Brace yourself for Stockhausen

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

If you are looking for a mind-blowing classical music experience, Boulder is the place to be next week.

That is, unless you have been traveling to Europe to hear the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. One of the most influential composers of the late 20th century, Stockhausen is virtually unknown in America — largely because his music is almost never performed here.

But the CU College of Music is presenting a five-day Stockhausen Festival from Sept. 29 to Oct. 3 with three full concerts, including many of Stockhausen’s most influential pieces and some that have never been performed in the United States before. (See the list of concerts at right.)

To meet the demands of Stockhausen’s challenging music, the festival will call on the Pendulum New Music Ensemble, faculty and students of the College of Music, guest artists from Europe, and, for Stockhausen’s electronic works, a massive surround sound system that will be installed in the ATLAS Black Box Theater specifically for the festival.

It is likely this will be the most Stockhausen presented at one time in the United States in a very long time.

A leader of the post-war avant garde, Stockhausen embraced a dazzling variety of techniques, styles and forms. He wrote instrumental pieces of daunting difficulty and complexity, works that are almost mathematically controlled, and works that allow performers so much freedom that every performance is different. He wrote intimate solo pieces and an opera that takes seven days to perform. And he took advantage of all the advances in technology to create stunning multichannel electronic soundscapes that have earned an enthusiastic following in Europe.

Apart from a long list of concert music composers from the 1960s to the present day, Stockhausen has influenced musicians as diverse as Miles Davis, Pink Floyd and Bj%uFFFDrk. The Beatles put his photo on the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover. He even gets mentioned in novels by Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon.

Festival organizer Paul Miller, a CU music professor and Stockhausen expert, says, “Stockhausen’s music is very challenging to play and to understand. But the idea is to have experiences that you’ve never had before. That is really what we’re aiming for here.”

Miller believes that Stockhausen already has a following in Boulder.

“There are a lot of people here who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s [when] Stockhausen was all the rage,” Miller says. “Also, Stockhausen made a number of visits to Boulder and Denver, and many people remember the lectures that he gave.”

Then there are people who are drawn to the spiritual aspects of Stockhausen’s music. Starting as a devout Catholic, Stockhausen was later influenced by The Urantia Book, an esoteric religious/philosophical text that attempts to place earth and humanity in a larger context, in both space and time.

“There’s quite a following of The Urantia Book in Boulder,” Miller says, “and they’re very, very interested in Stockhausen’s connection with that text.”

But it is the music that will bring the audiences into the concert halls. And Miller believes that the electronic music will be the biggest draw.

“We have an opportunity to bring in a sound system the likes of which I don’t think we’ve ever seen here in the university. This is going to give us the ability to do these multi-channel surround-sound electronic pieces the way they were really meant to be done.

“The sounds kind of move around you and through you in a way that probably most people have never experienced before. [Because] each channel is treated independently, you get an effect that is so enthralling and so enveloping that it’s hard to describe. … It’s like going to an amusement park where you have never experienced this roller coaster before, and you strap yourself in and you go for a ride.

“It’s also an experience of time in a different way. You can experience time very quickly [or] very slowly, you can experience flows in time, you can experience time stretched out to infinity, and those are things that Stockhausen’s music comes close to doing.”

So be prepared for something you have never heard before. As Miller says, “It really is going to be wild for some of these pieces.”