Stockhausen Syndrome

by Brian Howe on March 24, 2011

Karlheinz Stockhausen (photo: Kathinka Pasveer)

Yesterday, Jayson Greene mentioned the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German composer who elaborated the systems of serial and aleatoric music, via matrices of electronic tone, toward their logical conclusions. On the scale of listener friendliness, he sometimes makes Milton Babbitt sound like MGMT, and can rankle even the most adventurous art lover with his formal astringency. In Donald Barthelme’s story “Flying to America,” a list of imagined tortures includes being “slid naked down a thousand-foot razor blade to the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen.” (If you’re feeling patient, check out his virtually unplayable Klavierstücken or the sine-wave odyssey Elektronische Musik Studie I.) In an interview quote that is often horridly taken out of context, he said that 9/11 was “the biggest work of art there has ever been.”

Marino Formenti (photo: Betty Freeman)

So it is with no small daring that Marino Formenti includes the music of Stockhausen in his Kurtag’s Ghosts at Duke this weekend. Stockhausen’s life and music are intermeshed with the other composers whose works are woven into Formenti’s palimpsest of admiration, innovation, and influence. But he is seldom considered to be of the same genus as Bartók or Messiaen, much less performed on the same program. In striving to restore balance to Stockhausen’s relationship to his peers, Kurtag’s Ghosts (inadvertently or otherwise) also sets itself up as a kind of dare, both for listeners who wouldn’t consider Stockhausen canon-worthy and for the pianist who has to make the case convincingly.

By now, Durham should be primed for such risky and argumentative ventures: This isn’t even the first time that Stockhausen has snuck into an ambitious Duke Performances presentation that was heavy on appropriation. In 2009, dP presented the world premiere of the new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound’s 1969, a genre-less multimedia event that dramatized an apocryphal meeting between Stockhausen and John Lennon. Alarm played instrumental arrangements of music by the Beatles, Stockhausen, and the radical Italian composer Luciano Berio. The premiere received a rave review in the CVNC, and 1969 has gone strong ever since, most recently earning praise in the New York Times for a staging at Zankel Hall.

Alarm Will Sound (photo: Justin Bernhaut)

1969 is a great example of a Duke Performances premiere that was difficult to frame for audiences beforehand, could have turned out to be a disaster, and went on to prove its mettle where it really matters—in the auditoriums. Formenti’s Kurtag’s Ghosts arrives with a more established pedigree and a more traditional structure, but the totemic presence of Stockhausen reminds us of this series’ dedication to telling the whole story of art, and not just the tidy parts. If you like challenging new music with a deep sense of history and only go to one piano recital this year, I’d bet on this one. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with this video of Stockhausen discussing the “humanity” of electronic music at Oxford in 1972.

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