Intuitively Yours, Karlheinz Stockhausen

By Logan K. Young on Jul 18, 2013 04:30 AM EDT

The Aughts were especially tough on Modernism.

Starting in 2001, we lost Iannis Xenakis. In 2003, Luciano Berio passed on. Three years later, György Ligeti expired in Vienna, and two years shy of making contact, Mauricio Kagel had his last, albeit post-modern laugh in 2010.

Woe be to the Darmstadt demigods of yore; the only one left standing is Pierre Boulez. And as the maître's made more than clear, on the front line of composition anyways, he will fight no more forever.

Here in the States, Prof. Milton Babbitt, l'éminence grise of Princeton, stretched his earthly tenure to 94 years. But his death in January of 2011 integrally reminded us that the end of Elliott Carter, who would've turned 104 this December, was nigh.

Death waits for no man, no, not even the great composers. And as a truant composition student, I'm reminded most that up in a verdant Bergische holler, 13 kilometers outside Köln, the most brilliant, innovative and controversial Teutonic composer since Wagner is every bit as dead as John Adams is hackneyed, John Zorn is has-been and John Rutter never was.

Alas, as of Wednesday, December 5, 2007, Stockhausen est mort, finally phoned home from whence he claimed to have come--that brightest of celestial dog stars, Sirius.

Shine on, then, you crazy, crazy diamond.

In spite of this creation myth, throughout much of his very real lifetime, Karlheinz Stockhausen was celebrated (and, fair enough, derided) for all things cerebral. His razor-sharp intellect consorted with a doggedly analytic aesthetic to wreak havoc on a musical establishment still reeling from the fallout of the Second World War.

In the age of modernity, Stockhausen was logic incarnate; the mind made manifest. So, try as I might, I cannot imagine what it must have been like to show up for rehearsal with this missive on my stand:


play a sound

with the certainty

that you have an infinite amount of time and space

Umm, what's that? Entschuldigung? Come again, please? Where are the charts and graphs that made you infamous? What about your matrices, your over-arching formula?

Herr Stockhausen, just where did this come from?

OK, so there had been a few warning signs: the controlled aleatory of the later Klavierstücke, the idiosyncratic semiotics in Plus-Minus, the transmogrification of previous work that became Kurzwellen. That said, nothing could have prepared the boys in the band for this (especially not the Kontarsky brothers).

Even for Stockhausen, "UNLIMITED" was unheard of. The quatrain he composed here foretold of something new. Entirely. It was, as its author would go on to proscribe, a script for "intuitive music."

With another 14 words (and a broken, parabolic doodle), Karlheinz Stockhausen had turned his back on every theme he'd written a priori.

For a host of musico-semantic reasons, as I would come to learn, Stockhausen abhorred the term "improvisation." As he thoroughly understood it, though, its five-syllables conjured up every stale notion of rhythm, meter, melody, harmony and form--those parametrics he had spent a career formalizing. Essentially, Stockhausen heard improvised music--both in concept and as actuality--as having changed very little from the Baroque figured bass to the free jazz skronk of the '60s.

He wasn't wrong, of course.

Even at its utmost, improvised music remains experimental music. Like Varèse, Stockhausen did not consider his music "experimental." (Cf. Elektronische Studie I and Elektronische Studie II.) Wherever there's content devoid of form, the end results often fail to yield anything qualitatively "good." Unlike Zappa's credo, it's not enough to make a jazz noise here. For at some point therein, improvisation will reach a saturation.

By trade, improvisers are not required to boldly confront centuries of tradition before assigning order to their sound series. For persons like Evan Parker or Matthew Shipp, we'd never want them to. Improvisers forge within a form; they do not create one. It's too long and taxing a gestation to decide what best comes next.

As Stockhausen further taught me, however, improvisation "on-the-fly" does anything but. It's beyond anyone's cognitive capacities to fathom, instantaneously, the repercussions of a user-defined musical event--unless it occurs within the axioms of a pre-determined network.

(E.g. Bach, Sr. was able to improvise fugues at the organ because of his familiarity with the form. Miles could solo on "So What" because he understood the intervallic pattern of the Dorian mode. And it was Lead Belly's intimate knowledge of the blues--as theoretical abstraction--that allowed him to speak so candidly within its bars. Whereas assimilation methodologies are perhaps less familiar to the hip-hop practitioner, someone, somewhere at least knew which beat to batter.)

There comes a time when even the most seasoned improviser can no longer improvise beyond what he already knows. It was for this very reason that the American composer Lukas Foss abandoned his pioneering efforts with the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble in the late 1950s. It also explains why completely improvised pieces such as the ad hoc work of Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestras were merely the sum of their sounding aggregates. (In that regard, 'twas Cardew, not Stockhausen, that served imperialism.)

According to Stockhausen, improvisation's innate gripes extended to non-Occidental musics, as well: Indian raga, Balinese gamelan, Japanese gagaku, etc. ad inf. Ever the progressive, he wanted no part of any of these traditions.

Tossing aside his hitherto indispensable charts and matrices for a 1971 lecture, Stockhausen spake thusly: "The most profound moments in musical interpretation and composition are those which are not the result of mental processes, are not derived from what we already know, nor are they simply deducible from what has already happened in the past."

To wit, Karlheinz Stockhausen coined the term "intuitive music" to describe those sounds that are realized solely by the performer's instinct.

Indeed, High Modernism's das enfant terrible had shocked the world once again.

As written, "UNLIMITED" is the hardest piece of music (that is, the most difficult to perform) ever composed. Forget Brian Ferneyhough. This one is simply impossible to execute. In the same 1971 lecture, Stockhausen himself conceded, "I haven't met any person up to now who has really and totally achieved that state."

And yet, that's not really the point.

In an effort to fully explicate his intentions, Stockhausen went on to pen addenda for "UNLIMITED" and 15 other intuitive texts, now collected under the title, Aus den sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days).

Regarding "UNLIMITED," the composer professed: "You don't need to think when it is finished, or whether anybody is listening or not: you don't care whether you die in the meantime, or if the sound may be too long for you to finish playing, or if the space you need is greater than the hall, or your instrument, or your own body can contain."

Ultimately, Stockhausen's two books of intuitive music, Aus den sieben Tagen and Für kommende Zeiten (For Times to Come), serve as transcendental études--a grammatology for detuning decades of practice, millennia of tradition all for the sake of a truly instinctive experience.

But even then, it's still not about career musicians or canonical performances.

We all, regardless of talent or technique, possess at least some vestige of intuition. In fact, as Stockhausen finally convinced me, it's more a matter of trusting in or giving over to it rather than acquiring some requisite amount to act upon.

To deny one's instincts altogether, especially in the realm of artistic expression, would be worse than any inert graph or defunct formulae.

Meeting people is easy. But finding a guru, walking beside your hero? Well, that's never not dangerous. Until you find him in the flesh, all corporeal, he's not yet real; he exists mainly in your proprietary theories. Careful, with each subsequent engaging--a quick glance here, a firm handshake there, a "Guten morgen" before the start of the most intimidating day of your life--the ideas you've spent 20-plus years positing about him quickly start to wither.

When I consider how my own life was spent, one of its greatest privileges will have been studying with Karlheinz Stockhausen. Moreover, it's a testament to him, and him alone, that despite sharing lessons, meals and ideas about the cosmos, he never ceased being anything other than an intangible life force I, myself, knew I'd never be.

Such is the plight of the great composers; the opus outweighs their corpus.

If my meeting Stockhausen threatened to destroy him, then eulogizing him is just short of futile. I mean, he was still alive when the British philosopher Roger Scruton famously quipped: "Stockhausen is not so much an Emperor with no clothing, but a splendid set of clothes with no Emperor."

And while news outlets having never met the man, nor wholly engaged his myth, led with a banality like "bold melder of note and noise" upon his death, I've come to hold no ill will. For the public at-large, Stockhausen must have seemed one-part Christ to two-bit charlatan.

Fortunately, I had the singular pleasure to learn from the one, true Stockhausen--before it was too late. To this day, five years after beaming back to Sirius, no other mortal has led my instinctive travel any better. Some seven years after our last goodbye, I'm still following down the paths of his rhythm.

Until the darkness takes me, I suspect I'll always follow him...wherever he may go.

This essay, originally titled "Wherever He Leads I'll Go: Stockhausen's Intuitive Music," first appeared on Bang the Bore.

© 2016 The Classical Art, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

TagsKarlheinz Stockhausen, Xenakis, Berio, Ligeti, Mauricio Kagel, Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt, Carter, UNLIMITED, Varèse, Zappa, Foss, Cardew, Ferneyhough, Aus den sieben Tagen, Für kommende Zeiten

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