Stockhausen Towers over 20th Century; Karlheinz Stockhausen May Have Been the Enfant Terrible of Avant-Garde Music but the Beatles Still Found Room for Him on the Cover of Sgt Pepper. as He Nears His 70th Birthday Christopher Morley Looks Back on a Career Rooted in Wartime Suffering

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Venerable he might be, but old he's not, even though the birth certificate says he was born on 28 August 1928. Karlheinz Stockhausen reaches his threescore years and ten while still retaining a questing young man's vision in his approach to composition.

His years as an iconoclast may now be successfully behind him, but he remains at the forefront of innovation, experimenting with language and technology with all the zest of a youngster let loose in a wonderland of sound.

Perhaps Stockhausen is enjoying an extended youth now because his own actual adolescence was spent in such horrific circumstances. His father, a secondary-schoolteacher, was obliged to join the Nazi party in the early 1930s; deeply religious, as, too, wa s his son, Stockhausen senior suffered inwardly when morning prayer was replaced by the invocation "Heil Hitler".

In 1941 Karlheinz's mother, a manic depressive for nearly ten years, became a victim of the Hitler regime's "euthanasia policy". In 1943 his father went to the front as an officer (he never returned, probably killed in Hungary).

Stockhausen himself earned pocket-money as a firewatcher, and was later drafted as a stretcher-bearer and medical orderly; his own descriptions of the sights he witnessed are sickening and unforgettable.

After the war he combined study with manual work to support his stepmother and young sisters. To finance his musical studies - he had always been fascinated by sound, not least from the radio's magical box - he took countless jobs, sold home-made black m arket cigarettes and spent his nights playing the piano in clubs and cafes.

Stockhausen's substantial list of published compositions dates from 1950. Right from the start his works reveal a close interest in structure, texture, cohesion and interplay, and for a while they followed the strictly ordered tenets of serialism.

During the early 1950s he worked alongside Pierre Boulez, studying under Messiaen in Paris and experimenting in Pierre Schaeffer's influential electronic music studio. His experience there led to the invitation from the West German Broadcasting Corporati on to become co-director of its new studio for electronic music, a post he took up in 1953.

Passing through a period when electronic sound-sources served as compositional ends in themselves, the composer/ performer in apparent total control, he came to the realisation that, with no influence over how the audience actually received the sounds (d ependent both upon the placing of the loudspeakers and the listener's own position), a virtue could be made of spatial opportunities.

So there arose a sequence of works for comparatively conventional media, deployed in unconventional ways. Most spectacular of these is perhaps the Gruppen of 1955-57, three orchestras and three conductors interacting upon each other. …