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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 11, No. 3

Contact with Stockhausen

by Réjean Beaucage / December 12, 2005

Version française...

Many observers of the music scene consider Karlheinz Stockhausen the greatest living composer. In the early fifties, he led the post-serial avant-garde, along with Pierre Boulez. Stockhausen developed the idea of serialism, pushing it to the point where he created the super-formula. This giant concept governs works such as his twenty-nine-hour opera cycle Licht (1977-2003) and each of the highly varied segments that make up the work. He was a pioneer of electronic music (Studie I, 1953), mixed music (Kontakte, 1959-60), spatial orchestral music, (Gruppen, for three orchestras, 1955-57), intuitive music (Aus Den Sieben Tagen, 1968), and many more. His catalogue contains over 200 works.

Stockhausen turned seventy-seven on August 22, 2005. LSM talked with him in early September, mainly aboutKontakte, his work for piano, percussion and tape, to be presented this month by the SMCQ (Société de musique contemporaine du Québec).

LSM: Surprising as your early Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces, 1952) may have been for the first audiences, they were nevertheless works of a composer who was also a pianist. Then, in 1953, you didStudie I, followed byStudie II in 1954, both studies that already demonstrated an astounding mastery of the apparatus needed for constructing what was then the very new medium of electronic music.

KS: When composing these works, I wanted to organize all the various sounds according to predetermined proportions. Based on this, it was normal to "compose" the timbres (klangfarben) as well. I had already done a first study in concrete musici in Paris in 1952--a very simple thing, based on piano sounds that I had cut up, transposed, and so on. After that, I was able to begin working with pure sound at the Nordwestdeutsche Rundfunk (NWDR) electronic studio in Cologne. I understood what you could do with sinusoidal waves thanks to Professor Meyer-Eppler of Bonn University, with whom I studied. He taught phonetics and acoustics and had already written a very important book on the production of electric sounds, Elektrische Klangerzeugung [1949]. I understood that instrumental and vocal sounds are built on partials [harmonic sounds].

LSM: What strikes us most, especially when listening to the electronic version of Kontakte (1959-60), is the strange beauty of these sounds--totally new at the time you invented them. I don't think you meant to make "beautiful music" when you composed the Klavierstücke, but what about Kontakte?

KS: Well, I'm the one who did it, and of course at the time I wasn't basing myself on any tradition. You can't change the timbres of a piano, but for Kontakte I manufactured the sounds and, naturally, I used those that pleased me most. Still, there is a certain resemblance in Kontakte to familiar timbres--like percussive timbres. From the start I aimed at synthesizing abstract and concrete sounds. "Abstract sounds" sound like nothing we know of, whereas "concrete sounds" remind us of metal, wood, strings, and skin. Kontakte is therefore a synthesis of abstract and concrete.

LSM: There are two versions of Kontakte--one for tape only (four-track), the other a mixed version, with a percussionist and pianist added. Had you decided on doing two versions from the start?

KS: Yes. I began by working at the Cologne Radio, with three percussionists who performed three variations of the music on tape, but the result wasn't very convincing. Then I wrote out all the details of a score for pianist and percussionist that became the second version. The work was created in May 1960 and I felt it would be better if it weren't heard only from loudspeakers but also from two musicians with whom I'd worked for several years--David Tudor on piano and Christoph Caskel on percussion.

LSM: How was it received?

KS: Well, half-and-half, as usual. No, in fact there were more people who didn't like it. Moreover, they were most unpleasant to me about it. For example, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, the extremely influential composer and president of the German section of the International Society for Contemporary Music, passed by me on leaving the hall and said, "Scheißen Stücke!"-- "A piece of shit!"--I was really hurt.

LSM: And yet it represented such a great advance for music. The SMCQ has presented the mixed version three times so far, in 1978, 1983, and 1993. It sounds new each time we hear it.

KS: Especially with good performers! Currently I have three duos who perform it and who are extraordinary.

LSM: Are you planning to record them?

KS: No, because we already have the Kontarsky and Caskel from 1968ii, and I don't want to make several recordings of works that are already available. There's this duo, for example, a Polish percussionist and a Korean pianist. They're so good that I gave them first prize last year at the end of my summer course.

LSM: I know, having consulted several of your scores, that your writing can be rather difficult for a performer to decipher.

KS: That depends only on the time one wants to devote to it. On the contrary, I think I'm very clear . . . A work like Kathinka's Gesang [1982-83, for flute--see our October issue] requires an excellent performer to spend, say, three or four months working on it. Kathinka Pasveer, who gave the first performance, rehearsed it for six months! Now she can teach it to other flautists, some of whom are from Canada, like Marie-Hélène Breault, who came last summer and is returning next summer to perform the work. This year was the eighth session of my summer courses. We had 134 excellent musicians from 20 countries. There were some 30 composers, over twenty performers, a dozen musicologists and some music-lovers. And the nine musicians who teach here are really fantastic! I'm taking advantage of the opportunity to invite Canadian musicians to come and see us, especially singers.iii

LSM: You write very specific details in your scores that might be impossible to play--for example to place a chord on the piano with different dynamics for each finger . . . If I've understood correctly, you feel that the performer must try to render the details asked for to the utmost extent of his or her capacities, and this is what makes a satisfying performance. It that right?

KS: That's only half the story . . . The other half if that, if you really want to perform these works, you have to study them with those who have already done so and have spent many months with me for this purpose. I want to establish a new learning tradition, where young performers learn from the masters because scores can in fact become undecipherable. They need to be demonstrated, and that's why we have teaching sessions every summer. Some works are conceived so as to give the performer more room for interpretation. For example, last August I did a new recording of Für Kommende Zeiten (For Times to Come, 1968-70) with the Group for Intuitive Music from Weimar. The compositions are all text, no notes, and this may appear to leave infinite freedom of choice to the performer; when you work on them, however, you realize that the freedom has its bounds, because, behind the text is a vision of what would be the best possible interpretation, and that's what you have to aim for.

LSM: There's another cycle of fifteen text compositions in intuitive music, Aus Den Sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days, 1968). Can we make a connection between those seven days and the seven operas of the Licht cycle (Light--The Seven Days of the Week, 1977–2003)?

KS: In several of the Licht scenes there are moments in which the musicians have several choices and must make individual decisions. This is the case in the flute and percussion version of Kathinka's Gesang, for example. The six percussionists must follow a certain direction and perform exact actions, but they can also make decisions that will lead them in one direction or another, and they make these decisions freely. That's a typical example.

LSM: Also, you very often call on the performer to give the music a theatrical element. Why did you decide to introduce this element?

KS: This dates from Kreuzspiel (1951). I've always paid particular attention to movement: how to come onstage, how to leave, how to place a group of instrumentalists, and so on. There are several levels in Kreuzspiel. The oboist has to sit on a podium 140 centimetres high, and the percussionists also have to adopt certain special positions, and so on. Kontakte is another good example. The movements of the pianist and percussionist, who go to centre-stage then back to their instruments, are all written in. I think that when we attend a musical performance the visual aspect is as important as what we hear, it ia art too and that aspect must also be composed.

LSM: Certainly, your greatest achievement in this respect is the Licht opera cycle. Are you planning to have a complete performance of this seven-day cycle?

KS: Yes. At the moment two organizations want to do it. The European Arts Centre of Hellerau in Dresden wants to mount the whole cycle in 2008. Udo Zimmermann will conduct. Also the committee responsible for organizing the 2010 European Capital of Culture has announced its intention of doing the same.

LSM: You've already said that a number of your compositions were inspired by dreams--Helikopter-Streichquartett (Helicopter String Quartet, 1992-93), for example.

KS: That's true of many of my works.

LSM: Do you think of yourself as a surrealist composer, then?

KS: I recently gave six concerts in Norway, where I performed Mittwochs-Abschied (Wednesday Farewell, 1996), a work of electronic and concrete music, and I presented it as a music that was not only surreal, but transreal, in the sense that it creates expectations of events that could happen, but which turn into something completely different, strange, but it isn't the strangeness that is transreal; it is the miraculous nature of the musical transformation. Of course, there's a lot of surrealism in my music.

LSM: You began a new cycle after finishing Licht in 2003--Klang (Sound). It's surprising that you haven't used this title before!

KS: Yes. In fact I'm surprised myself ! With Licht, I concentrated for seventeen years on the meaning of light in music, based on the seven days of the week (each of which has its own colour), the seven planets of Antiquity, the constellations, and different appearances of the divine. Finally, I asked myself why, as a musician, I was so interested in the meaning of light when I should be interested in sound! That's what I'm doing now, but based on the twenty-four hours of the day. Last May 5, Ascension Day, we performed the first part of the cycle in the Milan cathedral: Ora Prima, for organ, soprano, and tenor.

LSM: Isn't this your first work for organ?

KS: Yes. The work was commissioned for performance in the cathedral, and I said to myself that it would be good to learn how to use this instrument. It sounds really good! The only problem is the eighteen seconds of reverberation in the cathedral . . . I had to find a technical procedure for letting the audience hear the music and voices clearly enough. I now have another commission from the cathedral for Ora Seconda. It will be a piece for two harps, since I'm really keen to explore this problem of long reverberation. I'd like to find new ways of colouring sound by using this reverberation. I've almost finished the third hour of the cycle, which is for piano only. I'm using the piano's natural reverberation. The subtitle is "Natural Durations for Piano." It's almost a teaching work on using the piano without the metronome beat, since I don't specify the length of the notes, which should be the natural length of time for the instrument. It's a cycle in itself that will complete a whole program. I've already finished fourteen pieces in the cycle, out of a total of twenty-four.

LSM: It's fairly clear that time is among your major preoccupations. Are you also planning a cycle on minutes, and another on seconds?

KS: Yes, yes, it's true. I only hope I live long enough after Klang to do it.

LSM: Are we talking of sixty pieces, each a minute long?

KS: No, I'm not such a pedagogue as all that. It's a theme. Just as Ora Prima lasts some forty minutes, and Ora Seconda between twenty-five and thirty minutes. I'm not interested in the concept of time in chronometric terms..

LSM: I know that you're mainly interested in time on a grand scale: the rhythm of the planets, the stars . . .

KS: That's right.

LSM: You've also talked about the complex polyrhythms of the human body. In the end, you're composing "naturalist" music.

KS: Yes--as I said, the subtitle of the third hour of Klang is "Natural Durations for Piano." These durations are determined by the intensity of attack, which differs with each performer. The durations are physical and, so, natural.

LSM: Since Kontakte (1959-60) you've done many works that mix acoustic and electronic instruments. What do you think of the fact that symphony orchestras are playing the same way today as they did in the nineteenth century?

KS: Yes, they need to work... But you cannot speak anymore about "the musicians". There are only a handful of exceptional soloists who, for a long time, will show other human beings what can be achieved with the body. But orchestras are based on the concept of many people playing together. This is an outmoded concept that takes absolutely no account of the technological advances that could solve the basic problem, which is to be heard. We don't need to have so many musicians playing the same thing.

LSM: You've replaced them with synthesizers . . .

KS: But even to have the typical effect of a violin section takes only three musicians, and you can multiply this to get an extraordinary sound. We don't need 120 musicians; it's ridiculous. I can do the same thing with four loudspeakers!

LSM: What do you see as your contribution to the history of music?

KS: Oh . . . I was an explorer. I discovered a lot of acoustical and musical processes and new forms. Each of my pieces is a new form, a new scheme, and that's what I continue doing. I think a composer must be an artist above all, by which I mean not to let oneself be drawn into making music for one's daily break, to make money, but first and foremost to develop his art in breadth and depth. I believe we're responsible for the continuing evolution of the language of music, and this is the most important aspect of our work. And I think I can say that I've worked very hard in that direction.

LSM: Are you still working more than eight hours a day?

KS: Yes, although it depends on where I am. When I'm at home, it's usually nine hours a day.

LSM: The SMCQ has presented your music forty-seven times since its foundation in 1966, which makes you the most frequently played composer in its programs.

KS: I remember my visits to the SMCQ well. Maryvonne Kendergi used to come and see me and we would plan the programs together. When I was there, I spent a lot of time with Canadian composers and I knew some from the times of Messaien's class. Serge Garant and others were in Paris at the same time as I was, and I saw them again in Montreal. But how is Maryvonne, is she well?

LSM: Yes. She turned ninety a few weeks ago.

KS: Please give her my best wishes! Tell her how much I appreciated the work she did.

No sooner said than done! *

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

i Pierre Schaefer « discovered » musique concrète in 1948 in the studios of the Radio Télévision Française. Stockhausen's Étude (1952), Studie I (1953) et Studie II (1954) are available, with Gesang des Jünglinge (1955-56) and Kontakte (1959-60) on « Elektronische Musik », CD No. 3 of the complete works of the composer, which he publishes himself (Stockhausen-Verlag : www.stockhausen.org).

ii Available on CD #6 of Stockhausen-Verlag. A 1960 version by David Tudor and Christoph Caskel is also available from Wergo (6009-2).

iii All information on these summer courses is available on the composer's website: www.stockhausen.org

Second concert of the SMCQ's 40th season
Tuesday, November 15, 2005, at 8 p.m.
Redpath Hall, McGill University
514 843-9305

Soloists: D'Arcy Philip Gray (percussion) and Brigitte Poulin (piano)

Philippe Hurel, Tombeau in memoriam Gérard Grisey (2000), for vibraphone and piano; Geof Holbrook, [new work] Premiere performance;
Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kontakte (1959-60), for piano, percussion and tape
Photo : Kathinka Pasveer
Photo : Bruno Massenet
Stockhausen, Mtl, 1971, photo : Bruno MassenetAvec Raôul Duguay
Photo : Bruno Massenet
Avec Maryvonne Kendergi, photo : Bruno Massenet

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