It has been nearly twelve years since composer Karlheinz Stockhausen made his infamous remarks on the September 11 attacks. Urging us to “adjust our brains,” he called them “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.”
Naturally, a lot of people were upset about these words. To be fair, Stockhausen also acknowledged that the attacks were a crime (because the victims could not consent to the performance), and the work of Lucifer (a cosmic villain in his personal mythos). This context, however, was missing from most accounts of Stockhausen’s comments.
Those remarks certainly seemed extraordinarily tone-deaf at the time, if nothing else. In a letter to The New York Times, sculptor Richard Serra condemned them for what he saw as “the aestheticization of terror.” After the fact, however, others have come to find a kernel of meaning in Stockhausen’s oddly detached musings. In New York magazine more recently, English professor Terry Castle connects Stockhausen to the 18th-century cult of the Sublime and the history of artworks about war and disaster (the sack of Rome, the destruction of Pompeii, the Titanic, Picasso’s Guernica, etc.).
Castle hits upon something that Serra (and a lot of others) missed, which is that violence and terror are already thoroughly aestheticized–in music, movies, books, television, video games, and so on. In the world of new music, there were so many pieces written about 9/11 in the wake of the event that it almost became its own genre. Most of these pieces seemed to yearn for a kind of catharsis. (I remember there being a lot of talk about “healing.”) But for me at least, many of these works seemed quite mawkish, and none of them really effectively touched the true horror of the event. Stockhausen’s comments are horrifying–it is horrifying to think that an act of terror could be a work of art–but they at least offer an explanation.
These comments were on my mind recently after hearing Nicholas Isherwood perform Stockhausen’s Capricorn for bass voice and electronics in Los Angeles last Saturday. (Full disclosure: I helped organize this performance.) Isherwood was the avatar of Lucifer in Stockhausen’s opera Donnerstag aus Licht and worked closely with the composer for many years. After hearing Capricorn and talking to Isherwood about the piece, I felt like I understood something I had been missing about Stockhausen as a composer. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy his music before, but I think I made the same category error that many people make, in lumping him together with the other Darmstadt school composers–Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono. Certainly there is a shared sensibility there, and he certainly spoke the language, but I’m not sure that Stockhausen was quite as attached to abstraction for abstraction’s sake. The performances I’ve heard that focus on the abstractions often fall flat–they, too, seem oddly detached.
Isherwood’s performance of Capricorn, on the other hand, was incredibly visceral. At every moment, it threatens to envelop and overwhelm you, and the overall effect is transformational. (“Whenever we hear sounds, we are changed. We are no longer the same.”) Seen in this light, Stockhausen’s obsession with massive and impractical works, like the absurd Helicopter String Quartet, seems less driven by ego and more motivated by a fervent desire for change. Through music, through aesthetics, perhaps another world is possible. He wants us to adjust our brains. And maybe we should.