Karlheinz Stockhausen, Influential Composer and Avant-Garde Guru, Dies at 79
By PAUL GRIFFITHS
Published: December 8, 2007
Karlheinz Stockhausen, an original and influential German composer who began his career as an inventor of new musical systems and ended it making operas to express his spiritual vision of the cosmos, died on Wednesday at his home in Kuerten-Kettenberg, Germany. He was 79.
His death was announced on Friday by the Stockhausen Foundation; no cause was disclosed.
Mr. Stockhausen had secured his place in music history by the time he was 30. He had taken a leading part in the development of electronic music, and his early instrumental compositions similarly struck out in new directions, in terms of their formal abstraction, rhythmic complexity and startling sound.
More recently, he made news for his public reaction to the attack on the World Trade Center. Not widely known outside the modern-music world in 2001, he became infamous for calling the attack “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos.” His comments drew widespread outrage, and he apologized, saying that his allegorical remarks had been misunderstood.
Too bad they got him to waffle on that unspeakable truth.
Stockhausen always mainlined the Zeitgeist with more honest fidelity more than most contemporary composers, in my view. Witness the amazing Helikopter Streichquartett (Helicopter String Quartet), the performance of which requires:
- One string quartet
- 4 helicopters with pilots
- 4 sound technicians
- 4 television transmitters
- 4 x 3 sound transmitters
- 1 auditorium with 4 columns of televisions and 4 columns of loudspeakers
- 1 sound projectionist with mixing console
- 1 moderator (ad lib.)
Video (mandatory - ~2 minutes, and you will definitely get the idea): The Austrian Ensemble for New Music performing the Helikopter Streichquartett with military helicopters over Salzburg in 2003.
The composer's explanation, from the liner notes of the Arditti cd:
"Early in 1991 I received a commission from Professor Hans Landesmann of the Salzburger Festspiele to compose a strong quartet. The Arditti Quartet was to play the world premiere in 1994.
"And then I had a dream: I heard and saw four string players in four helicopters flying in the air and playing. At the same time I saw people on the ground seated in an audio-visual hall, others were standing outdoors on a large public plaza. In front of them, four towers of television screens and loudspeakers had been set up: at the left, half-left, half-right, right. At each of the four positions one of the four string players could be heard and seen in close-up.
"Most of the time, the string players played tremoli which blended so well with the timbres and the rhythms of the rotor blades that the helicopters sounded like musical instruments."
That's my kind of dream.
If you want to stage your own performance, here are the composer's instructions, again from the liner notes of the Arditti cd:
"A performance is staged the following way:
"First, the four string players are introduced to the audience by a moderator -- who may also be the sound projectionist. He briefly describes the technical aspects of the forthcoming performance. Then, the players walk to the helicopters -- or are driven there -- while being constantly followed by video cameras which transmit to the television monitors. The moderator (at the mixing console) explains over the loudspeakers what is happening.
"From their embarkation into the helicopters until they disembark, each string player and his helicopter is transmitted via camera, television transmitter, three microphones and sound transmitters to his *own* group of monitors for the audience. Each string player should be constantly audible and always visible close-up -- face, hands, bow, instrument -- without any camera changes and without the fading in of other pictures.
"Behind each player, the earth can be seen through the glass cockpit of the helicopter. The ascent lasts about 5 minutes from the ignition of the turbines to bar 1. Until the world premiere, the measured music of the score (starting at bar 1) lasted 18 1/2 minutes. Due to a later addition, it now lasts circa 21 1/2 minutes. Descent and landing last about 5 minutes each.
"The microphone transmission from each helicopter should be such that the sounds of the rotor blades and that of the instrument blend well, and the instrument is heard *slightly* louder. To achieve this, at least 3 microphones per helicopter are necessary: 1 contact microphone on the bridge of the instrument, 1 microphone in front of the mouth of the player, and 1 microphone outside the helicopter which clearly picks up the sounds and *rhythms of the rotor blades.*
"The 4 x 3 microphone signals can be transmitted by 12 individual transmitters -- possibly via satellite relay -- and received at the concert hall as well as at further localities, then balanced and mixed to 4 mono signals at a mixing console using 4 x 3 faders.
"From the moment the synchronous playing begins (0'00") until it ends (21'37.8"), the four helicopters circle within a radius of circa 6 km above the performance venue, individually varying their flying altitudes. They should fly so high that the direct sound of the rotor blades is much softer than the sound coming from the loudspeakers, or even better, inaudible.
"After the landing, cameras follow the the string players and the four pilots as they disembark from the helicopters and walk (ride) to the concert hall. Once in the auditorium, the pilots are also introduced by the moderator. The players and pilots are asked about their experiences, and finally the audience is invited to participate in the discussion. In the afternoon, at least three flights should take place in succession with an appropriate period of time between flights, and with different audiences.
"The composition is thought-structured to the tenth of a second. The players are sychronized using a click-track which is transmitted up to them in the helicopters, and which they hear over earphones. Since the four strong players usually tremolo in criss-crossing glissandi, I had to draw their pitch lines and curves on top of one another in four colours, so that the melody trajectories could be followed."
We are organizing a special holiday performance here in Austin later this month, with the only variation being that the string players will wear the attire of Santa Claus and three of his elves.