[JPL] From Miles Davis to Bjork, They've Loved Stockhausen

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December 19, 2007

>From Miles Davis to Bjork,
They've Loved Stockhausen
December 19, 2007; Page D9
Here's a paradox. A classical composer dies, and very likely he's mourned
with more genuine distress among pop and jazz musicians -- or at least among
some of them -- than he is in the classical-music world.

That composer was Karlheinz Stockhausen, a German who died at age 79 on Dec.
5. And certainly he was one of the most surprising, even provocative figures
to emerge in classical music during the past 60 years. He started as a
radical modernist, one of the composers who emerged in Europe in the years
after World War II and tried to compose as if no music had ever been written

In those years, the 1950s, he and Pierre Boulez looked like the joint
leaders of the European musical avant-garde, and, not surprisingly -- if
they wanted to do something never heard before -- to the world at large
their work seemed inexplicable. It seemed locked into mathematics and
abstract forms. Though when you look at some of the statements Stockhausen
made at the time, he seems almost delirious, talking about an ecstatic
musical universe that forever expands. He wanted music to proceed in
measureless moments, each without any past, or any future. And he worked not
just with musicians but with electronic sound, creating in 1956 a piece
called "Gesang der Jünglinge" ("Song of the Youth"), which probably did more
than any other work to establish electronics as a legitimate artistic
medium. It's also a gorgeous piece, with the recorded sound of a boy soprano
expanded -- without emotion -- into a ravishing choir.

And then came the '60s. Classical music, on the whole, bypassed what
happened back then -- orchestras didn't drape themselves with flowers,
composers didn't turn into hippies. Except Stockhausen! While Mr. Boulez,
his former colleague, turned respectable, becoming a world-famous conductor,
Stockhausen composed a piece called "Stimmung" ("Sounding") for six singers
who sit for an hour chanting a single chord. And, even further into what now
looks much like hippie terrain, he wrote a set of pieces called "Aus den
sieben Tagen" ("From the Seven Days") in which musicians improvise music
based on verbal instructions, most of them mystical: "Play a vibration in
the rhythm of the universe."

Toward the end of the '60s, Stockhausen toured the world with a small
ensemble, eventually playing every day at the 1970 World's Fair in Osaka,
Japan. He'd become a kind of superstar -- tall (he was 6-foot-6), magnetic,
inspirational. Every note he composed was recorded by the German classical
record label Deutsche Grammophon; there were even two LPs of Stockhausen's
greatest hits.

It was at that time that jazz and pop stars began listening to him. The
Beatles, for instance -- Stockhausen is one of the many iconic people on the
cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (he's in the last row, just
behind W.C. Fields), and his huge electronic piece "Hymnen" ("Anthems") was
the inspiration for "Revolution No. 9" on the White Album.

And then there was Miles Davis, who first heard Stockhausen in the '60s and
never stopped talking about him. Once, on tour in Germany, he told his
audience to give up on Beethoven: "You've got Stockhausen now." Stockhausen,
along with James Brown, was a major influence on a dizzying Miles Davis
album, "On the Corner," released in 1972. (Funk and the classical
avant-garde, together at last!) Davis and Stockhausen met; they even
recorded together, though the results have never been released.

Frank Zappa loved Stockhausen. So does Bjork. And so do many jazz musicians
and many creators of the latest, strangest, most radical electronic dance

But in the classical world, Stockhausen -- though a major figure in music
history books -- seemed half-forgotten when he died. That's partly his own
fault. His mysticism took him over; he said he'd contacted beings from
another star and in effect had channeled their music. Late in the '70s he
embarked on a huge cycle of operas, seven of them, 29 hours of music in all.
And though some were produced, the project as a whole seemed too much for
the classical world to swallow, especially when one of the works called for
a string quartet in which each instrumentalist is suspended in the air from
a helicopter.

Stockhausen also withdrew his CDs from Deutsche Grammophon and made them
available only from him, at exalted prices, with no chance even to buy them
online. You had to send him a check in Germany. That just about removed his
music from circulation, though there's a healthy trade in his old LPs on

Thus the paradox. When a meditative, nourishing new CD of "Stimmung" emerged
this year, it took me back to the '60s and I happily reviewed it -- right
here in these pages. Most of my classical-music friends had barely even
heard of the piece. But with a young jazz musician I happened to meet, I
could have discussed it for hours.

Mr. Sandow is a composer, critic and consultant who's writing a book on the
future of classical music.

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