The Greatest Science Fiction Opera Composer in History

Illustration for article titled The Greatest Science Fiction Opera Composer in History

Rock music has Ziggy Stardust, Yoshimi and Rush. P-Funk's Mothership gave birth to ATLiens, Dr. Octagon, and Janelle Monae's alter ego Cindi Mayweather. So why hasn't classical music embraced science fiction the way popular music has? After all, it's a genre that simply adores mythology. Everyone from Monteverdi to Milhaud has done an Orpheus opera. Wagner's Ring cycle devotes four epic nights to giants, dwarves, Valkyries, and magic objects.


There have been occasional stabs at marrying science fiction and classical music, but there's only ever been one truly great composer who took the idea and ran with it: Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Illustration for article titled The Greatest Science Fiction Opera Composer in History

Stockhausen (1928-2007) lived most of his life in and around Cologne, Germany. The Nazis euthanized his mother because she was a mental patient. His father died in combat. When Stockhausen was a young conservatory student, the famous novelist Herman Hesse advised the composer to nurture "that which is individual, unique, and beautiful in you". For the better part of six decades, Stockhausen followed Hesse's advice and forged one of the most eccentric careers in classical music.

By the time he was 26, he had composed the first purely electronic piece of music, Study I (see video). Less than a decade later, he had become one of the leading composers of his generation. Before his 40th birthday, his fame was approaching rock star status. The Beatles put him between Lenny Bruce and W.C. Fields on the cover of Sgt. Peppers.

John Lennon's "Revolution No. 9" is an homage to Stockhausen's epic Hymns. Like Liszt and Paganini, Stockhausen was also a performing composer who toured the world and was able to sell out venues just about anywhere he went.

It was at one of those performances in 1971 that a mysterious hippie approached Stockhausen with a copy of The Urantia Book and asked him to become a "minister of sound transmission." The book reads as though someone with a mind like David Foster-Wallace and a grasp of scientific knowledge that ended in the 1930's (when the book was supposedly communicated through mediums) came along and wrote a 2,000-page, sci-fi riff on the Bible.

The book's main point is that the universe is large. To quote Douglas Adams, "Gigantic multiplied by colossal, multiplied by staggeringly huge is the sort of concept we're trying to get across here." The book estimates planets with intelligent life in the trillions. When someone dies, they begin an epic journey through ascending universes until they reach paradise. On each new planet they visit, they are exposed to more and more wondrous realities. They are transported through space by angels with friction shields ("wings" to our inadequate human eyes), or teleported and reassembled on a new planet in a massive "resurrection hall" à la Star Trek.


By the late 70s, Stockhausen was making music that was both obsessed with outer space and flirting with the concepts of The Urantia Book. He wrote 12 melodies to compliment the Zodiac signs, and that was just a warm-up for a massive space oratorio called Sirius.

Sirius begins with a mysterious hum that builds to a roar as the noise of four flying saucers circles the audience in 8-channels of surround sound, creating the illusion that the spaceships are actually landing inside the concert hall. The aliens emerge and announce, "We are messengers from Sirius." It was around this time that Stockhausen began to publicly say things like "I believe my musical education was carried out on Sirius," and that he dreamed of flying between planets.


His next project was Light, a 7-opera cycle with each entry named after a day of the week. Now, he embraced The Urantia Book's sci-fi version of Christianity more publicly. He adopted the book's idea that Christ was actually the archangel Michael, on a mission that took him to six other planets before he incarnated on Earth (which is called "Urantia" in the book). His main adversary is Lucifer, who has rebelled against God's plan for intelligent beings to make the ascending journey through the universes.

Illustration for article titled The Greatest Science Fiction Opera Composer in History

There are touches of the absurd throughout. In the finale of Saturday, a procession of monks carry a giant black bird in a cage while they sing a hymn by St. Francis of Assisi. A bag of coconuts drops from the sky, and the monks take turns smashing them on the ground. In Friday, the action is periodically interrupted by a dozen fornicating pairs: man/woman, cat/dog, pencil/pencil sharpener, violin/bow, race car/driver, etc. Eventually, the couples start to swap partners and the orgy yields unnatural hybrid offspring that look like they walked off a David Cronenberg set.

Today in Birmingham, England, the only opera from the cycle that hasn't been fully staged, Wednesday, will be performed for the first time. The opera is most famous for its third scene: The Helicopter String Quartet. But it is the next scene, Michaelion, that represents the high point in Stockhausen's marriage of science fiction and absurdist theater.


In the scene, delegates from different stars meet at a galactic headquarters where they pose questions to an oracular figure who answers them by translating shortwave signals from outer space. The delegation needs to elect a new President, and a camel arrives to campaign for the job. He does so by shitting seven planets out of his ass. (He wins the job, for the record.)

When he finished Light in 2003, Stockhausen moved on to Sound, a cycle of pieces for the 24 hours in a day. Here, he gives his most public embrace to The Urantia Book. In the fourth hour of the cycle, a man knocks on Heaven's Door for the better part of an hour before he finally gets it to open. Then the cycle embarks on a series of pieces named after locations in The Urantia Book. They are all places that an Earthling would visit on his extraterrestrial, afterlife adventure. More than a few of Stockhausen's acquaintances believe that with Sound, the composer was essentially writing his own requiem. Sure enough, he was felled by a heart attack before he could finish the cycle.


Stockhausen's music is diverse and hard to categorize. It can range from a sweet music box melody to an hour-long orchestra drone. One of the most common threads in his output from the late 70s until his death was a love of outer space, and there's simply no other composer of his stature who produced so much great sci-fi music.



Actually there quite a few science fiction operas, Philip Glass composed one called The Making of the Representative of Planet 8, based on a libretto by Doris Lessing, about a civilisation that, guided by an extraterrestrial intelligence, learns to accept mortality and evolve into a 'collective universal soul'.

It has unfortunately never been made available on cd.

There is Howard Shore's opera of The Fly, that was directed by David Cronenberg and there's an opera adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale.

Lorin Maazel composed a not very well received opera of 1984, so the less said about that the better.

And let's not forget about U, the first opera with a libretto in Klingon.

On the whole though it's not that surprising that there aren't too many explorations into science fiction as that part of the classical music world still has a rather conservative outlook in regards to the high and low brow.