Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1964
It was the standard photograph of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen for many years: hand resting on fist, intense eyes darting out beneath a furrowed brow, a row of electronic dials in the background. The dials were left out when The Beatles lifted Stockhausen's face from this photo and planted it in the back row of persons, between comics Lenny Bruce and W. C. Fields, on the front cover of their landmark LP Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Unlike Fields, Bruce or many of the faces that appear in that now famed, often parodied, gallery, Stockhausen's influence is present in the music on the album itself, specifically in the ascending orchestral figures that represent the two climaxes in the classic "A Day in the Life." By all accounts, this was Paul McCartney's idea; he interrupted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's recording session of the Busoni Piano Concerto in order to "conduct" the two needed segments by raising his hand from a low position to a specified highest pitch, agreed upon beforehand. It is a bit of cutting edge music that just about everyone has heard, and without Stockhausen's example to inspire it, probably would never have existed.

When word came from Kuerten-Kettenberg, the small town outside Cologne where Stockhausen had lived nearly four decades that the composer had died on Wednesday, December 5 at age 79 one almost expected to hear a thunderclap followed by a hellacious orchestral glissando and a team of archangels bearing him up to heaven. No such luck; as his website (https://www.stockhausen.org/) makes clear, Stockhausen fully expected to survive until his eightieth birthday, widespread observances of which were already in the pipeline. Now these observances will be memorials; judging from his gigantic output of 326 works, ranging from the tonal and cautiously exploratory Chöre für Doris (1950) to the elaborate Himmels Tür (Heaven's Door, fourth hour from "Klang," 2005) no two Stockhausen concerts will be quite the same, or even similar. Despite his wide variety of approach in a field where finding your voice and sticking to it often seems a pre-requisite for recognition, Karlheinz Stockhausen – as diverse, controversial and as radical a figure as he was to many in music – had an impact on the mid- and late twentieth that is simply intractable.

Since the late 1950s, when he became a figurehead of the post-war avant-garde through his prominence at the Darmstadt Summer Festivals, Stockhausen has represented Western music at its most formally organized, hyper-serial, experimental in style and at times, most chaotic. Both Stockhausen's music and his interviews show an extremely intelligent mind at work, not only pre-occupied with music but metaphysics, science at its most advanced and a highly inventive – even revolutionary – approach towards time and the relationship between thought perceived as organic matter and its theoretical connection to music. Stockhausen's music was never "approachable" or easy to understand; as he told Seconds magazine interviewer David Paul in 1997, "the music that is related to fashion, […] what a lot of producers can sell is one type of music [that] is adjusting itself to existing demands, taste, advertising, et cetera. Whereas the music that I am aiming at does not accept this kind of relationship between me and the people. Because I do what I hear inwardly, and what I find fascinating, and what I very often don't know about myself."
Peter Eotovs GruppenStockhausen: Grüppen for 3 orchestras

Stockhausen: Kontakte for piano, percussion & electronics

Stockhausen: Gesang der Jünglinge for electronics & taped Boy's voice

Stockhausen: Hymnen for electronic & concrete sounds


Nevertheless, Stockhausen's music held a wide appeal and found a worldwide audience; something about the stiff challenges it presents to the listener is an integral part of its appeal. Some of the best of his work in the 1950s and 60s – Grüppen (1958), Kontakte (1960), Gesang der Jünglinge (1956), Momente (1962-69) and Hymnen (1966), to mention a few, are long- acknowledged masterworks of the European avant-garde. While older composers began to work in electronic music as a kind of adjunct to systems already established for acoustic music, Stockhausen approached it as its own entity from the very beginning of his career – in 1952, with the Elektronischen Studien. The second of these was the first electronic work in Europe executed from a written score specifically devised for electronic music. In the 1950s, Stockhausen was the chief cook and bottle washer at the Electronic Music Studio at the WDR in Cologne, and by his own admission edited countless radio programs and works of other composers. From 1962, Stockhausen toured with a group of assistants that gave live performances of purely electronic compositions with equipment then practical; the true predecessor of the current-day industrial rock group. Krautrock would not have existed without Stockhausen – among his assistants in the 1960s were Conny Plank, Holger Czukay and Irwin Schmidt of Can; Ralf Hütter of Kraftwerk has also cited him as an influence. At public appearances late in life, Stockhausen was routinely mobbed by a coterie of young German musicians, most of them techno artists rather than conservatory students.

Stockhausen Electronic Works
Stockhausen: Studie II


Klaus Schulze, however, has denied any influence from Stockhausen, and it is clear that the high regard held for him in some circles is not unanimous in others. He was not particularly charitable to his collaborators -- Belgian composer Karel Goeyvaerts claimed he was Stockhausen's collaborator in the Elektronischen Studien, a credit never officially acknowledged. British composer Cornelius Cardew, who helped score Stockhausen's massive work for chorus and four orchestras, Carré (1961), later wrote a highly critical treatise entitled Stockhausen Serves Imperialism! (1970). Cardew also went a long way to introducing conceptualized music in England and laid the building blocks for British minimalism; if it hadn't been for his contact with Stockhausen, it is probably unlikely that he would have done so.


Stockhausen Kurzwellen LP Stockhausen KurzwellenStockhausen: Kurzwellen


His constantly questing nature led to results that, sometimes, did not turn out to even his satisfaction; Stockhausen admitted his tribute to Beethoven, Opus 1970, was an out-and-out failure and subsequently withdrawn from his catalogue. He also took control of his own destiny in terms of his music publications (in 1968) and later his recordings. The Stockhausen-Verlag CD editions number to more than 80 volumes, and while they are state of the art, some consumers complain they are too expensive and difficult to obtain. In 1977, Stockhausen – who had never written an opera -- announced that he was producing the largest opera ever conceived, Licht, a work named after the days of the week that would take nearly a week in itself to perform; Stockhausen expected that it would take 25 years, or roughly the rest of his life, to complete it. Many in classical music scoffed at such an imperious notion; certainly, this would join the ranks of such never finished works as Alexander Scriabin's Mysterium (1914) or Charles Ives' Universe Symphony (1911-54). That controversy was small beans compared to the furore that erupted in September 2001 when Stockhausen was asked for his views on the 9/11 attacks in New York City; "Characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of -- that people practice madly for ten years, completely fanatically for a concert, and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos." Anyone familiar with Stockhausen's highly individual views of the cosmic, its relationship to art and his preoccupation with religious symbiology would chalk this up to "Karlheinz just being Karlheinz." However, the outside world was outraged at the comment; his older contemporary György Ligeti went on the record to say, "Stockhausen has finally gone off the deep end." Stockhausen later denied making the statement and claimed he'd been misquoted by the press.


Stockhausen Helicopter Quartet Stockhausen: Helikopter Streichquartett


Nevertheless, Stockhausen was as good as his word; in 2004, just a couple of years behind his projected schedule of 25 years, Stockhausen put the finishing touches onto "Licht" – the premiere of the week-long work is scheduled for the Donaueschingen Festival of 2008. With every piece until the last, Stockhausen continued to push his own envelope, exceeding in extravagance and innovation what he had already done: take for example the Helikopter Streichquartett (1993), scored for the uniquely non-blending combination of string quartet and four helicopters. For a younger generation of composers who are largely in the process of rediscovering tradition, Stockhausen's achievements are perhaps harder to appreciate. However, in an earlier era prepossessed with scientific progress, not yet cynical about computers and intrigued with the promise of the electronic age, Stockhausen's attempts to break through even his own established norms represented the gold standard of what was mightiest, most consequential and serious in contemporary music.