Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Praising Stockhausen?

I have often remarked that the Guardian has the best coverage of classical music in the mass media. Their series last year on contemporary composers was laudable and they are just starting a new series on the symphony that promises to be interesting. But even here I run across the occasional article that makes me wonder what they were thinking.

Case in point, a recent article on Stockhausen titled "Stockhausen's electric dreams." I find Stockhausen to be a fascinating composer in a lot of ways. My composition teacher used to say that he was always just five minutes ahead of what was fashionable. But let's have a look at the article. Here is how the author describes Stockhausen's early work in electronic music:
Stockhausen and his fellow early pioneers at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) radio studio had grand ambitions. They wanted to completely rethink the nature of musical composition, and electronics was at the centre of their masterplan. "Only in coming to electronic music can we talk of a real musical control of nature," wrote Herbert Eimert, Stockhausen's WDR boss.
A remark like that can probably only be understood in the context of avant-garde music in the tumultuous years just after WWII. The nihilistic despair that many artists fell into in the wake of Hiroshima was the source of much of the ideology of post-war modernism. If humanity was capable of committing the horrors of the first half of the 20th century, then humanity must be overcome, they thought. It was not "musical control of nature" that they sought, but escape from their own sullied humanity. They wanted to start again from nothing, from a kind of "zero hour" in which all traces of history, tradition and humanity had been erased. If this is what you want, then electronic music is perfect because it enables you to eliminate all musical traditions and even the performer!
Finely graded proportions of note lengths hitherto unplayable by humans, and similarly accurate gradations of dynamic, timbre, density etc, could all be number-crunched and realised by the machines. And, of course, the range of possible sounds could be expanded exponentially beyond conventional orchestral instruments to the limits of human hearing.
You can see why it all went to these young composers' heads. They reasoned that perhaps electronics was the natural evolutionary mutation music was destined to undergo in order to fulfil its true destiny – anüber-music unfettered by puny human performance, it could include the rest of creation as a sound source. The questions took on a psycho-acoustic nature. What was it possible for us to hear? How short could a note be before it lost its quality of pitch? How low before it became a pulse? And how close could sounds be before they stopped sounding separate, or how far apart before we stopped being able to connect them at all?
I think that the writer, Will Gregory, is taking the statements of the artists at face value. They were not going to say, "we are doing this out of despair and nihilism" so instead they claimed that this was music's destiny. But how incoherent that is! Music, an art form created solely by humans to express something, cannot have a "destiny". This is a strange misunderstanding of some of the procedures of the composers at the time. They sought to give music a "destiny" by the operations of total serialism. In other words, the composer predetermined everything in the music--he gave it its "destiny". Ernst Krenek expressed this as follows, "whatever occurs in this piece at any given point is premeditated and therefore technically predictable." [Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, vol V, p. 40]

The article ends with this:
...when I hear pieces like Gesang der Jünglinge, I can dream of becoming a super-being sensitive to all dimensions of sound. I feel I have taken an express elevator to a vantage from where it must have seemed as if humanity was taking its first glimpse of a new universe of music. It's somewhere we have not yet got back to, and have somehow lost the desire to revisit. I cherish the first brave steps taken by Stockhausen and his contemporaries. He came back from his explorations with a new range of building materials never taken up by the rest of the trade. It were as if an architect had decided that since we can see to the horizon horizontally, and up to the sky vertically, why not build a house whose walls were at the horizon and the roof in outer space. Not a cosy place, but if you were shown the door, surely you could not resist the desire to take a peek inside.
Isn't it ironic that this existential moment of despair, that most composers, especially Stockhausen, moved on from fairly soon, is so treasured by Will Gregory? The sensation of being a "super-being" is actually the sensation of having your unbearable humanity excised so that you can live in a world of inhuman sounds. But in the piece he mentions, the Gesang der Jünglinge, humanity in the form of the voice of a boy, is present, though by means of collage and serial techniques it is chained with electronic bonds. Not so surprising that we have no desire to revisit this extreme moment in music history...

Let's have a listen to that piece, created/assembled in 1955/56:

Here is an interesting aesthetic thought-experiment: is it possible to do a parody of this music? Would a parody sound different from the original? In what ways? If there were different versions of this (there are not, this is the only realization), would it be possible to order them from better to worse?


Shantanu said...

I think music is not greater than life, nor is science or mathematics or any art form. Art exists only because we as humans want to express something from our lives. That is why it is possible to connect with a lot of "imperfect" music. I think experiments like these came in the wake of a fear of extinction. The idea of music having its own "destiny" came from our subconscious wish to leave it behind as a relic. Thus the scramble for perfection, absolutism and whatnot.

By the way, what do think might be a relatively "sane" piece by Stockhausen?

Bryan Townsend said...

Very possibly, Shantanu!

Stockhausen is interesting because he went through a lot of phases as a composer. I don't find his monumental pieces like Gruppen or the "Seven Days" opera to be as listenable as his chamber music. I heard a lot of his smaller works in Salzburg one summer played by his ensemble. I even met him and we talked about his music for a bit. He was very approachable. A while back I did a post on Stockhausen and included in it three pieces of his that are worth getting to know: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2013/05/chatting-with-karlheinz.html