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Joe Drew on Stockhausen


There are few Americans who have the insider's view that Joe Drew has of the late Karlheinz Stockhausen's inner circle. Joe, who is completing his dissertation on Stockhausen at NYU's Steinhardt school, participated in Stockhausen's summer courses in 2001 and has been a key advocate of his music Stateside for well over a decade. Since Stockhausen's passing in 2007, Joe has continued to work with Stockhausen's estate - known as the Stockhausen-Verlag (Verlag = Publishing House) - allowing him to bring works such as 2007's Cosmic Pulses to the U.S.

I had the chance to sit with Joe earlier this week, and he painted a fascinating portrait of both Stockhausen and the Verlag, currently run by Stockhausen's two former partners, Kathinka Pasveer and Suzanne (Suzee) Stephens. Here are just a few of the tidbits he shared with me (in the style of the old Cocktail Conversations)

On Religion: "Stockhausen discovered "The Urantia Book" when someone sold it to him just after he had finished conducting Hymnen at the NY Phil in 1971. (The Times' William Robin told the story in May.) It pretty much informed everything he did after that: a lot of Licht (Stockhausen's seven-opera cycle on the days of the week) and Klang (his cycle based on the the 24 hours of the day) are based on it. Frankly, I think in order to have a complete understanding of these works it’s important to read "The Urantia Book" from cover to cover."

On Performance Requirements: "The Verlag can seem really demanding with some of their requests. They prefer to foster an aural tradition where the original interpreters pass on performance practice. When I asked about presenting Cosmic Pulses in the US, they gave me two options: either fly over their sound projectionist or go to Germany to hear the work in person. Once I’d finally heard the piece, I understood the requirement because it’s such a complex work. But, at first impression, those kinds of requests can be a little off-putting.”

On Stockhausen's Early Days: "Stockhausen (who was cited as an influence by everyone from Miles Davis to Charles Mingus) was a jazz pianist early in his career. It definitely had an influence on him." 

On Stockhausen's Work Schedule: “As Suzee related it to me, Stockhausen would draw up his schedule at the beginning of each year, and he would pretty much stick to it. To the day."

On Scents: "Towards the end of Sonntag, the final Licht opera, seven vocalists each burn a different incense, describing their relationship to the days of the week. A scholar once told me that Stockhausen actually used these scents in his daily bath, and it was often the only way that he knew what day it was, because he worked so ceaselessly."

On Personal Relationships: "Stockhausen wasn't always the easiest person to be around. Many of his relationships didn’t end amicably. In the program for last year’s summer course, the epigraph reads: ‘My life is extremely one-sided: what counts are the works as scores, recordings, films, and books.’ It’s easy to imagine how that kind of orientation would be difficult to deal with if you were, say, his child or his spouse."

On The Hazards of Self-Publishing: "There are a lot of errors and omissions in Stockhausen’s scores. In Harmonien, one of his last works, there is an error almost in every bar, and I wonder if that is because there was a rush to get things done. By the end, he wasn't even doing sketches anymore. Part of the aural tradition is learning the corrected and omitted information from the performers.”

On September 11: "His statement that 9/11 was 'A great work of art' has made it very challenging to work with American presenters, particularly in New York. Of course, what he said was taken completely out of context, and it's only now, 10 years later, that folks are starting to open up a bit." 

On Stockhausen's Death: "During the 2008 summer courses, Kathinka described how Stockhausen came down one morning for breakfast, breathing very slowly. He didn't realize it, but he was having a heart attack. He said that he had discovered "a new way of breathing" which would inform all of his composing moving forward. After he had collapsed, he apparently said something about smelling the scents of Light and said that they needed to do more with them in the future. And then, he died.”

On Letting Go: "After a performance with musikFabrik in Dresden, I talked with Suzee, and she said that initially it wasn’t easy to accept change in the way people present Stockhausen's music. Which is understandable, considering that they've lived in this world for 30 years. Since 2007, she and Kathinka have ensured that Stockhausen’s original vision is not forgotten, but I also get the sense that they are more and more open to the fact that you can present an updated performance of Stockhausen and still have it be musically valid."