Vol. 32 Issue 1 Reviews

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Cosmic Pulses

German premiere: 13 July, 2007, Stockhausen Courses 2007, Kürten, Germany.

Reviewed by Nick Collins
Brighton, Sussex, UK

Photo[Editor's Note: Karlheinz Stockhausen passed away on December 5th, 2007. What this means for the future of the summer school itself is uncertain; but this review stands as a testament to undimisnhed critical interest in his work and life.]

The 10th Stockhausen Courses took place in the gentle setting of the town of Kürten, near Cologne, Germany, 7-15 July, 2007. Approximately 130 instrumentalists, musicologists, and composers attended to pay homage to the living legend Karlheinz Stockhausen, to study with his clique of approved interpreters, to get access to the archives of his work, and simply to listen and bask. The ten-day festival was tightly organized, held on the grounds of a local school, whose acoustically impressive gymnasium housed each night's concerts. A typical day might involve early morning gesture classes, an open rehearsal for that evening's concert, a musicological lecture from Richard Toop, interpreters classes in the afternoon with the faculty, an analysis lecture from Mr. Stockhausen himself, a bratwurst and beer in the local biker's bistro, the evening concert itself, and post-concert drinks and ice cream in an Italian restaurant up a hill in the plaza next to Kürten's town church.  

Mr. Stockhausen was at the time a sprightly 78 year old (he turned 79 on 22 August, a month or so after the end of the summer courses); his 80th birthday year would have been 2008. He was undiminished by age in his energies for composition, rehearsal, and self-promotion; his habits of hard work and an innate sense of purpose seem to have kept him eternally young and even fiery (or I hesitate to think how much of a dynamo he was as a younger man; I prefer to imagine the magnetic accumulation of years of experience). The course participants seemed to bask in the glow of a living legend, occasionally a little too uncritically. Indeed, access to Mr. Stockhausen was controlled by careful scheduling of the week's events.

At the concerts, instrumental works were interleaved with tape pieces (run from a Tascam DA-88 digital eight-track unit), which seemed to hold equal status. Mr. Stockhausen sat at the mixing console in the center of the audience for every concert, regulating the microphones he uses as a standard to amplify all acoustic instrumentalists and make their every whisper legible to the back row. There was a bias toward works from the 1970s on, including multiple arrangements of works for solo performer, as most readily provided by the expert interpreters on hand, and naturally continued at the three student concerts deriving from the interpretation classes. Lacking any larger ensembles, the performance of Inori (1973-4) for orchestra and mimes was conducted with a tape substituting for the orchestra. Perhaps most interesting to the electronic music community, though, were the many solo tape works presented, with all lights off but for a single spotlight high up. As Mr. Stockhausen explained, he had received so many comments from people uncomfortable with total darkness that he provided the moon, but he preferred that listeners close their eyes and occasionally move their heads to track spatial movement and scene.  

He diffused (or sound projected, as he termed it) over a rig of two layers of loudspeakers, adaptable to the eight-speaker cube of Oktophonie (1990-91, 69 min) or the eight-track spatial projection of Choirs of Monday (1987, 69 min) and Mittwochs-Abschied (1996, 44 min). These large-scale works, extracted from acts of the Licht opera cycle, presented listeners with an exhilarating and draining acousmatic listening experience. The Choirs work is founded on recorded massed voices, spatialized in the auditorium, but the other two large-scale compositions use stock synthesized sounds. At various points during the week, especially with the presentation of works for tape and performer such as Komet (1994-99) for percussion, the timbral presets—uncritically selected from commercial synthesizers—underlying much of Mr. Stockhausen's output since the 1980s, were apparent. A current of the primacy of pitch and space often overrides timbral adventure, intricate processing, and even time structures, in a way that can be disappointing to those more familiar with the fresh and invigorating sound worlds of Mr. Stockhausen’s great works of the 1950s and 1960s. This contrast was made evident by the performances of Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-56) at the opening address, and Kontakte (1958-60, in the version for percussion, piano, and tape) played by student performers on the last day. Whilst some splendors were found in the long Licht pieces, they lacked uniform quality; there were also coarse edges in studio production, from poor layering and fades to awkward transitions. 

A great deal of excitement, however, had grown around one particular new work, Cosmic Pulses, which received its German premiere at the Friday night concert on 13 July. Originally unveiled in Rome not long before, on 7 May 2007, Mr. Stockhausen had warned the participants earlier in the week that this work would provide a challenge to the listener, and that he himself had still not made up his mind concerning it. The reaction at the world premiere in Italy had seen him signing autographs for one and a half hours after an enthusiastic response from a younger crowd. The work had been commissioned for the Dissonanze Electronic Music Festival, an event mainly focused on “electronica.”

Cosmic Pulses (2007) is arranged for eight tracks, with “241 different trajectories in space” (program notes). The work utilises 24 layers of sound, each with its own associated central pitch, tempo, and spatial motions, each “enlivened by manual regulation of the accelerandi and ritardandi around the respective tempo, and by quite narrow glissandi upwards and downwards around the original melodies” (ibid). The layers are ordered from low to high frequency and corresponding slow to fast rotation on the spatial paths, entering one by one from the (s)lowest and leaving in reverse. In the central portion of the 32-min work, all layers are present, and the density of information provides the aforementioned challenge. In psychological terms, it is challenging with anything more than four layers at once, and the overall summation of layers can become the aggregate impression, with attention flickering between layers as they are emphasized and perturbed following complex charts of parameter envelopes. The source timbre for individual lines is a rather cheap electric piano sound, which is quickly subsumed into the granular storm as the layers gather and tempi increase. 

As I listened to the work, I noted a tumult of impressions in real time, writing maniacally in the dark, a number of which I now list in the order of their original writing. They give, I hope, some idea of the speed with which the complexity builds, and the impressions of being caught in a maelstrom:

...violent spasms of space, serial recurrences, a Copernican asylum, over-literal crashes, rushing more and more beyond sense, like being inside Stockhausen's mind as he composes, a battle of enraged keyboardists in a tempo war, granular roars, bass pedals and clatters, gurgling granules accelerate, pushing the boundary of information, tapes spooling mercilessly, a labyrinth of tone pulses, a multiplicity of collisions in an organ factory, even poor synthesis can't ruin this controlled chaos, wider and wider dynamics and layering, building to the synchronies of planets, raging layers, raging presets in a keyboard shop war, a fight at an audio convention, the natural conclusion of serial overload/overlord, the end of bathtime in the lair of the space emperor, spending uncomfortably long in the synth dungeon, dribbling on an electroacoustic conference from above, layers rage and sear in unadulterated pleasure, higher layers reveal then a return to more chaos. Staggering down, staggering up, push push push!!! Underground serial movement, new serialism in the court of king computer music, a tumultuous tempest of temperamental tantrums, only Stockhausen could demand such literal length, either terrible or extremely good depending on your mood, entering the final throes? Bass keeps reccurring, not loud enough! Fader riding, bigger gliss near end, modulation slowing, running cosmic patches, Siriusly exhausting, a few roars near the end, pitter patter of spatial space electronics, drove someone away [an audience member leaves at this point], one layer becomes dominant then falls back, slowing to fewer layers, more controlled gurglings, selective, relaxing into less layers, closing down, suddenly gentle, cathartic, returning to sanity, makes sense, sudden awkward end...

After the work finished, the longest applause of the conference was heard; Mr. Stockhausen received a partial standing ovation (and also a yell of derision and a few boos). Cosmic Pulses certainly stirred up the audience!

In the post-mortem discussions amongst attendees, the consensus seemed to be of a thrilling ride, but of the overload lasting too long in the middle; those who had heard more recent electroacoustic music were slightly perturbed by the bad timbre at the start for the source sound. In defense of the length, it might be a necessary compositional device to offset the beauty of the closedown, when normal information processing levels are re-entered. The whole piece offers an alternative listening experience where there is no chance to follow all events. It might cautiously be claimed that Mr. Stockhausen achieved a controversial success, and created a work that has reinvigorated his electronic music. For the reader immediately curious about the sound, the YouTube video from Dissonanze seems unfortunately to have been taken down at the time of writing. If there are public performances coming up, it is essential to hear the spatialized version, and one would hope that any future Stockhausen-Verlag release would be in a multi-channel format; played 10 decibels louder, Cosmic Pulses could even make a terrific entrant into the spatial noise scene!

Discussing the work in the seminar session on the following day, and also bringing in general comments made during the week, Mr. Stockhausen admitted that the work might be viewed as “not music, just sound,” and that it might be best to “just take it as a natural phenomena and not think of composition.” It is hard to tell how disingenuous he is concerning influences; rumor would have it that he listens to little or no contemporary music (especially not electroacoustic, and I would imagine no Merzbow), and so the noise-music aspects of Cosmic Pulses are not fully appreciated by him. Concerning new electronic music made by the current generation, he spoke rather disparagingly of “just scratching, old radios, any kind of so called electronic device for making noise,” and also added that “I detest everything now based on sampling.” His lifework has been motivated by seeking variety, though it is hard to support his claim that “I have no style, I don't want a style,” and the full implications of his assertion against “people who are the result of habits or fashion… my music is not!” Mr. Stockhausen himself caricatured his critics: “most colleague composers will say that old Stockhausen is still a serialist composer.” And yet, he is one who admits “serial composition is not easy to listen to,” and has a lifetime of experience in the practical and psychological compromises of effective musical work.    

When I went up after the Cosmic Pulses performance to congratulate him, and to mention I would be reviewing the concert for CMJ, Mr. Stockhausen animatedly exclaimed “Aha, I will tell you how to review it!” I haven't followed his instructions, but it's good to know that he still cares so deeply about rules. “It was probably a joke,” his Personal Assistant, Sabine Schulz, informed me.

Information on the annual Stockhausen Courses is available from the Stockhausen Web site (www.stockhausen.org/). The courses provide an outlet for, and a festival of, Professor Stockhausen's music in his home town, and whilst the relatively closed clique of family and performers, and the reverent atmosphere and exclusion of any other composer might be wearing to some, the overall benefit is a period of uninterrupted study of his output. Performers have the chance of lessons with the faculty members (this year primarily covering voice, percussion, piano, flute, clarinet, and trumpet, though other instruments can be supported through alternative versions of some scores), and there are prizes for those selected to perform in participant's concerts, and a new prize for the best musicological contribution in the previous year. There are, however, currently no conference sessions or composition lessons as such. There is only one composer at the Stockhausen Courses.