Peter Reavy

Karlheinz Stockhausen: “an electronic wail descends into the depths and turns magically into a series of pulses”

Posted in music by Peter Reavy on December 11, 2007

On Friday evening, I was sad to hear of the death of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

I was led to Stockhausen’s music by following back through the influence of bands I was listening to at the time. The Fall led me back to Can, a couple of members of which had studied with the great man.

Stockhausen not only fundamentally challenged my idea of music, but in seeking to understand him I was led back in turn to Webern, Schoenberg and their classical predecessors.

I consider myself very fortunate to have attended a weekend of concerts in Belfast, back in April 2004. Stockhausen visited the city to oversee and introduce these. (He was also honoured by Queen’s University.)

I was able to sit quite near the mixing desk where Stockhausen operated the controls each evening. I don’t expect ever to be in such close proximity to a major composer again.

I acknowledge that there was something of the showman about Stockhausen and that he was eccentric to say the least. But for me his work Kontakte has a quality of total reinvention which music hasn’t had since JS Bach.

Ivan Hewett catches this in his obituary when he writes:

What he has in abundance is the ability to focus a long and apparently rambling argument in a sudden, blazingly dramatic gesture. Stockhausen’s music contains some of the great, defining aural images of 20th-century music, on a par with the flute that opens Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un Faune or the upward swoop that ends Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Take for example the closing pages of Gruppen, where apocalyptic brass chords are teased from one orchestra to another over the listener’s head; or the moment in Kontakte where an electronic wail descends into the depths and turns magically into a series of pulses.

Stockhausen explained such effects. He said he had discovered that according to the laws of physics, pitch and rhythm were not separate aspects of music as we had once thought, but part of the same phenomenon. Slow a pitch down and it becomes a rhythm. Grappling with the laws of sound in such a fundamental way to create a new form of beauty: this can only remind us of Bach’s mastery of equal temperament.

I would like to repost links to notes on these concerts I attended in 2004, which I made on a blog I had at the time:

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