Modern music: Stockhausen

Stockhausen is arguably the central figure of modernist and postmodernist composition in the latter third of the 20th century. His stature is further consummated almost every year, and so the syntheses he has achieved necessitate more detailed remarks. The following paragraphs will be a quick beginning.

Among the trends and ideas with which Stockhausen has been associated are total serialism (in the wake of his study with Messiaen), electronic composition, chance composition, free-form notation, exploring the continuous relationship between timbre & pitch & rhythm, world music, positioning sounds in space... in short, essentially all of the issues which have entered Western classical composition in the later 20th century. Electronic tapes are central to Stockhausen, but rarely in a dominant fashion. In other words, many pieces contain them, but often as accompaniment to live performance or as elements of staging; tape has also been a proving ground for Stockhausen's experiments with the vibrations "between" timbre, pitch & rhythm. However, it is an ultimate reliance on the human element which is crucial to my own appreciation.

Perhaps not surprising considering all of the technical concerns entering his music, Stockhausen rarely concentrates on only one or two elements. His compositions can end up being a mish-mash of different facets, with not even the basis for the music being particularly clear. More often than not, the music revolves around some core serial complex, together with flexible human elements and some exploration of unusual sonorities. Stockhausen frequently strives to produce something no one has heard before, and manages many new sonorities often in conjuction with world or "cosmic" music, although the underlying serialism (which has its own characteristic "sound" to me) is frequently evident. That things are rarely in distilled form can make appreciating Stockhausen's music, with all of its newness, difficult.

Two compositions which illustrate his ideas as clearly as any, and for relatively small forces, are Kontakte (1958/60) and Mantra (1970). Stockhausen, in keeping with a personality sometimes described as egomaniac, issues his own recordings of all of his music. The two for these works:

Stockhausen: Zyklus / Refrain / Kontakte
Mircea Ardeleanu, Bernhard Wambach et al.
Koch Swann 310020
Stockhausen Verlag 6
Stockhausen: Mantra
Alfons & Aloys Kontarsky
Deutsche Grammophon 2530 208 (LP)
Stockhausen Verlag 16

Each work also has other commercial recordings, both on the Wergo label, as well as on the Music & Arts and New Albion labels, respectively.

It is in Kontakte that Stockhausen decisively unites timbre, pitch & rhythm into a continuum (the piece has both an all-electronic version and one with human players), and in Mantra gives his ideas perhaps their clearest summation with a series of far-ranging variations on a serial complex.

Since 1977, Stockhausen has been occupied writing a massive series of seven operas on the seven days of the week, entitled Licht. This is clearly the ultimate expression of his ideas, uniting as it does all of his concerns into a massive staged production. The first "day" to be completed was Thursday (1980), and so it can be viewed as perhaps the first real summation of Stockhausen's ideas & innovations. The Stockhausen-approved recording:

Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht
Soli, Ensembles, Chori - Peter Eötvös & Karlheinz Stockhausen
Stockhausen Verlag 30 (4 CDs)

Most of the series, although by no means all, was complete as of this writing, and the entire thing is supposed to be done around 2005. The idea of performing it all in order, on seven consecutive days is certainly a tantalizing one, but also a logistical nightmare. The individual scenes themselves are often fiendishly complex, and the staging requirements are lavish.

To Stockhausen's own web site.

Back to Modern music page.

Todd M. McComb
10 November 1999