Visionary composer had wide influence in postwar era

Times Staff Writer

Karlheinz Stockhausen, the great German composer who envisioned music as a force of cosmic revolution and who himself became a musical force of nature, having an unprecedented impact on both high and popular post-World War II culture, has died. He was 79.

Stockhausen died Wednesday at his home in Kurten, Germany, according to an announcement on his website. No cause of death was given.

At the height of his fame in the 1960s, his name became synonymous with the future of music. His experiments with the structure of sound and his innovations with electronics made him a pioneer of the musical avant-garde but also attracted the attention of the most venturesome jazz and pop groups. He helped inspire Miles Davis’ most extreme musical experiments, and the Beatles included Stockhausen’s photograph on the collage cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Although he never minded the attention, Stockhausen remained the epitome of the uncompromising artist. He was a prolific composer of 362 works. He wrote numerous texts explaining his often arcane theories. He taught courses about his music and encouraged acolytes. He demanded selfless devotion from his chosen performers, many of them members of his extended family. A true visionary, he never let expense or practical matters stand in his way. He cared little for worldly possessions and was photographed for decades wearing the same jacket.


Among his most important pieces was what has come to be considered the first classic electronic score, “Gesang der Junglinge” (Song of the Youths), which he described in 1955 as the birth of space music. Another classic, from 1958, is “Gruppen,” which requires three orchestras and conductors. Once, when asked what he might suggest be programmed with the difficult score for a performance by student ensembles at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, Stockhausen replied that the evening should be “Gruppen,” a lecture on “Gruppen” and then “Gruppen” again.

“He was the rock star of my youth,” Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, said Friday. “When I was a teenager, my classmates listened to rock and pop, but I got the same kind of kicks listening to Stockhausen.”

In “Gesang,” Stockhausen worked by splicing magnetic tape by hand. “The resulting richness of the sound,” Salonen said, “is more expressive than a lot of computer-generated music despite today’s far superior technology. It all boils down to somebody being a real composer.”

But Salonen also says that he, like many of his generation of Stockhausen admirers, couldn’t relate to the late works, especially “Licht” (Light). A cycle of seven long operas, one for each day of the week, “Licht” took Stockhausen 26 years to complete and is the most grandiose project in the history of a grandiose art form.

By the time he wrote “Sonntag” (Sunday) in 2003, Stockhausen had become a mystic. He was ridiculed for the prophetic cavorting of biblical characters and all manner of strange goings-on in the cycle. In “Freitag” (Friday), a typewriter copulates with a copying machine. In “Mittwoch” (Wednesday), four helicopters circle above the theater carrying members of a string quartet, their music piped back into the hall, mixed with the propeller noise.

Yet his music never lost its amazing power to draw a listener in and to sound completely fresh and original. Though an environmentally objectionable way to produce music, the Helicopter Quartet turned out to be a dazzling work.

And Stockhausen always managed to find new fans to take the place of the older ones he alienated. The bins of his exorbitantly priced, self-produced CDs at Amoeba Records in Hollywood are a small mecca for ultra-hip listeners. Bjork has repeatedly mentioned Stockhausen as an influence.

Karlheinz Stockhausen was born Aug. 22, 1928, in Modrath, near Cologne. By the age of 16, he was an orphan. His father, a Catholic schoolteacher who became a German army officer, never returned from World War II. His mother, who suffered from severe depression, was one of the first victims of Hitler’s “euthanasia policy.” Stockhausen’s own wartime experience was as stretcher-bearer in a military hospital.


Although he said one effect the war had on him was a lifelong phobia about march rhythms, he did not begin his music career as a radical. In Cologne, he studied piano and music education, then philosophy and musicology, working his way through school playing piano for an operetta company and playing jazz in nightclubs.

A local music critic, Herbert Eimert, introduced Stockhausen to some of the more progressive new music that had sprung up in Europe after the war. In 1951, he attended the summer sessions in Darmstadt, Germany, which was the center of Serialism, a method of developing Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique into a highly rigorous means of mathematically determining all aspects of music. With a new wife, Doris Andreae, Stockhausen went to Paris in 1952 to study with composer Olivier Messiaen and came into contact with Pierre Boulez, who was also entranced by the latest discoveries of Serialism.

Stockhausen’s first pieces from this time, such as “Kontra-Punkte” (Counterpoints), already revealed an ear for striking new textures and fantastically intricate techniques of organization. Back in Cologne the next year, he began applying these methods to producing electronic music, and in the next several years created major works for tape, instruments and combinations of the two. In “Kontakte,” “Mikrophonie” and “Mixtur,” he helped lead the way in developing instrumental music that was electronically altered during performance. Meanwhile, his theoretical studies into the nature of time and perception led him to develop increasingly convoluted structural principles.

Whether understood or not, Stockhausen had become widely known and performed by the 1960s. His domineering personality and unwavering sense of historical purpose made him a divisive figure in new-music circles, particularly among Americans. But America at the time held a great attraction for the German composer, who taught at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965 and at UC Davis in 1966 and 1967.


The Bay Area, then becoming a hippy haven, had a new radicalizing effect on Stockhausen. While at Davis, he came up with new theories of intuitive music. Astrology and alternative lifestyles also proved appealing, although he apparently rejected drugs. About this time, Stockhausen began spending time in Tokyo as well, and elements of ceremonial ancient Japanese music entered his compositional vocabulary.

The late 1960s and early ‘70s brought a wide variety of masterpieces, with each major new work seeming to be a reinvention of music. These included “Mantra” for two pianos and electronics, “Stimmung” for a vocal ensemble singing in overtones and “Hymnen,” a convoluted refashioning of national anthems for orchestra and tape.

More and more, unusual theater became part of his performances. “Sternklang,” so-called star music, must be performed outdoors in a park setting at night. “Inori” is an orchestra piece that includes “adorations” for dancer-mimes. “Harlekin” is a solo for a dancing clarinetist.

Stockhausen’s personal life took on a more theatrical flavor as well. In 1967, after the end of his first marriage, from which he had four children, he married Mary Bauermeister, a painter with whom he had two more children. By the late 1970s, when he had begun his huge operatic project, he was living in a specially designed house in Kurten on the outskirts of Cologne with two of his most trusted performers, flutist Kathinka Pasveer and clarinetist Suzanne Stephens, along with his children, many of whom became virtuoso performers.


They became the characters in his operas, an extraterrestrial, mythic, Christian saga that defies description. Meanwhile, Stockhausen became so involved with the epic struggle between good and evil he was producing that he seemed unable to separate his own ego from his creations.

And that got him in trouble when he infamously described the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as the greatest artwork of all time. He immediately retracted the statement, saying he had been misunderstood since he meant that the destruction was the work of Lucifer, who just happened to be a figure in “Licht.”

Although the first five operas were staged between 1981 and 1996 at La Scala in Milan, Italy, the Royal Opera in London and Leipzig Opera in Germany, Stockhausen was never able to get the final two produced. But he could be his own worst enemy by insisting on staging notions that made extraordinary music feel foolish.

Still, Stockhausen carried on. At the time of his death, he was busy creating “Klang,” a new cycle of chamber works, one for each hour of the day. The 13th had its premiere in Rome in May. Although the composer’s death, which was said to have followed a short illness, came as a surprise to the musical world, the fourth hour of “Klang” is called “Heaven’s Door” and may well have been a premonition.


Premiered last year in Italy, the piece consists of “a percussionist knocking, battering, drumming, in 2 X 7 moods,” Stockhausen’s program notes read, “with wooden beaters on a heaven’s door made of wood.” Finally the door opens, and a terrifying noise erupts, leading to a wailing siren. A little girl from the audience walks onto the stage and through the door. The siren stops.

Funeral services have not been announced, but Stockhausen will be buried in Waldfriedhof (Forest Cemetery) in Kurten.



Swed is The Times’ music critic.