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OBITUARIES : Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1928 - 2007

Visionary composer had wide influence in postwar era

December 08, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Karlheinz Stockhausen, the great German composer who envisioned music as a force of cosmic revolution and who himself became a musical force of nature, having an unprecedented impact on both high and popular post-World War II culture, has died. He was 79.

Stockhausen died Wednesday at his home in Kurten, Germany, according to an announcement on his website. No cause of death was given.

At the height of his fame in the 1960s, his name became synonymous with the future of music. His experiments with the structure of sound and his innovations with electronics made him a pioneer of the musical avant-garde but also attracted the attention of the most venturesome jazz and pop groups. He helped inspire Miles Davis' most extreme musical experiments, and the Beatles included Stockhausen's photograph on the collage cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Although he never minded the attention, Stockhausen remained the epitome of the uncompromising artist. He was a prolific composer of 362 works. He wrote numerous texts explaining his often arcane theories. He taught courses about his music and encouraged acolytes. He demanded selfless devotion from his chosen performers, many of them members of his extended family. A true visionary, he never let expense or practical matters stand in his way. He cared little for worldly possessions and was photographed for decades wearing the same jacket.

Among his most important pieces was what has come to be considered the first classic electronic score, "Gesang der Junglinge" (Song of the Youths), which he described in 1955 as the birth of space music. Another classic, from 1958, is "Gruppen," which requires three orchestras and conductors. Once, when asked what he might suggest be programmed with the difficult score for a performance by student ensembles at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, Stockhausen replied that the evening should be "Gruppen," a lecture on "Gruppen" and then "Gruppen" again.

"He was the rock star of my youth," Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director, said Friday. "When I was a teenager, my classmates listened to rock and pop, but I got the same kind of kicks listening to Stockhausen."

In "Gesang," Stockhausen worked by splicing magnetic tape by hand. "The resulting richness of the sound," Salonen said, "is more expressive than a lot of computer-generated music despite today's far superior technology. It all boils down to somebody being a real composer."

But Salonen also says that he, like many of his generation of Stockhausen admirers, couldn't relate to the late works, especially "Licht" (Light). A cycle of seven long operas, one for each day of the week, "Licht" took Stockhausen 26 years to complete and is the most grandiose project in the history of a grandiose art form.

By the time he wrote "Sonntag" (Sunday) in 2003, Stockhausen had become a mystic. He was ridiculed for the prophetic cavorting of biblical characters and all manner of strange goings-on in the cycle. In "Freitag" (Friday), a typewriter copulates with a copying machine. In "Mittwoch" (Wednesday), four helicopters circle above the theater carrying members of a string quartet, their music piped back into the hall, mixed with the propeller noise.

Yet his music never lost its amazing power to draw a listener in and to sound completely fresh and original. Though an environmentally objectionable way to produce music, the Helicopter Quartet turned out to be a dazzling work.

And Stockhausen always managed to find new fans to take the place of the older ones he alienated. The bins of his exorbitantly priced, self-produced CDs at Amoeba Records in Hollywood are a small mecca for ultra-hip listeners. Bjork has repeatedly mentioned Stockhausen as an influence.

Karlheinz Stockhausen was born Aug. 22, 1928, in Modrath, near Cologne. By the age of 16, he was an orphan. His father, a Catholic schoolteacher who became a German army officer, never returned from World War II. His mother, who suffered from severe depression, was one of the first victims of Hitler's "euthanasia policy." Stockhausen's own wartime experience was as stretcher-bearer in a military hospital.

Although he said one effect the war had on him was a lifelong phobia about march rhythms, he did not begin his music career as a radical. In Cologne, he studied piano and music education, then philosophy and musicology, working his way through school playing piano for an operetta company and playing jazz in nightclubs.

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