When Karlheinz Stockhausen died in 2007 he left behind a large body of work equally influential and controversial (English conductor Adrien Boult when asked if he had conducted any Stockhausen quipped ‘No, but I’ve stepped in some’). Perhaps his most monumental work is the opera cycle ‘Licht’ which consists of seven operas – one for each day of the week – written over the course of twenty-six years. These are not conventional operas, but collections of pieces in which the musicians are as much actors as the singers and tells a highly mystical and religious story about Michael (the angel), Eve, and Lucifer.
Oeke Hoogendijk’s documentary of the same name takes as its basis the largest production of Licht (though apparently still not the entire twenty-nine hours), following the musicians, crew, and organisers as they prepare for such an ambitious project. To give a sense of the enormity of the undertaking, there is one scene in which one of the organisers is sitting at a desk with a massive spreadsheet talking to the camera about the difficulties in planning – she says ‘then I realised I hadn’t even started looking for the helicopters yet.’ This dominates the first half of the film, the second focusing significantly more on Stockhausen’s family life, using insightful interviews from his partners and children.
The filmmakers’ approach is a fairly standard one in modern documentaries, using a combination of talking heads, archive footage, and fly-on-the-wall material. Despite a few rather limp attempts at aesthetic flourishes, presumably to make it seem more ‘cinematic’, there is nothing formally interesting about this documentary. Indeed, it was slightly worrying when it began with crew members pontificating about what Licht means and waxing lyrical about Stockhausen’s music. This is clearly not a film that will be of any interest to those unfamiliar with Stockhausen (I could probably count on one hand the number of people I know who would be interested) and those who are familiar don’t need to be told that he was a pioneer in electronic music, among other things.
Licht becomes significantly more interesting in its latter half when the interviews with Stockhausen’s family dominate, despite being the least cinematic material of the film. Whereas earlier the film’s attitude to Stockhausen himself had been reverential and accepting of the mythos around him, this half begins to be far more critical, particularly of his parenting. It is quite telling that there is a difference in how his two widows (Stockhausen was almost never monogamous) talk about him compared to his children. One of his sons says he didn’t realise growing up that music didn’t have to be dissonant and atonal. His daughter is particularly scathing, comparing the experience of listening to his music to lying on a bed of nails.
In the end it is rather sad how this portrait of an overwhelming ego is drawn, with even his most loyal son Markus being cut off after he decides to pursue his own career. In the archive footage we almost never hear Stockhausen speak about himself or his music, and this is Licht’s biggest achievement as well as its biggest flaw. It allows it to get at the heart of why he was and still is a cult figure, allowing that status to be opened up for critique, but it also is curiously disinterested in any actual exploration of his music which is frustrating. Ultimately perhaps, it serves to show how children of great artists can suffer. His daughter compares him to a sun emitting his art and ego without any thought for those around him and says people like that are great artists, but probably shouldn’t be parents.
In the end, the material is interesting enough for afficionados to make it an engaging experience, but for a film about such a radical and ground-breaking artist, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed in how thoroughly conventional this is.
Licht: Stockhausen’s Legacy had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on August 17th.
Image Courtesy of EIFF, provided to The Student as press material.