Stockhausen, Aphex Twin & Speak ‘N’ Spell

  January 5th, 2008

C. Way/ © 2008


The following are excerpts from an interview with Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1995, where he weighs in on his career and the works of modern artists influenced in part by him (Aphex Twin among them). Interview is found here:

“I heard the piece Aphex Twin of Richard James carefully: I think it would be
very helpful if he listens to my work Song Of The Youth, which is electronic
music, and a young boy’s voice singing with himself. Because he would then
immediately stop with all these post-African repetitions, and he would look
for changing tempi and changing rhythms, and he would not allow to repeat
any rhythm if it were varied to some extent and if it did not have a
direction in its sequence of variations.”

“The beginning of every art music development, in China, or in India or in European monasteries was always to relate the art of shaping composing sounds with the art [by which] the stars are shaped and composed. Astronomy, mathematics and music were the highest disciplines throughout the centuries since the beginning of European art music in the monasteries, let’s say in the tenth until the 14th, 15th century… I have studied all music of Europe as a student – I had to – and I at a very early age became aware, also naturally, [that] certain music, like the Art Of The Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach or the Musikalishe Opfer, [has] always known about this relationship between the laws of the universe, astronomical laws, and the laws of the music of this Earth. “

I absolutely love the premise — have an establishment-throned, grumpy old-guard composer address the works of his progenitors (Aphex Twin, Scanner, etc). And I doubly love that the ‘children’ of the article got the chance to weigh in on old Stocky’s recommendations afterwards — famously Aphex Twin’s flippant (but unquestionably disappointed) rejoinder where he basically says “Stock, fuck off, you ain’t got no SOUL.”

So right after reading the interview I checked out some of the Stocker’s music, the first time I’d heard him since college. With all due respects to the now-deceased composer — I didn’t care much for him then (though I think as an idealistic 20-something it was easier for me to feel I wasn’t ‘up to’ the lofty sublime peaks of his craft) — & I realized quickly that I sure as hell don’t care for him now.

While It’s easy to get caught up in his metaphysical grandeur about music & the universe — talking as he does like some Universal-Chord-seeking Alchemist — his music leaves me cold. Glacier fucking cold. It’s cerebral and little else.

Even the token concessions I usually make for the sake of certain composers who deep down leave me unmoved [Cage (especially his 4'33" -- conceptual art at its most profoundly dickheaded), Schoenberg, Babbitt] — i.e., that I respect the influence they’ve had, that I respect their willingness to fuck with accepted forms and modes, blah blah blah — didn’t obtain here w/ Stockhausen.

Instead I thought — again, please forgive me, ghost of Stock — fuck this guy and his pompous & clearly-implied insistence that Aphex Twin, et al. are basically mood-music purveyors ‘whoring’ out their music. Screw him AND his paper throne from which he pontificates about the blessed interconnectivity of music, universe, love, heart, mind, God — when what he actually created is about as moving as a broken Speak n’ Spell belching out Pi.

Music is incomplete if it satisfies the heart and ass any less than the brain. Something I truly don’t believe Stockhausen ever understood given the enervated, sterile, clinical circuitry he tried to pass off as soul-lifting music.

Need more proof that this was an artist disconnected from the humanity of his chosen art form? That this was an artist who was more moved by A R T as philosophical stance than act of communication, warmth, emotion? Try this quote of his issued shortly after 9/11, in which he is more interested in seeing the events of that day as Cosmic conceptual artfuck than as profound tragedy —

‘”Well, what happened there is, of course — now all of you must adjust your brains — the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that spirits achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practise ten years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. [Hesitantly.] And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then five thousand people are driven to Resurrection. In one moment. I couldn’t do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers. [...] It is a crime, you know of course, because the people did not agree to it. They did not come to the “concert”. That is obvious. And nobody had told them: “You could be killed in the process.”‘

He is no provocateur here, despite his best efforts. He’s just an ordinary numbed escapist, coping with the senselessness & horror of our world by retreating into a personal escape pod — that of Art-as-Idea, an elaborate & noble screen behind which he could tinker & hide & find his arch, mathy solace. Put another way, it’s easier to see the suffering of 9/11 as some kind of performance art of the Gods than as real emotional trauma. Hell, we all escape in some way — you almost can’t blame the guy.


[posted by C Way at 12:34 PM]


[file under: Music ||| non-fiction & essays ]

Comments (4) To “Stockhausen, Aphex Twin & Speak ‘N’ Spell”

  1. GrassyKnoll said:

    “Cage (especially his 4′33″ — conceptual art at its most profoundly dickheaded)” – I almost fell out of my chair laughing dude. Fucking hilarious.

  2. C.Way said:

    Speaking of Cage, at least he seemed to have a sense of humor. I saw a youtube flick once of him ‘performing’ one of his pieces in front of a live audience — 50s it looked like. The performance involved a lot of found sounds, kettle whistles, stuff being shoved off tables, etc. It was sort of like the musical equivalent of one of those elaborate mousetraps. He was fun to watch, moving with precision around the cluttered table of instruments, pushing this, pressing that, all the while wearing this intent but faintly winky expression. Fun to watch. Music? nah. But fun to watch.

  3. Arne said:

    Having had related developments in my views of modern “classical” composition, I really enjoyed reading this article.

    “Music is incomplete if it satisfies the heart and ass any less than the brain. Something I truly don’t believe Stockhausen ever understood” – You really put the central problem of modern “classical” composition in a nutshell. Full ACK.

    Cage/4.33: Cage seemingly said once on modern composition (of the Stockhausen style) that he’d find it more interesting to open the window and to listen to the sounds from the street than to go to such a concert.
    I think he wasn’t exaggerating – listening to random sounds with “music listening mode” switched on can really be great. And in my opinion 4.33 is just this listening experience taken from the street to concert halls, and camouflaged as “composition” so that the audience will listen to all random sounds consciously.
    So no “concept art” but a way to make people aware of the sounds that are around us.

  4. C.Way/S.crow said:

    Hey Arne, thanks for the insightful comment. I hear you about Cage. To the extent that Cage helped people listen/focus on ambient sounds, I’m glad for his efforts. We all could use a healthy awareness of the fascinating web of sound that surrounds us everyday. Incidentally, I was half-drunk when I wrote that Stockhausen mini-essay; my inner teeth-gnashing ranter had come out in full force. Probably could have toned down the negativity. Oh well. In vino veritas, etc etc.

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