Friday, December 7, 2007

Jazzy Stockhausen

I suppose I should feel some modicum of satisfaction in having one of my conjectures confirmed by the Telegraph obituary for Karlheinz Stockhausen. The conjecture was that "the lion's share on the music from Licht [Stockhausen's cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week] now available on recordings seems to have been inspired by performances by jazz greats such as Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, and Jimmy Knepper." The confirmation comes from this item from his early biography:

Between 1944 and 1947 Stockhausen paid for his education by working as a stretcher-bearer in a military hospital, as a farmhand, assistant to a travelling magician and as a jazz pianist in clubs.

Now this does not say anything about how good a jazz pianist Stockhausen was or even where those clubs were and whether or not they were ever visited by American performers. Nevertheless, it still means that Stockhausen had at least some experience in the practice of jazz. On this one dimension Stockhausen stands a cut above Igor Stravinsky, who kept trying to write "jazzy" dance pieces but could never really "get it." If I have a personal fantasy about Stockhausen having a collection of old Blue Note vinyls, then my fantasy about Stravinsky has him sitting in the Hot Club de France in Paris listening to Stéphane Grappelli, gnashing his teeth in envy because he could never figure out how to write music that sounded that way! I suspect that a lot of that Licht music sounds jazzy because Stockhausen still had a sense for how to play jazz, rather than just listen to it. Furthermore, Stockhausen was playing his jazz at a time when jazz was going through what was (for me at least) its most important revolution, the rise of the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Lennie Tristano. The "jazz greats" I had previously cited would not be as memorable as they are today without standing on the shoulders of those giants from the Forties, that same period when Stockhausen was trying his hand at jazz piano. Did the jazz revolution fuel his own revolutionary spirit? There may never be a definitive answer to that question, but I can still fantasize about it!

From that point of view, I need to take issue with Ivan Hewett's appreciation piece, also in the Telegraph, which argues that most of Stockhausen's greatness lay in compositions from the Fifties and Sixties and that "vast tracts" of Licht are "cringe-making." I have no idea if Hewett experienced any of the Licht operas as theater; but, if he was writing about them as if they were "pure music," continuing Stockhausen's experiments in the grammar of how scores could be developed, then he was laboring under a great misconception. If jazz really is integral to how we should approach Licht, then we need to think of it more as performance (which happens to be staged, perhaps in the same spirit that Sun Ra performances were stages) than as composition. This move from the grammar of composition to the rhetoric of performance may, indeed, have been the act of a musician in his twilight years looking back on his origins; and, at my age at least, that is not cause for cringing!

Actually, I found Hewett's way with words more cringe-making than anything Stockhausen ever produced. What are we to make of Hewett's phrase, "the great Austrian/Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg?" Is he trying to connote that Schoenberg's music could not have been what it was had Schoenberg not been Jewish? If so, then I suspect I would not be the only one to disagree with him vigorously!

In this respect I found the BBC approach to the news of Stockhausen's death (my initial source) to be far more interesting. Newshour approached Brian Eno for comment. Eno began by comparing him to John Cage, which I felt was a great way to start. He emphasized this connection by observing that Stockhausen should be assessed not only by his own work but by the work of those he influenced, stressing that, in Stockhausen's case, much of that influence when into the revolution on the pop music scene (Eno being one of those influenced). I think this is more important than anything Hewett said in his appreciation, which chose, instead, to invoke the cult-like nature of those who followed Stockhausen.

Finally, I am glad to hear that Licht was completed before Stockhausen died. The recordings for two of the operas (for Wednesday and Sunday) have not yet been released, possibly because they have not yet been performed. I have every reason to hope that they will be performed, and I look forward to adding those recordings to my collection.


antcol said...

nice post - thanks for that. didn't we meet in Israel?

anthony coleman

Stephen Smoliar said...

Anthony, your name does not ring a bell; so, without further information (like a profile), I really cannot say!