Set sail for the sun


Weltmarke jpeg (optimized and sized)

In 1981 I wrote a kind of fan letter to the already-legendary German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen saying how much I admired his music and telling him I intended at some point to write a book about it, tackling in the process what seemed to me an interesting question.  Given how unlistenable this music was generally supposed to be, and how difficult much of it actually is to make sense of, how had I, despite a complete lack of musical training, formal or other, come to love it and to perceive it as music just like any other – only better than most?  No quick reply came, but then I’d hardly expected one.  Then a few weeks later – I subsequently learned Team Stockhausen had been in Milan preparing and giving the first performances of his Donnerstag aus Licht – a response did arrive, so encouraging in its tone that I decided there and then to up sticks to Germany where I would be able to take up the composer’s pretty gobsmacking offer of access to himself and his archive.

In the event, my circumstances (slave labour in a German hotel kitchen), and the fact that I was at the time hopelessly ill-equipped to write such a book, made it inevitable that things didn’t exactly work out as I’d dreamed.  I did get to know Stockhausen and members of his circle a little, however, and worked for him as a sort of gofer during the intensive, five-week Stockhausen Project in Den Haag, Holland, in late 1982.  I afterwards produced a report on this event part of which was published (under my given name, Barry Sullivan) by the Royal Conservatory (Koninklijk Conservatorium) there, under whose auspices it had been organized. On the strength of this Stockhausen even offered me a live-in position at his Kürten (near Cologne) HQ, but I instinctively knew my personality was not then robust enough to withstand the experience and so declined.

It was only after I returned to the UK in 1983 that the book began to take shape.  Over the next 18 years or so, in various places and degrees of penury, between bouts of casual work to finance doing so I continued to labour away on it.  And when I say labour I mean labour.  It may not be Joyce’s Ulysses – I think I’m on pretty safe ground there – but I’d be surprised if that book cost its author more hours or mental effort.  As time went by the book increased in size and complexity, and thus sheer difficulty of management, and when the money ran out for the last time it was a case of so near and yet … so far.  I had no option but to return to the world of work more permanently, before it was too late.

This is a hell of a way to spend one’s adult life, or such a large part of it, I realize.  While writing the book I oscillated – sometimes in the course of an afternoon – between believing it the most valuable yet written on twentieth century music on the one hand, and on the other a pile of overcooked tripe serving only to mock my original intention of producing a plain person’s guide.  Looking back now I regard the time spent on it as far and away the most significant learning experience of my life and the book itself as an ambitious failure – albeit one not without merit.  Stockhausen himself always believed in it and in me (witness Exhibits A, B and C), though I don’t delude myself his view would have been the same had the book been less positive about his achievement.

Stockhausen died suddenly in December 2007, leaving a surprisingly large hole in my mental landscape.  In July 2012, his life-partner and muse (or to give her due credit for once, great interpreter) Suzanne Stephens got back in touch, offering to explore whether there might yet be a way to let the book see the light of day as Stockhausen would have wished.  The last contact I’d had was a letter written a few months before he died, urging me to finish the book if possible.  This came so unexpectedly that when I heard of his death I wondered whether he had perhaps had an ominous diagnosis and was setting his affairs in order.  Not so, Suzee explained:  “By the way, when Karlheinz wrote to you out of the clear blue, it was because he had your book on his desk for years and thought of you.   He died out of the clear blue, just after completing a commission for orchestra of a version of Tierkreis. No health issues, thank God!”

As I explained in my reply to Suzanne, my present circumstances make it hard to envisage finding an opportunity to complete the project, even if it were possible to get my head back where it would need to be in order for me to do so.  And yet – here’s the thing – there are whole slabs of the book that exist in more or less definitive form and may, as I suggest, possess some value, even presented piecemeal.  We agreed that once this present site had been established, I would see what could be done about readying these sections for uploading to and / or a dedicated website of my own devising.

In the meantime – for the point of all this is not merely to break your heart with sad stories – I offer here the whole of Section 3, in which I attempt to describe the nature, and trace the evolution, of Stockhausen’s ‘musical philosophy and creative personality’, as the title has it.  This prospectus gives it a certain self-sufficiency, though at the same time the section is intended to provide new perspectives on matters discussed elsewhere in the book, so is constantly cross-referring – a feature that some, I’m well aware, will find annoying but which is simply, for better or worse, intrinsic to the book’s method.  To give an idea of how this substantial and key part of the book fits into the plan as a whole, here is the table of contents.

A few other points might be made:

  • A definitive version of Section 3 would take account of Stockhausen’s final decade-and-a-half, the latest work covered as things stand being Dienstag aus Licht, completed in 1991.
  • The red cross-references – as ( – point to other parts of the book and may simply be ignored.  Though they serve no purpose in this incarnation of the text, they could not have been removed without loss of meaning.
  • The superscript numerals, also in red, are citation references to sources not provided here.  If anyone happens to be curious about the origin of a particular quotation they could always email me, as indeed they are welcome to do on any other matter.
  • In preparing a definitive online version I might well opt to stud it with hyperlinks in the manner of the present site.