This article appears on "Comment is Free".
The Marxist critic Theodor Adorno wrote towards the end of his life of the serialist movement in modern music, whose most advanced practitioners were Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Adorno was averse to the risks in the "progressive rationalisation" of music, and gave this cautionary tale (it is in his Essays on Music, 2002, p. 657):
I recall a young composer who brought me a composition in Darmstadt, perhaps as much as 14 years ago [around 1950], that appeared to me as the craziest gibberish. You couldn't make out any up and down, front and back, logic and setting - no articulation at all of the phenomenon that you could grasp ... He had truly, as Philistine enemies envision it, reduced the whole thing to a mathematical example, which may even have been correct - it was too boring for me to figure it out - but which absolutely no longer translated into any recognisable and compelling musical context.
That, I fear, is my own reaction to the music of Stockhausen, who died last week. His was not a movement but a cultural moment. What Stockhausen bequeaths to modern music comprises largely misconceived ideas and sounds of surpassing ugliness. Had he been born a generation earlier, he might have been no more significant than George Antheil, the so-called "bad boy of music", who is now remembered only for his risible Ballet Mécanique- for piano, percussion, siren and aeroplane propeller.
Yet Stockhausen came of age immediately after the second world war. From the ruins of a barbarous regime that had reviled "degenerate art", Germans built a constitutional democracy that exemplified tolerance and respected the creative imagination. It was a receptive audience for experimental music, and for the ideas that Stockhausen advanced through the periodical he edited, Die Reihe (The Row).
Stockhausen began his career in the early 1950s with compositions for conventional instruments (such as Kreuzspiel, for oboe, bass clarinet, piano and percussion; and a series of piano pieces). He moved on to electronic music, notably with his Gesang der Jünglinge, for voice and electronic sound, the score of which - being written with geometrical figures - was incomprehensible to those trained merely in musical notation. Yet the problem was not the type of sounds produced by the avant garde; it was rather the type of composition.
An impressionable writer in the Daily Telegraph last week quoted one of Stockhausen's acolytes: "Stockhausen gave us the courage to think anything was possible in music." But not everything is possible in music, any more than it is in poetry. If you read a poem you need, at a minimum, to be able to understand the language in which it is written, the conventions of the genre and the tradition of the art form. Musical appreciation does not depend on the ability to read a score, but it does require the ability to hear sounds in relation to those that precede them.
The dominance of western music reflects its ability to combine melody and harmony, and thereby produce a discourse. A musical composition is above all an argument that appeals to the emotions. The work of Stockhausen is not like that. It is not music so much as a series of sonic events, which at its worst feels both pretentiously mystical and interminable (though his opera cycle Licht in fact lasts only for 30 hours). It evinces - in the phrase of the critic Robin Holloway - "neo-Wagnerian ambitions unmatched by the necessary talent."
More than most cultural figures, Stockhausen attracted his share of adulators and emulators. The experience was not always happy. The British composer and devoted Maoist Cornelius Cardew worked as an assistant to Stockhausen in the 1960s before dramatically breaking with the master and publishing a stirring volume entitled Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (pdf). From my experience of Comment is free, there is a widespread assumption here that imperialism is a term best used to describe the overthrow of oppressive regimes by British and American forces. That is odd, but there it is. (The defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan was, remarked Christopher Hitchens aptly, a case of bombing a country back out of the stone age.)
Given this presumption, I fear that Cardew's accusation was mistaken. Stockhausen's most notable intervention in the public sphere was instead a peculiarly fatuous description of the 9/11 bombings as "the greatest work of art ever". (Stockhausen claimed, not convincingly, to have been misquoted, but there is no dispute that he likened the murder of thousands of civilians by theocratic fanatics to an intense aesthetic experience.)
Artistic values are independent of political ones. But the sounds that came from Stockhausen's electronic workshop are liable to prove as enduring and profound as their creator's most notorious pronouncement on public affairs.
UPDATE: Against my expectation and experience, there is a splendid contribution posted in the comments thread underneath the article that is well worth quoting in full:
When I was a student at the Royal College of Music in London, one of the professors strongly held the opinion that no potential professional musician should go through college without having played some "modern" (i.e. unpleasant-sounding) music. Like the music or loathe it, I think he had a good general point, in that musicians owe it to the composer to give a new piece the best possible performance, and to be appropriately trained to do so.
Anyway, one term, he managed to arrange for the college symphony orchestra to play Stockhausen's Carre. This was a square piece, for 4 orchestras positioned in the 4 corners of the hall. The conductors stood in the corners facing inwards so they could see each other and coordinate the beat, and the orchestras faced outwards each towards their own conductor, with the audience in the middle. Each orchestra was a couple of desks of each of the strings, a varied selection of woodwind & brass, an 8-voice chamber choir, and pretty much a full symphonic percussion section. Maybe a keyboard or two thrown in for good & useless measure.
The piece hadn't been performed in London for 35 years. We soon discovered why. I can honestly say that this is the only piece I have ever played where for the entire duration of the music I couldn't actually tell whether I was playing the right notes or not. The singers had tuning forks more or less permanently to their ears to try and help them pitch their notes. There were really no cues you could take from the players around you.
The students rapidly took a fairly lighthearted approach to rehearsals, to the annoyance of the professors. There was a harpsichord player in the 4th orchestra, who rapidly cottoned on to the fact that nobody could hear her over the percussion, and practised Bach and Handel throughout the rehearsals.
We all assumed that nobody would want to come & hear this junk, even though RCM concerts were free for the public. When we filed into the hall for the concert, we were astonished to find the place absolutely packed with people standing in the gallery.
We later discovered that someone had publicised the concert, and because it was so long since the piece had been played in London, all the atonal music junkies had come to hear it. In London, there are just about enough Stockhausen fans to fill a medium sized concert hall if they all turn up on the same night.
Anyway, all went fine in the performance, we made a raucous din for about 30 minutes. The problem came towards the end. The conductor of the 4th orchestra got lost and out of time with the other three. As a result, in the 4th orchestra we finished about 30 seconds early. Nobody noticed. We got a standing ovation and a rave review from the Times music critic.