Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Spiritual Spacemen

Struggling with the whole concept of Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht, a review of a new Bowie biography in this weekend's Observer has really captured my imagination. The book concerns the 6 July 1972 Top Of The Pops broadcast in which David Bowie appeared in his spaceman-from-Mars alter ego, Ziggy Stardust to perform Starman. It looked like this:

Space travel seems to have been a powerful metaphor during counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s. Star Trek's glossy fiction came off the air in 1969, the year that, photographed in grainy fact, man first set foot on the moon. Fiction gave way to fact.

This change in perspective (looking out into space becomes looking down from space) is mirrored in a pair of spacebound films meditating on man's relationship with one another, made either side of the landing. 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, takes off into space like a mind-expanding trip. By contrast, 1972's Silent Running soberly pines for a lost earth, as Bruce Dern's desperate astronaut refuses to destroy the last scraps of vegetation aboard his dystopian raft of a ship.

You can even watch the whole film via YouTube here.

Silent Running was released in the same year, 1972, that Bowie released Starman. The ambiguity of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust persona and how the singer used it to investigate a new tranche of cultural consciousness may seem different from Bruce Dern's rather more politicised, if visionary astronaut. Yet both characters are clearly making use of the new consciousness and acceptance of space travel to re-examine the nature of their place in society.

Indeed, Bowie famously abandoned his Ziggy alter-ego the following year but went on to make a film about the vulnerability of a visiting alien in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1976. Roeg had already made a film, Walkabout (1971), using excerpts from Stockhausen's Hymnen in the soundtrack.

Twenty years on, the vulnerable alien highlighting the moral inadequacies of earth was reworked by electronic-dance outfit Orbital in a celebrated video starring Tilda Swinton to accompany their 1996 single The Box, released at the same time as the actual composition of Mittwoch (1995-1997).

This is all intriguing, pertinent stuff. Stockhausen's opera Mittwoch aus Licht is part of an operatic cycle involving the usual human drama of personal and political conflict but set within intergalactic context. Though the piece was completed more than a quarter of a century later, Stockhausen actually conceived of the opera's composition in the early 1970s (the story in which he was handed a copy of the theosophical text The Urantia Book, the Scientology-like opus on which the opera cycle became based, can be read in this New York Times piece).

For all this toe-dipping in to the material reality of the cosmos in the early 1970s, the usual questions concerning existence and purpose remained. One can see how a text that combines the familiar thematic narratives of Christianity with an account of a now more fixed intergalacticism might have an appeal to a lapsed Catholic composer pioneering electronic music.