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Stockhausen, pioneer of electronic music

German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was born on August 1928 and has been acknowledged as one of the great visionaries of 20th-century music. He is known for his pioneering work in electronic music and his use of spatiality and aleatory (controlled chance) in serial composition. His extensive work includes electronic music, solo instruments pieces, chamber music, choral and orchestral music and opera. In this article I will only mention a few of his most notable works.

Stockhausen started writing his series of nineteen Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces) in 1952 as a set of four small pieces, and composed the successive sets along many years. The length of these works vary from less than half a minute for Klavierstück III to around half an hour for Klavierstücke VI, X, XIII, and XIX. The pieces from XV onward are for the synthesizer or similar electronic instruments, which Stockhausen took for the natural successor to the piano.

Kontra-Punkte was first written in 1953 for ten instruments, and revised later several times. This work resolves contrasts among different instrumental timbres, as well as extremes of note values and dynamic levels, into a homogeneous ending texture. Heterogeneous timbres reduce gradually to the solo piano, widely fluctuating durations reduce to similar values, and wide-ranging dynamics reduce to a generally soft level.

Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths) is an electronic music work made in 1955–56 and is considered the first masterpiece of electronic music. It integrates electronic sounds with the human voice and shows the use of spatiality. It was originally in five-channel sound, and later reduced to just four channels, mixed to monaural and later to stereo for commercial recording release. As a continuation of the earlier work of Anton Webern, this piece serializes the pitch, duration, dynamics, and timbre of every electronic and vocal event.

Gruppen (Groups, 1955–57) is among the best-known compositions of Stockhausen. In this work a "group" is a number of notes with one or more common characteristics (dynamics, instrumental color, register, etc.), where "the properties of one group may only be understood by comparing them in degree of relationship with the other groups" and the importance of individual notes is relatively low. This composition introduced a new conception of musical time, with different rhythmic layers of different speeds in each one. Gruppen was written for three orchestras, each with its own conductor, spatially deployed to the left, front and right of the audience. The premiere took place on 1958, conducted by Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna, and Pierre Boulez.



Zyklus was composed in 1959 for one percussionist playing a circle of instruments around him, including marimba, vibraphone, cymbals, african drums and several others. The score is circular and the performer is free to start at any point and in any direction, left to right or right to left.

The composition Kontakte (Contacts, 1958–60) exists in two forms: for electronic sounds alone, and for electronic sounds, piano, and percussion. It was composed in four channels, with loudspeakers placed at the corners of a square surrounding the audience. With this work Stockhausen started to use the concept of moment form, a compositional approach also used in many later works, in which a narrative overall line is deliberately avoided, and the component moments are related by a nonlinear principle of proportions.

The cantata Momente (Moments) was written between 1962 and 1969, as a moment form with a rich mode of expression with voices and sounds: spoken and whispered language, crying, laughter, isolated syllables or phonemes, tongue clicks and screams. The choir members clap their hands, snap their fingers, stamp and shuffle their feet, and slap their thighs.



Momente consists of 30 sections called "moments" and designated by letters. There are eight M, seven K, eleven D, and four I moments. The M type stands for Melodie (melody), and scores mainly for the brass and solo soprano, with mixed pitches and noises and "random" rhythms. The K type stands for Klang (chord), and scores for percussion and men's voices, with a predominance of noises and periodic rhythms. The D type stands for Dauer (duration), and scores mainly for the electric organs and women's voices, with a predominance of pitches and syncopated rhythms. Finally the I type stands for indeterminate and is used to separate the other types of sections and to stand at the beginning and the end. Each of the 30 moments may show one "pure" type or include a slight influence from another type, or even a balance between several types.

Mikrophonie are two live-electronic works written in 1964 and 1965, where the microphone is used actively as a musical instrument.

Mikrophonie I for tam-tam, 2 microphones, 2 filters, and controllers, is an example of moment form, with 33 sections or moments, which can be ordered in a number of different ways, according to a connection scheme specifying the relationships between successive moments. Two percussionists play a large tam-tam while another pair of players uses hand-held microphones to amplify subtle details and noises, inflecting the sound through quick (and precisely scored) motions. The last two performers, seated in the audience, apply resonant bandpass filters to the microphone outputs and distribute the resulting sounds to a quadraphonic speaker system.



Mikrophonie II for choir, Hammond organ, and four ring modulators, also consists of 33 moments, though, unlike the earlier work, their order is fixed in the score, and the durations of these moments are made according to the Fibonacci series. The choir consists of two sections of sopranos and basses, who sit in an arc with their backs to the audience, facing the Hammond organ player. Each section is picked up by a microphone and the signal is fed into one side of a ring modulator, while the organ's output is fed into the other side.

Hymnen (1966-67) is an electronic and concrete work, with optional live performers, made of recordings of national anthems. It has four movements called "regions" by the composer. Region I is dedicated to Pierre Boulez. Region III is dedicated to John Cage and includes the American anthem and the Spanish anthem.

Stockhausen explored the harmonic series in Stimmung (1968), a serial and tonal composition for six vocalists and six microphones. This is another moment form, with 51 sections or moments, each one introducing and repeating a new overtone melody several times. A voice leads a new section and other voices gradually transform until they reach "identity" with the lead singer, and then the lead singer asks another singer to lead the next section. Stimmung was possibly influenced by Stockhausen's student La Monte Young and his drone music with The Theater of Eternal Music. Another precedent for Stimmung is the unfinished work Monophonie by Stockhausen himself, begun in 1960, with just one single note.

Aus den sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days, 1968) is a collection of 15 text compositions characterized as intuitive music, produced primarily from the intuition of the performer(s). The theater piece number 8, Oben und Unten (Above and Below), gives the most detailed instructions for three actors and four instrumentalists, while most of the other pieces are musical descriptions for an ensemble.



Mantra (1970) is scored for two ring-modulated pianos, percussion (cymbals and a wood block) and a short-wave radio producing Morse code or a magnetic tape recording of Morse code. The structure of the piece is a melody or "mantra" which is never varied, only expanded and contracted, both in duration and in pitch to different degrees. Near the end of the composition there is an extremely fast section that is a compression of the entire work into the smallest temporal space, with all of the expansions and transpositions of the mantra summarized as fast as possible and in four layers. The sounds of both pianos are ring modulated by a device specially built for this work to Stockhausen's specification.

Inori: Adorations for One or Two Soloists with Orchestra was written in 1973–74, and is performed by mimes, using a set of prayer gestures. In connection with Inori, Stockhausen also composed a Vortrag über HU (Lecture on HU), an hour-long musical analysis of the work, for performance by a singer as an introduction to Inori.

The popular composition Tierkreis (Zodiac, 1974–75) consists of twelve serial melodies originally written for music boxes, each melody representing one sign of the zodiac. A complete performance begins with the melody corresponding to the zodiac sign within which the day of the performance falls, and proceeds through the twelve melodies of the cycle, ending with a return to the starting melody.

Licht (Light), subtitled The Seven Days of the Week, is a cycle of seven operas composed between 1977 and 2003, with 29 hours of music. Each opera is named for a day of the week, but the cycle has neither a "beginning" nor an "ending", like the days of the week. The composer described the work as "there is neither end nor beginning to the week. It is an eternal spiral". The music is based on three counterpointed main melodies or "formulas", each associated with a central character.

Stockhausen died on December 2007 in Germany.

If you are interested in contemporary classical music, you may wish to read my series of articles on minimalist music: american minimalist music, european music connected with minimalism and precursors of minimalist music.

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