Through the Looking Glass
Robin Maconie revisits Hymnen, Karlheinz
Stockhausen's electroacoustic classic of the 1960s
This article first published in THE MUSICAL TIMES VOLUME 139, NUMBER 1863
(Summer 1998) is based on a lecture delivered at the University of Cardiff thanks to the
initiative of Stephen Walsh and the UoC Music Department.
TWO TELLING IMAGES sum up Jean Cocteau's magical film Orphée. One is the famous scene where Orpheus passes through the mirror to reach the underworld. Orpheus is the musician of classical mythology; his journey across the frontier of reality into a spiritual netherworld is no gratuitous act of tourism but a quest to recover his lost muse from limbo by the eloquence of his music and restore her to the land of the living. In a memoir (Cocteau on the film, a conversation recorded with André Fraigneau, tr. Vera Traill, London, ?1952) Cocteau describes staging the scene where the surface of the mirror is magically transformed into a liquid allowing Orpheus and his companion to pass through to the underworld. Today such a scene would be effected by computer, but in the austere postwar days of black and white such illusions had to be fabricated in real life. Orpheus looks at himself in a mirror. In the next shot the mirror has become a tank full of mercury, very expensive and highly dangerous. Orpheus's extended hands, protected by surgical gloves, are seen to approach and pass through the reflecting surface. This single shot is over in seconds but took an entire day to accomplish. Among many difficulties, the mercury tended to cloud over and had to be periodically polished to restore what Cocteau describes as its 'soft, heavy' reflective surface. Working with mercury, there is also a danger of breathing in vapour or of stray mercury coming into contact with the skin. 'Why go to these risks?", Cocteau was asked.
"Because mercury shows only the reflection and not the part that has penetrated into the mirror,
as water would have done. In mercury the hands disappear, and the gesture is accompanied by a
kind of shiver, whereas water would have produced ripples and circles of waves. On top of that,
mercury has resistance." (113)
To create a poetic illusion can involve great risks and feats of organisation to achieve apparently casual effects. But hard work can make all the difference: to the viewer Orpheus does go through the mirror, because you see it happen, and that makes his journey into the Underworld believable.
Cocteau's existentialist imagery summons up the mysterious vision of the painter de Chirico, in particular the famous canvas, like a backdrop to an empty stage, in which a Greek statue suggesting an enduring memory of time past and a rather large bunch of bananas representing a transitory present are discovered side by side in a timeless urban piazza rendered in the distorted perspective of opera with a departing steam train silhouetted on the horizon (The Uncertainty of the Poet, 1913). The image of travel hints at the same promise of escape from the logic of history to a new beginning and a new world as Honegger's film music Pacific 231 and Pierre Schaeffer's pioneering sound effects composition Etude aux chemins de fer. The journey across cultures is also the subtext of Stockhausen's major tape composition Hymnen.
Perhaps you remember the other famous scene in Orphée where Orpheus is travelling by car through the mysterious landscape of the Underworld. It is the dead of night, but the scene of night outside is actually a negative print, a mysterious antithesis of a daylight view down a tree lined avenue. As the car speeds silently along we overhear delphic remarks coming from a radio in the dashboard, obscure clues in a secret code that heighten a viewer's sense of alienation and anticipation. That sense of embarking on a dangerous journey, travelling in the dark toward an unknown destination guided only by coded fragments of messages relayed from another world is the 20th-century equivalent of Arthurian legend, where the gods are represented by radio and the task of the hero is not only to achieve a particular goal but to learn how to navigate safely and interpret the messages encountered on the way. The myth extends from Saint-Exupéry's Night flight to Kubrick's 2001: a space odyssey, and from the fictitious endless journey of Star trek to the real-life drama of round-the-world yachting and rescue.
For Cocteau's Orpheus tale mercury is the reflective medium by which the hero gains entry to the underworld. But in his guise as messenger of the gods Mercury is also the god of radio communication, not just of the mobile phone, and it is through the medium of radio, both as radio drama and also as telecommunications, that we discover a perspective on Stockhausen's Hymnen ('Anthems'), a rich composition for four-channel tape which takes the listener on to the flight deck for an epic journey where the only means of orientation in the aural stratosphere is radio and where survival depends on recognising call-signs and making connections. Whether Stockhausen is a fan of Cocteau or not I have no idea. There are echoes of the motorcycles of Cocteau's messengers of Hades in Orphée in the rotating sounds of landing and lift-off in Stockhausen's 'Close encounters' space oratorio Sirius, and a real motorcycle makes an appearance in the composer's Gagaku-inspired Der Jahreslauf ('The course of the years'). That could well be just a coincidence. But the radiophonic connections with myth and dreams are absolutely certain: they are the message of the medium, to paraphrase McLuhan.
The point was vividly brought home to me on a visit to Cologne some years ago when I stepped out of the train late at night and into a cab, an old Mercedes bristling with aerials and reeking inside of diesel and cigarettes. It was just after midnight and miserably cold. The taxi dashboard glowed with the miniature landscape of lights of an airplane cockpit display, and the intercom speaker emitted a continuous stream of overlapping transmissions as if monitoring every available radio channel simultaneously, some voice, some music. The idea of navigating through this communications maze added an extra dimension of excitement to an otherwise routine journey. What else could the driver be listening to? Was he a radio ham expecting distress calls? What could be happening at this normally dead time of night to generate all of this electronic activity? It was like stepping into the opening short-wave chaos of Hymnen, and I realised that the composer was not simply making it up: this was a chaos he must have experienced many times in real life.
THE essential parameters of radio drama were outlined as long ago as 1924 in a curious little book, Broadcasting from within, designed to win over a sceptical public to the idea of public service broadcasting. Its author was Cecil Lewis, the last survivor of the original management team of the fledgling British Broadcasting Company - in fact he died only last year (1997) at the ripe old age of 98. Lewis was a poet and playwright and he saw exciting potential in the new medium, applications far ahead of what technology was able to deliver. In a chapter called 'Stereoscopic broadcasting' he speaks of the possibility of listening to a Shakespeare play or an opera performance in stereo using two transmitters broadcasting on different frequencies, and he adds that the listener would be put to the expense of obtaining two crystal sets, one for each ear. Elsewhere he develops the idea of a new art of radio,
"largely narrative in form, given in a series of sound pictures and linked up by a Voice
which carries story and action forward, [and] depending largely for its effect on the
realism of the various atmospheres produced by the noises transmitted. [...] Scenes
can be set from one end of the world to the other. They mustdevelop quickly, each
character being sharply contrasted in tone; for the listener, blinded as he is, cannot
concentrate indefinitely on any [one] theme, however enthralling it may be.
There must be, also, a very limited number of characters or else the hearer soon
becomes mazed in a whirl of voices and argument out of which he can make
no order or purpose." (119-21)
Hymnen for 4-channel tape is a WDR (West German Radio, Cologne) production, Stockhausen's fifth major electronic composition and his first to employ pre-recorded material on a large scale. Composed in 1966-67, it is a product of the 1960s, and by virtue of being based on national anthems combined in various hierarchies and transformed into one another, may be understood in superficial respects as music with an overriding political message of reflection and reconciliation at a time of student revolution, Vietnam, the Cold War, and other issues of mass protest and mass celebration. For listeners who remember those times Hymnen may arouse familiar memories. For a younger generation these associations are less relevant. So what else do they mean? Is there a deeper level of meaning that any generation of listener would be able to relate to? If I say that the musical meaning of Stockhausen's concrete sounds is not just what they say or signify but what they are acoustically that is a clue. Indeed, in order to grasp what they are acoustically you have really to empty your mind of what the sounds remind you. That way you become aware of certain sounds not just as high-pitched, but as fast-moving, and other sounds not only as low in pitch but as slow-moving, and that sounds that are low in pitch can be transformed into sounds of high pitch by changing their speed. In one particularly famous sequence a tinselly rattle slows down and becomes recognisable as a cheering crowd and then slows down further to merge with the sound of quacking ducks, and at the end of this sequence the composer mischievously adds a solo duck quacking the 'Marseillaise': this is after all a part of the music where the French anthem is in the ascendant.
The concept of a relativistic acoustical universe where musical forms are subject to changes of scale and personality is natural to sound recording. Another playwright, Bernard Shaw no less, made this very point in one of his conversational BBC talks broadcast long ago in 1930, in which he tells of listening to a recording - a 78 of course - of a speech by the politician Ramsay MacDonald, and that when he heard it he did not recognise the voice as that of his friend. 'That is not Ramsay MacDonald: I know his voice; he has a deep, kindly voice, and this is a high, petulant, opinionated voice of somebody disagreeable and small in stature.' (I paraphrase). The man behind the counter said it was Ramsay MacDonald's voice and pointed to his name on the label. Shaw said, 'that is not his voice, but I can find it for you'. And 'by moving the screw regulating the speed' he slowed the record down until the recognisable tone of the politician emerged. And Shaw concluded with a typically imaginative touch to his listeners, saying 'You all know my voice, and that I am a friendly person. But how can I be sure that you are listening to me at the correct speed?' In effect, he is saying that the world of recorded sounds is a relativistic domain where what something is depends on the speed at which it is experienced. Einstein could not have put it more clearly.
In 1965 I was a postgraduate music student in Cologne dividing my time between the college electronic music studio at the Musikhochschule and Stockhausen lectures at the rival Konservatorium. Stockhausen had just taken over the artistic directorship of the WDR electronic studios from Herbert Eimert. The radio stations of the German principalities, and of Milan, Paris, and other European capitals including London, were the places where electronic music was created and where it flourished, and I saw the composer's connection with the world of broadcasting as part and parcel of the wider patronage radio provided through its orchestras and concert festivals to contemporary music in general in the period of rebuilding after the war.
Stockhausen's earlier electronic compositions had been very abstract, very challenging and highly reasoned. Electronic music was the cutting edge of avant-garde music. It was supposed to be totally new, a product of the 1950s. There were two schools of thought in tape music. The first to arrive, concrete music (musique concrète), centred on Pierre Schaeffer's studio in Paris. Schaeffer was a former radio drama studio technician who after the war sought to make a new kind of music out of the sound effects records that are a staple of radio drama production. His abstract compositions based on recognisable sound images attracted widespread attention and Schaeffer published books on the theory of musique concrète in which he envisioned a new science of 'sound objects', musical Gestalten that could be classified and manipulated in a studio to reveal their inner nature. Once again, as for Cecil Lewis, the poetic vision far outstripped what was technically achievable. In fact the first examples of musique concrète like the Etude aux chemins de fer were not recorded and manipulated on tape, but dubbed from disc on to acetate disc, and sampled, reversed, and recopied from disc to disc until there was more surface noise than original sound left to hear.
Electronic music had rather different origins, though it came to flourish in radio centres just the same. In the early 1950s Professor Werner Meyer-Eppler and Robert Beyer of Bonn University's Institute of Information Science were among a widely-distributed international team of researchers involved in studies that had directly to do with speech recognition and automatic translation. This research had a dual purpose: a cold war extension of wartime code-breaking to enable new electronic and computing technologies to intercept and translate radio and telephone voice messages automatically, and a more benign purpose of assisting the peaceful deliberations of the newly-founded United Nations by providing an automatic translation service based on real time speech recognition and translation hardware and substitution software. In order to synthesise speech one needs to understand tone synthesis and if you are going to make translation automatic you need also to develop rules of sentence construction and inflection. The research effort involved major US establishments like the Bell Labs and MIT, and expertise ranging from John von Neumann in computing to Max Mathews in information theory and Noam Chomsky in linguistics. Musicians were drawn into this field because of their aural awareness and training and because music was regarded as a rudimentary form of speech. Like many information scientists Meyer-Eppler and Beyer took an interest in tone and melody analysis and synthesis as a starting point for the more complex problems of speech recognition, and their initial experiments in electronic music attracted the attention of Herbert Eimert at Cologne Radio. As a result an experimental electronic music studio was set up, initially within the radio drama department, to develop and implement procedures of analysis and synthesis of complex tones that might also contribute to the development of new arts of music and drama for radio. Similar enterprises were to follow: in Milan - the otherwise curiously named Studio di fonologia - and the University of Illinois where Lejaren A. Hiller and Leonard Isaacson produced some of the first computer synthesised compositions based on analysis and substitution principles.
Pierre Boulez, who famously dismissed Schoenberg and the musical tradition of Schoenberg's modernism in a 1952 valedictory article 'Schoenberg is dead' (The Score 6, 1952) was expressing a general consensus among the young avant-garde that postwar music should be free of ancient dogmas of melody and harmony that had lost their 'deep structure' of meaning and thereby their relevance. Boulez also famously castigated the Schaeffer studio set-up (Relevés d'apprenti, Paris 1966, 285-6) for promoting a post-Raphaelite bruitism amounting to no more than an aesthetic pose reflecting a total absence of investigative method. The distinctively scientific approach at Cologne was what attracted me to Stockhausen in particular. He had been encouraged to study information theory with Meyer-Eppler at Bonn University for two years, and was crucially influenced by seminars in which newspaper articles were cut up into sentences, then words, then isolated syllables, and then reassembled in new orders to discover how much of the original meaning remained (an approach to literary invention taken up among others by Raymond Queneau, William Burroughs, the Mittel-european 'concrete poets' and, more recently, David Bowie). During this period of study Stockhausen was also engaged in a lengthy correspondence with the Belgian composer Karel Goeyvaerts on what direction new music ideally should take. Goeyvaerts insisted on electronic music as the only true path, since conventional musical instruments were burdened with cultural and functional associations totally at odds with a truly objective musical creation. (In terms of contemporary practice Goeyvaerts was right, though we are now able to discern a longer tradition of musical science related to speech analysis - recognition of the harmonic distinctions of vowel sounds and the expressive nature of speech melody, development of precision notation - in the development of the Renaissance grand organ and associated instrumental families such as recorders and viols for experiments in harmonic synthesis.)
FROM his early writings as well as his music Stockhausen's work was clearly concerned to follow procedures of music synthesis that would have scientific as well as aesthetic validity. His early electronic Studies I and II can be seen in one sense as basic research into tone synthesis, the first hand-made Fourier synthesised timbres using sinusoidal waveforms, the second based on data loops of arpeggiated sine-tones blended acoustically in an echo-chamber. His next work Gesang der Jünglinge ('Song of the youths') built on that experience to create a vocabulary of artificial vowels and consonants and blend them ingeniously with recorded segments of a boy's voice singing (in real time) a text from the Apocrypha. Composed for four- or five-channel audio reproduction, it brings vividly to life the connection between abstract sound elements and elements of speech, and its methodical approach helped to establish the principle of a continuum within which vowel sounds like [u] and [ae] and [i], and consonants like [ff], [ss], [k] and [t] could be chartered as locations on a map, and linear connections established between them.
Phonetics however is an essentially subjective set of distinctions, based on how sounds appear to a listener, not on how they are structured. Five years later, in the 1960 composition Kontakte ('Contacts') Stockhausen has moved on to scalar distinctions of a more objective kind, based on waveforms and the procedures for generating them rather than merely on how they sound to a listener. In this music we encounter a significantly expanded vocabulary of terms relating to dynamic processes and patterns that according to their degree of acceleration change in timbre from (say) wooden to metallic, or from dull to bright. With this new composition Stockhausen sought to put across the idea of real instruments as fixed points on a sliding scale of timbres defined electronically as data sequences, which is why in the version of the piece with optional piano and percussion instruments there are a number of unusual items such as a bongo upside down with dried beans inside, bamboo chimes, and various plywood topped tom-toms, ad hoc additions to the instrumentarium to fill gaps in the spectrum of sounds. In this music wooden sounds are not only perceived as subjectively different from metal sounds, they can also be perceived intellectually as transformable in timescale from wood to metal. So the argument of this music is that the distinctions we ordinarily recognise are no longer to be understood as inherently true, merely as time-dependent human conventional ways of hearing.
For a novice music postgraduate this was completely new territory. Such things are never taught in a music department. What had attracted me aesthetically to this music was that it was so consistently unlike any other music I had ever encountered before - the consistency being a token of a systematic and disciplined approach - and also because its production standards, including four-channel surround-sound, were for 1961 so far in advance of any other tape music being produced. While not understanding the music I was nevertheless impressed at the complexities of fantasy the composer's procedures enabled him to achieve. The underlying serial agenda or spectrum is the guarantee of a work's distinctive vocabulary of terms and interactions.
I soon came to discover that the serial principle in Stockhausen was nevertheless not as 'pure' or transparent to analysis as for example in the music of Webern or Schoenberg. In practice Stockhausen's formal structure is subject to reflective treatments, fantasies and elaborations that fly off at a tangent to the initiating programme of synthesis and are treated literally as 'diversions' to be followed up immediately, and not simply avoided or filed away. There is a point in Kontakte (17'38,5" in the published score, 33 seconds into cue 14 on the Stockhausen-Verlag CD) where the music settles on the note E below middle C, and having reached that point Stockhausen said he just wanted to go deeper into this one note, even though to do so wasn't part of his original scheme. As a novice codebreaker I found this disregard of laid-down procedure deliberately perplexing, even morally objectionable. It took me a long time to realise that Stockhausen was right. The series (or rigorous procedure) is not simply a yellow brick road or path of righteousness (Webern's 'path to the new music') from which one is forbidden to stray. Nor is it there for your artistic protection; nor is it a guarantee of musical virtue. Rather, it is a way of directing activity toward a particular goal that will necessarily point the traveller in the direction of uncharted territory. Stockhausen's willingness to be diverted, however subversive it may seem to an academic observer, is in fact a key to his superior achievement as a composer. It is part of the point to recognise the hazards and opportunities that arise from following a particular logical course and to deal with them as obstacles to be overcome or diversions to be enjoyed along the way.
Stockhausen's music by 1965 was developing in new directions. Works like Mikrophonie I and Mixtur for orchestra and ring-modulators (the latter producing short-wave distortions of orchestral timbres) were playing with dangerously complex material and deliberately taking risks in the hope of unforeseen results. Even so it was still very difficult to appreciate any procedural or intellectual consistency between the earlier, 'purer' electronic works and Hymnen, in which the composer was employing the very type of 'concrete sounds' or ready-made musical images of a musical tradition he and Boulez had so publicly renounced so many years before
BUT after Kontakte, where was electronic music to go? The first I learned of the new composition Hymnen was in Stockhausen's composition class where the composer outlined a kind of sequel to Kontakte in which a tape plays a continuous backdrop of radiophonic and electronic sounds and a small number of players on stage react to them and bring them down to earth as it were. Stockhausen was building on what he had originally intended for Kontakte: a relationship of tape as database to musicians as independent operators able to select, imitate, and freely combine musical tones and gestures continuously available on tape. At that time in 1959 after a number of trials it had become clear that the players were uncomfortable with such unfamiliar material and so the idea was abandoned for the time being and a fixed score of instrumental parts was composed for the version of Kontakte with instruments. Stockhausen's adoption of national anthems for the tape of Hymnen could therefore be seen as a device to provide his soloists (and audience) with easily recognisable materials of a kind that classically-trained musicians would find more congenial for free imitation and development in musical conversation. Not that anything is free under Stockhausen. The imitation and transformation régime was laid out in a number of study scores resembling Turing machines (the plus-minus scores), imaging procedures treating freely chosen musical objects in the manner of microscope specimens that can be moved in and out of focus, or up and down the co-ordinates of hearing, in whole or in part.
Aesthetically it may come as a surprise to think of Stockhausen's Hymnen as belonging to a tradition of radio drama. But the reality is not so strange, and Hymnen shares this heritage not only with musique concrète but also with Berio and the neo-realists such as Cage whose chance compositions are a calculated rejoinder to the power of recording. The world of radio drama is a world of interior monologue. It is the same world of memory as that of reading a novel. The logic of any narrative event or argument is somebody else's interior monologue. Either you enter into that perception of events or you hitch a ride on it and find an alternative interpretation that fits what you want to discover. Art is like that. There is nothing special or novel in the underlying idea that the tape or the radio or the interactive CD inhabits a different world, or parallel universe, and that what we make of that information defines our interior world.
But we all know too that the world through the looking-glass is one where time runs differently or not at all and normal distinctions no longer obtain. It is true of all looking-glass worlds, whether it be Orpheus's silver screen, or Lewis Carroll's mirror over the mantelpiece, or your neighbour's wide-screen video, or the games computer arcade at a motorway service station. In all of these worlds things are not what they seem: they change shape and assume different, sometimes menacing identities. In Hymnen the national anthems that act as navigational beacons are liable to slip, slide and change from moment to moment. In television we know it as 'morphing': Constable Odo turns into a hatstand, a thermos flask into an unspeakable alien. We observe real-life morphing in speeded-up nature films where a pupating caterpillar dances a jig and changes into a butterfly, or a dead mouse on the sand evaporates in a flurry of maggots to become a scrap of carpet. We listen in fascination to a Rory Bremner monologue as it mutates seamlessly through a succession of famous voices in a melody of personality changes. In Jonathan Harvey's Mortuos plango we hear the timbre of a boy's voice transformed digitally into a bell, echoing Shakespeare's line 'Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang' which in turn derives its poetic force as William Empson reminds us in Seven types of ambiguity from the fact that in poetry we do not confirm words such as 'choirs' or 'birds' in their literal meanings but interpret them as multiple images capable of oscillating from one meaning to another.
One's immediate response to a work of music with national anthems as major characters is to think conflict, conflict-resolution, peace, love, the sixties - and leave it at that. But its roots go much deeper into the art and film of the 20th century, from the fantastic visual anamorphisms of Meliès to the collages of Picasso, Braque and Schwitters, to the frottages of Max Ernst. Stockhausen himself has spoken (in Jonathan Cott, Stockhausen: conversations with the composer, New York, 1973) of the visual artist's powers of illusion and in particular of Jasper Johns's painterly transformations of the map of the United States and the Stars and Stripes; also of Robert Rauschenberg's ability to create new associations from juxtaposing the most unlikely objects: a tyre, a stuffed goat. In many ways Hymnen can be seen as applying the techniques of these artists, - the incorporation of 'real' objects into the art work, the deliberate distressing and distortion of the familiar, - to musical objects which have equally strong powers of association. The question is whether the object is simply pasted into the art work for superficial effect, like a newspaper cutting in a cubist composition, or whether it is treated as part of the structure. It is interesting that the scientific community should have a particular fondness for the art of Escher and Dali, both of whom transform objects of everyday reality into paradox by a combination of sharply focused imaging and a deep understanding of the sciences of perception. It allows Escher to draw a hand drawing a hand drawing the first hand, or Dali to transform a classical Madonna and Child into an ear: instead of simple juxtaposition for ironic effect, as in a collage, you have a representation that allows the viewer to experience images in continuous transformation. Hymnen is closer to Dali than Schwitters, its poetry is through-composed metamorphosis and not simply cut and stick.
Thirty years on, one can now view Hymnen as a significant continuation of those voice recognition researches of the 1950s. In the first electronic studies a start is made on the synthesis of voice sounds; in Gesang der Jünglinge synthesised speech sounds are combined with the sound of a boy's singing voice; in Kontakte the focus changes to the acoustics of materials and how one can be transformed into another; now with Hymnen the composer is addressing the question of analysis and synthesis of meaningful musical statements, the equivalent of Meyer-Eppler's concern with the deconstruction and re-integration of meaningful speech. (Incidentally, the formal structure of Stockhausen's cantata Momente is based on a similar agenda, but expressed in live vocal and instrumental rather than electronic terms.)
SO ALTHOUGH Hymnen has come to be acknowledged as 'electronic and concrete music', in effect resolving the old antinomies between Paris and Cologne, it should be understood that the composer's purpose is no less rigorous for that. In fact a national anthem is the perfect example of a Schaefferian 'musical object' for transformational analysis: it is a composition of limited length having a distinct identity; it is music symbolizing nationhood and capable of triggering all kinds of emotional responses; it is also music that functions as a communication signal both at a live event and on radio. All of this allows us to see Stockhausen's musical interests in Hymnen in terms of the wider issue of information science through the 1950s and 1960s as exemplified in the researches of figures such as Max Mathews, Hiller and Isaacson, John von Neumann and others. This was a joint investigation into the deconstruction and reformulation of coherent musical sentences, and it focused quite deliberately on national anthems and folk melodies as sources of the basic units of musical speech. Among papers presented at the Fall 1966 San Francisco Joint Computer Conference (Music by Computers, Heinz von Foerster and James W. Beauchamp (eds), New York, 1969) is one by Max Mathews and L. Rosler of Bell Labs in which examples are presented of the United Kingdom military anthem 'The British grenadiers' being transformed by a process of analysis and interpolation into the corresponding US marching song 'When Johnny comes marching home', and a second example entitled 'International lullaby' in which a familiar Schubert melody is translated 'by means of time-varying weighted averages of frequency and duration functions' into a pentatonic Japanese melody. Musically these examples are unbelievably banal: they have no aesthetic merit whatsoever, and the barren Music IV square-wave sonorities in which they are recorded are equally bereft of taste or invention. The whole point of the exercise lies in the transformation process of one melody into another. So one can see Hymnen in this context, a major-length tape composition dating from exactly the same period and sharing exactly the same intellectual premisses as the Mathews/Rosler paper, as a magisterial response from the German musical and intellectual tradition to a US cold war agenda of speech recognition and translation, the difference being that whereas the US effort is focused on one thing only (the process) and is intentionally lacking in aesthetic or human interest, from the same starting-point Stockhausen has generated an extraordinary musical composition that also comprehensively addresses underlying issues of melody synthesis by interpolation and substitution programming.
The characters in the dramatic landscape of Hymnen are national anthems. Some are relatively familiar: those of the USA, France, Britain, Germany, Austria and Russia for instance; others are less familiar, those from African nations: Egypt, The Gambia. There is a moment of tension when the Horst Wessel-Lied unexpectedly appears, and in one of several interruptions of the musical flow the composer, in his role as the Voice, is heard to observe that despite its painful associations the Nazi rallying song is also part of the national heritage: it is (only) a memory ('Es ist eine Erinnerung'). These anthems with their familiar historical and cultural associations meet and interact, and from time to time they seem to exchange identities or merge to produce hybrid offspring. The audience follows this celestial debate as it were from a distance. Stockhausen has often spoken of his experience of flying for hours on end over America in the late 1950s with his ear pressed to the window, listening to the subtle changes of colour and rhythm within the propeller sound, and the example of long-distance flying is a helpful guide to the timescale of a work where instead of modulating from key to key the music travels from continent to continent, a movement expressed as a change in musical perspective from anthem to anthem - though a journey that begins as in this case with the 'Internationale' and ends with the Swiss anthem is one that starts from a music that represents everywhere but nowhere and ends at a place that is politically neutral, a point of no return.
THE WORK'S grand scale too is closer to the fifties than the sixties: one thinks of the huge tapestries of Jackson Pollock and the monumental canvases of Robert Motherwell as well as the vast prairies of the films of John Ford. However the spirit and atmosphere of Stockhausen's cinemascopic soundscapes from Hymnen to the present day in his more recent tape compositions Unsichtbare Chöre ('Invisible Choirs') and Orchester-finalisten ('Orchestra finalists') are also reminiscent of the surreal dance interludes of the Gene Kelly musicals of the fifties, or the ballet sets of the same period by Noguchi where the world is a flat plain with lines converging on the horizon, dotted with silent cactus-like figures out of Henry Moore and Hans Arp that cast long shadows in the twilight - or even the planetary landscape of Altair 4 in the film Forbidden planet, or the alien sets on to which Captain Kirk and his crew beam down in the original series of Star trek. Nor is the landscape entirely bleak either: at times the listener is transported into a sketch by Saul Steinberg where a thumbprint becomes a grizzled face, and a french curve a mysterious cloud in the sky. A few years ago the BBC mounted a performance of Stockhausen's Third region of Hymnen with orchestra at the Barbican in London, and in this region dominated by the Russian anthem (realised on the WDR studio's customised Synthi-100, by the way) one is able to hear Stockhausen connecting with the spirit and timescale of Bruckner and Mahler, as wll as with the humour of Beethoven (of the Variations on 'God save the king').
So how does one find one's way through such a musical landscape? How does one listen to a conventional symphony? There the instruments and tempos are your points of reference and themes and key changes the variables; here the anthems are your guide and what one might call 'ways of hearing' the variables. The anthems are glimpsed, then hidden; stretched and compressed in time; moved up and down in pitch; suffled, interwoven, overlaid, pulverised, sliced and recombined. From time to time the musical fabric is ripped asunder; at other times you hear the sound of your own ears ringing. Listen out for the fast events in the midst of the very slow, and the unchanging elements within enormous turbulence. Listen out for the choir that suddenly freezes in mid-chord, the harmony slowly stretched and pulled apart as if on a gigantic rack. Listen too for the period of calm where the composer imagines himself once again as a boy, lying under a tree, listening to the sound of a small airplane circling overhead.
And all of this music is handmade, and the quality and intricacy of the manipulations has to be heard to be believed. If in one sense Hymnen represents the high point of radiophonic composition, in a great many other senses it represents a peak of radiophonic dramatic art that radio itself has never fully achieved. From 1956 Stockhausen's tape compositions have been realised in four or more channels: twenty years before the brief rise and fall of quadraphonic recording, and thirty years before home theatre surround-sound, still an arguably inferior technology. The work's nearest technical antecedents are Fantasound, the original multi-channel system developed for the Walt Disney classic Fantasia, and the sound system designed by Philips for Varèse's Poème électronique at the Brussels World Fair of 1957. Stockhausen's electronic works from Gesang onward are not only technically superior but musically incomparably richer than anything that went before.
In the final part of Hymnen, Region IV, the clouds lift and the sense of landscape returns more powerfully. Stockhausen has expressed a liking for the films of Antonioni, whose Blow-up expresses a kindred fascination with the possibilities of discovery in the technical enlargement of mundane images; it is possible to hear in the composer's voice calling 'Ma-ka!' an echo also of the search for the lost girl in Antonioni's L'avventura: 'An-na!' Here too we feel closer to the Varèse of Déserts and Poème, another kindred spirit and almost a father figure. The music comes down to earth, the stillness invaded by dense sounds resembling a jumbo jet just over our heads, undercarriage at the ready.
A 4-CD box set (catalogue no. 10 A-B, C-D) of Hymnen: electronic music, and Hymnen: electronic music with soloists is available from Stockhausen-Verlag, Kettenberg 15, 51515 Kürten, Germany.
Copyright © Robin Maconie. firstname.lastname@example.org
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.