Music since 1960: Stockhausen: Hymnen

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me.

Index here.

Stockhausen had to be in here really, although it was tricky at first to choose a piece of his music post-1960: the music of his that I most enjoy (Kreuzspiel, Gruppen) dates from the 1950s, making it practically antique. But actually, although Stockhausen’s place in the 20th-century canon was secured with early works, he has become a more and more intriguing figure later in his career. Kreuzspiel, for example, is remarkable as one of a handful of genuine works of integral serialism, and possibly the only one that occupies a listener-friendly soundworld (twelve-note bongos are surprising effective). However, it also reveals a profound limitation of pure integral serial composition: once you’ve sussed the patterns (and they are easily discernible here – just count the number of bongo beats to get one of the 12-number series) there’s not much else to hold your attention. Gruppen, on the other hand, helped signal the way to the later Stockhausen: the megalomaniac, Dada-Wagnerian loony. This Stockhausen is fun, and funny, and his music is unfeasible, grandiose and grotesque. This Stockhausen no longer tilts at windmills, he drives crash test vehicles into them. Integral serialism, for all the composers involved in its development (see also Boulez, Barraqué, Nono, Babbitt) was a dead end to a short street, and each found his own way out. Stockhausen’s masterstroke was to pursue the (pseudo)-scientism that got him into integral serialism beyond the point of absurdity. Not satisfied with applying serial methodology to the parameters of pitch, duration, dynamic and attack, in Gruppen Stockhausen devises a method (drawn from his discovery that when you slow a tape down enough, it becomes just a series of slow clicks) of tying pitch, rhythm, tempo and form to one giant series of durations. From his experiments with tape, he reasoned that rhythm and pitch were aspects of the same phenomenon: in fact, a complete musical work – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is his example – can be expressed as a single rhythmic pulse if played at a fast enough speed. It’s all a question of telescoping in or out. Now, articles have been written pointing out that when it came to acoustics, maths and science in general, Stockhausen didn’t know his partial from his elbow but I think this is missing the point. What is really interesting about him from this point on is his single-minded determination in the face of everything. He is, to this day, fond of complaining that Gruppen has never yet been given a decent performance because no one will build him the concert hall to accommodate three orchestras in surround sound. And he got into the position of writing such a piece because he devised some hokey ideas about time perception and acoustic theory and followed them through to their illogical end. While an obvious inheritor, and inflator of the Wagnerian tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), in this doggedness ad absurdum Stockhausen also shares surprising ground with Cage (who when Schoenberg told him that without a feel for harmony he would end up banging his head against a wall replied “Then I’ll devote my life to banging my head against that wall”) and LaMonte Young, the score for whose Piano Piece for Terry Riley #1 reads

“Push the piano up to a wall and put the flat side flush against it. Then continue pushing into the wall. Push as hard as you can. If the piano goes through the wall, keep pushing in the same direction regardless of new obstacles and continue to push as hard as you can whether the piano is stopped against an obstacle or moving. The piece is over when you are too exhausted to push any longer.”*

There’s a sense that Stockhausen is a clown, after Beckett or Satie, brazenly throwing juggling balls into the chasm of modernity. What you get is music that is equally endearing and frustrating, but my experience of Hymnen (an expensive recording from Stockhausen’s own publishing company is available here as CD10) is very much of the latter.

This is another piece (like so many, it seems), that I heard live at the Barbican, as part of a series of Stockhausen’s electronic works, and some of the composers who have been inspired by him. As he is wont to do on these occasions, Stockhausen came onto the stage before the performance (which actually amounted to some moody, static lighting on stage, and the playing of a tape) to explain his motives for writing the piece. As was typical of his work by this stage, it was an attempt to employ loose compositional theory in the service of a philosophy it transparently could not support – in this case the unification of the world in a collage work made from samples of the world’s national anthems, brought together at the end in a Stockhausen-composed ‘world anthem’, at which point peace will spontanenously break out across the earth, or something.

Stockhausen’s decision to talk about his very dated notions of world unity, before showing his 2-hour electronic thesis on the subject, was very interesting. Because this performance was on 15th October 2001, a month after the World Trade Center attacks, and a month after the low point in Stockhausen’s diplomatic career as he described the attacks as “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” In the light of these comments the Barbican had had to defend their decision to go ahead with the scheduled performances of his music, and the audience’s breath was well bated as the composer spoke. What was curious was that while the little speech he gave need not have made any reference to recent events, it was so out of time that it could have been given at any point in the last 40 years. Stockhausen seemed unflapped, and while the entire Western world was still shaken to its core, he seemed utterly convinced in the continuing validity of his artistic vision for Hymnen.

This did much to shape my (over-egged) impressions of the piece, written in the interval, and which I reproduce here:

“What an utterly brutal and ugly work. There’s no doubting its strength as a piece of electronic innovation – large parts of it don’t sound dated, even 35 years on – but although the sentiments of international unity which lie behind its composition are admirable, the result is an utter failure. The stomping dominance of Stockhausen’s electronic sounds leave muddy handprints over the iconography of nations.

It is an almost joyless piece, the only pleasures found are the masturbatory excesses of Stockhausen’s knob-twiddling. [ahem] It is telling that other than the shattered remnants of the anthems themselves, and Stockhausen’s electronic dominance over them, the only other passage of any length is a recording of him issuing instructions to his Tonmeister (who goes uncredited in S’s introduction to the piece). The result is warlike (and confrontational), with spattering gunfire tearing the fabric of nation. The ‘unity’ we are presented is of a single ego compressing everything to a base level.”

While context had a lot to do with this reading of the piece, it remains a historical curiosity, tied as it is to such a utopian agenda. But this, for me, does not necessarily devalue the work as it stands – like other works of Stockhausen it is the collision of ambition and technique, and the wreckage that is left, that is interesting. The dogged egomania of a man who refuses to let the real world of physics, and acoustics, and financial reality, and current events get in his way. On the occasion of this particular performance of Hymnen this was encapsulated in what I treasure as a quintessential Stockhausen moment. After doing his little turn on stage – in regulation white shirt and trousers and orange cardigan – the maestro returned grandly to his mixing desk at the back of the hall, ready to initiate his grand vision. He presses play, there are some characteristic electronic bleeps, then a clunk of tape mechanism, some muttering in German, and silence. There is no explanation – surely he didn’t false start his own piece, after the build he’d just given it? – but the tape is rewound, and after a pause we’re off again, this time for real. For all the grand talk, the exuberant technique, the banging of heads against the wall, it all came down to a question of levels and balance: the real world did have its way after all.

*I believe Cage himself gave a performance of this piece once and, following the score to the letter pushed the piano against a wall until he passed out.

4 thoughts on “Music since 1960: Stockhausen: Hymnen

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