An exclusive interview with the innovator of electronic music and mentor of today's stars, Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Tony Mills meets the godfather of modern electronic experimental music, Karlheinz Stockhausen
Far removed from the pop charts, immune to the influence of record companies and largely independent of the latest advances in technology, one figure nevertheless looms large in the history of electronic music. He's in all the text books, he's quoted as a major influence by Tangerine Dream, Tim Souster and hordes of figures from both the rock and classical sides of the field. He's recently supervised a mammoth series of performances of his pieces in London's Barbican Centre, and he is, of course, Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Stockhausen's rise to fame and notoriety in the academic field began in the early Fifties when he composed his first Electronic Studies. Tired of the limitations of conventional chamber instruments, with which he was nevertheless fully familiar, he looked for a new way to create sounds, and came upon the sine wave oscillator as the one pure source of sound capable of limitless modification. Working with primitive tape recorders and making thousands of splices during the course of a tape/electronic composition such as Gesang der Junglinge, he shocked the establishment and forged a reputation for non-conformity which still sees his work neglected in his native Germany today, despite his world-wide acceptance in the musical community.
Meeting the great man is something of an experience. His entourage hang on his every word, and although he speaks sometimes at length on his musical and extra-musical theories, he always returns to the point and delivers an opinion which may be dogmatic but also fascinating.
How important are electronic resources in your work?
"I have composed 85 works and almost all these use electronic equipment, either for projecting the sounds into a given space, or for transforming the sounds made by musicians, or for making new sounds in the studio or live on the stage with electronic instruments. I think that for a musician of our time or of the future it is indispensable that all the colours of the sounds used are composed as well as the pitches - the shades of the timbres are as meaningful as the notes, and you should be able to identify 'melodies' of timbres as easily as melodies of notes. But there are still very few people who can take any meaning from a sequence of sound colours. Also people only know the 'rainbow' of musical sounds - with electronic instruments the musicians are able to create new and unknown sounds.
"Electronic instruments also allow the composer to transcend one realm of perception and move into another. A very slow rhythm tapped out on the table can be easily remembered, but as you make the rhythm faster you cannot follow it - the speed of perception has the same limit as the speed of the muscles. But with electronics we can play faster than our fingers can, and a rhythm which is very fast becomes a note or a pitch. When you've transcended the realm of rhythm and moved into that of melody we've created a new language, and we speak of rhythms as being timbres - if we slow down a timbre such as a bell sound, we can perceive the individual pulses of the sound, we receive the bell sound as a rhythm. These passages from one realm to another have become a very important field of composition.
"When a rhythm becomes very, very slow it turns into the formal subdivisions of a composition - rhythm becomes form, so the lengths of the individual parts of one of my compositions actually conform to a very slow rhythm. With the use of electronics we've found instruments which allow us to experience phenomena we've never perceived before, and this will change man's perception over a period of a few generations."
Do you hope that people without a formal music education will be able to tune in to these new perceptions?
"Absolutely, it's only a matter of a generation - it's already true for my children. My son Simon who's 17 played synthesisers from a very early age and he certainly has this quality of listening. A mutation is taking place. My son Markus who's 19 has worked in jazz and rock music but he's playing with me for the next year or so to develop something beyond his trumpet playing - he's also become interested in synthesisers recently and the two of them make a wonderful duo for experimentation. I'm now writing for synthesisers for them, and I've already written a lot of trumpet pieces for Markus."
How do you find the modern synths your sons are using compare to your early tape techniques?
"Well, they're extraordinarily flexible, which is their advantage, and extraordinarily limited, which is their disadvantage. They are basically built exactly the same way as electric organs, and you can retune or reprogram them a little, particularly on the Yamaha DX7 which Simon's just bought, but many possibilities are not there yet, and the musician is not able to project sound into a given space as I try to do in my pieces. These synthesisers are mainly built to be cheap and to be used in entertainment. My sons have a MiniMoog on which Simon has modified the tuning, and an Oberheim Polyphonic. Simon has reprogrammed the DX7 completely because he found some friends had the same sounds, of course. He's basically understood the principle because he has a genuine talent to analyse the components of timbres - he had the EDP Wasp synth which cost almost nothing many years ago, and the early EMS synths, and the forms of synthesis to make timbres on these are an excellent education rather than pushing a button and having ready-made timbres. Simon's always longing for more possibilities on the synthesisers, but he doesn't find them yet."
So how did you approach the use of giant synths such as the EMS Synthi 100 on pieces such as Sirius?
"I used that first on Zodiac in a very simple way. The machine has three sequencers, and I fed the melodies into these. I had four keyboards which I took from other instruments, and the patch field with pins, and used the melodies to shape all the microrhythms of my sounds and to drive the oscillators. Unfortunately there were only twelve oscillators and the filters were very weak, they didn't give me good timbres, and that's the poorest aspect of the work. That's extraordinary for the price because it cost 120,000 DM when I bought it for the WDR studio in Cologne.
"The main piece I composed with the Synthi 100 was Sirius, and the great advantage was that for the first time I was able to perform in real time long sequences of up to 20 minutes, and to drive all the filters, modulators and pitch-to-voltage convertors with keyboards and control knobs. I got wonderful results as concerns the transition from one realm of perception to another - and that's unique in the history of music."
Working with these micro- and macro-scales of perception seems to have made your pieces increasingly epic. Does this place a strain on the performers, or are electronic instruments able to compensate for this?
"I think so - at the Barbican we played Hymnen, a work of over three hours, and my two sons and two other performers have started improvising over the tape I made in 1967. Quite by chance we have come upon the best way to do this. The tape has extraordinarily complex timbres taken from the sound archives of a radio station - from radio broadcasts, from a porcelain shop in China, from a reception for the Queen of England in Ghana, of glass shattering, of wind in Siberia and also of many national anthems, so there's an enormously rich sound world as I've composed it. The players have to make comments on this with their synthesisers - this really drives them to extremes, the percussionist is breaking his neck to create something interesting, he's breaking wood on the stage, he's splashing water over the microphone, they search for things they'd never search for without this stimulus."
On the subject of 'real sounds', have you heard the classical composer Thomas Kessler's compositions with the Fairlight?
"Yes, he's from Basle and he's been to the Cologne studio many times. I understand the Fairlight but I think it's very expensive and I just don't have the money, and in any case I can manipulate real sounds with existing equipment. On Teiemusik I used what I called the Gagaku circuit, with ring modulators treating the output of other modulators. I recorded the sound of a Japanese temple instrument, modulated it with a 12,000 cycle tone and filtered out everything below that frequency so you just have a high-pitched hiss. Then I re-modulated it down again until it became audible, and I could place it in any range of audibility I liked. By feeding in another pitch at, say, 12,002 cycles, I could create rhythmic patterns at any speed.
"For instance, I modulated a recording of a Japanese priest with the rhythm of an African drummer - you just hear the priest, but with the pattern of the drum beats. I then modulated it with an Amazon lullaby to vary the volume. You can superimpose many effects, and if I don't like the 'colour' of the priest I can create a chord with sine waves and the priest is singing with a sort of steel bar sound. This was all new to me and to everyone else at the time, and since then Teiemusik has become a reference work for everyone interested in this sort of experimentation."
Why do you feel that such an epic (week-long) cycle of concerts should take place in England rather than in Germany?
"I feel that Germany for many years has been very influenced by the media, and in the media there are many figures who started off trying to be musicians and who have failed and are very bitter. The Germans are easily influenced by all kinds of propaganda, and many foreign and German composers obviously don't like the fact that I've been here for 30 years and have made friends with people in various radio departments, cultural organisations and so on. Slowly but steadily there has been a new socialism accusing everything of intellectualism, then elitism, then antihumanism, cerebralism, and I was called all these things in turn. When all these didn't work because I'd mutated into something else, I was associated with Art, which had become a bourgeois word, and Stockhausen became Art - nebulous, mystic, not for the people, only for intellectuals! So there's no atmosphere in Germany which would allow such a festival because there are too many forces which would stop it happening."
You still plan your works on an epic scale though. Are you confident of finishing massive cyclical pieces such as Licht?
"If I go at normal pace I can compose one or two scenes a year, and I have a complete plan made in 1977 which shows that I should finish the piece in 2002. That's just an early stage of my life - I would be less than 70. Licht represents The Week, and after that I want to compose The Day - before Licht I composed The Year in Sirius, now I want to compose the hours of the day. Licht will be about 28 hours long and there's one part on later this year at Covent Garden, on September 16th."
Talking to Stockhausen has a way of making time seem to contract and expand just as it does in many of his greatest pieces. In fact we'd talked for just forty minutes, during which time he'd expounded more theories and ideas than most musicians would go through in a lifetime.
During the Barbican concert series Stockhausen supervised the performance of works from throughout his career. One highlight was a performance of Kontakte, or Contact, for electronic tape, piano and percussion. In this piece Stockhausen plays with the interface between the known sounds of the piano and percussion instruments, and the new soundscapes afforded by the use of electronics. Everything is composed, right down to the 'degree of familiarity' of the texture at any given time.
It typifies his music and illustrates one of the ideas Stockhausen explained earlier - the way in which a very fast rhythm becomes a pitch, or a very low pitch becomes a rhythm. In this case, the descending note at the end of the extract goes right from the realm of pitched sounds into that of slow, repetitive rhythms - and just remember that it was all done with oscillators, sticky tape and razor blades, with not a synthesiser in sight.
Interview by Tony Mills