Monday, December 24, 2007

Considering Stockhausen

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Our nation turns it's lonely eyes to you.
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Jolting Joe has left and gone away.

Matthew Guerrieri, who, as some of my more constant readers might recall, took me to task over my comments about Hugo Chávez, eulogized the late Karlheinz Stockhausen at Slate. In the course of his obituary,* Mr. Guerrieri had this to say,
Canadian pianist Glenn Gould included among his stable of satirical characters one Karlheinz Klopweisser: donning a long wig, brandishing an enormous electric wand, ruminating about the resonance of organic silence. It wasn't much of an exaggeration. The perception was that, as the summers of love faded, Stockhausen had lost his way, that the leading avant-garde composer of the 1950s and '60s—who gave electronic music a soul and made the arid calculations of serialism dazzlingly, confrontationally vivid—had gone off the psychedelic deep end. Once, prefacing some typically esoteric statement, Stockhausen himself inadvertently summed up critical opinion. "At this point, my argument is about to become metaphysical," he warned. "Most people have no intention of following me to this level."
Whenever someone like Stockhausen dies, it is usually time to ponder "legacies" and "influence." I would say, if pressed, that Karlheinz Stockhausen, despite Glenn Gould's withering parody, was the one avant-garde composer who didn't lose his way.

In the common understanding of classical music, which is "Bach and Beethoven because it's great study music," (as opposed to music deserving great study) Stockhausen is a non-entity. No "The Greatest Classical Music in the World" CD will include him, nor will there ever be a Chill with Stockhausen disc released to the masses. Even for the cognoscenti, who might know his name and be able to remember that Stimmung and Gruppen were his 'big ones,' he is elusive. His music is not performed all that much, for various reasons, and the Stockhausen-Verlag, the best source for his music, doesn't have a wide distribution. He is known for being 'an important composer,' but his compositions aren't that well-known. There are not, like it or not, outside of schools of music and the hyper-musically-literate classical cognoscenti, that many people who even think about Karlheinz Stockhausen. This might be contradicted by others, so I'll shut the criticism down now: Being on Sgt. Pepper's is, to the youth of today, like being on the Moon. Yeah, it's probably a big deal, but we have other priorities.

Still, I don't know that Stockhausen ever lost his way.

Look at Pierre Boulez, the holy terror of the musical world almost as soon as he appeared on the scene. He hasn't composed in the last twenty-five or thirty years so much as he has revised works composed in the 1970s. That's not fair: he has written stuff since 1979, but, for a moment, consider his salad days from 1950 (or so) until 1980. You have Le marteau sans maître, Pli selon pli, the third piano sonata, Eclat/Multiples, Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, ...explosante-fixe... and the like. Even then, the third sonata is unfinished (and has been for fifty years), Eclat is fragmentary, and ...explosante-fixe... underwent a couple of major revisions. His career has since been one of contention for the title of The World's Greatest Living Conductor, The World's Most Important Composer, and the general dominance over the musical scene. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it is an example of the decline of the avant-garde.

Look at some other luminaries: Bruno Maderna died young. Berio and Nono are both dead, and made their biggest contributions forty or so years ago. Hans Werner Henze just premiered an opera (Phaedra), but the days of Versuch über Schweine, Das Floß der Medusa, Kammermusik, and In memoriam: Die weisse Rose are long gone, too. It is no secret that, as dawn goes down to day, so has the 1950s/60s avant-garde gone down to the annals of musical history (Sine ira et studio, perhaps - perhaps not). Boulez, ever the most power-obsessed, managed to stay important and relevant, even as people forgot why they originally considered him important or relevant. That's the thing: the vanguard fell back and became company commanders, then brigade commanders, then division commanders, and - finally - irrelevant statesmen. That, or they dropped the colors on the field, changed uniforms, and started fighting a different battle.

Not, though, Stockhausen. He maintained some degree of relevance by doing whatever it was he did. He didn't lose his way because he was never on the map.

Now, frankly, I found his blather about Sirius and the stupid cosmology thrust forth aus Licht, so to speak, just that - stupid. His music, too, is not always my cup of tea. Still, I cannot assert that Stockhausen was picked up and blown about by the winds of style. For whatever reason, he stuck to his metaphorical guns. That deserves some credit. Indeed, Stockhausen remained solidly a member of the avant-garde, only because he was off the map to begin with. To be entirely fair, I don't know if it could be said that he was at the forefront of the field. That sort of implies that he was moving in the same direction. I don't think he was.

When considering legacies, there is the most objective one: will a composer have an influence on the field, beyond his life? For Herr Stockhausen, I don't think so. How does one take up a mantle like his? Music has moved beyond even what he studied and developed at the beginning of his career - minimalism, post-minimalism, and other musical grammars have replaced post-Webernian serialism. He was sufficiently out of the mainstream to have too many disciples and heirs-apparent.

No, Stockhausen's legacy - unlike the chameleon-like one of Pierre Boulez - is one of a man who did his own thing. He clearly didn't care that it wouldn't have been popular. It clearly wasn't. When the 1950s/60s serialist vanguard was collapsing, he chose to make music that he wanted to make - some of it was good, some downright awful, but it was always his.

That's enough for me, regardless of my subjective judgment.

*I also recommend the obituary of Ike Turner by Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan fame).