Karlheinz Stockhausen and the genesis of electronic music

Term Paper, 2014

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0





1. Historical context and creative background

2. Electronic Music |Elektronische Musik
2.1 Origins and characteristics
2.2 Elektronische Studien I + Il

3. Stockhausen's inspiration, influence and legacy



Electronic music is everywhere. In the digital age it has never been easier for everyone among us to not only listen to compositions fashioned entirely with the help of modern technology, without a single tone being produced by a classic instrument, but to become part of the creative process as well. Basic sound recording and editing software is avail­able for free online and each individual with access to a somewhat up to date personal computer and a stable internet connection could, theoretically, become an artist and com­poser in their own right. Dance, techno, trance and house music is featured regularly in the charts all over the world and has become a well accepted part of cultural life.

This paper intends to look back on the origins of electronics in music, from the first ex­periments with recording mediums and the creative act of editing discs and tapes to the composition of the first pieces devoted exclusively to artificially generated sounds. The development from the early days of the French musique concrète to the German based elektronische Musik is traced by following the influence of the inspired genius Karlheinz Stockhausen from a small studio in Paris back to Cologne where he produced the forma­tive works of this new branch of music, his Elektronische Studien I + II. The importance of Stockhausen’s achievements are then underlined by briefly comparing the progress pouring forth from the new unity of music and electronics in Europe and the United States and, more importantly, by exploring his legacy and the inspiration Karlheinz Stockhausen offered and still continues to provide to whole generations of new and popular musicians and composers.

1. Historical context and creative background

The evolution of avant-garde music in the 20th century was shaped in equal measure by moments of extraordinary inspiration and technical innovation. Facilitated by the rela­tively stable generation and distribution of electricity, the late 1890s and early 1900s saw first attempts to establish music based on sound production aided by electric power. (Montagu) But while instruments like Thaddeus Cahill’s dynamophone, an electric organ built and enhanced from 1895 to 1911, were initially meant to imitate traditional elements of musical performance as closely as possible (Montagu) later inventions went one step further. Starting in the 1920s and 1930s the theremin, the trautonium (Montagu “trauto- nium”), or Harald Bode’s melochord (Der Spiegel) provided musicians with an ever ex­panding pool of novel, unique sounds. (Montagu) It is therefore no surprise that the influ­ence of electronics was not limited to the level of rendition. Simultaneously, the composi­tional aspect of musical practice underwent noteworthy changes as well. According to Peter Manning these were tied first and foremost to the commercial introduction of af­fordable devices that allowed for acoustic material to be recorded and replayed. (Manning 5) These newfound opportunities for time-delayed and repeated audio experiences soon sparked an interest in their creative potential (Manning 5) and raised the question if re­corded sounds and compositions could act as the sole basis for unique pieces of music.

Principal experiments with recording mediums date back to the 1930s and initially in­volved the gramophone and wax or shellac discs. (Manning 5) A group of artists devoted to the German Bauhaus style altered their spiral grooves by “scratching new vibratory patterns” (Manning 5) into the material before playing the records back again. (Manning 5) But such approaches had little in common with precise, purposeful composing and the results proved to be less than desirable. (Manning 5) It was not, however, the idea of for­mal alteration that had to be abandoned. The work the Bauhaus representatives had in mind was rather slightly ahead of the times. After a change of medium, in favor of the emerging photographic film strips that were designed to combine both picture and audio tracks on the same reel, the outcomes improved. (Manning 5-6) One of the most impor­tant advantages of the recording technology employed for this method was the physical manifestation of sound in what is known as the waveform. (Manning 5) Working with “the basic parameters of pitch, time and amplitude” (Manning 5), all experimental musi­cians needed to do now was to apply changes to this wave with the help of “a fine paint­brush and suitable masking solutions and solvents.” (Manning 5) Although this technique, too, could not offer complete control over the nature of the resulting acoustic patterns or guaranteed compositional success (Manning 6), it quickly spread and inspired artists from around the world. Painted audio tracks and the optical transference of a variety of sources into visual recordings became a matter of extended practical exploration in the United States of America, Australia, the United Kingdom and what was then still known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (Manning 6)

Among those impressed with the capacities of this new medium was the American John Cage. The combination of pictures and sounds appealed to him because he had developed a keen interest in both forms of art and enjoyed innovative methods of dealing with and creating new pieces of music. (Chilvers and Glaves-Smith) His own contribution to that included the prepared piano. Using the classic instrument instead of modern electronic versions Cage altered its function and tone with every day objects like forks or screws that were inserted between the piano strings. (Chilvers and Glaves Smith) A potential lack of controllability did not bother him because he held the view that “random sounds could have the same value as organized musical notes.” (Chilvers and Glaves Smith) This did include artificially generated noises and he expected the optical recording technology to revolutionize compositional practice even further as the material and procedure would only improve over time. (Manning 6) Yet the results of technological progress tend to be expensive until the production can be improved with regards to efficiency and costs, lead­ing to increased numbers of availability and disposal. During the early days of electronics in music this remained true and affected many studios that either just came into existence or planned to expand and update their equipment. But as it has often been the case in the history of the arts, constraints rooted in the state or the availability of the material were countered with creative solutions.

After World War II had come to an end, French composers like Pierre Schaeffer, Edgard Varèse and Pierre Henry were well aware of the rapidly growing industry for performance and recording technology. (Manning 6) But while it remained impossible for them to work with state of the art products they focused on the established ones. (Manning 6) This led to a rediscovery of the gramophone for experimental composing and what would eventually become known as musique concrete during the mid-20th century began, back then, as a series of audio studies featuring the noises of nature and day to day life, like the soundscape of a busy train station. (Manning 6) Back in their studios, artists like Schaeffer were then able to select individual parts of the recordings, rearrange or combine them with others at best. (Manning 6-7) With no other major devices for the production of his work than “a rudimentary 78-rpm disk-cutting lathe and four turntables” (Manning 6) Schaeffer’s range of effects remained limited to basic strategies like playing with the pace and course of his recording or repeating certain sounds over and over again (Manning 7), which meant that “functional characteristics of the technology thus materially influenced the art and craft of musique concrète” (Manning 6). This changed in the early 1950s, but Schaeffer’s then newly obtained studio equipment did not include the advanced optical recording methods that John Cage had predicted. (Manning 7) In the meantime magnetic tape had begun its triumphal procession through the music business (Manning 7) and in­creased not only the quality, but also the overall possible length (Borwick and Foreman) of recordings. While this novel and unexpected potential was exciting and inspiring at first, it also brought about debates concerning the defining elements of musique concrète and whether or not they could be preserved after the change in medium had been carried out. (Manning 7)

During this particular period a young German composer called Karlheinz Stockhausen, born 1928 in Mödrath, discovered his interest in the experiments of his French colleagues. He arrived in Paris in 1952, intending to spend a year on learning as much as possible about their musique concrète, and was introduced to Pierre Schaeffer. (Stockhausen 649) The two men worked together in Schaeffer’s Studio d’Essai (Manning 6, 8) and Stock­hausen originally “made hundreds of analyses of instrumentally produced sounds” (Stockhausen 649) before he went out to record acoustic material of his own. (Stock­hausen 649) When he composed his Étude in response to what he had experienced, Stockhausen used a variety of piano sounds as his source material and then edited them with the techniques of isolation, juxtaposition and looping that had shaped the work of his French teachers. (von Blumröder 311; Manning 7) Yet he was aware, even back then, that it would not serve to satisfy him and his own understanding of the potential of music in the long run. When he managed to locate a sine wave generator, an electronic tool that creates a pulsing frequency of sound visualized as a wave in sinusoid form (“oscillator”), Stockhausen was curious in how far these purely artificial sounds may be used for the composition of musical pieces. (Stockhausen 649) By recording and working with these decidedly not natural sounds he created “the first synthetic soundspectra” (Stockhausen 649) and took an important first step in the direction of what would then become not only the focal point of his own career, but also the largely German-based development of a new audio experience and composition practice in general that heavily influenced the future of music.

2. Electronic Music l Elektronische Musik 2.1 Origins and characteristics

The inquisitiveness and a desire to test or even shift the limits of technology that charac­terized his predecessors in their experimental handling of music influenced by electronics was part of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s incentive as well.


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Karlheinz Stockhausen and the genesis of electronic music
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien)
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Anonymous, 2014, Karlheinz Stockhausen and the genesis of electronic music, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/295033


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