"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
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In the 1960s and ’70s, Karlheinz Stockhausen, with his long, flowing mane, Byronic open shirt and frock coat, was every inch the romantic genius for the Age of Aquarius, making music in the hope of “transcending this earth and transcending man and transcending human intelligence.” All over the world, he staged massive and astonishing events that blew classical music wide open, creating electronic music almost as a byproduct.
Although his work is often ferociously difficult, the surface of the music is strangely accessible, yielding new layers of complexity at each level. If his compositions can be a little too heady for the marketplace, his ideas have permeated popular culture through his influence on artists as diverse as the Beatles, Miles Davis, Kraftwerk and the Grateful Dead. (The Dead, Jefferson Airplane and members of the Mothers of Invention all studied under him in 1967 at the University of California at Davis.)
Anyone who saw a Grateful Dead show came away with a better understanding of eternity, but probably didn’t know that the long-winded improvisations came straight out of Stockhausen’s “intuitive music.” Frank Zappa’s tricky riffs and goofy staging owed a direct debt to those university classes (and parties). Stockhausen also showed up on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and if you’ve ever gone back to “The Beatles” (aka “The White Album”) to listen to “Revolution 9″ a second time, he’s there, too.
Long before the Beatles, Stockhausen turned the sound desk into instrument, doubling as the soundman at most of his shows. With that engineer’s mind, he simultaneously hacked the music and the metaphysics, dismantling serialism to reconfigure time and space. Beats were sped up until they became notes. Notes were pitched like baseballs between a roomful of small orchestras, or around a spiral of speakers in a geodesic dome. Tunes could be assembled in any order, even interrupting each other. Presto! The sound spectrum had become the structure of the universe made manifest. Well, it was the ’60s.
So where did Stockhausen go? Though turntablists whisper his name in awe, and vinyl junkies pass along his music as if it were samizdat Czech literature, one of the most high-profile composers of the mid-20th century has disappeared from these shores. His cult following and the vanishing act are at the least very suggestive. All his virtual omnipresence, the technical glee, the cosmic curiosity and the dress sense add up to one thing: Stockhausen is music’s answer to Dr. Who.
And why not? He has passed through several distinct incarnations, each with its own personality, wardrobe and choice of companions. He’s a traveler who has popped up in one hot spot after another — Paris during the riots of ’68, California in the Summer of Love and New York during the Fluxus happenings. He drops in, changes everything, then leaves to do something else. His methods are anarchic and revolutionary, yet he applies them with methodical rigor; and though he’s fiercely individualistic, all his work hangs on the collaborators that he picks up for each fresh adventure.
One other thing: Stockhausen claims to originate from another part of the universe entirely — Sirius. “That’s not so out of this world,” he says. “I have dreamt several times that I came from Sirius and that I was trained there as a musician; it was almost like an obsession during three, four years, and I began to collect information and compose electronic music which was called Sirius.”
Tripped-out lifestyle guru, electronic tinkerer, highbrow serialist, multimedia megalomaniac — he’s been them all. By my count, there have been six Stockhausens so far. In truth, they tend to overlap or reemerge from time to time, but the kernel for all that follow is the First Stockhausen: the young man learning music and harsh truths from his parents in the horrific circumstances of Nazi Germany.
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Stockhausen was born on Aug. 22, 1928. Both his parents were amateur musicians; his mother liked to accompany her own singing at the piano. As a child, he would run around the house banging things with a wooden hammer to find out what they sounded like. His first memory of performance involves the brandishing of a live frog, the ingestion of an earthworm and the percussive use of the pavement. It earned him 10 pfennigs.
The family lived in Kurten, a small town outside of Cologne. The young Stockhausen was sent out at nights to mind the cows, where he would lie in the snow and watch the stars. At other times it would have been a rural idyll, but not in those times — and not with his parents, either. Sensitive and artistic she may have been, but Gertrude Stockhausen was not a well woman. Instead, she was the kind who would see visions and talk back to the radio. Harassed by too many pregnancies, his mother suffered worsening mental lapses. She would shout in despair, “I want to die,” until she eventually had to be hospitalized in 1932. Tragically, nine years later, she was taken at her word by the Nazis’ euthanasia program for the mentally handicapped, and they put her to death.
By the end of the war, his father, Simon, a teacher, had also died (in combat), but by then Stockhausen had his own brutal war to deal with. Drafted to the front as a hospital worker, he became still more intimately familiar with inhumanity and death. The soldiers he served with perpetrated atrocities; the patients he tended had faces that had been erased by phosphorous bombs, and one flyby attack by a fighter pilot (attracted by the huge red cross) left him surrounded by bullet holes but personally untouched.
Many people, faced with such a beginning, would take refuge in the life of the mind. On the face of it, the same is true for the young man who, in 1951, transformed himself into the Second Stockhausen: by night, accompanist to stage magician Adrion; by day, a precise engineer. Over the next 10 years, he studied under the broadly influential French composer and organist Olivier Messaien, worked the soundboard for Edgar Varèse and collaborated with Pierre Boulez.
At a first encounter, the music Stockhausen created often seems to be abstract and cerebral, a mathematics of rhythm and pitch, but a close reading of the biography reveals an emotional aspect, a humanity struggling to come to the surface, even if it has to be in code.
As a child, Stockhausen himself liked to press his ears to the back of the radio to listen to the hum of the transformers, and he once took his mother’s side in an interview: “It is utter nonsense to invent an apparatus for people that is one-sided, and acts as if it were making contact with others, yet is incapable of involving the people sitting in front of it and reacting to them.”
That’s perhaps the origin of “Kurzwellen” (1968), a piece in which the musicians have to operate portable radios, dialing in splatches of voice and melody, and then play along with them. The metaphor of the radio comes back time and again. In “Hymnen” (1966-69) the national anthems of the world morph into one another, just like surfing on the shortwave. Instruments are tweaked to sound exactly like a receiver tuned just off the station (“Mixtur” and “Mantra”). It sometimes seems like he’s trawling the ether, looking for messages from the other side.
When listening to “Gesang der Jünglinge” (1956), you have to think that he has found one. Renowned composer Luciano Berio describes it as “the first great piece of electronic music,” and it still knocks your socks off the first time you hear it. Against a backdrop of unearthly electronic sounds, the voice of a young boy comes across clearly and as uncannily as “an apple found on the moon,” as Stockhausen put it at the time.
It’s unlikely that anything quite like it could ever be made now — the organic sound comes from impossibly fiddly tape manipulation that was madly labor-intensive. Experimentally splicing together tape at a length of 76.2 cm per second, for a 14-minute piece — that’s a lot of hard graft!
But that was all in the 1950s. As the clock rolled over to the ’60s, it was time for him to mutate again. The Third Stockhausen ran off to join the circus.
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In New York, high modernism had dissolved into the perpetual performance art party. With his background in magical cabaret, Stockhausen fit right in, not so much composing as staging happenings for avant-gardistas like the Fluxus crew, who were more committed to goofy surrealist antics than to making music for the ages. One of them was pioneering video artist Nam June Paik (Stockhausen described him as “going berserk during my theater piece”), who would drink from his shoe, bathe in red paint and hurl glop at the audience while Stockhausen accompanied him at the piano. Another was painter and socialite Mary Bauermeister, who was to become his second wife and mother of one of his sons, Simon. (With his first wife, Doris, he had an additional son, Markus, and a daughter, Majella.)
This swinging Stockhausen was as schizophrenic as his times. On the left-hand path, he was making strange theatrical enchantments, which only linger in the program notes that remain. On the right-hand path, he was devising fresh ways of composing. Notation was out, weird instructions were in. Making classical musicians improvise is a tricky business. Usually, the orchestra will just vamp feebly until it gets back to the firm ground of the score. In Stockhausen’s compositions from 1960 to 1975, the way the musicians interpret their instructions is the firm ground of the score, but his ideas weren’t to reach their apotheosis until he went through a massive crisis, becoming the Fourth Stockhausen into the bargain.
When Stockhausen married Bauermeister in 1967, it was a splendid and joyous occasion on a boat in Sausalito, a picturesque bohemian stronghold located a few miles north of San Francisco — but anyone could have seen it was a marriage of desperation. They broke up inside of a year. Depressed and on the verge of what a normal person might call a nervous breakdown, Stockhausen holed up in Paris and resolved to starve himself until either Bauermeister came back to him or he dropped dead, and pretty much either would do. It was May 1968, and while Paris rioted and invented situationist politics, Stockhausen discovered a book of Indian philosophy that a fan had slipped in his pocket.
After four days of misery and starvation, and with nothing but the words of Sri Aurobindo to sustain him, he walked over to the piano and struck the keys. In that heightened moment of consciousness, he hit upon one of the great works of all time, “Auf den sieben Tagen” (“From the Seven Days”). It seems like nothing much on the surface. No notes, no musical instructions, no great reorganizations of time and space, just a collection of spare texts, but, for Stockhausen, he had penetrated the spiritual heart of the universe.
The Fourth (and definitive) Stockhausen emerged from the chrysalis. By turns showman and shaman, he visited the world’s sacred places to assemble a bricolage spirituality, spoke wherever he could find an audience and — taking inspiration from his San Francisco days — formed a band, which played what he called “intuitive music,” based on the inspirational principles he had discovered.
The sleeve notes to “Aus den sieben Tagen” reveal that the command codes of the cosmos are remarkably simple:
Play a sound/Play it for so long/until you feel/that you should stop/ … or Play a vibration in the rhythm of dreaming/and slowly transform it/into the rhythm of the universe.
Ah, those golden days of the Summer of Love! But if it sounds dippy to the modern mind, in practice it became as intense and rigorous an experience as sitting zazen for a week.
Or for over half a year, as it turned out. The band took center stage at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan, where Stockhausen installed it to play his music for five-and-a-half hours solid every day for 183 days. Needless to say, the band broke up and, by 1971, the ride was over.
By the ’70s, Stockhausen’s work had escaped from its classical cradle. The big ideas laid the groundwork for improvisers as varied as Cecil Taylor, German art rockers Can and the electric period Miles Davis. The tools and techniques made way for the textures and humor of Kraftwerk and all the electronica that followed. And everybody now thinks that interacting with your media is standard operating procedure. So what do you do when you win the cultural war? You go home and take a rest.
The Fifth Stockhausen was a relaxed man. The decree nisi came through in early 1971. No matter, by the fall he had found a new companion, clarinetist Suzanne Stephens, who is still his assistant today. His band had fallen apart. So what? He became the leader of a highbrow Partridge family, including children from both his marriages — Majella Stockhausen on keys, Simon Stockhausen on saxophone and Markus Stockhausen on trumpet — and a few other core players who came to stay, notably Kathinka Pasveer (on flute), who would become his second assistant.
Stockhausen’s music of the ’70s is pleasant, diverting and mostly of a theatrical bent. “Ylem” and “Mantra” are well worth a listen, and “Sternklang” remains a beautiful ceremonial work, an improvisatory composition that can only be played outdoors in August. I asked him if this was determined by the stars, and apparently it is: “These are the dog days. That’s when the Sirius light reaches our planet and our sun, and our sun is fed by it — then we have double light and it’s very strong. That is the best period for spiritual performances.”
However, it’s a far cry from his earlier work. In tune with everyone else in the ’70s, Stockhausen had lost his iconoclastic edge. He found it again in 1977 with “Licht.” Everyone else rediscovered the three-minute single; Stockhausen rediscovered the four-hour opera — seven of them, in fact. The Sixth Stockhausen had arrived in full effect.
At each turn of his composing career, Stockhausen mastered new techniques of directing music. For “Licht,” which he is still in the process of creating, he took over the whole shebang. He is the librettist, choreographer, sound engineer and set and costume designer, all wrapped up in one Edwardian frock coat (though Mary Bauermeister still helps out with the visuals). Each character in the operas is represented not only by a singer and a musician but also by a dancer. Not content with redefining the physics of music, he created a new mathematics of gesture so as to completely describe and inhabit the human condition within the time-space continuum.
“Licht” is the story of three characters who personify cosmic creativity (rather like a Hindu theatrical cycle): Michael (the generative force), Lucifer (the critical force) and Eve (the nurturing reconciler). Permutations of these three forces add up to seven, the seven days of “Licht,” seven huge and, in some cases, all but unstageable spectacles. The most infamous of unlikely theatrical gimmicks is the “Helicopter String Quartet” — a quartet that plays in four separate helicopters in the most recently completed opera, 1998′s “Mittwoch” (“Wednesday”).
The first part of “Licht” to be completed — in 1980 — was “Donnerstag” (“Thursday”), Michael’s story. As it happens, it’s also Stockhausen’s own story, transfigured into the world of the divine. It’s not, however, an entry-level piece. I got to see “Donnerstag” in London at the Royal Opera, and like many of his theatrical productions, it’s a spectacle that’s better appreciated on the day — on disc, it can be as opaque as any opera without the subtitles.
If you want to try “Licht” on for size, “Samstag” (“Saturday”), completed in 1984, is much more approachable. A trip through the experience of dying (modeled after the Egyptian Book of the Dead), it’s characterized by a light touch and features a standout flute solo that purges you of bad karma like a colonic irrigation for the soul. Since “Samstag” is the day that’s set aside for Lucifer, the drama naturally ends in chaos — the orchestra goes on strike and goes home. That’s also from the biography — the same thing happened during the premiere of “Donnerstag.”
The final day will tell the story of Michael’s sexual and spiritual union with Eve and it will be, appropriately, “Sonntag” (“Sunday”). By 2002 or 2003 (the projected completion date), perhaps the by-then 75-year-old god of electronic music will be ready to pack it in. Then again, given his predilection for sevens, perhaps there’s yet another incarnation on the way.
Paul McEnery is a writer in San Francisco.More Paul McEnery.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)