I just finished watching Frank Scheffer’s documentary Stockhausen: Helicopter String Quartet; it’s about Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet, which is a string quartet played in helicopters. Stockhausen wrote it.
The piece first came to my attention ten years ago, alarmingly, when I was a brand new composition student at UMBC. To a neophyte like me, it seemed like an enormously liberating statement: You can do anything in your music, even send performers into the sky in individual choppers! Not until today, though, did I mentally reframe that sentiment to better reflect reality: Maybe Karlheinz Stockhausen was indulged in writing a Helicopter String Quartet, but no other composer in the world has or had the right combination of harebrained imagination, eminence, and funding to do so. Furthermore, it’s very possible that deep economic and cultural factors will align so that such a project will never happen again. You, in other words, are in fact sharply limited in what you can do in your music.
We’ve all more or less resigned ourselves to the fact that the myth of Western art music’s historicism has worn through. No one in his or her right mind anticipates that a “next big thing” is on the horizon in any but the marketing sense of the term. But consider, for a moment, the music that might be made if every composer had the resources to (for example) complement the players in a string quartet with four helicopters. They don’t necessarily even have to be helicopters: Autogyros, hydrofoils, hovercrafts—these are all reasonable possibilities. I kid, of course; really it’s about funding and institutional tolerance for zaniness—if both were unlimited, who can say where contemporary music would be five years from now? I guess the value of this speculation, really, is to affirm what we already knew, namely that so-called developments in musical aesthetics are bound very closely to changes in the field of production. We will imagine, in other words, what we have the means to imagine; we’ll make what we have the means to make. If we have the means to imagine and make a helicopter string quartet, so be it.