The cosmic legacy of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Bringing out the dead.
Dec. 21 2007 5:20 PM

Karlheinz Stockhausen

In every sense, the composer was on a different wavelength.

Karlheinz Stockhausen 
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Karlheinz Stockhausen

Around 1911, William S. Sadler, a Chicago physician whose hobby was debunking paranormal claims, found a case that perplexed even him. "This man is utterly unconscious, wholly oblivious to what takes place, and unless told about it subsequently, never knows that he has been used as a sort of clearing house for the coming and going of alleged extra-planetary personalities," Sadler wrote. Eventually, "this man" (quite possibly Sadler's brother-in-law Wilfrid C. Kellogg, of the cornflake family) became the conduit for 2,097 pages of quasi-Jungian Christian cosmology, purportedly communicated by extraterrestrial beings, and published in 1955 as The Urantia Book.

The 14th section of the book maps the hierarchical waystations of the ascending soul, from Urantia (the Earth) all the way up to Havona, the last, billion-world stop before Paradise. "Love of adventure, curiosity, and dread of monotony … were not put there just to aggravate and annoy you during your short sojourn on earth," it reads, "but rather to suggest to you that death is only the beginning of an endless career of adventure, an everlasting life of anticipation, an eternal voyage of discovery." On Dec. 5, the 216th anniversary of Mozart's death, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen began his endless career of adventure.

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Stockhausen borrowed from The Urantia Book in his last completed major work, the seven-opera cycle Licht, which occupied him from 1977 until 2002 (and remains only five-sevenths performed). The book was one of a long line of spiritual systems—Catholicism, Sufism, the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo—that Stockhausen embraced. But they were adjuncts to his true creed: Stockhausen was first and foremost a priest of sound, a clearinghouse for the coming and going of vibrations.

"We are all transistors in the literal sense," he proclaimed. Orphaned by the war—his mentally ill mother euthanized by the Nazis, his officer father killed near the conflict's end—he turned to the cosmos for guidance. "I closed my eyes and stood somewhere in the road or on the street—or, during the war, in a field where bombs were falling," he said, "and I wouldn't move until I heard a message." He came to consider himself an antenna for tuning in the music of the spheres.

Canadian pianist Glenn Gould included among his stable of satirical characters one Karlheinz Klopweisser: donning a long wig, brandishing an enormous electric wand, ruminating about the resonance of organic silence. It wasn't much of an exaggeration. The perception was that, as the summers of love faded, Stockhausen had lost his way, that the leading avant-garde composer of the 1950s and '60s—who gave electronic music a soul and made the arid calculations of serialism dazzlingly, confrontationally vivid—had gone off the psychedelic deep end. Once, prefacing some typically esoteric statement, Stockhausen himself inadvertently summed up critical opinion. "At this point, my argument is about to become metaphysical," he warned. "Most people have no intention of following me to this level."

But the metaphysics had been there from the outset. The landmark Gesange der Jünglinge, possibly the most epochal five-channel tape in musical history, grew out of a proposed Catholic mass for voices and electronic sounds, nixed by the Archbishop of Cologne on the now-quaint grounds that loudspeakers didn't belong in church. Gruppen, a three-conductor extravaganza that reinvented the orchestral showpiece with clangingly dissonant exhilaration (excerpt), included in its mathematical blueprint the contour of the Swiss Alps, as viewed from the room where Stockhausen composed: a communion with nature embedded in the code.

Stockhausen's relentless spiritual quest gave his works an exigent power, their arithmetic construction infused with cabalistic zeal. Completed in 1960, Kontakte (excerpt) especially in its incarnation for piano, percussion, and prerecorded sound, still stuns with its uncompromising fervor, its jagged utterances piling up with the lengthy, sustained intensity of a hellfire preacher. (Inori, a later piece for dancer and orchestra, cataloged worshipful postures from various cultures into a "chromatic scale of prayer gestures.")

A brief late-'60s flirtation with textual works—koanlike instructions for improvisation ("Play a vibration in the rhythm of your enlightenment")—had mixed results. In the aftermath of his second marriage, Stockhausen had a vision of a universe where the music he imagined would happen spontaneously; the problem was, nobody spontaneously imagined music quite the way Stockhausen did. Instead, beginning with the hypnotic Mantra (1970), Stockhausen took back control, with intuitively composed melodies becoming the recombinant seeds for a labyrinthine structure. The idea would fuel the rest of Stockhausen's output, including the cathedral of Licht: musical "formulas" schematically stretched across hours or compressed to a singularity. Alpha and omega.

The man Jonathan Cott once called "an agent provocateur for the divine" caused one last scandal after 9/11, when news reports quoted him calling the destruction of the World Trade Center "the biggest work of art there ever has been." Stockhausen protested, with justification, that his words had been taken out of context—but by that time, his context was so individual that almost anything would be. The evangelist had become an anchorite, publishing his own music, selling his own recordings, starting his own school, working primarily with a close group of companions and offspring. Interviewed by Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk (like the Beatles and Miles Davis, a fan), the guru shrugged: "I have concentrated on composition and I have missed almost everything that the world offers to me." In every sense, he was on a different wavelength.

Stockhausen's death rendered the musical world less outlandish and more reasonable—but also less ambitious and more boring. Detractors called him a charlatan. If so, Stockhausen—who, as a young man, spent a year as a touring accompanist for an illusionist—never undermined the act with so much as a wink. His fierce earnestness made even his most baffling manifestos hard to dismiss out of hand. He was, in the end, the leading character in his own fantastic fable: Baron Stockhausen, riding on cannonballs, floating to the moon, telling his epic, tall musical tales, which, for all their implausibility, just might be true. As of Dec. 5, concerts on the Havona worlds are a lot more interesting.

Matthew Guerrieri writes the classical music blog Soho the Dog and regularly contributes to the Boston Globe.

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