Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Catchy Tunes - Robert Thomas

It's not just this.  Every written word is a suicide note.
And a love letter, too.

There may be no one to talk to who would get it,
but if you write it down maybe someone will get it after you've left the room,

or in five hundred years, or maybe someone from Sirius, the Dog Star,
will get it.  The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen

claimed he was born on Sirius.  You remember him:
the genius who said the crashing of planes

into the World Trade Center was the greatest concert ever held,
although he later conceded the audience had not been given the option

to not attend
and that somewhat diminished its perfection.

I heard Stockhausen interviewed at Davies Symphony Hall
before the orchestra played one of his works

that sounded to me like the voices of the parents
in A Charlie Brown Christmas if they'd been arguing about real estate.

No, I was not impressed by Karlheinz.
His daughter Christel was a flautist in the orchestra,

and she joined him for the interview
and said her father would take her and her brother out on the lawn

of their summer house outside Cologne
(this was years before he was on the cover of Sgt. Pepper)

and teach them to read each constellation
as notes on a stave and to sing

the words of their favorite nursery rhymes to the stars'
melody:  "The dog ran away in the snow" and

"Go get the sleigh in the cellar."  It was a game
but it was hard:  work and play at once.

Their father explained to them,
"God does not write catchy tunes."

You could tell she meant it to be a charming story,
but the audience sat in silence.

Suffer the little children.

I don't think I've ever taken such umbrage with a poem since I read Gerard Locklin's "The Iceberg Theory."  From Thomas' misrepresentation (and I believe outright lying) of Karlheinz Stockhausen and his decidedly anti-artistic anti-intellectual Philistine view of art and artists, to the structure and diction of the poem itself, I find almost everything about this poem to be appalling to artistic integrity and sensibility.

To begin, some context.  Within the week of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Stockhausen was asked his opinion before a concert.  His response was widely condemned and for many in the public, has overshadowed his immense body of art and achievement (more on that later).  Today, they remain some of the most controversial remarks about the attacks, and I think they are extremely provocative.  I urge you to refrain from a knee-jerk reaction lest you make a fool of yourself like Robert Thomas and so many other in the media have done already.

Here is the quote:

"What happened there is, of course - now you all have to adjust your brains - the greatest work of art that has ever existed.  That spirits achieve in one act something we could never dream of in music, that people practice like mad for ten years, totally fanatically, for one concert.  And then die.  And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole cosmos.  Just imagine what happened there.  These are people who are so concentrated on this single performance - and then five thousand people are driven into resurrection.  In one moment.  I couldn't do that.  Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers that is."

Take a moment to grapple with that.  It is horrifying and radical.  It is also not his entire statement.  In Stockhausen's own words:  

"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. 

I cannot find a fitting name for such a "satanic composition". In my case, it was not and is not my intention to hurt anyone. Since the beginning of the attack onward I have felt solidarity with all of the human beings mourning this atrocity."

An allegorical answer, provocative nonetheless.  Reactionary pundits were quick to call this backpedaling, despite having heard the quote in its abridged format.  I do think Stockhausen's comment was poorly considered, but I think there is something there worth real consideration.  It was an inconceivable act that irrevocably changed the entire world, and there is an awe to that.  In Stockhausen's context, it is the ultimate performance art for Man, driven not by a Divine Love, but by the pitfall of our own beliefs and intelligence.  It is deeply abhorrent, which Stockhausen does not deny.  Thomas' view of Stockhausen's comment is so far twisted from its original meaning that the reader think he means it made a nice noise, and that it's mildly regrettable that five thousand people died.  That's an outrageous claim for Thomas to make, one that is vapid and morally indignant without even a surface attempt to understand.

A very good perspective on Stockhausen's quote comes from Terry Castle of New York Magazine.  In his piece, Castle argues with himself about the concept of the Sublime: something which by its size, grandeur, danger to man, instills in us a base terror and awe.  Waterfalls, volcanoes, massive predators, these all fall under the umbrella of the the Sublime.  As Castle explains, "Certain natural objects, philosophers like Kant maintained, were necessarily sublime: erupting volcanoes, tempests, huge waterfalls, ferocious beasts, racing floods, swiftly enveloping darkness, and so on. But man-made phenomena could also be sublime: ancient ruins, grim fortresses, the interiors of great cathedrals, colossal towers, pitch-black dungeons, and the like."

Viewed from a place of safety, these events and things inspire in us a rush of adrenaline.  In the same way, Castle argues that there may be something of the Sublime in the tragedy, as Stockhausen seems to think.  I encourage you to read his full piece here.

Brecht Savelkoul of Distilled Magazine goes one logical step further in this debate.  He claims that Stockhausen was right in treating the attacks like performance art.  To Savelkoul, the intent of terrorism is to convince us to fear them and their power.  They do this through acts designed specifically to evoke an emotional response in us.  That is performance art, and the answer to that appears to be stoicism, to not let the terrorists' art win rave reviews.  However, as Savelkoul rightly notes, that is completely impossible, and against every fiber of our emotional beings.  He concludes that we must not take them seriously if we are to make them powerless.  While I'm not sure I agree with his assessment of terrorism, his thoughts on Stockhausen (and other composers with notorious reputations, like Wagner) are interesting and valid.  Read them on Distilled Magazine's website.

Moving on to some other claims Robert Thomas makes in his poem, I'd like to talk about his attempted character assassination of Stockhausen.  He writes, "There may be no one to talk to who would get it,/
but if you write it down maybe someone will get it after you've left the room,/ or in five hundred years, or maybe someone from Sirius, the Dog Star,/ will get it.  The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen/ claimed he was born on Sirius."

Fairly clearly attempting to paint Stockhausen as a loony before ever talking about his music or his controversial quote about the tragedy on 9/11, Thomas is also lying.  Stockhausen claimed that his ancestors came from the stars and that he was educated on Sirius.  He did not literally believe himself to be an alien, but rather spoke in metaphysical terms about an education informed by the natural world, and a shared lineage with all of space and time.  Thomas, only too happy to take things at face value, turns this into an affront against him, as if he is someone's crazy uncle and deserving of ridicule.  What a farce!

Then there is the matter of Thomas' impression of Stockhausen's music (and parenting, more on that later).  Thomas writes, "I heard Stockhausen interviewed at Davies Symphony Hall/ before the orchestra played one of his works/ that sounded to me like the voices of the parents/ in A Charlie Brown Christmas if they'd been arguing about real estate./ No, I was not impressed by Karlheinz."

In what strange fantasy world does Thomas live wherein Karlheinz is expected to impress, as if he is a sideshow entertainer?  Moreover, I looked for record of an interview of Stockhausen as Davies Symphony Hall, and found nothing.  I would not be surprised if the story here is fabricated given the license Thomas feels comfortable taking with facts and quotes, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt.  I can understand someone not enjoying Stockhausen's work, but Thomas' intent here seems to be to make Stockhausen seem ridiculous, like a cartoon parody of a man (hence the Charlie Brown reference).

In the part where Christel Stockhausen relates a story of her childhood, singing the stars, Thomas concludes with the line, "Suffer the little children."  I take this to mean that Stockhausen's children suffered for having been his, for having to sing the un-catchy music of the stars.  After all, "God does not write catchy tunes."  If I suspected higher thought out of Thomas, I would have though that a reference to Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünlinge, or, the Song of the Youths, the first great masterwork of electronic music.  In that piece, we hear the story of how Nebuchadnezzar throws three young boys into a terrible oven, and yet they are unharmed, for they sing praises to God.  It was a landmark piece, because it blended the human voice with electrically created and synthesized phonemes for the first time.  It's emotionally intense and creative, and it feels as though we are in the fire with them.  However, I do not think Thomas intended to put that image in our heads.

His opening assertion, that all written words are suicide notes and love songs, is actually the part of the poem I like best.  It hinges on the assumption that we can separate art from its original context, that it can change meanings, and that it is our thoughts and views that make things so or not so.  How he was able to go from this rational, clear artistic thought to judging a man's music based on his character and what he has said, I do not know.

The poem strikes me as being deeply anti-artistic and anti-intellectual.  I place much of that on his assessment of Stockhausen's quote about 9/11, because it feels uncritical and reactionary.  It reeks of a false moral grandstand, where Thomas acts outraged on the behalf of others.  Stockhausen's quote is unmistakably outrageous, but that is part of its great value, and it remains one of the most articulate things said about that tragedy, and certainly is a great starting point for conversations about what art is and the ethics of art.  I think the quote offers really interesting perspectives on terrorism and its effect on us, and the knee-jerk reactions people had to Stockhausen's quote show that it underscores our fear and apprehensions at other people, in this case, terrorists, being able to make us feel a certain way.

It is a great shame that so many people ignore Stockhausen's incredible work, or let that quote color their perception of his work.  It is unfair legacy to a man who helped bring a new form of music to maturity, just as it is a crime against music to disregard Wagner's staggering achievements because of his repugnant anti-Semitic views.

I hope this poem has given you much food for thought, and if you felt some form of strong emotion, outrage, anger, be it at the poem itself, at Stockhausen's quote, at the reactions people have had to it, or indeed, what I've said about all of this, good!  Let me know!  I'd love to continue this dialogue further.

As a parting gift, I leave you with two of Stockhausen's masterworks.  The first is Gesang der Jünlinge.

The second is his Mantra for two ring-modulated pianos.  Mantra is a very long work, but when you have time, I highly recommend listening to it.

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