Perfect Sound Forever

Karlheinz Stockhausen's Influence
on Today's Electronic Music

Stockhausen conducting
Photo courtesy of ECM Records

by Holger Czukay (August 1997)

He is so incredibly German. If you listen to the music of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen you can hardly believe that such a man of the old school and with such a sense for innovations of the musical language had nevertheless influenced the young electronic wizzards' community of the nineties with their often uncomplicated methods regarding music as an endless dance environment. And he never became a fan of popular music in general to my knowledge.

Why should he?

After World War II, some advanced composers were going to leave the world of conventional instruments and started to make recordings with maintanance devices from the radio stations. They wanted to reach out for sounds nobody had heard before. And also it was for the first time that nobody was needed to perform this music. It was electronically built up in several layers and could only be heard through tape machines. The two centers of this development were the radio stations in Milan, Italy and in Cologne, Germany. Before there were only electric amplified instruments around like the electric guitar or the electric organ, still being played more or less conventionally like classical instruments. And there was a growing need for these new sounds especially from the film industries. Yet during the war Oscar Sala had built the trautonium which became an important device in some of Alfred Hitchcock's movies and there was this Russian sound inventor and creator Leon Theremin who had constructed a special electronic instrument about the same time out of a radio set and which was used in some of Jack Arnold's B-movies I think (e.g. Tarantula).

But apart from these "musical outsiders" as I like to call them with my greatest respect, the main direction was defined by heavy weight composers like Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez or John Cage. When I was a pupil at school I switched on the radio every Tuesday and Thursday night at 11 p.m. to hear what was behind this far out and often intellectually overloaded music. Somehow Stockhausen had managed to stick out among all others. There was obviously more to find out than just some or other bizarre sounding effects.

It was around 1958 when he visited the conservatory in Duisburg where I attended to take some composition lessons. Stockhausen was giving a public lecture about what was new going on on the musical battlefield. For the first time I heard electronic music from a tape. To me, it sounded like flashing toilets in outer space and the whole audience was laughing. Everyone had probably the same sort of imagination and couldn't get it together as being music which we were listening to. I remember very well how he reacted and how he had remarked that he had also seen people laughing when they were involved in a heavy car accident. For me, it sounded strange and exciting at the same time. But how could I "manufacture" these strange sounds myself? That was for me the most important question which I had to solve sooner or later. It obviously required a special knowledge and also money to get hold of these special machines. All of a sudden a man sitting beside me raised his hand and said to Mr. Stockhausen: "Sir, I think you do all these weird sounds for giving us a shock and out of this situation you are going to make a lot of money, am I right?" Stockhausen replied that he did these "experiments" just for musical reasons. He didn't need the money as he had married a rich wife. My alarm clocks were shrill ringing and from this moment on I knew I had to stay close to Karlheinz Stockhausen. Maybe he had to offer some more good advice which I urgently needed to make my way as a composer, too.

It was amazing to see how he had organized live set-ups. Let's take his piece "Microphonie I" which he had composed in 1966. Four musicians were standing at a huge tam-tam* with some "creation tools" and a microphone in their hand. The tam-tam was prepared at parts with chalk or colophony** so that a hard paper bucket for example could scratch upon the chalk- or colophony field. Or an electric razor was another device which created a rich world of sounds, when it was touching the surface of the tam-tam. Two microphones was scanning the different sound areas of the tam-tam and got connected with 2 Maihak W49 radio play Eq's, passive filters with a strong cutting characteristics(years later I was able to get hold of them at an undertaker's shop). Stockhausen was sitting in the audience at a little mixer and created something like a "tam-tam live dub mix". If you are able to attend such a performance these days, it still would sound completely up to date. Such a thing together with a right DJ could perfectly fit into the end of the nineties.

Or let's face one of his electronic masterpieces "Kontakte". I've heard from other DJ's that they have made performances with this piece of music going along with rhythm tracks and so did I. Of course such a piece is strongly thought out and entirely composed and in the composer's view, it shouldn't be regarded just as another effect bank. But this music can be heard in so many different ways and not only in a concert hall with darkened lights and the ears rotating like radar antennas that not a tiny bit is going to be overheard. In order to make a naked electronic music event more live and adequate, Stockhausen additionally composed a score for percussionists, so that the electronic music and the musicians came closer to the audience this way. Imagine, this was in 1960 and 37 years later, we don't have any difficulties in linking to completely other stuff from "foreign" musical worlds in order to find out how rich our possibilities of performing can be. I can hear the warning voices stating that everything can be brought down to a cheap effect. Yes, it can. But if we get only even one good example which proves the contrary it makes it all worthwhile.

It was in the year 1967 when I had a job as a music teacher when I heard that Karlheinz Stockhausen was giving a performance of his new created piece "Kurzwellen"(short waves) in Bremen. Early in the afternoon I went to Bremen so that I could also listen to the rehearsal. Five musicians were equipped each with a short wave receiver and some additional instruments. Again they got linked with a small mixer and the famous Maihak W49 filters. Everybody had a little "score" in which I could read an arrangement of the signs +, - and 0. It seemed to look like a composition directory to me. The musicians were searching on the radio for some short wave specific in sound and rhythm, keeping it in tune for a while, playing with their "ordinary" instruments and again searching for another sound signal coming from the radio. Meanwhile Stockhausen was mixing and giving treatments following his score and it turned out to become a concert of a, let's say "advanced ambience" category. This all happened one year before CAN was born!

It was years later. I was about to take off from CAN in order to follow my own nose when I phoned Karlheinz Stockhausen up. I wanted to see him again after all these years. First he said he didn't have time, but then he changed his mind : "come for dinner tonight". We were talking about his influence on the young music scene in general and I mentioned to him how important his ideas have been to me . CAN had been without a singer for some time and I told him how unreplacable the short waves had become to us, looking for a singer or other material coming out of the radio.Today you would probably make a download from the internet. And that his "Kurzwellen" piece had become such an important key event, especially for me. Karlheinz replied that this piece got released on a record, but as the record company didn't sell more than 3 discs in one year they wanted to take it off the catalogue. This made him go to Hannover, the place where the record company was situated and as he said he was fighting 'like a lion' to make this piece remain in the catalogue.

He has been a real good mother to his music I think. He gave me all his records when we said goodbye. He wrote the following notice into the "Kurzwellen" sleeve : "Dear Holger, this is apparently my most important record and you should say that to everybody. Cordially, Karlheinz Stockhausen."

* A big and heavy cymbal/gong. Stockhausen's had a diameter of 1.5 meters I think, coming from China

** The material which a violinist is contacting his bow to before he starts playing so that he is able to create a tone. Needle trees are producing it I suppose.

Also see our other tributes to Stockhausen:
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