Friday, September 09, 2011

Bauermeister/Stockhausen, Public/Private, Modern/Amodern

I was just given a copy of artist Mary Bauermeister's new memoir of her life with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ich hänge in Triolengitter. I was somewhat awkward in accepting the gift. I'm usually on the shy side about sharing intimate matters and, consequently, have always had some serious misgivings about musicians' biographies, particularly when they focus more on the personal than on the public and musical aspects of a life. As Bauermeister's book had been promoted more for the private elements — Stockhausen's polyamory in particularly — and as a slice of the swinging '60s,* I was more than a bit hesitant about reading the book. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the book was a compelling witness's narrative of an important era and scenes in late 20th century music, particularly in Cologne and lower Manhattan, indeed a useful corrective or contrast to existing narratives (i.e. Stockhausen's own) as well as the degree to which Bauermeister's use of personal detail illuminates the musical work.

(Is it just a function of my age that I happen to find details about a composer's financial affairs more reliably interesting than those about their love affairs? I do find it interesting that, during his two marriages, Stockhausen lived with women who were financially much more secure than he and, in light of this, I do find Bauermeister's claim convincing that she was decisive in Stockhausen's move from his unsatisfactory relationship with Universal Edition to self-publishing: competent financial advice.)

In Stockhausen's music, for all the abstract structure (and all those famous chalkboard presentations at Darmstadt), there are indeed numerous elements of substance that have direct biographical references, a strong contrast to many of his contemporaries — i.e. Boulez, Cage, Babbitt — for whom a distancing or erasure of the personal was a marked aesthetic element; Bauermeister illuminates many of these in Stockhausen's works between Kontakte and Licht with special attention to Originale and Momente.

Bauermeister's book is also the memoir of a young woman artist establishing herself in the pre-feminist era and I find that it complements the autobiographies we've had by Judith Malina, Yvonne Rainer, and Carolyn Brown. I'm not altogether certain if Bauermeister would identify herself, then or now as a feminist, but it's a document treating some issues — the career of a woman in the visual arts, the integration of family and working lives, a troubled relationship to a violent man (her partner before Stockhausen), and not least the unequal relationship to a prominent male artist — which speak seriously to feminist themes. If I could have had any single element corrected in this book, I would have like to have read more about the author's own development as an artist. I don't really understand her work, but would honestly like to try.

Finally, I think that this book goes some distance towards explaining the amodern quality of Stockhausen's music and for me, how he failed to live up to his earlier promises as a composer. Sure, there are the Formschemes, the beepsnort electronics, the emphasis on scales and lists and a Varese-like appeal to science, but there are also appeals to mysticism, spirituality and all of these personal references that make Stockhausen something rather more of a late romantic than a high modernist. It's the romance of science and Urantia Book-inspired space opera rather than hard science and I have the impression that the way in which Stockhausen remained in a decisively pre-Feminist era is a substantial component of this amodernity. (One of the reasons I treasure my partner, Christina, is that she insisted we walk out of a performance of Montag aus Licht, the episode of Stockhausen's Licht cycle dedicated to the maternal figure "Eva"; neither of us could handle the cliche-filled treatment of women in the piece. And neither of us could handle the insipid synthesizer sounds; I suppose if I heard them now, it would be rather nostalgic experience, to the early portable electronic keyboard era, but jeez, they just had the least engaging envelopes, didn't they?)


* Not to mention the creepy pink cover with the Elke Heidenreich blurb on the back...

1 comment:

jodru said...

You're right to characterize Stockhausen as more of a late romantic than a high modernist, but 'amodern' and 'failing to live up to his earlier promise' are wide of the mark.

Amodern implies an abstract definition of modernism that's kind of passe now, no? Perhaps, if this were the 60's or 70's, we could claim that he was amodern. But surely not in 2011.

And boy, I don't know how to measure his early promise against his later career. I think it's not an easy comparison, and I think there are moments of sheer brilliance and beauty throughout his career. For every bauble like Tierkreis, and every near disaster like Sirius, there's a moment of utter genius like Licht-Bilder or Himmels Tur.

Montags Gruss is actually one of my favorite pieces in his entire catalog. It's like the Das Rheingold prelude, filtered through his artistic cul-de-sac in Kuerten.

As far as I understand it, the synth sounds were Simon's. The programming Simon did in the mid-90's seemed to stick in his mind, unfortunately. That's why a brilliant bit of sound sculpture like Cosmic Pulses is weighed down by some absolutely god awful synth sounds.