Since some years Ian Parsons is an important and appreciated contributor to our forum. And more than that: He is a person who is very much dedicated to the music of Stockhausen, especially to LICHT. One has the impression: Where ever there is a major Stockhausen-event, he will be present. So he is one of the people who know LICHT best. In the last years he has written a thesis on LICHT that is now accessible: https://doi.org/10.26180/5cc270b524096 ; what he writes will be of interest for many of us and hopefully raise a controversial discussion.
At first I must say: Ian's text has one merit that hardly can be underestimated: In his interpretation of the opera cycle he does not take the three protagonists for granted. He asks not only: what is the meaning of each of them, how do they relate to one another – but also: What is the overall meaning? Why these three and not others? What is the function of this „trinity“; whom can they be compared to? These are essential questions that are not tackled up to now in a sufficient way, and so the enterprise of Ian is very important and interesting. And in his path through the cycle we meet every now and then revealing insights.
But for me there is a big BUT, and that comes from methodological reasons. One would expect that at the beginning of Ian's thesis we encounter a meticulous analysis about what the operas tell about the three protagonists, what characteristic traits we find in them and how they are differentiated in a general way. But that is not done sufficiently. Instead we are confronted from the beginning with a scheme from the French psychologist Lacan that he uses to characterise the human personality: The Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real, and that is equated with Michael, Eve and Lucifer. So what Lacan writes about these three dimensions of the personality serves as a tool to present the protagonists of the operas. I must admit: I am no expert in Lacan – so I may have missed much of what Ian writes. But from the beginning I had the impression: That is the bed of Procrustes; Stockhausen's figures are forced into that scheme and what does not fit, is either violently stretched or cut off and thrown away. That has absurd consequences. For instance when we investigate Lucifer: The Real of Lacan, that stands for him, lies beneath everything, is ungraspable; when you try to express it, you end up in insolvable contradiction. But how is Luzifer presented in LICHT? There is this contradiction, but that does not lies in himself. He contradicts God and the creation, but in himself he is very clear and totally graspable, for he is a very rational, idealistic power, loving the purity of the One and sacrificing everything else; therefore his mania of numbers and counting, the pure thinking in mathematics. And what is indicated here for Luzifer is also true for Michael and Eve. Michael is not to be aequated to the Symbolic to which belong cultural values – MICHAELs REISE is not about socialising Michael, but: In this part of LICHT Michael spreads his message through the whole world and proves himself in the main realms of human existence. Because, and that is essential: he is a cosmic energy, not a central element of the human psyche that has a function there. This way Ian's interpretation of LICHT goes on and on. Everywhere he detects Lacan's principles, everything is reduced to that, to the point: You get what you have invested, and that means: nothing new. Stockhausen builds the world of Lacan in a mythological, in an odd way. Therefore: Why should I look at LICHT? Lacan is enough when I look for insight. And that damages LICHT – what certainly is not purposely intended by the author. So when he speaks of VISION from DONNERSTAG: The Symbolic, namely Michael remains alone in that scene and that must be pathological for psychological reasons; therefore Ian cannot recognise the special beauty of this music – for him it is thin and dissolving, and finally he detects in it Nietzsche's „God is dead“. It does not matter, it cannot matter, that the tenor in this scene sings the most sublime and spiritually important sentences of the whole cycle, pointing to what all is about. In this way what Ian does reminds me on the DONNERSTAG-production in Basel sometime ago: a stage team that had its own psychologically inspired idea prior to the work of Stockhausen and just used this work to do their own thing. I know that this is a very polemic statement, but that is what happens again und again on European stages. What is the reason for treating Stockhausen this way? Ian loves Stockhausen's music, no doubt. But I would assume that he has major difficulties with his religious position and thus looks for another way to make sense of the work. I think: It is quite ok when you are not a religious person. But you should accept then, that LICHT, for instance, is basically a work based on religion, and then you should ask: What could this work contribute to understanding the human existence? For instance in the case of LICHT the insight, that man cannot live totally autonomous, but is dependent on forces he cannot controll totally – and these forces work in LICHT – that as an example. But if you totally cut away this general, this „cosmic“ dimension from LICHT, you will damage the work. It is better then to admit: I cannot agree with the message totally, but it is great music. And that is my last point: Ian, as I know him, is an enthusiastic person. You see that, when you meet him and he speaks about Stockhausen's music. This trait of his personality is more or less lacking in this thesis, for he forces himself to be more busy with Lacan's scheme. But I fear that is always the danger in musicology – you deal more with your concept than with the music, that has more dimensions than the relationships we can see in the score. But nevertheless that always is sad to perceive. But: he has finished his text now – the music can again come into the foreground, and that will be good.
I would just like to quickly say that before Thomas posted this critique of my PhD thesis on this forum, he checked with me that I was happy for him to do so, given his many criticisms of my work. This was a very thoughtful gesture on Thomas’s part. I am of course very happy for this critique to be posted. Listening to each other’s points of view, even when they are very critical of our own, is the best way to learn and I am very thankful that Thomas, whose work I greatly respect, has taken the time to read my writing so thoroughly and to offer such serious and considered insights on my approach. Of course, I do not fully agree with his perspective on my work, but I will hold off responding to his points for a little while because I think it is better to first open up this discussion for others who might have read my thesis or just want to contribute to a discussion about the issues Thomas raises. But I did want to make the point from the outset that I think this sort of robust and respectful debate is a wonderful thing and I very much appreciate Thomas and others taking the time to engage with my writing even when they fundamentally disagree with what I have said or the conclusions I make.
Ian's work has immense value if for no other reason than he completely abandons Stockhausen's perspective on LICHT. Too often, we are fettered by Stockhausen's own definitions of his music. Great art can withstand great scrutiny, and great scrutiny takes many forms.
Knowing Ian, and his voice, I thought it came through quite clearly. His deep love for LICHT is part of what made his dissertation so enjoyable to read. I also think he did an admirable job of allowing his analytical device to breathe. Instead of forcing every nook and cranny into Lacan, he picked his spots. By focusing on a few well-chosen segments of the cycle, he made his point more convincingly than if he'd tried to do a front-to-back reading of LICHT.
As for Michael's function as "cosmic energy", Ian completely accounts for this by invoking Feuerbach. Michael's origin is in the cosmos only because that's where human beings project it, according to Feuerbach. From that perspective, it makes complete sense to analyze Michael as a part of the human psyche.
We have all commented in our work about how Michael and Lucifer are thinly veiled versions of Stockhausen himself. An analysis that treated the protagonists of LICHT as tripartite divisions of the human psyche was going begging. I doubt if Ian's will be the last.
As for damage done to LICHT through Ian's analysis, that's really the nature of all analysis. When Stockhausen would lecture us in the Sülztalhalle about his chosen work, the score died many deaths in order to be dissected for our edification. Mark Twain's comment about doctors comes to mind:
Zitat“I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a 'break' that ripples above some deadly disease? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?”
The issue for us is whether or not we can integrate the analysis into our understanding of a work. After Jerry's talk on TIERKREIS, for instance, I immediately ran through ARIES while thinking of the "gypsy scale" during Taurus, something which had never occurred to me before. Likewise, I really enjoyed several of Ian's readings of LICHT, such as the idea that the humans simply cannot deal with Lucifer any longer. He has shown them the path towards Light, and it just befuddles them. So, they walk out. I loved that reading of the scene.
Ian's reading of the Superformula struck me as fetishistic, and I disagreed with a lot of it. However, his arguments usually felt compelling and sincere to me. He clearly did not arrive at them by a lack of thought. Anyone interested in the psychological aspects of LICHT will find Ian's dissertation essential reading.
Ian has also been the beneficiary of work that's been done before him. Instead of having to preface his dissertation with explanations of what happens in LICHT, or how Stockhausen characterizes his protagonists, he can stipulate that as ground well covered by others. That saves him time, and allows him to move on directly to his task. That was one of the things that tickled me the most about his work. There were none of the usual preliminaries, which so often bog down work on LICHT, and in many cases, constitute the majority of the analysis. It felt like we've moved into a new generation of work, which can dig deeper and uncover more meaning in the work.
I feel that it could be useful to have a discussion-forum on the music of Stockhausen. There are so many people from all over the world, young and old, learned and eager to get into contact with this musical world: musicologists, composers, musicians, music lovers; people who plan concerts - who write books or have to give lectures and so on. So there should be much stuff, many ideas that we can share. And when we have open questions, there may be people who studied just that and could give a hint or a stimulus.
A problem might be the English language, but i feel that is the only possibility that many people who are interested can participate. And we can exercise tolerance to mistakes!