Karlheinz Stockhausen: At home with the bête noire of classical music

Where Karlheinz Stockhausen is, controversy is never far behind. And this weekend, the avant-garde composer and serial thriller is in London. He talks to Tim Stein
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His general lack of communication no doubt has something to do with the press battering over his bizarre comments made shortly after the September 11 attacks in New York, in which he likened the World Trade Centre atrocity to "Lucifer's greatest work of art".

Though he claims to have been misquoted (he apologised anyway), like most journalists before me, I ask him if he could clarify what he actually meant. His unintelligible response borders on the bizarre: "Lucifer is still leading his rebellion against God and mankind. The problem is that almost nobody believes in the existence of Lucifer." Whatever your viewpoint, his comment did him few favours. The local city government at Kürten in Germany, where he lives, threatened to withdraw its support for the Stockhausen masterclasses he holds each year, and even one of his daughters threatened to have nothing to do with him.

Since peering out from the cover of the The Beatles' album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (he appears in the back row, between Lenny Bruce and WC Fields), Stockhausen's electronic wizardry has influenced a generation of musicians from jazz greats such as Charles Mingus and Miles Davis through to Frank Zappa, Pete Townshend and Björk. While he may have been dubbed the "mad messiah of modern music" by his detractors, this strange, balding man in the white lunar suit still confounds expectation. With his ever-loyal companions, assistants and musicians Kathinka Pasveer and Suzanne Stephens (one's never quite sure of the relationships) at his side, Stockhausen now has his head very much, so to speak, in the clouds.

Sitting in his self-built hexagonal home near Cologne ("hexagon rooms have the wonderful quality of the 60-degree angles reflecting the light endlessly, especially at night," he says), or at his studio complex in Kuerten, he is hard at work on Klang (Sound), a cycle of works based on the 24 hours of the day. The first part, "Ora Prima", was premiered at Milan Cathedral last May, and he is now working on the second (for two harps, due to premiere in Milan in June 2006); the third (natural durations for piano, due to be premiered in Bologna); and the fourth ("Himmels-Tur", for one percussionist and a child), still without a commission. Preparations are under way for a complete performance of Licht (a work of special significance for him) at the European Centre for the Arts Hellerau in Dresden in 2008, to mark his 80th birthday.

At 76, the German-born composer is no stranger to controversy. When he conducted the 1951 world premiere of Kreuzspiel (Crossplay), a work for oboe, clarinet, piano and percussion, at the Darmstadt summer school for new music, the music so incensed the public that a riot broke out. Stockhausen explains: "A public fight broke out between between Antoine Golea, the French music critic, and Olivier Messiaen. All the predominant composers at the time - including Wolfgang Fortner, Hans Jelinek, Hans Eisler, Boris Blacher, Conrad Beck, Karl Amadeus Hartmann and so on - were all against my music. Golea shouted that I was no musician but a dilettante, while Messiaen insisted that I was a gifted composer." Anyone could have written a fugue or a piece in the style of Hindemith, he says: "It was just special to write something a little different."

Stockhausen still puts in nine hours of composing a day, when "I'm not on tour or giving composition seminars". And there's little doubt that the composer and his music still divide the public. You may not know his music intimately (and you'd be forgiven for that, as there's a lot of it), but you should recall the name - or, at least, conductor Sir Thomas Beecham's acerbic remark when asked if he'd heard any of it. "No," Beecham said, "but I believe I may have trodden in some."

The philosopher and musicologist Roger Scruton described him as "a pseudo-intellectual hippie-mystic with a liberating gift for creating utter nonsense". William Orbit, the megastar producer of Blur's 13 and Madonna's Ray of Light, said he was a composer with "Teutonic exactitude combined with anarchistic bollocks". But, for others, he remains a near god-like figure.

Among his many fans is the Icelandic singer and composer Björk, who has likened his artistic progression and influence to that of Picasso. She says: "He's had so many periods. There are so many musicians who've made a whole career out of one of his periods. He goes one step ahead, discovers something that's never even been done before musically, and by the time other people have even grasped it, he's on to the next thing."

Robin Maconie, a former student, published his new survey of the composer's music (Other Planets: The Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen) this year; his first book on the composer came out in 1976. In the intervening period, Maconie says: "Stockhausen has enjoyed the reputation of being the world's most formidably intellectual and unfathomable musical genius."

Genius, certainly. A pioneer of electronic music, he has been creating masterpieces in four and five-channel surround-sound from the mid-1950s. His music impressed and influenced Stravinsky in the 1950s, and The Beatles - the story is that John Lennon phoned him while writing "Strawberry Fields Forever" and drew inspiration from both Hymnen (1965-67), an electronic montage of national anthems, and Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-56), a kind of landmark "classic" in 20th-century music. Kraftwerk in the 1960s and Michael Tippett in the 1970s were influenced, and he resonates in sci-fi and psychodrama movies such as The Matrix. In 1996, * * one Jim Stonebraker had the idea of starting a Stockhausen website. The two had corresponded for years, so Stonebraker wrote to Stockhausen with the proposal. This "official" website has had a staggering two million hits from musicians, composers and just about anyone interested in the man.

It is little surprise, then, that Stockhausen is quick to brush aside any hint that he may be losing his place as one of this century's leading (albeit veteran), living, contemporary composers. He points to the Milan concerts last May (which attracted 2,500 people), and his recent appearance at a sell-out pop festival in Stavanger, where "I gave six concerts featuring my electronic works, all with full houses and long standing ovations".

Should anyone require further proof, you can "check out my last four concerts in Tokyo (www.arion-edo.org), read my 'summary' of the Stockhausen courses in 2005 (www.stockhausen.org) or look at the review of my concerts in Glasgow and Edinburgh last April (www.triptych05.com)," he informs me precisely. Stockhausen loves his facts and figures.

Born in Burg-Mödrath, near Cologne, in 1928, the son of an impoverished schoolteacher and a manic-depressive mother (who was confined to an asylum before being executed by the Nazis), the young Stockhausen exhibited a precocious talent. He only needed to hear a piece once in order to replicate it. He was giving piano recitals at the age of eight, and was writing strange compositions.

He worked as a farm labourer for 18 months, in a car factory (which he liked), as a pianist in bars and clubs, and then as a stretcher-bearer at a military hospital during the Second World War, where he was witness to some horrific injuries (some say this bears on his music, especially in Donnerstag, which some see as a semi-autobiographical work, from the Licht cycle). Then he enrolled on a "music education" course at the Cologne National Conservatory of Music.

Literary aspirations - he wrote a novel in 1949 called Geburt im Tot (Birth in Death), inspired by Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game - soon gave way to musical ones after listening to the music of Messiaen (in particular his Mode de valeurs), Bartok and Stravinsky. Then Kreuzspiel (1951), his first major work, put his style of composition firmly on the musical map. Described as an exercise in musical pointillism, Kreuzspiel was, he has said, "influenced by the Einsteinian concept of the universal formula and also by Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, whose modular theory is very close to the thinking of serial music".

Stockhausen certainly doesn't make things easy. It is no surprise to learn that, apart from his artistic directorship of the celebrated electronic music studio of Westdeutscher Rundfunk (1963-77) and his professorship of composition at the State Academy for Music in Cologne (1971-77), he studied phonetics, acoustics and information theory at the University of Bonn (1954-56).

Since 1953, he has lectured at summer courses on new music at Darmstadt. He began teaching composition there in 1957 and, in 1963, established a similar series of workshops at Cologne (the Cologne Courses for New Music). Since 1998, he has been running the famous international Stockhausen Courses during the summer months at Kürten, the secluded little community near Cologne where he has been living for almost 30 years, and to where students flock from all over the world.

He maintains that "people who want to understand the work I do have to spend at least as much time as I have listening to it". Given that he has composed about 200 works (and is still hard at work), and that some of them have taken an unearthly length of time to write (his opera Licht, for example, which is based on the seven days of the week, took 24 years to complete and would run for almost 30 hours if played through in its entirety), this might prove a little difficult.

Assuming we have the time, could he suggest where we might start? "Start with CD one. Someday you might arrive at CD 81 [the last publication]," comes the typically concise (but not always helpful) reply. But then, the concept of time has always sat very comfortably for Stockhausen. When Björk asked him how he felt about filling the time between birth and death - "Will it be enough to do all the things you want?" - his reply was illuminating: "No, you can only do a very small portion of what you want to do. That is natural... 80 or 90 years is nothing.

"There are a lot of very beautiful pieces of music of the past which the majority of people alive now will never hear. These pieces are extraordinarily precious, full of mystery and intelligence and invention. I'm thinking at this moment of certain works by Bach, or even earlier composers. There are so many fantastic compositions, 500 or 600 years old, not even known to the majority of human beings. So it will take a lot of time. There are billions of precious things in the universe that we have no time to study."

Messiaen (with whom he studied in Paris in 1952) and Webern are cited, not as influences on Stockhausen's musical style (as some have previously said), but as "examples of integrity" - "Messiaen for his synthesis of Indian and French music and for his religiosity as a Catholic Christian; Webern for the synthesis of isorhythmic and 20th-century 12-tone music and for his praising of nature. And both for composing for God." Stockhausen "composes only what he finds musically necessary," he tells me.

His music is clearly inspired by mystery and science, too. In early works such as Kreuzspiel, Punkte (1952) and Kontra-Punkte (1952), the idea of liberating musicians from the constraints of gravity is there. In Helikopter Streichquartett, for instance (finished in 1993), four members of a string quartet are expected to perform from two independent helicopters flying above the concert hall. In Oktophonie (Tuesday from Licht, 1990-91), which will be performed in its original version at the Billingsgate concert tomorrow, Stockhausen incorporates what he calls "a new dimension of music space composition where rhythm is significantly slowed down and pitch changes are reduced to small steps or glissandi".

Whether or not Oktophonie is, as Stockhausen claims, evidence of his "outer space" experience (he claims to be from the star Sirius, but one's never quite sure what to believe), is there anything the listener should be aware of? "Yes," he says. "Close your eyes and listen for the eight simultaneous movements of sound layers in space."

Kontakte, which will feature alongside Oktophonie, is a seminal piece from 1960. Exploring similar techniques by way of four groups of loudspeakers encircling the audience, what you experience is a kind of dizzying encounter between electronic sounds and instrumental music. Stockhausen has likened this to a sense of gravitational loss, a feeling of flying.

A few years back, the conductor Peter Eotvos, who worked with the composer on Licht, remarked that there were "many students at the Music Academy in Cologne who didn't know if Karlheinz was alive or not". Periods of lengthy isolation fuelled the rumours. Even now, many people tend to assume he is dead.

Stockhausen may be much less willing these days to talk to the media, which doesn't help - and which could be for any number of reasons, not least the fact that his composing takes up an inordinate amount of time. But that hasn't dented his endurance, his uniqueness or his output. Young musicians all over the world continue to send him music samples for comment and approval - in 1995, BBC Radio 3 ran a mini-series examining Stockhausen's musical legacy and sent a package of tapes from the likes of Aphex Twin, Plastikman, Scanner and Daniel Pemberton (the so-called Technocrats) to the composer asking for feedback. It was, as you can imagine, a revealing experiment.

Given all this, would it not be fair to at least ask for his views on the future of music today? "No suggestions - just hope," he replies, in typical fashion.

Stockhausen's lecture Composer and Interpreter is at 5pm today at the Frieze Art Fair, Regent's Park, London NW1 (www.friezeartfair.com). 'Kontakte' and 'Oktophonie' will be performed as part of the art fair at Old Billingsgate Market, London EC3, tomorrow night (0870 890 0514; www.seetickets.com)