Stockhausen

ELECTRONIC MUSIC 19521960

The electronic music 19521960 is available at http://www.stockhausen.org/cd_catalog.html (CD 3). The CD comes with a detailed 180 (!) page booklet.

The works on the CD are:

ETUDE
STUDIE I
STUDIE II
GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE (Song of the Youths)
KONTAKTE Electronic Music

(KONTAKTE for electronic sounds, piano and percussion is available on another CD from Stockhausen-Verlag, CD 6)

 

ETUDE (1952)

This is musique concrète. The composer writes about the process:

"First, I recorded six sounds of variously prepared low piano strings struck with an iron beater (tape speed: 76,2 cm per second). After that, I copied each sound many times and, with scissors, cut off the attack of each sound. A few centimetres of the continuation, which was briefly quite steady dynamically, were used. Several of these pieces were spliced together to form a tape loop, which was then transposed to certain pitches using a transposition machine (phonogène). A few minutes of each transposition were then recorded on separate tapes."

This description in the CD booklet is followed by an interesting, detailed and amusingly written account of the tedious and time-consuming labor of tape-splicing, and about the final audible results of polyphonic synchronized layers of sound the composer says:

"Already upon hearing two synchronized layers, and even more so hearing three or four layers, I became increasingly pale and helpless: I had imagined something completely different!

On the following day, the sorcery undespairingly continued. I changed my series, chose other sequences, cut other lengths, spliced different progressions, and hoped afresh for a miracle in sound.

I can no longer recall exactly how many weeks I carried on this cutting and splicing, with ever-increasing perfection of my winding-skill. Anyway on this CD released in 1992 the world can now hear my Concrète ETUDE of 1952, which for many years I had presumed lost until I finally found it again in a pile of old tapes."

This short work (about 3 min.) is an intriguing one. It lays much emphasis on rhythm with its fast staccato repeats of tones in middle registers. Several of such series of repeats, each on a different pitch and partially overlapping each other, are laid above slower moving time-layers in low registers.

The strange sounds evoke in me strong pictures, like those of mysterious Morse codes from a gigantic transmitter in outer space, or a space war with fast-firing artillerie and a wild monstrous space creature (a slow time layer) growling in between.

 

STUDIE I and II (1953/54)

These electronic compositions using pure sinewaves are Stockhausen's first electronic works, with a duration of about 9.5 and 3 min., respectively. They sound out-of-this-world, and are interesting dynamically. There is a beautiful interplay between sudden attacks and softer appearances of tones. The sine tones can be direct sounding, or reverberated in an echo chamber.

The sounds have a floating character which imbues them with an attractive gentleness. This floating quality of sounds also provides an engulfing envelope of smoothness to the music, into which even the sudden attacks of tones remain embedded a strangely beguiling texture.

Overall, however, the music is somewhat muted and restrained in its liveliness, and does not easily involve the listener throughout its entire duration notwithstanding the attractive features in its soundscape. To my ears, these electronic works do not share some important attributes of practically all other music of Stockhausen, namely an exceptional degree of colorfulness and musical expressiveness (I do not mean here "romantic" expressiveness, but that the music is filled with an exciting inner life). These characteristics of his music are among the main reasons why Stockhausen is one of my favorite composers.

The relative lack of these characteristics in both STUDIE I and II cannot readily be ascribed to the fact that Stockhausen was still at the beginning of his compositional career, since at the time of the production of STUDIE I and II he already had created several splendid, important and colorful instrumental compositions, starting with KREUZSPIEL and proceeding beyond. Rather, the problem must be due to the handling of the material of electronic music which was still in its infant experimental stages at that time. Stockhausen himself admitted to that when he said, speaking about STUDIE I, that "at the start some fundamentally new beginnings sound primitive" (see "Texte zur Musik" volume 9, p. 470). The music also sounds dated to modern ears. With the next electronic composition, GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE, all those problems would completely be an issue of the past.

However, even given the problems inherent to STUDIE I and II, their historical significance for modern music can hardly be overestimated they are the first steps in true electronic sound synthesis from scratch.

 

GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE (Song of the Youths), 1955/56

This is Stockhausen's first electronic masterpiece. After STUDIE I and II this work makes the impression that, with respect to the area of electronic music, Stockhausen had broken through a compositional sound barrier a milestone as there ever was one. No weaknesses are heard here, only strengths. The electronic music now sounds highly varied and colorful, and the musical composition as a whole is attractive and fascinating in its complexity. The duration of the work is about 13 min.

The electronic material brought into play here is far richer than in the previous two electronic works. The composer points out that he used 11 elements:

"1. sine waves; 2. periodically and 3. statistically frequency-modulated sine waves; 4. frequency-modulated sine waves; 4. periodically or 5. statistically amplitude-modulated sine waves; 6. periodic and 7. statistical combinations of both types of sine wave modulation simultaneously; 8. coloured noise with unchanged or 9. statistically changed density; 10. filtered impulses (clicks) from periodic or 11. statistical impulse-sequences."

The electronic music interacts with the singing of a boy's voice. The composer:

"Single syllables and words are taken from the Song of the Youths in the Fiery Furnace (3rd book of Daniel), and whenever language emerges momentarily from the sound signals of the music, it praises God. ...The 11 basic elements selected for the sounds allow me to compose a sufficiently high degree of aural relationships between all the electronic sounds and speech-sounds used."

The electronic music often moves in a refreshingly bubbling stream of sounds; this bubbling could never be mimicked in its complexity by any synthesizer (of course, these instruments can perform other complex tasks). That bubbling stream in itself sounds very timeless; only a direct comparison with the independently created, exactly contemporary and also famous music, the soundtrack to the science-fiction movie "Forbidden Planet" (1956), where similar yet less varied sound bubbles are heard, gives the impression that these sounds are a rather specific product of their time even though the approach and means with which both musics were composed and produced are radically different.

The refreshing electronic bubbles create a perfect atmospheric counterpoint to the innocence of the boy's voice, and their motion creates captivating tension in relation to the more linearly flowing sounds of the singing. On the other hand, when at times the boy sings in complex polyphony with himself (which of course is made possible only through the tape composition), the bubbles seem to form something of an electronic complement to that singing, as if the voices remotely imitate the motion of the electronic music or vice versa.

Later in the work, towards the middle, lower registered electronic sounds seem to mimic the initial bubbling on a slower time scale. Following this, the electronic music returns to mainly middle registers again, but switches from mostly bubbling sounds to rapid figures made of successions of synthetic "chirping sounds", even though some of the bubbling remains present (these "chirping sounds" appear somewhat more dated than the remainder of the electronic sound world).

There is an arresting game near vs. far in this music. Both the boy's voice and the electronic music may sound either very close and direct, or more distant with a dry sound or reverberated. The constant motion of sounds in this sense forms an essential part of the expression and tension in this music. The close-by singing of the boy's voice is mostly associated with full comprehensibility, articulating text phrases in a clear and direct manner. The more distant singing is often associated with complex polyphony of the voice interacting with itself.

According to the composer, different degrees of comprehensibility of the text "arise either from the degree of permutation of words in a sentence, syllables in a word, or phonemes in a syllable, or else from the mixing of one speech-unit with speech- or sound-elements foreign to the context (jubilt, Son- synthetic sound -ne)." The composer adds further: "Similarly, the acoustical context influences the verbal comprehensibility to a specific extent (for example: the degrees of spatialisation by means of artificial echo, the degrees of loudness, the density of simultaneous or consecutive events etc.)."

In the passages with less comprehensibility the sound character of sung language prevails over its speech character and thus melts more with the electronic sounds into pure music. Since the sung passages with clear speech arise from and are followed by those vocal passages with less comprehensibility that are leaning towards more pure sound, the overall effect achieved is a remarkable one: Speech emerges as an extreme end result from a "sound-word continuum" (the composer) and reversely, again recedes into it.

*****

The tape of GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE as heard on CD 3 from Stockhausen-Verlag sounds clear and dynamic. Tape hiss is moderate.

Great as the CD is, hearing the work in the orginal four-channel version makes the music appear much greater still. I have heard the four-channel tape during the Stockhausen Courses 2002 in Kürten, Germany, and can attest that under those circumstances layers of subtlety and complexity are revealed that propel the work to another dimension. Interestingly, the game near vs. far in the music (see above) is well preserved in stereo reduction. This essay was written listening to the stereo version.

 

KONTAKTE Electronic Music (1959/60)

This is the version for electronic sounds only; the more widely known version is KONTAKTE for electronic sounds, piano and percussion (see my essay). The electronic tape in both versions is identical, with instrumental parts added in the latter version. The performance score indicates a duration of 34'31,8" (information CD booklet).

The composer:

"The scale of electronically produced timbres contains familiar tones, sounds and noises, and mediates between them (metallic, skinlike, woodlike etc.); it allows for the transformation of timbres from each of these categories to any other, and for their mutation into completely new and unfamiliar sound events.

"The title refers both to contacts between electronic and instrumental sound groups and to contacts between self-sufficient strongly characterised moments. In the case of four-channel loudspeaker reproduction, it also refers to contacts between various forms of spatial movement."

And further:

"Nearly all the electronic sounds were produced with an impulse generator (the speed of the impulses could be varied continuously between 16 and 1/16 impulses per second, the duration of these impulses being variable between 1/10000 and 9/10 seconds). I also used a tuneable selective amplifier (used as a fairly narrow filter) with continuously variable band-width and correspondingly variable decay periods. A scaled band filter was also used. A few isolated sound events were produced by sine wave generators and a square wave generator.

"Most of the sounds, sound-noises and noises were produced by multiple acceleration of rhythmic impulse sequences. For some sounds an echo-plate with continually adjustable echo-lengths was used."

The multiple acceleration of rhythmic impulse sequences is explained in the Kurtz Stockhausen biography (publisher Faber & Faber, p. 100; composer's comments between quotation marks):

<<Rhythms were spliced together from pulses, and loops from the rhythms. These were allowed to run for hours and the entire result was recorded. In a neighboring room a new loop was prepared, and also in a third.

"So there were loops running everywhere, and you could see it through the glass windows between the studios. Finally I used the fast-forward on the tape recorder to accelerate the tapes so they were already four or five octaves up, then the result went up another four octaves so then I was up eight octaves until finally I got into an area where the rhythms were heard as pitches and timbres.">>

The work consists of 16 structures flowing into each other without breaks; all structures of the work with subdivisions are indexed as CD tracks in the recording from Stockhausen-Verlag.

*****

In one passage of KONTAKTE, at the transition between Structures IX and X, the procedure of creating timbres from rhythms seems to be roughly "visualized" in a reverse way. A moderately high-pitched swirling sound gradually slows down in a dramatic manner to finally result in a rhythm of single "pops", strongly reverberated, which then flow, when translated to different pitches, into a short imaginary "bongo solo".

Following GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE, this is another electronic masterpiece, and remarkably, the tape of KONTAKTE sounds astonishingly timeless. If you would play it for people who have no previous knowledge about it, you probably could fool most of them into thinking it was composed and realized yesterday, instead of 1959/60. To a large part the uniqueness of sound production (see above) makes the music sound so timeless.

Such an impression can only be gained from the electronic tape as heard on the Stockhausen-Verlag recordings of the two versions of the work, with their excellent sound. The dated sound quality on the classic Wergo recording of the version with piano and percussion, for example, makes the electronic music as such sound more dated as well.

In order to be able to mimic the character of events from acoustic sound sources (see above), Stockhausen performed spectral analyses of such sounds in painstaking labor, and used the data of these analyses to shape electronic sounds accordingly. The hard studies by Stockhausen have paid off, it is quite incredible how realistically some of the electronic sounds imitate the characteristics of metallic and skinlike sounds. For me personally, the characteristics of woodlike sounds could be best appreciated in the more commonly known version that adds piano and percussion to the electronic music (see my essay on that version). The importance of the mimicking of timbres of metallic, skinlike and woodlike sounds is, however, not their exact copying by electronic means which would, even though being technically spectacular, only deliver an ultimately boring result but the generation of new sounds reminiscent of them. The characteristics of known sounds are hit remarkably well, but the sounds themselves are new.

The variety of sounds in KONTAKTE is tremendous. Besides mimicking known kinds of sounds there is an entire palette of other sounds, many of a completely unfamiliar character (see the outline above by the composer). The sounds in this work can be pointed, short, "dotted" events, they can be longer drawn out, they can consist of sharp curves of energy, of waves of energy or of rapid successions of such waves. At a few selected points most prominently in Structure V and Structure XI, but also several other times sounds are developing which show rhythmic modulation stemming from a sort of wah-wah effect, a kind of modulation that later also would be heard in HYMNEN and SIRIUS. This results from reproducing the sounds through a loudspeaker mounted on a rotation table, surrounded by four stationary microphones receiving the signal from the loudspeaker as it rotates the associated Doppler effect yields the perceived wah-wah sound modulation. The sound rotation (four-channel) can easily be envisioned by the listener also from the stereo panorama.

Please keep in mind that all the things said below about the musical tension in KONTAKTE hold for the version for purely electronic sounds, as discussed here. The more widely known version for electronic sounds, piano and percussion largely employs other mechanisms of creating and maintaining musical tension, see my essay.

Yet the work is not just a simple agglomeration of new electronic sounds, creating a dazzling potpourri but nothing more, thus ultimately resulting in an impression of chaos, great sounding or not. No, in KONTAKTE the flow of sounds is meticulously controlled, with tremendous oversight regarding the final result. Stockhausen shows also in this work that he is not just a great inventor of new sounds, but that he is a great composer of music organized sound that is. That KONTAKTE is great music, not just great sounds, is the more remarkable since often the sounds are material that cannot easily be molded into being part of a flow that keeps the continuity of the music alive.

Of course, there are moments where the sounds make an immediate impression of being grouped together in larger textures. For example, there are some passages where imaginary "percussion soli" are heard (most extensively in Structures VII, IX, XIII F), all employing irregular rhythms, and there are some passages with rhythmic modulation of sounds at selected points (see above). Smaller sound groups, where sounds relatively densely react to each other, are also found in many passages of KONTAKTE.

However, the constantly varying character of the sounds causes frequent changes of the gestures shaping the interaction between sounds, and thus of the musical momentum as well. Moreover, it often occurs that the sound groups are quite separate from each other, with the separation breaking the momentum. KONTAKTE is composed in moment form, and these phenomena apparently are associated with the specific implementation of the form in this work; for moment form in general see also my essay on MOMENTE. Self-sufficient strongly characterised moments (see the composer's comment above) follow each other.

Not only are the sound groups frequently separate from each other, there are several long passages (most notably Structures II, III and parts of X) where there are no sound groups at all. In these passages the single sounds themselves are spaced quite apart from each other, standing alone, and thus do not form a texture of gestures or figures or even just rhythm in the usual sense which might serve as anchor for creating a coherent musical momentum.

But even in the presence of many passages where the sound groups or even single sounds are rather separate from each other, nonetheless the shaping of the sounds and noises into one music is successfully achieved. The key to that is the careful exploitation of tension by the composer. This includes meticulous spacing of pauses between sounds, and different degrees of overlapping of sound. It also includes carefully balanced interrelationships between successive sounds, in terms of their being similar or contrasting, as well as in terms of their characteristics of motion. An overarching organization of sounds is built by creating relationships of tension between sounds and incorporating these relationships into one whole, which causes the generation of musical flow.

This governing tension is most readily evident where sounds are not grouped together, such as in the quiet, drawn-out passages of Structures II and III and also of some other Structures, where the carefully controlled pauses, shifting of sounds into each other and the delicate balances between similarity and contrast of successive sounds are testimony of the powerful grip of the composer on all the proceedings unfolding. But of course, all other passages of KONTAKTE are under this control as well. This already starts at the very beginning, when after the initial electronic "whirlwind" the music flows into shuddering waves of sound that gradually become overlaid and smoothed out by broader flowing sound events (great sculpting of musical motion is heard here), a process that eventually, in an organic manner, leads into the quieter events of Structure II.

The pauses in the music often lead to complete silence even if it is just brief. Maybe even more frequently, however, they lead to only almost stillness, where very quietly moving sound structures create a subtle background against which new sounds arise. These quiet sound formations often make the impression of being low-level remnants from previous louder sounds or to evolve from them.

Fascinating is the expanded use of such low-level sound textures at several points, when instead of just being subtle background to pauses, they are developed into bridges of longer duration between higher-level sound events, bridges loaded with suspense.

As it is the case with KONTAKTE, where pauses are crucial for the creation of musical tension, there is a significant number of other Stockhausen works that contain passages where pauses are used in an impressive manner for that purpose, more so than commonly heard in other music. A few examples, among others, would be the KLAVIERSTÜCKE (Piano Pieces), the M-Moments in MOMENTE, MIXTUR, MIKROPHONIE I, INORI, IN FREUNDSCHAFT, MICHAELSGRUSS I and MICHAELs REISE (both from DONNERSTAG aus LICHT), the BASSETSU-TRIO and 3 x REFRAIN 2000.

Yet in addition to all the above, the music of KONTAKTE employs another important method of creating tension. This method is related in its effect to the use of pauses, as it also deals with the termination of sounds. It implements the intentional use of a pronounced decay of sounds. To emphasize the decay as such, a new sound is often only launched when a pause is just reached, or almost reached, after the dying away of a previous, decaying sound.

An approximate parallel for this is found in some of Stockhausen's music for traditional instruments, for example in the use of the decay of piano sounds in some passages of his KLAVIERSTÜCKE (Piano Pieces), with KLAVIERSTÜCK X perhaps being the most extreme model (a composition sketched a few years before KONTAKTE and completed the year after). Another prominent example would be the decay of the sounds of the rin (Japanese temple bowl) in certain passages of INORI.

However, there is a feature in KONTAKTE that makes many events of sound decay unique, a feature linked to the specific potential of electronic music: long drawn-out sounds often show a decay that is not only very slow, but mostly the sound character of the decay phase more or less prolongs the initial character of the sound at the moment of its generation. This differs from the decay of sound from acoustic instruments, where the decay phase does not prolong all the sound components integral to the attack of sound (e.g. the striking of a cymbal or a key on the piano).

Thus, the "decay" phase of sounds in KONTAKTE is mostly rather one of controlled fading of sound: a decrescendo of a single sound. The fundamental character of sound is usually more or less preserved during such decrescendi, even though sound modulations are frequently heard in these processes, modulations that explore and enhance the inner life of the sounds in a fascinating way. The decrescendo phase (the fading) also preserves the initial oscillations occurring within many sounds.

In this kind of constantly recurring form, such development of sound is never heard in music played by acoustic instruments, and not typically in other electronic music as well. Not only slow sounds in KONTAKTE use such a kind of "decay", also faster ones do so relatively often, with the speed of decay proportionally adjusted.

Apart from such decrescendi of sounds, KONTAKTE also features sounds that have a character of conventional decay, responding to a clearly distinguished attack of sound. Such instances are mostly given when the electronic sounds mimic known events from non-electronic sound sources.

The decay of the electronic sounds is also a function of dynamics of course, and in general dynamics are used to create tension in KONTAKTE in a dazzling manner. Not only decay of sounds is used effectively to produce tension, also the reverse swelling of sounds is quite frequently employed for this purpose. Furthermore, the dynamic relationship between sounds is keenly and carefully explored in novel ways. In Structure X the slow swelling and fading of sounds is sometimes overlaid by the sudden appearance of louder and faster moving layers of different sounds. The appearance of these layers above the slower sounds enhances or precipitates the effect of swelling, counteracts fading, or breaks through a stasis between swelling and fading in a most lively, extreme manner. Dramatic timing of the dynamic interrelations of sounds of different volumes is also constantly heard in other passages, and very fast evolving and sharp dynamic contrasts of sounds help heighten the musical impact of several passages tremendously. A powerful enhancement of some sounds with high-level dynamics is their painting through musical space with fast, pulse-like dynamic oscillations thus imbuing these sounds with inner dynamic life instead of just bestowing them with a uniform character of being loud.

In the end, what is most astonishing in KONTAKTE is not only the tremendous achievement of new electronic sounds that mimic known ones from the acoustic world, and the transformation of these electronic sounds into each other and into completely new sound events. No, it is also most astonishing how the composer used those new sounds to create new kinds of musical tension, musical drama and inner dynamic life of the music. The potential of these new sounds is fully realized to create a new game of musical flow, a game as perfectly controlled as the generation of the sounds themselves. Thus, from any point of view, KONTAKTE may be considered a consummate masterpiece.

Listening to the flow of the music in KONTAKTE and how the composer achieves it is a spectacular experience, and the immaculate embedding of all the sounds into this flow is what, for a large part, gives them their special power and meaning.

*****

The tape of KONTAKTE as heard on CD 3 from Stockhausen-Verlag sounds fresh, clear, with extremely vivid dynamics of very wide range, high resolution of low-level sounds and with no artificial hardness like a good modern recording thus. Only moderate tape hiss, audible in some passages more than in others, but never in an obtrusive way, shows the actual age of the electronic tape.

Yet as good as the recording on CD sounds, it still pales in comparison to what I heard during the four-channel projection of the music by Stockhausen himself at the 2006 Stockhausen Summer Courses in Kürten, Gemany, on an exceptional sound system that had proven its worth already in previous days of the event. The sound exhibited breathtaking definition of detail and transients, going considerably beyond what is heard on the CD (even on my high-end system). Perhaps a higher resolution digital format (presumably 24 bit/96 khz) was used and made a significant difference, but the recording appeared to be remastered as well: it was surprising to experience the complete absence of any tape hiss, in contrast to the recordings on Stockhausen-Verlag CD 3 and CD 6, which are already relatively hiss-free compared to the classic Wergo Kontakte.

As it often happens with multi-channel projection, the spatial resolution also allowed for hearing much more deeply into the sound texture than in stereo on CD. Most impressive was not just how the sounds flew around in space and communicated with each other spatially, but also, and maybe in particular, the contrast of stationary sounds to moving sounds. This contrast created a unique and strong impression that, wherever sounds followed each other from a single direction, they appeared to emanate from one another.

The four-channel projection of the electronic tape was a spectacular experience not just for me, but apparently for the audience in general, as judged by the exceptionally enthusiastic, intense applause at the end. The tape can be obtained for public performance from Stockhausen-Verlag.

*****

With thanks to José Carrero for helpful discussions.


© Albrecht Moritz 2002/2005, revised 2012


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