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From out of the fiery furnace .... the sounds of the WDR Studio for Electronic Music

The Sound Barrier : Blog

When Stockhausen wrote his still-iconic, still-seminal, work for electronic music in 1995-1956, GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE, and chose to set within it an Old Testament biblical text about youths being rescued from a fiery furnace by St Michael, he probably had an inkling of how prophetic he was being. In fact he at one stage likened himself to those youths, and their dogged determination to not betray the truth in which they believed, no matter how derided it was by the popular values of the day, no matter how dire the consequences.

This was where Stockhausen saw himself, too: creating new sounds that were always scandalising his contemporaries (especially the people who might pay him to compose) and allowing himself to be led into the fiery furnace of musical criticism and immolation because of his determination not to compromise his own resolute respect for the new: a determination to explore and create new music, to work with new sounds, to realise new ways of musical forming.

The advent of the West German Radio's (WDR) Electronic Music Studio, borne one night in October 1951 out of a discussion amongst a bunch of forward-thinking broadcasters and early sound artists, provided for Stockhausen, and others like him, a new opportunity to really take their interest in new sound and new music into a heap of new directions. It allowed them to realise their eagerness to explore with equipment that was barely created, with techniques that they were discovering as they worked, and for audiences who were often flabbergasted, sometimes outraged, but with just enough of them just eager enough for more, for the studio to be kept going and for more opportunities for new works, in this still fledgling space of electronic music, to be created.

The latest edition of The Sound Barrier celebrated the 66th anniversary of that late-night meeting in 1951 with a small tribute to the big history of the WDR Electronic Music Studio, now recognised not only as the first of its kind but also as one of huge significance and influence in the now worldwide, vibrant, continually growing story of electronic music. So much, even of today's innovation in electronic music and computer music, can be traced back ultimately to the work of that studio.

While WDR Studio never stopped doing interesting, exciting work, and never stopped attracting interesting, exciting people to work there, they were those heady, wildly adventurous years of the 1950s that continue to fascinate the history-tellers of new music so much – years where everything was new, and where sounds were being created on equipment that was doing things that had never been imagined, let alone used, in music before. These were times when the tasks were not about perfecting what had gone before, but about creating it for the first time. It was not about building on the work of others, it was about laying foundations in ground that no one had even walked on before. And still today much of it sounds new, and certainly daring.

I focussed on this early period for the first half of the show. Much of this time in these very early years at the WDR was about discovering what could be done – the sorts of sounds that could be produced, and exploring the ways of bringing them together into single pieces of music that were as much studies in sound creation as musical compositions. In pieces like the Klangstudie I from 1952, by Herbert Eimert, the studio's first director, that sense of exploration of new sound is unescapable, as is the fascination for finding different ways of working with the sounds – shaping them, juxtaposing them, moving them, in different ways – in works like those of the mid 1950s from Giselher Klebe, Gottfried Michael Koenig, and Karel Goeyvaerts. By 1957, composers such as Franco Evangelisti and György Ligeti, already marking out compositional territory for themselves outside of electronic music, were taking an interest in the studio and coming there to create music, so I played you some of their works from there too.

By the 1970s both electronic music and the WDR Studio had quite a foothold on the world's musical landscape and soon, with the creation of electronic music becoming more widely accessible as synthesisers became more available and more portable, more and more composers, both popular and avant-garde, would take an interest in exploring the possibilities of electronic music. The WDR Studio continued to be a place for those composers to work, but it was no longer the only one nor necessarily the main one – but still some astonishingly innovative and exciting works were emerging from it.

I played, from the early 1970s, Horizont by York Höller, who was eventually to take over the Artistic Directorship of the Studio, a position he held until 1999, a year before its closure. Horizont is a work that attempts to capture something of both the finitude and openness to infinity that we get from the notion of a horizon: whether it be the physical horizon we see when we look out across unencumbered land or sea, or the horizon that is formed as a construction of mathematics or logic, or, indeed, the horizon of human potential and growth, captured in the very music that was being created there in the WDR Studio.

One of the newcomers to the WDR in the early 1970s, brought there at the invitation of its now artistic director Karlehinz Stockhausen, was the young French composer Jean-Claude Eloy. In some ways he almost, at least in retrospect, could be seen to symbolise the hope and potential of the WDR studio and all it stood for, with music that was big and rich in how it sounded and in what it had to say.

From his expansive meditation on peace, Shânti, his first work to be realised in the WDR Studio in 1972-1973, I played the central movement, "Mantra des étoiles" ("Mantra of the stars"). Shânti is one of several huge electro-acoustic sound poems from Eloy – massive works that in a sense take you and connect you with the hugeness of the human spirit, liberated and celebrated in the vastness of the sound worlds that were now at the fingertips of composers who, like Eloy, had both the audacity and the creativity to mould those worlds into lands and vistas and oceans unprecedented in creative thinking.

Shânti is a meditation on peace – but don't expect it to be nestling ambience. It is moulded out of noise and massive, rich, dense sounds, the hues of the universe colouring it. It is hard not to hear in it the breath of Stockhausen, who had invited Eloy to Cologne and thereby set the young French composer on this path of electronic music that he was to embrace with such enthusiasm and strength.

It is as if all those seeds planted in the 1950s with such curiosity but with so little knowledge of what fruits they might bear, were now blossoming more richly and more hopefully than anyone would dare to have imagined.

By now Stockhausen was less focussed on the WDR, although he still spent a lot of time working there, but now his energies were taking him into ever new directions and in just a few years he would commence his huge opera cycle LICHT (1977-2003), in which electronic music would still have a significant part to play, but now alongside acoustic instruments and singers, and on stage, so the WDR was no longer in the spotlight in his work as it had been before. Composers such as Höller and Eloy seemed to offer promise for what its future might be like.

The studio continued for almost another thirty years after that until, sadly, it was closed down by new management at the WDR around 2000. Its equipment is still housed in Cologne in what is now a museum in the basement of a gym, still curated by one if its key technicians since 1970, Volker Müller.

I cannot possibly do justice to the significance of the WDR Studio for Electronic Music – neither in writing about it here nor in presenting a short glimpse on The Sound Barrier of some of the music created there. Much has been written about it and, as its place in the history of modern music continues to be recognised more and to expand further, I imagine much more will be written too. All I have attempted to do here is point, just point, to some, just some, of its huge importance.

In doing that, I thought to bookend both this blog and this edition of The Sound Barrier with the work that, for me and I am sure for many, has been emblematic of what that studio was about and why it was so critical in shaping new music: Karlheinz Stockhausen's GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE. It is such an important piece of music, so seminal in demonstrating how music can be re-understood and re-imagined, that I decided to both open and close the show with it.

Yes, some of the experimental studies and exercises that had been done at the WDR Studio in the two or three years before GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE also worked, as it did, with ideas about creating music from sound as timbre more than as pitch or duration, and pieces before it had experimented with those timbral possibilities.

But it was not until this work that the depth and breadth of compositional possibilities for working with timbre, and with the nature of sound, were really so creatively and fully explored. It is a work that organises the sounds into systems, and that works with those systems in processes, all of which are collected and structured so that they are no longer just ideas for experimentation, but are actually mature, compositional devices. They are devices every bit as sophisticated and as decisive in giving the work form as were all the old building blocks of conventional classical music, many of which took centuries to evolve. The relationships between keys, or sections of a sonata-form movement, or subjects and counter subjects – all of these bits and pieces of musical theoretical technology have now been replaced by wholly new ideas of musical structure, all crafted and used out of the emerging nuts and bolts of electronic music by a man not yet thirty years old.

He worked with different types of sound density and colour – single notes, or swarms of notes, or clusters of noise, for example – which he would systemitise through drawing on the principles of phonetics, and then would emphasise them in different combinations, giving precedence to different processes in different sections of the piece. And the sounds themselves were structured with the most attentive focus on their inner form – the tiniest splatter of sound containing the most intricately designed diversity of detail, like squeezing an entire symphony into a moment of sound, as Stockhausen once described one aspect of his compositional processes.

The shifting sounds of this remarkable work were not, then, found through groping around randomly in the darkness of this uncharted territory of new electronic music, but rather through having a new light shone on them by Stockhausen's own uniquely constructed torch of serialism, where qualities were varied in quantitative ways,all according to carefully calculated scales of difference, giving the work its extraordinary sense of always changing, of always finding some new way of working with its relatively small store of basic sound-source material.

Even the decipherability of the sung words is serially quantified and ordered. We hear this particularly in the blend of the electronic sounds and the singing of the boy soprano, whose voice weaves in and out of the work, drawing on that text about the youths' song from the fiery furnace. The sine tones of the electronic music flicker around the boy's singing, at times catching it, at times dancing around it, at times recoiling from it altogether.

It creates a relationship between electronic sounds and the human voice that had never been even imagined before, integrating the two into a kind of gradated spectrum of fusion, so that the two are no longer separate sound worlds – one from a conventional past, the other from an alien future – but are part of a new and vibrant present, ablaze with possibilities.

It is a work that set a high bar for the future – a bar that in many ways has now become more of a frame that is drawn around the electronic music even of today, than something to be scaled. It was in that sense that it seemed right to play it twice tonight – marking, as it did way back when, the real coming of age of electronic music, as well as now the constant testament to the permanency of the revolution that Stockhausen created with it and at the WDR Electronic Music Studio in Cologne.

Remember that you can, as always listen back to the show and check out the playlist, just in case you missed any of it live, or simply want to hear it all over again!

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