The Quartet from the Rhine

For example, Pierre Boulez and György Ligeti, Mauricio Kagel and Gottfried Michael Koenig: how Cologne, as a creative center for electronic music, had a decisive influence on the lives and work of composers.

By Western Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

Stockhausen, of course. Who else. No one shaped the fortunes and history of the WDR Studio for Electronic Music as much as Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 - 2007), who composed and realized his most important works here between 1953 and 1998 and who also served as the studio's Artistic Director from 1963 to 1977, then as Artistic Advisor until 1990. But there were also other international composers who worked in Cologne as important protagonists of a contemporary musical avant-garde. From the 1950s onwards, Cologne was one of the world's most important locations for new sound creations in electronic music. Exemplary for the multitude of artists, an insight into the life and work of four important composers who created and produced or played and premiered works here, also thanks to the sponsorship and support of Westdeutscher Rundfunk: an impressive quartet.

Growing up in Montbrison on the Loire, the son of steel manufacturer Léon Boulez and his wife Antoinette, the young Pierre had his first piano lesson at the age of seven. For a long time, he dreamed of becoming a mathematician or a scientist. 

Even during the Second World War, he went to the Paris Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique and in 1948 took over as Musical Director of the …

… the Théâtre Marigny in Paris. In 1952, Boulez attended the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music for the first time, which became the main forum for contemporary music in Germany after the war. 

Peirre Boulez (1971-03-11) by Carlo BavagnoliLIFE Photo Collection

Then in 1957 Boulez conducted the WDR choir and orchestra for the first time in a performance of his composition, La Visage Nuptial. Another milestone followed a year later when Pierre Boulez, together with Stockhausen and the Italian avant-garde composer Bruno Maderna (1920–73), gave the first performance of a work commissioned by the WDR, Gruppen für drei Orchester, in the Rheinsaal at the Cologne Congress Center. 

For the young Boulez, Cologne marked the start of a great career during which, over the years, he gradually slipped from the role of composer into that of conductor. In 1966 he celebrated his first appearance at Bayreuth, where he conducted Parsifal at the Wagner Festival. From 1971 to 1975 he was Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and at the same time also of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, as the successor to Leonard Bernstein.

Boulez made his final appearances as a conductor at the Salzburg Festival from 1995 onward, and then in 2004 he returned once more to the Green Hill in Bayreuth - conducting Parsifal again, almost four decades after he did so for the first time.

Even for his 85th birthday, he stood on the conductor's podium at the Wiener Musikverein for a celebratory concert with the Vienna Philharmonic. Pierre Boulez died at his main home in Baden-Baden on January 5, 2016.

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When, at the end of the 1990s, the disbanding of the WDR Studio for Electronic Music looked ever more likely, there was heated opposition from the music scene. One of the biggest advocates for keeping the studio was György Ligeti (1923–2006), who organized petitions and called the imminent closure a "scandal." 

It is easy to understand why the Studio was so close to the composer's heart, since he had such a lasting influence on it and its work. 

Growing up in a Hungarian-Jewish family in Klausenburg in Transylvania, now called Cluj in Romania, Ligeti had a difficult youth. His father died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and his younger brother Gabór in Mauthausen. His mother survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Like Pierre Boulez, Ligeti originally wanted to pursue a scientific career but he was not accepted to study Physics because he failed to gain a place under the numerus clausus system.

After studying Music Theory and the organ at the Klausenburg Conservatory, he later studied Composition and Music Theory at the Academy of Music in Budapest with Sándor Veress, Pál Járdányi, Lajos Bárdos, and Ferenc Farkas.

From 1950 onward he also lectured there, but the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 that was crushed by the Soviets changed everything. Ligeti fled to Vienna and then moved to Cologne, where he arrived at the train station in 1957 with 27 German marks in his pocket.

Stockhausen im WDR-Studio bei der Komposition für "Kontakte"Original Source: Archiv der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten,, www.karlheinzstockhausen.orgArchiv der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten,, www.karlheinzstockhausen.org

1-32 György Ligeti - Komponisten elektronischer Musik werden als Exoten angesehen - 1958.06.25
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For the first six weeks, he lived with his mentor Karlheinz Stockhausen, who frequently took him to the WDR Studio and introduced him to the world of electronic music. A year after his arrival in Cologne, Ligeti spoke to WDR about the public image of composers.

Ligeti's breakthrough came in 1960 at the 34th World Music Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music which had deliberately chosen Cologne as the venue because at that time, thanks to the WDR Studio, it was already regarded worldwide as a bastion of the musical avant-garde. To this day, the ten days from June 10 to 19, 1960, must be unique. There were a total of 16 first performances, including Stockhausen's Kontakte and Pierre Boulez's Pli selon Pli.

However, it was above all the previously largely unknown composer György Ligeti who caused unexpected excitement among Cologne audiences with his piece, Apparitions. 

Ligeti was fascinated by the production of aleatoric music - music that is left to chance - and for his work Artikulation he put sound segments together unsystematically and randomly, even using a shoebox and throwing clips of tape in there to be glued together. Gottfried Michael Koenig, who assisted in the process, said Ligeti was obsessed with shaking up the box, like they do at the draw for a football cup, mixing up the clips of tape to underline the randomization principle.

Ligeti became known to a wider public with his composition Atmosphères in 1961, which Stanley Kubrik used as part of the soundtrack for his epic science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Even though he later concentrated only on instrumental and vocal music, ways of thinking from electronic music continued to flow in here as well, as he emphasized in his 1970 essay Auswirkungen der elektronischen Musik auf mein kompositorisches Schaffen (Effects of electronic music on my compositional work). Again and again Ligeti, who lived in Hamburg and Berlin, later returned to Cologne. In 1976 he wrote the work "Three Pieces" for two pianos, commissioned by the WDR, "Hungarian Rock" (1978) and his Violin Concerto (1990 - 1992). He still celebrated a triumph in 1997 at the Salzburg Festival with a premiere of his newly staged only opera "Le Grand Macabre".


Even in his later years, Ligeti was still attempting daring innovations, for example in his Horn Concerto, which was first performed in 2001, he tried to produce new overtone relationships by mixing equal tempered and just tuning. That year also saw a rift with his old companion-in-arms Stockhausen, who had caused irritation with his bizarre remarks about the terrorist attacks on 9/11 ("the biggest work of art there has ever been …"), with the result that Ligeti clearly distanced himself from him afterward.

The composer died at the age 83 in Vienna on June 12, 2006, after a long illness. "In a time that is leveling all the hard and fast norms in art, he undoubtedly succeeded in recreating something of our current attitude to life in his music," wrote the Neue Züricher Zeitung in an obituary.

2-06 Mauricio Kagel - Transicion, Meine erste Begegnung mit elektronischer Musik… - 1964.10.23
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The Argentinian composer Mauricio Kagel (1931–2008) also defied categorization. At the age of 26, he left the city where he was born, Buenos Aires, and came with his German wife, the sculptor and graphic designer Ursula Burghardt, to Cologne, at that time a bastion of the musical avant-garde. Pierre Boulez had advised him to do so after seeing and hearing some of Kagel's compositions. In 1964, Kagel recalled in retrospect his first encounter with electronic music.

Kagel would probably never have dreamed that Cologne would become the focal point of his life, and that he would live there for over half a century until his death. From 1969 he was Director of the Institute for New Music at the Rheinische Musikschule in Cologne and also ran the Cologne Courses for New Music. He was co-founder of the Cologne Ensemble for New Music, and in 1975 he became Professor of New Musical Theater at the Cologne University of Music.

WDR-Studio TeilaufnahmeOriginal Source: WDR/Thomas BrillWDR/Thomas Brill

The main focal point in Kagel's work was the WDR: Eighteen of his compositions had their first performance at the WDR. Kagel was not only one of the most productive artists of those Cologne years, but also one of the most versatile, because he experimented with many different forms of expression: take, for example, his form of instrumental theater, where the visible movements that accompany the making of music, such as facial expression and gestures, become part of the performance.

He demonstrated just how bizarre and experimental his compositions could be in his Fantasie für Orgel mit Obligati, where he used a toilet being flushed as an instrument. Of course, opinions were divided about his work, with some critics describing the absurd-comic elements as a "return of gaiety" to contemporary music, which was sometimes considered too complex and hard to understand. 

For other critics, Kagel's works were too simple, too banal, too irrelevant.

Two of Kagel's films give a good insight into his work: Antithese. Drama for an Actor with Electronic and Public Sounds (Spiel für einen Darsteller mit elektronischen + öffentlichen Klängen) from 1965 and …

… Ludwig van from 1970.

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One of the leading proponents in the early years was undoubtedly Gottfried Michael Koenig (*1926). Born in Magdeburg, he worked at the WDR Studio for 10 years from 1954 to 1964 as a composer and also as a producer because he - unlike many other musicians and artists - also knew how to use modern technology. His approach was that "the machines had to speak for themselves." "The machines had to be given a voice of their own - you had to compose to suit the equipment." 

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Some composers trusted Koenig so much that they never came to Cologne themselves but simply sent their scores there, working on the principle: Gottfried will do it. And he did. Koenig produced Henri Pousseur's Seismogramme and Bo Nilsson's Audiogramme by himself in this way.

Especially in its early years, the Studio became almost a kind of artists' commune and many musicians used to meet up there who had nothing to do with electronic music and wanted nothing to do with it. The Studio was a place for debate and discussion, sharing ideas and getting together. In an interview in 2001, Koenig said: "I sometimes think back longingly to the ten golden years in Cologne." 

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Koenig Beispiele für Klangbearbeitungen
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The composer Konrad Boehmer once very fittingly called Koenig the "Cerberus of pure tones, white noise and ring modulation." And of course, even though Koenig directed the works of many other artists and brought them to life, he also produced his own compositions. In 1963, Koenig gave an insight into the different possibilities of sound processing.

For example, it was at the WDR Studio that he created Klangfiguren I and Klangfiguren II, the Essay and Terminus 1.

Incidentally, Terminus II / Funktion Grün, which was produced in 1967, was later included in The Wire's legendary list of 100 Records That Set the World on Fire (While No One Was Listening). Koenig once described in a TV documentary just how complex and complicated and, above all, how incredibly time-consuming it was at the time to turn compositions into a work that could be listened to, when he said: "Sometimes we would spend two weeks producing a 10-second sequence."

Following his time in Cologne, from 1964 to 1986, Koenig was Director of the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht. He is still an honorary member of the German Society for Electroacoustic Music.

Boulez, Ligeti, Kagel, Koenig. Four great sound artists from a great Cologne era.

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