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Karlheinz Stockhausen 1928-2007

I cannot let the death of Stockhausen pass by without saying something. But what?

Firstly, I’ll have to admit that much of his music remains completely unknown to me. Despite this, those pieces that I do know exist somewhere inside me in a place that is very close to the centre of my musical world: Gesang Der Jünglinge, Kontakte, Microphonie, Telemusik, and his masterpiece Hymnen. In other words, all his early pure electronic stuff from the period 1956-1967.

I believe that no matter what else Stockhausen has done since, these works alone would assure his place as one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Simply put, he stripped Western music down to its absolutely minimal state—the sine wave—and built it up from there, harmonic by harmonic. Complex sounds were laboriously created by overdubbing simple tones, initially using only the most basic equipment: tape machines; oscillators; a white noise generator; filters; and later, reverberation. Stockhausen describes one such process during the production of Gesang Der Jünglinge, quoted in Kurtz (1992):

I invented completely different processes in which the three of us – myself and two musical and technical collaborators – each used a different piece of equipment. One of us had a pulse generator, the second a feedback filter whose width could be continuously changed and the third a volume control (potentiometer). I drew graphic representations of the processual forms. In one such form, lasting twenty seconds, for example, the first of us would alter the pulse speed, say from three to fourteen pulses per second, following a zigzag curve; the second would change the pitch curve of the feedback filter, in accordance with another graphic pattern; and the third – using yet another graphic – would change the dynamic curve. […] So we sat down to realise one of these processual forms, one of us would count 3, 2, 1, 0, then off we went. The stopwatch was running, and at the end of twenty seconds each of us had to be finished.

Each composition took him months of laborious and painstaking work. And yet despite the mathematical precision and scientific rigour with which these works were created, incredibly, miraculously, they sound vital, thrilling, and organic. They sound like they’re alive, and 50 years down the line still have the power to shock, excite, and stimulate. This is Stockhausen’s genius.

Contemporary musicians, with their computers, their synths, samplers, and plug-ins; their MIDI, their virtual instruments and their digital mixers; their automation, quantization, and their Auto-Tune; their loops, their cutting and pasting; they still have almost everything to learn from Stockhausen because—despite the archaic nature of the technology he used—conceptually he remains light years ahead of them.

I love Stockhausen because:

  1. He was brave. He went where the music took him.
  2. He was independent. No record company puppet.
  3. He was doing ‘surround sound’ from the beginning. To him, a sound always exists in three-dimensional space. (This is a drawback listening to his CDs: they’re only in stereo.)
  4. He was committed to his vision. If you were lucky enough to attend one of his electronic music concerts, you just sat in the dark and listened!
  5. His music is just awesome.

Finally, here’s a short 2006 TV piece—apparently from the BBC’s Culture Show—that shows the honesty, intelligence, integrity, and downright impish charm of the man. Delightful:

Thankyou so much. The End.

Kurtz, M. (1992) Stockhausen: A Biography. Faber.

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