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Björk : Why I love Stockhausen

Why I love Stockhausen
By Björk
Thu 30 Oct 2008 00.01 GMT First published on Thu 30 Oct 2008 00.01 GMT
For me, Stockhausen was one of the pioneers who started a new root in music. The electronic
root, whose aesthetic is very specific, has its own organic interior, a structure that has DNA
independent from other music trees (for example, the classical Beethoven/Wagner/Mahler tree
or the blues/rock/Philip Glass branch). When Karlheinz harnessed electricity into sound and
showed the rest of us, he sparked off a sun that is still burning and will glow for a long time.
For my generation, Stockhausen's published lectures had unbelievable impact. He was the
most hopeful of figures: the 21st century was going to be great. The classical teachers in my
school, meanwhile, kept moaning about the good old days of music and changing the masses
of music pupils into slave performers, putting to sleep any creative thought or the will to make
new things.
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I remember sitting in his studio in Cologne, surrounded by 12 speakers, him creating a current
traveling up and down, swirling around us like the force of nature that electricity is, my
insides pulsating to his noise - primordial, modern and futuristic. He celebrated the sound of
sound, in both his electronic music and his acoustic music. For example, my favourite piece
of his, Stimmung, is vocal only, using the voice as a sound and exploring the nuances of it in
a microscopic way, rid of the luggage of the opera tradition or any other vocal disciplines,
styles or techniques.
Now the 21st century has started, Karlheinz was right, things are great, we are communicating
telepathically, of course (as he prophesied), and music schools have changed, allowing more
room for fresh young minds that are writing music on computers. I look around me, listen to
the rumbles and the noises and all the music that is being made today by youngsters, and I feel
he wasn't so far off. He knew.
Entretien Björk & Karlheinz Stockhausen
Björk meets Karlheinz Stockhausen - Compose Yourself
I went to music school from the age of five and then, when I was 12 or 13, I was into
musicology and this Icelandic composer and teacher at the school introduced me to
Stockhausen. I remember being almost the fighter in the school, the odd kid out, with a real
passion for music, but against all this retro, constant Beethoven and Bach bollocks. Most of it
was this frustration with the school’s obsession with the past. When I was introduced to
Stockhausen it was like ‘aaah’ ! Finally somebody was speaking my language. Stockhausen
has said phrases like, “We should listen to ‘old’ music one day a year and the other 364 days
we should listen to ‘now’ music. And we should do it in the same way as we look through
photo albums of when we were children. If you look at old photo albums too often they just
become pointless. You start indulging in something that doesn’t matter, and you stop
worrying about the present.” And that’s how he looked at all those people who are obsessed
with old music. For a kid born of my generation who was 12 at that time it was brilliant,
because at the same time I was also being introduced to the electronic music of bands like
Kraftwerk and DAF.
I think when it comes to electronic music and atonal music, Stockhausen’s the best. He was
the first person to make electronic music before synthesisers were even invented. I like to
compare him to Picasso for this century, because like him he’s had so many periods. There
are so many musicians who’ve made a whole career out of one of his periods. He goes one
step ahead, discovers something that’s never even been done before musically and by the time
other people have even grasped it he’s onto the next thing. Like all scientific geniuses,
Stockhausen seems obsessed with the marriage between mystery and science, although they
are opposites. Normal scientists are obsessed with facts : genius scientists are obsessed with
mystery. The more Stockhausen finds out about sound, the more he finds out that he doesn’t
know jack shit ; that he’s lost. Stockhausen told me about the house he built himself in the
forest and lived in for ten years. It’s made from hexagonal pieces of glass and no two rooms
are the same, so they are all irregular. It’s built out of angles that are reflective and it’s full of
spotlights. The forest becomes mirrored inside the house. He was explaining to me how, even
after ten years, there would still be moments when he didn’t know where he was, and he said
it with wonder in his eyes. And I said, “That’s brilliant : you can be innocent even in your
own home”, and he replied, “Not only innocent, but curious.” He’s such a humorist.
Björk : It seems to me that your electronic music is more like your voice and your other
pieces are less personal, somehow. Do you feel that too ?
Karlheinz Stockhausen : Yes, because a lot of things that I do sound like a very alien world.
Then a notion like ‘personal’ is irrelevant. It is not important, because it is something that we
don’t know, but I like it, and I make it.
Björk : It seems to me that you just put your antennae out, and that is like your voice,
your point of view, like from the outside. Or something like... (pause) I can’t really
explain it.
Karlheinz Stockhausen : No, neither can I. The most important thing is it is not like a personal
world, but something that we all don’t know. We have to study it, we have to experience it. If
we catch something like that, then we have had luck.
Björk : Are you sure it’s not you ?
Karlheinz Stockhausen : Oh I am surprised myself, very often. And the more I discover
something that I haven’t experienced before, then the more excited I become. Because then I
think that it is important
Björk : I’ve got a problem that I get very excited about music. I panic because I feel I
don’t have time to do it all, does that worry you ?
Karlheinz Stockhausen : Yes and no, because I have learned now in my life that even the very
early works made 46 years ago are not understood by most of the people. So this is a natural
process that if you find something that surprises you, then for others it’s even harder to
incorporate that into their being. So it would take sometimes 200 years before a large group of
people, or even for individuals to have reached the same stage that I have reached after having
spent, let’s say, three years eight hours in the studio to make something. You need as much
time as I did just to hear it. Let’s not even talk about understanding what it means. So that is
the natural process that certain musicians make something that needs a lot of time to be
listened to many, many times, and that’s very good.
Björk : Yeah, but I am also talking about the relationship between you and yourself, and
the time that you have between birth and when you die. If it is enough to do all of the
things you want..
Karlheinz Stockhausen : No, you can only do a very small portion of what you want to do.
That is natural.
Björk : Yeah, maybe I’m very impatient. It’s hard for me to...
Karlheinz Stockhausen : 80 or 90 years is nothing. There are a lot of very beautiful pieces of
music of the past which the majority of the people alive now will never hear. These pieces are
extraordinarily precious, full of mystery and intelligence and invention. I’m thinking at this
moment of certain works by Johann Sebastian Bach, or even earlier composers. There are so
many fantastic compositions, five or six hundred years old, not even known to the majority of
human beings. So it will take a lot of time. There are billions of precious things in the
universe that we have no time to study.
Björk : You seem to be so patient, like you have all of this discipline to use time. It
freaks me out, I still haven’t learned how to sit in my chair, it’s very hard for me. Do
you always work eight hours a day ?
Karlheinz Stockhausen : More.
Björk : Do you think the core of your urge is more to show or record the things out
there : to prove they exist, like just for scientific reasons, or is it more emotional to
create an excuse for everybody to unite. So that maybe something will happen, like your
music could achieve that ?
Karlheinz Stockhausen : It’s both.
Björk : Both ?
Karlheinz Stockhausen : Of course. I am like a hunter, trying to find something, and at the
same time, well this is the scientific aspect, trying to discover. On the other hand, I am
emotionally in high tension whenever it comes to the moment when I have to act with my
fingers, with my hands and my ears, to move the sound, to shape the sound. It is then I cannot
separate thinking and acting with my senses : both are equally important to me. But the total
involvement happens in both states : if I am more a thinker, or more an actor ; I am totally
involved, I get involved.
Björk : I used to travel with my little ghettoblaster, and have my pocket full of tapes,
and try to always find the right song. I didn’t care what song it was, as long as it would
unite everybody in the room and get everybody together. But sometimes that can be
quite a cheap trick, you know ? I remember once reading that one of the reasons why
you don’t like regular rhythm is because of the war.
Karlheinz Stockhausen : No, no, that’s...
Björk : That’s a misunderstanding ?
Karlheinz Stockhausen : Mmm, yes. When I dance I like regular music. With syncopation
naturally. It shouldn’t always be like a machine. But when I compose, I use periodic rhythms
very rarely, and only at an intermediary stage, because I think there is an evolution in the
language of music in Europe which leads from very simple periodic rhythms to more and
more irregular rhythms. So I am careful with music which emphasises this kind of
minimalistic periodicity because that brings out the most basic feelings and most basic
impulses in every person. When I say ‘basic’, that means the physical. But we are not only a
body who walks, who runs, who makes sexual movements, who has a heartbeat which is,
more or less, in a healthy body, 71 beats per minute, or who has certain brain pulses, so we
are a whole system of periodic rhythm. But already within the body there are many
periodicities superimposed, from very fast to very slow ones. Breathing is, in a quiet situation,
about every six or seven seconds. There’s periodicity. And all of these together build a very
polymeric music in the body, but when I make the art music I am part of that whole evolution,
and I am always looking for more and more differentiation. In form as well.
Björk : Just because it’s more honest, it’s more real ?
Karlheinz Stockhausen : Yes, but what most of the people like is a regular beat, nowadays
they make it even in pop music with a machine. I think that one should try to make music
which is a bit more... flexible, so to speak, a bit more irregular. Irregularity is a challenge, you
see. How far can we go in making music irregular ? Only as far as a small moment when
everything falls into synchronicity, and then goes away again into different meters and
rhythms. But that’s how history has been, anyway.
Björk : I think that in popular music today people are trying to come to terms with the
fact that they are living with all of these machines, and trying to combine machines and
humans and trying to marry them in a happy marriage : trying to be optimistic about it.
I was brought up by a mother who believed fiercely in nature and wanted me just to be
barefoot 24 hours and all of these things, so I was brought up with this big guilt complex
of cars and skyscrapers, and I was taught to hate them, and then I think I’m, like, in the
middle. I can see this generation who are ten years younger than me making music,
trying to live with it. But everything is with those regular rhythms and learning to love
them, but still be human, still be all gritty and organic.
Karlheinz Stockhausen : But regular rhythms are always in all cultures : the basis of the
structure. It’s only very lately that they come to make a more complicated rhythm, so I think it
is not so that the machines have brought irregularity.
Björk : Yeah, I think what makes me happiest is your optimism, especially about the
future. And I think, for me, here I’m also talking about my generation. We’ve been
taught the world is going down the drain and we’re all gonna die very soon, and to find
someone as open as you, with optimism, is special. A lot of young people are fascinated
by what you are doing. Do you think it is because of this optimism ?
Karlheinz Stockhausen : Also I understand that the works I have composed give a lot for
studying, for learning and for experiencing. In particular, experiencing oneself, and that gives
people confidence, so they see there is a lot still to do.
Björk : And also maybe because you have done so many things that I think that so many
young people just have to find one per cent of its worth and they can identify with what
you’ve done.
Karlheinz Stockhausen : Maybe with different works, because they cannot know them all. I
have 253 individually performable works now, in scores, and about 70 or 80 CDs with
different works on them, all different, so there is a lot to discover. It’s like a world in a world,
and there’s so many different aspects. That’s probably what they like : all of the pieces are
very different. I don’t like to repeat myself.
Björk : Do you think it’s our duty to push everything to its limits, use everything that we
have, like all the intelligence and all the time, and try out everything, especially if it is
difficult, or do you think it’s more a question of just following one’s instincts, leaving out
the things that don’t turn us on ?
Karlheinz Stockhausen : I am thinking at this moment of my children. I have six children,
they are quite different. In particular there are two, who are the youngest by the way, who are
still drawn into many different directions that concern taste, or excitement, and there is one
son who is a trumpeter who tried at a certain moment a few years ago to become a spiritual
teacher. To be a Yoga teacher and help other people who were desperate to cheer up and to
believe in a better world, but then I told him there are enough preachers, and stick to your
trumpet. It took him a few years before he came back to his trumpet, and now he seems to be
concentrated and leaves out most of the things that are also possible for him. I could have
been a teacher, an architect, a philosopher, a professor in God knows what amid many
different faculties. I could be a gardener or a farmer very easily : I was a farm hand for a long
time, for a year and a half of my life. I was in a car factory for a moment, and I liked that
work as well, but I understood at the end of my studies, when I still was working on a
doctorate and as a pianist I rehearsed four or five hours a day the piano, as a solo instrument. I
played every night in a bar to make a living, but since I composed the first piece where I felt it
sounded very different from all I know, I have concentrated on composition and I have missed
almost everything that the world offers to me, other faculties, other ways of living as you’ve
just said, excitement of all kinds, entertainment of all kinds. I have really concentrated day
and night on that one very narrow aspect, composing and performing and correcting my
scores and publishing my scores. And, for me, it was the right way. I cannot give general
advice, because if one does not hear that inner call, one doesn’t do it. So you have to hear the
call and then there is no question.
Björk : Yeah, it’s like where you can go furthest.
Karlheinz Stockhausen : I don’t know. I just think I couldn’t achieve anything that makes
sense to myself if I don’t concentrate entirely on that one thing. So I miss a lot of what life has
got to offer.
Björk : And learn how to sit in a chair.
Karlheinz Stockhausen : You know I conduct also, it’s not just sit in a chair. I conduct
orchestras, choirs, rehearse a lot, and run around and set up speakers with the technicians and
arrange all the rehearsals, so it’s not just sitting on a chair, but I know what you mean, yes,
it’s concentrating on that one vocation.
Text : Desmond K. Hill
Stockhausen is one of the 20th Century’s most renowned composers, a dominant figure in
Europe’s avantgarde who is synonymous with experimental music. A scientist and sound
explorer, he was the first person to record electronic music and among the first to perform it
live. He was appointed as Professor of Composition at Cologne Music College in 1970, and
held the post for seven years. In 1990 he was awarded a Distinction by the Prix Ars
Electronica jury. In more than 250 pieces and over 80 CD releases, Stockhausen’s challenging
and complex music has always been the sound of tomorrow.
Born near Cologne in 1928, Stockhausen was orphaned during the war years, and pursued
higher education under conditions in which he had to struggle to sustain material life. The
piano had been his first instrument at school, and at the Cologne Hochschule für Musik he
continued studying. Concurrently he enrolled at Cologne University in musicology, philology
and philosophy classes. Eagerly he absorbed the work of contemporary composers
Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartók, but it was not until he became acquainted with Webern’s
music and that of the new generation of serialist composers at Darmstadt during the summer
of 1951 that he found his own path and committed himself to making music.
In 1952 Stockhausen relocated to Paris to study composition. His studies in analysis were
complemented by a thorough investigation of the physical nature of sounds. At the musique
concrète studio of French radio, directed by Pierre Schaeffer, he penetrated the acoustic
microworld of sounds and applied himself to electronic music on return to Cologne. At
Cologne’s WDR studio Stockhausen challenged general understanding of compositional
technique by recording oscillators and tone generators, literally the radio station’s signal
testing equipment, to create sound patterns.
Stockhausen belongs to the first generation ever to hear music through the wireless. The
immediacy of the tuning dial profoundly influenced him. He has written interpretive scores
for short wave receivers, cultivating elegant methods to illustrate elaborate concepts. The
intuitive music of Aus den sieben Tagen (1968) instructs performers to :
live completely alone for four days without food in complete silence without much movement
sleep as little as necessary think as little as possible
after four days, late at night without conversation beforehand play single sounds
WITHOUT THINKING which you are playing
close your eyes just listen.
Allowing performers to infer themselves was a revolutionary gesture. A decoder of human
technology, an author of concepts rather than compositions, Stockhausen has consistently
experimented with the way that sound is perceived, almost to the point of grandiosity.
At the World Fair EXPO ’70 at Osaka, 20 performers recited Stockhausen’s work five hours a
day for 180 days. In a metallic blue auditorium, pierced by tiny stars from light artist Otto
Pien, visitors sat on ochrecoloured cushions on a sound-transparent platform at equator level.
Soloists occupied balconies whilst Stockhausen operated the mixing desk, projecting sound
from seven concentric rings and 55 loudspeakers, along circular and spiral paths. Over a
million listeners immersed themselves in the experience, hearing the movement and forms of
layered sounds.
Last year in Amsterdam the amplified strains of violins mixed with the beating of rotor-blades
of helicopters, each carrying one member of a string quartet, rose in unison into the air. The
strings mimicked the rotors, increasing in intensity as the crafts ascended. The helicopters
turned and banked to change the pitch and speed of the whirring blades. On-board cameras
beamed live pictures to the audience watching the performance on monitors positioned like a
string quartet in the concert hall. Highly composed, with each component an intrinsic part of
Helicopter Quartet, all were directed by Stockhausen from the ground.
At the frontier of composition and presentation, Stockhausen has always managed to locate a
position from which to implement his ideas. When these could no longer be expressed
conventionally he illustrated manuscripts with colours, lines, symbols. In his writing,
Stockhausen has constantly related his music to abstract propositions of a religious nature. He
has been widely active as a teacher, and involved in many performances of his own music
since founding his Ensemble in 1964. Although academic conservatism and postmodernist
critics have conspired against him, he has shunned expectation by buying the rights to his
works. Stockhausen Verlag is gradually remastering and reissuing his own catalogue.
By introducing chance elements, Stockhausen liberated 20th Century composition from
linearity and extended the established terrain of Western music. Absorbing spiritual
impressions into the mainstream of artistic life, he has worked through intellect toward
intuition, gathering together all the means available to the composer of the 20th Century. In
the breadth of the synthesis achieved lies the justification for its grandeur. Stockhausen is the
randomiser who has opened a myriad of musical doorways to an infinite universe of
experience, life and thought.
publié dans Dazed & Confused, 1996 - 31.07.1996