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The Supersumptuous

Updated: May 9, 2022

Browsing through the big archive of material that used to sit on my alistairappleton.com blog, I came across this cri-de-coeur from my self around 2009. It’s strange how – as you get older – these things seem to settle. I no longer feel at all squeamish about my dreams or mythology or the mystical. Cambridge seems a long way off in my mind (though I dream about it occasionally) and I care much less for the Maoism of my earlier intellectual life. I can’t recall the last time I listened to Stockhausen – or indeed any music… I wonder if the enforced retreat of the Pandemic has further softened all those hard edges? Either that or it has turned my aesthetic brain which used to worry about these things into a soft and relaxed porridge.

I know I’m starting to seem rather obsessive. But I promise this will be the last posting in a while about Karlheinz Stockhausen. But I just had to blog about the documentary I saw about him last night – Helicopter String Quartet by Frank Shaeffer.

Everything, Stockhausen said, that he has tried to do in his music has been about creating the uncreating


I don’t know why I’m so drawn to Stockhausen. It was wonderful to see and hear him speak. In later age corpulent and rosy cheeked: he looks like a cuddly Bavarian in big white ruffled shirts with red-green braces. And his voice was warm and avuncular. He was friendly and explanatory to the four bemused helicopter pilots who were flying the four members of the Arditti Quartet as they played. He knew the pilots’ first names and worried about their health. With the musicians and technicians he was less indulgent – much more perfectionist. But still with that lovely warm voice that belies the ferociously complicated music he wrote.


And what arose strongly for me was his mysticism. He dreamed the musicians flying up from the concert hall in flying machines and their music being beamed down to four columns of screens that he could control. Everything, he said, that he has tried to do in his music has been about creating the uncreating. Imagining what has never been heard and making it audible.


Mysticism was scrubbed out of me at University.


The other blind spot: the taboo on mysticism is still there


I had tea with my friend Patrick the other day and he pointed to ‘growing up gay’ and ‘going to Oxbridge’ as the two unintentionally crippling factors of our lives. Neither of these things are intrinsically wrong or bad, of course. But integrating them properly is not easily done by a 6-yr-old or a 18-year-old respectively.


I’ve done lots of work in therapy, ayahuasca and meditation on the first of these. I’m fairly at ease with my sexuality and have shucked off most of the blindsided homophobia I carried around for so long. But the other blindspot: the taboo on mysticism is still there.


Basically, I grew up drawn to the mystical, to the fantastical and the imaginary. By the time I got to University at Cambridge – all that was so much embarassing childish nonsense which had to be quickly shrugged off in the bright, modern light of deconstruction, postmodernism: a sort of intellectual Maoism.

I kept a lifeline to it with choral singing and a love of poetry – but by the time I got to Berlin, the anti-mystical charge had gathered breakneck, blind momentum. Everythign was ironic. Nothing was serious and everything had to be undermined and questioned.


Send four of the worlds finest string players up in helicopters and mix the results live because you dreamed it. It’s inspiring.


Of course, this was all to do with my psychic landscape too – but what has been most interesting in these last months has been a gradual re-acceptance of the unconscious, the mystic, the – dare I say it – transpersonal.

What to so many people seems like kooky mythology in late Stockhausen, seems like true bravery to me. To dream and give credence to dreams. To go to such extremes to follow a vision – to send four of the worlds finest string players up in helicopters and mix the results live, because you dreamed it. It’s inspriting.


I happened to come across a book of essays by Michael Tippet in a house we were filming today. He was talking about Schoenberg and his musical strictness – the fear of formlessness that drove him to serialize. He contrasts it to Joyce, who never had to have disciples and wrote obsessively, but driven from his inward landscape. In a sort of joyful gush. He quotes Ulysses:


Be on the side of the angels. Be a prism. You have that something within the higher self. […] Are you all in this vibration? It’s a life-brightener, sure; the hottest stuff ever was. It’s the whole pie with jam in. Just the cutesy, snappiest line out. It’s immense. It’s supersumptuous. It restores.

. He is a prism, he did side with the angels, he was in the vibration.


I’d love to know your thoughts about Karlheinz Stockhausen and his music. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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