LIBRA (1977)

for bass clarinet and electronic music, duration about 32 min.

(For another article on music recorded on Stockhausen-Verlag CD 32 (Music for clarinet, bass clarinet, basset-horn), see

The composer (from the CD booklet):

"From 1975 – 1977 I composed SIRIUS, electronic music and trumpet, soprano, bass clarinet, bass (Stockhausen Complete Edition CDs 26 A – B). The central part of this work is The WHEEL of the year with the four seasons ARIES (spring) – CANCER (summer) – LIBRA (autumn) – CAPRICORN (winter).

"Bass clarinet is WEST, wind, friend and beloved, evening, fruit, autumn.
The melody of Balance of my composition of ZODIAC (12 melodies of the Zodiac, 1975) is the main formula out of which I developed the music of autumn.

"Since – in SIRIUS – the bass clarinet plays the leading role in the season LIBRA – also predominating soloistically to a great extent – I arranged a solo version for bass clarinet and electronic music and dedicated it to Suzanne Stephens.

"This version begins already at 10 minutes 14 seconds in CANCER (summer) of the SIRIUS score, with initial announcements of the Balance melody in the bass clarinet. Then it plays a complete and an interrupted Balance melody, followed by a long development with limbs of the Balance melody and unexpected pauses.

"Two strophes of the last summer melody VIRGO (the Virgin) are inserted, before the complete Balance melody is gradually formed again out of fragments. The process ends with a large cadenza; the conclusion of the transition from summer to autumn.

"This is followed by the autumn proper, a three and four layered polyphonic connection of various forms of the Balance melody with the Ram melody, which dissolves in extended lines. The Balance melody falls out of tempo, suddenly speeds up and slows down, is abruptly confronted twice by the Scorpion melody and explodes in this conflict.

"Afterwards the Balance melody collects itself in the low register. The bass clarinet cheerfully plays the Archer melody, alternates its fragments with those of the Balance melody and obviously falls into controversies with mixtures of the Sea Goat and Crab melodies. Then it really fights with the Sea Goat (CAPRICORN), the main melody of winter which intrudes much too early. It momentarily regains its humor in the optimistic Archer melody, again ends up in a vehement argument with the Sea Goat melody, and shoots down from the shrill register into its cozy Balance region, in which it repeats itself several times, drawn-out and content – in rhythm of three – and then lets itself be mysteriously blown away in the autumn wind." (End quote.)

General characteristics of the music

The swaying Libra melody, as the main melody of the work, is heard in both the bass clarinet and the electronic music. The bass clarinet also plays the Virgo, Scorpio and Sagittarius (Archer) melodies, yet these make up a much smaller portion of the instrument’s part than Libra and its variations. Cancer (Crab) and Capricorn (Sea Goat), as well as Aries (Ram) elements are confined to the electronic music. Just two or three melodies at a time, at some points even just one, may sound for several minutes, yet the music finds ever new, often elaborate ways of presenting, varying and transforming the melodies. A sense of unity arises in LIBRA from the concentration on a relatively limited amount of melodic material, extensively varied. Right from the beginning an expansiveness of gesture is established that effortlessly carries the large-scale form.

During the course of the work, the bass clarinet develops a wide range of expression and, while often playing in its middle register, it also explores the outer reaches of its pitch range, both to the high and to the low side. The part for the bass clarinet is melodic throughout, and forms intriguing textures in its interplay with the electronic music.

The electronic music is projected from tape. It was created on the Synthi 100, an analog synthesizer with an enormous range of sequencer capabilities that allowed for massive transformations of melody. The electronic music undergoes dramatic changes in timbre, rhythm, speed and treatment of pitch. Timbres change very gradually over time, or they do so suddenly, there is extreme speeding up and slowing down of melody, and next to sounding of melody on regular pitches there are varying amounts of pitch compression, up to compression of melody into almost pure rhythm. When pitch is compressed, as well as on other occasions, the electronic music may appear to carry melodic content in a rather abstract manner. Yet to a substantial extent it is overtly melodic as well, just like the part for the bass clarinet. The electronic music covers the pitch spectrum from the bass region up to the extreme treble register.

The bass clarinet engages in lively and often intense polyphony with the unusual electronic music that changes in such expansive ways. The colorful interaction between the woodwind instrument and the synthesizer music ranges from harmonious playing side by side to vivid clashes of contrast. Also, the timbres of the electronic music may either complement the bass clarinet in astonishing ways, or form an independent sound world. Often the bass clarinet and electronic music play in different registers.

The work can be heard on Stockhausen-Verlag CD 32 A, in an excellent and well-recorded performance by Suzanne Stephens.

Guide through the music

The music begins (Stockhausen-Verlag CD 32 A, track 43) with a quasi-endless sequencer loop on the synthesizer that constantly repeats a fast rendition of the Capricorn melody sharply compressed in pitch; thus at first there is mostly just rhythm discernible. Towards the end of each repeat a bright ‘overtone’ band comes to the forefront and then recedes again, leading to an impression of rise and fall of pitch. As the loop progresses, it gradually undergoes shifts in timbre – the work begins as a timbre composition, and slow timbre changes laid over, often fast-moving, melodic sequencer loops will continue to be a cornerstone of the electronic music that surrounds the playing of the bass clarinet.

The timbre of the loop, which is accompanied by sustained synthesizer sounds, is made up of several layers that over time shift in prominence relative to one another and also undergo changes within themselves. A lower registered layer within the loop comes to the forefront and in the process acquires a more rounded tone. As this unfolds, the first tones from the bass clarinet are heard. They softly allude to the Libra melody.

The electronic sounds become not just rounded, but also fuzzy, and the layers melt into one another once more. A fast Cancer/Aries rhythm now complements the compressed Capricorn melody (score marking). At the same time (track 44) the bass clarinet, playing in its middle register, starts its stately presentation of the swaying Libra melody in full; on some notes soft doubling can be heard by electronic tones that are similar in timbre. In the meantime the sounds from the sequencer loop become ever more fuzzy and frayed around the edges, even wobbly and blurred like a shaky photographic image. The bass clarinet sets out to repeat the melody (track 45), while the sequencer loop, diving into lower register, acquires a subdued, hazy color. At the same time, the electronic music adds repeated brief intrusions of single, mostly bright sounds whose character and ‘tails’ make them appear as ‘sound arrows’, shot into the soundscape. Halfway through the repeat of the Libra melody, the bass clarinet stops, and the music abruptly changes.

The bass clarinet begins (track 46) jerky excursions on brief tones, in great contrast to its stately playing thus far. The Libra melody is fragmented into short motifs that, when connected in the listener’s mind, still form a rudimentary allusion to the arch of the entire melody. The jerky, nervous tossing of motifs takes place while the bass clarinet still continues in the relaxed, warm sounding middle register, providing an intriguing contrast between motion and sound. The electronic music, which now has abandoned the initial sequencer loop, plays a combination of the Capricorn melody with a Cancer formant melody (a kind of timbre melody on Cancer; see formant). Its motion is hasty and impetuous, but fragmented as well, with many halts between phrases after which it resumes its feverish motion. The speed of the melodic figures constantly varies; some of the fragments fly by extremely fast. The electronic music starts this section in a rather low register, with a timbre that is rougher and more aggressive than that of the bass clarinet, but also somewhat hazy. It fits well with its hasty, nervous motion.

The timbre of the electronic music will undergo very gradual transformations over the next several minutes. A metallic component that becomes apparent at the latest from the next track 47 onward will gain more and more prominence, and at the same time, as the electronic music slowly moves to higher register range, the timbre will become ever brighter and its metallic color will acquire sharpness and sheen. These transformations of sound color, briefly interrupted by an interlude in track 55, will continue until track 63, when a high-pitched pulse band takes over (see below). This process, lasting for almost eight minutes, is one of a number of impressive large-scale timbral processes that are found in Stockhausen's music.

There are also frequent sudden general pauses in the music, where both bass clarinet and the sequencer band of the electronic music together are abruptly silenced from full motion. These stops are marked by emphatic tones from the synthesizer. Most of the 'stopping' tones are a kind of continuation of the 'sound arrows' from track 45 but with a heavy 'industrial' timbre. In the beginning, a few stopping sounds appear like stylized ‘switch clicks’; they are grouped into quick successions of sounds that make a ‘jumping’ impression.

The sudden stops and re-starts of the intensely polyphonic and often fast-moving music create a powerful effect. Whenever the music restarts, the voices immediately resume their clashing against each other as if nothing had happened, and upon stopping all the activity is silenced at once. Since at some points the music only restarts for a few seconds before it stops again, striking textures are created in this manner. The music develops in this way for a few minutes.

Finally, as the brief ‘stopping’ tones from the synthesizer and the pauses have come to dominate the soundscape, the music suddenly takes a complete turn. The bass clarinet intones the elegant and dreamy Virgo melody (track 55), while for the first time in this work it switches to high register. The sweet, crystalline tenderness of the moment is touching. For the repeat of the melody the instrument comfortably settles back into the middle register. All this time the brief ‘stopping’ interjections by the synthesizer continue, a curious and enchanted contrast to the fluidity of the Virgo melody.

The end of this interlude is marked by a longer pause. Subsequently the music resumes, as if it had not been interrupted at all, the jerky presentations of Libra fragments in the bass clarinet, and of the Capricorn and Cancer melodies, which are now also joined by Aries elements, in the synthesizer (electronic tape). Not just is there a resumption of the intense polyphony between bass clarinet and electronic music, but polyphony within the electronic music itself becomes more and more evident as well.

The flow of the music is now far more continuous than from track 46 onward, before the interruption by the Virgo melody. In track 58 the bass clarinet once more plays a larger fragment of the Libra melody (the melody’s second half), in the middle of a process in which the electronic music moves with ever more vehemence and gradually shifts to higher register and brighter sound color, in a continuation of the timbral process discussed above. It slowly rises in volume as well until it envelops the sound of the woodwind instrument. Eventually (track 60) the bass clarinet also switches to a higher register range. It continues to play longer arches of the Libra melody, but in a manner that keeps circling around particular figures before moving on to the next ones, in a mixture of ritual dance around the melody and tender caressing of it. Meanwhile the electronic sounds have gradually acquired a rather overtly metallic timbre; together with fast and subtle timbre changes within or between the brief tones, making a somewhat ‘wobbly’ impression, a unique sound is created.

The music enters a new phase with a marked change in the sounds from the electronic tape (track 63). Several layers, each consisting of successions of brief tones on the same single high pitch (A flat), chime in one by one and overlap one another as to ‘fill in’ each other’s pauses between the notes. The pattern of bright sounds is decidedly metallic in character (score marking: "sounds like the pealing of high-pitched church bells"), and the succession of tones becomes ever faster until a single dense pulse band is heard. There are rhythms within this band; the different layers of the band operate with distinct rhythmic configurations, and an overall pattern arises as the individual layers shift in relative prominence in a cyclic manner. There are also brief recurring incisions into the flow as a whole. As the pulse band gradually unfolds over a few minutes, subtle variations are introduced in its patterns.

The bass clarinet, continuing with the Libra melody through the transition in the electronic music, now mainly plays in its high register as well, and its melody makes deliberate and repeated brief jumps towards a very high A flat, the same pitch as that of the electronic pulse band. The repeated jumps occur within a continuation of the somewhat ritualistic pattern of ‘getting stuck’ on phrases in a circular manner. With its recurring tendency to long for the high A flat the instrument reaches out, as it were, to the pitch and timbre of the pulse band. Yet the fast pulse band and the playing of the bass clarinet form two completely different strata of music running alongside each other, and the contrast is magnified as the electronic sounds are somewhat reverberated to create a distant impression, as opposed to the direct sounds from the woodwind instrument.

After a while the bass clarinet stops reaching out to the high A flat as it plays larger segments of Libra, abandoning its circular motions. As eventually the electronic tape recedes in volume while maintaining the high pitch, the bass clarinet takes the opportunity to go its own way by switching to a low-middle register, with a tender and warm tone. Finally the electronic tape rises in volume again, first intermittently, then more firmly, and in the process the pulse band slows down, and layer by layer drops out. Marking the end of this phase, the bass clarinet plays a few successive motifs of ascending notes, an electronic layer responds with repetitions of a descending motif during louder pulses of single tones on constant pitch, and the bass clarinet’s playing gets stuck on a high note. In the process a tension of anticipation arises.

The tension is organically resolved when the bass clarinet returns to playing the entire Libra melody in its middle register starting on B, the same pitch on which it had introduced the melody at the beginning of the work, and the electronic music resumes playing of melody as well, at normal speed (track 64). It softly doubles the bass clarinet’s playing with a similar sound color, yet initially the most prominent layer is the Cancer melody, which is played with a contrasting metallic timbre. The two melodies are also opposed in their flow. While the Libra melody moves along evenly, the Cancer melody is divided into shorter phrases, which makes it more fragmented. In addition, this character of the Cancer melody is magnified in the current presentation by the dry character of the metallic tones, with attack but no decay. This generally makes the pauses between the phrases seem longer. Furthermore, some of the pauses actually are slightly extended, and this will become more pronounced as the music progresses. On top of these contrasts, the Cancer melody starts out against the Libra melody in an uneven tempo ratio of 7 to 5. The decisive polyphonic counterpoint sculpted from the juxtaposition of these two so differently flowing melodies is striking.

The texture develops in a gradual manner. The Cancer melody in the electronic music, which goes through several repetitions, little by little slows down over a stretch of several minutes. The bass clarinet playing the Libra melody holds rather steady in tempo. The layer of the same melody in the electronic music doubles the bass clarinet in a more and more prominent manner, proportional to the slowing down of the Cancer melody.

The timbre of the Cancer melody also undergoes subtle transformations until (from track 66 onward) it acquires a wobbly and blurred character, similar to the electronic music in the initial stages of the work. At the same time the melody, while overall gradually slowing down, exhibits some irregular tempo changes between individual phrases, adding to the wobbly quality.

The bass clarinet at first keeps on playing the Libra melody unvaried, switches in track 66 to elaborate, ‘stretching’ excursions from the melodic line, and then reverts, in track 67, to more or less straightforward playing of the melody, once more starting on B yet at an octave higher than from track 64 onward. The increased assertiveness expressed on the higher pitch is supported by an ever more emphatic doubling of the melody in the electronic music. The polyphony with the Cancer melody keeps on changing through all this, due to the very gradual slowing down of that melody which towards the end of track 69 eventually subsides. Only a few sporadic ‘ghost’ tones will continue on the metallic timbre in the next few tracks. In tracks 70 and 71 the woodwind instrument engages in a dialog with the electronic tape; only intermittently it plays phrases of the Libra melody, now again on lower pitch, while the synthesizer fills in the gaps. In track 72 the gaps in the playing of the bass clarinet persist while both it and the electronic tape present melodic variations.

In track 73 the bass clarinet (starting on D sharp) and the electronic music synchronously play the first phrases of Libra in a solemn, slow manner, yet soon the bass clarinet deviates into variations on it. Track 74 elegantly transitions, in a mix of Libra and Scorpio elements, to the Scorpio melody, played from track 75 onward by the woodwind instrument with a slightly hoarse timbre in upper mid register against the Libra melody, now just rendered by the electronic tape in lower register. During the presentation of Scorpio the electronic Libra melody decelerates greatly and becomes wobbly and wiggly, with numerous glissando ‘tails’ on the notes that create an alluring sound texture. The Scorpio melody meanwhile holds rather steady in tempo, but gradually it is interspersed with more and longer pauses. The slowing down of the Libra melody against Scorpio mirrors the equivalent slowing down of the Cancer melody against the steady Libra from track 64 onward.

The music suddenly turns into a frenzy. Following a swift upward glissando, the electronic music switches to a bright, metallically glistening timbre while playing a variation of the Libra melody enormously fast; the bass clarinet continues Scorpio (track 77). Yet just as quickly as the electronic music was stirred up, it is ‘switched off’ again into a slow tempo and subdued timbre. The bass clarinet beautifully underlines the moment by playing a descending motif of Libra and two other fragments of the melody in raspy low register. In track 79 the bass clarinet intones in the upper mid register, with a warm elegance, the jumpy, frolicking Sagittarius melody against a Libra melody that sporadically is now almost at standstill. After some time (track 80 onward) also the Sagittarius melody is broken up by longer pauses, just as it had happened before with Scorpio, and the bass clarinet alternates its phrases with Libra fragments; the woodwind instrument dives more and more into the lower register. All the while the timbre of the electronic Libra melody has become more and more like blowing of the wind, ghostlike.

Finally the bass clarinet plays an ascending line, and on the held highest note ‘catapults’ the electronic music into very fast sequencer figures (track 82), which are transformations of Cancer/Capricorn. The remarkable, complex electronic timbre combines the ‘windy’ colors heard before with a snarling, growling color similar to the bass clarinet’s lower register (this sound component will be growing in prominence over the next few tracks), and the electronic tones bottom out in a ‘rolling’ low end. The sequencer figures are compressed in pitch, and in combination with their timbre an impression of ‘mumbling’ arises that is unique in music.

At the beginning of track 83, the bass clarinet bids farewell to the Sagittarius melody, by mimicking its character through a series of leaps that reach for ever higher pitches; the notes are accentuated by trills. At the same time the electronic music slows down. The Libra melody takes over once more as the bass clarinet plays extensive variations on it, interspersed with runs up and down the scale and other elements that are derived from the Scorpio melody. This will develop over a few tracks, while for most of its playing the woodwind instrument descends into the low register. In track 84 the electronic music switches from Cancer/Capricorn to "Capricorn with mixed rhythm" (score marking) and in track 85 just Capricorn. In track 89 the electronic tape changes to Libra played "very fast, irregular (growling)", and in the bass clarinet Sagittarius resurfaces. In track 90 the electronic Libra melody slows down until in the following track it is recognized in more or less its original form.

At the latest from track 80 onward the music beautifully had gotten "lost in its thoughts" as it were, with slow and often fragmented playing in the low register by the bass clarinet, which unfolds as a single long meditation, and with dark, ‘windy’, ‘mumbling’ or growling timbres in the electronic music. Yet at once the music is stirred up.

In track 92 the electronic tape suddenly switches to high register, after a few seconds sounding like chirping of birds, and both it and the bass clarinet in upper middle register play a variation of part of Libra that features fast double notes on most pitches; other elements are included as well. Then the electronic music quickly switches to Capricorn and plays alone for a bit, continuing on the chirping timbre. Two more blocks occur of the Libra fragment in bass clarinet/electronic music with the same kind of variation just heard (even with triple notes on some pitches), followed by electronic Capricorn. Subsequently short phrases of both Capricorn and Libra alternate in the electronic music (Libra with the double notes on many pitches, in unison with the bass clarinet), and eventually the two melodic layers overlap each other (a few seconds before the end of track 94). After yet another episode of fast double or triple notes on each pitch of part of Libra (track 95) the electronic tape suddenly dives into growling low register and finally the music slows down into a unison presentation of now once more the entire Libra melody.

The bass clarinet in subdued low/mid register, doubled by the tape in low register, plays Libra in its original melodic shape, but rhythmically and dynamically accentuated in such a way that on some high notes it floats more than the original, while on lower notes it presses forward with emphasis, as if wanting to gently carve its way through musical space. For the last repeat of the melody the bass clarinet joins the electronic music in low register, and the final note of the melody is held for quite a while, swelling and deflating in volume.

Eventually, that sustained tone drops one more step, we briefly hear in the tape a reminiscing phrase of Libra, and the music closes with blowing of wind (tape). Does the wind noise remotely hint at the broad outlines of the swaying melody, or is this just an illusion?

© Albrecht Moritz 2012