Saturday, January 21, 2012

Stockhausen Challenged by Description

I have been reading the University of California Press anthology of articles from Source, which I plan to review on my national site.  In the first issue I found a transcription of a conversation in which one of the participants was Karlheinz Stockhausen.  I was particularly struck by one of his observations:

Every day, working in the electronic studio, the worst problem I have is to describe what I have done.  All you can use are words and numbers.  Incidentally, a studio in Stockholm is almost ready where every action is automatically recorded.  You just fool around, and at the end you get a so-called reportage.  Recently I worked four days in our studio.  At the end, I had to spend another four or five days analyzing what I had done in order to write it down.  It is an awful thing for me.  But without what I describe there will be no culture whatsoever in the new dimension.  If I make a thing, I’m not only interested in the result;  I’m interested in the initial culture.  Let’s say we have no score, but we do have a tape.  The tape alone doesn’t help enough for study.  We can listen, yes;  we can get a kind of idea;  it may stimulate other things one can do.  But one is really not able to go further in that direction.  There wouldn’t be any scientific or philosophical or musical progress in our culture if one couldn’t learn from one’s forefathers.

I suppose there is no reason to assume that Stockhausen would have been aware of what was happening in literary theory at the time he made this remark.  I wonder if he would have been comforted or disturbed by the proposition that description was the most difficult of the major text types, to a point where an entire monograph was eventually written to explain why it was so difficult.

More important, however, is why Stockhausen was obsessing over the difficulty of description.  It concerned what he later called the “medium of transport,” which entailed the principle that one could not “learn from one’s forefathers” without some kind of physical medium.  This strikes me as yet another example of artifact-centered noun-based thinking, overlooking the fact that making music is a verb-based practice.  Thus, while Stockhausen may have had the “secret stash” of jazz records that may have inspired him, he may not have had much of a clue as to how the practice of jazz is passed from musician to musician through verb-based practice, rather than through noun-based artifacts.  This makes for an excellent example of how all of us, no matter what we do or how well we do it, have particular blinders that limit our worldview;  and those blinders are so effective that we do not even know they exist!

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