Stockhausen

MIKROPHONIE I (MICROPHONY I), 1964


for tam-tam, 2 microphones, 2 filters with potentiometers (6 players), duration about 25 min.

The composer has written a detailed introduction to the work, reproduced in the CD booklet. Even though this text is quite extended, it addresses topics in a concise manner: the work’s genesis and the reasoning and discoveries leading up to it, the complex modulation of musical parameters during performance, and the workings of the form scheme. Hence, the text is reproduced here almost in its entirety (CD booklet, p. 17–21), and then will be followed by my own listening observations:

"In the summer of 1964 I composed two works. The first was MIXTUR (MIXTURE) for 5 orchestra groups, 4 sine-wave generators, 4 ring modulators. The sounds from four instrumental groups as they play are picked up – each one independently – by microphones, mixed to 4 signals and connected to 4 ring modulators. In these modulators the instrumental sounds are modulated in timbre, rhythm, dynamic level and pitch by means of sine-wave generators which are operated by musicians according to instructions in the score. The ring-modulated sounds are projected by a sound projectionist – simultaneous with the orchestra sound – over four loudspeaker groups. To this, a fifth group is added: 3 tam-tams and 3 cymbals, amplified by contact microphones and played over 3 loudspeakers.

"After finishing the score of MIXTUR for orchestra and ring modulators, I searched for ways to compose – flexibly – also the process of microphone recording. The microphone, used until now as a rigid, passive recording device to reproduce sounds as faithfully as possible, would have to become a musical instrument and, on the other hand, through its manipulation, influence all the characteristics of the sounds. In other words, it would have to participate in forming the pitches – according to composed indications – harmonically and melodically, as well as the rhythm, dynamic level, timbre and spatial projection of the sounds.

"The next work which I composed was MIKROPHONIE I for tam-tam, 2 microphones, 2 filters with potentiometers (6 players). In 1961 I had purchased a large tam-tam for the composition MOMENTE (MOMENTS) and set it up on the balcony and later in the garden. Time and again I would make experiments in which I excited the tam-tam using a great variety of implements – of glass, cardboard, metal, wood, rubber, plastic – which I had collected from around the house.

"One day I took some equipment from the WDR Studio for Electronic Music home with me. My collaborator Jaap Spek helped me. I played on the tam-tam with every possible utensil and during this, moved the microphone above the surface of the tam-tam. The microphone was connected to an electrical filter whose output was connected to a volume control (potentiometer), and this in turn, was connected to amplifier and loudspeaker. During this, Jaap Spek changed the filter settings and dynamic levels, improvising. At the same time, we recorded the result on tape.

"The tape recording of this first microphony experiment constitutes for me a discovery of utmost importance. We had not prearranged anything; I used several of the laid out implements at my own discretion while probing the tam-tam surface with the microphone, as a doctor auscultates a body with his stethoscope. Spek reacted – spontaneously as well – to what he heard as the result of our joint activity.

"Actually, this moment was the genesis of a live electronic music with unconventional music instruments.

"On the basis of this experiment I then wrote the score of MIKROPHONIE I. Two players excite the tam-tam using a great variety of implements, two further players scan the tam-tam with microphones; an appropriate notation prescribes the distance between the microphone and the tam-tam (which influences dynamic level and timbre), the relative distance of the microphone from the point of excitation (which determines pitch, timbre and above all the spatial impression of the sound – from very distant through resonant to extremely close) and the rhythm of the movements of the microphone. Two further players – seated in the auditorium at the left and right of the middle – each operate an electrical filter and two potentiometers. They, in turn, reshape the timbre and pitch (by means of the filter setting), dynamic level and spatial effect (through the combination of filter setting and volume control) and the rhythm of the structures (by means of the temporal changes prescribed for the two pieces of equipment). In this way three mutually dependent, mutually interacting and simultaneously autonomous processes of sound-structuring are connected with each other. These were composed to be synchronous or temporally independent, homophonic or in up to six polyphonic layers.

"The score consists of 33 independent musical structures, which are to be combined by the musicians for a performance, i.e. for a version, according to a prescribed connection scheme. This scheme indicates the relationships between the structures. Three musicians – 1 tam-tam player, 1 microphonist and 1 filter and potentiometer operator – form a self-contained group which plays one of these 33 structures. At a certain point they give a cue to begin the next structure to the other group, who then returns the cue after a specified time, and so on.

"The relationships between these structures are determined each time in three ways: the following structure should, with respect to the one that precedes it, be similar, different or opposite; a relationship should remain constant, increase or decrease; the following structure (which in fact generally begins during the preceding one) should support, remain neutral to or destroy the preceding one.

"Thus in each case the connection scheme gives three indications for each pair of adjacent structures; for example, similar should constantly support; or opposite should increasingly destroy; or different should be decreasingly neutral, and so on. The musicians thus choose the order of the composed structures – which were themselves also composed in a similar way – according to these prescribed criteria.

"Although the relationships between the structures, i.e. the connection scheme, always remain the same for every performance in order to ensure a strict and directional form, the order of the structure-succession can be completely different from one version to another." (End of quoted text.)

On the CD from Stockhausen-Verlag, the Brusssels version is heard, the version of the work that sounded in the world premiere 1964. The 33 CD track numbers suitably correspond to the onset of the 33 structures. The majority of structures are played by just either of the two groups of players, yet most of the time there is overlap of activity in a staggered manner. While one group introduces a new structure, the other group continues their playing of the previous one, until, in turn, it switches to the next structure, while now the first group carries on with its own current one, and so on. There are a few tutti moments too, which are played by both groups.

The German names of the many structures are reproduced on p. 6 of the CD booklet, and their English translations on p. 30. While these names are useful for study purposes once the listener is familiar with the music, I recommend listening without following them in the early stages of simply getting to know the music.

*****

For less well-meaning minds, unwilling or unable to internalize the art of MIKROPHONIE I, this work might serve as the ultimate example for "chaotic, experimental plinky-plonky music" or, as someone with immensely profound and truly marvelous "insight" described Stockhausen’s music on an internet discussion board, "and the 4-year-old next door made a lot more sounds banging some metal scraps around in the alley". Someone else described this specific work as the music that he would spin "in order to chase the mice out of my house".

Also, compare the "Stockhausen cartoons" on the official Stockhausen website, at http://www.stockhausen.org/cartoons.html.

All these of course are entirely superficial characterizations that in no way touch the core of the music, but in any case, yes, MIKROPHONIE I is metallic, scratchy, at times just plain loud (yet importantly, a lot of the time rather, or even very, quiet), "boing-y", grinding and simply "noisy".

The sounds we hear are indeed mostly noises, i.e. sound events of undefined pitch, according to the tam-tam’s sound character, and (loose) definition of pitch, where it occurs, is mainly generated by the processing of sound through microphone/filter as the composer describes. Alternatively, pitch is defined by the implements used and their interaction with the surface of the tam-tam. It is extraordinary how many kinds and unusual forms of noises are heard here.

In extension to his comments above, Stockhausen explains in Texte zur Musik 3, p. 57, that "normally inaudible vibrations (of a tam-tam) are made audible by an active process of listening into [them with a microphone]" (translation from German by me). There are several passages in MIKROPHONIE I where this process is exclusively employed, foregoing stronger excitement of the tam-tam which would produce the commonly heard sounds. A result is that, if you would play back these passages to persons whom you would leave in the dark about the source of the sounds, probably most or even all of those listeners – including musicians – would not be able to guess it.

In fact, I can back up this suspicion with a real-life experience. A friend of mine is a rock musician, is very familiar with the sound of a gong (the pitch-defined equivalent of a tam-tam; it has a hole in the middle of the sound plate) and has a keen ear for timbre. Without disclosing what the music was, I had him listen to tracks 25–33 of MIKROPHONIE I (the last few minutes) which are quiet sounds of the sort that can become audible at all only by the microphone amplification employed in the work. He simply could not guess the instrument. When I later revealed to him the sound source, he reacted with a mixture of amazement about Stockhausen’s invention, irritation that he had not been able to recognize the instrument, and a highly amused kind of anger about the fact that I had so successfully lead him on – beyond my own expectations as well.

One of the most compelling features of MIKROPHONIE I is the immense stretching of musical space as a result of moving between two extremes. These are, on one end of the spectrum, the intimacy and strong inward concentration in many of the passages where the close-held microphones allow the conversion of inaudible vibrations to sound, and on the opposite side, the passages that powerfully explore the extrovert, loud "outer life" of the tam-tam.

Another exciting feature is that the tension of "What comes next?", always present in developmental art music, is palpable in MIKROPHONIE I in a particularly immediate and dramatic manner. There is an intense game action-reaction, in which one gesture "answers" another, and which forms a continuous thread through the music. The tension that causes the expectation of reaction to any given musical action is fueled by the timing of events, the curves of energy, the decay of sound, and by careful selection of pauses and their duration.

Through tension a continuum between sounds is created which, in an impressive manner, shapes them into music, even though the sounds themselves do not always flow into one another as in the entities we usually call "music". This forms a parallel to KONTAKTE (see my essay about the work).

Nonetheless, quite often there does exist a flow of sounds in the sense of "traditional" fluidity. Sounds that are drawn-out and sometimes overlap each other, for example scratching noises and the diverse resonances from the tam-tam (see below), are among those that contribute to a fluid continuum.

Since the 2 groups of instrumentalist/microphonist/filter- and potentiometer operator (6 players) most of the time play simultaneously, usually two, or even more, kinds of sound events are heard at the same time (in some passages, the microphonists also excite the instrument, in addition to the main tam-tam players). The polyphonic interplay of these events is fascinating and is another important element in shaping sounds/noises into music – organized sound. It also highlights just how many, vastly different, forms of sound motion can be generated on a tam-tam, resulting in an unexpectedly great extent of variation. The sound fields produced by the polyphonic approach are often dense.

As the composer outlines above, the connection of the 33 structures results in a strict and directional form. This becomes quickly evident in the pattern of action-reaction. The alternative name "moment" for the structures (see CD booklet, p. 23 ff.) therefore may refer less to non-directional moment form, but rather point to the fact that the gestures within them tend to be self-contained; they do not gradually develop out of gestures from the previous structure. As the composer explains, the structures are "independent".

There are, however, some elements of non-directional moment form in MIKROPHONIE I. For instance, after the big climax of Structures 8–10, and prepared by the transitory Structure 11, Structure 12 forms an oasis of very gradual, calm and quiet exploration of timbre and motion of sound that extends over a few minutes. Nonetheless, also in this middle part of the music, which rests more in itself, the tension of action-reaction is upheld by virtue of the pauses (partially created by volume fade-out) that mark the diverse, small steps of timbre changes within this structure. In later parts of the music, other relatively static passages are heard as well (for example Structure 26).

Yet overall there are fewer passages that rest within themselves than in KONTAKTE, which has been described by the composer as moment form. The game of action-reaction, even though it exists in KONTAKTE as well, is more immediate in MIKROPHONIE I; one reason for this lies in the nature of the sounds themselves, which on average show a more pronounced attack phase.

The silence of pauses is employed to dramatic effect to make short yet marked incisions into some events of high-level dynamics. In certain passages on the other end of the dynamic scale, pauses also enhance drama. Relatively quiet events die away before the pause and slowly resurge again, or give way to new, also quiet, events after it. This particular grouping of events around the central pause creates a strong tension.

*****

Sounds in the music that in principle would be audible also without amplification include strong excitement of the tam-tam plate resonance by a beater, leading to directional swelling/decay of the mighty, voluminous sound. The surface can be struck with a stick as to generate sounds of fast attack and little decay, etc. Yet these sounds may be amplified and filtered as well.

However, the audibility of most sounds that are created on the tam-tam in MIKROPHONIE I appears to strictly depend on the microphonic amplification. Among these are scratching noises, produced by treating the surface with not only metallic, but also other kinds of objects. Strangely "rolling" sounds can be generated on the surface, sounds evocative of rustling of silver paper, and many other astounding sounds. In Structure 31 (Zupfend – Plucking) and continuing in Structure 32, the edge of the instrument’s metal plate is energized by contacting it with the strings of a simple stringed device while they are plucked. This results in sounds that, remarkably, are strongly reminiscent of those of a zither – electronically distorted and enlarged.

Heavy filtering may also contribute to the astonishing strangeness of diverse sounds. Apparently, some sounds are more filtered than others – a few may not be filtered at all –, and of course, due to the configuration decribed above by the composer, involving two filter- and potentiometer operators during performance, different extents and qualities of filtering are employed in each of the two simultaneous signal chains.

Quite frequently there are dark, roaring, sometimes growling, yet in volume often rather soft, undercurrents of sound that appear to stem from only local resonances of the tam-tam plate, generated by gentle use of a beater or as a result of other treatment, a sound phenomenon most likely audible only because of microphonic amplification as well. Such resonances often provide a "halo" of sound to the musical proceedings in MIKROPHONIE I, even though not all events are affected this way.

These dark resonances, at times even reminiscent of distant rolling thunder, often form a colorful contrast to other, much drier sounds, generated simultaneously on the tam-tam. Especially striking examples are found in Structures 25 and 26. Out of these, Structure 26 (I + II TUTTI pianissimo) shows the most direct interplay between resonant and dry sounds – it stands as a model representative, as it were, of the diverse forms of these simultaneous occurrences throughout the work. Short pulses of dry sounding scratching, spaced apart in quite wide time intervals, are accompanied by synchronous pulses of excitement of the plate’s dark resonance by the other player. This resonance forms a ‘tail’ to the dry sounds, well after they have terminated. In Structure 25 the growling of the plate’s resonance sounds particularly strange, possibly due to extensive filtering, whereas the concomitant scratching etc. coming from the other tam-tam player seems less modified in sound (again, the signals from the two tam-tam players are filtered separately).

Sometimes wavelike oscillations of swelling and deflating of deep sounding plate resonance are heard. These visceral sound motions are generated by repeated cycles of moving the microphone towards, and again away from, the plate of the tam-tam. At times, variations in filtering lend additional interest and delicacy to slow decay of plate resonance, see for example in a stretched-out decay event in the middle of Structure 6.

There is not just plate resonance of a dark, mighty tone. Even though they sound often quite dry, also the softer metallic noises that arise from scratching the tam-tam’s surface, or from other means of treating it, can show resonance in variable amounts (compare, for example, Structure 12 with the second half of Structure 32). The resonance of the metallic noises may follow from more pronounced excitement of the plate, and with the microphone kept at some distance from the surface (see the composer’s comments above regarding the effect of microphone distance on the sound character).

On the other hand, some of the generated noises are very dry and direct sounding. The dryness of sound appears to be the result of high amplification of very low-level signals that do not at all excite the plate’s resonance, signals picked up by a close-held microphone.

The polyphony of the sounds elicited by the two tam-tam players is highlighted and enhanced in effect by their rendering in stereo panorama (made possible, of course, by the microphone amplification of the sound vibrations). This presentation makes the instrument seem even bigger – certainly wide – and provides tremendous transparency. In instances where both players generate events that are similar and carry great resonance, the resulting stereo effect can be close to echoes penetrating through the plate from one side to the other (such as in the explosive climax that forms the beginning of Structure 18). There are not just impressions of such plate-penetrating echoes produced, these sometimes do in fact occur: for example, in the solo moment X (Structure 22; only the players of group I are active) they are audible at several places, and are pinpointed most easily with headphones.

On one of the days while writing this essay, I heard a scratching noise, apparently coming from someone taking a plastic device out of a styrofoam holder. A somewhat similar kind of noise is also heard in MIKROPHONIE I, and at that moment I was marveling at how, in the music, such a noise is integrated into a larger and organic whole, whereas in that everyday situation the sound stood on its own, in isolation, and thus was not part of a greater meaning.

*****

The recording by the WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk), reproduced on Stockhausen-Verlag CD 9, is of excellent sound quality, to an extent which makes it hard to believe that it dates from 1965. I have noticed that several WDR recordings from the 1960s stand out as being superior to the typical output from the big labels during that time. The 1969 WDR recording of KURZWELLEN on CD 13 from Stockhausen-Verlag is another example of truly outstanding quality.

Playing back the recording on a high-grade stereo system shows that transients are astonishing in their speed and accuracy of leading edge, making them startling and lifelike. The recording is exquisitely detailed and of uncommon clarity. Dynamics are impressive and powerful as well, yet at times there seems to be some dynamic ‘holding back’ in the transition from loud to very loud (observed at any volume setting during playback) – my only slight reservation about the recording. Actually, I am not sure if this is indeed a matter of the recording itself or of the electronic equipment used to amplify and modulate the sounds. Alternatively, it is possible that high-level excitement of the tam-tam does not quite produce the unlimited dynamic bloom that intuitively might be assumed.

The work is coupled on CD with MIKROPHONIE II for choir, Hammond organ, 4 ring modulators and the electronic TELEMUSIK, which can be viewed as a precursor to HYMNEN. The CD booklet of 128 pages provides detailed information about the works, and also many photos that are of great help in visualizing the musical proceedings.

MIKROPHONIE I is a thoroughly amazing work and one of my Stockhausen favorites, "noisy" as it is. And yes, on the other end of the musical spectrum I also love the brooding romanticism of Schubert’s late piano sonata in B major, D 960, with its marvelous melodic and harmonic magic (such kinds of magic are heard in many Stockhausen works as well). Great music comes in many forms.



© Albrecht Moritz 2007


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