SUGGESTING to Karlheinz Stockhausen that he has the trappings of a latter-day Wagner is a bit like congratulating Tony Blair on furthering the cause of Thatcherism.
"I hope not," replies the 76-year-old icon of late-20th-century music, with an icy indignation that suggests it’s the wrong question to have asked the most famous living composer on the planet today.
Yet consider this: Stockhausen is talking to me from his home in Kurten, a town near Cologne that has increasingly become the self-contained headquarters of the Stockhausen empire. From here he operates his own publishing company, Stockhausen-Verlag, as well as its parallel CD label. Besides publishing his latest works, it has succeeded in systematically acquiring earlier Stockhausen scores previously published by Universal Edition, as well as recordings from Deutsche Grammophon.
The house itself is a workplace, deliberately isolated from the rest of the world - although the composer still makes frequent visits to the Cologne radio studios that were the catalyst for his early groundbreaking electronic experiments of the 1950s and 1960s. When he requires the services of live performers they are invariably his sons or close associates.
Stockhausen, in his late seventies, is a man with complete autonomy in controlling every aspect of his music and its presentation. When he comes to Glasgow and Edinburgh next week - as part of the three-city Triptych festival - his role will be, quite simply, to set up the banks of electronic equipment and press "go". The Wagnerian term Gesamtkunstwerk (complete art work) comes to mind. And it’s tempting to view Kurten, which is also home to the fast-expanding Stockhausen Archive, as the composer’s self-styled Bayreuth.
Still not convinced? What about the fact he has spent the past 28 years completely immersed in two colossal operatic projects? Licht was begun in 1977, and by its completion in 2002 had evolved into a 29-hour sequence of seven full-length theatre works, each inspired by a specific day of the week.
Next Wednesday’s Glasgow concert features two electronic segments from Licht: Wednesday’s Greeting and Wednesday’s Farewell. Edinburgh audiences, a week on Saturday, will hear Oktophonie - part of Tuesday from Licht and, according to the composer, "the first composition that exists in which there is vertical movement between four groups of speakers at ceiling level and four at ground level" - along with an exclusively electronic version of the composer’s 1960 masterpiece, Kontakte.
More recently, Stockhausen has turned his attention to the 24 hours of the day, and a new unfolding operatic epic called Klang (Sound), the first part of which - Prima Ora (First Hour) - will be premiered in Milan Cathedral on 5 May. In case you’re wondering, yes, there are 23 more segments to come. All of which puts the apogee of Wagner’s life’s work - the Ring Cycle and Parsifal - somewhat in the shade.
So, why the indignation at being cast alongside such an immense 19th-century German icon? "Wagner was looking to the past," argues Stockhausen. "I don’t like that really. He wrote music that really expresses the passions of man to the utmost.
"He had a special relationship with north European mythology." Stockhausen, whose passions are more cosmic than terrestrial, more mystical than mundane, draws a specific distinction between Wagner’s epics and his own operatic magnum opus, Licht.
"My protagonists are not in time, not in history," he says. Yet, the villain of the piece, Lucifer, was there at the 9/11 attacks, Stockhausen told journalists in America soon after the twin towers atrocity, describing it controversially as Lucifer’s "greatest work of art".
That statement - which he maintains was a misrepresentation of what he actually said - resulted in concerts of his music being cancelled, and worldwide vilification for confusing crime with art. He hasn’t changed his view, but prefers to voice it in broader tones. "They say a few Arabs were responsible. I don’t care about that. I care about the universal disabling force of Lucifer, not just in New York, but in other events like the recent tsunami. I’m also a realist who believes in humanity and that it is progressing slowly every day."
Stockhausen’s life, many would argue, has been a progressive, self-contained work of art, shifting radically from one momentous step to the next. From the moment he threw aside youthful ambitions to become a writer (egged on by Hermann Hesse) and immersed himself wholly in the pursuit of composition in the 1950s, Stockhausen shook the foundations of 20th-century music with his complete rethinking of music as organised sound.
He did so initially in such seminal works as Kreuzspiel, composed in response to his mentor Olivier Messiaen’s move towards total serialism - the systematic organisation of all possible musical parameters (pitch, rhythm, dynamics, etc); in Kontakte, where he fused together the world of live and electronic music; but more cataclysmically in his single-minded development of pure electronic sound - as distinct from the tape-based musique concrte (in simplest terms, the electronic manipulation of everyday recorded sounds) that he encountered among the 1950s Paris avant-garde and its chief luminaries, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Boulez.
In every sense, he began with a blank sheet. Whether exploring non-progressive gestural techniques in Momente, or vast spatial counterpoints in Gruppen (Stockhausen was, astonishingly, unaware that this vast multi-orchestral work received its UK premiere in Glasgow in 1960), each work sets and conquers its own challenge. Technologically, his pre-synthesiser studio work was the genesis of all that has developed electronically since. Stylistically, he has no forbears.
"Gestures are music," says the man who took that concept to the extreme with his airborne Helicopter String Quartet in Licht.
As for barriers, they simply don’t exist in Stockhausen’s mind. How could they for a composer whose fundamental objective was clearly to redefine an artform - particularly in the traditional Austro-German sense - that had possibly played itself out? Stockhausen’s starting point was as elemental as the white noise he worked with in his studio. It was also pan-cultural.
"I have this idea that the whole planet must have had a common nucleus of (musical) language, which then developed like dialect," he says.
He was probably the first to coin the phrase "world music", used in this context to describe his colossal Hymnen of the mid-1960s, a two-hour electronic fusion and electronic transformation of national anthems which attracted, among its wide audience of admirers, The Beatles.
Despite the influence he reputedly exerted on artists as diverse as Frank Zappa, Bjrk and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s new composer-in-association Jonathan Harvey (who not only worked closely in the studio with Stockhausen, but wrote an insightful book on the composer), it became too easy in the 1980s and 90s to speak of Stockhausen in the past tense. His 9/11 outburst; a Stockhausen festival in London several years ago that sat back-to-back with a festival of techno music; and the fulfilment of Licht all helped reawaken the musical world to his presence.
There are plans for complete performances of Licht - one by Hellerau-Dresden Opera in 2008, and another by the cities of Essen, Dusseldorf and Dortmund as part of their joint bid to become European Cities of Culture in 2010. That sounds to me like Stockhausen on a Wagnerian scale, even if the composer himself would never admit it.
Karlheinz Stockhausen is at the Tramway, Glasgow, 27 April, and the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 30 April.
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