Tuesday, May 20, 2008


What of music, and the world about music, does a composer have to know? While one generally supposes that knowing more rather than knowing less is a better default setting, there are plenty of fine musicians who get along, with music & the world, just swell on a need-to-know basis.* More than a few composers have come to art music via popular musics or film or visual art or performance art or maths or what have you, and are active and perfectly successful without a traditional command of theory or even notation. Some musicians even exercise a form of self-induced deafness, to tactically shut out potential areas of influence in order or even to insure that one's inventions are more honestly one's own.

I use the word useful a lot on these pages; in a musical scene with a lively diversity of activity, it's damn next to impossible to claim that, as in the old conservative conservatory days, there was a curriculum to which a consensus canon and code could be agreed. Instead, the only criterion is usefulness: does some bit of knowledge lead productively to interesting new work?


There's an important interview (Ithinks) in the current issue of MusikTexte with James Ingram, who was Stockhausen's copyist from 1974 to 2000. Ingram was, by all accounts, not just a copyist but was absolutely critical for Stockhausen in establishing his publishing house after the composer's breakup with Universal Edition and he produced meticulous scores with a distinctive house style. This included making a transition to computer-based engraving which, in Stockhausen's case, required the development of unique fonts as well as tools for directly manipulating the score image, moreover, working within the composer's household workshop, Ingram was able to revise and edit any score in progress with a flexibility and immediacy not possible in traditional publishing structures.

Naturally, anyone with such close contact to a figure like Stockhausen will have observed a lot of interesting things (i.e. Stockhausen's preference for the manually controlled oscillators in the original version of Studie II over a later, computer-generated version, a preference which is reiterated in the realization of his late electronic work Cosmic Pulses from the unfinished Klang cycle), but one observation, or rather non-observation stuck-out for me, and that was Ingram's response to the question of How much music did Stockhausen know? And Ingram's answer, that he seldom listened to music other than his own strikes me as entirely plausible, and entirely telling. Ingram speculates that he didn't want to know other music -- it's a way of circumventing questions of influence or even claims of plagiarism** and his own biography coincides precisely with that stretch of German history in which a premise of beginning from nothing was widely shared and a precondition to this was a very careful forgetting of the past. (I believe that this premise was even more consequently applied by Stockhausen that by any of his contemporaries in the literary zero hour (Stunde Null)).

To my ears, a paradoxical effect of Stockhausen's distance to other music, and particularly to other contemporary music, is that because his own music did not enter into dialog with its contemporaries, it often does not feel modern and of the moment, but exhibits rather a kind of nostalgia for the modernity of an era past. Much as Varese's futurism or ultramodernism remained that of the 1920's, Stockhausen's was very much stuck in that of the 1950's and early 1960's. I was struck by this first with the -- altogether charming -- little set of melodies, Tierkreis (1974-75) which, especially in their harmonized versions, apply a voice leading that is comfortably located in a harmonic cul de sac right off the insection between Messiaen and Hindemith. Stockhausen's subsequent tonal practice, from Sirius through Licht, confirmed this impression with his use of the prolongation and diminution of basic melodic formulae reinforcing this quality.

* As long as I'm at it, I think that -- all else being equal -- it's probably better that a composer have being nice rather than being a jerk as a default temperament setting, but neither quality is an automatic precondition to musical and social success. Unfortunately, Clio provides plenty of evidence that plenty of jerks rise to Parnassus and plenty of nice folk finish last. But then again, I never got an "A" in "gets along with others", so you may discount my opinion appropriately.
**It is, for example, impossible to escape the specific influence that La Monte Young's work had on Stockhausen's Stimmung and, likewise, the use of a nine-limit tonality diamond in his Sternklang must have come from Harry Partch, but in other cases, like that of a possible connection between Feldman's Intermission 6 (1953) and Stockhausen's Klavierstück XI (1956) can be more probably assigned to the realm of good ideas that are simply of a moment in which independent discovery is possible.

1 comment:

jodru said...

Indeed, this insularity is one of Stockhausen's defining features. When performers would send them a list of extended techniques, he simply wasn't interested in reading about them. Any extended techniques he used had to be 'discovered' by him first, simply meaning that he needed to come upon them through his own experimentation with the instrument.

The roots for this go back to his very earliest days as a creative person, wherein his primary instructor was Herman Hesse. Hesse urged him to cultivate what was unique in him above all else, and he specifically tasked Stockhausen with casting off the commonalities between himself and the rest of his generation, calling it a 'dowry without much value'.

Stockhausen's isolation from contemporary culture is usually pilloried, but my hunch is that as time goes by and people become more familiar with his later period, it will be a trait glossed over, much in the same way Bach's 'outdated' writing is forgiven.