Gossip: The Fantastical Fictions of Baron Stockhausen

'If you discover something really new, which affects human experience, I mean there's no discussion, it's just the way it is. All the rest is minor talk about little details.' (Stockhausen on Music, 104)

'The general view that pre-existing conditions -- psychological, sociological, technical or otherwise -- explain artistic innovation, is wrong insofar as my work is concerned.' (SoM, 130)

In the final desperate months of World War II, when the life of a young musically gifted hospital orderly consisted in dodging phosphor bombs by day and playing American jazz on the piano to console the dying by night, the Propaganda Ministry launched a major new movie in a last-ditch effort to distract the minds of an exhausted and disillusioned population away from the grim realities of moral and technological defeat into a world of technicolor fantasy and amazing special effects. The movie centred on the life and times of the fictional Baron Munchausen, teller of outrageous and endlessly inventive tales of fabulous exploits, extravagant machines of war, romantic conquests, miraculous escapes, and ultimate survival.

I'm a myth

Fifty years on Stockhausen's LICHT reinvents autobiography as myth. The entire narrative structure, scenic actions, and dramatis personae in all their permutations and interactions is a fictional creation modelled on the visionary theories of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Born in 1908, Lévi-Strauss first came to public attention in 1958; his collection of essays Structural Anthropology proposing a radically new model of social structure. Based on reinterpretations of the classics as well as field investigations of tribal myth, structural anthropology claimed to discern and codify features of a universal code of human protocols determining the permitted relationships of members within the family, within the tribe, between neighbouring tribes, and between humanity and animal species (the natural environment). Significantly, Lévi-Strauss put music at the centre of human culture. His powerful thesis, conflating the structural analysis of language and the interpretation of dreams, brought welcome intellectual validation to the avant-garde and its methods, notably serialism, which prior to 1960 had been operating as a subset of semiotics. Lévi-Strauss became the darling of the hippie generation who interpreted his thesis as officially sanctioning an ideology of free love and multiple relationships, a doctrine immortalised in the musical Hair in the line 'coffee-colored people by the score'.

In 1960 Werner Meyer-Eppler, Stockhausen's 'best teacher', suddenly died. The same year Pierre Boulez delivered a lecture on musical form at Darmstadt. 'I should like to begin,' he said, 'with an observation of Claude Lévi-Strauss: 'Form and content are of the same nature and amenable to the same analysis. Content derives its reality from structure, and what we call 'form' is the articulation of local events which comprise the content.' The same year Stockhausen left his wife Doris and young family, abandoned the Catholic church, and began a relationship with the artist Mary Bauermeister (and daughter of an anthropologist). The revolutionary change in lifestyle coinciding with the death of his former mentor amounted to a religious conversion from the clinical austerities of information science to a new and frankly voluptuous model of integrated human relations.

Structural anthropology's idea of a universal 'deep structure' of kinship and power relations not only endorsed the serial imperative in musical composition but also provided its chief exponents, notably Stockhausen and Berio, with a legitimate excuse to invent their own mythologies. On the political level exploited by Berio in Sinfonie and elsewhere it offered an alternative rationale to the power structures that had produced a culture of war and indifference to modern art. For Stockhausen it was an opportunity to embrace musical traditions and practices previously excluded from the serial canon, such as opera, dance, and folk music idioms. It led directly to the composition of Momente, a dramatic cantata of great vivacity and humour in which for the first time structural qualia K, M and D are identified with real-life personalities Karlheinz, Mary and Doris, and a work whose formal structure openly expresses a non-deterministic order of increasingly refined permutations, organized as a Malinowskian genealogical tree.

LICHT is Lévi-Strauss writ much, much larger. Unlike Momente 1964 the opera cycle is constructed on a fixed, extremely rigidly enforced family, social and power structure into which dramatic events, real and invented, are forcibly inserted. Stockhausen's dramatis personae in LICHT conform to permutations of musical relationships in exactly the same way as the personalities of tribal folklores depicted by structural anthropology express permutations of social relationships. Even Stockhausen's hybrid names echo Malinowski's tribal genealogies: anybody coming across the tree diagram TABU-TAMA-KADA/TUWA-LUBOU-EGO (that's an odd one)-BWADA-LATU etc. in Malinowski's The Sexual Life of Savages cannot help but make the immediate connection to Stockhausen's cast of characters KAINO, LUDON etc. and their position in the LICHT hierarchy, -- just as they already do for the cast of Wagner's Ring cycle (SIEG-FRIED, FRIEDE-LINDE, SIEG-LINDE, SIEG-MUND etc.).

Edmund Leach observes: 'In Lévi-Strauss' usage, myth has no location in chronological time, but it does have certain characteristics which it shares with dreams and fairy-tales. In Lévi-Straussian myth men converse with animals or marry animal spouses, they live in the sea or in the sky, they perform feats of magic as a matter of course. Mythology starts out as an oral tradition associated with religious ritual. By the time myths become available to any would-be analyst, they have been written down and ... completely divorced from their original religious context. Even so, Lévi-Strauss asserts that the stories will have retained the essential structural characteristics which they possessed in the first place.

'The problem, as Lévi-Strauss sees it, is roughly this. If we consider any corpus of mythological tales at their face value we get the impression of an enormous variety of trivial incident, associated with a great deal of repetition, and a recurrent harping on very elementary themes: incest between brother and sister or mother and son, patricide and fratricide, cannibalism ... Lévi-Strauss postulates that behind the manifest sense of the stories there must be another 'non-sense' (technical term), a message wrapped up in code. In other words he assumes with Freud that a myth is a kind of collective dream and that it should be capable of interpretation so as to reveal the hidden meaning.'
(Edmund Leach, Lévi-Strauss, 4e rev James Laidlaw, London, 1996)

A note on non-sense

Nonsense is essentially a poetry of escape, a conscious refusal to communicate anything which would be considered positive, a form which demands unceasing control and a disposition more cerebral than emotionsl. Hence, it is not surprising that the two most successful nonsense writers in English were not poets at all, but men engaged in work which demanded precision and exactness -- Edward Lear, a professional illustrator of scientific books of natural history, and Lewis Carroll, a professor of mathematics.
(John MacInnes in Alex Preminger (ed), Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, London, 1975)

Just what is semiotics?

Semiotics is about how we know what we know and what is communicated. This science of communication is French in origin and its central proposition is that language and speech are not the same. Language (la langue) is the social system while speech (la parole) is the individual act of self-expression. The science to which it aspires (semiotics occupies a position somewhere to the right of science and to the left of philosophy) aims to interpret language as a system of signs. The interactions of language follow social protocols that have meaning independent of the information content of a given conversation. The argument runs as follows:
1. Without language there can be no communication.
2. Language is a social enterprise because meanings are subject to collective agreement and communication is essentially a social act.
3. Thus individual speech acts can only be meaningful as manifestations of agreed social norms.
Traditional semiotics ignores the musical dimensions of intonation (melody, rhythm, emphasis) that give spoken language its meaning. It also refuses to acknowledge (as invincibly mysterious) the processes by which speech communication is acquired in infancy.

In defining speech as a subset of language semiotics reinforces the myth that language as a social system is essentially stable and coherent whereas individual speech is ephemeral and prone to error. (Nowadays of course we tend to the opposite extreme, regarding individual speech as sacrosanct, autonymous, and self-verifying, and language (advertising, politics) as systemically misleading.)


Licht can therefore be understood as a literally monumental synthesis in mythic cast of the composer's terrestrial life and times, influences and beliefs, one that in a comic inversion of Lévi-Strauss aims at rendering obscure that which was clear, and pre-ordained that which was merely accidental. In addition to remodelling Stockhausen the life as Munchausen the movie, the composer has created a scrapbook of images that allude among others to the surrealists Apollinaire ('Les Mamelles de Tiresias') and André Breton, and borrow freely from Kandinsky's working notes for The Yellow Sound (not to mention his Green, Violet, and Black and White), Paul Klee, Kurt Schwitters, Murnau and Fritz Lang, through to Cocteau, Varèse's Ecuatorial (the battle scenes of Dienstag), the spatial innovations of Henry Brant (Samstag), Antonioni, Fellini ... (the list is endless) all re-lived from the perspective of Breton's 'certain point in the mind from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, what is communicable and what is incommunicable, the high and the low, cease to be perceived as contradictory.' (Second Manifeste du Surréalisme, La Révolution Surréaliste, 12/1929)

Commentary: Lévi-Strauss observed recently that 'if electronic musicians sought to understand what music is instead of trying to produce it, we would make tremendous progress toward solving the problem which music sets the science of man'.

Igor Stravinsky: Electronic musicians, at least the ones I know, are not unconcerned about te nature of music, but they would scarcely think of turning to the philosophy and science of what they are doing instead of just doing it, definitions of art being not only of no use to artists but possibly some encumbrance.
(Interview with Commentary magazine 1966, reprinted in Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Retrospectives and Conclusions, New York, 1969.)

The trouble with visionaries

'Lévi-Strauss is a visionary, and the trouble with those who see visions is that they find it very difficult to recognize the plain matter of fact world which the rest of us see all around. Lévi-Strauss repeatedly makes an assumption that other modes of cultural expression, such as kinship systems and folk taxonomies, are organized like human language. He always seems to be able to find just what he is looking for. Any evidence however dubious is acceptable so long as it fits with logically-calculated expectations, but wherever the data runs counter to theory he will either by-pass the evidence or marshal the full resources of his powerful invective to have the heresy thrown out of court. So we remember that his prime training was in philosophy and law; he consistently behaves as an advocate defending a cause rather than as a scientist searching for absolute truth. In his view, the universals of human culture exist only at the level of structure, never at the level of manifest fact. The influence on Lévi-Strauss of [Roman] Jakobson's style of phonemic analysis, which derives in turn from much earlier work of de Saussure, has been very marked.'
(Leach, op cit)

So: nothing to talk about

Most composers would like their music to be understood in a certain way. Stravinsky said 'When I compose something, I cannot conceive that it should fail to be recognized for what it is' (Conversations with Igor Stravinsky, London, 1959). That attitude at least allows for the possibility of discussion, while reserving to the composer the right to have the final word. There was a time when Stockhausen and his contemporaries were only too keen to discuss, debate, and deliver lengthy theoretical articles in often obscure technical language on the tendencies of the modern music in which they were jointly engaged. Around 1965 the conversation abruptly ceased. Today there is an information vacuum. At interview the once charismatic intellectual leaders of post-war music appear evasive, enigmatic, detached. They no longer talk seriously about the serious issues that unite and also divide them, and there are few people around to ask the serious questions. Just look around. Boulez issues a new recording of Repons (DG 289 457 605-2), but diplomatically avoids the opportunity to elaborate on the aesthetic imperatives of this fascinating piece and the meaning of the dialogue of live instruments and computer. (This will have to wait for a later article). Instead he talks to the hi-fi press about the joys of conducting Richard Strauss. Meantime Stockhausen engages in empty discussion with fifteen-minute wonders from the world of techno music.

Just who is doing the gossip here?

As long as there is new music people will wonder how and why it is made. There is nothing threatening in discussion. Two centuries of Bach scholarship has not made his music any the less awesome, and thirty years of dialogue among early music scholars and performers has in fact done wonders for public appreciation of the splendors of neglected Medieval and Renaissance masters. Composers may object if their works are misrepresented in print, but as long as music is performed it will raise questions of interpretation that have to be communicated. Music tells its own story of success or failure. The story is laid out in the musical score for anyone interested to read. The cultural history of the composer is also a given.

Believe me, you don't want to know

In 1958 US composer Milton Babbitt published an article under the title 'Who cares if you listen?'. Not a smart move. Years later he tried to blame the title on the editor of the magazine High Fidelity, but by then it was too late, the damage was done. People should ask questions about new music. They have a right to do so and to ask questions is the sign of a healthy culture. Composers ought to be willing to give straight answers. That is their responsibility. Discussion is what gives meaning to artistic activity. It is the reason why music is released into the public arena. Any art that is avowedly not intended for public discussion is by definition no longer a matter for public concern.

I'm a medium

'You are always referring to my music, my music. What does it mean, my music? It's just something that has come into my mind and I am working all the time and that's it.' (Lecture 'Intuitive Music')
This is saying it is meaningless to ask a composer to explain his inspiration because he is merely a vessel (Stravinsky, Le Sacre), a medium, or in Stockhausen's case a radio receiver for the divine. The argument echoes German philosophers Hegel and Heidegger, according to whom the individual derives his individuality not by his own achievement but as ordained by a higher power, namely society, in the sense first that individuality can only be characterized in terms of language and behavioral norms that express the collective will, and second because in fact individuality can be no more than a manifestation of formal possibilities that reside in the state or community as a whole.

In the past such sophistries have been used to exonerate individual actions committed at the behest of the state, for example in times of war; it is curious to find the same arguments being trotted out in the defence of artistic freedoms, in effect claiming that the individual is not responsible for his actions but is only acting on orders from on high. The defence that one is a radio is a subtle variant to evade the charge of individual responsibility on the grounds that a radio is not even a human being: a human invention no doubt, a transmitter of information assuredly, but a machine nonetheless. Who would dream of criticising a radio? That would be sad.

This is science

Musical activity that is grounded in science may claim the Noli me tangere defence that in science results are not pre-determined and that the activity is its own justification. In linguistic (speech recognition) research the aim is to discover the ground rules of language communication which are thought to reside in music. The results of scientific experimentation can be rated as more or less successful inasmuch as a valid plan of inquiry is carried through exhaustively and methodically. A negative result is still a result. If a musical experiment turns out to be based on incorrect assumptions or is carried out inconsistently it may nevertheless lead to interesting new ideas and aesthetically pleasing results. When composers invoke the science defence they need to acknowledge the possibility of uncertainty and error. They also lay themselves open to criticism on scientific grounds.

John Cage acted from much the same motive, even though his overriding aim was the avoidance of predetermination. But while both serial and chance methods may lead to unpredictable results at the level of performance, each is still liable to interpretation as a system of preconditions that are in fact open to examination, classification, and evaluation in relation to the quality of the resulting musical experience. The 'work in progress' is one such definition of musical science; 'From the seven days' is another.

Adorno: delusion of the particular

'In the sociology of primitive religions, [Emile] Durkheim made the substantial discovery that qualities asserted by the particular are imposed on it by the universal. He designated to the universal both the delusion of the particular, as a mere mimesis, and the power that makes a particular of it in the first place. 'One grieves not only because one is sad, but because one is obliged to grieve. This obligation is sanctioned by penalties of a mythic or social character.' According to Hegel 'without the universal, the particular is nothing. Consciousness of the spirit must take form in the world, in the consciousness of a people. It contains and directs all of the people's purposes and interests; it makes up the people's rights, customs, religions. It is the substantial part of a people's spirit -- even if the individuals do not know it' (Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, London, 1973).

Compare Lévi-Strauss: 'We do not claim to show how human beings think in terms of myth, but rather how myth thinks itself in the actions of mankind, even when they don't know it' (Le cru et le cuit, Paris, 1964).

Gimme freedom

Doubts whether necessity is a good thing are promptly knocked down by Hegel with the avowal that, rain or shine, necessity is freedom. 'It is [in the domain of] the particular where the fighting goes on to exhaustion and partial ruination. But it is precisely from the struggle and ensuing fall of the particular that the universal results.' (Adorno)

The artist must be free to act from inner necessity. Where have we heard this before. Tortuous citations from an era of competing socialist ideologies are relevant if serialism is to be justified in the larger sense of rational structures that give rise by logical deduction to mysterious social and individual behaviours. We also find unexpected illuminations. Hegel could be talking about Momente when he says that 'not only particularity but the particular itself is unthinkable without the moment of the universal (sic) which differentiates the particular, puts its imprint on it, and in a sense is needed to make a particular of it'. Again, the Hegelian doctrine of 'the struggle and ensuing fall of the particular' seems to shine a searchlight on the mythic contest played out in Licht between the forces of darkness and light.

Denying history

Despite claims to the contrary, avant-garde music did not erupt spontaneously in 1950. The generation of Boulez, Berio, and Stockhausen was born in a decade of rapid and significant technological innovation. Public radio started up in 1922, electrical recording came on stream in 1925, and sound film in 1927. Already by 1931, when Stockhausen was three years old, conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra were assisting RCA and Bell Labs in experimental hi-fi stereo broadcasts, and with the arrival of optical sound in 1932 the same team began movie-related experiments in stereo and surround-sound recording. In England at this time Alan Blumlein working for His Master's Voice was single-handedly developing microphone and disc-cutting technology for two-channel 'binaural' sound, some 25 years before stereo was launched commercially in 1956. In the mid-1930s a chance meeting between Stokowski and Walt Disney in a Beverly Hills restaurant led to the commercial development of Fantasound surround-sound technology for the movie Fantasia which eventually premiered with surround-sound in 1941, an incredibly short ten years after the first stereo experiments, and a full fifty years before Dolby Pro-Logic came on the home theatre market.

These Stokowski sessions throughout the thirties involved experiments in new orchestra layout for optimum balance in front of a microphone, techniques of multiple orchestras, multi-speaker sound systems, and systems of recording and reproducing sounds that appear to rotate around the heads of an audience. The main stumbling-block to reproducing sounds in rotation is preserving phase information which varies with spatial movement according to frequency. There is a kind of Doppler effect that on a sliding scale from low to high stretches or compresses the individual frequencies of a musical sound from a moving source. To reproduce the sound of a moving trumpet for example one has to find a way of reproducing a pattern of frequency alteration that is different for each individual harmonic. A seemingly impossible task, but the team who created Fantasound claimed to have achieved it, perhaps by rotating the microphone and not the player. Now that the remastered original sound-track is freely available on double CD (DSTCD-452 D) it is open to the public to hear and evaluate the surround-sound effect for themselves using an appropriate decoder. The music really does fly. So when Stockhausen in 1971 tells his Cambridge (England) audience an amusing story about asking whether the Cologne chapter of the musicians' union in 1955 would allow players to be suspended in chairs from the auditorium ceiling and rotated over the audience's heads, what the anecdote is really saying is that the audio technicians of North West German Radio had heard about the rotational movement of instrumental sounds in space actually happening in the movie Fantasia but that they couldn't tell him how it was done.

Radical inventions and discoveries in the field of audio have ways of impacting on musical consciousness even though the relevant technologies remain a mystery to the composers involved. Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of 1936 and Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion of 1937, as well as Bohuslav Martinu's Concerto for Double String Orchestra, Piano and Timpani of 1938 form a cluster of compositions sharing the distinction of being laid out in triptych formation, with central percussion flanked by carefully balanced forces (string orchestras or pianos) to left and right. The deliberately symmetrical layout conforms in a very obvious fashion to the practical requirements of the RCA-Bell three-channel stereo system of 1932. Stokowski does not seem to have been involved in performances of any of these works at this time. In fact both orchestral works were commissioned by the conductor Paul Sacher for his Basel Chamber Orchestra, giving rise to the intriguing question of whether Sacher might have had plans to make a concert film in stereo, perhaps as a counter to Disney's Fantasia, the idea of which was not warmly received in the best musical circles.

Invoking science

Composers also make gaffes. There are ways of distinguishing a technical influence from a musical influence. For example, one might argue that Bartók and Martinu are simply adapting the triptych orchestra layout as used by Monteverdi in the Vespers of 1610, or as represented in the double choir and string orchestra formation of Vivaldi's Lauda Jerusalem. Monteverdi's distribution of forces is clearly designed to allow for spatial effects both real and illusory (left-right, front-back, up-down, etc.), however his Renaissance layout is not exactly symmetrical, the strings on one side and wind instruments on the other side contrasting the two different worlds of the spiritual and the real. Vivaldi a century later is composing with exactly symmetrical forces to left and right and exploiting the directional possibilities of real and simulated space in effective and exciting ways. If Bartók were truly influenced by Monteverdi or Vivaldi one would reasonably expect to find the same level of skill in handling spatial effects here as in the earlier masterworks. But Bartók's handling of space is anything but confident. It is quite obvious in fact that the composer of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta has only an intellectual grasp of bilateral auditory effects. The spatial canons conceived on paper do not in practice translate effectively into the acoustic domain; in addition the canonic imitations vary unpredictably in direction and timing, a sure sign that the composer is thinking but not listening. If however a performance were to be recorded on film and projected on a much larger scale over an RCA triple-speaker stereo system, the back-and-forth interactions (at times resembling an exhibition ping-pong match) might well begin to make sense. To the audience of a live performance in the concert hall, and even on record, the stereo effect occupies an angle in the region of 10-15 degrees, which is next to negligible. Only the conductor on his podium has any real chance of appreciating the contest of left and right orchestras. There is an disconnect between what the music says and what it delivers. The same is not true of Monteverdi or Vivaldi.

Such disconnects happen from time to time, and are hardly ever fatal. Audiences still like Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and that's fine. The more a composer ventures into the unknown, however, the greater the risk. Take the spatialized dynamics of Stockhausen's Inori; here the orchestral balance is minutely controlled with the intention of creating a new plasticity of 3D sound waxing and waning from solid centralized tuttis at maximum amplitude to shadowy peripheral reverberations at the outer extremes on the edge of silence. The composer's poetic image of an oscillating primordial acoustic energy front that gets weaker and weaker as it expands farther into space is conceived and realized from the heliocentric perspective of the conductor, and can only really be appreciated by an audience in a recording that places the listener in the equivalent location, for example a binaural recording monitored on headphones.

Another small example is Mikrophonie I, a work clearly set up to exploit pseudo-stereo imaging from the interaction of left and right channels. Here two teams of players work on opposite sides of a giant tam-tam. Each single-channel microphone receives a double layer of information, a sharp and clear image from the team operating on the near side, and a muted image from the team operating on the far side of the tam-tam. In theory this should generate interesting abstract 3D effects in stereo. In practice these effects are difficult to discern. One can hazard a guess that since the two teams of players are on opposite sides of the tam-tam, for that reason their signals are 180 degrees out of phase and therefore will tend to cancel one another out. The simple remedy which any listener can try involves switching the red and white wires on one output channel before listening to the Mikrophonie I CD on decent speakers at a reasonably high amplitude. The audible result is a marked improvement.

Controlling information

Tape recording began in the 1920s with the German Blättnerphone, a cumbersome instrument adopted by the BBC and later succeeded by the improved Marconi-Stille steel tape recorder. These early recorders were used to store radio bulletins for broadcast by the BBC World Service in the wee small hours, and while editing was possible it was inconvenient (one had to solder the ends) and sometimes hazardous (the tape was sharp, spooled at a reckless 60 ips and had an alarming habit of springing all over the studio floor). Magnetic coated paper tape came along in 1935, and with it the possibility of tape montage. Modern tape recording technology remained an exclusively German industrial development throughout the 1939-45 war, and in the war's latter stages German radio began to exploit the propaganda potential of the new medium in news reports (Frontberichte) that purported to come from the front line but were actually produced in the studio. The initial success of these high quality and very realistic taped reports, designed to give the impression at home and abroad of continuing victory when victory was actually slipping away, established a lasting reputation for tape as a medium of illusion and fantasy at a time when radio was still the dominant communications medium.

Security and secrecy

A clandestine information war was simultaneously being conducted by public radio and military telecommunications by means of codes and ciphers incomprehensible to the ordinary listener. Every side was engaged in an ongoing battle of wits to maintain the security of their own operational messages while at the same time intercepting and decoding the strategic signals of their opponents. The same code-making and code-breaking expertise stimulated a frenzy of development in technologies of information encoding, storage, transmission and retrieval, leading directly to the computer revolution of modern times. In these various ways the technology and experience of wartime fostered a cold war culture of secrecy based on a command structure distributing knowledge understandable only by experts, issuing from a remote control centre, transmitting invisibly through the ether, and meaningful only to initiates.

Un coup de grace n'abolira jamais l'histoire

In the aftermath of war pioneering audio technologies emerged to public view. They had survived underground as ideas in patent documents, technical journals, and audio engineering lore, awaiting the arrival on the scene of a younger generation with imagination equal to the creative implications of the new electronic media. Add the ever-present shadow of the atomic bomb and voilà! the intellectual climate in which the avant-garde came to prominence after 1950. Dismissing Stravinsky as a collaborator and Schoenberg as insufficiently radical these young composers styled themselves as originators of a completely new musical aesthetic; this was a group with a mission to wipe the slate clean and construct a new international style from 'ground zero', an idiom answerable only to information science, free of the taint of nationalism, political partisanship, and most important, free of the taint of history.

In reality, while publicly renouncing neo-classicism and the politics that promoted it, these same composers were innocently embracing the technical innovations generated during that identical period of the 1930s and 1940s at the behest of those very same governments responsible for endorsing neo-classicism and promoting nationalist hysteria. The post-war Neue Sachlichkeit signalled by Boulez's Polyphonie X and Stockhausen's Punkte 1952 was a self-proclaimed culture of codes and ciphers, of special effects, of sounds surgically reconstructed on tape, of multiple orchestras, and of musical images moving in space. But let's be fair. They were absolutely right. The new information age was the only way to go, and the profound influence this generation of innovators has had on twentieth-century music is justified tribute to their initiative in 'boldly going where none had gone before' in quest of the absolute fundamentals of musical creation.

Intelligence matters

There were however hidden agendas. For reasons that have nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with cold war intelligence matters a number of studios for experimental music were set up in US universities and European radio stations. These studios were ostensibly run by composers, but their work generated unprecedented alliances with psychologists, semiologists, philologists and computer scientists. Music had been co-opted into a research effort to codify the fundamental elements of spoken language, together with the rules of association that determine meaning.

They were all doing it

Technology that in the 1990s allows cosmologist Stephen Hawking to talk, was in its infancy in 1950. The issue was automated speech recognition and synthesis, and the motive was political, not so much to enable speech as to ensnare the speech of others. This single issue connected all branches of avant-garde music in the fifties from Cage, Feldman snd Babbitt in the US to Schaeffer, Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio in Europe. Research with sonagram technology pioneered by Bell Labs scientists Potter, Kopp and Kopp in the 1940s (Visible Speech: Dover, 1967) pointed ahead to a relatively simple classification of the acoustical elements of speech from which rules of pattern recognition could be deduced that in turn could lead to a machine programmed to monitor a telephone line and record any conversation at the drop of a keyword. For such an initiative to succeed one had to be able not only to deconstruct speech into its basic elements, but also to reassemble them into coherent speech, ideally even translate from one language system to another.

The task proved more difficult than at first anticipated, in part because voices differ in so many ways, and this is what led over a number of crucial years to the witting or unwitting conscription of young composers to work in discreetly government-subsidized studios on music studies that might assist in the search for a new 'atomistic' definition of speech and its laws of association. One of the leading scientists in this area was Bonn University's Professor Werner Meyer-Eppler. The same agenda that inspired Boulez's Le marteau sans maître and egged on a reluctant Pierre Schaeffer (with information scientist Abraham Moles peering over his shoulder) in a futile effort to create a taxonomy of 'musical objects', pushed Morton Feldman to compose his graphic 'Projections' series under the influence of sonagram imagery at the same time as Cage was busying himself with techniques of random (and by implication, spontaneous) association. While Hiller and Isaacson worked on pattern recognition algorithms based on the music of Webern at Illinois, Berio and Maderna at the Studio di Fonologia in Milan were editing sampled vocal and instrumental sequences into elegantly surreal collages. The Americans visited Europe, the Europeans took study leave in the US. Everyone was interested in everyone else.

Nothing new?

But is there anything very strange about the involvement of musicians in speech research? Not at all. From the time of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians musical evolution has been driven by speech issues, in particular the natural human desire to preserve inflection patterns of special religious or cultural significance. The ancients sought ways of perpetuating oral information in musically patterned (literally digitized) form with the aid of plucked string instruments tuned to specialized modes expressing particular emotional states. Before 1600 the only way the meaning of written documentation could be fully understood in Western European cultures was by intoning it aloud. Medieval plainchant notation, from which standard musical notation is derived, is in essence a system of speech punctuation designed to preserve for posterity the correct inflection of a sacred text. In more recent history it was not a desire to make music but research into speech and spoken meaning that prompted the invention of sound recording devices by Scott and Koenig in the mid-19th century, notwithstanding their subsequent development into audio and music reproducers by Bell and Tainter, Edison, Berliner and others.

Throughout history Western music has profited from discoveries and innovations in the technologies of speech storage and reproduction, so it was in effect business as usual when sonagram, tape recording and computing technologies were brought to bear on the problem of automated speech recognition in the 1950s. So one should not be surprised to find speech recognition and resynthesis as the hidden connection linking experimental music studios of Illinois, MIT, Princeton-Columbia and Stanford in the US with those of Paris, Cologne, and Milan radio stations. A common concern with musical semiotics provides the underlying rationale for compositions as diverse in outlook as Boulez's Le marteau sans maître, Stockhausen's Gesang der Junglinge, and Berio's Circles, not to mention a plethora of more specialized inspirations by Pierre Schaeffer, Lejaren A. Hiller, Marvin Minsky, and yes, well, Milton Babbitt.

Making waves

Composers had the knowledge, they had the aural perception, and they had an aptitude for notation. Stockhausen most of all. As a graduate of Cologne conservatorium he took off to Schaeffer's Club d'Essai at Paris Radio, the studio for musique concrète where Boulez composed his Deux Etudes. After a difficult time in which he was able to realise the Konkrete Etüde Stockhausen answered the call to join Eimert at the newly founded and much better equipped electronic studio at Cologne Radio. In a very short time he had produced two substantial electronic studies of synthesized vowel sounds, the first based on waveform science, the second on vocal tract simulation. It does not take a genius to discern a relationship between this music and speech processing research. The published score of Studie II both looks like a Bell Labs sonagram and is designed to look like a Bell Labs sonagram, an association developed in the Universal Edition score and further underpinned by the sonagram image of Eimert's 'Glockenspiel Etude' in Die Riehe I (Universal Edition/Theodore Presser, 1958). What it says is, this is music based on scientific advice.

For all their serene beauty Stockhausen's two electronic studies also revealed the stark inadequacies of a science and technology knowhow that could only lead to the production of inert, static, so-called 'dead sounds'. Stockhausen had good reason to enrol in Meyer-Eppler's classes in information science at Bonn University for the next two years, after which he was ready to compose Gesang der Jünglinge, a hugely ambitious exercise in speech synthesis going beyond mere vowel spectra to embrace an entire phonemic universe, synthesized consonants and all. At around this time Eimert and studio technician Heinz Schütz were engaged in a series of trials of alternative methods of speech analysis and re-synthesis, and produced a couple of short but technically intriguing studies, 'Musik und Sprache' and 'Zu Ehren von Igor Stravinsky' involving the filtering and compression of tape recorded speech samples. In these brief essays in digitized speech patterns (included in Eimert's 'Einfuhrung in die Elektronischen Musik' on WER 60006) the tape-recorded spoken title phrases are deconstructed into seemingly random impulses, arbitrarily sequenced, and then recombined; as the different layers are brought back into synchronization the listener hears the original words condense as if by magic out of an electronic flux. The family connection with Gesang der Jünglinge's ostensible programme ('whenever the speech sounds become recognizable, it is to praise God') is self-evident, but the technical and intelligence implications of Eimert's work remain uniquely fascinating. By comparison Gesang, considered as science, is a disappointment. The musical result does not deliver on its stated objectives. Coherent speech does not condense out of a flux of electronic phonemes; instead the listener is presented with a poetic conjunction of a pre-recorded child's voice and simulated phonemes that no way define an operational continuum between coherent intelligible song and pixillated consonant and vowel sounds. Gesang der Jünglinge is a significant musical achievement and a work of singular vision. The image of vocal music in constant flux from pointillist atoms to intelligible speech continues to haunt the composer to this day. Judged harshly on its scientific merits however Gesang cannot be described as an unqualified success. The real success, some years later, was Kontakte, by which time the information age of Meyer-Eppler was over and a new era of myth, mystery, and social protest was just beginning.

Copyright © Robin Maconie 1999.

Savannah, June 6, 1999.

Robin Maconie,