Uncertain Reality: "The greatest work of art"

The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen said the following about the events of 9/11:

"Characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of—that people practice madly for ten years, completely fanatically for a concert, and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos."
Karlheinz Stockhausen stands in front of one of his musical compositions, 1981.
AP / Wide World Photos

He called what happened in New York "the greatest work of art." There was an outcry in Germany. People were furious and some of his concerts were cancelled, including two concerts in Hamburg and at least one in New York.

How could he say such a thing? I do not know Mr. Stockhausen, I only know his music. I do not want to apologize for him; that is his responsibility. However, I have thought a great deal about how a man could come out with such a statement. More than most people, I think, he must have completely confused reality and pseudoreality. Perhaps he was completely preoccupied with the pictures in his head.

People's delayed understanding that what had happened was real helped them to keep from panicking.
 

Most of us are guided by the pictures we have in our heads. Walter Lippmann studied the effects of the media on news consumers before the advent of television, when the media consisted of the press—newspapers and news magazines. Lippmann said, "For the most part we do not first see and then define. We first define and then see." We define according to what we have in our heads before we see something.

It seems to me that Stockhausen probably processed what he saw on the screen and related it in a strange way to some musical creation he had in his head, perhaps regarding the end of the world. He came out with a statement that seemed to be about the World Trade Center disaster but was actually related to something internal. Eventually the composer said, "Not for a moment have I thought or felt the way my words are now being interpreted in the press." Of course the press did not interpret Stockhausen's words, they quoted him. But I think it is quite credible that the confusion I know existed in my own head as I watched the screen on September 11 was magnified in the composer's head.

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