Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Legacy

The assessment of a composer's legacy is always a function of time, a judgment speaking more of the moment than of the achievement itself. The flood of fine performances and recordings that followed Morton Feldman's death, for example, could hardly have been predicted at that time, and the present esteem for Feldman's catalogue is one of the more unforeseen and welcome developments in recent reception history.

In the case of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the work -- through authoritative, if not always wholly satisfactory, recordings, voluminous writings, extensive radio, photo, and film or video documentation, and a living tradition of performance practice -- has always been a more reasonable proposition to assess as a whole. While there are significant issues and controversies, much of them dealing with broader cultural matters only indirectly musical, it's probably safe to identify a few achievements that will be lasting. I believe that the first four piano pieces, two very different early tape pieces, Studie II and Gesang der Junglinge, Gruppen for three orchestras and Mantra for two pianos are landmarks, as well as his essay on musical time time passes..., in which he proposed the serialization of tempi. (I find Kontra-Punkte, Carre, Kontakte and Sternklang to be near misses.) He was a prodigious assembler of technical means, and I would identify two broad ideas about technique -- a generalization of the serial idea and the extension of a melodic formula into works of significant length through the use of diminution -- as his most important.

Stockhausen had passionate loyalists and equally passionate former loyalists, and among the latter, the discussion over the point of disaffection was frequent. Personally, I always have the impression that he got lost in Kontakte, a score in which the principle of tight organization and a joy in improvised discovery found themselves in significant and unresolved conflict, and a similar conflict played intself between the score for instrumentalists and that for recorded sounds. Like others, I'm unable to follow Stockhausen's intellectual and, in particular, spiritual development, in which it appears that the same naiveté that surrounded the Kölner catholicism of his use was carried forward in his later engagements with such as Sri Aurobindo or the Urantia Book. (To contrast: John Cage, who for all his interests in spiritual matters and a decided ambiguity about his disciples who chose to confuse him with another J.C., kept a cool head when a famous critic claimed that one of his pieces based upon star charts would last forever, because God created the heaven so that the pieces were, in effect, written by God, responding: No, I wrote the piece and there is no God.)

But taking any composer's mythology or theology serious is probably always going to be a tricky proposition (just think of Mozart's Masonism, Liszt's Catholicism, or the Mormon elements in La Monte Young's work), and with Stockhausen, a bit of anthropological distance is always in order. In this regard, it was very helpful for me to learn that the refrain "Montag, Eva-Tag" in his opera Montag, was nothing more than a riff drawn from a bit of German cinema advertising for discount ticket night: "Montag, Kino-Tag". For as much as Stockhausen aspired to a universal musical language and status, a goal shared by many composers who came of age in the years after the second World War, as much as the pieces named above as landmarks represent a successful approach to that universal status, and as much as Stockhausen attempted to investigate (and even appropriate from) musical cultures outside of his own, the bulk of his work strikes me as a very local music, and his relative isolation, in later years, from the international new music scene, his cottage industry for self-publication (there's something telling in his leaving Universal Edition), his familial ensemble, and the summer courses in his village home are all of a piece with this.

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