Sunday, December 09, 2007

Karlheinz Stockhausen 1928-2007

Stockhausen is dead. Or maybe he's just returned to Sirius. Somehow the latter seems more believable. And now I'm sitting here wondering how I can sum up his achievement, and what he means to me.

I can't, of course. Stockhausen's influence is so profound that entire movements define themselves by opposition to him (or at least their idea of what he stands for, which is generally wrong), so pervasive that you often don't even realise it's there. Half the music in the charts owes something to him, even if its creators don't realise it.

But there's more to him than just an outr├ę name for art-school graduates to drop. Stockhausen's music carries with it ideas about the space created by sound, both literally and figuratively, that have profound consequences for our understanding of our relationship with music, with the people who create and perform it, and those who listen to the results.

What struck me most the first time I heard his music was how approachable it was. His name had such a fearsome reputation, and the texts written by the greybeards who propagated his cult seemed obfuscatory and impenetrably complex and cerebral. But the actual music isn't like that at all. It's visceral and playful, and filled with wonder at the possibilities of sound. To hear the man himself introduce his music was to have all the fog lifted. He used complex methods to produce his scores, but, he insisted, it wasn't at all necessary for the listener to worry about the method. All the listener has to do was hear a sound, then another, and another, and follow these sounds as they grew and changed through time and space. Whether it's the literally visceral approach to the piano he takes in his Klavierst├╝cke (one of which hangs on my wall) or the quiet spirituality of Stimmung, or the grasping of space of Gruppen and Sternklang, his music always seems to me to speak directly and immediately, in a way that isn't always recognised. He was feared as a terrifying, complex and forbidding composer, but I always found the reality simple and instinctive and wonderful.

I encountered him three times, and not once did I pluck up the courage to speak to him (although I'm pleased to report that on two of those occasions he was wearing his famous orange jumper). I remember once in Huddersfield seeing someone go up to him and expound some long, complicated theory as to what had happened to the characters in one of his operas after the end, and whether Mr Stockhausen could confirm whether he was right? Mr Stockhausen replied, bemusedly, that nothing had happened to them, as that was the end of the opera and they were fictional characters.

I wish I had spoken to him. Just to say how much I loved his music; its humanity and its wonderful directness. Stockhausen wasn't a difficult composer, whatever anyone says. In many ways he was as straightforward as anyone could be. It's just difficult to explain ideas as big as his. Far easier to understand them. What I take most of all is a sense of endless, boundless possibility.

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