What could Karlheinz Stockhausen have been thinking? A composer whose name was once synonymous with futuristic modern music and who influenced everyone from the wildest avant-gardists to the Beatles, the 73-year-old Stockhausen told reporters in Hamburg on Monday that he considered the flying of hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center to be "the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos."
Stockhausen made his remarks in an interview, recorded by NDR (North German Radio), preceding four concerts of his music that had been scheduled this week at a music festival in Hamburg. The concerts were instantly canceled, and the composer returned to his home outside of Cologne, reportedly deeply shaken by the controversy. He has now posted a response on his Web site insisting that he was quoted out of context.
Still, presenters and musicians everywhere are reconsidering the appropriateness of performing his music. The six-week Eclectic Orange Festival, which begins next week in Orange County, had planned a video installation documenting Stockhausen's "Helicopter Quartet," in which each member of the Arditti String Quartet performs his part in a different helicopter flying over a Dutch concert hall. And the pianist Marino Formenti had intended to include several Stockhausen piano pieces in his Oct. 5 recital for the festival. A spokesperson says that the video isn't finished and was in the process of being canceled anyway, and she expects that there will be discussions about Formenti's program when he arrives next week.
Among the Stockhausen remarks that have generated the greatest concern was a reference to the terrorist attack as having achieved "something in an act that we couldn't even dream of in music." He went on to describe the attack as if it were a concert for which devoted performers had rehearsed for years and were willing to give their lives. "You have people who are that concentrated on a performance and then 5,000 people are released into the afterlife in a single moment," he said. "I couldn't do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing."
When asked whether he equated art with crime, Stockhausen replied, "It's a crime because the people didn't consent. They didn't come to the 'concert.' That is obvious. And no one announced to them, 'You could die."'
On his Web site, Stockhausen writes that he is as "dismayed as everyone else about the attacks on America," and that his remarks were allegorical. The composer, who has become increasingly mysterious over the years, has been at work since 1977 on a cycle of seven operas, called "Light," meant to prove that the biblical characters of the Archangel Michael, Eve and Lucifer are what he has called "the triple manifestation of the spirit materialized in the interpreters."
Lucifer represents the spirit of destruction, and on the Web site Stockhausen claims that the terrorist attack is a vivid manifestation that Lucifer really does exist. "The whole planning," Stockhausen insists he said in Hamburg, "looked like the greatest piece of art of Lucifer."
Skeptics who wondered whether Stockhausen hadn't already lost touch with reality as he developed his epic vision of "Light," which will require seven nights to perform when finished, have been especially quick to condemn him now.
The composer Gyorgy Ligeti told the Berlin newspaper Tagesspeigel that if Stockhausen interprets mass murder as an artwork, "he belongs confined to a psychiatric clinic." The pianist Majella Stockhausen, the composer's estranged daughter, said that she will no longer perform under the name Stockhausen.
Just how seriously this will affect Stockhausen's career remains to be seen. His work has become so esoteric in recent years that he is not nearly as well known today as he was in the 1950s and '60s. Yet the nearly completed "Light"--five of the operas have been staged--is one of the most ambitious and astonishing creations of art ever undertaken, and Stockhausen has developed an advanced musical language so extraordinary that it may take at least another generation or two to fully comprehend it. Stockhausen always had a touch of the monomaniacal about him, and losing touch with reality may be the price he has paid to devote himself to these sonic worlds he has conceived.
But will anyone ever again take him seriously again? As the debate rages about exactly what he meant, it may be worth pointing out that for all the mystical obfuscation, unappealing self-glorification and Wagnerian posturing that is typical of Stockhausen's extensive and sometimes nearly unreadable writings, there is nothing that faintly suggests the kind of monstrous attitudes that it is so easy to read into the published transcripts of his remarks.
On the other hand, Stockhausen is the epitome of the egocentric intolerant artist on a spiritual mission. He surrounds himself with acolytes and he has spent nearly half of his creative life on an art project that he fully expects will be a uniquely transcendent event. Art was never easy for Stockhausen, and it has just gotten a whole lot harder.