Stockhausen is Invisible

Grant Chu Covell

[November 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:1.]


In La Folia Vol. 2 No. 3, several of us (Mike, Walt and I) wrote excitedly of the release on Auvidis Montaigne (MO 782097) of a studio-recording of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet with the Arditti Quartet. [I wasn’t excited so much as bemused. I ought to have tried to make that clearer. I’m not sure I’d characterize Walt’s reaction as excited either, but let’s let it go. –Ed.] Since then I’ve dipped into some of the easily obtainable Stockhausen materials, and have become frustrated at how inaccessible Stockhausen seems to have become. Since 1975, Stockhausen has focussed all his efforts upon an ambitious seven-part opera cycle Licht (one opera for each day of the week) structuring all his efforts, including the commissions he accepts, into the seven part scheme. Essentially, Stockhausen has historicised himself: very little of his work since embarking upon Licht has made it across the Atlantic, and he has almost vanished from America’s contemporary musical life. What is accessible gives an inaccurate picture of one of the 20th century’s great musical forces.

Here’s a meandering travel report through some of what’s out there.

A cursory stroll through the Stockhausen bin at the big chains turns up very little. Online venues, even the alternative ones, have few CDs and maybe one or two special order CDs. Most of what is available, except for the Helicopter String Quartet, dates before Licht.

But you can always get a Stockhausen fix directly from Stockhausen Verlag at Stockhausen Verlag offers sanctioned recordings, scores, and books at somewhat reasonable prices, yet I know few who have actually ordered from the private label. My favorite alternative mail order CD venue told me years ago that Stockhausen Verlag does not understand that working through a retail outlet or distributor might actually increase sales. Happily, Stockhausen Verlag lowered their CD prices considerably this past June. I have been eyeing CDs with works I last savored in their entirety in college. Early electronic/concrete works: Etude I and II, Gesang der Jünglinge and Kontakte on one CD go for USD $27 (this disc was an unbelievable $37.75 before June, though multi-page detailed booklets do explain some the high cost of the CDs), and Hymnen, spanning four CDs for $71 (was $108). (I had been allocating my anticipated lottery winnings for some of these CDs, but now I’ll earmark them for the huge Schola Cantorum/Clytus Gottwald set on Bayer.)

To get complete recordings of the music that got Stockhausen into the history books (Kreuzspiel, Gesang der Jünglinge), you would have to go to right to the source at Stockhausen Verlag. There’s a teasingly gutsy Kreuzspiel excerpt on Montaigne’s Passport to the 20th century (Auvidis Montaigne 780518), a single CD of excepts picked by Pierre Boulez to illustrate what he considers essential characteristics of 20th century music (music by Ligeti, Varese, Stravinsky, Berio, Webern, and of course Boulez are featured). The disc is worth owning just to hear Boulez talking in French through examples of his own Éclat.

DG is the label for Stockhausen LPs, but they’re obviously out of print and hard to pry out of the hands of collectors. Stockhausen bought back from DG the rights to all the recordings and has reissued them on his private label. We will never see a DG Stockhausen Edition, like what they did for Beethoven or Henze.

A rare find in the US is a two-CD import item on Sony (S2K 53346) with Klavierstücke I-XI (1952-56), Mikrophonie I for tam-tam, two microphones and two filters (1964), and Mikrophonie II for 12 singers, 4 ring modulators and Hammond organ (1965). These are 1965 recordings with Aloys Kontarsky as the pianist in the Klavierstücke. Alfred Alings, Johannes Fritsch, Harald Boje, Jaap Spek, Hugh Davies join with Stockhausen and Kontasrsky to surround the tam-tam in Mikrophonie I, and Kontarsky and Fritsch join with a chorus for Mikrophonie II. The accompanying notes are from the original LPs and go into minute details of the recording sessions, including what Kontarksy ate and drank before and after the recording sessions of the Klavierstücke. This is probably my favorite Stockhausen recording in my collection: it is truly amazing the wealth of sounds Stockhausen and friends manage to coax from a single tam-tam with real-time electronic manipulation.

On a rarer DG import CD (DG 447 761-2), Claudio Abbado is one of the conductors in Gruppen, a 1955-57 work for 3 orchestras. Two works by Gyorgy Kurtag are also featured. Another rarity is a somewhat straightforward reading of Punkte (1952-62) with the SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden conducted by Boulez on the 10th of the 12-CD col legno set, Donaueschinger Musiktage 75 Jahre: 1921-1996 (col legno 31899), or on the 4th of col legno’s 4-CD set, Donaueschinger Musiktage 40 Jahre: 1945-1995 (col legno 31800).

Here’s a run down on some of what’s slightly more available, though special ordering may still be required:

On Harmonia Mundi (HMA 190795), Fais voile vers le soleil and Liaison from a larger collection of fourteen pieces of “musique intuitive” known collectively as Die sieben Tagen (1968). Diego Masson and Stockhausen oversee members of Ensemble Musique Vivant in recordings made in 1969. These pieces require that the musicians immerse themselves in Stockhausen’s mystical and elliptical instructions. One of the pieces from Die seiben Tagen, but not on this recording, is as follows: “everyone plays the same tone/lead the tone wherever your thoughts/lead you/do not leave it, stay with it/always return/to the same place”. There are no program notes or clues, and listeners need to find their own way. There’s a lot to like in these colorful brief works, which could easily be mistaken for free jazz. The blending of instruments and electronics is subtle, and there are lots of sounds not easily identifiable with either clarinet, percussion, piano or viola. Harmonia Mundi has also bundled this CD in a 3-CD budget-priced set featuring Diego Masson and the Ensemble Musique Vivant in Luciano Berio’s Laborintus 2 and Boulez’s Domaines.

A tantalizingly short work is Dr. K.–Sextett (1969), performed by the California EAR unit on New Albion (NA 019 CD). It was commissioned by Stockhausen’s then publisher, Universal Edition, to commemorate the birthday of its director, Dr. Alfred Kalmus. The sextet is a something like an explosion and its aftermath in slow motion: a cluster of pitches change in pitch and simultaneity over a short course of 3 minutes. The disc also contains music by Andriessen, Carter, Jarvinen, Steiger and Torke: colorful and varied pieces drawing upon interesting ensembles.

Another short work available in several interpretations is In Freundschaft (1977-78) for a wind instrument. In my collection I have a BIS disc (BIS 338) with Christian Lindberg on trombone (with solo pieces by Berio, Xenakis, Kagel, Eliasson and Cage) and an ECM disc (ECM 453 257-2) with Eduard Brunner on clarinet (with solo pieces by Yun, Stravinsky, Boulez, Scelsi and Lachenmann). I find the clarinet version more satisfying than the trombone version, but am not completely sure about the work. I find the other pieces more interesting and usually loose interest when the Stockhausen comes up.

There have been several CD recordings of Mantra (1970) for two pianos and ring modulators. Two are generally available: A 1986 recording with Yvar Miskashoff, Rosalind Bevan, pianos, Ole Orsted, ring modulators New Albion (NA025), and a 1993 recording with Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher, pianos, Brian Wolf, sound engineer on Wergo (WER 6267-2).

At first hearing, Mantra is an indecipherable monolithic and homogenous 70+ minute work. The “mantra” is a fluid 12-note gesture that is repeated in 13 sections, each section modulating the mantra against one of 12 pitches. But there is much going on in Mantra beneath the surface: the work blends serial and free composition and there are a few moments that mimic the repetition of cutting and splicing tape. Some might find the sound world similar to Cage’s prepared piano, but that’s a simplistic and unfair comparison.

[Recently I had to explain what a ring modulator was to someone I work with (no way I could convey how excited composers get when we talk about ring modulators, they are so simple and so cool). Ring modulators produce a distinct sound, generally very complex and rich with partials. Piano combined with ring modulators produces a grainy yet shimmering bell like sound. Ring modulators (named so because their circuitry looks like a ring) take two sound inputs (input and carrier) and output the sounds’ sum and difference frequencies. So if a piano is playing the tuning A (440Hz) and the ring modulator is producing a sine wave at 200 Hz, the outputs will be 240 (440 – 200) and 640 (440 + 200). On the web, a complete example is:]

Stimmung (1968) on Hyperion (CDA66115), a 70+ minute work for 6 voices, is another moderately available CD. Stimmung’s core set of pitches are overtones from a low B-flat, the text/sounds are the names of various gods, days of the week, and erotic love poems written by Stockhausen himself. I’m really not quite sure of this work: repeated listening has taken me from an initial stage of goofiness and embarrassment, to sustained awe at how difficult it must be to perform this piece, and finally, to a state of indifference. I think it’s because I can’t find or feel an emotional core to the work now that its colors, form, and technical aspects don’t entertain me.

Perspectives of New Music,, is a venerable commentator on the theory and aesthetic of new music as presented by its composers, interpreters and listeners. A two-part seventieth-birthday Festscrift for Stockhausen (he turned 70 on August 22, 1998) is spread across two recent Perspectives of New Music issues (Vol. 36, Nos. 1-2). Over a dozen articles delve into Stockhausen, and not surprisingly most focus on work written before 1960: Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-56), Gruppen (1955-57), Kontakte (1958-60) are some of the works discussed.

Short recent articles have also appeared in the British publications The Musical Times and Tempo. Tempo No. 213 offers a short interview with Stockhausen, and The Musical Times discusses Christopher Fox’s realization of one of the most obtuse graphic works of all time, Plus Minus (1963).

Detailed and ceaselessly positive analyses of Stockhausen’s works up to 1974 are in Robin Maconie’s The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen (Marion Boyars, 1976). This book is full of extensive examples and detailed notes for each and every work written by Stockhausen up to 1974. Stockhausen’s notational inventiveness becomes readily apparent, complex works like Plus Minus become intriguing. Maconie brought this book up to date in 1990 for Oxford University Press. Both editions are unfortunately out of print.

Jonathan Cott’s Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer contains two lengthy and revealing conversations from 1971 (I have the British Picador paperback of 1974, but there are other editions.). Stockhausen (in Cott’s hands) is remarkably articulate and prescient about his contemporaries and events of the time. More than anything else written about Stockhausen (liner notes, bibliographies, etc.) these edited interviews offer intriguing details and insights into Stockhausen’s life, philosophy and work. Stockhausen comes across as amiable, having completely devoted his life to composing and creating music. It’s impossible not to have respect for someone who has been able to give himself so fully and consistently to his art.

But what about getting easy access to what Stockhausen has been up to in the last 25 years? A scan through available recordings might imply that Stockhausen has done nothing interesting in the past decades just because he has scant representation in CD bins. It would be welcome to stumble across recordings of the individual operas of Licht in stores (there was a DG recording of Donnerstag before Stockhausen Verlag swallowed it back up). Some parts of Licht do exist as standalone works: the Helicopter String Quartet is from Scene III of Wednesday from Licht, for example. And yes, everything is available from Stockhausen Verlag (I haven’t looked for Stockhausen on Napster however…).

Despite occasional attempts at reviving Manta or Kontakte, it is also nearly impossible to find live performances or recordings of Stockhausen’s recent significant work performed and recorded by musicians outside of his immediate circle (though whipping up Gruppen is probably outside of the scope of any local regional student orchestra). Perhaps it will take a generation of performers to share, intuit, and mentor the performance practice to younger performers. Indicative of Stockhausen’s handpicking of interpreters, one of Stockhausen’s sons has just released a new all-Stockhausen CD on EMI that isn’t yet generally available in the US.

But are there young composers and performers who are interested in Stockhausen? Recall that Stockhausen was on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (over near W.C. Fields). There’s very little of this type of overt idolatry today: Björk has interviewed Stockhausen (you can get it from, and Sonic Youth has miniaturized Stockhausen’s DG LP covers for their CDs (they’ve also put the plastic strip and graph paper from Cage’s Fontana Mix on a tee-shirt).

I can’t imagine Britney Spears genuflecting in Stockhausen’s direction, but there are Stockhausen fans out there. Check out the Unofficial Stockhausen web page at Despite the somewhat clunky design, the Unofficial Stockhausen site offers membership in the Stockhausen Society and offers accommodation if you want to study at Society’s library. Most impressively, the Website offers a comprehensive discography with track listings and miniatures of the cover art of most of the Stockhausen LPs and CDs including the Stockhausen Verlag ones.

It does seem that Stockhausen fares better outside of the US where large contemporary works generally find better audiences and support. Given Licht, we all know how easy it is for new operas or similar large-scale theatrical works to succeed in the US. I imagine that when Stockhausen passes away, many will read the obligatory one-page obituary in the New York Times and proclaim: “Stockhausen? I thought he died in the 60’s!” But maybe not if Stockhausen Verlag were to stock-up endcaps in several Towers and HMVs with recent CDs, flood college radio with promos, and let Dover Publications reprint the Klavierstücke and Kreuzspiel.