latest version, by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, just captivated me when it came in the mail, and I raved about it in the Wall Street Journal. (It’s better than the last recording, by Singcircle, because it’s far more meditative. But the most rapt and also most playful recording is the original, from 1970. Of course it’s only available from Stockhausen’s site. Luckily I still had my old LP.) I’ve also refallen in love with Mantra, a dense and wildly inventive ’70s piece for two pianos, with electronic alteration of some of their sounds, sometimes creating the effect of two prepared pianos.

But Stockhausen’s fame outside classical music is something else. I’ll make a flat statement: Nobody in his serial and post-serial world had anything like the influence he had. He’s on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, because the Beatles listened to him. Miles Davis listened to him; he’s cited, along with James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, as the bedrock of On the Corner, the stupendous funk/space/fusion album that sank like a disreputable stone when it was released in 1972, but has now triumphed with a six-CD release of its complete recording sessions. (I’ve been listening to this. It really is stupendous, and, for those without a lot of money to indulge, costs a lot less on iTunes than it does if you buy the CDs.)

Current dance and electronica people listen to Stockhausen, I’m told, which has created a market for his LPs on eBay. Certainly they’re there (though the prices maybe don’t suggest any wild bidding war). And just a few weeks ago I met a jazz musician in his 20s who loves Stockhausen, and talked about Stimmung with real affection.

As for the Philharmonic — why not a Stockhausen festival? Gruppen and Carré are two big orchestral pieces, and Gruppen, I heard, made a sensation when it was done somewhere in the past few years. They could find singers to do Stimmung at midnight, and start the festival with Aus dem siebenTagen, with Philharmonic musicians improvising according to Stockhausen’s directions. Come on, Zarin — why not?

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Comments

  1. says

    It’s been often said that “Gruppen” is impossible for most orchestras to perform because it requires more rehearsal time than they could afford.

    Yes, “Gruppen” is hard. But many pieces require more rehearsal time than orchestras can usually find. A key innovation that James Levine fought for and won in Boston was to allocate rehearsal time flexibly, using more some weeks than others, in order to accomodate difficult pieces. (I hope I have the details of this right.)

    Orchestras, in fact — or well-run orchestras — know how to arrange programs to allow enough rehearsal for difficult pieces. I remember hearing recently about a program, years ago, that included a Wuorinen piano concerto. The other pieces on the program were pieces the orchestra knew well, so they didn’t need much rehearsal.

    The LA Philharmonic had to face this problem when they did their famous “Tristan Project,” the complete “Tristan und Isolde,” spread over three evenings. The orchestra didn’t know the opera, which of course is long and also difficult. So, again, the strategy was to play in the weeks just before a lot of famliar music that the orchestra and conductor had recently played together. That way, rehearsal time was made available for “Tristan.”

    If the New York Philharmonic really wanted to play “Gruppen,” and made it a high priority, they could find the rehearsal time.

  2. says

    Thanks for wrtiting this. I’ve noticed for some time that the music world tended to dismiss Stockhausen’s work from the mid-70s onward, simply because they hadn’t heard any of it! It will be interesting to see how his reputation changes.

    Thanks, Ben. There’s a really good Stockhausen obit in the New York Times, by Paul Griffiths. It’s at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/08/arts/music/08stockhausen-1.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&oref=slogin&adxnnlx=1197140416-AbU/O/mb1KNtfUtrF5jgwA Stockhausen, says Griffiths, in the end, destroyed his public career because of his arrogance. Though this is only one small strand in an excellent — and quite long — summary of Stockhausen’s career.

  3. says

    I’m sure I remember hearing Gruppen performed by Gerhard Samuel and the Oakland (California) Symphony back in the 1960s; it’s absurd to call the piece unrehearsable. And I’d never use words like “charlatan” or “arrogant” to describe a man like Stockhausen. Difficult, yes; apparently loony at times, perhaps. But those are the times when the onlooker must question himself, not simply attach a category to the man he’s seeing.

    Stockhausen’s position as an outsider shouldn’t be hard for an American to understand. Think of Cage, who was one of Stockhausen’s few peers. The fault lies with the musical establishment, not with these seers who did their best given the nature of our society…

  4. says

    Thanks, Greg. I had the chance to hear and meet Stockhausen in Rome this past May at the premiere of his “Cosmic Pulses” (from Klang), which he performed from his console. The majority of the people in the audience were in their 20′s and 30′s, and went absolutely bonkers at the end. Stockhausen seemed truly taken with the positive reaction, perhaps realizing that, for all his many difficulties, his legacy was secure after all. It’s too bad he didn’t get to hear that same youthful ovation on these shores, but hopefully someone (not necessarily the NYP) will have the good sense to give this music a similiarly sympathetic hearing soon.

    Thanks, Pete. And so who’s going to do this in the US? I can imagine a Stockhausen event — far from the NY Phil, but even there — getting just the reaction Pete describes.

  5. says

    Greg Sandow? Isn’t he the guy who called the Boston Symphony a museum piece, and predicted the Phil. Orch. would be great for Christoph Eschenbach? He’s a double moron.

    Yo, Marc. And are you the guy who’s never been wrong about anything?

    I said the Boston Symphony was a disaster under Ozawa, and I was certainly right. I was very wrong about Eschenbach.

    Thanks for reading me with such close attention!

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