By Jason Noghani
The music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) occupies a certain (sacred) space in our time. Stockhausen was unique in the postwar avant-garde, in that there is no simple way to categorise him, given that he was a truly single-minded figure who unceasingly reinvented his practices to continuously discover new possibilities in music. His contributions to electronic music have been unparalleled, given that not only did he pioneer several techniques that required new technological demands (were it not for him, surround sound and the synthesiser would not have come into fruition), but that he also searched for new ways of experiencing music thanks to the possibilities that technology opened up, and used this as a medium for connecting to the divine. His music has inspired countless numbers of revered artists, including The Beatles, Miles Davis, The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Bjork, Sonic Youth, Aphex Twin, and pretty much the whole of the electronic dance music scene (most particularly psytrance when the psychedelic and spiritual elements of Stockhausen are acknowledged!), which has blessed him with the title of “Papa Techno!”
Nowadays however, Stockhausen is relatively unknown in relation to the impact he bore, and amongst many who know of his name largely just remember him for the contributions he made to electronic music. However, the true testament to Stockhausen’s greatness lies in what he was able to do with sound, as his rigorous explorations with electronic music drove him to devise new possibilities for harmony, rhythm, time and structure, all of which are in congruence with the organic properties inherent within synthesised sound. The end result is a music that directly corresponds to the charismatically fractal patterns of nature within the cosmos. A music that feels so astonishingly far ahead of its time yet also feels as if it always existed. A music that one would either admit was utterly incredible, or that it would fly over their heads given that its alien complexities were beyond comprehension by conventional standards. Indeed, it is by conventional standards that Stockhausen’s music is misunderstood, given that we are heavily conditioned by our upbringing, our environments, our musical education, our experiences, our beliefs, our understanding of music etc., which would mean that only a modest number of people would genuinely cherish it. Those who wholeheartedly do however, act as gatekeepers of holy secrets, given the revelatory nature of what they had just experienced.
By no means easy listening, Stockhausen’s music challenges the listener to open themselves up to new possibilities within and outside of themselves, and the result is rewarding beyond comprehension. The alchemical transfusion of art and science of the highest standard create transcendental and divine experiences, that open up states of consciousness that reflect those described and experienced through the major religions. Indeed, Stockhausen was a visionary as an artist, scientist and spiritualist, and the harmonious amalgamation of this triangulation was deeply rooted in all of his musical creations.
The spiritual aspect of Stockhausen is what critics scrutinised him most for, what the media misinterpret most, and what the majority of people misunderstand him most for. He was always open about his beliefs and experiences, and consequently this was taken out of context, given the misunderstandings many had through their lack of knowledge of the practices behind Stockhausen’s efforts. Initially a Roman Catholic, Stockhausen’s fascination with gnostic philosophies of Christianity lead him to explore other cultures, religions and spiritual practices, of which he subsequently expressed in his music. Examples of this include the philosophies of Sri Aurobindo inspiring Aus Den Sieben Tagen, Native American traditions inspiring the song-cycle Am Himmel Wandre Ich, works inspired by Japanese culture (e.g. Japan, Der Jahreslauf, Inori), a homage to world religions and deities conceived through a Mesoamerican perspective in Stimmung, the zodiac inspiring Tierkreis and the alien music drama Sirius, several works inspired by the Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan, and the New Age Judeo-Christian doctrine The Urantia Book which inspired the Licht and Klang cycles. These inspirations were not mere reflections either, as Stockhausen entirely devoted himself to practices and tenets of each culture, in order to pay homage to these lineages in the sincerest manner. This not only consolidates the breadth of his spiritual devotion, it also reiterates the notion that he was truly a universalist in all senses. It is through this acknowledgement of the higher implications of his work, that Stockhausen was able to provide concrete possibilities for the future. When one takes the time to explore his music, one sees within it the future evolution of music, which in turn catalyses the evolution of consciousness, and subsequently us as a species to become a divine humankind. The implications really are that overwhelming! Licht serves as the celestial blueprint of this actuality.
For those unfamiliar with the Licht cycle, it is a monolithic work consisting of seven “operas” (I put operas in inverted commas because by calling them that limits the possibilities of what they really offer) totalling about 29 hours of music. Thematically, the work is based on the seven days of the week, drawing upon the creation myth and the esoteric connotations of the seven-day week, and this is symbolised through the three protagonists of the cycle (who are described from a Jungian perspective): Michael (the divine masculine), Eve (the divine feminine), and Lucifer (the shadow), of whom are represented as singers, instruments and dancers, in adherence to the ritualistically symbolic nature of the performance. Each of the “operas” either focuses on one, two or all of the characters, making up all possibilities within these permutations: Donnerstag (Thursday) specifically focuses on Michael. The concert took place at The Royal Festival Hall in London on May 21st and 22nd 2019.
At the time Stockhausen begun the Licht cycle in 1977, music critics and the media had only just about ingested and comprehended everything he had done up until that point (which was already more than a lifetime’s achievement!), so it was unsurprising that the premiere of Donnerstag was met with disdain and scepticism from many of its critics. In the eyes of many, Stockhausen’s pandering to the mystical was absurd, the music was bland and meandering, and the overall experience was considered underwhelming given that Licht was expected to be the successor to Wagner’s Ring cycle (in Stockhausen’s defence, much of Licht is “light” as otherwise it would be pretty pointless namely the cycle after it! The alien nature of the music would also be too exhausting and would make the Ring cycle seem like a feather if it had the same density to it! The expectations from others also implies a lack of open mindedness on their part!). Luckily today however (May 22nd 2019), this myopic perspective seems to have withered away, as the wide-ranging audience who encompassed several generations and demographics seemed to thoroughly enjoy this brilliant occasion. Not only did they seem to enjoy it, but the jaded outlook seems to have been long forgotten, with a collective sense that Donnerstag is yet another classic Stockhausen masterpiece!
The four-hour “opera” consists of a Greeting, 3 acts and a Farewell. The Greeting was performed in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall, and was a delightful ten-minute fanfare in three sections, mirroring the three acts that follow. Musically, it set the scene of what was yet to come, providing an atmosphere that on one level sounded readily familiar, and yet on another sounded strange and novel. The noise in the foyer was not even a problem, as the hustle and bustle added a cloud of mystique to the performance, making it already seem like a memory before anything had occurred on a grander scale (musical time travel if you will!). After the greeting, we gradually made our way to our seats for the first act, Michael’s Jugend (Michael’s Youth).
Michael’s Youth is a semi-autobiographical work in three scenes (Childhood, Mondeva and Examination), although the narrative is far from linear, with events sometimes occurring simultaneously. Despite in many ways being the “lightest” of the three acts, Michael’s Youth also contains moments of jarring darkness (e.g. Michael’s mother dying in a hospital bed, eerily reminiscent of Stockhausen’s own mother’s death) and bizarre otherworldliness (Michael becoming acquainted with a basset horn playing creature with seven-fingered hands called Mondeva), although the experience in its totality is of a beatific nature. One of the common misconceptions of Licht is the lack of linear narrative, and seemingly tacky staging; again, another expectation of Stockhausen to recreate the Ring cycle. However, everything was created exactly as intended. The visual element occurs in a ritualistic fashion (not dissimilar to Japanese Noh theatre, of which hugely inspired Stockhausen), and its functions undertake a symbolic rather than a descriptive function, which underlie the esoteric impulses prevalent throughout the work. Particularly through his supreme musical mastery, Stockhausen’s exploration of esoteric realms is not only convincing, but it transports the listener into dimensions of consciousness not unfamiliar to those conveyed in the major religions. It should also be noted here that despite all the main visual elements remaining intact in this realisation of Donnerstag, the end result was more stripped down than previous performances to compromise with the limitations of the Festival Hall’s dimensions, although this actually served the music justice as too much visual emphasis could have been distracting. The iridescently divine architecture of the music becomes the story, and the visuals become the music so to speak, and Michael’s Youth convincingly affirms this, setting the precedent for the following two acts.
The second act, Michaels Reise um die Erde (Michael’s Journey around the World) functions as a concerto for trumpet soloist and orchestra, although calling it a concerto would be an oversimplification. Michael is represented by the trumpet, and a musical journey around the world occurs, with musical idioms and elements reflecting those of places Michael visits (such as New York, Japan and Bali). Other instrumentalists also demonstrate their flair, creating musical dialogues with Michael when they do, sometimes even appearing in a comical fashion, and these actions confirmed the brilliance of the performers taking part. The overall result was a surreal yet humorous voyage that traversed the terrestrial plane through extra-terrestrial eyes at light speed! Once the performance had finished, I could not believe that over 45 minutes had passed – it felt much shorter, Stockhausen musically defied quantum mechanics!
The final act is Michaels Heimkehr (Michael’s Homecoming) which I feel for many was the highlight of the evening. The first scene depicts Michael returning to his cosmic dwellings and celebrating in a typically ritualistic fashion, resplendent with orchestra, choir, and deliciously menacing synthesiser providing a brooding and subterranean backdrop that the soloists perform over. It was here much of the magic occurred: exotic textures subtly drawn from the vast array of resources, a captivating use of lights within the performance, the murmuring antics of the choir providing an apocalyptic undertone, and unforgettable performances from the soloists, whose contributions I feel would have made Stockhausen proud were he still with us today. To describe what was experienced would not serve the music justice, nor would it in the preceding acts, but this was particularly felt in this act due to the myriad forms and dimensions unveiled through the substantial resources used here. In direct contrast to the first scene, the second scene is stripped down to the Michael soloists reflecting on all that had occurred, including projections of earlier events in the performance – something of which was done to great effect. The comparative starkness to the preceding scene actually made this “lighter” experience more intense than one would assume from three performers, as it drew the listeners closer into the essence of the work, in direct contrast to preceding events effortlessly flourishing over the listeners in all their grandeur. After the performance ended, it was safe to assume that we had all felt rejuvenated and purified from this remarkable experience! The Farewell took place on the stairwell outside of the concert hall, which functioned as an echo of what was experienced, and a seed to be implanted in the listener so they could retain its essence.
It must be noted that the performance was absolutely outstanding from all involved: Le Balcon, the London Sinfonietta, the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, and the New London Chamber Choir! The soloists were phenomenal, but even those who were individually less noticed such as members of the choir each performed with an equal calibre, and what seemed even more remarkable was that everybody genuinely seemed to enjoy performing the music, which shows how much of a long way audiences have progressed since Donnerstag’s premiere in 1981 (one of the worst aspects of creating contemporary art music is working with performers who evidently do not enjoy playing ones music – something Stockhausen even had to regularly contend with in his lifetime!). The praiseworthy dedication of the performers resulted in a stunning realisation of Donnerstag, and I can only hope that they do the entire cycle at some point in the not too distant future – it would be a divine week!
Once the concert had ended, everything felt more supernatural. The sounds of public transport, crowds of people and the fridge in my kitchen (where I write this article) all came alive, and the intergalactic ambiance of the performance transfigured the environment outside, evocating its divine qualities. I could hear and feel the essence of the performance throughout the rest of the evening (particularly from the 3rd Act), which far from being an earworm, merely unveiled the miraculous omnipotent hyper-reality surrounding us at all times but that which we barely take notice of – an experience I only wish more could people could witness if they were open to it!
We are in a day and age where not only are our ecosystems threatened, but also the ecology of listening. Technological advancement has correlated with worsening attention spans, the malaise of the pop culture machine has debased the true culture of fine art which has resulted in cultural decline, inevitably resulting in a lesser quality music, which can be seen in the overproduced music our digital age has churned out, and a lack of a universal high quality of music education has resulted in collective stagnation for the progress of further musical innovations. Technologically speaking, advancements are continually made within music, although the various development of the contributions made through the lineage of Western Classical music (and other indigenous music cultures of an equal tenacity) run the risk of being forgotten about due to negligence and ignorance from a cultural perspective (in particular the development of form instead of repetition: most music nowadays relies on repetition due to its lack of development! When one considers the possible implications, this could have on a neurobiological level as shown in various psychology studies; namely that the structural properties of Classical Music enhance memory, cognition and intelligence, it could make one wonder if today’s repetitive regurgitations are having a negative impact on us as a species!). It would also seem as if this day and age of technological immediacy and over-inundation of information have seemingly killed off magic and mystery, although the music of Stockhausen serves as a reminder that not only are there more possibilities out there, but coming to think of it, we have barely started scratching the surface!
The official website for Stockhausen for further information, scores and recordings: Karlheinzstockhausen.org
Personal Recommendations of Stockhausen pieces:
For those unaccustomed to radically unfamiliar music, a good starting point for Stockhausen’s music would be Stimmung, Am Himmel Wandre Ich, the Tierkreis (Zodiac) cycle, and Freude and Natural Durations from the Klang cycle, as they’re probably the easiest pieces to listen to. If one enjoys these, I would then recommend Gesang der Junglinger (one of his most renowned and famous works) and Mantra, and thereafter probably Gruppen. If you like these, you’ll probably like most other Stockhausen pieces!
My personal favourite Stockhausen pieces are Kontakte, Hymnen and Cosmic Pulses, which I feel are three of the greatest works of art ever created, and demonstrate Stockhausen’s true genius.