Thursday, August 30, 2012

Music That made Me Cry: Stockhausen's 'Hymnen'

Here's the cover to the LP release of Hymnen that came out back in the '70s, which was the format upon which I heard it first. I was an undergrad at Nazareth College of Rochester, and I was probably a sophomore when I first ran across this album. There was a record store near the college, and my friend and composer ally Tom Hamilton (not the Tom Hamilton who has worked with Robert Ashley and others, though) and I would swing by there a couple times a week, just to see what was new. For some reason the store stocked a lot of Deutche Grammophon cut-outs pretty regularly, and for a spell, they had a ton of Stockhausen's music. I bought pretty much all of it, over a period of several months.

I'm a little unsure exactly WHY Stockhausen's music appealed to me so much. Probably due to the same yearnings that made Siddartha and Steppenwolf (the Hesse novels) grip my attention in high school. Stockhausen's music was spiritual and intellectual AND it sounded really cool, at least a lot of it did. At any rate, I bought every album I could get my hands on. At one point, I probably had something like 50+ albums. One time when the ROVA Saxophone Quartet was rehearsing at my house, Bruce Ackley (their soprano player) was looking through my LP collection and when he got to the "S"s he exclaimed, "Holy shit, It's Stockhausen Central over here!" A proud "collector moment" for me.

So, as I was saying, somewhere around 1985, I find this Hymnen LP set and it's priced to move, so I grab it and bring it home. I recall it being pretty late and so I put it on the turntable and listen on headphones so as not to wake up the house. It's four sides of electroacoustic music, based on national anthems. I'm not sure what to expect, but I start listening and I do not take the headphones off until I've played the entire piece. Somewhere in the third "Region" of the piece, I realize that tears are running down my face. I can point to no rational explanation for this, except that there was something so rich and inexplicably RIGHT about the piece; it created a world in which I wanted to dwell forever. If I'd had any prior doubts, this was the moment where I knew that electronic music was central to my musical life.

Oddly perhaps, I've never really tried to analyse Hymnen. I've never wanted to. Other works have prompted me to dissect their workings, so as to understand (and possibly snaffle) the techniques therein. Not Hymnen. It seemed important to me that it retain a certain inexplicability, and it has. At one point during the writing of this posting, it crossed my mind that I should do a bit of research to bolster my musings here (I haven't read about it in years), but I decided not to. Rather, I would encourage you to discover the piece the way I did, if you've never heard it before. I think the research should follow the experience, not precede it. There is a posting of the entire work on YouTube, but I've chosen not to link to it because whoever uploaded it put the regions in the wrong order.

Chances are good that if you do listen to Hymnen, it won't have the same effect on you. It's one of those pieces that I suspect you have to hear at just the right point in your life or it's lost on you. It's almost two hours long and it's uneven. Most of my electroacoustic composer friends hardly acknowledge it at all, or disparage it mercilessly. They find it horribly dated, lacking in sophistication somehow. Stockhausen's earlier (1950s) electronic masterpieces Gesang der J√ľnglinge and Kontakte are considered his real achievements in the genre, and certainly they are much more disciplined works. Later works like Telemusik and Hymnen (or any of his subsequent electronic works), are rarely discussed. They never came up in any of the classes I took, nor were they mentioned by any other composers I knew. If you surf the net for comments about Hymnen, they tend to be either "this is the biggest load of crap ever" or mystical homilies exalting its sublimity. I don't think either approach casts much light on the music, but it does say something about its polarizing effect.

At some point in the late 80s or early 90s, I hit a point where Stockhausen's persona (and by extension his music) began to trouble me. I sensed that he was encouraging/enabling a personality cult and as the first parts of the Licht opera cycle emerged I felt that his ego had expanded to the point of lunacy and delusion. He didn't improve matters with his supremely egotistical and insensitive pronouncements about 9-11. I decided I didn't want to be a member of the cult and began selling off all but a few select albums. I didn't listen to any of his music for a long time, but in recent years, I have slowly relaxed that policy a bit. I still don't play his music all that often; my tastes have changed a lot over the years. But when I do listen, it's usually to Hymnen.

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