BORN IN 1928, Karlheinz Stockhausen grew up in rural Germany under Nazism, endured deprivation and war, flirted with poetry, and studied philosophy, finally deciding in 1950 to devote his life to defending so-called degenerate art, and to composing a new music of transcendent abstraction. Inspired by the power of radio, he first came to public attention as a white-coated, nuclear-age modernist and composer of the awe-inspiring Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths, 1955–56), a five-channel tape composition dedicated to the Catholic faith and grounded in information science and linguistics. In both his electronic and his instrumental music, Stockhausen pursued a poetics of spatiality and movement prefigured in Disney’s 1940 Fantasia but ultimately abandoned by Hollywood. To his musical inventions he brought an unparalleled fluency in acoustics and a rejection of cliché. The intense frown and piercing gaze of the young man situated in the back row on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper are straight out of Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I, and the engraving’s symbolism of hourglass, numerology, astrology, and geometry—even of the carpenter’s nails on the floor—is also strangely appropriate. Stockhausen’s music is intelligent, haunting, elusive, intimidating, and curiously revealing, to the performer or listener who is prepared to work for it, of an inexplicable and profound beauty. Underpinning the invertible Bauhaus graphics and jazzy exuberance of Zyklus for solo percussionist (1959), for example, is a delightful and truly genial dissertation on chance and determinism.
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