THE BEATLES: LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS (1967)
»If you have visions, you should go and see a doctor«, Helmut Schmidt is said to have declared. A lot of people see this the other way round: they turn to pharmaceuticals when they want to have visions. Mind-altering substances really came into fashion in the days of the hippie movement, when self-appointed gurus drove around in brightly-painted buses, preaching free love and the free availability of drugs. As chance would have it, the Beatles released their hit »Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds« in the »Summer of Love« 1967. The song, which appears on the psychedelic album »Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band«, was supposedly based on a picture painted by John Lennon's little son Julian, but possibly on »Alice in Wonderland« as well. Lennon himself said: »I swear by God or Mao or whoever you want that I had no idea that the song title can be abbreviated as L.S.D.«
»Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.«
HILDEGARD VON BINGEN: SYMPHONIA ARMONIE CELESTIUM REVELATIONUM (circa 1150)
Hildegard von Bingen receives a divine inspiration and dictates it to her writer. (circa 1180)
»It happened in the year 1141, when I was 42 years old: the heavens opened and a fiery bright light came down from above, pouring through my whole mind and igniting my heart. And thus I gained insight into the interpretation of the Psalms, the Gospel and the other Catholic books.« Thus Hildegard von Bingen described one of her many visions. Yeah yeah, we think as enlightened modern people, and smile at what we see as charlatanism, or at best a misunderstanding. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, for instance, believes that Hildegard simply suffered a migraine attack. But in the Middle Ages, the only way for an ambitious woman to make herself heard was by referring to divine input. And Hildegard pulled this off with great success: she founded her own convent, wrote books about theology and medicine, and composed several Gregorian chants that are as melodious as they are complex.
POTTIER / DEGEYTER: THE INTERNATIONALE (1871/1888)
»Servile masses, arise, arise! / We'll change the old tradition / And spurn the dust to win the prize!«
On 28 September 1864, workers, trade unionists and other political activists from all over Europe met in St. Martin’s Hall in London with its 3,000 seats to launch the first International Workers' Association. Their aim was to unite the global proletariat, and in the final event to bring about a world revolution. (Among the participants was a German journalist by the name of Karl Marx whom pretty much every country had expelled on account of his seditious views.) But it took a few years for the new movement to get its own anthem. The text was written by the French anarchist Eugène Pottier, who was furious at the bloody suppression of a socialist putsch in Paris in 1871. The melody was later contributed by a Belgian, one Pierre Degeyter, conductor of the workmen's choral society in Lille. Since then, the lines »So comrades, come rally / And the last fight let us face!/ The Internationale / Shall unite the human race!« ring out in every Eastern bloc state – and are sung to this day by young socialists, lefties and, unbelievably, even at the 2019 convention of the German socialist party SPD.
SUN RA: SPACE IS THE PLACE (1972)
When dark-skinned people are oppressed all over the world, could the solution be waiting in outer space? This sounds nowadays like some kind of esoteric escapade, but back in the 1970s, under the impression of the moon landing and the space age, it seemed like a utopia that was within reach. The new trend was christened »Afro futurism«, and jazzman Herman »Sonny« Blount from Alabama supplied the soundtrack – better known as Sun Ra, a pseudonym he borrowed from the Egyptian sun god. He emerged from the swing scene and took his faithful big band Arkestra, which is still active today, into the completely new spheres bebop, free jazz and electro. The result can be heard on the studio album »Space is the Place«, and in the self-produced sci-fi film of the same name.
»The possible has been tried and failed. Now it's time to try the impossible«
Most of the 100-plus records that Sun Ra made were only pressed in editions of 100 copies, and for that reason alone a serious hype grew up around this jazz visionary.
Elbphilharmonie Magazin | Visions
CHARLES IVES: UNIVERSE SYMPHONY (1915)
»But maybe music was not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may always be transcendental language in the most extravagant sense.«
It wasn't the River Vltava and it wasn't the planets that American composer Charles Ives was trying to depict in his Fifth Symphony – he wanted to paint a musical picture of the entire universe, »the mysterious origin of all things, the evolution of life from nature via Man to spiritual eternity«, as he wrote. To enable his audience to feel the »eternal pulse and the movement of the planets«, he planned for several orchestras and choirs to perform in valleys, on mountain slopes and summits. A colleague of his calculated an ideal body of 4,520 musicians. Well, Ives never paid much heed to how performable his works actually were – as a successful insurance broker, he earned his money elsewhere. Sad to say, the »Universe Symphony« was never finished. But with its polyrhythms, atonality, serial composition and collage technique, Ives anticipated many of the supposed achievements of the 1950s avant-garde.
In a note on the symphony, Ives asked future composers to complete the work for him. American conductor-composer Larry Austin spent more than 20 years on the project, and explains how he sees the symphony in a short video.
KARLHEINZ STOCKHAUSEN: WORLD PARLIAMENT (1997)
Among all the creative visionaries that music history has yielded, Karlheinz Stockhausen was without a doubt one the greatest and most ethereal: some would say, one of the craziest. His seven-part opera cycle »Licht« has a running time of no less than 29 hours. The work contains an act entitled »World Parliament«, where a kind of artists' general assembly sits way above the clouds in a conference hall and dicusses love with great abandon, until the president has to rush down to street level to stop his car being towed. Luckily, a coloratura soprano stands in for him. The whole thing could easily be seen as a parody of the UN, whose attempts to impact world events are often defeated by annoying little details – had not Stockhausen, who always had the future of mankind in mind, described this section in all earnest as »a day of unification, of cooperation and understanding«.
»The famous German culture is nothing but the latest lousy Coca-Cola imitation.«
JON HASSELL / BRIAN ENO: FOURTH WORLD VOL. 1: POSSIBLE MUSICS (1980)
»For the world to be interesting, you have to be manipulating it all the time.«
Producing sounds without being able to play an instrument, without any need to sit down with pen and ink and commit a composition to paper – in the last 100 years this vision has become reality, thanks to electronic music. In the past, people had to fiddle around with oscillographs and soldering irons, but now a smartphone is all you need. No-one personifies this development as clearly as Brian Eno, the inventor of celestial ambient music and producer of David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2. (He also designed a sound installation to mark the opening of the Elbphilharmonie.) His sound experiments in the 1970s culminated in 1980 in this record with the trumpeter and Stockhausen pupil Jon Hassell, which cleverly combines hypermodern synthesizer swathes with ethnomusical influences, thus conjuring up a »fourth world«.
Text: Clemens Matuschek, last updated: 09.12.2020
Unter dem Motto »Visionen« steht auch ein neues Festival in der Elbphilharmonie, das sich ganz der Neuen Musik widmet.
This is an article from the Elbphilharmonie Magazine (issue 03/2020), which is published three times per year.