Stockhausen and Carter my (old) heroes

July 29, 2007

Richard Lewis concludes his extensive analysis of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Klavierstuck I:”

An aesthetic of randomness is what governs almost all the compositional decisions made in this piece. The composer has chosen his pitches using a system of hexachords and distributed them in far apart octaves in order that they may sound random. He has disposed dynamic markings throughout the piece at points where they best break up any sense of flow or continuity in order that they may sound random. Most of his rhythmic figures are such that no sense of pulse can be derived from them; they are calculated in order that they may sound random. Every detail of the score is in place in order that the music may sound random. The only sensation of order in the piece comes from the discontinuities in flow caused by the chord bars detailed above.

This is not random composition, it is carefully calculated composition which, through its erratic sound world, is intended to give the impression of a randomly derived piece.

Got that? So I guess it’s akin to Lewis Carroll’s quandry:

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

From 1973 until about 1976, my composer hero was Karlheinz Stockhausen. I wanted to study with him with the same spirit as I wanted to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1971. I remember trying to analyze various of pieces. “Zeitmasse” was especially kinky for me. I couldn’t figure out what in the hell was going on, but I tried to imitate in in my own “Windquill.” While I was a Stockhausenist, major chords were the great Satan. Aaron Copland was hopelessly old fashioned. The only important composers were usually the rib of Messiaen group (Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, Berio, Ligeti, Maderna et al) and Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and Gunther Schuller. My other heroes included Harbison, Chihara, Takemitsu, Crumb, Rochberg, Perle, Druckman and more.

I composed my CHAMBER CONCERTO wanting to be like Elliott Carter, and I made it so hard that I’m afraid I qualified for Joachim’s critique of Brahms’ Violin Concerto that is was written AGAINST the instruments instead of FOR the instruments. What was interesting, was that I ended on a major chord at the end. I was trying to come out as a tonal composer, but only after subjecting the audience and performers to twenty five minutes of graduate composerly neurosis. I had just moved to Boston and I had to show everyone how tough I was (as a composer). By the end of the year, I got over him. Leon Kirchner criticized me for writing “that tonal stuff” [SWEET ALCHEMY]. By 1980 I was out of the closet as a tonal composer as well as a gay man. Whew!

This memory was evoked when I accidentally stumbled into a 38″ clip of Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet where each member is in his own helicopter. I don’t know much about the structure of the piece, but my old time affection for that eccentric man got piqued again.

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