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The composer of "the first great piece of electronic music" influenced the Beatles, Miles Davis and numberless others. And he comes from Sirius.
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Jan. 16, 2001 | In the 1960s and '70s, Karlheinz Stockhausen, with his long, flowing mane, Byronic open shirt and frock coat, was every inch the romantic genius for the Age of Aquarius, making music in the hope of "transcending this earth and transcending man and transcending human intelligence." All over the world, he staged massive and astonishing events that blew classical music wide open, creating electronic music almost as a byproduct.
Although his work is often ferociously difficult, the surface of the music is strangely accessible, yielding new layers of complexity at each level. If his compositions can be a little too heady for the marketplace, his ideas have permeated popular culture through his influence on artists as diverse as the Beatles, Miles Davis, Kraftwerk and the Grateful Dead. (The Dead, Jefferson Airplane and members of the Mothers of Invention all studied under him in 1967 at the University of California at Davis.)
Anyone who saw a Grateful Dead show came away with a better understanding of eternity, but probably didn't know that the long-winded improvisations came straight out of Stockhausen's "intuitive music." Frank Zappa's tricky riffs and goofy staging owed a direct debt to those university classes (and parties). Stockhausen also showed up on the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and if you've ever gone back to "The Beatles" (aka "The White Album") to listen to "Revolution 9" a second time, he's there, too.
Long before the Beatles, Stockhausen turned the sound desk into instrument, doubling as the soundman at most of his shows. With that engineer's mind, he simultaneously hacked the music and the metaphysics, dismantling serialism to reconfigure time and space. Beats were sped up until they became notes. Notes were pitched like baseballs between a roomful of small orchestras, or around a spiral of speakers in a geodesic dome. Tunes could be assembled in any order, even interrupting each other. Presto! The sound spectrum had become the structure of the universe made manifest. Well, it was the '60s.
So where did Stockhausen go? Though turntablists whisper his name in awe, and vinyl junkies pass along his music as if it were samizdat Czech literature, one of the most high-profile composers of the mid-20th century has disappeared from these shores. His cult following and the vanishing act are at the least very suggestive. All his virtual omnipresence, the technical glee, the cosmic curiosity and the dress sense add up to one thing: Stockhausen is music's answer to Dr. Who.
And why not? He has passed through several distinct incarnations, each with its own personality, wardrobe and choice of companions. He's a traveler who has popped up in one hot spot after another -- Paris during the riots of '68, California in the Summer of Love and New York during the Fluxus happenings. He drops in, changes everything, then leaves to do something else. His methods are anarchic and revolutionary, yet he applies them with methodical rigor; and though he's fiercely individualistic, all his work hangs on the collaborators that he picks up for each fresh adventure.
One other thing: Stockhausen claims to originate from another part of the universe entirely -- Sirius. "That's not so out of this world," he says. "I have dreamt several times that I came from Sirius and that I was trained there as a musician; it was almost like an obsession during three, four years, and I began to collect information and compose electronic music which was called Sirius."
Tripped-out lifestyle guru, electronic tinkerer, highbrow serialist, multimedia megalomaniac -- he's been them all. By my count, there have been six Stockhausens so far. In truth, they tend to overlap or reemerge from time to time, but the kernel for all that follow is the First Stockhausen: the young man learning music and harsh truths from his parents in the horrific circumstances of Nazi Germany.
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Stockhausen was born on Aug. 22, 1928. Both his parents were amateur musicians; his mother liked to accompany her own singing at the piano. As a child, he would run around the house banging things with a wooden hammer to find out what they sounded like. His first memory of performance involves the brandishing of a live frog, the ingestion of an earthworm and the percussive use of the pavement. It earned him 10 pfennigs.
The family lived in Kurten, a small town outside of Cologne. The young Stockhausen was sent out at nights to mind the cows, where he would lie in the snow and watch the stars. At other times it would have been a rural idyll, but not in those times -- and not with his parents, either. Sensitive and artistic she may have been, but Gertrude Stockhausen was not a well woman. Instead, she was the kind who would see visions and talk back to the radio. Harassed by too many pregnancies, his mother suffered worsening mental lapses. She would shout in despair, "I want to die," until she eventually had to be hospitalized in 1932. Tragically, nine years later, she was taken at her word by the Nazis' euthanasia program for the mentally handicapped, and they put her to death.
By the end of the war, his father, Simon, a teacher, had also died (in combat), but by then Stockhausen had his own brutal war to deal with. Drafted to the front as a hospital worker, he became still more intimately familiar with inhumanity and death. The soldiers he served with perpetrated atrocities; the patients he tended had faces that had been erased by phosphorous bombs, and one flyby attack by a fighter pilot (attracted by the huge red cross) left him surrounded by bullet holes but personally untouched.
Many people, faced with such a beginning, would take refuge in the life of the mind. On the face of it, the same is true for the young man who, in 1951, transformed himself into the Second Stockhausen: by night, accompanist to stage magician Adrion; by day, a precise engineer. Over the next 10 years, he studied under the broadly influential French composer and organist Olivier Messaien, worked the soundboard for Edgar Varèse and collaborated with Pierre Boulez.
At a first encounter, the music Stockhausen created often seems to be abstract and cerebral, a mathematics of rhythm and pitch, but a close reading of the biography reveals an emotional aspect, a humanity struggling to come to the surface, even if it has to be in code.
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