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.