Nicholas Isherwood
Stockhausen and Terror

Stockhausen and Terror

Nicholas Isherwood

Nicholas Isherwood

It has been nearly twelve years since composer Karlheinz Stockhausen made his infamous remarks on the September 11 attacks. Urging us to “adjust our brains,” he called them “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.”

Naturally, a lot of people were upset about these words. To be fair, Stockhausen also acknowledged that the attacks were a crime (because the victims could not consent to the performance), and the work of Lucifer (a cosmic villain in his personal mythos). This context, however, was missing from most accounts of Stockhausen’s comments.

Those remarks certainly seemed extraordinarily tone-deaf at the time, if nothing else. In a letter to The New York Times, sculptor Richard Serra condemned them for what he saw as “the aestheticization of terror.” After the fact, however, others have come to find a kernel of meaning in Stockhausen’s oddly detached musings. In New York magazine more recently, English professor Terry Castle connects Stockhausen to the 18th-century cult of the Sublime and the history of artworks about war and disaster (the sack of Rome, the destruction of Pompeii, the Titanic, Picasso’s Guernica, etc.).

Castle hits upon something that Serra (and a lot of others) missed, which is that violence and terror are already thoroughly aestheticized–in music, movies, books, television, video games, and so on. In the world of new music, there were so many pieces written about 9/11 in the wake of the event that it almost became its own genre. Most of these pieces seemed to yearn for a kind of catharsis. (I remember there being a lot of talk about “healing.”) But for me at least, many of these works seemed quite mawkish, and none of them really effectively touched the true horror of the event. Stockhausen’s comments are horrifying–it is horrifying to think that an act of terror could be a work of art–but they at least offer an explanation.

These comments were on my mind recently after hearing Nicholas Isherwood perform Stockhausen’s Capricorn for bass voice and electronics in Los Angeles last Saturday. (Full disclosure: I helped organize this performance.) Isherwood was the avatar of Lucifer in Stockhausen’s opera Donnerstag aus Licht and worked closely with the composer for many years. After hearing Capricorn and talking to Isherwood about the piece, I felt like I understood something I had been missing about Stockhausen as a composer. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy his music before, but I think I made the same category error that many people make, in lumping him together with the other Darmstadt school composers–Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono. Certainly there is a shared sensibility there, and he certainly spoke the language, but I’m not sure that Stockhausen was quite as attached to abstraction for abstraction’s sake. The performances I’ve heard that focus on the abstractions often fall flat–they, too, seem oddly detached.

Isherwood’s performance of Capricorn, on the other hand, was incredibly visceral. At every moment, it threatens to envelop and overwhelm you, and the overall effect is transformational. (“Whenever we hear sounds, we are changed. We are no longer the same.”) Seen in this light, Stockhausen’s obsession with massive and impractical works, like the absurd Helicopter String Quartet, seems less driven by ego and more motivated by a fervent desire for change. Through music, through aesthetics, perhaps another world is possible. He wants us to adjust our brains. And maybe we should.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

5 thoughts on “Stockhausen and Terror

  1. Phil Fried

    Can’t we just admit that even brilliant people say stupid things? Naturally it can be assumed that those with a professional stake in Stockhausen’s ideas will find a worthy explanation. The haters will of course also continue to hate. I do agree that Stockhausen is the only composer I know whose works have such an inconsistent effect on me. I love some of his works and but others leave me cold. That is when his pre-compositional ideas trump the resulting music.

    I suppose his thoughts and words have the same relationship.

  2. Christian Hertzog

    I think Stockhausen’s early works, up until Momente,, are very much concerned with abstraction–although we get a glimpse of the theatrical ideas to come in Gesang der Junglinge. On the other hand, Luigi Nono, from the very beginning of his Darmstadt affiliation, was concerned with extramusical associations, usually of a political and/or historical nature. He was the first of his colleagues to write an opera–in 1961! Who else among the Darmstadt school dealt with the horrors of Fascism head-on, as Nono did in Il Canto Sospeso?

    I’m very sorry I was unable to hear this concert–from Paul Muller’s review over at Sequenza 21, it sounds like it was an extraordinary event.

  3. Alex Temple

    Whoa, whoa, hold on a second. Making a work of art about violence or terror is very, very different from aestheticizing real-world violence and terror. Guernica was a protest. Horror movies help us deal with our fears by exploring them in a safely ficitonal setting. Paintings of the Sack of Rome were statements about history and politics, made over a millennium after the event they depict. Calling an actual act of mass murder a work of art, right after happened, while people are still grieving, is something else entirely. (Not to mention bizarre coming from a composer whose compositional career started with the rejection of tonality and periodic rhythm specifically on the grounds that they’d been forever ruined by association with the Holocaust.)

    Also… didn’t Stockhausen claim to come from another planet? I’m not sure how seriously we should take his remarks about non-musical topics, except insofar as they illuminate his work.

    1. Isaac Schankler

      Well yes, I would advise against taking Stockhausen’s words at face value. But I do think there’s a kernel of something valuable and interesting there, in that, as much as we’d like to separate out aesthetics from everything else, the aesthetic element is always present. And it can warp our perceptions in powerful ways. Certainly Stockhausen himself is a case in point.

  4. Jasper

    I have to agree with Alex on this one. Stockhausen was an interesting character to say the least. i wouldn’t read to much into half of what he said or did.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.