Avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (d. 2007) had his fifteen minutes of quasi-fame in the late-'60s/early-'70s during the height of Cold War tensions and the Vietnam War. It's difficult to fathom how his musique concrète struck a chord with listeners of serious music at the time since much of it comes off today sounding kitschy and contrived. One could probably look to the prevailing Zeitgeist which also spawned Dark Side of the Moon and its various offshoots. I have to say, however, that I was always held spellbound by two of his lengthy works first heard on late-night public radio, Hymnen being one. It combines samplings of several familiar national anthems with the random sounds from shortwave radios and intermittent studio voices to make for a fascinating two-hour journey into the Zen of worldwide electronic communication (or near instantaneous travel) via various electronic filters, mixers, and potentiometers -- it's quite a trip! I like to think it's metaphorical to a sort of "world anthem". I hadn't heard this for many years until recently, but even today it fascinates - there's a surprise around every corner!
The work is divided into four "regions" centered around a specific national anthem or conglomeration of anthems. Around these "centers" are juxtaposed electronically generated sounds and voiced multi-lingual phrases; i.e., a commingling of the "known" with the abstract and unknown. From the composer's notes: "When one integrates in a composition known music with unknown new music, one can hear especially well how it was integrated: untransformed, more or less transformed, transposed, modulated, etc. The more self-evident the WHAT, the more attentive the listener becomes to the HOW. Naturally, national anthems are more than that: they are "loaded" with time, with history - with past, present, and future. They accentuate the subjectivity of peoples in a time when uniformity is all too often mistaken for universality. One must also make a clear distinction between subjectivity - and correspondence between subjective musical objects - and individualistic isolation and separation. The composition Hymnen is not a collage"
However arcane the methodology of its composition, I was personally mesmerized and "attentive" throughout. Perhaps it's my lifelong fascination with broadcasting which is responsible -- those shortwave band passes are "music" to my ears!
In Hymnen, I believe Stockhausen was encountering a transcendental communion with, and thus creating art from, those implements which were "technologically connecting" constructs of his time. And before any of you start visualizing a self-absorbed nutjob performing a laying on of hands in some sort of Vulcan mind meld with a radio, I'm talking about a communion with the very objective result of that technology - near instantaneous global communication - not the implement itself. If anything, its consideration is inherently personal, and likewise, any "message" may be construed and considered on a personal level. It's about the sizzle and not the steak, so to speak.
I don't believe Stockhausen was looking for a universal appeal, only that his use of global communications technology as an "instrument" speaks to his insight into what the very existence and result of that technology conveys as universal expression, especially when used in juxtaposition with the "known" anthems of the world and all they subjectively connote. This insight can tap directly into one's subconscious and personal aesthetic as effectively, and I dare say as beautifully and universally, as that conveyed in any work of art.
A definition of art which has served me well is the following: A medium through which there's a deliberate or consequential transference of insight, truth, or beauty - however defined - on the part of the artist. The success or failure of this transference is what determines "good" or "bad" vis-à-vis the sensibility of the beholder. As to Hymnen and a few others by Stockhausen, and as one might have said a few decades ago, I grok.
This listener also believes that comparing Stockhausen with an earlier composer like Sibelius, for example, is akin to comparing the internet with the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria; or perhaps more aptly, James Joyce with Homer -- mostly a case of "apples and oranges" and irrelevant except in historical context.
By the way, Stockhausen is fifth from the left in the back row on the cover of The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the one leaning with chin in palm.
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