March 13, 2005
Culture: ‘Tape salads’ that fed scores of musicians

His melody-free music may sound bonkers to an untutored ear, but Karlheinz Stockhausen is an aural inspiration, writes Pippa Murphy

The concert hall was deserted. Against the eerie emptiness of the rows of seats, there was a lone figure, immersed in his task and oblivious to the young composer awaiting her chance.

How many years had I waited for this moment? Dressed in a white suit and orange scarf (perhaps an unwise choice for Belfast), his distinctive white hair precisely arranged, was one of the world’s most inventive composers and the founding father of 20th-century music: Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Without this man there would be no Pink Floyd, no Björk, no Aphex Twin and no Radiohead. So significant is his influence on popular culture, that even the Beatles honoured him with an appearance on the cover of their Sergeant Pepper album. As an electro-acoustic composer myself, his presence in my own artistic life has been immeasurable.

When I met him that day in Belfast, I had been briefed to address him as “Maestro”. As I waited, he completed a few more minute adjustments on the vast mixing desk, ears poised to miss nothing. Surrounding him were 16 speakers, specifically arranged to project sound from all four corners, along the walls and up to the ceiling. Eventually he pulled down the faders and greeted me with charming deference, his Germanic voice deep, his handshake firm.

Later, at an evening reception, I was to present him with a bottle of whisky to welcome him as honorary patron of the Sonic Arts Network. Dispelling his formality and eccentric detachment, he smiled like a child, clapped his hands in delight and spoke of the pride he felt in continuing to inspire a new generation of listeners and composers. He particularly thanked the British, saying that we had helped him gain respect in his native Germany.

Listening to Stockhausen does not come easily. When he arrives in Scotland next month, as part of the annual Triptych festival, many will leave the auditorium feeling that maybe they have missed something. Many more wouldn’t contemplate going at all. Listening to his music is the musical equivalent of rubbing everything out and starting again. But go with it and the effects can be life-changing.

I first came across him as a curious schoolgirl in Manchester central library’s LP collection. As I placed the stylus on those records, I felt like I was being blown away by the sheer strangeness of the sound. This dense, yet hugely intricate music still sounded alien and impenetrable 50 years after it was written.

Mostly it sounded quite bonkers. Where do I look? Where do I listen? How do I listen? What do I concentrate on? There were no melodies to be heard and — on that first listening anyway — not even any rhythmic patterns to guide the ear, just pure sounds constructed, deconstructed, separated, isolated, fragmented, assembled and presented. By the end of the third piece though, I found an energy flow that enabled me to breathe. I began to concentrate very hard and at the same time let go of all known structures of thought.

Straight after this inaugural session with the Maestro, I went to the toilet. To this day, I remember how amazing the sound of the flush was. I had cleaned out my ears: now even the most scatological of sounds could be beautiful. It was an aural awakening.

But what is it that makes Stockhausen so rewarding, that even to this day I take pleasure in waiting for my students to emerge from the loo after their first hearing? Stockhausen, now 77, started writing music during what I consider to be the most exciting period in European history — the early 1950s. He was young, intelligent and dedicated to creating something new during a post-war explosion of technology, youth culture, pop music, vinyl records and the tape recorder. In furthering the discoveries and attitudes accumulated in the first half of the 20th century, Stockhausen developed a new musical language. Every piece was a new invention, a new challenge, a new investigation. There were no rules. He invented and reinvented himself for each one.

He began his experiments in electronic composition in the early 1950s in an attempt to extend the orchestral palette with electronic and “found sounds”. “I wanted to synthesise, to actually make the sounds themselves,” he said.

He replaced instrumental sounds with electronic sounds in his compositions, recording individual elements onto magnetic tape and fastidiously re-pitching and organising them into new musical structures. It was a time-consuming discipline, far removed from the ease of laptops and the real-time plug-ins of today.

For me, the most endearing images of his work can be found in the linear notes of his records. They show a handsome, yet serious-looking man in different poses and intensities of thought, photographed in front of all manner of strange equipment. There is Stockhausen hammering a nail into his desk at his student hostel, mounting a tape hub on it and with the aid of a ruler pinned to his desk, sticking bits of tape together.

These pieces of tape were then measured precisely and cut and spliced according to a “score”. Interspersed with the photographs is a myriad of notes, sketches, technical drawings, colours and lines, tables of numbers, graphs and grids. Often, he recalls in the notes, his experiments would simply end in “tape salad”.

These are the techniques that have been inherited by myself and other contemporary artists. Without his experiments, we wouldn’t have such a rich and diverse sound world today. Even though modern technology has made the process quicker, electronically inspired music is still constructed by generating electronic or everyday sounds which are recorded and edited into small parts. What we have learnt from Stockhausen is how to manipulate sounds — whether by reversing them, or changing their pitch or speed — in order to create new “sound colours.” By mixing this palette, we can produce a new sonic landscape.

It’s not quite as difficult as you would think. Try listening to his1966 piece Hymnen, for example.

A montage of different national anthems, it gives new listeners a foothold in the relative strangeness.

Björk, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, the Beatles have all used textures and articulations made from manipulations of sound which have been edited and combined with instrumental or vocal lines.

“There are so many musicians who have made a whole career out of one of his periods,” says Björk. “He goes one step ahead, discovers something that’s never been done musically, and by the time other people have grasped it, he’s on to the next thing.”

When Stockhausen comes to Edinburgh and Glasgow next month, you will be meeting the man who has made some of your favourite bands possible.

My sister was hugely embarrassed by me at school when I inscribed his name on my canvas bag, as an expression of rebellion and an attempt to define myself as an indie-kid of a different sort. My other friends had the Cure, Jane’s Addiction and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. But go along to Triptych, and suddenly Stockhausen and indie pop might not sound sodisparate.

Karlheinz Stockhausen plays the Tramway, Glasgow, on April 27 and the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on April 30. Tickets £20; visit www.triptych05.com for details

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.