The passing of Karlheinz Stockhausen on 5 December 2007 brings up many questions about what of and how we remember someone marked as one of the great musical geniuses of the twentieth century. It also brings up the question of how aesthetics interacts with politics within the realm of a non-representational art form.
Alex Ross offers an extensive citing of various obituaries here, including one by Ivan Hewitt in the Guardian. It's the opening of Mr. Hewitt's piece, in which he references a quote from Blake that Stockhausen admired--"He who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in Eternity's sunrise"--that inevitably recalls to my mind another quote, one from Stockhausen himself after the terrorist attacks on September 11 when he allegedly referred to the attacks as "the greatest works of art in the whole of the cosmos."
Lest I commit libel, it is important to clarify that these words have been misquoted and mistranslated throughout the international media. Stockhausen himself responded to the controversy that erupted over the statement as follows, referring to his seven-part opera cycle Licht, which has never been performed in its entirety:
At the press conference in Hamburg, I was asked if Michael, Eve and Lucifer were historical figures of the past and I answered that they exist now, for example Lucifer in New York. In my work, I have defined Lucifer as the cosmic spirit of rebellion, of anarchy. He uses his high degree of intelligence to destroy creation. He does not know love. After further questions about the events in America, I said that such a plan appeared to be Lucifer's greatest work of art. Of course I used the designation "work of art" to mean the work of destruction personified in Lucifer. In the context of my other comments this was unequivocal.
Stockhausen was not the only artist to consider the terrorist attacks via a dramatic lens--Damien Hirst, for example, also had his moment. And it is Richard Serra's response in the New York Times to Stockhausen's comment that remains the most eloquent and concise indictment of the power of the composer's words: "Mr. Stockhausen made us see the extreme of a not uncommon attitude, the aestheticization of reality; in this instance, the aestheticization of terror."
Perhaps it is at the best disrespectful and at the worst sensationalistic that I revisit this moment from Stockhausen's long career. And, for sure, the history of Western art is suffuse with reimaginings of horrific events--some are exploitative, and some offer the type of traumatic expression and mourning that Adorno referred to in 1966: "A perennial suffering has just as much right to find expression as a victim of torture has to scream." But amid the eulogizing that will certainly follow Stockhausen's death, this moment needs to stand out and be remembered as much as the canon of work he contributed.
Stockhausen concluded the alleged post-September 11 statement by saying of the terrorists: "These are people who are so intent on that one and only performance, and then five thousand people are sent into oblivion in one moment. I could not do that." In his last sentence, at least in this rendition, it may not be condemnation the composer offers but a sigh of resignation over his own limits as a composer. Stockhausen will certainly live on in Eternity's sunrise, but a significant part of his memory remains in dimly lit shadows.