For much of his life, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was at best considered a cult figure in the realm of contemporary music. But recently the composer has posthumously stepped in from the margins and into the mainstream.
Last season, the New York Philharmonic ended its season with Gruppen the composer's work for three orchestras; last summer his Helicopter String Quartet flew above England during a performance of the opera Mittwoch; and this month the Park Avenue Armory stages the New York premiere of Oktophonie. Stockhausen’s once un-stageable works are now regular occurrences, and we're contemplating the top five reasons why Stockhausen is so popular right now.
1. Celebrity Endorsements
Stockhausen has a cult following, but that cult includes a number of household names. Over the years he’s been named checked by the Beatles (who included his likeness on their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover), Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Bjork, and Animal Collective. With fans like these, Stockhausen transcends the normal contemporary music audiences
2. A Love of Spectacle
The man knew how to create a spectacle. In addition to works for three orchestras, and flying string ensembles, he wrote an opera for two auditoriums, demanded his musicians play while suspended from ceilings, and that doesn’t include the difficulties of actually playing his music, which is has made certain works unable to be recorded.
3. Solid Musical Foundation
Lest we forget, Stockhausen was a serious musician with an impressive resume. He enrolled at the State Academy of Music in Cologne, spent summers at Darmstadt (where he became one of the festival’s best-known figures) and studied with Oliver Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory. Though he’s often remembered for the spectacles he manufactured, Stockhausen, at his core, was a visionary whose work with electronic music and novel sounds sometimes obscure the solid foundations of his compositional principles.
4. Controversial Statements
Controversy often followed Stockhausen, which added extra intrigue to his already mythically ambitious output. The composer has as many critics as he had defenders. The British philosopher and musicologist Roger Scruton once said, Stockhausen "is not so much an Emperor with no clothing, but a splendid set of clothes with no Emperor." Of course scandal didn't just center on his music. Stockhausen caused a bit of outrage when he misguidedly likened 9/11 to a work of art. He later apologized for his statement.
5. Curious Fans
Alex Ross predicted this. In his 2008 review of the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance of Gruppen at Terminal 2 at Tempelhof Airport, the New Yorker scribe presciently wrote: “Within a few years, I suspect, aromatic Stockhausen fans will once again be filling American halls.” Or perhaps, Ross’s prophecy was self-fulfilling.