Karlheinz Stockhausen RIP

German electronic music pioneer and unrelentingly experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen has died, aged 79.

I first heard his music when I was about 15 or 16, listening to hours and hours of John Peel’s radio show every week, and eager to soak up new ideas about what music could be. In a music lesson at school, Mr McCormick put on ‘Frogs’, and the few of us that were developing an interest in experimental music had our minds well and truly expanded. None of us had heard anything like it, and we all found it – crucially – hilarious. I’ve always found deep comedy in much experimental music: not by laughing ‘at’ it, but just in the absurdity of abstraction, in a Dadaist tradition, I guess… Stockhausen’s Frogs was a high-brow musical version of Monty Python for us, and as a result, hugely compelling and influential.

For a while around that time, I had my first ‘experimental’ music group – a duo with a friend at school called ‘Pigfarm’ – it was basically us making a racket whilst recording it. We would rustle plastic bags, run taps, read surrealist poetry, talk in squeaky voices, play thing backwards and generally make a largely tuneless ridiculous noise (though I do remember a sublime version of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ complete with stuff being smashed up in the background and preset rhythms on a cheap keyboard employed for comic effect.

It was, of course, total nonsense, but it was important nonsense for us in that it was about making ourselves laugh. It was also in a sense frustrating because our technical skills at both recording and playing limited just how ridiculous we could be… I learned at that point how skillful great free players have to be, whether they’re playing instruments or just making a racket – if the racket is going to be engaging, it takes ideas and skill and concentration…

And Stockhausen was a MAJOR figure in my musical world at the time, referred to on an almost daily basis as the arbiter of all that was most extreme in music – up there with Napalm Death and John Zorn in the pantheon of ‘how far can you go?’ musical talk…

Figures like that are vital. Since then, I’ve heard music of his that I love, and music of his that leaves me unmoved… it’s highly likely that the problem is with me not him in the bits that I don’t get… I look at his music in a different way now, but his name is still there as a beacon of limitless experimentalism, of the pioneering spirit that ignored the nay-sayers and just did his thing. String quartet suspended in helicopters? no problem. Orchestral music with the players sitting in the audience? sure thing. Music for four simultaneous orchestras? er, OK. Live frogs on stage? easy…

Whenever I dip my toes into the world of experimental music, free improv, atonal music, non-idiomatic music etc. I draw on an experimental streak that runs through the middle of my own musical journey – it’s clearly not there in the harmonic content of what I’m playing these days (I doubt Stockhausen wrote much diatonic music in his life…) but it was definitely there in my decision to start experimenting with solo bass in the first place. I didn’t go into it be experimental, but the fact that at such an early age, Stockhausen, along with John Peel, John Zorn, Napalm Death, Air (not the french chill-out dudes), John Cage, Steve Reich and the guys I was hanging out with at school that were equally willful in their desire to make a funny racket helped me to approach the world of music with a sense of adventure rather than boundary, a desire to have fun, to test the limits of what I could do with my instrument, and not be afraid of having my own ‘high concept’ about what I was doing, even if it wasn’t remotely audible to the person listening to the end result.

Stockhausen had more bad press than perhaps any composer in history, but also changed the course of music in the 20th century. From The Beatles to Miles to Zappa, the more visible icons of change and progression in music during the 1900s were all influenced by the man.

One Reply to “Karlheinz Stockhausen RIP”

  1. Wonderfully put, fella.

    Yesterday, all day, I was proud to work for a radio station that ran the news of his death as the top headline of our Music News, with tributes from the likes of Brian Eno.

    It felt massively significant… He’s arguably up there in the top 5 of important musicians with whom we happened to be alive at the same time.

    Here’s to making music to amuse kids in GCSE/’A’ Level music lessions.

    Karl Heinz – may your gate ever squeek

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