10 December 2007

Those Who Knew Them: Karlheinz Stockhausen 1928 - 2007

A tribute to the pioneering German composer, by his close personal friend, popular band leader* James Last.

I first met Karlheinz at summer school in Darmstadt in the early 50s. I was working in the canteen serving up the schnitzels to the serious and spotty-faced youths hell-bent on bending the musical world to their serialist will, but there was something I liked about young Karly. When he dropped his metal tray on the floor spilling cutlery, crockery and sauerkraut everywhere he didn't do what every other student would do - ignore it and leave me to clean up the mess - he immediately took out his notebook and transcribed the sound. It later formed the basis of his ground-breaking work, TrayStucke.

Musically we were poles apart. He liked cutting up recording tape and reassembling it in a fashion that wowed critics and confused audiences across the Western world, while I dreamed of the day I could give up jazz to lead my own orchestra playing covers of light popular music that sounded as though they were recorded very far away at the bottom of a mine. But we had a lot in common: we were both German and we played the piano - I played it with my hands and my heart; Karlheinz played it with a tape recorder and a bratwurst. What a wunderkind!
While I was touring the bierkellers and airforce bases of West Germany, Karlheinz was spending days on end in the new electronic music studio at Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Köln. I would turn up from time to time to see how my great pal was getting on, but, of course, I understood he was too busy forging new musical directions to see me.

I'd met Paul McCartney in a nightclub in Hamburg and we'd hit it off immediately - especially when he confessed to me in the small hours of the morning his love for "a German composer, you've probably never heard of him, like... Karlheinz Stockhausen..." Well, imagine his reaction when I was able to introduce the two of them. They loved him so much they put him on the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and he returned the compliment by writing Drumwerks - a 24-hour cycle of percussion and tape loops for Ringo in 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 9/8 and any other time signature Ringo felt like playing.

Though he was critically acclaimed, a big hit still eluded Karlheinz. I begged him to just once compose something a little lighter, something a little more accessible like Burt Kaempfert's A Walk Through The Black Forest. He nodded, and then retired to his study to fast for seven days. I paved the hallway like an expectant father - back and forth, back and forth, my footsteps growing heavier and heavier. Sure enough, seven days later, Karlheinz emerges, leaner, paler, with that mystical look in his eye which always said he had composed something extraordinary, something exciting... He beckoned me into his inner sanctum and played me his latest work, Man Pacing Expectantly. I listened mesmerised for the whole of the seven days it took him to play it!

In the 70s, while film producers and directors were starting to exploit the potential of contemporary compositions for scoring horror films, Karlheinz would have no truck with it. My good friend, Stanley Kubrick wanted him to score The Shining, but Karlheinz was not worldly enough to see the potential for promoting his work and making enough money to keep him in quarter-inch tape for the rest of his life. Instead, I had to step into the breach and knock out the score in under a week. Still, I cannot tell you how proud I was that Karlheinz said it was the scariest film he'd ever heard!

He continued to tread his own path. he was a spiritual man but he understood worldly matters - as anyone who heard Helikopter-Streichquartett would know. Four string quartets in four helicopters hovering over the audience. It requires no explanation from me, naturlich, and was enjoyed all over the world - particularly by General Noriega - who listened to it broadcast by the American military for three weeks - transfixed, he never left his home.

Like every true musical genius - like myself, Burt, Ringo - Karlheinz was often misunderstood. So when he commented after 9/11 that it was a work of art, naturally, the reactionary media pounced on him and the premiere of his new opera Twin Towers Falling (based on Noh theatre and sung in Welsh over the course of two months... without a break...!) was cancelled. But they did not know the Karlheinz I knew. He was a fun guy, a party guy. He would stay up for days on end - just listening to the opening movement of Licht. He was echt, I was ersatz. But he was my friend. And I know he would have wanted me to play at his funeral. Which is why my orchestra will be performing Gesang der Junglinge on Stylophones in a jaunty upbeat tempo. It's what he would have wanted I am sure. Auf wiedersehen, mein freund, und ein, swei, drei, vier...!

* Not the James Last, you understand.**
** And not that popular either.***
*** In fact, he was bloody awful.


Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

ELP's Emerson was quite keen on him. More talked about than listened to - that much was true.

weltkind said...

what a fine surprise! the everlasting mr last and karlheinz from sirius were true soulmates ;-). by the way: in stockhausen country, the master was nearly forgotten. when i read about his death, i was surprised he had been still alive in the mountains near cologne.