Monday, May 26, 2014

The Case of Stockhausen

Karlheinz Stockhausen

"The Case of..." series here at the Music Salon is a very occasional one devoted to mulling over a particular composer from the point of view of history. I have, in the past, used it to offer comment on composers as different as Vivaldi and Leonard Cohen. Sometimes, as in the case of Hindemith, I note that the composer's stock or reputation seems to be falling. I just ran into an article on Karlheinz Stockhausen that depicts an odd situation where the composer's own concern for his creative rights has resulted in his music almost disappearing from public spaces. Norman Lebrecht has a rather more pithy take on it here. Read the article at the first link from the New York Review of Books, it is a thoughtful and well-researched essay on the composer.

While very doubtful of some of his efforts, such as the massive pieces for multiple orchestras and the "Helicopter" string quartet, others, such as the Klavierstücke and his chamber music, I find quite appealing. There are some sweeping claims made in the first article where Tim Page comments that
But for the past thirty years, most of Stockhausen’s music has been all but impossible to hear, and a generation or more has come of age without the slightest understanding of what he once meant to young composers and musicians, who cheered him on as passionately as an older generation rejected him. From the 1950s through the early 1980s, almost all of Stockhausen’s compositions were issued on LP by the Deutsche Grammophon label, which disseminated his work throughout the world. When the leading recording format changed to CD, around 1982, Stockhausen took back all of his rights and the majority of his significant works became available through him, at outrageously expensive prices (while the composer was still living, some of the discs cost more than $100; the prices have recently been lowered).
While correct (you can download the catalog for yourself to see), this is misleading. Just go to Amazon and you will find a host of recordings of Stockhausen's music by various artists at various prices. The recordings of the Klavierstücke do seem very pricey, though. The remarks above just apply to what you might think of as the "officially" approved recordings, supervised by Stockhausen and issued by DGG. Saying his music is "impossible to hear" nowadays is even more misleading. One of the reasons I sought out Stockhausen in Salzburg in 1988, when I was a student there, was because his music was so rarely played in North America. Apart from the occasional piece for piano, the only Stockhausen I have ever heard live was in Europe. But virtually nothing is "impossible to hear" when YouTube is available. Here are some samples. First of all that very piece, played by Mauricio Pollini, mentioned in the article:

And here is Klavierstück IX with the repeated dissonant chord:

And here is Klavierstück V, also played by Pollini:

So if you want to hear his music, it is, like everything else, just a click away.

If you want the scores, though, that is a different matter. But still, they don't seem any more expensive than pieces by other composers (piano music by Peter Maxwell Davies seems priced higher than Stockhausen, for example).

Some composers from the modernist school seem to be fading as time goes on--I mentioned Hindemith as one (of all his numerous pieces, the only one that seems to stick in the repertoire is his Mathis der Maler). Other composers have become much more liked since their death, like Shostakovich. Stockhausen is still a big question mark, I think. But some of those Klavierstücke are quite interesting...


Christopher Culver said...

It’s worth pointing out that the supposedly rich choice of Stockhausen music on Amazon is misleading: 1) many of those CDs have been released after his death, as labels are more willing to record his music now that the control freak is gone; 2) some of those CDs (namely the two Deutsche Grammophon box sets of days from LICHT and the ECM recording of Michaels Reise) date from before the composer’s founding of Stockhausen-Verlag as the main outlet for his music; 3) most of the non-Verlag CD recordings from the 1980s and 1990s are essentially wind-instrument bagatelles, not major works, and 4) As Amazon is a portal for third-party sellers of used recordings, a search will turn up vinyl recordings from Stockhausen's 1950-1970 tenure on Deutsche Grammophon.

Stockhausen really did succeed in plunging into oblivion the pre-LICHT recordings that were acclaimed as classics of mid-century modernism. when I discovered 20th-century music, I read constantly about Carré, Sternklang and Hymnen, but had no way to hear them unless I wanted to seek out expensive used vinyl.

Of course, now one can turn to classical music filesharing services to hear everything – and YouTube with its low-quality compressed-to-hell audio isn't even the ideal place. I know at least one Russian site that has Stockhausen-Verlag's entire output in FLAC with scans of the liner notes.

I’m curious why you are sceptical of his “works for multiple orchestras”? Gruppen these days gets programmed as a crowd-pleaser, with only the expense of many, many rehearsals giving music directors pause. When I hear Gruppen in Helsinki in 2008, there was a big crowd of old and young, classical music and pop music fans alike, and everyone walked out effusively professing their amazement at the sounds.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks Christopher for filling in so many details for us!

Re the pieces for multiple orchestras, that is probably just personal taste. But I do struggle with excess complexity. Mind you, if you read the article on Wikipedia about the Klavierstucke, you might start seeing everything he wrote as an example of excess complexity.

Unknown said...

I am the founder of the Stockhausen Society and on the website you can hear my melodic and rhythmic analysis with Stockhausen's vocal approval added on from the recording of my 5 hour session at his home.
This, in my opinion, is one way to introduce KS to a wider public [at least 100 people did not return for a second helping of Gruppen at South Bank in October, thanks to the most irrelevant and misleading pre-concert talk by a BBC presenter. Stockahausen's greatness is that he is the only composer I know (and I have tons of contemp composer recordings)who can make the music 'talk' to the listener. From Kontra-Punkte (a discussion group that is dominated and kicked out by and intruding piano that wants the hall for itself) the the 'conversation' between electronic sounds in Kontakte (tape only). I KNOW what they're talking about - I just can't translate adequately! The brass instruments in Momente are more explicit as they lecherously comment on the soloist. There is some also-ran music. Working on the piano pieces, I discovered that the four notes in bar 3 are also a staple, occurring in PP2 3 and 4.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ivor, thanks so much for your contribution. I see that the website of the Stockhausen Society has much to offer.

I think I know what you mean about the music talking to you. I have that sense with the music of Shostakovich from time to time. I recall quite vividly my discussion with Stockhausen when I met him in Salzburg in 1988. A very interesting man and composer.

Is there something missing from the end of your comment, as I can't make out your meaning there?

Unknown said...

Something went wrong. What I intended to say was that after 50 years of listening to PPS1-4, and with visitors who have come to Stock Soc, I have only recently been aware that the four short bass notes 'under' the first held chord of PP1, occur isolated in PP2 (so obvious that they were missed (:-), occur at the end of PP3 (in different order) and literally permeate PP4 - these four notes are everywhere until at the end in the highest register, they emphasise their existence. It may be argued that the shape changes by inversion, but I believe clever clogs KS knew what he was doing. The main structures of PP1 are seven held sustained chords of varying density and a three note motif which occurs throughout. There are more sign posts showing how to 'follow' PP1, than on any motorway(:-

Bryan Townsend said...

I am so far from being a scholar of Stockhausen's music that I am confused by the reference to PP1, etc. I assume that you are referring to the PianoPieces, usually known by their German title Klavierstücke?

Thanks for pointing out this thread connecting the pieces. I confess that I have never analyzed this music.