The Sum vs. The Pieces
Last week Randy Nordschow asked what would happen if we monitored the reactions of ordinary citizens to our zany newfanglements. I was about to comment that most Americans are probably familiar with the sounds of new music through film scores and popular music and that only the most radical contemporary works would be likely to upset their aesthetic applecarts when I overheard a relative refer to me as “someone who actually enjoys Stockhausen.” Maybe we haven’t come as far as I thought; then again, I know more than a few composers who don’t enjoy Stockhausen, so there you go.
Part of this problem has to do with a fundamental wrinkle in the way we often talk about new music. I wasn’t accused of being someone who likes Licht—still a very broad-brush accusation, although one I can admit to—but of someone who likes Stockhausen. Now that the master’s been called back to Sirius and his output is complete, I can say I run hot and cold on his catalog. I have a lot of affection for Kontakte but don’t really care for the saccharine Im Freundschaft (a piece that would raise few eyebrows among lay listeners).
But maybe what lies behind my relative’s allegation has less to do with individual pieces and more to do with Stockhausen as a figure. It’s certainly true that I approve of Stockhausen as a contributor to the creative Lebenswelt of the 20th century, and I recognize his influence on generations of musicians from all quarters. In that sense, I do enjoy Stockhausen—I enjoy that he existed, I enjoy that he produced some landmark stuff, and I enjoy that he was (let’s be honest) a little crazy. So perhaps the surnamic metonymy invoked by my relative says more about me than if he’d broken it down to Carré vs. Gesang der Jünglinge, although this possibility calls to mind the moment in Zoolander when Hansel, Owen Wilson’s character, confesses a deep admiration for Sting even though the he doesn’t listen to the latter’s music. The difference between me and Hansel, I suppose, is that my respect is quickly squandered as soon as the words “John,” “Dowland,” “cover,” and “album” are used together. But I’m behind the rainforest activism a hundred and ten percent.