Stockhausen at 70: Through the Looking Glass

Robin Maconie revisits Hymnen, Karlheinz Stockhausen's electroacoustic classic of the 1960s

(This article was first published in THE MUSICAL TIMES VOLUME 139, NUMBER 1863 (Summer 1998). The full text of the article is available at -- I have reproduced part of it here because it's a little hard to read on the original web site.)

Stockhausen's music by 1965 was developing in new directions. Works like Mikrophonie I and Mixtur for orchestra and ring-modulators (the latter producing short-wave distortions of orchestral timbres) were playing with dangerously complex material and deliberately taking risks in the hope of unforeseen results. Even so it was still very difficult to appreciate any procedural or intellectual consistency between the earlier, 'purer' electronic works and Hymnen, in which the composer was employing the very type of 'concrete sounds' or ready-made musical images of a musical tradition he and Boulez had so publicly renounced so many years before

BUT after Kontakte, where was electronic music to go? The first I learned of the new composition Hymnen was in Stockhausen's composition class where the composer outlined a kind of sequel to Kontakte in which a tape plays a continuous backdrop of radiophonic and electronic sounds and a small number of players on stage react to them and bring them down to earth as it were. Stockhausen was building on what he had originally intended for Kontakte: a relationship of tape as database to musicians as independent operators able to select, imitate, and freely combine musical tones and gestures continuously available on tape. At that time in 1959 after a number of trials it had become clear that the players were uncomfortable with such unfamiliar material and so the idea was abandoned for the time being and a fixed score of instrumental parts was composed for the version of Kontakte with instruments. Stockhausen's adoption of national anthems for the tape of Hymnen could therefore be seen as a device to provide his soloists (and audience) with easily recognisable materials of a kind that classically-trained musicians would find more congenial for free imitation and development in musical conversation. Not that anything is free under Stockhausen. The imitation and transformation régime was laid out in a number of study scores resembling Turing machines (the plus-minus scores), imaging procedures treating freely chosen musical objects in the manner of microscope specimens that can be moved in and out of focus, or up and down the co-ordinates of hearing, in whole or in part.

Aesthetically it may come as a surprise to think of Stockhausen's Hymnen as belonging to a tradition of radio drama. But the reality is not so strange, and Hymnen shares this heritage not only with musique concrète but also with Berio and the neo-realists such as Cage whose chance compositions are a calculated rejoinder to the power of recording. The world of radio drama is a world of interior monologue. It is the same world of memory as that of reading a novel. The logic of any narrative event or argument is somebody else's interior monologue. Either you enter into that perception of events or you hitch a ride on it and find an alternative interpretation that fits what you want to discover. Art is like that. There is nothing special or novel in the underlying idea that the tape or the radio or the interactive CD inhabits a different world, or parallel universe, and that what we make of that information defines our interior world.

But we all know too that the world through the looking-glass is one where time runs differently or not at all and normal distinctions no longer obtain. It is true of all looking-glass worlds, whether it be Orpheus's silver screen, or Lewis Carroll's mirror over the mantelpiece, or your neighbour's wide-screen video, or the games computer arcade at a motorway service station. In all of these worlds things are not what they seem: they change shape and assume different, sometimes menacing identities. In Hymnen the national anthems that act as navigational beacons are liable to slip, slide and change from moment to moment. In television we know it as 'morphing': Constable Odo turns into a hatstand, a thermos flask into an unspeakable alien. We observe real-life morphing in speeded-up nature films where a pupating caterpillar dances a jig and changes into a butterfly, or a dead mouse on the sand evaporates in a flurry of maggots to become a scrap of carpet. We listen in fascination to a Rory Bremner monologue as it mutates seamlessly through a succession of famous voices in a melody of personality changes. In Jonathan Harvey's Mortuos plango we hear the timbre of a boy's voice transformed digitally into a bell, echoing Shakespeare's line 'Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang' which in turn derives its poetic force as William Empson reminds us in Seven types of ambiguity from the fact that in poetry we do not confirm words such as 'choirs' or 'birds' in their literal meanings but interpret them as multiple images capable of oscillating from one meaning to another.

One's immediate response to a work of music with national anthems as major characters is to think conflict, conflict-resolution, peace, love, the sixties - and leave it at that. But its roots go much deeper into the art and film of the 20th century, from the fantastic visual anamorphisms of Meliès to the collages of Picasso, Braque and Schwitters, to the frottages of Max Ernst. Stockhausen himself has spoken (in Jonathan Cott, Stockhausen: conversations with the composer, New York, 1973) of the visual artist's powers of illusion and in particular of Jasper Johns's painterly transformations of the map of the United States and the Stars and Stripes; also of Robert Rauschenberg's ability to create new associations from juxtaposing the most unlikely objects: a tyre, a stuffed goat. In many ways Hymnen can be seen as applying the techniques of these artists, - the incorporation of 'real' objects into the art work, the deliberate distressing and distortion of the familiar, - to musical objects which have equally strong powers of association. The question is whether the object is simply pasted into the art work for superficial effect, like a newspaper cutting in a cubist composition, or whether it is treated as part of the structure. It is interesting that the scientific community should have a particular fondness for the art of Escher and Dali, both of whom transform objects of everyday reality into paradox by a combination of sharply focused imaging and a deep understanding of the sciences of perception. It allows Escher to draw a hand drawing a hand drawing the first hand, or Dali to transform a classical Madonna and Child into an ear: instead of simple juxtaposition for ironic effect, as in a collage, you have a representation that allows the viewer to experience images in continuous transformation. Hymnen is closer to Dali than Schwitters, its poetry is through-composed metamorphosis and not simply cut and stick.

Thirty years on, one can now view Hymnen as a significant continuation of those voice recognition researches of the 1950s. In the first electronic studies a start is made on the synthesis of voice sounds; in Gesang der Jünglinge synthesised speech sounds are combined with the sound of a boy's singing voice; in Kontakte the focus changes to the acoustics of materials and how one can be transformed into another; now with Hymnen the composer is addressing the question of analysis and synthesis of meaningful musical statements, the equivalent of Meyer-Eppler's concern with the deconstruction and re-integration of meaningful speech. (Incidentally, the formal structure of Stockhausen's cantata Momente is based on a similar agenda, but expressed in live vocal and instrumental rather than electronic terms.)

SO ALTHOUGH Hymnen has come to be acknowledged as 'electronic and concrete music', in effect resolving the old antinomies between Paris and Cologne, it should be understood that the composer's purpose is no less rigorous for that. In fact a national anthem is the perfect example of a Schaefferian 'musical object' for transformational analysis: it is a composition of limited length having a distinct identity; it is music symbolizing nationhood and capable of triggering all kinds of emotional responses; it is also music that functions as a communication signal both at a live event and on radio. All of this allows us to see Stockhausen's musical interests in Hymnen in terms of the wider issue of information science through the 1950s and 1960s as exemplified in the researches of figures such as Max Mathews, Hiller and Isaacson, John von Neumann and others. This was a joint investigation into the deconstruction and reformulation of coherent musical sentences, and it focused quite deliberately on national anthems and folk melodies as sources of the basic units of musical speech. Among papers presented at the Fall 1966 San Francisco Joint Computer Conference (Music by Computers, Heinz von Foerster and James W. Beauchamp (eds), New York, 1969) is one by Max Mathews and L. Rosler of Bell Labs in which examples are presented of the United Kingdom military anthem 'The British grenadiers' being transformed by a process of analysis and interpolation into the corresponding US marching song 'When Johnny comes marching home', and a second example entitled 'International lullaby' in which a familiar Schubert melody is translated 'by means of time-varying weighted averages of frequency and duration functions' into a pentatonic Japanese melody. Musically these examples are unbelievably banal: they have no aesthetic merit whatsoever, and the barren Music IV square-wave sonorities in which they are recorded are equally bereft of taste or invention. The whole point of the exercise lies in the transformation process of one melody into another. So one can see Hymnen in this context, a major-length tape composition dating from exactly the same period and sharing exactly the same intellectual premisses as the Mathews/Rosler paper, as a magisterial response from the German musical and intellectual tradition to a US cold war agenda of speech recognition and translation, the difference being that whereas the US effort is focused on one thing only (the process) and is intentionally lacking in aesthetic or human interest, from the same starting-point Stockhausen has generated an extraordinary musical composition that also comprehensively addresses underlying issues of melody synthesis by interpolation and substitution programming.

The characters in the dramatic landscape of Hymnen are national anthems. Some are relatively familiar: those of the USA, France, Britain, Germany, Austria and Russia for instance; others are less familiar, those from African nations: Egypt, The Gambia. There is a moment of tension when the Horst Wessel-Lied unexpectedly appears, and in one of several interruptions of the musical flow the composer, in his role as the Voice, is heard to observe that despite its painful associations the Nazi rallying song is also part of the national heritage: it is (only) a memory ('Es ist eine Erinnerung'). These anthems with their familiar historical and cultural associations meet and interact, and from time to time they seem to exchange identities or merge to produce hybrid offspring. The audience follows this celestial debate as it were from a distance. Stockhausen has often spoken of his experience of flying for hours on end over America in the late 1950s with his ear pressed to the window, listening to the subtle changes of colour and rhythm within the propeller sound, and the example of long-distance flying is a helpful guide to the timescale of a work where instead of modulating from key to key the music travels from continent to continent, a movement expressed as a change in musical perspective from anthem to anthem - though a journey that begins as in this case with the 'Internationale' and ends with the Swiss anthem is one that starts from a music that represents everywhere but nowhere and ends at a place that is politically neutral, a point of no return.

THE WORK'S grand scale too is closer to the fifties than the sixties: one thinks of the huge tapestries of Jackson Pollock and the monumental canvases of Robert Motherwell as well as the vast prairies of the films of John Ford. However the spirit and atmosphere of Stockhausen's cinemascopic soundscapes from Hymnen to the present day in his more recent tape compositions Unsichtbare Chöre ('Invisible Choirs') and Orchester-finalisten ('Orchestra finalists') are also reminiscent of the surreal dance interludes of the Gene Kelly musicals of the fifties, or the ballet sets of the same period by Noguchi where the world is a flat plain with lines converging on the horizon, dotted with silent cactus-like figures out of Henry Moore and Hans Arp that cast long shadows in the twilight - or even the planetary landscape of Altair 4 in the film Forbidden planet, or the alien sets on to which Captain Kirk and his crew beam down in the original series of Star trek. Nor is the landscape entirely bleak either: at times the listener is transported into a sketch by Saul Steinberg where a thumbprint becomes a grizzled face, and a french curve a mysterious cloud in the sky. A few years ago the BBC mounted a performance of Stockhausen's Third region of Hymnen with orchestra at the Barbican in London, and in this region dominated by the Russian anthem (realised on the WDR studio's customised Synthi-100, by the way) one is able to hear Stockhausen connecting with the spirit and timescale of Bruckner and Mahler, as wll as with the humour of Beethoven (of the Variations on 'God save the king').

So how does one find one's way through such a musical landscape? How does one listen to a conventional symphony? There the instruments and tempos are your points of reference and themes and key changes the variables; here the anthems are your guide and what one might call 'ways of hearing' the variables. The anthems are glimpsed, then hidden; stretched and compressed in time; moved up and down in pitch; suffled, interwoven, overlaid, pulverised, sliced and recombined. From time to time the musical fabric is ripped asunder; at other times you hear the sound of your own ears ringing. Listen out for the fast events in the midst of the very slow, and the unchanging elements within enormous turbulence. Listen out for the choir that suddenly freezes in mid-chord, the harmony slowly stretched and pulled apart as if on a gigantic rack. Listen too for the period of calm where the composer imagines himself once again as a boy, lying under a tree, listening to the sound of a small airplane circling overhead.

And all of this music is handmade, and the quality and intricacy of the manipulations has to be heard to be believed. If in one sense Hymnen represents the high point of radiophonic composition, in a great many other senses it represents a peak of radiophonic dramatic art that radio itself has never fully achieved. From 1956 Stockhausen's tape compositions have been realised in four or more channels: twenty years before the brief rise and fall of quadraphonic recording, and thirty years before home theatre surround-sound, still an arguably inferior technology. The work's nearest technical antecedents are Fantasound, the original multi-channel system developed for the Walt Disney classic Fantasia, and the sound system designed by Philips for Varèse's Poème électronique at the Brussels World Fair of 1957. Stockhausen's electronic works from Gesang onward are not only technically superior but musically incomparably richer than anything that went before.

In the final part of Hymnen, Region IV, the clouds lift and the sense of landscape returns more powerfully. Stockhausen has expressed a liking for the films of Antonioni, whose Blow-up expresses a kindred fascination with the possibilities of discovery in the technical enlargement of mundane images; it is possible to hear in the composer's voice calling 'Ma-ka!' an echo also of the search for the lost girl in Antonioni's L'avventura: 'An-na!' Here too we feel closer to the Varèse of Déserts and Poème, another kindred spirit and almost a father figure. The music comes down to earth, the stillness invaded by dense sounds resembling a jumbo jet just over our heads, undercarriage at the ready.