Artaud & Stockhausen: Influence Overlooked

I do not wish to present a story as an experiential curve…
– Karlheinz Stockhausen

Although only recently I became fully committed to writing, I’ve been penning my thoughts for a much longer time; getting swept away by prose, poetry, and theatre for what feels like an age.

I have a tenuously related degree in Music from King’s College London. There, I had the privilege to study under one Dr Michael Fend, whom I would also consider a friend. Fend gave an inspiring seminar on the twentieth-century German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen. If you don’t know much about Stockhausen you might still have heard that he had a reputation for the bizarre. I liked that; I still find studying odd characters satisfying. However, early on, it became clear to me that Stockhausen’s so-called ‘unique’ aesthetic already seemed familiar though, to begin with, I couldn’t figure out why.

When it came to writing my thoughts about Stockhausen only one subject came to mind. I went to the libraries, accessed all the online databases I could, and I was shocked to discover that only I had made this connection, that no others had published about this before.

I’m talking about Antonin Artaud as one of Stockhausen’s major influencers, and that Stockhausen’s distinctive works might not have been so ‘original’ after all. Considering many believe Stockhausen to be the greatest composer of the twentieth century, I am still at a loss about this oversight.

I have been lucky with my teachers and, whilst still at secondary school, I had the gift of a brilliant Theatre Studies teacher. Perhaps I could even credit this man with first bringing words to life for me; with making me fully understand the potential of a simple book, or script. It was he who introduced me to the French theatre practitioner Antonin Artaud and, with his encouragement, I devised a piece of cruelty theatre which turned out to be quite successful. It was a powerful work, and I used it to comment on the sexual experiences I had had in my life up to that point. I felt invigorated, vindicated, when some of the men who had cast shadows over my first seventeen years of life shifted in their theatre seats and pulled twisted faces as the show unfolded. Their grimaces admitted their guilt, even if they refused to form it in words. #MeToo hadn’t happened yet, you see, so I rather enjoyed the disturbing choreography I had put together whilst Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Closer to God’ was blaring.

After my play, two things happened: 1) I started to think a lot harder about writing, and 2) Artaud secured a place in my heart for good. Whilst I cannot say that you will find too much of him in my own writings, or in my upcoming novels, to this day to visit a piece of Total Theatre is one of my favourite things to do. For that reason, the Cornish theatre company ‘Kneehigh’ is my preferred in all the world. That being said, I do seem to like rearranging my fiction out of chronological order. I like breaking the ‘experiential curve’.

What I have published below was the essay I wrote for Dr Fend, first written in 2010. Though my university professors encouraged me to publish it in a musicology journal, I never have. Like Artaud, I’ve had my own struggle with my mental health (though I am a fortunate to recover, whilst he never could) and I lacked the organisation to have it published. Indeed, it took me some years to steer my career back to writing again. Now, I just want to get this information on the internet. I find it intriguing, and maybe someone else can use it as the starting point for their own research about these two brilliant, and fascinating, artists.

Other writers reading my blog might also find what each has to say, about eschewing the chronology of ‘the dramatic tale’, compelling food for thought.

To really produce laughter, to evoke astonishment, to make the mouth stand open is terrific.
– Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007)

The influence of French theatre practitioner Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) over German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s contemporaries is well documented.[1] Yet concerning Stockhausen himself, it has been overlooked. I will now explore the treatment of mysticism in both artists,[2] and subsequently the musical manifestations of Artaud’s theoretical writings. I will argue, presenting the biographical parallels in each, that this pertinent influence over Stockhausen is evident from as early as 1968.

It is relevant to consider Artaud’s influence. This is not least because of Stockhausen’s later artistic unities of a ‘scenic music’ (which suggests a cognisance of the Artaudian concept Total Theatre, and awareness of surrealist writers Lewis Carroll, Samuel Beckett, and Robert Wilson)[3] but also because of the general artistic zeitgeist when Stockhausen was most artistically active. We should place Artaud’s influence within the context of other events, such as what Maconie characterises as ‘a duplicitous climate of political stalemate where the only certainty to be believed in was that of mutually assured destruction’.[4] This ‘mutually assured destruction’ might be explained as a psychological reaction to the technological advancements of the era of the first Voyager space probes which, subsequently, led to a hyper-awareness of celestial activity, climate instability, and the need for a reconciliation of humanity with nature. In art, this zeitgeist refers also to post-war surrealism, fuelled by its mother Dadaism, and its development into Fluxus. This, to Artaud, a surrealist whose first writings predate the Great War, must be credited a huge influence.

Antonin Artaud led a troubled life. Born in Marseille to French immigrants of Smyrna (now Izmir), he was one of just two siblings, out of nine, who survived infancy. At four years old he suffered a severe case of meningitis,[6] leaving him with an agitated temperament. Later, during his adolescence, he developed neuralgia for which he was treated in various psychiatric institutions with opium, leading to a life long addiction.[7]

At 24 years of age, Artaud moved to Paris in order to pursue a career in theatre, having been encouraged by a doctor from one of the sanatoriums.[8] By the mid-1920s he had founded the Centrale Surréaliste.[9] However, he is better known for his Theatre of Cruelty; a theory developed in his first manifestos published from 1931 onwards, which culminated in his magnum opus The Theatre and Its Double.[10]

The biographical similarities between Artaud and Stockhausen are striking. Stockhausen likewise experienced trauma from a very early age. At four, he endured both the death of his younger brother and the admission of his mother into a sanatorium just months earlier (she was later killed as part of the ongoing euthanasia programs of the Nazi party).[11]His father’s remarrying marred his life as a young adult,[12] thus he spent the better part of his adolescence at boarding school.[13] After completing his studies in music, philosophy, and German literature, Stockhausen moved to Paris in 1952, staying for just one year in order to study under Messiaen.[15] Like Artaud, he was 24 years old at the time of this move.

It was during this same year in Paris that Stockhausen first met Pierre Boulez in the Club d’Essai studios (arguably the centre of the musique concrète), at Boulez’s invitation,[16] and from this first meeting the two composers enjoyed a life-long correspondence.[17] Boulez was working at the Théâtre Marigny of Jean-Louis Barrault.[18] Barrault kept many professional friends and Artaud was one of them;[19] this might account for the recognition of Artaudian aesthetics in Boulez’s music.[20] Nonetheless, considering the year that Stockhausen lived in Paris, and given those he was mixing with, we can be sure to say that if he had not encountered Artaud’s writing earlier, he certainly encountered the practitioner at this point.

Both artists were deeply concerned with mysticism and spiritualism (and their studies of the cosmic) which is manifested in their art. It is my belief that, inasmuch as this was an embrace of theosophy,[21] shamanism and Kabbalah on the parts of each artist,[22] it was also a reaction to Western art for its ‘psychological inclinations’[23], or as Stockhausen put it: ‘I do not wish to present a story as an experiential curve […] which comes from a dramatic tale.’[24] Artaud wrote:

The scum of the populace, immunised so it seems by their frantic greed, enter the open houses and help themselves to riches they know will serve no purpose or profit.  At that point, theatre establishes itself.[25]

It was Artaud’s desire to conceive a theatre that ‘[chose] themes and subjects corresponding to the agitation and unrest of our lives’ in order to ‘rediscover a religious, mystical meaning our theatre has forgotten.’[26] He believed that, to be able to do this, one needed to emancipate Western theatre from its ‘debased’ reliance on dialogue:[27] ‘Any true feeling cannot be expressed. To do so is to betray it.’[28] Adorno, it seems, acknowledged that Stockhausen thought the very same:

Most intriguing […] is K. H. Stockhausen’s idea that electronic works – to the extent to which they are non-notational and directly ‘realised’ in the material – might expire at the moment when they are played.  Stockhausen’s is a conception of art that retains the emphatic claim to being art while at the same time being ready to throw itself away.[29]

Yet we should note that neither Artaud, nor Stockhausen, managed to break fully from traditional forms of notation – whether script, prose, or conventional music scoring – and, therefore, neither detached themselves from the importance of language. Indeed, on Stockhausen’s part, his break from formal notation was a temporary one. The graphic representations used in Elektronische Studien I and II (1953) marked his first attempt. These compositions, however, might be said to be totally non-instructive. Perhaps they, above all others, come closer to transcending language in that they are not syntactical, but further exploration is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Shortly following, Stockhausen experimented with various other notational forms, such as in Gesang der Jünglinge (1953), Kontakte (1960), Klavierstück X (1961), Mikrophonie I (1964), Telemusik (1966), until his semiotic systems seemed to fold over themselves with the conception of Aus den sieben Tagen (‘From the Seven Days’, 1968). A collection of 15 text compositions, that involve no musical or graphic notation, Aus den sieben Tagen exemplifies a contradictory desire to transcend Western language and recreate another Western symbiotic system – art music.

Though transcendentalism and new creation might appear to be antithetical, the texts themselves are remarkably coherent. For example, ‘RICHTIGE DAUERN’ (‘RIGHT DURATIONS’), the first of the text pieces, implies the need for intuition: ‘play it for so long / until you feel / that you should stop’.[30]  Yet there is also conflict, as the piece battles between its chronological treatment and its cyclical nature, which is quasi-repetitive, and might be interpreted as an attempt to transcend typical Western ‘experiential’ forms. Striving to surpass limits of time, which ultimately gave way to his ‘moment’[31] and ‘polyvalent’ forms,[32] might be said to be a conscious move in order to encourage dialogue with the wider cosmos; essentially, free of time in the expanse of infinite time.  For this reason, it is better to talk of the infinite musical outcomes of Aus den sieben Tagen. Though they rely on this simple text, its very title is both indicative, and prescriptive:

play a sound
play it for so long
until you feel
that you should stop

again play a sound
play it for so long
until you feel
that you should stop…[33]

There is an oneiric quality about the text-scores of Aus den sieben Tagen, as if the composer is encouraging the performers to produce the music through a meditative, rather than cerebral, medium. The effect of time-distortion, as with the truncation and prolongation of time in dreams, the manipulation of memory, was a profound and central topic to artists of the surrealist movement (including fine artists).[34] These issues are brought together in the fourth text piece ‘TREFFPUNKT’ (‘MEETING POINT’), which suggests that the players:

…lead the tone wherever your thoughts
lead you…[35]

This brings to mind a statement by Artaud, which illustrated the practitioner’s struggle to part from traditional prose: ‘We do not intend to do away with dialogue, but to give words something of the significance they have in dreams.’[36] Stockhausen’s ‘prose’ is comparable to the haptic, proprioceptive nature of Artaud’s in the opening pages of 50 Drawings to Murder Magic: ‘The purpose of all these drawn and coloured figures was the lifting of […] the constraints of spatial form, perspective, measure, balance, dimensions’.[37] Artaud later writes:

To understand these drawings
you must
1. leave the written page
and enter
the real
but also
2. leave the real
and enter
the surreal
the extra-real
the supernatural
the suprasensible
into which these drawings

Both exhibit a turn from proper grammatical syntax, heightening their emphasis on sensual elements (‘play’, ‘feel’, ‘plunge’, etc.) as opposed to traditional, structural, solemnity. That ‘play’ and ‘sound’, as well as ‘enter’ and ‘the surreal’ share counterparts in each artist illustrates the importance they both placed on the interconnectedness of sensual stimuli and body movement. This is their apotheosis of the Orient and its influence. More specifically, we know each artist shared an affinity with Balinese theatre.[39]

Artaud first came into contact with Balinese theatre at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition,[40] and he later documented what exactly he found so striking: ‘in the Balinese theatre, a sound corresponds to a certain gesture […] instead of acting as décor accompanying thought’; ‘[t]here is something of a religious ritual ceremony about them’. [41] Stockhausen, if he was not considering Oriental aesthetics earlier, was commissioned by the West German government in 1968 – the same year he composed Aus den sieben Tagen – to collaborate on the German Pavillion Project, which was complete for the Expo’ ’70 world fair in Osaka, Japan, 1970.[42] It should be noted that through the Shiraz Festival of Arts in Iran, since 1972, the earlier works of Stockhausen and theatre pieces of Artaud enjoyed a very close relationship in theatre under eminent Third World directors such as Shūji Terayama.[43]

In the eighth text piece, which Stockhausen even labelled a ‘theatre piece’,[44] ‘OBEN UND UNTEN’ (‘HIGH AND LOW’) Stockhausen presents a tripartite work (‘MAN’, ‘CHILD’, and ‘WOMAN’),[45] drawing from his Catholic upbringing, in a symbolic reference to the Holy Trinity. Robin Maconie, however, suggests that there might be another reason for Stockhausen’s fascination with the trinity [as this fascination persisted through many of his works, right up to his seven-opera cycle Licht (1977-2007)],[46] linking it to Artaud’s interest in Kabbalah.[47]

An example of Artaud’s use of ternary significance might be found in his theories concerning the importance of breathing. For him, everything ‘EXPANDING/POSITIVE’,[48] representing ‘fullness […] Convex […] Tense […] Yang’,[49] and everything that produces ‘shouts of strength’[50] is Masculine.[51] In ‘HIGH AND LOW’ Stockhausen presents man in a hunter-gatherer light, fulfilling the basic (Artaudian) concept of Masculine ‘strength’ whilst also, in a homologous way, bringing to the piece an awareness of ritual. The feminine is everything masculine, but inverted; it is weak. The potent language used, as well as the violent imagery, is suggestive of an influence of Theatre of Cruelty: ‘A real stage play upsets our sensual tranquility, releases our suppressed subconsciousness, drives us to a kind of potential rebellion’:[52]


on the floor
shabbily dressed
degenerate, an animal

sounds, words, sentences
movements, gestures,
of the most disgusting
depraved kind
curses, protests against EVERYTHING!

the MAN mixes his words with
those of the WOMAN
‘shit – God’[53]

This text is reminiscent of Artaud’s radio play Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu (‘To have done with the judgement of God’, 1947). Artaud also places man in an antediluvian context:[54]

Man has always preferred meat
to the earth of bones.
Because there was only earth and wood of bone,
and he had to earn his meat,
there was only iron and fire
and no shit […]
Is God a being?
If he is one, he is a shit.[55]

Having met scenic-music by Karlheinz Stockhausen with the play-writing and theatrical theories of Antonin Artaud, one can conclude that their artistic outcomes are rooted in a holism with aesthetic mysticism. Their works’ spiritual elements were derived in response to the cosmological zeitgeist that infiltrated their professional lives, fuelled by strong artistic movements with heavy undercurrents of explorative ritualism. Both felt ‘that only when the theater recognized itself as an “autonomous and independent art,” would it free itself from the iron collar of language’ in order to give their works new suprasensible dimensions.[56] From Aus den sieben Tagen onwards, the importance of mysticism stayed with Stockhausen to his very death; further developed in Mantra (1970), and to ‘the mythopoeia LICHT’.[57] After an examination of their works, and inter-woven lives, we cannot but conclude that each ‘begs the question of what music can be said to represent, that is, to what reality it conforms’.[58]


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[1] See the following:  Seth Brodsky, ‘”Write the moment”: two ways of dealing with Wolfgang Rihm I’, Musical Times, 145:1888 (Autumn 2004), 57-71, here 61-65 [Rihm]; and Erik Ulman, ‘The Music of Sylvano Bussotti’, Perspectives of New Music, 34:2 (Summer 1996), 186-201, here 188 [Bussotti and Cage]; Robin Maconie, Other Planets: The Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2005), 99-100 [Boulez], 378 [Varèse] and 533 [Barron, Geldman, Louis and Scelsi].

[2] Henceforth I shall use the words ‘art’ and ‘artists’ to mean their general sense, unless otherwise stated.

[3] Referenced in:  Ivanka Stoianova, ‘And Dasein Becomes Music: Some Glimpses of Light’, Perspectives of New Music, 37:1 (Winter 1999), 179-212, here 200; Beckett and Wilson owe much to Artaud.  See: Jonathan Cott, Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 232; and Maconie, Other Planets, 423-4.

[4] Maconie, Other Planets, 376.

[6] Antonin Artaud and Susan Sontag, ed. (trans.), Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 590.

[7] See:  Antonin Artaud and Victor Corti (trans.), The Theatre and Its Double (London: Calder Publications, 2005), 106; and Edward Scheer, ed., Antonin Artaud: A Critical Reader (London: Taylor & Francis Ltd., 2003), 1.

[8] Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, 106.

[9] Also known as the Bureau of Surrealist Research, see:  Lance Norman, ed., Dismemberment in Drama/Dismemberment of Drama (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), 35.

[10] First published in French in 1938; first English translation by Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1958).

[11] See: Karlheinz Stockhausen and Tim Neville (trans.), Towards a Cosmic Music (Longmead: Element, 1989), 11; and Michael Kurz et al, Stockhausen: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), 8 and 13.

[12] Kurz, Stockhausen, 18.  Stockhausen’s father was later conscripted.

[13] Stockhausen, Towards a Cosmic Music, 11.

[14] Jonathan Harvey, The music of Stockhausen: an introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 15.

[15] Richard Toop, ‘Messiaen/Goeyvaerts, Fano/Stockhausen’, Perspectives of New Music, 13 (1974-1975), 141-69, here 143.

[16] Maconie, Other Planets, 99.

[17] Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XIV (1984) is dedicated to Boulez, whilst the recipient is known for the early support he gave his fellow composer.  He often turned to criticising Stockhausen’s later works.  See, for example: Robert Adlington, ‘Tuning in and Dropping out: The Disturbance of the Dutch Premiere of Stockhausen’s Stimmung’, Music & Letters, 90:1 (2009), 94-112, here 108; and, in contrast, Nattiez, ed., Boulez-Cage Correspondence, 134.

[18] Maconie,  Other Planets, 99.

[19] Jean-Louis Barrault, and Jonathan Griffin (trans.), Memories for Tomorrow (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), 78.

[20] Nattiez, ed., Boulez-Cage Correspondence, 96.

[21] As it appears in Wilson’s recognition of Stockhausen, see:  Günter Peters and Mark Schreiber, ‘”…How Creation Is Composed”: Spirituality in the Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen’, Perspectives of New Music, 37:1 (Winter 1999), 96-131, here 105; and Sontag, Antonin Artaud, 199.

[22] On Artaud and shamanism, see: Brodsky, ‘”Write the moment”’, 64.  On Kabbalah, see:  Maconie, Other Planets, 100.

[23] Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, 33.

[24] Referenced in: Stoianova, ‘And Dasein Becomes Music’, 188-9.

[25] Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, 15.

[26] Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, 35.

[27] Original emphasis.  Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, 27.

[28] Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, 53.

[29] Theodor W. Adorno, and C. Lenhardt et al. (trans.), Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 255.

[30] Karlheinz Stockhausen, Aus den sieben Tagen (From the seven Days), (trans.) Rolf Gehlhaar et al, 26 (May 1968), Universal Edition UE 14790, 3.

[31] In works as early Kontakte (1960), moment form presents music in a mosaic veneer; each moment being a ‘self-contained (quasi-)independent section, set off from other sections by discontinuities’ [Jonathan Kramer, The Time of Music: New Meanings, New Temporalities, New Listening Strategies (London: Collier Macmillan, 1988), 453].

[32] See Stoianova, ‘And Dasein Becomes Music’, 193:  ‘Polyvalence and openness of the statement without historical necessity and goal-directed development recalls the texts of antiquity’.

[33] Stockhausen, Aus den sieben Tagen, 3.

[34] See paintings by Salvador Dali:  The Persistence of Memory (1931); and The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1952-4).

[35] Stockhausen, Aus den sieben Tagen, 9.

[36] Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, 72.

[37] Antonin Artaud, and Donald Nicholson-Smith (trans.), 50 Drawings to Murder Magic: Antonin Artaud (Greenford, UK: Seagull Books London Ltd., 2008), vii.

[38] Artaud, 50 Drawings to Murder Magic, 12.

[39] To which Artaud dedicates two chapters of The Theatre and Its Double.  Concerning the composer, see:  Karlheinz Stockhausen and David Felder, ‘An Interview with Karlheinz Stockhausen’, Perspectives of New Music, 16:1 (Autumn-Winter 1977), 85-101, here 86.

[40] See:  Nicola Savarese, ‘1931 Antonin Artaud Sees Balinese Theatre at the Paris Colonial Exposition’, The Drama Review, 45:3 (2001), 51-77.

[41] Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, 28, 42.

[42] Michael Fowler, ‘The Ephemeral Architecture of Stockhausen’s Pole für 2’, Organised Sound, 15 (2010), 185-97, here 185.

[43]See:  Chérif Khaznadar, ‘Tendencies and Prospects for Third World Theatre’, The Drama Review, 17:4 (December 1973), 33-50, here 38, 46 and 50; and Robert Gluck, ‘The Shiraz Arts Festival: Western Avant-Garde Arts in 1970s Iran’, Leonardo, 40:1 (January 2007), 20-28, here 23.

[44] Stockhausen, Aus den sieben Tagen, 17.

[45] Stockhausen, Aus den sieben Tagen, 17.

[46] Especially his treatment of the roles Michael, Eve and Lucifer.

[47] See:  Maconie, Other Planets, 100; and Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, 91.

[48] Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, 91.

[49] Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, 94

[50] Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, 97.

[51] The practitioner usually spells ‘Masculine’ and ‘Feminine’ with capitals, and I will do likewise in order to emphasise his specific realisation of gender traits.

[52] Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, 19.  Also it seems that Adorno would agree, he writes:  ‘The aggression which the new music directs against the established norms […] an aggression in which something of the violence of surrealist onslaughts still survives’.  See:  Theodor W. Adorno and Rodney Livingstone (trans.), Quasi una fantasia: Essays on Modern Music (Bath, UK: Verso, 1992), 256.

[53] Stockhausen, Aus den sieben Tagen, 17.

[54] Further to this, see:  Brodsky, ‘”Write the moment”’, 64; and Stockhausen, ‘Light – The Summation’, Towards a Cosmic Music, 83-114.

[55] Antonin Artaud, ‘The Pursuit of Fecality’, To have done with the judgement of God – – accessed on 12th December 2010.

[56] Arved Ashby, ed., The Pleasure of Modernist Music: Listening, Meaning, Intention, Ideology (Rochester: Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 2004), 99n.

[57] Maconie, Other Planets, 371.

[58] Maconie, Other Planets, 371.

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