Stockhausen Discussion Page

These are not real FAQs. But they could be.

"You have to watch out for Maconie's nihilism" - Stockhausen
Read Stockhausen's Comments on Robin Maconie's Stockhausen Discussion Page

Does Stockhausen really come from a planet of Sirius?

No. It's a German joke. You have to watch out for Stockhausen's jokes. He has a sense of humor.

But hold on now. It's also a Delphic Utterance. This man is a philosopher. What does the question "Where does your inspiration come from?" actually mean? It's a way of saying "Don't ask me: it's in the music". We look at the Mona Lisa and ask ourselves "What does it mean? Who was this woman in Leonardo's life? Was she his girlfriend?" and people pretend that it was his girlfriend and that explains it. It explains nothing: in fact it diminishes the beauty and mystery of the painting to have its essential nature contaminated by mundane facts. Who the woman was in real life is not the point. If we knew, we might discover that her mouth is closed because she had bad teeth. The characters and situations in LICHT are drawn from real life, that is true: but it is also beside the point. In the lecture 'Intuitive Music' Stockhausen asks "When I say, I am thinking -- who is saying this? ... One is not identified with the brain, but with the thinking activity, and that activity, the thinking activity, is ... responsible to a higher self, one which uses the brain as a computer. That is all." (Stockhausen on Music, 123)

What is LICHT all about?
It's about enlightenment. It's a monumental demonstration of how everything in his musical philosophy fits together.

Who are Michael, Eva, and Luzifer?

They are all aspects of Stockhausen's own creative self. Michael is the visionary, Eva is the human, and Luzifer is the realist. So Michael is the driving force, Eva is temptation - to give in to one's human nature (always a distraction from heroic deeds), and Luzifer is the sceptic, the know-it-all, the Dirigent whose factual knowledge is limited to the real world and who acts as a damper on the spirit. The three-sided nature is a clue all the same to Stockhausen's own inspiration. In 'Some Questions and Answers' (Stockhausen on Music, 136-7) he explains how the three aspects of vision, will (desire), and technique interact: "Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky and a few other composers of the past have recognized the supremacy of intuition, based on the quality of the composer being a medium. He is a mouthpiece of the divine. ... But there are long stretches in HYMNEN which I simply heard inside me while composing, and which I was unable to incorporate into the musical structure at the time I received them. They had to be 'inserted' into the preconceived design. ... The DREI LIEDER ... is based directly on the overwhelming experience of inner sound visions which are stronger than your own will, technique, style preferences, or whatever it may be.

On the other hand, you are an engineer, you do mental work, and there is sometimes a conflict between the two: you have overall visions, images which make demands of a kind you cannot yet realize, and they lead to the invention of new technical processes, but then the technical processes go their own way and become the starting point for other techniques which in turn provoke new intentions and you find yourself bombarded with images again." Speaking of the revival of Pfizner's opera Palestrina, which also deals with the nature of inspiration, he adds rather mischievously:"Some of the claims for divine inspiration are frankly dubious, I must say, given the primitive or vulgar nature of the music which is produced."

What is the significance of the camel in Sonntag?

KA-MEL does sound like a bit player from Superman the movie, I agree. Stockhausen is dealing in images that translate to words, like Egyptian heiroglyphs. A camel is a beast of burden with a hump that walks across the desert toward a distant oasis without complaining. A camel is a biblical reference to the difficulty of attaining the Kingdom of Heaven (you have to go through the needle's eye). A camel is a horse designed by a committee. But KA-MEL is a comic permutation of MI-KA-EL (remember him?). Perhaps in future episodes we may encounter the prophet MA-LU-KI (junior) and ascend heavenward courtesy of Royal Dutch Airline KA-EL-EM. I actually once met a Belgian sociologist called Caraël at Darmstadt. He was conducting a survey of wannabe avant-garde composers and hangers-on and trying to persuade us that according to his scientific information we should all be creating elevator music in the style of Mantovani if we wanted to be successful and fulfil our creative mission in life. Personally I think the character KA-RA-EL would fit rather nicely into a Sonntag scenario.

Why does KA-MEL defecate?

Farting and defecating are acts associated in classical mythology with the god Jupiter. Contrary to appearances, these acts are emissions of divine blessing (the 'golden shower') and expressions of good humor, hence the term jovial, Jove being another name for Jupiter. The passing out of seven shiny colored spheres is a way of saying that the mini-solar system of Licht is the product of a supremely powerful digestion.

Is LICHT autobiographical then?

Only in the sense that the composer draws on his own experiences, which in Stockhausen's case are striking. If you look at Fellini's movies, they are also works of poetic vision drawn from his lifetime experiences. Their foundation in real people and events gives Fellini's visions much of their power. You don't get that intensity of vision by working to someone else's script.

I still don't get it.

Then read Dante's Divine Comedy or Milton's Paradise Regained or Goethe's Faust. Ask yourself what is the message of Berg's opera Wozzeck or Schoenberg's Moses und Aron. These are all monumental works that deal with the most fundamental issues of what it is to be a human being.

What about the critics?

Critics expect opera to deal with classic formulae (boy meets girl, girl meets boy's mother, boy loses girl etc.) - and to be entertaining. Stockhausen is dealing in formulae too, but they are his variations on the classics, and although entertaining they are also challenging. The critics of Licht should bone up on semiotics

So Michael, Eva, and Luzifer are not real characters?

They are no less real than Oedipus and Clytemnestra, Samson and Delilah, Mephistopheles and Faust, James Bond and Dr. No, or the Addams family. What do you want? Art is not about real people. It is about ideas manifesting themselves as people and creating situations that are taken to their logical conclusion. That's the drama. For Stockhausen, it's also what the music does, which makes LICHT unique.

But where's the plot?

Ask yourself what is the plot of the Bach St Matthew Passion. It's about a visionary and a good person who is arrested as a subversive, tried, and brutally executed, but who miraculously doesn't die. The sub-text is that the human dimension is only the packaging, and what matters is the quality, and the quality has its own life and survives and is transferred to other people.

The old image of enlightenment is of tongues of flame and haloes. LICHT is a tough act to follow, but the end of it all is a dawning of consciousness, the Ah! effect. The answer to your question is, don't ask

What's the significance of the colors?

They are different frequencies in the spectrum. Each color has associations that are very strong and go very deep: red is blood, green is grass, blue is the sky, but also the Red menace, the Green party, the Blues. Not to mention yellow. The different colors all add up to white light: that's the mystery, they balance out. It's not only magic and alchemist traditions who interpret color as a mystical hierarchy; Goethe for example, and Isaac Newton both developed color theories.

Why does Stockhausen get such a bad press?

Modern art has always got a bad press, and modern music continues to suffer because music education in conservatories and universities is the way it is. In 1924 Paul Klee gave a lecture in defense of his artistic vision against critics (including fellow artists) who said his art was not natural. On the contrary, he said, my art penetrates to the essential nature of things.

"First, [the artist] does not attach such intense importance to natural form as do so many realist critics, because, for him, these final forms are not the real stuff of the process of natural creation.

For he places more value on the powers which do the forming than on the final forms themselves...

This being so, the artist must be forgiven if he regards the present state of outward appearances in his own particular world as accidentally fixed in time and space. And as altogether inadequate compared with his penetrating vision and intense depth of feeling." (Paul Klee on Modern Art, London, 1948)

Critics are uncomfortable with such seriousness, and yet it should be thought normal for an artist to be engaged with literature and philosophy and serious issues

So where does Stockhausen's penetrating vision come from?

It comes naturally. I collect books on the history of radio, and my latest acquisition was written in 1924 by a BBC engineer, A.R. Burrows, to introduce radio to the general public at a time when wireless communication was mysterious and new.

Burrows was an ordinary human being caught up in something totally mind-blowing, and he communicates a vision that is really a key to understanding Stockhausen's music as well as his writings.

What is radio? he asks. It is communicating without wires at the speed of light. We become like the stars, sending out vibrations into the infinite. Light and radio waves connect the unimaginable greatness of the universe with the unimaginably small realm of atoms and electrons.

"Man, with his limited number of senses, lives this present life somewhere between the infinitely great and the infinitely small. His senses reveal to him only certain things essential for his earthly wants and safety. They are blind to many things now proven to exist and probably to countless other things of which we are still completely ignorant."

The logic of such a vision is inescapable. Everything conceivable in the universe can be described in terms of oscillating electric charges, and the vibratory nature of existence is reflected in the cycles that dictate life and growth, the days, tides and seasons, through to the orbits of planets and stars in the galaxy. It follows that everything in the universe can be related to an over-arching continuum of frequency that connects the behavior of galaxies to the motion of the atoms, and everything between.

The ancient Greeks understood this, though their analogy was with musical vibrations, not with electromagnetic waves. But they too saw the universe and everything in it as forming an audible continuum.

LICHT is no more and no less than Stockhausen's translation of that kind of vision into musical terms. It is not a vision that Burrows or anyone simply invented. It is an apocalyptic perception of the relatedness of everything that could - and should - be obvious to everyone. The man from the BBC just caught it at the right time.

How important is radio to Stockhausen?

Working in Cologne Radio for most of your adult professional life makes you a very organized person, even if you are already organized, as German people are taught to be. Working in a radio environment you learn about microphones and how to set up equipment, and the importance of exact documentation. And if you keep your ears open, you pick up interesting technical information.

Radio was king in 1953. Television was still in its infancy. Though monophonic and relatively lo-fi, AM radio was the most powerful public service cultural medium, and in Germany the local radio station was a powerful patron of contemporary music. People listened to radio not only for the news, but for radio plays and classical music. And though music broadcasts were direct relays of live concert events, radio plays were a completely different art from the normal stage drama, and drew on a whole range of studio techniques to create entirely new and often fantastical aural images expressing inner voices and states of mind that have nothing to do with prosaic reality. That environment influenced him as well.

Why does so much of his music call for electronic assistance in the form of microphones and speakers? I mean, even a solo piano now has to be miked up and sound projected.

It's a problem for classically trained musicians to come to terms with the sort of ancillary equipment any other performing musician takes for granted. It wasn't always so: in the good old days you could put on a concert of Kontra-Punkte and Zeitmasse or the piano pieces without a microphone in sight.

The problem is that people play these pieces in halls that are too big, and the only way to ensure that audiences can hear the fine detail of the music is by amplifying it in a sensitive way. Classically-trained musicians often don't like it. They think of their music as a dialogue with a natural acoustic. They should then give their concerts in smaller locations with the appropriate acoustics, as early musicians have learned.

Concert halls today differ so much in size and acoustically that the only way a travelling musician can ensure a beautiful image consistently is by the use of microphones and speakers.

There's also the radio dimension as well. In the old days of radio the play would go out live and the producer would sit at a desk and control everything as it happened with cue lights and faders. The sound projection console is today's answer to the conductor's podium and baton. In the David Bowie film (by Nicholas Roeg) The Man who fell to Earth is a scene where the alien takes off in a rocket bound for his alien planet. If you look closely, the control desk is a 1970s studio mixing desk. I think
that is telling us something

All the same, if you compare the simple speaker layouts of earlier times (as on the original Hymnen LP) with the apparatus required now for even a modest concert of Stockhausen, there is a sense that the traditional concert hall acoustic is being superseded by an artificial acoustic, and for independent performers that is an extra layer of cost and preparation. Bringing in all that extra equipment doesn't necessarily improve matters either. You still have to spend ages setting it up, because every hall is different, which is where we began

The development of surround-sound home theater systems that really work will make it possible in the long run for listeners at home to hear (and see) Stockhausen's music faithfully reproduced, and this can be argued in justification of much of the current concern with independent radio mikes and live pan-potting of movements between speakers when you can see and hear the player moving live on stage.

For the time being listeners have to rely on stereo CD reproduction without vision. However some of Stockhausen's electronic music CDs are recorded with the rear two channels phase-reversed and will respond to surround-sound decoding: Kontakte and Hymnen can be treated as if they were UHJ recordings and decoded into acceptable 4-channel sound using an Ambisonics UHJ decoder and balanced four-equal-speaker layout (for more information about UHJ, check out the Ambisonics website).

What is the significance of the nonsense languages in LICHT?

Pulverizing language into syllables and consonant/vowel fragments affects the balance of sense and sound. It used to be thought that syllables on their own had no meaning; now we understand that baby-talk for example has a fundamental layer of meaning related to its acoustic and gestural nature. This dimension of speech is therefore of musical interest and Stockhausen's higher purpose in playing with the sounds of language is to reveal the process by which they acquire meaning and how languages vary in their musicality, as it were.

Meyer-Eppler's exercises in cutting up newspaper articles that impressed Stockhausen so much during his studies of information theory at Bonn University also showed that meaning is not something that is here one moment and gone the next, but rather the shift from meaning to music is a gradual process the more the text is cut up. Even if you cut up and reshuffle a text word by word something of its original meaning remains evident in the choice of vocabulary, the texture of words, and the ratio of short to long words, etc.

There is also a mystical dimension to such practices, for example mantric chanting of a name or group of syllables to achieve a transcendental state. Gertrude Stein was into this form of ritualized speech around 1910. Later a number of European 20th-century poets, among them Tristan Tzara (who got himself expelled from the Surrealist movement for suggesting that one could write poems by pulling words out of a hat), Kurt Schwitters, Franz Mon, and Helmut Heisenbüttel experimented with word and syllable randomizing techniques as a way of generating new thoughts and insights (Text+Kritik vv 25, 30, Munich). Raymond Queneau's Exercices de Style (Paris, 1947) includes several examples of the cut-up technique applied to a basic text 'Notations', for example 'Permutations by groups of 2, 3, 4 and 5 letters':

"Jo un ve ur mi rs su di ap rl te la rm fo rr ea re (etc) ... Dai sou int nil ell erp nvo aso nen isi ten (etc.) ... Ando ilab aill nnad rapi eurs ntla dema (etc.) ... Ueshe quelq lusta uresp erevi rdjel ntlag sdeva intla aresa ... "(and so on).

The inspiration for this was actually World War II coding and decoding of secret information by various permutation strategies, an essential part of the war effort on all sides (and called Intelligence, no less). The idea of locking up meaning in an outwardly meaningless string of data to which only you have the key is rather neat. It's interesting that the serial method has its origins in such techniques, and those who dismiss the serialism of the fifties with a shrug should realise how big a part data encryption plays in present-day computing and telecommunications.

The best introduction to cut-up techniques is probably William Burroughs's 'The Cut-up Method of Brion Gysin' and Gysin's own 'Cut-ups: A Project for Disastrous Success', both reprinted in John Calder (ed): A William Burroughs Reader, London 1982.

How do you begin to study the intuitive text compositions from Aus den sieben tagen or Für kommende Zeiten?

Drama students and dance students nowadays routinely go through encounter groups or practice sessions in which they role-play and develop their mental training. All musicians should learn from this kind of work. The text pieces are frameworks for meditation that relate directly to Stockhausen's fully-composed works. You have to be serious. And by being serious you do become aware when something magical is happening. What Stockhausen says is quite true. It is also true that some musicians get very uptight and their worst natures emerge, just as in method acting you really become the part you play. That can be difficult, but you learn from it.

I'm interested too in the climate of expectancy that you get in intuitive music, because if you translate that sense of readiness to Stockhausen's composed music such as LICHT you enjoy the unexpectedness of it so much more.

Why do so many of Stockhausen's former collaborators no longer work with him?

He's a tough person to work for. People suffer burnout. He deals with concepts they have never thought about in a musical context. It's a shame, but it happens. He can be like a movie director who has a definite idea of what he wants, but not how to achieve it. He puts pressure on the performer or the studio technician to understand and achieve that goal, and it's up to them to do it. And sometimes they get exhausted and they quit. What's wrong with that? Of course it can lead to an impression of Saturn devouring his children, which is a pity.

The fact that the operas in the LICHT cycle seem to be dealing with fewer and fewer characters and smaller and smaller instrumental forces as time goes on should not be taken as meaning that the music itself could not be revised at some future time for larger forces. Stockhausen's troubles with orchestras and musician's unions are well known and have even been written into the actions of Donnerstag for example. When the world is a better place and musicians are routinely instructed in information theory, maybe then it will be time for a change. What we can say is that where there is an electronic score already in place, as we have seen with Kontakte and Hymnen, there is always the possibility of Stockhausen adding a further layer of acoustic instrumentation to enliven the action. I can easily imagine a version of Dienstag for full orchestra ending with a lot of dead bodies strewn across the floor. (Dienstag also means 'service' too, by the way, just as Freitag also means 'freedom'.)

Seriously, if you are forced to work with only a few people that you can really rely on, then you carry on working and you do it. The important thing is the work, and in Stockhausen's case the work itself is in the formulae and the structure and the working out of relationships within the structure and the tapes. All the rest is packaging. You can always change the packaging

Why the four helicopters in Helikopter-Quartett?

It's a great idea. It's a commentary on everyday life: we get our traffic reports every day from a little helicopter flying overhead while the rest of us on earth are stuck in traffic. He likes the idea of flying: read the books and interviews. Then again, helicopters are symbols too of pestilence and war - I call them the Four Helicopters of the Apocalypse. In the Cott interviews Stockhausen recalls a session of intuitive music that lasted until dawn; the players then got into their cars and headed off home in different directions, still playing their music. And don't forget that in 1968-69, the time of the intuitive pieces, which were all about staying fixed to the earth but training your mind to escape into outer space, NASA was actually preparing to land people on the moon. That's a powerful image. I'm sure Stockhausen made a mental note at the time to compose a work for a quartet of rockets rather than helicopters. But you have to be realistic.

Helicopters are noisy. But the noises are a lot stronger and more dramatic than any off the shelf synthesiser and that's good because we all recognize a helicopter overhead and the sounds are heard to move in real space not just as a result of a mixing desk. They are the next step up from the rotation sounds of Sirius, and they integrate with the electronic tapestry of sounds because they demonstrate beautifully the translation of perception that happens when the rhythms and cycles of earthbound existence are speeded up: you take off.

There's a moment in the Carré recording where a Boeing 707 passes overhead. Nobody ever talks about it, but it's a wonderful moment, and it fits. And remember Ylem, the Sinfonietta piece where the small group of players expands and contracts in the auditorium space like a sea anemone, and at the end they disappear through the exits and go off in different directions, still playing.

Who were the great influences on Stockhausen's music?

That's always a tricky question because the composer is touchy about having others get the credit for his personal musical achievements. We should always remember that the work is the thing. Mozart had his precursors, and we value them in Mozart, not for themselves.

Read the books. It's a great pity Richard Toop's English translation of Volume 2 of the DuMont Texts was not published, because the early essays, for example on Mozart's cadence structure (masculine and feminine endings), on the Webern Concerto (multiple time-layers), and on the textures of Debussy's music (statistical form) are extremely illuminating. I look forward eagerly to the new English editions. If you don't read German and have had to rely on the English-language translations of the Die Reihe era you are in for a treat. Of course, many of the later commentaries are printed in the sleeve-notes to the LP and CD recordings.

Bartók and Webern were already dead of course by the time he got to know their music. The Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion is a key work, containing the seeds of many ideas: of symmetrical formations, modular timing, layered tempi, and tempered versus non-tempered pitches, - that appear in the earliest works. Schoenberg died in 1951 and there is very little that I can see of the Op 11 or Op 23 piano pieces, or the 1947 Phantasy in the early chamber works. Messiaen's teaching was less important than his example of a truly catholic and mystical sensibility connected to very precise theories of modes, colors and time-controls. Messiaen's use of the organ as a giant synthesizer is significant too.

I should add in passing that the orchestration of Stockhausen's 1950 Three Songs for Alto Voice is unlike anything in Schoenberg, Hindemith or anyone else. If anything it draws on the musical animations of composers like Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley who created the music for Tex Avery cartoons.

Herbert Eimert's role in Stockhausen's early formation is controversial. I studied with Eimert and while I admire him as an enabler I really don't see him as a profound thinker or an influence. He was responsible for the Cologne studios and he initiated a number of still interesting electronic exercises and compositions issued by Wergo on LP in the 1960s.

Werner Meyer-Eppler to my mind was perhaps the single most important influence on Stockhausen's creative development. Through his studies with Meyer-Eppler at Bonn University Stockhausen acquired an essential grounding in acoustics, psychoacoustics and linguistics on which many of the major compositions and early theoretical writings are based, from Gesang der Jünglinge to Kontakte, Momente and Hymnen. When Meyer-Eppler died Stockhausen's music and outlook changed abruptly. The Jonathan Cott book is quite revealing in this respect.

Henri Pousseur and Karel Goeyvaerts were key figures in Stockhausen's development by his own account but by the late 1950s Goeyvaerts was a spent force. The intellectual Pousseur memorialized in Hymnen lost his way in the hippie revolution that claimed Cornelius Cardew, Frederic Rzewski and other lost souls.

Influences is not the right word when you are dealing with the spirit of the times. For years at Darmstadt and other festivals young composers met and exchanged ideas, and whatever they might say in later life about where their ideas come from, the fact of the matter is that a lot of very good ideas were freely shared and interpreted by different composers according to their traditions. Nobody, not even Stockhausen, is totally autonymous. It is only when you put his music into context that you can really appreciate how good he is.

Boulez is perhaps the only other major composer to understand Stockhausen and their musical developments can be seen in some respects as complementary. The IRCAM programming team could learn a lot from Stockhausen's recent works. Whatever the limitations of Stockhausen's Synthi 100 sounds, he at least manipulates them in more interesting and imaginative ways in 3-D space than the charming but antiquated Lasry-Baschet style noises of the 4X, which reveal the inadequacies of ASDR processing in all their nakedness. (Thank goodness for the new Stanford instrument modelling software, which promises to change everything.)

Stravinsky was keenly interested in Stockhausen's music of the 1950s, and the enormous transformation of his music from neo-classicism to serialism owes more to his study of Kontra-Punkte, Zeitmasse, Gruppen, Carré, Zyklus and Momente, I believe, than to Webern. Groups, moment-form (The Flood), time-layers (Abraham and Isaac), choric noises (Threni, Requiem Canticles)- the music is full of typically concentrated allusions to Stockhausen. The key work is Movements, of course. Even the three clarinets of Elegy for JFK sound electronic.

John Cage was a friend and, for a while, a fellow spirit. It doesn't matter that he and Stockhausen went in different directions: they were both concerned with music and hearing as a way to achieve a higher consciousness. In order to understand Stockhausen's greatness one really should consider it in relation to Cage's corpus of works, the Piano Pieces V-VIII in parallel with Cage's Music of Changes, for example - not for 'influences' but for their differences. The two composers are opposite poles in many ways, Cage eventually advocating a passive, non-interventionist role (the artist as photographer) while Stockhausen advocates ever more meticulous control of an acoustic experience (the artist as film-maker). To hear Cage recite his Mesostics on video or in the tape of the 1988-89 Charles Eliot Norton lectures (Harvard University Press, 1990) is to experience that very American quality of focused spirituality that all musicians who play Stockhausen's music should try to attain. Cage's purity of purpose is equal to Stockhausen's. They reflect one another

Copyright © Robin Maconie 08.30.98.

Revised 06.05.99

Robin Maconie is currently Professor of Performing Arts at Savannah College of Art and Design and can be reached at

Robin Maconie is author of The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen (Oxford University Press 1976, 2nd revised edition 1990, 3rd edition in preparation), editor and co-author of Stockhausen on Music (Marion Boyars 1989), and collaborator with Barrie Gavin in the production of the BBC 'Omnibus' 1981 Stockhausen film portrait Tuning in. He studied under Messiaen 1963-64, and with Stockhausen, Pousseur, Eimert, Aloys Kontarsky, Bernd-Alois Zimmermann and others 1964-65. His most recent publication is The Science of Music (Clarendon Press, 1997). He is currently Professor of Performing Arts at Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia.