PRINT March 2008


I FIRST MET STOCKHAUSEN in 1962 or ’63. He was in Los Angeles on a lecture tour and already quite famous. Someone, probably Luciano Berio, had told him about the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which Ramon Sender and I had just started. Stockhausen flew up in a private plane so that he could meet us and be part of the scene. I can’t think of many other composers who would have had that sort of openness.

I recall that, early on, many in the so-called serious-music world had substantial problems with him. Some still do. But his output was generative and full of life and energy. He was willing to take chances. It’s not surprising that so many rock and techno musicians have a deep admiration for him.

Stockhausen’s work solidified major ideas in the history of the avant-garde. He had a piece for almost every step along the way. Refrain (1959), for example—an indeterminate composition that allows performers to decide on the position in the piece of a set of refrains—is one of the more beautiful attempts to get at a music of the moment, one that will never be heard in exactly the same way again. Plus-Minus (1963), an elaborate collection of notated material, graphic symbols, and instructions that allow multiple different realizations, deals in a wonderful way with systematic approaches to composition. And Gesang der Jünglinge (1955–56), which beautifully merges the concreteness of a child’s voice with the abstraction of electronic sound, stands as a real media piece—not just a piece that makes use of electronics but one that requires electronics, in every sense of the word.

Stockhausen was well known for his incredible ego, which I found fascinating, even charming. Once, in the early 1970s, we happened to be staying at the same hotel in New York. He had just read an interview I had done with the New York Times, and over breakfast he said to me, “That was a wonderful interview in the paper.” I thanked him, and then he leaned toward me very sweetly, shook his index finger at me, and said, “But you didn’t mention my name once!” You don’t run into that kind of ego very often. Egocentric people are usually distasteful, yet I didn’t find that with him. He got so much flack for calling 9/11 the greatest work of art ever. But I don’t think there was any malice in that. He was so involved with his own persona and with his own self. It was an innocent comment—very unfortunate, but innocent. Thank goodness we don’t all feel that way about things. But having a few such people in the world doesn’t hurt. Stockhausen was quite exotic. Maybe it’s really true that he was from Sirius.

There is no question that Stockhausen was a tremendously important figure and a very powerful life force. He was a special human being who brought a spark that will never go away. We should all be thankful that we had him “for a time” on Earth.

Morton Subotnick is a New York–based composer.

As told to Christoph Cox.