We connect Karlheinz Stockhausen with Ezra Pound

Tuesday 18 December 2007

In 1990, three years after the death of Morton Feldman, I heard on the radio a live broadcast of Roger Woodward playing Feldman’s 90-minute piano piece, Triadic Memories. The performance was preceded by a half-hour discussion between two music critics about whether or not the music to follow was even worth playing.
It seemed that Feldman’s fate had been cast since the 1960s: a footnote, however indelible, to the history of postwar music. He had been the first composer to write in non-conventional, graphic notation, back in the early fifties, and then faded away into apparent neglect, unheard. Towards the end of his life he wrote only pieces of unmanageable length, unbroken spans of music lasting at least an hour, anything up to five hours. It looked like a rejection of the audience, of musical society. (“Unforgivably indulgent” was the main thrust of the critic for the negative on radio that night.)
We all know how foolish it is to try to second-guess posterity: the obituaries for Herman Melville describing him as “a formerly well-known author” who will be best remembered as the writer of Typee is just one of the more famous examples. Today, at least ten different performances of Triadic Memories have been issued on CD. Seven of these are listed on Amazon, among the 120-odd Feldman titles in stock. The available discs are overwhelmingly biased towards those long, long pieces from the last eight years of his life, overshadowing his previous work.
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Posthumous recountings of Stockhausen’s life have invariably treated his 29-hour, seven-opera cycle Licht, a work he concentrated on exclusively from 1978 until its completion in 2002, as little more than a postscript to a long, productive career. Descriptions of the opera cycle range from cursory to derisive (“egomaniacal“, “grandiose”). Given that two of the operas have not yet been fully performed, that live performances even of excerpts have been rare, and that the CDs of it are expensive and tricky to order, it would be interesting to learn just how much, if any, of Licht‘s 29 hours has been heard by each of its critics.
I haven’t heard anything from Licht either, so the last thing I need is a load of hot air about it from a bunch of hacks arguing from ignorance. This situation is starting to look less like a case of critics attacking the work despite not having heard it, and more like a case of attacking the work because they haven’t heard it.
Just a few days ago I was describing to someone Stockhausen’s strange decision to devote 25 years of his life to a single, all-encompassing work, a work misunderstood by its audience (or at least not received in the way expected by the composer), when an earlier example of an artist who took a similar turn in his career path came to mind. No, not Wagner. Ezra Pound.
After 1920, Pound’s poetic output, as far as the literary public were concerned, came to a halt. For a while he gave up poetry to compose, but soon returned to writing. However, in doing so he rededicated himself to his long poem The Cantos, falteringly started some years earlier, deciding to apply himself solely to this one magnum opus, to the exclusion of all other original poetry. Besides translations and a handful of occasional poems, The Cantos was Pound’s only poetry until he abandoned it, unfinished, in the 1960s. With it, he abandoned writing.
Licht and The Cantos are both immensely ambitious works, epic both in both scale and subject matter. In fact, the wide scope of both works allowed their creators to accommodate any of their creative impulses into the structure of their ongoing, all-encompassing projects. Similarly, subsections of each large work may be presented individually (although this is less true for the published instalments of Pound’s Cantos, which are frequently dependent on context, than for the free-standing compositions spun off from Licht).
It is fatuous to compare too closely the material and biographical circumstances of both works, but a general parallel can be drawn. Stockhausen’s dogged commitment to Licht came to be seen by many as yet another manifestation of his increasing eccentricity, of a piece with his Messianic self-image, his polygamy, his claims to interstellar heritage. By the time the wider reading public became aware of The Cantos (more about this later), its subject and style was impossible to separate from Pound’s notoriety as a fascist, an anti-Semite, an incarcerated mental patient with an unanswered treason charge hanging over his head. Pound’s later poetry was analysed less for its literary merit than for signs of his descent into madness. As with Stockhausen, the large, late work was treated as an unfortunate aberration, the anticlimax to a career whose successes all came relatively early.
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Over the past 40 years most Pound scholars have come to accept The Cantos as his masterwork, the centrepiece of his artistic achievement, and treat the earlier poetry as though it were a prelude to his most important writing. Most advocates for Pound’s poetry admit The Cantos is a deeply flawed piece, with many dull passages, inconsistencies, gratuitous obscurantism, and lapses in judgement that are risible or offensive. (The same criticisms have been made of Licht.) Even so, generations of writers and scholars have argued that The Cantos is essential not only to the understanding of Pound, but to 20th century poetry.
The same fate may or may not be true of Licht, but if it is in fact a work of genius, flawed or not, then its future recognition as such will have been greatly hampered, largely by Stockhausen himself – and this is the most important comparison I want to make with Pound. As said before, even interested listeners have found it impossible to hear more than a few, isolated fragments of the whole cycle. Stockhausen withdrew from the conventional musical institutions that had supported him, pursuing his goal of ultimate autonomy, which he achieved at the expense of his accessibility. Pound (who also withdrew from literary society, relocating to the small Italian town of Rapallo) ensured that readers could not easily access his work-in-progress until 16 years after its commencement, preferring to publish instalments in small editions of expensive, hand-printed volumes.
Serious critical attention was not given to The Cantos until the early 1950s, and only then because of the intense controversy that surrounded its author. Since that time, readers and critics have been playing catch-up, forced to argue first for the poem’s importance before its complexities can even be discussed. Debate still simmers over to what extent the poet must be excused or denounced before his poem can be appreciated. Obscurities that may have been explained away by contemporary familiarity have been allowed to languish.
There is no substitute for critical tradition: a continuum of understanding, early commenced. … Precisely because William Blake’s contemporaries did not know what to make of him, we do not know either, though critic after critic appeases our sense of obligation to his genius by reinventing him. … [O]n the other hand, something was immediately made of Ulysses and The Waste Land, and our comfort with both works after 50 years, including our ease at allowing for their age, seems derivable from the fact that they have never been ignored. …
Hence the paradox that an intensely topical poem has become archaic without ever having been contemporary.
– Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, p.415
Licht now faces the same predicament, compounded by the logistical demands of its staging. Thirty years after it was started and five years after its completion, we are still none the wiser as to what it actually is. Without its creator around, we may find ourselves reinventing what the operas actually mean. Perhaps the complete staging of the cycle planned for 2010 will be the true moment that Licht makes it debut in our consciousness.
One final comparison with Pound. Regardless of whatever appreciation, enthusiasm, and goodwill with which Licht may be received in the future, it is unlikely to ever be understood in the way Stockhausen intended.