Karlheinz Stockhausen is dead

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Record-Producer.com.

Thursday November 30, 2006

It was a bit of a John Lennon moment.

Famous people you don't actually know die and generally you acknowledge the fact, perhaps wish they had time to contribute more to the world, then move on to the next news item. But many people felt the death of John Lennon in 1980 as a personal loss.

I felt the same when I heard of the death of Karlheinz Stockhausen on December 5, 2007 in a minor, quickly moved on from, news item.

The difference though is that I had actually met Karlheinz Stockhausen and worked with him, in a minor role, on one of his operas, Donnerstag aus Licht (Thursday from Light).

Stockhausen was often referred to as an 'avante-garde' composer. In ordinary terms it meant that his music was so startlingly novel that most people wouldn't even regard it as music. Other composers who came to prominence in the mid-twentieth century might have written challenging music, Stockhausen's was - for many - virtually impossible to appreciate in any meaningful way.

Of course, where there is a trail blazer, others will follow. Many composers moved into the avante-garde arena. However, although Stockhausen's music was immensely difficult to absorb, it paid back richly for the amount of effort you had to put in. Other composers' work was, and continues to be, sterile in comparison.

Many of Stockhausen's works incorporate the novel and creative use of audio technology, often in ways quite remote from the way the equipment was intended to be used.

In this respect, Stockhausen was a pioneer of creative recording techniques, long before George Martin and The Beatles.

Going back to Donnerstag aus Licht, which was staged at the Royal Opera House in 1985, I found myself effectively in the role of Stockhausen's tape-op.

Large sections of the work were played back from 8-track tape over an octophonic sound system that took up the entire upper balcony of the auditorium.

My first task was to make a remote control for a Studer A80 tape recorder located in the basement so that Stockhausen could trigger playback from the auditorium.

I made a metal plate exactly the same size as a fader panel and installed a key switch. This fitted neatly into a spare slot in the front-of-house mixing console, which Stockhausen himself was operating.

Another of my tasks was to test the octophonic sound system before every rehearsal and performance.

Stockhausen had a very clear idea of how this should be done. Basically he wanted a sequence of announcements saying, "Channel 1, Channel 2" etc, repeated and staggered out of step, recorded onto a test tape.

He made a diagram for me of how I should make this tape, on a sheet of Royal Opera House memo paper.

Yes, Stockhausen wrote a score specifically for me! I still have it now, I just wish I had got him to sign it.

Something else that sticks in my mind was that part of the opera involved a film projector that had to be synchronized with sound playback, and I was in control of that part of the sound.

Various bigwigs in the technical department consulted on how the project should be synchronized...

"That won't work" I said.

Discussions continued and every so often I threw in my two cents...

"That won't work." But they were not listening.

Eventually we got to the stage where this segment of the opera was rehearsed, far too close to opening night. We reached the point of the filmed section and suddenly Stockhausen stops the rehearsal and shouts out over the rehearsal PA. Guess what...

It hadn't worked.

Stockhausen's music is so complex that hearing the difference between what was written in the score and what actually took place would have been absolutely impossible for most people. Stockhausen however knew every note and tiniest inflection of his massively complex work. But it was too late and Stockhausen knew it. He accepted that that part of the opera wouldn't sound exactly as it was meant to.

Going back to that missed opportunity to get the score Stockhausen wrote for me signed...

One of the requirements of the opera was to include a synthesizer in the orchestra.

It just so happened that I had two, which I used for my own amusement during the inevitable 'slow' periods that happen in theatre. I had a Yamaha DX7 and an ARP Axxe.

Stockhausen auditioned both and selected the Axxe because it was capable of 'evolving' sounds better. So I rented it to the theatre. I actually received around twice what the Axxe had cost me in the first place. So even though it lost a couple of knobs I was very pleased.

And one further bonus, Stockhausen actually did sign my synth! I wish I'd had a better pen to hand for the purpose, but the signature is there on the front panel, and dedicated to me.

Stockhausen was 79 when he died, so I suppose you could say he had a 'good run'.

But he was truly one of the most alive people I had ever met. He told us of his plan for a series of seven operas - Licht - that he expected to take him to over 100 years of age. And I had absolute confidence that his enormous energy would see him through to completion.

Fortunately, he accelerated his schedule and the work is already complete. The first full performance was scheduled to take place to celebrate the composer's 80th birthday in 2008. What a shame he fell short of that mark, and so close.

There is no doubt that Stockhausen's music is among the most difficult to even begin to appreciate, let alone like. But his forward-thinking innovations have passed down to us a legacy of creativity that, whether you realize or not, influences almost all of our work.

In conclusion, Karlheinz - it was a privilege and a pleasure to have met you and worked with you.

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