Stockhausen

OKTOPHONIE (OCTOPHONY), 1990/91


This is the 8-channel tape of electronic music in TUESDAY from LIGHT, and plays through the entire second act, INVASION EXPLOSION with FAREWELL (about 74 min.), including a stereo bridge in PIETÀ. The stereo bridge is omitted when OKTOPHONIE is performed as such, and the duration of the work then is about 69 min. (as it is also presented on the CD).

The composer:

"In this music, vertical and diagonal movements are composed for the first time, in addition to the horizontal movements in the earlier 4-channel or 8-channel electronic music."

I have heard the composition in 8-channel reproduction, with two levels of height featuring 4 loudspeakers each, at the Stockhausen Courses 2002 in Kürten, Germany, and I can testify that such experience is riveting. The movements of sounds not only in horizontal direction but also vertically, up or down, and diagonally, are fascinating, Also, the spatial resolution of sounds allows for listening into the musical fabric to an even greater extent or more easily than in the stereo version. In particular, simultaneous slow moving sounds of similar character can be heard more easily in timbral distinction from each other, due to their enhanced separation in space. Yet also in its stereo version, as heard on the CD from Stockhausen-Verlag, the work is effective and compelling as a musical composition. I wrote this essay on the music before I heard the 8-channel version.

*****

The music is played on a wide array of synthesizers. Stockhausen realized this music in collaboration with his son Simon, who is a professional synthesizer player and clearly an expert on the immense possibilities of creating sound on these instruments. A listener usually skeptical about pure synthesizer music does not need to be in this instance. What struck me immediately at first listening and remained a lasting impression is the astounding maturity of sound. It clearly matches that of the pre-synthesizer electronic music in Stockhausen's famous HYMNEN. There is nothing that sounds in any way fancy, gimmicky or toy-like, a feat very hard to achieve on synthesizers, especially when they are used as here to also generate very dynamic sounds rather than just static ones. The variety of sounds is beyond belief, and many of them will never even remotely have been heard before by the listener. The music overall, although not always, has a rather sinister, dark quality that is in keeping with the theme of Tuesday: War (between Michael and Lucifer). Over wide stretches there is a dark grunge to the music that with similar character hardly could be achieved by any orchestra (this grunge acquires a subterranean quality if you have a great subwoofer).

What draws me especially into the music is, apart from the architectural qualities, the fact that each sound has an extraordinary spectrum within its timbre a richness of color that is rarely heard elsewhere, in electronic or acoustic music. Stockhausen points out that he actually composes timbre, instead of just playing with sounds and picking the best ones. This appears believable in view of the musical result, and can be seen as a continuation of his way of working in his famous earlier, pioneering electronic music made in the pre-synthesizer age (before the late 1960s). There indeed, in time-consuming labor, each single sound and timbre had to be composed on tape.

It has been argued that Stockhausen's early electronic music is more original, since the use of synthesizer is common these days. While I inclined towards such an opinion at first as well, I gradually started to realize how original Stockhausen's use of the synthesizer actually is, and after hearing OKTOPHONIE, this insight was validated in a drastic manner. The uniqueness of this music was confirmed to me by a very knowledgeable and talented electronic composer/performer.

Furthermore, not only the sounds are unique but so is the employment of the synthesizer to build novel musical architecture in a powerful way. For that of course it takes a composer of the caliber of Stockhausen. There are many passages impressive in their architecture, but maybe the most imposing of them all may be found towards the end of the work (see below).

*****

[ Since OKTOPHONIE is the tape of electronic music from the second act of DIENSTAG aus LICHT, the names of its sections also specified in the CD booklet are synonymous with the scenes in that opera. The electronic music itself may express part of what happens in those scenes (for example in the INVASIONS), sometimes however it forms a mere background for the other music in the scenes (for example in PIETÀ, where in the opera a fluegelhorn solo and a soprano solo interact above the electronic music). ]

From the beginning, there is a dark sounding drone present that will continue to guide the music throughout most of the time although intermittedly it disappears , until it finally completely recedes in JENSEITS (see below). Above it, more dynamic sounds are heard. Once initiated, sounds or sound structures can propagate through musical space for quite some time. They propagate often with more or less slowly developing little fluctuations in pitch, timbre and dynamics (in a periodic or aperiodic manner), which create musical tension and interest. In a few instances the fluctuations take on a more prominent and pressing character, with the sound propelling in waves of high energy. An accumulation of more than two or three long-lasting sound structures rarely takes place, rather, they follow each other or take over from each other, while the music continues in the dark drone serving as a foundation for its flow. Overall, the music might be characterized as slow moving in layers of sound, consisting of the fundamental drone and of the overlaid longer-lasting events. Yet at times quick events explode above the surface of the sound layers; thus the character of the music as being "slowly moving" is blurred in favor of a distinct wealth of events of extremely opposed speed. At times the quick events trigger themselves longer-lasting sound events, emanating from them. The quick sound explosions are especially important in the shaping of the music from the beginning through INVASION I.

The slow movement of many elements in the music is demanded by the spatial composition for 8 channels. The composer says:

"The simultaneous movements in 8 layers of the electronic music of INVASION EXPLOSION with FAREWELL demonstrate how through OCTOPHONY a new dimension of musical space composition has opened. In order to be able to hear these movements especially simultaneously the musical rhythm must be drastically slowed down; the pitch changes must take place much less often and only in smaller steps or with glissandi so that they can be followed; the composition of dynamics serves the audibility of the individual layers i.e. it is dependent on the timbre of the layers and the tempo of their movements; and the timbre composition primarily serves the elucidation of these movements."

In INVASION I, a fascinating sound structure is heard that for quite a long time pervades the music, sometimes disappearing into the background only to re-emerge later to prominence, and undergoing numerous transformations in speed and shape while it keeps more or less the same sound signature. It is a kind of endlessly repeated arpeggio that in an uninterrupted string of notes paves its way through the music in the form of something like a horizontally moving spiral. It speeds up and slows down, sometimes considerably in both ways, and its continuous transformations make for an enthralling listening experience.

At the end of INVASION I, there is the most impressive counting I have heard so far in LICHT. A young man's voice counts from one to seven. The final consonant or vowel of each number is elongated considerably by synthesizer sounds, in a captivating manner mimicking/transforming the phonetic characteristics of that sound, thus the "s" in "eins" and "sechs", the "f" in "fünf", and the "ei" in "zwei" und "drei" (presumably the rolling "r" in "vier" is electronically extended from the voice, with subtle transformation by simultaneous synthesizer sounds). Particularly striking is the elongation of the "n" of "sieben" by the electronic music. Its convincing execution may lead to the assumption that Stockhausen analyzed the spectrum of that "n" in order to be able to successfully program the synthesizer.

In the following INVASION II, a female voice sings single words with relatively long pauses between them, and she sings those words in a quite drawn-out way, which matches the long-stretched sound events from the electronic music. When they occur in high register, these appearances of the female voice seem a vocal parallel to strikes of an imaginary, big and bright sounding, percussive instrument with long drawn-out decay, towering above the music each time it is struck. A male voice has several appearances as well. The electronic sounds are now more stable, immobile than in INVASION I, and have a somewhat white gleam from within, radiating with intensity. This intensity is often enhanced by a considerably high dynamic level. Yet even though the electronic sounds are more stable now, they nonetheless undergo refined changes of inner life, fascinating to listen to. The dark drone, which had stopped to persist for a short while at the end of INVASION I, now again forms the fundament of the music.

From the end of INVASION II through PIETÀ, a passage of about 15 min. length, the music moves extremely slowly. Almost exclusively drones are played (except for a few "falling" and other sounds later in the passage), and inner rotations of timbre as well as extremely slow glissandi provide very gradual and subtle changes of the music from within its sounds. Also glissandi of overtones, beautiful in their refinement, are heard. This is a passage which is one of the efforts of Stockhausen to go to the extremes of fast and slow movement in music (here the latter). The immense slowness of gradual changes as heard in this passage certainly is not possible outside the realm of electronic music. Mostly, several processes of such changes run simultaneously, keeping the ear absorbed in the texture once it adopts to the experience. The tremendous length of breath, with which this music is conceived and realized to perfection, is captivating.

After initial bass drones have receded, there are fascinating slow shiftings of timbre within the music while it is imbued with whiteness of overall color for a few minutes. Swelling of sounds into the music and their fading out generates an everchanging character and degree of intensity of this whiteness. A unique listening experience is the result.

Towards the end of PIETÀ, after darker sounds again had dominated for a while, there is a subtle heightening of tension and brightening of timbre in the music, and the following INVASION III then enters as thunder. In this passage, the vividness of depiction of the events of (apparently aerial) war reaches its climax. Wild synthesizer glissandi draw curves in the air, and the excitement of tone in the music is considerable. The stability of the dark drone now forms an almost threatening contrast to the vivid remainder of the sound picture.

The ensuing JENSEITS (Beyond) introduces clear melodic elements that are expressed in short, stark motivic figures. These figures, following zigzag pitch curves, frequently are energetic and forcefully pushing forward, even though most of the time they are slowly moving. There are, however, also passages with massive sounding accumulations of fast repeats of these motives.

An energetic, weighty figure built from intense motivic repeats, a figure heard with brighter timbre already before, introduces the beginning of a mighty wave of intensification (at the start of SYNTHI-FOU). This wave is organically built from complex interactions of long-stretched sounds with short motivic figures and quick, attack-like sounds, all pulling directionally towards more and more intensity and massiveness of overall sound texture.

The wave of intensification seems to irresistibly build towards a climax, yet at some point it becomes clear that this wave is the climax itself. It is an astounding phenomenon.

The climactic wave is drawn out over several minutes, moving in such dimensions of time and massiveness of sound that the music builds a kind of cathedral architecture, in its effect not unlike some symphonic music of Bruckner. However, the mass of sound here becomes a veritable flood of music, one that actually exceeds what could be attained with orchestral forces (it has to be heard at high volume on a good stereo to fully perceive the effect). Perhaps such a flood of sound could be achieved with a gargantuan organ yet this could only mimic the long-stretched sounds and even that only in a remote way, but it could not create music as here, where the drawn-out sounds interact with quick, attack-like sounds of often powerful stature and, at some point, with a mightily streaming layer of silvery sound oscillations that somewhat have the character of an ultra-fast ticking clock.

This specific kind of flooding music is a successful exploration of new territory, showing a sensational power of electronic synthesizer music in building musical architecture, a power never heard before in this particular way, yet unleashed here with utmost authority. It is a majestic achievement.

The music develops that way through the entire SYNTHI-FOU quite far into ABSCHIED (Farewell). A clear turning point of the music is perceived when sounds of a somewhat dim, warm color enter the music (track 93; and continuing until the end), which bring the climactic development of the music to a momentary halt. The music quickly regains momentum though, but the character of its intensity is changed. Soon, the music also permanently carries an intriguing stream of metallic sound particles, to a certain degree reminiscent of the sound of wind chimes, yet developing as a more condensed continuum.

After a while, the music relaxes, is slowed down by a few energetic chords, and very gradually vanishes into silence.

*****

OKTOPHONIE is available at http://www.stockhausen.org/cd_catalog.html (CD 41). Its sounds have a powerful presence, often mightily filling the listening room (when played at high volume), yet without harsh aggressiveness, giving testimony to very good engineering of the sounds and their mastering onto CD. The bass is impressive and of high quality, as testified by the precise attack of some faster bass sounds, heard towards the end (if your system is capable of reproducing them).

The acqusition of this CD is strongly recommended to anyone who is interested in the development of the electronic career of Stockhausen or generally in electronic music the listener will be surprised and astonished by these sounds and by the novel musical architecture.

Also to those who have or want to acquire DIENSTAG aus LICHT, where OKTOPHONIE is heard as the electronic music of the 2nd act, obtaining the CD with the electronic music by itself is strongly recommended. Since the music often sounds as a background in DIENSTAG, many of its textures will unfold to the listener in full only when it is heard by itself.


© Albrecht Moritz 2002, text edited 2005


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