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?