Sounds of Cologne

Entirely new sounds: the fascinating story of the WDR Studio for Electronic Music—and the fight for its legacy.

By Western Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

The Hungarian composer György Ligeti called the relationship between New Music, Westdeutscher Rundfunk and the city of Cologne a "triumvirate". It was an inseparable connection that made WDR a pioneer in the development and promotion of an entirely new musical production process. For months, composers were able to experiment here for the creation of never-before-heard sound constructions, to fiddle with tape snippets and noise generators, to play with ring modulators and octave filters. 

For the Fonologica Musicale at Milan Radio and the Institute for Sonology in Utrecht which followed, and for the leading studios in Tokyo and New York: for all of them, the WDR Studio for Electronic Music, founded in 1951, was the ultimate role model, the mother of all studios, and the first place in the world to work entirely in the field of electronic synthesis, i.e. without any instruments or conventional sounds.

WDR-Studio ImpulsgeberOriginal Source: WDR/Alfred Jansen

The Studio in Cologne was, rather, the main focal point in the development of electronic music. What Wimbledon is for tennis players and Wembley Stadium for footballers, the WDR Studio was for the new composers of that time. Receiving an invitation there felt like being knighted. If you were allowed to experiment there, you had made it. And it was with correspondingly immense respect and awe that most sound artists approached the place.

WDR-Studio FrequenzmesserOriginal Source: WDR/Alfred Jansen

The composer and subsequent Artistic Director York Höller (born in 1944), looking back to 1972, when he created his work Horizonte here, said that he had been determined "to work in a really concentrated way and not just play around with things, as might have happened at other studios, because he wanted to live up to the tradition."

So how did it all begin? However did this revolutionary institution come to be founded, six years after the end of the Second World War, six years after the end of the Third Reich, under which some art was classified as degenerate and electronic music was frowned upon?

WDR-Studio SchaltknöpfeOriginal Source: WDR/Alfred Jansen

Of course, people had been interested in designing and producing new sound structures, especially in connection with the new medium of radio, long before the Nazis came to power in 1933.

Even in the 1920s, radio stations and university institutes were open to the idea of trying out and developing new instruments and coming up with new technical and musical ideas. One example of this was the Radio Research Institute that was set up by the Prussian Ministry of Culture in Berlin in May 1928 and abolished by the Nazis in 1935. The Research Institute was seen as a laboratory for new sounds, but also carried out research into the sound film technology that was becoming popular in 1929 and into early ways of storing music on discs. Among the pioneers of electric music who came and went at the Berlin Research Institute were Oskar Sala, Friedrich Trautwein, and Paul Hindemith.

Vocoder - Demonstration 1949.12.28
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WDR was considered a pioneer in the field of electronic music at an early stage, explaining to listeners how a vocoder worked as early as 1949.The WDR Studio for Electronic Music is regarded as having been born on October 18, 1951, when, at a meeting at the then North-West Germany radio station, the decision was made to set up a studio for electronic music: This was 10 days after the contemporary music concert series Musik der Zeit celebrated its premiere with a performance by Igor Stravinsky. 

WDR-Studio StoppuhrOriginal Source: WDR/Alfred Jansen

Participants in the October 18 meeting, who were key protagonists in getting the studio off the ground, included: Robert Beyer (1901–89), a radical innovator in the art of sound, had a vision of tone color music as early as the 1920s. The physicist and phoneticist Werner Meyer-Eppler (1913–60), who did a lot of work on sound synthesis and was the first to coin the term electronic music in 1949. Fritz Enkel, the technician who designed the first set-up for the studio. And, of course, Herbert Eimert (1897–1972), the musicologist who was thrown out of the Cologne University of Music for writing a paper on Atonal Music Teaching, but later became the first Director of the WDR Studio for Electronic Music

Eimert's first words when the first program The Sound World of Electronic Music was broadcast in the Musikalisches Nachtprogramm (Musical Evening Program) series on October 18, 1951 sounded like a warning: "Please don't be alarmed, the few bars that you have just heard are simply setting the tone for our evening program." That first broadcast was about the 12-tone theory in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus novels: explained on the piano. It was an indication that not everything that came out of the Studio for Electronic Music was simple fare and was not intended to be.

Herbert Eimert 1951 Vocoder, Filter & Co
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Still on the first evening Herbert Eimert gave an introduction to the sound production of electronic music.

Impulsgeber H83AWestern Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

People consciously wanted to create something new in the post-war years. They wanted to counter the weaponization of music by the Nazi dictatorship, a time when Bruckner, Beethoven, and, of course, Wagner and their works were appropriated for the purposes of pathos and propaganda.

FrequenzmessgerätWestern Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

It was a question of stopping the misuse of music. What's more: they wanted to take the emotion out of music, so that it could never again be made vulnerable, open to attack, and subject to use for the wrong purposes. 

WDR-Studio FrequenzmesserOriginal Source: WDR/Alfred Jansen

Serial music was a further development of Arnold Schönberg's 12-tone technique, the unwieldy soundscape of composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and Luigi Nono: of no use to autocrats. Advances in technology also opened up new ways of playing around with entirely new kinds of sound creation.

Among the first works produced at the WDR Studio were Herbert Eimert's Klangstudien I and II. They were a foretaste of what was to come in the decades that followed.

Herbert Eimert 1957 Anmoderation
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Herbert Eimert brought the secrets of electronic music to interested listeners in the WDR radio broadcasts. In December 1957, Eimert spoke about the first live concerts of compositions from the studio as well as about the challenges and difficulties in general.  

Schaltwand seitlichWestern Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

Herbert Eimert's musical interests were a good example of the expansion of 12-tone music with elements of serialism, as referred to previously. Eimert himself was in charge of the Studio for 12 years, until 1963. At the same time, until 1957, he also lectured on the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music. As a professor at the University of Music, he was also in charge of the Studio for Electronic Music there, from 1965 to 1971. He worked with Hans-Ulrich Humpert, his successor at the Electronic Studio at the University of Music, on a lexicon of electronic music. Shortly before the manuscript was finished, on December 15th, 1972, Eimert died in Düsseldorf.

But let's get back to the WDR Studio for Electronic Music. Of course, in the early days, many musicians and composers were overwhelmed by the new equipment and first had to learn how to use it. Composer Gottfried Michael Koenig, the permanent studio engineer, helped numerous colleagues who were still clueless about new developments in electronic music to produce their works. 

WDR-Studio MagnetophonOriginal Source: WDR/Alfred Jansen

For example, Koenig produced Henri Pousseur's Seismogramme and Bo Nilsson's Audiogramme by himself in this way. The music theoretician and composer Herbert Brün later recounted how Koenig had initially sent him to stand in a corner and watch the work in progress.

The composers who were invited were always, as Herbert Eimert put it, "suited to using this equipment, specially commissioned by the radio channel," and the studio was then entirely at their disposal for up to three months, for them to make their ideas a reality.

Mischpult und ImpulsgeberWestern Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

The WDR Studio soon became a meeting place for members of the innovative musical avant-garde. Karlheinz Stockhausen, who succeeded Herbert Eimert as Director of the Studio in 1963, was a frequent visitor here. This was a place not just for composing but also for discussion. 

WDR-Studio TieftongeneratorOriginal Source: WDR/Alfred Jansen

The composer Konrad Boehmer (1941–2014) once described it like this: "The Studio was the place where these discussions took place. It was in the basement and you had to go down in a musty little lift, into a really small studio, which, if there were five or six people in it …

… was already full. It looked more like a student room. There were never enough chairs, so people sat on the filters and generators …

Digital Meter UnitWestern Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)


… at the time they were still really sturdy, iron cans, and people smoked so much you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. It was a cross between the Florentine Camerata and a bohemian bar in Paris."

There was a big discrepancy between, on the one hand, people's ideas, visions, and expectations, which were unbounded, and, on the other, the limited technical capabilities of the studio. Or, as Konrad Boehmer put it, the technicians and composers found themselves stuck "in a dialectic between the woeful technology and their fertile imaginations." 

WDR-Studio VerstärkerOriginal Source: WDR/Alfred Jansen

Yards of tape looped in all directions around the studio. Whereas, at the start, instruments like the Trautonium and the Melochord were still part of the Studio, those instruments soon disappeared, leaving gray metal boxes such as pulse generators, a pure tone generator, noise generator, filter, ring modulator, and much more besides. 

WDR-Studio TeilaufnahmeOriginal Source: WDR/Thomas Brill

Gottfried Michael Koenig summed it up in a lecture in January 2000, when he said that it was no longer a question of writing down a note as a C, an F flat, or a G sharp, like it always used to be in music. Now a composer would say: "I need a sound at 483 Hertz," and the technician would set 483 Hertz on the generator.

But from the 1970s, the studio lost its monopoly position as a technological pioneer for the creation of electronic music. Other studios around the world were more modernly equipped, especially in view of the increasing importance of digital sound synthesis from then on. Mauricio Kagel (1931–2008), the Argentinian composer who came to Cologne in 1957, was later appointed Director of the Institute for New Music at the Rheinische Musikschule in Cologne and then succeeded Karlheinz Stockhausen as Head of the Cologne Courses for New Music (until 1975). He said once, looking back: "I was impressed by the fact that composing electronic music was regarded as an activity that deserved a permanent place in the program."

He also admitted that: "The Studio gradually became like a waxworks museum—worthy of Madame Tussaud's, because nothing was updated, technologically or aesthetically and it all gathered dust, both literally and metaphorically. By 1967, I sensed that there was unlikely to be any change of direction at the Electronic Studio."

WDR-Studio ReglerOriginal Source: WDR/Alfred Jansen

Even though other studios around the world may to some extent have been better equipped, with more modern technology, the Studio in Cologne never lost its huge importance as the pioneering center of the genre of electronic music.
In 1987, the Studio moved out of the main WDR building and into a building owned by the broadcaster in the Annostrasse, a few kilometers away. It remained in use there, by Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Artistic Director York Höller, until 2001.

Then, after exactly half a century, no-one had any use for the studio any more. The equipment was removed and stored in a cellar in Cologne-Ossendorf.

WDR-Studio in Köln-OssendorfWestern Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

360 Grad TourWestern Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

As part of the move, thousands of tape recordings of composers working in the studio were systematically recorded in a database, completely digitized and set up as a closed collection in a magazine in the WDR broadcasting center.
 

WDR Archiv des Studios für Elektronische MusikWestern Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

… such as Kontakte, the famous composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen, which was created here in the WDR Studio.

WDR Tonbandarchiv des Studios für Elektronische MusikWestern Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

In 2017, the search for a permanent home seemed to be over, and an agreement on a move to Haus Mödrath, Stockhausen's birthplace, seemed within reach, but the plans fell apart in early 2020. In an exclusive interview with "Google Arts & Culture," the former head of programming at cultural radio station WDR 3, Professor Karl Karst spoke about the studio's place in the history of music, its importance to WDR, and also about his hopes for keeping the studio in the long term. 

Interview Karl Karst 2020Western Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

Until 2021 Volker Müller took care of the legacy. 

Volker Müller (9)Western Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

Volker Müller started work as a sound engineer here in 1971 because he wanted to "do something new and exciting." He worked here for 30 years, with Stockhausen and many other important musicians.

Volker Müller (6)Western Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

For many years, Volker Müller has kept coming back to Cologne-Ossendorf and visiting the studio in exile in the cellar there—in the hope that one day a more worthy location will be found where a museum can be created that is open to the public, to commemorate such a unique place in the history of German music.

Volker Müller (5)Western Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

In the summer of 2020, Volker Müller gave an exclusive interview for "Google Arts & Culture" in which he talked about the special features of the studio, about his work and about important artists who worked here.

Interview Volker Müller 2020Western Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

In February 2021, exactly half a century after he took up his position at the WDR studio in 1971, Volker Müller died suddenly and unexpectedly - and with him one of the last contemporary witnesses and most profound experts of this unique technology. His name will forever have a permanent place in the history of the WDR Studio for Electronic Music. We bow our heads in great gratitude. RIP Volker Müller (1942 - 2021).

Volker Müller (1942 - 2021)Original Source: WDR/Alfred Jansen

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