Striking a New Note: the Composer Who Made Sounds Rotate

One of the leading pioneers in electronic music—creative, combative, and controversial: the life and work of Karlheinz Stockhausen

By Western Broadcasting Corporation (North Rhine-Westphalia)

Karlheinz Stockhausen came into the world in unsettled times, in 1928 in Mödrath near Kerpen. He was four when he saw his mother Gertrud for the last time. Suffering from depression, she was deported by the National Socialists and killed nine years later in 1941 at the Hadamar Euthanasia Center. His father Simon, a primary school teacher, did not survive the Second World War either but died in Hungary during the final weeks of the war. Stockhausen had begun to play the piano at the age of seven. After leaving school he studied piano and Music Education at the State College of Music in Cologne and later Music Science, Philosophy, and German Studies at the University of Cologne. Yet, like so many young musicians at that time, he was not particularly interested in following the well-trodden path of traditional classical music. Stockhausen was fascinated by New Music. By atonality and dissonance.

Stockhausen bei der Komposition seines Stücks "Kontakte"Original Source: Archiv der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten,, www.karlheinzstockhausen.orgArchiv der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten,,

Stockhausen had his first breakthrough in 1951 at the legendary Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music, with the first performance of his debut work, Kreuzspiel: a composition for oboe, bass clarinet, piano, and three percussion players.

1951 was also a significant year in his private life. Stockhausen married his partner Doris, with whom he went on to have four children, Suja (born in 1953), Christel (1956), Markus (1957), and Majella (1961).

In 1953, he began working at the WDR Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne with Herbert Eimert, then head of the studio, from whom he took over that role in 1963.

"Our early work there was based on the idea of harmonizing sung sound with electronically generated sound," said Stockhausen once. "We wanted to produce sounds that were as fast or slow, as loud or soft, as dense and interwoven, with intervals as large or small and differences of tonal color as varied as we could possibly imagine, free of the physical limitations of any singer."

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,,

Stockhausen Gesang der Jünglinge

Then in 1955, he composed one of his key early works, Gesang der Jünglinge, which was produced with Gottfried Michael Koenig at the WDR Studio for Electronic Music.

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

Stockhausen 1958 Hörerpost

Of course, not every music lover at the time was comfortable with the completely new sound images. In 1958, Karlheinz Stockhausen read to a sometimes quite amused audience excerpts from reactions, some of them extremely indignant, that had reached him by mail.

Here you can see an excerpt from "Kreuzspiel", performed in October 2008 at the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid under the baton of conductor Nacho de Paz.

In 1993, Stockhausen reported on his first experiments in the WDR studio, how he glued together thousands of snippets of tape on white tape or connecting pieces. "76.2 centimeters per second was the tape running speed. A heavy double machine was available for four-track recordings, which I first used for synchronizing sound layers and, since 1954, for Gesang der Jünglinge. I had to crank the two machines with a hand crank, and when both were running at proper speeds, I operated a mechanical clutch for synchronization."

Stockhausen RotationstischOriginal Source: Archiv der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten, www.karlheinzstockhausen.orgArchiv der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten,

For his composition Kontakte in 1959, Stockhausen designed a so-called rotating loudspeaker, another innovation in electronic music. Four microphones positioned round the table transmitted the sounds from the rotating speaker to be recorded on a four-track tape recorder. 

In this way he managed to generate continuous movements of sound, or, as Stockhausen himself wrote in the realization score for Kontakte:

WDR-Studio RotationslautsprecherOriginal Source: WDR/Alfred JansenWDR/Alfred Jansen

"A loudspeaker that can be moved around on tracks is fastened to a round table, the axis of which is on ball bearings. The loudspeaker is completely acoustically sealed at the back and a metal cone is attached in front of the membrane to focus the direction of the sound … 

"In all four directions, microphones are positioned at exactly the same height as the cone on the loudspeaker and fitted with wind baffles. Over the middle of the table, a cable hangs vertically down from a tall microphone stand: this is for feeding the modulation from one tape recorder to the speaker. The four microphones should be equalized for level on four separate controllers and each controller can also have a second one connected in parallel …"

WDR-Studio StoppuhrOriginal Source: WDR/Alfred JansenWDR/Alfred Jansen

… The table is rapidly rotated to the right or the left by hand; a big stopwatch is required for controlling the timing …"

Kontakte is one of Stockhausen's most important works and is a composition for electronic sounds, piano, and percussion that was first performed in Cologne in 1960. What is special about it is that the pianist and percussionist were playing as a trio with a tape recording.

One wonderful contemporary document from that time is in the form of an interview that the composer gave:

Stockhausen caused a furor at the 1970 World Exhibition in Osaka. He had a special connection with Japan, having worked in Tokyo in 1966 at the Electronic Music Studio run by the radio broadcaster NHK where he composed two commissioned works, Telemusik and Solo. For the historic Expo '70, the first World Exhibition ever to be held in Asia, Stockhausen designed a spherical auditorium for generating three-dimensional music, where 20 instrumentalists and singers spent 5 and a half hours a day for 183 days performing mainly pieces composed by Stockhausen before 1970, for audiences of over a million.

Stockhausen 1970 OsakaOriginal Source: Archiv der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten, www.karlheinzstockhausen.orgArchiv der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten,

The audience were seated on a sound-permeable mesh slightly below the middle of the sphere and electroacoustic spatial compositions that had been specially commissioned for this space, or spatialized for it, were played through 50 groups of speakers arranged around the listeners, making the sound completely three-dimensional.

Stockhausen am Mischpult des WDR-Studios 1975Original Source: Archiv der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten/Werner Scholz, www.karlheinzstockhausen.orgArchiv der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten/Werner Scholz,

Later, during the 1970s, Stockhausen's music became more cosmic, of the spheres. For example, in 1975 he composed Sirius, a piece of electronic music with four soloists. It was commissioned by the Federal Republic of Germany as a gift to the USA to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its foundation.

Stockhausen 1994 bei der Komposition von "Freitag aus Licht"Original Source: Archiv der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten/Kathinka Pasveer, www.karlheinzstockhausen.orgArchiv der Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten/Kathinka Pasveer,

Between 1977 and 2003 he created the musical-theater cycle called Licht (Light), in which the individual sections were named after the days of the week. This photo shows Stockhausen in 1994 composing Freitag (Friday).

Stockhausen was controversial even during his lifetime, not only for his daring, modern compositions that many listeners found unsettling—but sometimes also for his statements. He caused a scandal when, five days after the attacks on September 11, 2001, he declared:

World Trade Center (1971) by Henry GroskinskyLIFE Photo Collection

"That was the biggest work of art there has ever been. That minds could achieve something in one act which we in music cannot even dream of, that people rehearse like crazy for ten years, totally fanatically for one concert, and then die. This is the greatest possible work of art in the entire cosmos. I couldn't do that. Compared to this, we are nothing as composers." 

After the public outcry of indignation, Stockhausen apologized. About a year and a half before his death, Stockhausen gave one of his rare television interviews in the summer of 2006. In it, he talked about his everyday work, the resistance he had to overcome in his life, why traditional classical music was overrated - and that some of his compositions came to him at night while he slept. Then he got up and went...

Stockhausen continued working and composing tirelessly until his death in 2007. His final cycle of works, entitled Klang, remained unfinished. He had been working on it since 2004 and was trying to represent the 24 hours of the day in sound. However, in the end, the final three hours were missing. The world premiere of the 21 hours took place in May 2010 at the Cologne Music Triennale.

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