Saturday, December 08, 2007

RIP Karlheinz Stockhausen 1928-2007

KARLHEINZ STOCKHAUSEN DIED a few days ago, December 5; a memorial booklet on his website includes the composer's own summary of his life:
“Mein Leben ist extrem einseitig: die Werke als Partituren, Schallplatten, Filme, Bücher zählen. Das ist mein in Musik geformter Geist und ein Universum von Momenten meiner Seele in Klang.”

“My life is extremely one-sided: what counts are the works as scores, recordings, films, and books. That is my spirit formed into music and a sonic universe of moments of my soul.”
(K. Stockhausen 25. Sept. 2007)

I MET STOCKHAUSEN in 1964, when I caught a ride with my younger brother Jim out to Buffalo, New York, to hear the American premiere of his Momente. As I wrote in my memoir, Getting There:
we got somehow to Buffalo, New York, arriving at six o’clock or so in the morning of a bitterly cold day. We killed a couple of hours in an earlymorning coffee joint, where I first heard The Beatles on the juke box; and then we somehow got over to the university campus, where accommodations had been arranged for us, for I had asked the music director of KPFA if I might prepare a report on this event, and he had arranged some kind of housing, as well as other press courtesies. We visited the university art museum, with its imposing collection of Paul Klees; and we met Stockhausen, and attended the rehearsals and, finally, the premiere of his Momente, a piece whose fascinating sounds and carefully constructed architecture spoke volumes to me.
The event was immensely important to me, for on my return to Berkeley
I worked on my report of the Stockhausen premiere. This turned out to be my first attempt to communicate with a public: I wasn’t writing a paper for an English teacher, but a journalistic report — not a “review” — of a seri-ous event, new and complex enough to require a certain amount of explanation beyond the simple where-and-when. I’d taken careful notes on the Momente premiere and on returning to Berkeley I lost little time making my radio report.

I’m not sure how I knew how to do this: probably simply by having heard so much radio reportage of such events before, on KPFA broadcasts. In any case I typed up a script, reporting on the workshops and rehearsals I’d witnessed; and then reporting on the piece as I’d actually heard it: how it evolved in its setting, on the stage facing its audience, the percussion and keyboards at the front of the stage along with the brilliant and dramatic soprano soloist (Martina Arroyo), the chorus standing in a semicircle behind the instruments.

The audience politely applauded when the composer walked out from the wings to begin conducting the piece, and he acknowledged the applause, and turned to his musicians, and suddenly they in turn began to applaud the audience, and the piece had begun. I described the sounds that followed, and how they were made and how they related to one another. I had the tape recording of the Cologne performance of the same piece, and no doubt quite illegally I spliced appropriate excerpts of it into the recording I narrated of my review; and at the end of the “documentary” report of the Buffalo performance we broadcast the Cologne performance in its entirety.

The result was, I see clearly now, a combination of didactics and criticism , music appreciation and journalistic report; and it set a pattern I would follow in a number of radio programs at KPFA and television programs at KQED. I suppose it reflected the two aptitudes I’d shown so many years earlier, when the test results suggested any career for me would lie in teaching or, perhaps, preaching. It was the first serious such work I had done, and left me both a little exhilarated and a little ashamed of my own audacity.
I met Stockhausen next in 1966 or thereabouts, when he was a visiting professor at the University of California at Davis. He was living with his companion the artist Mary Bauermeister on a houseboat in Sausalito at the time, and Jonathan Cott and I visited him there to record an interview for the radio station KPFA at which I was then working as Music Director.

An immediate sympathy and reciprocal interest sprang up among us, and we had a long visit full of interaction and mutual understanding. On returning to the radio station, though, Jon and I found our tape was virtually blank: none of us had said much of anything. Almost all our communication had been unspoken.

I was busy then; he was certainly busy then. Mary was painting large circular calligraphic paintings, black signs on white gesso background; Stockhausen was working, as it turned out later, on his revolutionary vocal-ensemble piece Stimmung (“Tuning”) and the “conceptual” album of notations Aus den sieben Tagen (“From the seven days”: one of which had a curious resonance with my own first long orchestral piece, Nightmusic). But we had time to visit two or three times. Once Lindsey and I went out with Stockhausen and Mary, bar-hopping in San Francisco, and ultimately visiting Bill Graham at the Fillmore Auditorium, where I introduced them and watched an improbable attempt by Stockhausen to convince Graham that they should collaborate. Another time Lindsey, Jon and I drove over to Sausalito to attend a costume party Stockhausen was giving: we were all to dress as people would in the 25th century: he and Mary were clad, simply, in white toga-like gowns, while the guests were mostly in the psychedelic style.

I don’t know what kind of reception Stockhausen had in Davis; I never traveled up there to find out. In San Francisco, though, to say nothing of Berkeley, he had little presence. Gerhard Samuel bravely conducted the early orchestral piece Gruppen on an Oakland Symphony program — those were the days! — and the performance seemed persuasive to me, complex but clear and balanced; but the subscription audience did not like it. The San Francisco Symphony nodded toward Stockhausen by including a German documentary film about the Cologne premiere of Momente on a “festival” of contemporary music; the chief critic of the leading San Francisco newspaper denounced the composer as a fraud.

Stockhausen and I hit it off for some reason, and in his last weeks in the Bay Area he asked me if I’d like to accompany him back to Germany to work as his assistant. I pointed out that I didn’t know German. No problem, he said; I’d learn, and anyway I wouldn’t be there to do a lot of talking. But I was timid; we had small children; it seemed a risky business; and I declined.

I didn’t see Stockhausen again for a number of years, until some time in the late 1970s or possibly the ’80s. We were in Amsterdam for the summer festival, and he was conducting Thursday, one of the operas in the seven-day cycle Licht, at the Concertgebouw. We dropped in at the final rehearsal, to find him sweating over a complicated mixer-console in the middle of the hall; and then we attended the performance, which seemed to go well enough (and, again, annoyed its audience). Afterward we went backstage where we met for the first time in a number of years. He smiled at us and greeted us by name, an amazing feat, I thought, and a touching one. We talked about San Francisco and Jon Cott, and then it was someone else’s turn.

That was the last time I saw Stockhausen. In 1991 I reviewed a few books that had come out on him and his music: I will put it on my website if and when permission is granted, and announce it here. (In the meantime, limited access to the review can be had here .)

I liked Stockhausen. I admired and respected his early music, above all Kontra-punkte, Refrain, Zeitmasse, Momente, and Stimmung; I’m ashamed that I don’t know Gruppen and Carré well enough to know how I like them, and the later pieces seemed to me to go too far into a spacey realm for me to be able to follow. It’s probably as well I didn’t go to Germany with him. But he was a lovely man, kind and good-humored and hard-working, at least in my experience of him, and I’m sorry that he’s gone — like John Cage, gone just a little before his eightieth birthday, as if to elude those celebrations that always seem a little obliging, a little reluctant.


Tom Myron said...

Thanks so much for that evocative remembrance. I really enjoyed reading it.

Adam Frey said...

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players will perform Stockhausen's "Kontakte" for piano, percussion, and electronics on Monday, March 17, 2008 at Yerba Buena. Stockhausen's own sound engineer is coming from Germany to participate.