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Stockhausen: A Theological Interpretation by Thomas Ulrich (review)
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In the last decade, Thomas Ulrich has made a significant contribution towards demystifying the rich theological associations in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s works. Recently, the Stockhausen Verlag translated and published the first half of his book, which deals with Stockhausen (Neue Musik aus religiösem Geist: Theologisches Denken im Werk von Karlheinz Stockhausen und John Cage (Saarbrücken, 2006)). Not simply a theologian with academic facility, Ulrich has also distinguished himself by serving as the dramaturge for several recent staged productions of Stockhausen’s works, including the memorable 2011 premiere of Sonntag aus Licht in Cologne. Ulrich’s book provides a valuable but somewhat limited perspective on theological thinking in Stockhausen.

It has long been known that Stockhausen’s creations are inundated with theological meaning. The composer himself fancifully called his works a ‘fast airship to the divine’. While many have emphasized the variety of religious influences on his works, and Stockhausen often alluded to a diverse array of religious inspiration (perhaps most memorably in the calling of divine names in Stimmung but also at numerous other moments, particularly in the Licht cycle), Ulrich treats the compositional project primarily as an expression of Christian epistemology. His main thesis is that ‘Stockhausen’s theological aporia fuelled his artistic development until he found a stable basis for his work in formula composition’ (p. viii). Ulrich’s methodology seems cautious but prudent: begin by examining the works themselves, not the ‘abyss of motives to which Stockhausen occasionally refers’ (p. ix). He arranges Stockhausen’s oeuvre by compositional technique, beginning with the early serial music up to about 1954, then moving to Group and Moment form, continuing with Process and Intuitive music, and concluding with Formula and Superformula composition. Notwithstanding these four categories, Ulrich’s underlying goal is to demonstrate unity in the composer’s life work.

Ulrich identifies a compelling link between Stockhausen’s early serial music and the Neo-platonic philosophy of Plotinus and Proclus. These third- and fifth-century writers, steeped in the Hellenistic intellectual tradition, influenced early Christian metaphysics. They conceived of the ‘One’ as separated from the cosmos, yet simultaneously permeating it. By connecting early European serialism to these ancient thinkers, Ulrich opens up an appealing way of understanding the young Stockhausen’s Herculean efforts in serial determinism. In this reading, rather than manifesting a peculiar control mania, Stockhausen struggled to reflect nothing less than the divine order of the universe in a single musical composition. For Stockhausen, this meant that any dialectic opposition of material had to be eliminated (p. 29). Another way to understand the effaced dialectic has to do with Stockhausen’s awareness of his historical situation. By the 1950s, Europe had experienced such decay and destruction that Stockhausen could see no way forward other than to evoke a ‘supra-individual’ and ‘supra-historical absolute order’—hence, the fixation on the ‘One’ and the almost obsessive elimination of everything not emanating from it (pp. 28–9).

In his attempts to govern many dimensions of a composition through one fundamental principle, Stockhausen’s early works such as Kreuzspiel (1951) were hampered by a struggle forming the individual timbres, which were difficult to bring into a relationship with the underlying pitch or rhythmic structure. He found something close to an ideal solution in the electronic composition Studie II (1954) where even the sound-spectra are produced by the same basic material as other musical parameters. Here, virtually everything from the timbres to the formal structure is ‘gleaned from the One’ (p. 15)—specifically, a five-element series coupled to a table of frequencies, durations, and decibel levels. Yet Ulrich occasionally overlooks the astonishingly flexible way that Stockhausen dealt with kinks in his compositional process. As Jerome Kohl demonstrated in a fascinating unpublished 2004 paper, the peculiar history of Kontra-Punke (1952–3) includes a complete reworking of the pitch material, while keeping the rhythmic structure invariant. In this light, Ulrich’s statement that ‘from the very beginning, the piece emerged from one root’ (author’s emphasis, p. 19) does not tell the whole story. Ultimately, Stockhausen’s ‘hostility towards sensuality’—this, despite the peculiar beauty that many hear in the early works—led to a dead end (p. 29...

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