Fillip 15 — Fall 2011

Stockhausen at Ground Zero
Christian Hänggi

On September 16, 2001, the German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen held a press conference in Hamburg on the occasion of a series of concerts featuring his work, among them a performance of Freitag (1991–94) from his cycle Licht (1977–2003), or light. At the press conference, Benedikt Stampa, director of the Hamburg Musikhalle at that time, expressed intense excitement about the upcoming shows and then gave the microphone over to journalists to ask the composer questions. Eventually, the discussion turned to the twenty-eight-hour megaproject Licht, and naturally to Lucifer, the bringer of light who plays an ambivalent role in Stockhausen’s oeuvre and spirituality, with Freitag dealing specifically with Lucifer’s temptation of Eve. In the course of his live ruminations on Lucifer and in the shadow of the World Trade Center (WTC) attacks that occupied the consciousness of much of the world, Stockhausen claimed that the attacks had been the greatest work of art in the whole cosmos. The press, quick to decontextualize and spread these remarks, managed within the course of a day to set in motion the cancellation of Stockhausen’s scheduled concerts and to rupture his career.1

Today, ten years after Stockhausen’s press conference, the initial trauma has largely been overcome and the protagonists of 9/11 are elsewhere. Stockhausen is dead, having passed away in 2007, the year he was going to turn eighty; George W. Bush is no longer in office; Dick Cheney is back to officially making money with war machinery; Osama bin Laden, who claimed responsibility for the attacks, has died; Hamburg’s Cultural Senator Christina Weiss, who cancelled Stockhausen’s shows, no longer holds office; and Benedikt Stampa now heads Konzerthaus Dortmund. Much like the cast of key players involved in the 9/11 drama that enfolded Stockhausen’s comments, the official 9/11 reports, despite their serious gaps in information (which have given continual fodder to conspiracy theorists), indicate a closed case. Still, the WTC attacks remain a unique caesura in the progress of globalized capital coming from the only country that has ever been convicted of international terrorism by the International Court of Justice.2

To call the 9/11 terrorist attacks an artwork, let alone the “greatest work of art that has ever existed,” is so provocative that it could easily be dismissed as the emanations of a disturbed mind. That it was one of the most internationally recognized avant-garde composers who made this claim and that it was taken up—if only in passing—by thinkers such as Slavoj Žižek and Paul Virilio, should, however, warrant closer inspection. In an attempt to afford Stockhausen the contextualization the mass media was not able to give him and provide a more solid basis for further ruminations, a larger excerpt of the press conference in question shall be rendered here followed by my consideration of the remarks Stockhausen made there.3

Journalist: Now the name of the city was dropped after all: New York. In your notes to Hymns you write about a musical rendition of harmonious humanity, and you just spoke about the languages of the world, in which and for which you are composing. You spoke about Lucifer in New York. I don’t think I misunderstood you.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: No.

Journalist: How do the events of the past few days touch you personally, and in particular, how do you look again at the notes about harmonious humanity in Hymns, which will also be performed?

Stockhausen: Hmm. Well, what happened there is, is of course—now you all have to adjust your brains—the greatest work of art that has ever existed. That spirits achieve in one act something we could never dream of in music, that people practice like mad for ten years, totally fanatically, for one concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. These are people who are so concentrated on this single performance—and then five thousand people are driven into resurrection. In one moment. I couldn’t do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers that is.

I mean, when I perform Freitag from Licht, it is possible that a couple of people seated in the auditorium undergo what an elderly man told me about last week after the performance of Samstag: “Now, tell me: two-and-a-half hours. There were these incredibly low sounds that hovered above us like clouds, and they were moving all the time, they were sailing, and then these rapid shots of other sounds. Tell me, what kind of orchestra is that?” I say: “None.” Says he: “What? How did you do it then? Somehow you have to do it! Who is playing? Who was singing or playing?” I say: “No one.”—“How so?”—I say: “With generators and synthesizers.” Says he: “What? Then we don’t need an orchestra anymore!?” I say: “No.” Then he stormed out of the auditorium as if he had died within, in his spirit. I don’t know what is going to happen with him now.

And there were several ladies that came to me and said: “Tell us, what is it you have here?” And I said: “This is a mixing board.”—“How does that work, is everything coming out of that?” I say: “Yes.”—“And do you have a score as well?”—“Yes.”—“May I see it?”—“Yes.” These ladies were between seventy and eighty or so, they were probably a subscription audience for the Bach Festival. They were standing around me. I say: “See, can you read notes?”—“Yes, yes, we can read notes. Is someone able to understand that?” I say: “Yes, someone is able to understand it. You just have to study it.” That was an explosion for these people like the one in New York. Bang! And I don’t know if they are in a different place now, these people that were so shocked.

There are things that go on in my mind and that are set off by such experiences. I have used words that I never use because it is so monstrous. That is the greatest work of art ever that is taking place. Just imagine I was able to create a work of art, and you would not only be astonished but you would drop dead on the spot. You would be dead and you would be resurrected because you would lose your consciousness, because it is simply too crazy. Some artists try to cross the borders of what can be thought and of what is possible so that we may wake up, that we can open ourselves to another world. Well, I don’t know if there will be five thousand resurrections, but something like that. In an instant. This is incredible.

Journalist: Is there no difference between a work of art and crime?

Stockhausen: Maybe, but—Of course! The criminal is a criminal, this you know, because the people did not agree. They didn’t get to the concert. That is obvious. And nobody announced: “You could die in the process.” I didn’t either. Well, in art it isn’t that bad. But what happened mentally, this leap from safety, from what is taken for granted, from life, this happens sometimes, slowly, slowly in art too. Or it is nothing.

You are all so serious suddenly. Where did he take me? Lucifer....

Is it not uncanny what I thought of just now? Crazy. I said ten years of practicing for one concert, and that has to be it. And then—gone. Hooooh! Heavy stuff.

Benedikt Stampa: Sip of water?

Stockhausen: Maybe. I have to go to the auditorium now, don’t I? To see if the speakers are right. Don’t you have something funny?...

Stampa: This is the first time in my life I have to close a press conference, although it is incredibly fascinating, although, for the first time, there are more questions than answers....

Stockhausen: Yes, but don’t write that. Of all things, don’t write what we said at the end. This shouldn’t be multiplied, that’s foolish. Let us rather help the people to hear the music, to open up to a new experience. There are enough enchantingly beautiful things in the show. And that makes up for what we don’t understand from within, what baffles us or even lets us lose our sanity, like that gentleman last week. He stormed out and thought, what is going on? He didn’t get it, all his life. He thought there had to be an orchestra, there had to be instruments, a choir, and he said: “Isn’t anyone playing?”—“No, no one.”...

At first oblivious to the reaction his words elicited, Stockhausen eventually realized that the atmosphere in the auditorium had all of a sudden turned quiet and that he must have said something wrong and offensive, something the audience was not prepared to hear or understand despite his preliminary remark that they should all “adjust their brains.” In an effort to break the tension, he asked if the audience couldn’t offer something funny (was Lustiges) and concluded by appealing to the press to resist proliferating his remarks about the events in New York. Needless to say, the journalists could not resist the temptation to do just that, and they multiplied his comments very quickly—presenting them largely out of the context of his oeuvre and in neglect of his extensive writings—to the great detriment of his career. Within the day that the press conference took place, and only one day before Stockhausen’s concerts were to open, his upcoming and very elaborate shows were cancelled by the Zeit Foundation, sponsor of the Musikfest, as well as by Cultural Senator Christina Weiss, who was at the time approaching the end of her term and was up for re-election in Hamburg, a city accused of harbouring 9/11 terrorist cells. Long-time friends of the composer and even two of his children, if we are to believe what the press reported, were putatively alienated by his comments. Stockhausen, a strange character but nevertheless one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, instantly turned into persona non grata as a consequence. And just as instantly, the words of director Benedikt Stampa dissolved, words that had expressed how incredibly proud the Musikhalle was that Stockhausen was there and how they as an organization would do everything to make his stay in Hamburg go well. Stockhausen gained notoriety overnight, for people who had never heard of him before now knew his name and that it belonged to an influential composer who had made incredibly inflammatory comments about 9/11.

It is worth emphasizing that Stockhausen was not an average composer. As one of the pioneers of electronic music and serial music, as well as stereo and surround sound—or Raumklang, space-sound—his influence in the second half of the twentieth century proved to be considerable, from what might be termed “serious music” to Krautrock to the Beatles, who honoured him with an appearance on the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover. His influence even extended beyond music to literature, where, for instance, Thomas Pynchon made him an idol for a gang of electronics assemblers in his 1963 novel The Crying of Lot 49

There has always been a certain temptation to name Stockhausen in a trajectory with another great German composer, Richard Wagner, even though Stockhausen denied any relationship or similarity. Both had the tendency to compose megalomaniacal projects in the spirit of the ancient Greek mousikê, total works of art or Gesamtkunstwerke, for specially designed stages and auditoriums involving a wide range of arts. In Stockhausen’s case, this sometimes necessitated groups of four orchestras and choirs or twenty-four speakers on twelve channels grouped all around and sometimes below and above the audience. His Helicopter String Quartet (1992–93, first performed 1995), for instance, orchestrated the movements of four string players who must board four helicopters and play the composition while hovering in the air—engine sounds and all.

Stockhausen was a spiritual person in a strange way. Some termed his spirituality a crypto-Catholicism, others called it Judaeo-Christian-Gnostic-Neoplatonic with a tendency to cosmic allegories. He believed in angels and that he was trained on Sirius, where he would return after the death of his physical body in our solar system. Death for him was not only not the end, but it was an opening he eagerly anticipated, an opening to a deeper understanding of the universe. It was not uncommon for Stockhausen to make cryptic or offhand remarks that had the potential to make the audience feel awkward. This was not done for malicious reasons but rather because he did live in a different universe, if not a physical one then at least a mental one. Composer and sonic philosopher Peter Price sees such offenses as a professional risk of artists who work in and with resonance.4 Others call it déformation professionelle. 

According to Stockhausen, the attacks had been the greatest work of art in the whole cosmos, because people, Geister, ghosts or spirits as he calls them, fanatically rehearsed the events for ten years toward the production of a single performance—and then died. This translations renders “das größte Kunstwerk” as the “greatest work of art,” although it could also be translated as the “biggest,” “largest,” or even “ultimate,” as Slavoj Žižek has done.5 The attacks “resurrected,” as Stockhausen termed it in his crypto-Catholic way, five thousand people in a single instant.6

His comments are indeed difficult to rationalize. In twentieth-century warfare and terrorism, it can be argued that there are a number of events that share certain characteristics analogous to the notion of a staged production where the effort, the composition, the single performance, and a high number of deaths are all common to a catastrophic script. The atomic bombs—which, on August 6 and 9, 1945, “resurrected” 92,000 people in an instant and an additional 230,000 within the next five months—are some of the most obvious candidates. Apart from warfare, some large-scale accidents could also be considered candidates for the greatest work of art according to these characteristics, cases where the accident is built into man-made technology but is not consciously planned. The Titanic, for example, was a monument that only had one performance, or Chernobyl, which in Ukrainian curiously means Wormwood—that is, the star in the book of Revelation that fell on the Earth and poisoned a third of the waters. It is doubtful however that we will arrive at a better understanding of Stockhausen’s enigmatic comments by calculating the number of deaths or the amount of preparation that went into the 9/11 attacks. This would lead to a sort of rationalization and deprive the work of art of all sensual and affective ramifications, which is what makes an artifact an artwork.

Death and art have always been linked, as have war and art. Boris Groys reminds us that the artist and the warrior used to live in an ambivalent but symbiotic relationship: “The warrior did the actual fighting, and the artist represented this fight by narrating it or depicting it.”7 With the modern mass media this has changed somewhat as the warrior is no longer in need of the artist to glorify his deeds. In the early twentieth century, it was the provocations of the Futurists as well as the Surrealists that made the links between violence, or indeed terror, and art explicit. The Futurists sometimes seemed closer to an openly cruel fascism than to an art movement. In their manifestos, we can see the “terroristic imagination which dwells in all of us,”8 a desire to tear down and destroy and—usually—build again from scratch. André Breton fantasized in the “Second Surrealist Manifesto” about shooting at will into a crowd. It is no coincidence that the “avant-garde” is a military term and much of the avant-garde vocabulary is a martial one. For a general public who can get angry at seemingly harmless works of art in public space and who believe that art should be uplifting, that it should make us feel good about ourselves and the human condition, it is simply inconceivable to bring together violence and art.

What is easily forgotten is that the very idea of the sublime carries within it qualities of the uncanny. The violently beautiful is simultaneously attractive and repulsive. It is never just uplifting, as the German term erhaben (sublime) in its proximity to erheben (to uplift) suggests. The World Trade Center, the gigantic twin phalli of capitalism, inspired by its physical monumentality a feeling of awe, a feeling of sublime excitation. Jean-François Lyotard bestowed certain elements of the sublime upon capitalism;9 hence, were it not for the sheer size, we would still sense the sublime in the symbolism embodied in the World Trade Center as the world centre of capital. To see it castrated by a flying man-made monument—that is, progress turned into destruction, a missive turned into a missile—gave some viewers a doubly sublime thrill, a lustful and invigorating fascination that could only be exorcized by endless repetition.

In his forthcoming book, Peter Price shows how the supposed universal musical harmony and unified conception of the cosmos that took its starting point in Pythagorean mathematics has been attacked and overturned in ways that made the previous state of affairs unbearably old-fashioned or outright loathsome for those at the forefront of musical development.10 Wagner’s Tristan Chord that unfolds in the opening sequence of Tristan und Isolde, for instance, was a provocation as it did not conform to anything that had previously been heard and therefore couldn’t undergo the violence of categorization exerted by the public and the critics.11 Many see it as the beginning of the end of tonality. Some time later, there were a number of composers that took the disintegration of tonality even further and did away with anything that was supposed to be a naturally and universally harmonious chord progression. Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg were prominent figures of this move even though they chose different compositional strategies that Theodor Adorno viewed as barbaric and reactionary in the case of the former and emancipatory and progressive in the case of the latter. Twelve-tone music democratized each pitch in our Western twelve-tone scale, with Stockhausen being one of its practitioners. He also played a crucial role in overturning acoustic instruments by introducing electronics and electromagnetics in novel ways and by experimenting with sound from different sources and thus questioning not only the established idea of the orchestra and the performer but also the spatial hierarchy of listener and performer. Nevertheless, with his cosmic view on music, its role in the formation of moral character and its connection to numbers, Stockhausen remained a Pythagorean of sorts. With John Cage, we see a further democratization of the sonic and the coup de grâce to Pythagoras. For Cage, all kinds of sounds could be considered legitimate sonic material and were thus far more than just random noise. He was also one of the important practitioners of chance procedures and made the composer more of a creator of algorithms than an artist who conceives of an entire work of art in minute detail in a way that is flawlessly reproducible, something Stockhausen adhered to in much of his studio work.

Every one of these steps in the unfolding of music in the West was essentially a violent move that proved traumatic for many adherents of classical music. One may rightly claim that we are dealing with an entirely different type of violence here, with a violence that symbolically kills the father the way Nietzsche felt he had to kill Wagner. It is not a violence that brings physical destruction to human beings, but it is nevertheless a violence, and it is one that is at the heart of avant-garde artistic expression and its reception, going beyond the mere depiction of terror. The radical overturning of what we know, of overturning tradition and precedent, is what Stockhausen was dedicated to in his work. He once wrote of the Second World War: “The cities were eradicated and we can begin anew without consideration of the ruins and remainders of bad taste.”12 He always viewed destruction in terms of creation. “Destruction is above all an opening,” he wrote. “Each destruction—this we know from explosions—sets energy free.”13

This opening by an overturning or an explosion is most likely what he had in mind when he told the audience the story of that elderly man who learned after the concert that there was no orchestra, no choir, that the orchestra is in fact no longer needed. The overturning of the previous state of affairs, which is at the basis of both terroristic and avant-garde artistic imagination, may be endlessly painful, since what it leaves behind is a field of rubble to which we henceforth may only have a relationship by negation. It is an emancipatory violence, one that painfully frees the artist from that which gave birth to her.

But to only read Stockhausen’s remarks about 9/11 in metaphorical terms, as a killing of the existing patriarchal order, is also to miss the point. Stockhausen considered himself a child of war (as he, elsewhere, considered himself a child of God). His mother was mentally ill and deemed unfit for the German Volk. In 1933, she was taken away and subsequently killed. His father had served in the war and was eventually killed, too. When the Second World War ended, Stockhausen was sixteen years old and had seen countless unspeakable atrocities. He had spent years in bomb shelters, he wrote, heard the dying of thousands of wounded, inhaled the stench of thirty-, forty-, fifty-thousand corpses.14 And despite of or because he had seen, endured, and survived all these atrocities, death was nothing negative. “For me, death is as natural as sleep,” he said.15 Our stay on planet Earth he saw as extremely limited in consciousness and bodily abilities, and the telos of the human was the hereafter.16 In a radio talk of 1960 with Adorno, Stockhausen said: “War in music means: conflict between sounds, sounds that are partially covered up, that form shapes and are dissolved again. I see war in a cosmic sense. War doesn’t only mean that humans fight against each other. War is an inherent life principle, like birth, death, temptation, like learning, like resurrection, like mystic unification. Thus, war in the cosmos is a principle of eradication and renewal of life.”17 When Stockhausen says that five thousand people were “resurrected” and implies that this was nothing terrible, there is nothing metaphorical here. Even though he was an avant-garde artist dedicated to overturning music in order to create unheard-of cosmic music, we should not be tempted into reading his remarks only as metaphors of overturning, but as an account of the strange spiritual star system from which he believed he came, a system where physical death on planet Earth is but a passage into spiritual enlightenment. Perhaps it is true what the Swiss writer Friedrich Glauser—who had lost his mother at the same age as Stockhausen and later served in the Foreign Legion—once observed, namely that for those who lose a parent early on in their lives, death and sorrow is nothing alien but something that belongs to their lives. For Glauser, being in the vicinities of death gave him a feeling of happiness because there he was to find his mother again.18

War, as opposed to art, is not reversible, Stockhausen once said,19 and Bazon Brock claims that artistic practice is guided by the principle of avoiding irrevocable consequences.20 We should however concede that art, the moment it becomes an event, is not reversible either. We may not stay truthful to it, but it cannot be reversed. We cannot deny that twelve-tone music happened. We cannot deny that John Cage took place. The sonic artist, if he takes his work seriously, has to take all these artistic events into consideration. And if art doesn’t change the world, it is nothing, we might say with Stockhausen.

In the world of art, there really isn’t much that could measure up with the WTC attacks were they considered art. Performance art is such a vast field that this category would become meaningless for the impact on and of September 11, 2001. There is no use in trying to compare it to body art, where the artists make their own—and only their own—bodies their canvases. Body artists also don’t have their own death as a goal, just like lovers, scientists, or political activists don’t have their own deaths as a goal, but may nevertheless die for their activities or for what they believe in. If the terrorists were artists, it is because they found a novel and radical use for the airplane that created a sublime situation, just like Stockhausen found novel and radical uses for electronics and electromagnetics to create sublime situations. In his first electronic composition, Kontakte (1958–60), Stockhausen used discarded US army equipment to produce a distinctive sound. In their first and only performance, the 9/11 suicide squad used civilian airplanes to attain a paramilitary goal. The signs are reversed but there is a similarity in material approaches. Andrea Fraser writes: “I can only recognize [an artwork] as a form of artistic practice if the organizing principle of the work is not simply the exercise of a particular form of artistic competence but a determined means of immediate, practical, and material (as opposed to purely theoretical or symbolic) engagement with a given set of conditions that may include but necessarily exceed the art object (or construction or activity) itself.”21 In many ways, the very immediate and material engagement of the 9/11 terrorists fulfill the conditions Fraser names, but since she is speaking about artwork that is implicitly recognized as such, it is not clear if this is applicable to 9/11.

In this respect, it should not be forgotten that in contemporary art, individual artworks embody simultaneously thesis and antithesis. As Groys writes, “Fountain by Duchamp is artwork and non-artwork at the same time.”22 The WTC attack can be considered artwork and non-artwork at the same time. Stockhausen was the first one to be bold (or foolish) enough to publicly see the artistic dimension in it. We could consider the WTC attacks an iconoclastic gesture, and this alone gives the event proximity to the sphere of art as well as to the holy, if only by negation. When Groys states that the terrorist does not practice iconoclasm but instead reinforces belief in the image and thus an iconophilic desire,23 it is not at all clear that this applies to the attack as such but rather to the images that circulated in the aftermath (which Stockhausen hadn’t seen). For a while after the attack, one couldn’t know if it would have the ability to transform American world hegemony. By September 16, 2001, it was still conceivable that we could have been dealing with an iconoclash, in Bruno Latour’s term; that is, with a highly ambiguous form of iconoclasm in which we are not sure if we are witness to something destructive or constructive.24 Today, we can safely side with Eric Hobsbawm when he claims that, “horrifying though the carnage of 9/11 was in New York, it left the international power of the US and its internal structures completely unaffected. If things have changed for the worse, it is not by the actions of the terrorists but by those of the US government.”25 If art doesn’t exist unless there is cultural transformation, as some politically engaged art theorists and practitioners maintain, then the WTC attacks cannot be considered an artwork.

Although we can now see the destructive aspect of the consequences of the attacks, there is still some ambiguity left as to the perpetrators and their intentions. Some skeptics continue to maintain that the attack was planned by some internal or quasi-internal agent. If the attacks were in fact orchestrated by such an agent, we are tempted to consider it an even greater artwork, because—from a compositional point of view—this would have entailed much more careful planning and many more people involved than what was necessary to pull off the suicide bombing the way the official accounts hold it.

In the end, we are left indecisive and we might have to live with and in this aporia. There are many indications that the attack of 9/11 could be considered a work of art—maybe not the greatest, but a work of art nevertheless. Understandably, there are also a number of counterindications. But it is one thing to look at what Stockhausen said and quite another thing to examine the reception by the journalists and officials in charge, as well as by those people who had first learned about Stockhausen through this notorious press conference. Even a thinker on the order of Paul Virilio seems misinformed when he writes that Stockhausen flew “into raptures of the spectacle of the New York attacks.”26

It could be argued that one reason why the destruction of the Twin Towers has not brought significant change in global power relations is the same reason why Stockhausen’s concerts were cancelled on such short notice. In both cases, there is a fundamental inability to be provoked into reflection. It is reflex and not reflection that is the modus operandi of politicians, officials, and the media, especially as the transmission of information approaches the speed of light. We see reflex and mirroring, a mirroring of what voters or consumers are expected to go for, but not reflection. Those who, due to their catalyst positions, are supposed to reflect before shaping public opinion are not only not given the time they need, if they wanted to, they also don’t include themselves or a critical view on the existing power structures in the picture.

Paul Virilio has coined the term “public emotion,” which, to him, is a mere sociological reflex, and contrasts it with “public opinion,” which should take time for reflection to build. He writes: “The more the contemporary city-dweller is subject to diffuse and uncertain threats, the more he or she tends to make political demands for someone at the helm to be punished.”27 The media circus that followed the mass murder by the suicide bombers as well as Stockhausen’s comments went beyond—or rather: did go not quite as far—as public opinion, in what Virilio calls an “accident of political substance.”28 With Stockhausen, the city of Hamburg, which unknowingly had been hosting a terrorist cell, had found someone to blame, someone upon whom to unload public wrath. As Hamburg’s Cultural Senator Christina Weiss said: “It may be that Stockhausen experts... judge the significance of his words differently. In the current situation, the public doesn’t understand them. They [i.e., the comments] are cynical and immoral.”29 With no word does she mention that the avant-garde has always been an academic movement and never tried to appeal to the common man, that in fact “all avant-garde art was made against public taste.”30

Stockhausen broke two related taboos of Western hedonism. On the one hand, he dared to publicly deny that death is a terrible thing that must be avoided at all costs. He treated death as the most normal, even desirable, thing in the world. He broke with the fantasy of zero-death warfare and the idea that sacrificing, or giving life in the sense of receiving death, is unthinkable. On the other hand, he reintroduced religion or spirituality into artistic discourse; not in the washed-down Christian-secular opportunism that rules much of politics in the West, but in a strangely cosmic spirituality that is consequent in death, a spirituality that bears death with stoicism or even anticipation. He also brought the violent dimension of art back, the sublime, the uncanny, which is often forgotten, sometimes on purpose, sometimes out of neglect or ignorance. Not only did he not allow the public and the media to “substitute, for a real and formidable, unique and unforeseeable event, a repetitive, rehashed pseudo-event,”31 as Baudrillard phrased it, he also did not touch on the issue of compassion for the victims. By not bringing compassion into the discourse, he didn’t fall for her twin sister, which is arrogance,32 and thus, he didn’t fall into the trap of vindictiveness. Though he may not have been aware of it at the time, Stockhausen achieved something extraordinary: he in fact devalorized the attack. As Groys put it: “Aesthetization functions here... as a critical relativization of this act of terror, which presents itself not as an artistic but as a sacral act in the context of a holy war. And to compare a holy icon to an artwork means to commit a blasphemy—not to praise it.”33

The taboo, like the sublime, has the double meaning of the evil and the holy, the sacrum and the sanctum, the evil holy and the good holy. It is not to be mentioned because it is too shameful or too secret to assert that “good and evil advance together, as part of the same movement.”34 The taboo is unspeakable and to speak about it is to fall into hubris and provoke the wrath of the gods. In a secular world, this means to provoke the wrath of the public because it is public emotion that decides what is good and what is evil.

  1. A 2008 performance of Donnerstag (1978) from the Licht cycle, directed by Peter Rundel, takes up this rupture. It includes imagery of an airplane crashing into the Twin Towers, first as the shadow of the protagonist Michael (who plays the trumpet on a moving platform), strongly in resonance with the final scene of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and then, historically somewhat imprecise, as a B747 (two B767s crashed into the Twin Towers). The 2009 TV version of the performance is available online at (go to 8 min 30 sec for the crash).
  2. Noam Chomsky, 9-11 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 44. The International Court of Justice ruled in 1986 that the United States under President Reagan and Vice-president George Bush Senior committed unlawful violence (international terrorism) against the state of Nicaragua. To this day, this has been the only conviction of a state of unlawful violence against another state.
  3. The excerpt was translated by the author. It is recommended to listen to the recording to hear Stockhausen think, hesitate, and eventually backtrack. The recording is available online at…. The German transcript of the entire press conference was 
published in MusikTexte, November 2001, 69–77, available online at

  4. Personal conversation between author and Peter Price in July 2011.
  5. Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (New York: Verso, 2002), 11.
  6. Today, the official death toll is 2,606, including emergency workers and firefighters.
  7. Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 121.
  8. Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism (New York: Verso, 2003), 5.
  9. Jean-François Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-garde,” Artforum, April 1984, 43. This article also appears as a chapter in Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 89–107.
  10. Peter Price, Resonance: Philosophy for Sonic Art (New York/Dresden: Atropos Press, 2011), forthcoming.
  11. The Tristan Chord, so nominated, consists of the root, an augmented fourth, an augmented sixth, and an augmented ninth, though not all scholars agree on this definition. Paul Hindemith, for instance, located the augmented ninth as the root. To this day, the Tristan Chord remains ambiguous, especially with regard to its “natural” resolution.
  12. Karlheinz Stockhausen quoted in Christian Bauer, Sacrificium intellectus: Das Opfer des Verstandes in der Kunst von Karlheinz Stockhausen, Botho Strauß und Anselm Kiefer (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2008), 58. All quotes by Stockhausen are originally from different sources but appear in the chapter “Karlheinz Stockhausen und das sacrificium intellectus,” 31–80. The quotes are translated by Christian Hänggi. In his excellent study, Bauer makes some very valid points on Stockhausen’s 9/11 comments but has a different focus.
  13. Ibid., 72.
  14. Ibid., 36f.
  15. Ibid., 35. This is reminiscent of what Paul Virilio, a Catholic, said: “Well, you have understood I am a Christian. That is to say, I don’t believe in death. And Baudrillard didn’t believe in life, that is the reality of life. He didn’t believe in reality, in particular in its acceleration, and I don’t believe in death, that is to say, in cessation.” (Paul Virilio, Grey Ecology (New York/Dresden: Atropos Press, 2009), 42f.
  16. Christian Bauer, Sacrificium intellectus, 70.
  17. Ibid., 58.
  18. Friedrich Glauser, Werke, Band I (Zurich: Die Arche, 1974), 40.
  19. Karlheinz Stockhausen quoted in Christian Bauer, Sacrificium intellectus, 36.
  20. Ibid., 75.
  21. Andrea Fraser, “It’s Art When I Say It’s Art, or” in Museum Highlights, ed. Alexander Alberro (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 39.
  22. Groys, Art Power, 3. See also Haema Sivanesan’s article “Producing Images in Times of War” in Fillip 13, Spring 2011, 93–99.
  23. Groys, Art Power, 125.
  24. Bruno Latour, Iconoclash: Gibt es eine Welt jenseits des Bilderkrieges? (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 2002), 8.
  25. Eric Hobsbawm, Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism (London: Little, Brown, 2008), 135.
  26. Paul Virilio, Ground Zero (New York: Verso, 2002), 45.
  27. Paul Virilio, The Original Accident (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2007), 59.
  28. Ibid., 63.
  29. “Komponist Stockhausen: Anschlag ‘größtes Kunstwerk’,”, September 18, 2001.
  30. Groys, Art Power, 7.
  31. Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, 34.
  32. Ibid., 61.
  33. Boris Groys, “The Fate of Art in the Age of Terror,” in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, eds. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 975.
  34. Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, 13.

A previous version of this essay was presented as a lecture on July 31, 2011, at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland. It was entitled “The Greatest Work of Art: Karlheinz Stockhausen and 9/11.” Pdf and mp3 versions of that lecture are available online at the Autonomous School of Zurich’s website:

Image: John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1958.

About the Author

Christian Hänggi is an independent scholar and copywriter. He received his PhD in Media and Communication from the European Graduate School. He lectures periodically at the Autonomous School Zurich and at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok. He is author of Hospitality in the Age of Media Representation (Atropos Press, 2009) and currently has an exhibition entitled Papier auf Karton (Paper on Cardboard) in the restrooms of Cabaret Voltaire.

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