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This article is taken from PN Review 181, Volume 34 Number 5, May - June 2008.

Where Conductors Fear to Tread Robin Maconie

The chorus of recycled citations accompanying press obsequies of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who died unexpectedly on 5 December 2007, hardly compensated for a general lack of information about the composer's musical achievements. One was the composer's description of himself as a being from the Sirius star system; a second, his alleged description of the events of 9/11 as a work of art, and a third, a remark attributed to conductor Sir Thomas Beecham in the fifties, that he was unsure whether he had heard any of Stockhausen's music, but might have trodden in some. The extraordinary virulence of the press response to the passing of a composer of enormous stature and influence - as significant as Beethoven, and certainly as influential as Wagner - says a great deal about a recent history of paranoia and oppression in the West toward oral cultures, including their own gipsies and underclasses, along with contemporary western 'art' music. That in addition, major figures in the contemporary music world have also conspicuously declined to endorse the composer in the latter part of his life, or even in death, is not only sad and unintelligent, but professionally disreputable.

When Stockhausen said 'I am from Sirius' what he meant was 'I am completely serious' - with the rider 'If you don't think I am serious, it is because we live in different worlds.' It was wordplay elevated to reality addressed to a literate culture obsessed with the idea that words alone correspond ...

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