Electronics & Music Maker JUNE 1983 - by Derek Pierce



Few composers since the Second World War have been so adventurous as Karlheinz Stockhausen in opening up new frontiers for music. Born in Burg Modrath, near Cologne, on August 22, 1928, he was orphaned during the war years. Between the years 1944-47 - the year in which he took his school-leaving examination in Cologne - he had worked as a stretcher-bearer at a military hospital, a farmhand, a dancing instructor's pianist (the piano was his main instrument) and a conductor of operettas. From 1947 to 1950 he studied piano at the High School for Music in Cologne, earning a living playing jazz and light music.

At the High School he also studied musical form under Hermann Schroeder and composition with Frank Martin; he specialised in school music and piano teaching. Concurrently he enrolled at Cologne University as a student of musicology, philology and philosophy.

Up to this time he seemed to be following in the footsteps of his father in preparing for a career in music education. He composed several chorus pieces (simple stylistic exercises) thus leaving his mark on student works: Drei Lieder, for contralto and chamber orchestra and a Sonatine for violin and piano. It was not until his attention was drawn to the new serialist composers however that he started 'serious' composition.

A visit to the Darmstadt summer school, at the suggestion of Herbert Eimert with whom he was later to work, impressed Stockhausen deeply. On hearing the new music of Messiaen's Quatre Etudes De Rhythme, and Goeyaert's Sonata For Two Pianos he was inspired to compose Kreuzspiel (crossplay) for oboe, bass clarinet, piano and percussion. In Kreuzspiel, with its series of pitch, duration and intensity, timbre stands outside the scope of serial organisation, and is used to articulate the work's internal structure as well as its 'point' (i.e. isolated event) sound world.


January 1952 saw Stockhausen move to Paris to study with Messiaen. Whilst there he met Pierre Boulez who was working on total serialisation in his Structures I and Pierre Schaeffer with his Musique Concrete. Returning to Germany, Stockhausen began studying physics and acoustics at the University of Bonn. In 1953 he returned to Cologne and became associated with Cologne Radio and its electronic music studio, directed by his old friend Eimert. There Stockhausen composed two short pieces, Studie I and Studie II, in which he systematically explored the potential of the new medium. Studie II has the distinction of being the first published electronic music score.

During the next few years, as well as studying phonetics together with communications theory, he composed Klavierstücke I-IV. Klavierstücke makes extreme demands on the performer, both in the simultaneous performance of precisely graded dynamic levels and in the realisation of intricate temporal subdivisions. These demands were often impossible to realise and after much discussion with pianist David Tudor, Stockhausen wrote a second more simplistic and flexible set dedicated to David Tudor (Klavierstücke V-X, 1954-5). These piano pieces enabled Stockhausen to formulate certain ideas on the essential difference, from a composer's point of view, between electronic and instrumental music.

During 1956 he produced major works in both areas. Zeitmasze for woodwind quintet is based on the shortest and longest durations that a performer can comfortably play.

The other major work, Gesang der Jünglinge (Song Of The Young Men) is one of his most familiar early electronic compositions. In it electronic music reached an unprecedented degree of sophistication. Stockhausen introduced transformations of a recording of a boy's voice mingled with purely electronic sounds. To quote Stockhausen [1], "The work proceeded from the idea of bringing together into a single sound both sung notes and electronically produced ones; their speed, length, loudness, softness, density and complexity, the width and narrowness of pitch, intervals and differentiations of timbre could all be made audible exactly as I imagined them, independent of the physical limitations of any singer." During the composition sung sounds become comprehensible words, at other times they remain pure sound values; it is often difficult to differentiate between the electronic and the natural.

As well as its unique ingredients, Gesang der Jünglinge uses spatial movement and direction as part of its composition. It was composed for five groups of loudspeakers, to be distributed in such a way as to surround the listener in space. Sound issues from any number of speakers at once and may move in a variety of ways. Spatial distribution is an important aspect of this composition.

This spacial distribution was also employed, in instrumental terms, by Gruppen (groups) for three orchestras. These self-sufficient orchestras surround the audience; they play - each under the direction of its own conductor - partially independently in different tempi; from time to time they merge in a common rhythm, they call to each other and answer each other; one echoes the other, and for whole periods one only hears music from one direction.

By 1957 Stockhausen was invited to teach composition at the Darmstadt summer school. His renown as a teacher soon began to rival that of his own mentor, Messiaen. Since then he has directed courses in composition and analysis, uninterrupted apart from a break between 1963-64. In 1963, due to the initiative of Professor Hugo Wolfram Schmidt, the Cologne Courses For New Music were inaugurated, of which Stockhausen was both founder and artistic director. By 1968 this institution gave birth to the Institute For New Music, which functions throughout the year, and still does. It is worth recalling some names from these early courses: Amy, Bussotti, Tillmann, La Monte Young and Behrmann - composers who were recognised through both performance and ability. Stockhausen also gathered around him assistants and interpreters who have built reputations in their own right, amongst them: David Tudor, Hugh Davies, Cornelius Cardew, and György Ligeti.

In composing a test piece for the Kranichstein Music prize for percussion players entitled Zyklus (1959) Stockhausen began to explore the possibilities of 'open form'.


Stockhausen was aware of the difficulties that listeners experienced in hearing form in serial composition. His answer was to abandon 'form' in the conventional sense. No single 'moment' was to have priority over any other, neither as a beginning nor as end, the work was to be 'circular'; moments could be left out or inserted. Thus evolved 'moment form' of which Zyklus was the first example. Written on sixteen spiral-bound sheets of paper it may be started anywhere, but must continue in the stipulated page-sequence. The percussionist stands within a ring of percussion instruments and during the performance turns a full circle. Truly circular form.

This 'moment form' formed the structural constituents of Kontakte (1959-60) which was written as both a purely electronic composition and as a version for electronic sounds, piano and percussion. They are both also examples of 'music in space' utilising as they do four groups of loudspeakers around the auditorium. The pieces present an encounter between electronic and instrumental music with the emphasis on shared characteristics of timbre. Kontakte was later incorporated into Originate (1961), a music-theatre piece which was performed in Cologne for twelve days.

Stockhausen's major work utilising open form was undoubtedly Momente for soprano solo, four choral groups and thirteen instrumentalists. It was commissioned by West German radio. To quote Stockhausen [2], "This is no self-contained work with unequivocally fixed beginning, formal structure and ending, but a polyvalent composition containing independent events. Unity and continuity are less the outcome of obvious similarities than of an imminent concentration on the present, as uninterrupted as possible."


Momente was dedicated to Mary Bauermeister, the painter (who was to become his second wife). His involvement with her stimulated a lively exchange of ideas leading to the realisation of Plus-Minus (1963). The piece was not 'scored' as such but is derived from 2x7 pages of symbols and notes. It gives directions for making music in preference to a symbolic model (i.e. musical score). The wealth of graphic signs seem as much a description of the performer's actions as well as the sounds. Plus-Minus was first performed in Rome on June 14th 1964 by Cornelius Cardew and Frederic Rzewski. Later that year Mikrophonie I had its first performance in Brussels. In Mikrophonie I performers use a wide variety of materials to vibrate a large tam-tam, whilst two other performers pass hand microphones over the surface of the tam-tam; a third group transform the resultant signal through filters and mixers replaying them over loudspeakers. The procedures of working on sound and monitoring it, which hitherto occurred only during protracted programmes of work in the electronic music studio, are carried out immediately in Mikrophonie I and the results made audible.

This 'live' electronic music was taken a stage further by Mixtur for orchestra, sine-wave generators and ring modulator. Mixed with the orchestral sounds in this work are sounds generated electronically; the mixing is carried out by means of ring modulators, which dramatically modifies the sounds of the original instruments. A similar use of ring modulators occurs in Mikrophonie II (1965) which is scored for chorus, Hammond organ and four ring modulators.

Whilst touring Japan with the first performances of Solo for melody instrument and tape recorder (1965-66), Stockhausen visited the electronic music studios of Japanese radio. It was there that he realised Telemusik. It is a relatively conventional work using purely electronic sounds, a diversity of human music-making from folk and traditional sources. It goes some way to fulfilling his dream of a 'world' music, containing as it does Japanese court music, Balinese gamelan, snatches from a Spanish village festival, the Shipibos of the Amazon River and the Omizutori ceremony from Nara. With this 'world' music dream in mind, Stockhausen planned a large scale work involving the national anthems of all countries which he began to realise in the electronic music studio of W.D.R. Two versions of this exist, one for soloists (1967) and an abbreviated version for orchestra (1969).


By 1967 Stockhausen's role had become that of a 'process planner' rather than a composer. Prozession (1967) uses no new material, but merely provides a sequence of procedures to be applied to earlier works. This principle was later applied to his composition courses in Darmstadt. A dozen students composed individually, each writing for one instrument and tapes or short wave receiver. The individual contributions were gathered together under Stockhausen's supervision and the piece given the title Ensemble, performed during August 1967. The use of shortwave receivers demonstrate his concern to compose 'music of the whole world'.

The universalisation of Stockhausen's work took a different direction in Stimmung for six vocalists (1968). The vocalists have to sing the second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth harmonics of a low B flat fundamental, with the aid of a softly reproduced pure harmonic sound from a tape recording. The text of the work are short poems written by Stockhausen and the so called 'magic names'. The idea of the piece was to integrate foreign elements (principally the magic names) into the music's prevailing harmony. The work was commissioned by Collegium Vocale Köln, and is usually performed by them using new techniques of vocal articulation learnt at the college.

In 1970, much of Stockhausen's music was featured in the German Pavilion at the Osaka World Fair. It was after a visit to this that he composed Mantra for two pianists. As the name suggests, it links Eastern meditative thinking with its musical structure.

The work is based on a single melodic formula (or mantra) which is subjected to much repetition and gradual modification by ring modulation. Its score is fully written out in the conventional manner and allows little in the way of freedom of interpretation.

This piece is in some ways reminiscent of the works of Reich, Riley and Glass. It is a lengthy and impressive work marking Stockhausen's return to compositional detail. In his next work Stockhausen was to revert to meditation and intuition for inspiration. Sternklang (1971) is a large impressive work for open-air performance. The score is 'written in the night sky', for the constellations provide much of the direction of the work. It was first performed in June 1971 by Collegium Vocale Köln, Intermodulation and Gentle Fire.

None of Stockhausen's work since the '70s has had such a dramatic impact on music as that which had gone before. His handling of the resources available to him, both electronic and instrumental is masterly. Many 'rock' groups are indebted to him, particularly European ones, e.g. Can and Tangerine Dream. A close look at his music, philosophy and ideals leaves only one conclusion: Stockhausen is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth Century.


1 & 2: Stockhausen: Life & Work, Karl H. Wörner
Also recommended reading: The Works Of Stockhausen, by Robin Maconie, available in hardback from O.U.P. and softback from Marion Boyers publishers

PART 1 / PART 2 / PART 3 / PART 4 / PART 5 / PART 6 / PART 7 / PART 8