Stockhausen today and tomorrow


In August 2012 I attended the first production of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus LICHT in Birmingham, and contributed to a symposium and small festival organised by Ed McKeon during the days before the production opened, giving a spoken contribution and performing the Aus den sieben Tagen pieces Aufwärts and Verbindung in a duo with Chris Cutler on percussion and electronics.

What follows is a minimally-altered and -augmented version of the text I wrote for the symposium. It reiterates various ideas I’ve treated sometimes at greater length elsewhere but I hope it will be found of interest.

I first encountered Stockhausen’s music at the age of 13 or so, and from that moment on it began to affect the way I thought about music, and not only music, in a rather profound way, including probably being the most crucial single influence behind my decision some years later to devote myself to composition. That was in the early 1970s, a time when the influence of this music was probably at its peak, when it seemed that any creative musician, in whatever field, felt that they had to come to terms with it, one way or another. I’m not here today to talk about the past, however: times have changed since then, and the optimistic idea that music could be a vehicle for expanding our senses and intellect in a way which would render meaningless any mundane kind of distinction between them seems largely to have been forgotten. It might seem, then, that over the course of the last thirty or forty years, what many musical practitioners and commentators might call the hegemony or even tyranny of serial thinking in music has evaporated, and, during this same period, Stockhausen himself gradually withdrew behind a private mythological system, replacing the questing attitude of the previous decades with a weirdly idiosyncratic sense of certainty which no reasonable person could take seriously. In other words, looking at Stockhausen’s personal evolution over the last thirty years of his life serves only to emphasise the historical processes which have made his work more or less irrelevant to succeeding generations of creative musicians, except as the exemplar of an idealistic but misguided artistic response to the historical moment of the mid-20th century.

Now I reject all of that, and I believe it could be much more fruitful for artists in the present and future to take a different view. If circumstances have changed we could perhaps think about considering our work to be a response to them rather than a symptom of them. I think that if we can serve any function as creative artists in this historical moment, that would involve using to the full the freedom of our imaginations, as a pointer to the possibility of a deeper and wider kind of freedom, which is suppressed, and increasingly so, by the social structures we live in. Musicians who talk about serial thinking as a constriction on their artistic freedom generally go on to chain themselves to something else instead, as if restriction of some kind is a prerequisite to artistic creation. Personally I don’t believe in that way of looking at things, but in a way of thinking which is sufficiently focused that it doesn’t need to exclude anything, attempting instead to be a militant assertion of the infinite potential of the human imagination. And this is where I see Stockhausen’s work as a central point of reference, amply demonstrated in fact by something like Mittwoch, whatever else you might have to say about it.

It will, I hope, be clear that I’m not talking about making music which is, to quote the programme of the symposium, “inspired by Stockhausen”, to any greater extent than a contemporary physicist might describe their work as being “inspired by Einstein”. This isn’t about individual personalities or even about their individual “works” but about what their discoveries and intuitions, as expressed in those works, can tell us about something more general, from which we can continue our own explorations.

I do think that serial thinking is one of a handful of the most potentially fruitful innovations in music that happened in the last century, but I also think that to see it as such it might be necessary to view it from the standpoint developed principally by Stockhausen in the course of the 1950s and then expressed with the utmost diversity in his subsequent work, encompassing ideas like moment-form and eventually the concept of so-called “formula-composition” which governs most of his work from 1970 onwards.

I would encapsulate this way of thinking thus:

(a) identifying the parameters which are to be the focus of a composition, the “dimensions” in which it will exist;

(b) assigning minimum and maximum values to these parameters and in doing so establishing a “space” with those dimensions;

(c) making musically-significant movements across those parametric dimensions, or to put it another way, making a journey of discovery through the space they create.

It’s not a question of relating everything to a “series” but of relating everything to everything else. As Jerome Kohl has pointed out (1), this conception of serial thinking can find its expression not just in the notation of a score or the generation of a fixed-media electronic composition but also in the “texts for intuitive music” of Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen, and I would extend this possibility to free improvisation.

The text of Aufwärts, for example, reads as follows:

Play a vibration in the rhythm of your smallest particles

Play a vibration in the rhythm of the universe

Play all the rhythms that you can
distinguish today between
the rhythm of your smallest particles
and the rhythm of the universe
one after the other
and each one for so long
until the air carries it on

I think it’s clear that what’s being described here is a process of serial composition, in this case a process intended to be performed, and realised in a different way in each “today”. Looking at the text again recently it struck me that actually you could look at the entirety of LICHT as in some sense a working out of the idea behind Aufwärts.

Can you hear this serial thinking? What significance does it have for the listener? To address this question I would use as an example the sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy. In his film Rivers and Tides, which incidentally I would recommend as essential watching for all composers, he talks about the work-process of constructing one of his stone cairns as one of gradually “understanding the stone”, particularly in one part of the film where he’s repeatedly trying and failing to get a particular kind of stone in a particular location to allow the creation of a self-supporting structure. At first I wondered what this seemingly private “dialogue” between Goldsworthy and his materials has to do with me as a viewer - why I should be bothered about whether and to what extent he “understands the stone”? But at a certain point I made the thought experiment of transposing Goldsworthy’s work process, and its relation to the eventual work, on to that process and that relation in musical composition, and I think I learned something important. Goldsworthy’s quest to understand the stone is expressed in the form of the result, at every structural level; similarly, the process by which I attempt to find my way around the multidimensional space I’ve brought into being, or “discovered”, whichever way one wishes to look at it, is what you hear when the music is played. I’m not sure whether it’s yet possible for me to express coherently what I mean by this and thus why it seems so crucial, but that will have to do for now.

Anyway, returning to Stockhausen, there are a number of issues arising from a contemplation of his work which for me represent openings into so far hardly touched worlds of musical possibility, a few of which I’ll describe in a moment, but I’d like first to reiterate that these all stem in one way or another from his generalisation of serial thinking, as I’ve just outlined. Note that I always use the term “serial thinking” rather than “serialism”. I want to stress the open-endedness of it rather than invite the misapprehension that it’s some kind of closed system or even an ideology.

I’d like to move on now to some more specific examples of directions taken by Stockhausen’s musical explorations, particularly in the context of LICHT, which I think are highly suggestive for those of us concerned with the consciousness-expanding potential of musical sound and form. One of the most striking aspects of LICHT is that the serial structure spans such an enormous range of time-levels, from the entirety of the seven works to the smallest details of each component scene or act, and that this superimposition of vastly different time-levels is something one hears and experiences clearly, obviously more clearly the more of it one hears. I could put this the other way around: in order to be able to experience such a range of time-structures it’s necessary to work with long and intricately-organised durations, longer and more intricately-organised than most composers (or for that matter promoters or commissioning bodies) are prepared to consider. To realise such ideas on a practical level requires the development of ways of working which use the exigencies of the musical world we have to live with, in order to point beyond them. So, while LICHT consists of a whole conglomeration of components which may be performed separately, its most fascinating and memorable qualities come completely into focus only in the context of an entire evening. I was quite surprised when attending a complete performance of Sonntag in Cologne last year, for example, to find what a powerful cumulative effect was created by the whole sequence, even though it seems to consist of closed and disconnected structures, performed between two different spaces and even with the order of the final two acts being interchangeable. Stockhausen was fond of explaining the structure of his compositions with the help of diagrammatic formschemes, but it’s important always to bear in mind that they’re simplified representations of something whose unfolding takes place in time, which explores time and perception in a way that very little other music does. Here is something to set the imagination in motion.

Another aspect of LICHT which seems to me to suggest further explorations is the various different relations it explores between fixed-media electronics and live performance: the way that the “invisible choirs” of Donnerstag run their course twice, in two completely different live-performance contexts, thus creating some highly suggestive structural and poetic linkages between the acts of the opera; the way that the continuous and hugely distended electronic layer in Freitag forms a structural context for two interlocked sequences of scenes; the extremely extended accelerando through the entire course of Montag, where the sporadic and “surreal” interjections of concrete materials in its opening stages eventually form an almost unbroken chain of grotesque sound-events by the end; and so on. Of course Stockhausen was there at the very beginning of the idea of combining live performance with (in those days) electronic music on tape; but what isn’t so often appreciated is that he continued throughout his life to find new and fascinating approaches to this idea, and this aspect too is suggestive of further possibilities.

There are many more things I could say along lines such as these, but I hope I’ve managed to give a taste of some ways in which Stockhausen’s music has the potential to go on energising our musical conceptions and perceptions, and by “us” here I mean not just creative musicians but also those for whom listening is also a realisation of creative potential. (I think of myself as a listener for whom this realisation eventually got completely out of hand.) I’ve given particular attention to LICHT mainly because so much has already been said about Stockhausen’s work and ideas prior to its inception in 1977.

There’s one other issue I’d like to mention. Everything I’ve said so far might seem to have ignored the fact that LICHT is actually a sequence of operas, with, to varying extents, named characters on stage played by singers, which makes it different from anything else in Stockhausen’s output and which is probably the aspect that more people have some kind of problem with than anything else. Apart from which, surely this aspect is the one least likely to offer any perspectives for new ways to think about music, given that it seems to express a view of things which not many listeners are at all easily able to share, let alone “believe in”. Well, I’m not so sure. The first thing I’d say is that the three main characters of LICHT are in an obvious sense, but also in a deeper sense, musical characters, musical materials which coalesce into (sometimes multiple) personages on stage. I’ve often found myself asking when watching more conventional opera: why are these people singing? LICHT gives us an answer which for me is highly thought-provoking: they’re singing because they’re “made of music”. Whether they represent divine beings and archetypal principles is not so important as far as I’m concerned. Their “stories” are indistinguishable from their musical evolutions.

Finally: my intention here is not to say what a shame it is that Stockhausen’s music is not as influential as it was in the 1960s. Back then, the influence produced a great deal of rather embarrassingly parasitic work, which was often the result of taking a certain point in the development of his work and freezing it. That phase at least is over; we can view the body of work he produced as a whole, we can look more comprehensively at the factors which shaped it and at the example of an artist who right up until his very last years was concerned with pushing further into unknown musical spaces, as we hear in such compositions as Strahlen and Cosmic Pulses. This last point to me is the most important one. I’m not talking about a blind quest for originality of the kind that’s often caricatured by conservative-minded commentators, but about what the philosopher Alain Badiou calls “formalising the uncertainty” (2). I’m talking about seeing art not as a celebration of a given order, but as a constantly-evolving expression of what doesn’t yet exist.

Berlin 23 August 2012

(1) “Intuitive Music and Serial Determinism: An Analysis of Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen.” In Theory Only 3, no.2 (March 1978): 7–19. (Revised reprint
(2) “Does the notion of militant art still have meaning?” Transcript of a lecture given at the Miguel Abreu Gallery in New York City on 13 October 2010.