The composer at Queens Hall, Edinburgh, recently. Photo: phnk, via Flickr.

A massive pioneer in thought about composition and electronic music in particular, an inspiration to rock and pop figures as well as academics, and sometimes a lightning rod for controversy, Karlheinz Stockhausen died this week. (Thank you to everyone who wrote in to let us know.)

Stockhausen’s thinking about sound in all his work has had a deep impact on electronic music, particularly in his influential early works for tape and, by the 1960s, live electronics mixed with instruments. And, of course, aside from earning bonus points for showing up on the Sgt. Pepper album cover (the Beatles were big fans), you have to admire a composer who puts a string quartet in helicopters in order to combine the sound of the machinery with choreographed flybys and live video feeds. If that doesn’t make him a hero of ours, nothing will.

Stockhausen also represents the generation of experimental art that was able to escape the grip of the Nazis — an experience that claimed his mother as a victim and haunted his life. He’s part of the legacy of experimentation that Hitler once tried to silence.

I expect that Stockhausen’s death will mean his quote following September 11 will be trotted out again. Press seized upon the phrase “greatest work of art” to describe those events; Stockhausen for his part says he called them Lucifer’s greatest work of art — an enormous difference, coming from someone who survived Nazi Germany. In the years that have past since that quote, however, I personally feel, as a New Yorker there at the time, a growing sense of a day that transformed how many of us feel about art making.

But I’ll stick with Stockhausen’s one fantasy: dreams of flying. And I hope more people compose for helicopter.

Obituary: Karlheinz Stockhausen “Both a rationalist and a mystic, the composer’s influence stretched from Boulez to the Beatles” [The Guardian]

German composer Stockhausen dies “the composer rejected the idea that he was making the music of the future, writing in 1966: “What is modern today will be tradition tomorrow.” [BBC News]

You can read a strangely bitter obituary from The Times, but I prefer a more thoughtful and historically-informed obituary from Paul Griffiths at The New York Times:
Karlheinz Stockhausen, Influential Composer and Avant-Garde Guru, Dies at 79. I think it balances some of his artistic idiosyncrasies with his importance in history. (Griffiths is a fairly reliable voice when it comes to the history of new music; I may not always agree — but then, new music isn’t about agreement, is it?) He sums things up neatly:

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.

Karlheinz Stockhausen Official Site, Memorial Booklet (PDF)

Those with thoughts or memories to share, we’d love to hear them. And, as always, our condolences to his surviving family, friends, and colleagues.

  • I first discovered a remaindered Stockhausen LP in a record store (late 70's), "Stockhausen's Greatest Hits".

    When I first spun it, the skies opened up, realizing he was brilliant along the line of Schubert and Beethoven. His vision was so clear. His ability to create an undulating musical/sonic line that pulled the listener into the depths of what it is to be human. I knew at that point that Karlheinz's work was going come in and out of my life from hereon in. It had little to do with electronic music. It was his artistic vision and his musical genius.

    Unfortunately, for decades up until very recently Stockhausen has been a footnote in music history textbooks noting him for his contribution to "early electronic music".

    Dramatically, all this changed in the 1990's…

    You can regularly musical hear homages to his work pulling his ideas and sonic vocabulary into the common musical vernacular. He must have been aware that all of his misunderstood and dismissed crazy sonic sculpture of the 1950's and 60's was now being regularly co-oped into glitch or beat remnant recordings ending up on dance floors, living rooms and Coachella styled music festivals.

    If you ever become self-conscious and insecure feeling like you are a Borg out of a William Gibson novel because you have trapped yourself around your electronic gear, just remember that Stockhausen legitimizied it over 50 years ago and the electronic artists of the past generation have sanctified it.

    Karlheinz has died but his ideas and music are still very much alive. You cannot say this about many artists. Even the great ones.

  • Rest in peace. He was not a saint, but his contributions to the realm of electroacoustic music and the avante garde cannot be overlooked. He is most definitely part of the cannon that every electronic musician must explore.

  • combat dave

    the importance of punctuation:

    Karlheinz Stockhausen died this week, thanks to everyone who wrote in.

  • I don't usually comment here but I felt I wanted to know. Stockhausen was a genius, I hope he rests in peace and that he enjoys watching how generation after generation will be influenced by him and his music.

  • scottl

    wow – lots of stockhausen memories, myself. highly influential. i

    remember studying robin maconies 1970's era book on him while an

    undergrad and listening to mostly electronic works and things like

    gruppen, punkte, carre, etc. the thing i was really struck with was

    how he would come up with a method for organizing a piece of music, and that method could be used to write dozens of pieces, all different and fresh. yet, each time he'd come up with a different form to organize the next work, which would go in a completely different

    direction from the one before. it's like each one of his pieces would

    be a style of its own. eventually after the 70s and the beginning of

    the Licht cycle he settled down somewhat into a recognizable style but still produced amazing and interesting music, the content and true depth of which will likely remain unsurpassed for generations to come.

    like cage he believed that music had a purpose that was divine and

    holy, yet explored it in a different way. the results can be profound,

    amazing enlightening, but also ponderous and overly long (esp the

    opera stuff) but to me, i feel strongly the fault isn't with him –

    it's me. it seems a bit of hero worship, but i feel he's always had

    the human race's interest at heart, even though i might not be getting the message at this point in my life. i get the feeling he was

    creating art mainly for the humans of the future, not neccessarily the

    present, and i get a glimpse of it every so often.

    of course i love when he's interviewed about the IDM musicians and

    tells them they should be listening to certain pieces of his music. i

    mean, this is coming from the guy who basically INVENTED electronic

    music based on electronic tones using magnetic tape, a pioneer of

    musique concrete, and ran filters and ring modulators on live

    instruments in the early 1960s. interestingly enough i love their

    response – basically 'you should listen to more groove based, simple

    harmonic structured music', which is what Stockhausen was mainly

    complaining about.

    a recent listening of hymnen with a multichannel setiup convinced me how amazingly fresh and timeless that 45 year old music still is – the sounds that he created using tape machines and oscillators rival and even surpass anything you could reproduce digitally using max/msp or reaktor.

    anyway – a great composer, an egomaniac with the work and ideas to

    back it up, a singular voice of modern music – he will be missed.


  • In the late 60's I explored musique concrete and other avant garde work via the record collection in the Earl Long Memorial Library, Univ of New Orleans. Stockhausen's Song of the Youths was one of the stunning pieces of the era. Wish I had a copy of it today.

  • Stockhausen was a musical visionary who forsaw the digital era we live in today. Many of his pieces were structured events rather than musical expositions. That means rules, parameters, even scenarios were scripted in order to produce a sound experience unlike anything else and that's exactly what transpired.

    As an artist, it isn't easy to produce work people basically aren't going to like. For Stockhausen, who wanted to supercede what had been done to date, writing another concerto in the classical format – even using 12 tones or other atonal systems wasn't going to cut it.

    His contribution was to introduce and incorporate electonic sound into the classical instrument format and then sculpt compositional elements that followed systems, decisional parameters, event scenarios rather than the harmonic & melodic formats that had come before.

    As such, his compositions will always sound abstract, futuristic and ground-breaking.

  • Thanks for the well-written obit Peter and the links 🙂

  • You mention "flying". The Helicopter String Quartet was instrumental in paving the way for a piece Rev. Dwight Frizzell did out in Kansas City called Sonic Force. He collaborated with the people at Whiteman Air Force base (the one that hosts the B2 Bomber) and recorded the A-10 Warthog in all its polytimbral glory. The concept being that all our military hardware can sound pretty musical after all and should be used that way.

    It's now performed live and includes Air Force marching band and other ensemble players.

    Back in '78, we dug into Hymnen and Stimmung, and Sternklang and a bunch of others. Karlheinz was, along with Cage, Xenakis, and Ligeti, one seriously badass composer. We are changed because of him.

  • Vanceg

    My high school music teacher quickly realized I wasn't really getting excited by the classical cannon. One day in music history class I complained that Beethoven really didn't speak to me like Hendrix did. I wondered out loud if there wasn't some 'real composer' who created sounds as out there as those in rock music, but with the care and attention that 'real composers' used. (c'mon, I was in high school!)

    After class, he handed me two records: Gesang and Mikrophone.

    That night, the skies opened up and the universe became a much, much larger place to me.

  • Tony

    In the late 70s, I was the afternoon classical DJ at a midwest college's public radio station. Mostly I played music from Mozart to early Prokofiev, although the PD encouraged me to play more adventurous stuff. Very seldom did I get any visitors in the afternoon.

    Without having heard Stockhausen before, one afternoon I slipped "Anthems" onto the turntable, introduced it and pressed play. After about 5 minutes, the engineer wandered in from across the hall to express amused concern about what I was trying to do to his transmitter. After about 5 more minutes, the portly station manager puffed up the stairs to opine that the music would probably not appeal to many of the station's listeners, and wondering how much longer it would last.

    Many of us have probably "moved" our listeners in similar ways with our worthy experiments. Time brings familiarity, erases old prejudices. Even then, influence is undoubtedly a better testament than mere fame. Some trails blazed by hatchet-wielding pioneers eventually became highways.



  • All Karlheinz Stockhausen fans can listen to Karlheinz Stockhausen – “Hymnen” (Electronic & Concrete Music) (1966 – 67) on this web site