Perfect Sound Forever

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Photo courtesy of Stockhausen-Verlag, thanks to James Stonebraker

Interview with Iara Lee for MODULATIONS
Introduction by James Wesley Johnson
(January 1999)

On the eve of a new millenium it seems fitting that composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, so larger than life, comments on music, the cosmos and his dreams for a spiritual future. His own best spokesman, he describes the theoretical underpinnings of his work with a simple clarity which belies its complexity. He conveys his sense of awe and wonderment at the inifite potentials of a universe he never tires of analyzing down to its smallest units and reshaping in forms he molds from a shifting perspective. Because he's always experimenting, Stockhausen can be offputting, but anyone who enters into Stockhausen's world with a truly open, receptive, perhaps even submissive attitude will never be disappointed by the anathema of predictability. Those who "know" what to expect from him are destined to be surprised by further mutations. Herewith, Stockhausen gives a partial introduction to his music. Listening to any of the pieces he mentions here will provide the rest, but let the reader beware: it's best not to talk, chew gum or smoke while the music's playing.

Iara Lee interviewed Stockhausen in Frankfurt in August 1997 for the Modulations film- while a brief excerpt of this interview appears in the film, this entire interview is an unpublished exclusive.

Q: What have you been working on recently?

A. I spent most of the year in the studio for electronic music at a radio station in Cologne or in other studios where I produced new works with all kinds of electronic apparatus. And during the last two years I was contacted regularly by musicians of so-called pop groups from England, Canada, America, who asked me to make comments on their music. They sent me tapes, cassettes. And the BBC from London did six programs with Stockhausen's comments on the new techno musicians. And in the last month, for example, I was asked by the most popular weekly magazine in Germany to comment on six works of the most famous pop groups. So I did that. I analyzed their works. And the research in the field of transformation of samples interests me very much. So there's a universal development going on. And I'm always interested when other musicians are trying to discover new worlds of sound.

Q: One of your comments is that a lot of times it's too repetitive?

A. Yes. I think it's more interesting to create music which transforms, shapes figures, so that one can follow a process. Repetition is based on body rhythms, so we identify with the heartbeat, or with walking, or with breathing. This has been the tradition for thousands of years of basic musical songs, tunes. But since the middle of the century in particular, the music has become very irregular in rhythm. And the invention of transformations of certain figures has become the most important in musical composition. I think it's simply more interesting than repetitive technique.

Q: You mean non-linearity?

A. No, what is important is neither linearity or non-linearity, but the change, the degree of change from something that doesn't move to other events with different tempos in particular. Since I started composing I have always worked with series of tempos, even superimposed the music of different groups of musicians, of singers, instrumentalists who play and sing in different tempos simultaneously and then meet every now and then in the same tempo. I like this multi-layered music.

Q: When did you realize the future of music lay in electronic sounds?

A. 1953. I was working in the studio for Musique Concrete in Paris in 1952, when I was studying with Olivier Messian in Paris, at the age of 23. I was allowed to work in the studio and realized "Etude Concrete", it still exists on record. In 1953 I was called by a gentleman at the Cologne radio station, Mr. Eimeit, to work in the studio which opened in May '53. And since then I have been working all the time in the studio, and I became the artistic director in 1963 for fourteen years. Since '77 I continued working regularly at the studio. Even last year I worked there. Then next year I will work again four months in this studio. But I also work in other studios.

I knew that the synthesis of sound and space music would be the most important aspect of the music of our time and of the future, since '53. And with every work I have tried to expand my experience, moving sound and space, and finding new ways of superimposing different tempos and rhythms. In particular what is most important to me is the transformation of a sound by slowing it down, sometimes extremely, so that the inner of sound becomes a conceivable rhythm. And then even slow it down more, so that this rhythm becomes a large form, with sections. Or the other process that is important is that I compress longer sections of composed music, either found or made by myself, to such an extent that the rhythm becomes a timbre, and formal subdivisions become rhythm.

Q: How was it when you first started to create your own work?

A. (Pierre) Schaeffer gave me permission to work in the studio with a technician, but I've never worked with him. I analyzed a lot of sounds which I recorded in the Musee de L'Homme in Paris, sounds of instruments from all traditions of the planet. By analyzing them I became aware of the inner vibrations and the relations of the vibrations inside of the sound. And that gave me the idea to synthesize sound. But the first Etude Concrete was realized with sounds that I recorded, with transformed piano sounds. I prepared strings, and I hit the strings, and then I recorded that and cut off the head of the sounds and transposed these sounds in loops. And that gave me the possibility to obtain continuous sounds. Then from the continuous sounds, I cut them into different durations and sliced them together again. Superimposed them in different layers.

Q: So you were playing music without regular music instruments?

A. Yes. The process was to compose music in the studio and project it through loudspeakers. Many works I have composed are only for multiple channel tapes, or for traditional instruments, solo instruments, or groups of musicians. Even singers, and orchestra, which I transformed live by picking the sounds up with microphones. Sometimes a lot, like a mixture of 32 microphones. Then I fed these sounds into ring modulators and transmitted the ring-modulated sound simultaneously with the live sounds through a whole set of speakers which were arranged in an auditorium in circles around the public.

Or in other works I have also projected the sound in a cube of loudspeakers. The sound can move vertically and diagonally at all speeds around the public.

Q: Was it a problem to present the music effectively to live audiences? How did you manage this?

A. A spherical auditorium is a very special solution. One spherical auditorium was realized according to my suggestions in 1970, in Osaka, during the World's Fair, by a German architect, Barnemann. We worked together, and I made designs, and as a matter of fact, I worked for 183 days in Osaka, in this auditorium, performing my music with 21 soloists. There were nests for musicians all around the public. The public was sitting at the equator, almost in the middle of the space. And there were fifty speakers in ten circles, 8 circles above the public and 2 circles below the public. The public was sitting on a sound transparent platform, on cushions. And I'll never forget the first time I took the possibility to project sound every day for six or seven hours with special devices which were built for me. And I could make the sounds fly like birds, with all different speeds, in this space. Since then I have not had access to a spherical auditorium, because the one from Osaka was destroyed after the World's Fair. And now I have to work in other spaces which exist. But I still can produce very interesting space music...

I have composed several pieces which are performed outdoors, not only in the auditoria. For example, one work is called "Star Sound", which must be performed in a large park with five groups of instrumentalists placed in bushes. The public can walk during the performance. The work lasts about three hours. And I also use sound runners, who run from one group to another, singing or playing a portable instrument, and, by doing that, carrying a musical model from one group to another one. So they sing or play it for another group and then these musicians imitate what the sound runner brings. And then when he had a splendid, so to speak, new musical model, then it runs to another group. There are five runners running simultaneously in different configurations, and there's always a torch bearer running together with these sound runners. And it's very beautiful to see these torch runners in the night, running in a large park. The difference between the groups is about 100 yards, from one group to another. And those five groups are shaped in an oval shape. I've performed this in many different countries.

Q: You used the microphone as an instrument. How did you work with that?

A. You are aware of that? Already very early I thought of a microphone as a musical instrument, like a bow or like a percussion instrument, whatever you use. In "Microphony 1" I used microphones for the first time, which are held in the players' hands. And in this particular composition, "Microphone 1", I use a huge gong of about 5.5-foot diameter, a chinese gong. And the gong is excited with all kinds of materials: rubber, wood, metal, glass. And two musicians have microphones in their hands, and I've written a score which describes precisely the distance of the microphone from the surface of the tam-tam. And the rhythm (imitates rhythmic sounds)... Making such movements with the microphone over the surface of the tam-tam. And what is picked up with a mic is fed into two filters.

I also have two other musicians who sit in the middle of the hall. And there are speakers all around the public. And the sound which comes from the microphones is projected. The musicians in the hall can move the sounds, put on potentiometers, and distribute the sound with movements in the space. So the microphone is really an active instrument. And all the movements that can be made with a microphone are notated as the actions to make the tam-tam vibrate.

Q: Talk about your early studies of music and sound.

A. In 1953, when I started working in the studio for electronic music, I decided to study at the University of Bonn with Professor Meyer Eppler, communication science and information theory, phonetics in particular. So I analyzed a lot of sounds. I transcribed languages which I didn't know. This is part of the training. But also I learned that in all sciences, and in acoustics in particular, statistical behavior became very important. All information theory of that time was dealing with analysis of noises, for example, which have a statistical distribution of vibrations. Or chance operations which are used for games, etc. Physics was based on analysis of the statistical behavior of atomic elements. And this name, aleatoric technic, or aleatoric composition even, I brought into music.

I remember that my work (Song of the Youth's) electronic music from 1954 to '56, shows very clearly how layers of sound which are combined aleatorically can lead to results which we could never obtain with deterministic techniques. So, for example, I produced a layer of sounds with the syllables sung by a young boy and elements from an impulse generator with filtered noises. And three musicians would simultaneously follow sketches which I made for their movements. But what really happened simultaneously within a given length of time -- let's say within 20 seconds -- nobody knew from us. The result was then an aleatoric one. Then I superimposed even with multi-channel tape machines such layers and clouds of sound, whole explosions of sound, or masses of sound. Different masses of sound became important in musical composition. Later I applied this principle also to traditional instruments, like in my "Piano Piece 11," where the musician has 19 different groups of notes distributed on a large sheet. Wherever he looks is where he starts, and then he can combine the groups at random. Nevertheless, when he comes back to the same group the second time, he must transpose layers of the notated music, and whenever he reaches one group for the third time, he must stop. So there is a process of transformation, change in a combination that is for the aleatoric elements. And since that time I have used principles of composition until the present day, more or less. And I've combined it with deterministic structures.

Q: Does that aide creativity?

A. Yes, but what is more interesting is to find processes which are not imitating processes of nature. Let's take statistical behavior of elements in a social group, or leaves in a tree, or atoms in a given piece of metal, or atomic components of atoms, we find this everywhere. And it is interesting at the beginning, but in the long run one wants to create individual works which give us an insight into the possibilities, to combine elements which we have never heard before and never experienced before. That is much more important, rather than making something that is like other phenomena in nature. So probably after the first contact with these new means the computer can make naturally combinations up to an infinite number. The choice of what is interesting for us is the most important. And then you would see that's not too easy.

Q: Musicians become the editors.

A. Yes, well this is already the case in an electronic music studio. One experiments and has to choose always the best results. But what does that mean? So there is a personal sense of style for a given work -- I don't like a general style, but every work has its own style, and I want to create a style for every work. That is the most important, to make choices.

Q: Do you find that people are more open-minded to experimentation today?

A. I think so. The more people use modern means of communication, all kinds, they call this the media, the more they are interested in the possibilities. And when they encounter works of art which show that using new media can lead to new experiences and to new consciousness, and expand our senses, our perception, our intelligence, our sensibility, then they will become interested in this music. I felt very strongly during the last years that there's a real explosion going on. More and more interest of younger people in particular for my works. In particular, works of the last few years, because I do now what I want, what really interests me. I no longer limit myself. What concerns me is the means and performance possibilities, etc. And that is very interesting. Octophonic music now. My last work was performed in Leipzig last year, with 12 groups of loudspeakers distributed in the hall, so the response of the people was amazing. They were deeply touched, as if they'd entered into a world they had never dreamt of.

Q: This wasn't always the case, especially early on, right?

A. Yes, it was not easy the last forty-seven years, I must say. Whenever I felt happy about having discovered something, the first encounter, not only with the public, with other musicians, with specialists, etc, was that they rejected it. And the more I had been striving for something unknown, the more they thought this did not belong to the music, and it should not be supported, and all that. But I'm an adventurer. I like invention, I like discovery.

Q: Talk about your experience in working with silence.

A. Well, you know very well that other composers have monopolized, so to speak, on silence. And now even composers are proud of asking people to experience silent moments up to two or three minutes in a given piece of music. I have discovered silence in a structural way in the music of Webern, where sound and what we call a rest in music are related to each other, like in isorhythmic music in the medieval times. And this is very interesting if positive and negative are structurally related, and the silence is not just psychologically produced. So I have naturally expanded the sounds since the very first works with an orchestra, or let's say with a percussionist, or groups of three orchestras, and so on. But I always tried to expand also the relationship between sound which is absent and sound which is heard. So, the longer I was able to expand sounds without producing boring series of events, the more I prolonged also the duration of silences.

There's one work of piano music, for example, "Piano Piece #10", which lasts about 26 minutes. And it's true that at the beginning there's a very dense period of music about 2.5 minutes long which has all the musical material in extreme compression. And then, one by one, fragments of music occur and die out in resonances. The silences finally go up to about one minute, which is an extremely long time to make a minute musically interesting. So I discovered a new way to prepare for a certain duration of silence by what happens just before the silence, so that one can hear again, like an echo, the figures or structures before the silences. I think there is a very secret science of musical composition in knowing what one has to do before a silence in order to make the following silence meaningful. And I'm still trying to expand this relationship between something and nothing.

Q: So you see silence as something that can be controlled?

A. Yes, it must be mastered. As I say, this is a new secret science, to master the emptiness and turn it into something that is filled with sound and visual images. And we are just in the beginning of this new art. I wouldn't say that I completely mastered it, because I'm experimenting with it, and I make mistakes, and then I correct the mistakes. Nevertheless, that is meaningful. And I work with colored silences, which means I give... for example, when we are in a hall, there is always sound, some sound. It comes from the ventilation system, or whatever else it is. But in my composed music, I color the silences in different layers. So, for example, there is a silence, and then I take off one of the silent layers, and then I hear another silent layer. And then I take off that second one, and I hear a third silent layer. Because there is no absolute silence in the world. And I like to sometimes work with 3 or 4 layers of silences, of colored silences. And I give every one of these layers a different color through very soft mixtures of vibrations, which then are that particular silence. So silence is no absolute quality, but a relative quality.

Q: Do you still think society is sonically deaf, where everything is controlled by the visual?

A. It is true that the eyes dominate the ears in our time. The more simple the people, the more they are dominated by their visual world. And people who have learned to close the eyes, and to listen, experience another world, which is closed to many others. In this human situation, some artists, some musicians in particular, are very helpful because they concentrate the public on listening. One can do that, even through the sort of musical context. But with certain music, one cannot continue talking or smoking or eating. So most people then just shut off my music when it comes through the radio, because they feel it disturbs what they are used to doing when music is coming through loudspeakers or in public places. That is very good. Very slowly a few people come to discover the aural world, the world which comes through sound. And then they feel that this is far more spiritual than the world which comes through the eyes.

As a matter of fact, what we can see through the eyes is very limited, much more limited than what we can hear. Just the range of what we can perceive is far more developed in acoustics, and the precision of identifying the vibrations and the proportions, all the intervals, all the relationships between the vibrations of a spectrum. We musicians know much more. We are almost a thousand years ahead of the visual artist, because we have a very precise language of vibrations, proportions of vibrations, and all our measurements of rhythms and relationships between slow vibrations and fast vibrations in 20,000 cycles per second range are very developed in music.

I think in the long run listening will become more important. The visual invention obviously becomes very dull in the world nowadays, because shocks and changes can only be developed up to a certain limit, and then it doesn't matter what they show on screens, or whatever it is. It has an end in itself. But being quiet and meditating on sound is something completely different and will be discovered very soon by a lot of people who feel that the visual world doesn't reach their soul anymore.

Q: Young musicians nowadays incorporate glitches and impurities that used to be taken out.

A. If material of all kinds is combined in a balanced way, any kind of sound can be combined with any kind of noise, or, as you say, material that was considered traditionally as garbage. It's all a question of balancing, or harmony. And harmony means that the relationship between all the elements used in a composition is balanced, is good. So a noise is far more rough, it's far more unidentifiable as a pure note which I can imitate immediately with my voice or whistle, etc. The noises should be... not as numerous in a composition as sounds. But one can transform a sound into a noise with many different degrees, and noises into a sound. And that all of a sudden opens up our consciousness, and we think, "Ah, anything that I find in nature or in the world of machinery, it can become a musical sound when I transform it, and when I show that it can be combined with other sounds, and this can lead to music which includes practically everything that life offers as acoustical events, if in a given work of music it is balanced... the concern is the number of each element and the duration of each element, the intensity. The more simple and more weak a sound is, the more time it needs. More than loud elements and noisy elements. There's the art that is mystery.

Q: How do you see the dichotomy between noise and sound?

A. When I worked in the electronic music studio I was, as I said before, also studying phonetics. And in phonetics there is at the beginning only quantity, which means how many vibrations are superimposed, how close together they are in order to produce a voiceless consonant, a half-consonant, or a vowel. And when I started to study phonetics, I made a whole series of sounds between what we call "pure sounds", like sin-wave sounds, and spectra, which are harmonic spectra of overtones of harmonics. And on the other hand, colored noise, for example. So I used a series from one of these sound elements to another one in order to transform one into the other. That is very interesting to me.

I became aware that all sounds can make meaningful language. There's a tribe in Africa, the Xhosa; they make only clicks (imitates sound). So I used these clicks, and I had even to transcribe the language; I didn't know at all what it meant. Language is already extremely rich concerning all kinds of sounds. We can sneeze, we can bark, we can make or imitate all the sounds in a factory, traffic, animals, etc. And I became aware that this can all become musical material. Already after 22, 23 years I knew that the traditional limitation of musical sounds was finished and that we enter now a new era where everything, all the acoustic world, can be transformed into art. That is the point. So that in the future, when we walk through an airport or a large hall, what we hear is artfully shaped as sound, and not just a mixture of garbage. I've even proposed at a certain moment in my life to invent "sound swallowers" so that one could make certain sections in a city silent. There would be microphones everywhere with a computer. One produces the counter-wave of the sounds which are produced. And then, even if you speak, one cannot hear anything. And there should be only areas in a city where you can talk or scream, whatever you like, but in most of the parts there would be no sound, because there would be sound swallowers everywhere.

Q: What is the role of intuition in your work?

A. Intuition transforms. . . every normal action into something special that one doesn't know oneself. So I am a craftsman, I can start working with sounds, with apparatuses and find all sorts of new combinations. But when I want to create something that amazes me and moves me, I need intuition. I don't mean an intellectual idea. I need a sound vision, or I need to become involved, to come into a state where I do something without knowing why I do it. Very often everything else is in order, but then I touch my well-constructed music or section of music, and I change something; and as a matter of fact, I change what I thought was very well constructed, because I feel I must do that. And then something happens every now and then which is amazing and which is also for me unknown. Intuition comes, according to my own experience, from a higher world. It is an influence from the cosmos, into our human mind.

Q: So this involves a lot of mathematics?

A. No, mathematics is a mixture of brain work, and in the best results, of intuition. One needs to have an intuitive flash of light in order to find a new formula, which then can produce a lot of derivations and results. But everyone needs intuition, not only artists, if one wants to go beyond the normal animal nature that we have.

Q: So you're able to use this along with structured patterns?

A. Yes, my music is always a mixture of construction and intuitive moments which open the mental construction.

Q: How do people experience the music without hearing anything about it?

A. Up to now I have published 80 CDs which are available for people who want to hear this music. It's not the same as hearing the music in a concert performance or in a special auditorium with space music. Nevertheless, one can reach very far in listening to the same music many times, and reaching then into the depths of a given work. And I think if someone starts with this, he will more and more try to reach the same level of joy again, which is the result of discovering how the music is formed. So I'm not afraid about the future, because of the six or seven billion people who live nowadays on the planet, only a certain number will use this music which is available in order to make contact with the supra human world, with cosmic compositions, cosmic ways of experiencing the world. And music is the best medium for that.

Q: There's also word of mouth.

A. One will talk to another friend and say, "Hey, you must hear this. It has happened to me that I have had wonderful discoveries in listening to this work and to that work". And slowly a new public will grow on the planet, which is no longer the result of normal school education or concert subscriptions, but of personal contacts with other spirits who are diving into the depths of the best art music.

Q: Have you always been a universalist?

A. Yes. I think the universe is our real home, and here we are in a prison for a very limited time to learn, to study. But I would like to know, if possible, everything about the universe.

Also see our other tributes to Stockhausen:

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