GEMA-News o Issue 157 o June 1998 o Page 42-47

TALKING TO THE COMPOSER KARLHEINZ STOCKHAUSEN

Karlheinz Stockhausen
On 22 August 1998 Karlheinz Stockhausen, born in Mödrath near Cologne, will celebrate his 70th birthday.

Stockhausen is regarded one of the most innovative composers of the second half of this century. He has contributed signally to the formulation of serial music and to this day remains one of the pioneers of electronic music. His later works are increasingly characterized by more open forms and the integration of space as a musical category.

Stockhausen studied the piano, school music and composition in Cologne, as well as musicology, philosophy and German; in Bonn phonetics and communications research. He attended courses on analysis and aesthetics held by Olivier Messiaen in Paris.

In the fifties Stockhausen was one of the leading figures of the Darmstadt serial school, together with Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono. From 1953 he was a permanent staff member in the studio for electronic music of the WDR broadcasting station in Cologne, becoming its artistic and organizational director in 1963. His teaching work during the International Vacation Courses in Darmstadt and the Cologne Courses for New Music brought him his appointment as professor for composition at the State Academy of Music in Cologne in 1971.

Much acclaimed milestones in his artistic work have been the world exhibition concerts in the spherical auditorium in Osaka, his musical-theatrical actions such as INORI or the seven-part cosmic music theatre cycle LICHT, which is now almost complete.

Stockhausen has so far written more than 260 separately performable works, recorded more than 100 different CD's of his own works and published ten volumes of TEXTE ZUR MUSIK (TEXTS ON MUSIC). His artistic convictions have led him to direct the premieres of virtually all his works, or he has played in them or has supervised them as sound projectionist.

In spring this year, at the opening of the Musica Viva Concerts, he conducted the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra performing his work INORI for the first time to an enraptured audience in Munich. In July this year, MICHAELION, the fourth and last scene from his opera MITTWOCH, will premiere at Munich's Prinzregententheater.

Karlheinz Stockhausen has received many honors both at home and abroad, including the Federal Order of Merit 1st Class, the German Record Prize and the UNESCO Picasso Medal. He has also received an honorary doctorate from the Free University of Berlin.

This summer sees the celebration of the seventieth birthday of Professor Karlheinz Stockhausen, the world-famous composer, pioneer of electronic music and leader of the New Music movement in Germany since 1945. At the same time he can look back on 50 years as a composer and a connection with GEMA that is almost just as long. In an interview with Professor Michael Karbaum, Managing Director of GEMA, Stockhausen gives GEMA News an insight into his development as a creative artist, the nature of his musical world and his intentions as a composer.

Michael Karbaum:
Professor Stockhausen, you started as a composer by pioneering a structural rigor and extremely radical tonal form only to emerge since the seventies, since the TIERKREIS cycle and since SIRIUS, as a champion of the ideals of melodiously singable inventions. Does this mean that you are turning to those who want to understand your musical ideas by actually hearing them expressed or does it also have to do with the fact that you are making concessions to an audience that is having problems in appreciating the New Music?

Karlheinz Stockhausen:
A composer of serious music would never be guided by some contemporary public view - or a single taste. I don't even know what the public is. And to judge by the applause it receives, is a fairly risky business. I'm only familiar with the audiences at my concerts, and they listen, and they're wonderful in all the countries on our planet, and the concert halls are full.

As far as my view of music is concerned the change you describe has in fact taken place. The large intervals I have written in notated music since 1950 are just only one aspect of my music. In MANTRA, which I composed in Japan, the formula I used is written within one major ninth. The Gestalt* (see Suzanne Stephens’ note below on "Gestalt") is much easier to grasp than in my earlier works, precisely because I wanted to make it "singable". My aim was to form the Gestalts I had created to make them easier to remember and to help people appreciate better what happens to these Gestalts. Until then my basic intention had been to renew Gestalts I had formed using a series. The idea was to invent something new by using the same serial proportions again and again. This can be compared to those series of biological experiments in which one constantly tries to create new and different plants through their genetic code instead of preferring plants that are easily recognizable and eliminating the others. Since 1970 the formulas I use - each formula generates a whole work, often a full-length piece like INORI, for example - are singable, but still have all the properties of my earlier serial composition. They are even better structured because they not only include pitch, duration, timbre and spatial positioning but they are joined by certain perceptual qualities such as echoes, scales, modulations, moments of improvisation - in other words, events that are essential if you want to remember them more easily.

This has led increasingly to a clarification of character and succinctness of the Gestalt. It is therefore not a question of what other people can hear or cannot hear but I am my own "audience", if you wish. After all, I am a musician myself and what I am able to hear sooner or later others will hear, as well.

Michael Karbaum:
You have been the chronicler and head of the New Music in Germany since 1945. Some people explain its development with the breaks in 20th century music with Schoenberg, fascism and its consequences. The opposite standpoint talks of musical environmental pollution, of Adorno and the consequences. Is there any possibility at all of finding a common ground?

Karlheinz Stockhausen:
I believe so. Many of my friends in the past were in every way disciples of Adorno. But I get the feeling that as they grow older they include other approaches to an increasing extent, as well, and people are no longer so doctrinaire, exclusive and devastating in their judgement as they used to be.

It is a typical reproach that composers of kunstmusik apparently pollute the environment. It was used against myself in Salzburg during the festival when we were planning to perform the HELIKOPTER string quartet. The Greens in Austria started a press campaign in which they claimed that the environment would be polluted if four helicopters were to fly above Salzburg. At the time they said it was enough if this Stockhausen was performed behind closed doors - the best thing would be if he took off with the helicopters and never came back. Basically this was no more than a journalistic point so that the reactionaries could draw attention to themselves. Personally I wouldn't accept everything as so final. These are basically the strategic steps required to represent material or ideological interests. I believe in the long term this is not at all important. What is important are the works of art laid bare, works that have demanded so much from the world of music-lovers that they provide material for study, for the senses and for discovery. That is the only important thing.

Michael Karbaum:
For you 1998 is an anniversary year. With your 70th birthday you are also celebrating a 50-year anniversary as a composer - and a connection with GEMA that is almost as long. What kind of role has GEMA played in your life as a composer?

Karlheinz Stockhausen:
To begin with I had the impression that GEMA was concerned with the protection of authors' rights and performance rights for serious music. But over the decades I have noticed that light music was becoming more and more important with GEMA, as well. So I suppose now that, more than ever before, what I compose concerns only a tiny minority in GEMA.

Michael Karbaum:
A minority perhaps, but one that is protected and supported by a legally enshrined cultural mandate, which GEMA acknowledges unconditionally and one which it defends. Today, many people no longer accept the division of music into serious and light categories, considering it to be an anachronism. Critics claim that it divides music into two irreconcilably opposed camps, into two classes of creative artists, although after all you are only a collecting society. Your main job should be to ensure that the revenue is paid in and distributed quickly and cost-effectively to the rights owners. What can a composer of serious music say about this and how is he now going to make himself understood to his colleagues in the light-music sector?

Karlheinz Stockhausen:
I am very familiar with both sides. I spent many years earning a livelihood in every branch of musical entertainment. I was an excellent be-bop musician, but I could also play all the carnival hits. Then I toured Germany with a magician and used to improvise while he was doing his conjuring tricks, which I was also good at concealing. If I am at a party and go to the piano I can get everybody dancing and having a good time with my playing. But when I am composing a work like, for example, MICHAELION at the moment, which I've been working on since spring last year - for choir, 5 soloists and electronic music - that's something quite different. Then I really work in a way that is comparable to an astrophysicist who knows that every nuance counts in the interplay of tones and their qualities. I know that every color I want to compose is one that is going to surprise me, otherwise I'm not interested. You know, it is precisely this alien quality that I find so fascinating. Everything I discover or invent for myself is the content of my life as a composer. And things that are familiar and relate to things that already exist or sound similar to what others have done, I don't feel that such things are the subject of artistic development - especially not the development of our music culture.

Whether something is light music or serious music is actually best judged by the person who has composed it. This is because he knows exactly, if he is honest, how much he has taken from what has already existed as far as routine matters, technique or variation are concerned, or how much he himself was surprised at what occurred to him during the creative process. And most importantly, how many problems it presented him before he was even able to give it form and translate it into musical notation.

Michael Karbaum:
You are one of the greatest pioneers of electronic music. What do you feel when you see your children and grandchildren sitting in the studios handling the controls and synthesizers and making music that has got nothing to do with what a Stockhausen has prepared. Today there is no longer any popular music that can do without electronics. Is there any common ground?

Karlheinz Stockhausen:
On the technical side I can talk with any rock or pop or techno musician. Surprisingly enough, long articles on Stockhausen have been published in the most well known pop magazines in the last six months and he is now being called the father of techno. Actually I think that's great. I also have had personal contact with many musicians through letters and CD's they sent me. There is a popular BBC program entitled "soundbite" where Stockhausen is played in the interval between the pop broadcasts. I am also asked what I think about techno music, what could be improved as far as melody and rhythm are concerned. For the most part I think it's too repetitive. People need to be much more daring in the intervals, more inventive with the timbres, rather than just repeating shreds of melodies. There was a long article published recently in the Zeit where I analyze a whole series of pop-music by the most famous groups. So there is communication in the technical as well as in the aesthetic field. Fields where it is difficult to find common ground are the radical approach and the attitude to work. These musicians simply cannot allow themselves to do what I have been doing all my life: namely retreating to a studio for months or even years in order to realize something you think is extremely good and interesting, without considering whether it is commercially viable. Today musicians are really forced to consider the market, too. I have heard that even universities have now come round to considering whether the products of their thought can be sold or not. But this means that kunstmusik falls short of what it needs namely solitude, concentration and independence.

Michael Karbaum:
You have been working for more than 20 years now on the LICHT heptalogy, a stage composition for the seven days of the week. Five parts have already been performed. When will there be an overall performance and do you have other plans, as well?

Karlheinz Stockhausen in the oper of Leipzig

Karlheinz Stockhausen:
The overall performance will take place as soon as the seventh part is finished and there are also other plans. The seven days of the week were created and performed in the following sequence: 1981 DONNERSTAG (THURSDAY) AUS LICHT, Milan Scala; 1984 SAMSTAG (SATURDAY) AUS LICHT, Milan Scala; 1988 MONTAG (MONDAY) AUS LICHT, Milan Scala; then 1993 DIENSTAG (TUESDAY) AUS LICHT, Leipzig Opera and 1996 FREITAG (FRIDAY) AUS LICHT, Leipzig Opera. I finished MITTWOCH (WEDNESDAY) AUS LICHT several weeks ago but I know of no opera house that could help me stage it. After the premiere of FREITAG Professor Udo Zimmermann in Leipzig announced that the MITTWOCH AUS LICHT opera by Stockhausen would be first performed during the Saxony Music Festival in 1999. But a few weeks later he wrote to say it was no longer possible on account of cuts amounting to DM 12 million and so he would have to go back on his word. So I'm completely at a loose end at the moment - for the first time in 21 years. I do not know - as the saying goes - which way to turn and I am truly apprehensive because I see every day as another bolt that has been shot. The time I have available until the premiere of SONNTAG AUS LICHT, i.e. the completion of the cycle, is limited. Maybe you can help me by sending out an appeal like: Where is there an opera house in Germany - there are more than a hundred - which could stage MITTWOCH AUS LICHT?

Michael Karbaum:
You said in a newspaper interview that great conductors should consider it their duty to conduct modern works. How do you imagine this? New music as some kind of token piece in season-ticket holders' programme, the way it has been done so far?

Karlheinz Stockhausen:
For a composer like me, the era of sophisticated orchestral music is over. What I mean is, no orchestra in Europe has the time to rehearse a modern sophisticated work of music thoroughly. They do not play the progressive music that is being written today. There are approximately 190 professional orchestras in Germany, but all of them more or less perform a self-contained traditional repertoire. They simply do not have the time to do anything different and, after all, they want to sell their seats. Even in Donaueschingen they have not performed any of my works for 14 years, for similar reasons. Today it is practically impossible to rehearse real polyphonic music in Germany and especially not with instruments that are unfamiliar. Every time I start mentioning loudspeakers, transmitters, microphones, amplifiers (which, of course was also the case with INORI) they all say: out of the question! In no way can we have music where an orchestra has to face a totally new task in terms of chromatic tempi, polyphony of many individual instruments, irregular rhythms with all the fundamental value divisions, a very special fingering technique for the wind players, electro-acoustic performance practice, unconventional spatial music. People take an awful lot of convincing. It's scarcely possible in Germany to realize a new, truly experimental work at all.

Michael Karbaum:
Is the situation abroad different from that in Germany?

Karlheinz Stockhausen:
As far as I know, it's somewhat different. For my 70th birthday I received an invitation to Paris because Pierre Boulez, in co-operation with Peter Eötvös and David Robertson, is performing GRUPPEN für drei Orchester six times in the Cité de la Musique and twice in Brussels. By the way, all are completely sold out. What kind of orchestra is this? If I am correctly informed, the InterContemporain ensemble has at the most 32 permanent musicians. The rest are students from the conservatory - and Boulez is right. He could never have taken the Orchestre de Paris or the radio orchestra. The same thing happened to all my works in recent years, whether it is TRANS in London, INORI this year in Amsterdam and Paris or last year GRUPPEN für drei Orchester in Copenhagen, Birmingham, London, Vienna and Amsterdam - there were three good ensembles with three good conductors which were combined into one big orchestra. The Concertgebouw Orchester turned it down flat - although the manager of the Holland Festival wanted to play one of my works for years - the manager just said: so many rehearsals are out of the question, we can't rehearse five days for one concert! I do not think that there are only economic reasons for this.

Michael Karbaum:
What do you think of the Ensemble Modern?

Karlheinz Stockhausen:
Six years ago I conducted seven different concerts with this orchestra - seven fantastic programmes - but it was impossible to hold these seven concerts in other cities, as well, because it was claimed that the costs were too high on account of the technology and the effort involved.

Peter Eötvös is now going with the Ensemble Modern to Tokyo to do a series of concerts and will even conduct one of my works: Chapeau! It's a work that goes back to 1952: KONTRA-PUNKTE. It's high time they did something modern!

Michael Karbaum:
Your notions about promoting modern music have now taken on a concrete form in the establishment of a foundation that will bear your name. What is the purpose of this foundation?

Karlheinz Stockhausen:
The purpose is clearly defined, namely to disseminate my life's work. And this means especially the encouragement of musicological studies of this work. The foundation is situated in an archive near to the house where I work. So far, there has been a musicologist working here regularly and she has managed to put almost the entire archive of reviews - which consists of several hundred files of documents - into a computer. The archive is also used for research by musicologists writing their doctorates on Stockhausen. Currently there are four such students at Cologne University alone. But musicologists are researching my work all over the world: in France, in Japan, the USA, in Scandinavia, in Italy, in Russia. From time to time they come to the archive in order to work on their research. It contains all the drafts, compositions, all the tape recordings, more than 2000 films that have been collected.

3200 pages of TEXTE ZUR MUSIK (Texts on Music) that I have written will be published this year. For the most part these are texts concerned with practical performance technique including technical drawings of my works. But there are also many texts that originated from talks of the kind we are having now. Recently it was also decided to translate all ten volumes into Japanese in gradual succession.

Michael Karbaum:
What can the foundation do? How can it help?

Karlheinz Stockhausen:
At the moment the foundation cannot do a lot. It owns my whole property, all drafts, all works, etc. But its current income amounts to only DM 2,500 a month, which I pay as rent. There are recurring costs that cannot be covered by this money. And donations are low. It doesn't matter. Because most of the work is done for free. The foundation is planned for the long term. After my death - when there might perhaps be more donations - it is meant to support musicians that rehearse and perform my works. And the purpose of the foundation explicitly states that other contemporary music is to be encouraged, as well. The archive contains not only my scores but also several thousand scores and recordings that were sent to me by other composers or which I purchased over my lifetime. This has all been catalogued and is to be managed and promoted by the foundation.

Michael Karbaum:
Thank you very much indeed for this interview.


Suzanne Stephens’ note: The word GESTALT is German for form, figure, shape. This is an English word now (thank goodness), because it has proved untranslatable.

Oxford Dictionary: "perceived organized whole that is more than the sum of its parts, e.g. a melody as distict from the separate notes of it".

Abridged version of the interview.
Stockhausen-Verlag, Kettenberg 15,
51515 Kürten, Fax: +49 (0) 2268/1813