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From Niddrie to Kürten: how Stockhausen came to define the sound barrier.

The Sound Barrier : Blog

Even with The Sound Barrier in the stupendously capable hands it is in, with some of PBS's best fill-in announcers, during my absence throughout bits of November and December, I find it impossible to leave the show and you, the people who follow it, out of my head entirely. So here I am, in snow-blanketed Germany, updating the blog.

The part of Germany I am in is a tiny little town called Kürten, hidden away amongst hills and trees about 35 kms north-east of Cologne. Despite being small, and hidden, and barely known at all, it is remarkable for a few things: its beauty, the kindness of its local people, and the fact that it was, for the last half of his life, the home of Karlheinz Stockhausen and still the place where the continuance of his legacy is centred, through the amazing hard work of the Stockhausen Foundation for Music.

It is the last of these that brings me here once or twice a year, although the others – its beauty and its people – are nice bonuses too. But when a composer's legacy includes a Foundation that has preserved the loads and loads of sketch material that he compiled as he created his works, a Foundation that is led by the people with whom he shared both his creative and personal life and who continue to enthusiastically teach his music and methods to the many musicians, musicologists and composers who come here, either at odd times here and there like I do, or to attend the biannual summer courses, as I also do, then it is hard for a person, so intensely devoted to his music as I am, to keep away for long.

But why the devotion? If you listen even casually to The Sound Barrier, my passion for Stockhausen's music will be pretty obvious to you. No matter what the theme is that a particular show explores, chances are that I find a way to include something by Stockhausen. I thought this time away from the regularity of preparing the weekly shows might be an opportunity for me to explain some of that passion to you – where it comes from and why I continue to feed it, all in the hope that you, too, might share some of it, or at very least to not be inclined to roll your eyes with a 'Not Stockhausen again!' sort of exasperation each time you happen upon The Sound Barrier.

My own path to Stockhausen was, in a way, probably set a long time ago and a long way away from his music: planted, as things so often are, with seeds that will grow into things we cannot even in our wildest imaginings predict. On a Saturday afternoon, in 1970, when I was only ten years old, and I was bored at home and trying to find something on my little radio that wasn't sport, I stumbled across an obscure station at the end of the dial that was playing this amazing, breathlessly exciting, music that seemed to go on forever. Maybe for over ten minutes. He radio station was what was then called 3AR – in the place that the ABC still claims for what is now Radio National – and the music turned out to be the last moments of a thing called the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven.

I was totally transported by the music and, within weeks, I had saved up the $1.99 to buy a record of it. Within a few weeks after that I had started a Beethoven Fan Club at my local primary school, of which I was the President and only member. Beethoven was not popular amongst my fellow students in working class Niddrie in the 1970s.

But I persisted with my love of this music nonetheless – and not just because it sounded great, but also because it seemed to somehow be about something great too. I read the life of this lonely genius who had grown increasingly deaf the more immersed in music he became, cut off from the world in so many ways, and yet writing this incredibly optimistic music that was bursting with hope and confidence. Even at that age, although I could hardly articulate it, there was something about the way his music connected with the bigger themes of what it means to be human that drew me to it. It stirred me, even at that age.

It was, from then, only a few years before my growing love of classical music, and especially of classical music that dealt with big themes, took me to Wagner. He, and his gods and goddesses and giants and nibelungs, became my new obsession and, while I didn't try to form a Wagner Fan Club at my now considerably rough High School, I allowed his music to dominate my life more and more. I sold all of my records just so I could start buying the operas of his Ring cycle. I bought all the scores. After I finished High School I delayed going to University for two years just so I could work and save the money to go to Bayreuth, where the Wagner shrine of the Bayreuther Festpielhaus, a theatre built under his direct supervision, stands still for the sole purpose of a festival of his operas every summer.

The Wagner obsession continued for many years, but during them I slowly started to look outwards with my musical curiosity. Even though that was a musical curiosity that always had a decent thread of interest in new music weaving through it (thanks to a music teacher in my High School years who had taught me just how much exciting stuff was happening in new music for anyone open enough to explore it), my main focus still tended to be on the bigness of the Romantic composers and so it was that my obsessive focus moved eventually from Wagner to Mahler, and those huge Symphonies that encompassed everything – the profound and trivial, the divine and the banal – that constituted being human. It was like the enormity of Wagner's Germanic myths and legends brought down to the rough, hard lives of real people, where your hands get grubby handling the animals of the barnyard while you still look up in awe at the mountain peaks that surround you. Wagner's gods mingling with the mob.

I travelled the world for Mahler too, in 1995, to attend a Festival of his complete works in Amsterdam, shared by three of the world's most prestigious orchestras: the Concertgeouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Vienna Philharmonic, pouring out all of Mahler's compositions in less than three weeks of concerts – wrist-slashing for some, blissful for me.

In Mahler's music there is not just this astonishing capacity to combine the extraordinary with the ordinary, but there is also a remarkable use of instruments. He used big, big orchestras but made them sound even more astonishing than what you might expect from their size. He asked instruments to play at the extremes of their registers, so they would sometimes sound strained and ugly. He brought popular street instruments into the classical orchestra, or asked for new instruments to be made, like the massive hammer and block that strikes the blows of fate in his Sixth Symphony.

It was this way in which Mahler ventured into new sounds that began to stack more fuel on my still simmering interest in 20th- and 21st-century music. I began to explore more and more of this territory, but the one who engaged my interest first and the most was one who in some ways was about as far away from Mahler as you could get: Olivier Messiaen.

I say 'far away' in the sense that Mahler was the deeply self-indulgent neurotic, whose music was an unrestrained scavenger hunt into all the heights and depths of the human psyche, tortured and death-obsessed, while Messiaen was the devout catholic ornithologist whose music always looked out to the heavens and the stars, glistening with the atonal sparks of birdsong and who, as a sound-colour synesthete, painted sound mosaics of kaleidoscopic radiance.

And yet both shared a fascination with the big – be it the universality of the Mahlerian psyche, or that of Messiaen's god-infused universe. It was maybe this, and maybe just the fact that I was getting older and seeing more, that began to feed my conviction that there are many different ways of being and doing and that when you plunge yourself into obsessions and into discovering what the depths have to offer, as I had so often tended to do in my musical interests, you are at risk of missing out on some of what in there in the breadth.

This realisation, along with a few other chance things which happened around that time (including the discovery of PBS Radio) and which, like so many chance things, coalesced to have a decisive impact on where things then went, inspired me to open my ears and mind to pretty well everything in music that I had, until then, not noticed.

Pop, rock, metal, country, jazz, blues, punk, indie, electronica, hip hop, and especially the avant and experimental fringes of all of these – everything become something for me to not only devour with a new and insatiable hunger, but also to seek to understand. I would listen to the music but also research what the people who loved it had to say about it. I wanted to understand what I hadn't taken the time to even notice before.

It was a hugely revelatory time for me, and I was blessed especially by the part that PBS played in all of this – a radiophonic panoply of different music, presented by people who were passionate about it. Every time I flicked on the radio, which was often, there was something new to become absorbed in and, more often than not, to seek out and buy recordings of. Everything became my new obsession. It was a fascinating (if somewhat expensive) time of discovery as I worked harder and harder at developing in myself the skills to hear music, any music, from the perspective of those who create and love it.

But it was always the fringes that interested me the most – an interest that I think had been bubbling away from those very early teenage years when my music teacher introduced me to 20th-century music, fuelled by the instrumental and sound excesses of Mahler and then by the vibrant atonality of Messiaen, and now more and more set alight by the things I was beginning to discover on the extreme edges of music: the blistering noise of Merzbow, the long passages of quiet and silence of the Wandelweiser musicians in Europe and the Onkyo musicians in Japan, the endlessly fascinating experiments with sound that musicians in Melbourne's musical underbelly would take, driven by nothing other than their passion for creativity and invention, sometimes to audiences of just one or two people. I became more and more interested in the million and one different ways of making music – not so much in the sense of its diversity of genres (always a confusing way of thinking about music, I find, limiting us, as it does, to listening in a particular way and for particular things), but more in the sense of the hugely different ways of thinking about what music could be, and what we might find in it. Not just recognisable tunes or graspable rhythms, but a whole universe of ideas, structures, chaoses, that can be translated into sound. Or just sound, and the discovery of what sound sounds like.

Add to all of this the fascination with the big that I had found in Wagner's gods, in Mahler's all-encompassing psyche, and in Messiaen's stars, none of which had really left me at all, and it was as certain as night follows day that I would, before long, turn to reinvestigate a composer who I had only roughly known of, and even less listened to, and even less understood, until now: Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The things by this stage that I already knew about Stockhausen were that he was considered one of the giants of new music, that a hugely diverse bunch of people, including many who I had been listening to over these recent years of unbridled discovery, claimed him as an influence, that he was widely acknowledged as the father of electronic music, and that his music was often way-out, and whacky, a reputation in no way quelled by one of the few recordings of his music that I owned at the time: the sensational but utterly impractical HELICOPTER STRING QUARTET, in which the four members of a string quartet each play a feverishly wild piece of music for about half an hour, each within their own helicopter that flies in the sky above the theatre, while the players, their music, and the noise of the helicopters are projected back live into the auditorium via four huge set of audio-visual playback systems. All of that was enough to urge on the interest in his music that the curiosity of the past forty years had now brought me to.

That's when I began to discover that Karlheinz Stockhausen's music encompassed everything that I had looked for and admired in the music that had excited and obsessed me right from that first encounter with Beethoven at the end of the radio dial in 1970. In it was the energy and hope, the bigness and universality, the deep dives into what it means to be human, the connections with stars and colours and everything, and the unrelenting eagerness to discover the new: new sounds, new ways of creating them, new ways of forming and organising them, pushing them beyond their limits, beyond their sound barriers.

You don't necessarily discover all of this in Stockhausen's music the first time you listen to it. You might marvel at the ingenuity of any one of his pieces, at the originality of the ideas he explored and the utter genius of how he combined the ordered with the organic in complex structures that shaped his pieces at the macro level and at the micro level, structures that thrived on organising a handful of elements into as many different patterns as he could find for them, and yet always breathing with spontaneity and spirit. You might notice this in any of his pieces, but the magnitude of his contribution is something you only begin to appreciate the more pieces you look at – because every one of them, like snowflakes and fingerprints, is different. In each piece he creates a new puzzle to solve, and new structural idea to work with and to breathe life into.

Like, for example, his early electronic works, composed in the 1950s on big clunky machines recording onto tapes that were cut by pairs of scissors, and which still sound revolutionary today. Like his iconic GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE, composed in 1956, which turned fire into flickering bits of electronic sound, integrating the cut up voice of a boy soprano into a serial scale of phonetics, grading the sounds of the boy's voice from those that can be most comprehended to those that cannot be comprehended at all, depending on how they are placed within the electronic furnace that that surrounds them, in music projected and moving in quadraphonic sound. It was a piece based on a biblical story of youths being thrown into a fire for their refusal to bow down to the gods of Nebuchadnezzar. In the story, the still-young Stockhausen saw something of his own ordeals as he refused to give in to the demands of conventional music and so already we have, in this one piece that lasts about 13 minutes, everything that is so much the trademark of Stockhausen's music – the new sounds, the innovative plans for ordering them, the eschewing of everything conventional, the connection with a world of spiritual, universal themes, and the inner story of being human.

This was his first really significant work, and the one that was first to draw me in with real curiosity to explore more. That venture is helped by the truly excellent recordings of his work, most of which are available exclusively from the Stockhausen Foundation for Music. They almost invariably come with these amazing booklets, almost all of them (except for the very late recordings released after his death) with texts written by Stockhausen himself explaining exactly what it is that he is seeking to do in the music. It helps you see so much that you might not otherwise notice, like learning about the amazing architecture of an incredible building – you might be impressed by what it's like inside and out, but when you learn about how it all is held together, and the clever and original things the architect did, then you are agog with respect, and you just want to walk around, and admire, more and more.

Armed with the resources and openness that the many years leading up to now had provided for me, the journey through the almost 400 individually performable works of Stockhausen has been an unending magical mystery tour. Always there is something new to discover, from little pieces, little gems, that each take a different musical idea each time and hold it up to the light, turning it around to see how it reflects different things from different angles, to the huge mammoth undertaking that is his 29-hour seven-part opera cycle LICHT, where the Hegelian triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis – where ideas are formed and opposed and then brought together to form new ideas that are in turn opposed and then brought together, and so on and on – take us on an eternal spiral that begins in a single page of nuclear music and ends nowhere, somewhere, everywhere.

The LICHT journey is astonishing, fantastic, thrilling. It takes us through a cosmic war that plays out in octophonic sound, back and forwards, around, up and down, as if the universe is hurtling stars and planets and galaxies at each other. It submerges us in the amniotic fluid of humanity, as multiple basset-horns, through painstakingly precise electronic transposition, slide through microtones in deep, green light. It traces the story of a little boy traumatised in his childhood who turns out to be the cosmic creator Michael, who travels the earth and intermodulates its cultures into the brilliance of his trumpet. A photocopier has sex with a typewriter to unworldly vocoder electronics. A huge demonic face is formed by a massive wind band placed vertically on stage, its different sections forming the eyes, the nose, the nostrils, and so on, grimacing and distorting as they play in different rhythms until the whole lot breaks apart and the orchestra goes on strike, and the audience moves to a nearby church where Lucifer himself blasts seven trombones from the bell-tower while impenetrable ancient Japanese rituals are played at by 39 Luciferian monks in the church below, chanting drones almost below what the human ear can hear.

All of this is part of LICHT, each bit of it a totally different and self-contained musical work, but all of it linked and developed as part of a huge, overwhelmingly huge, whole, held together by a piece of musical DNA that Stockhausen called the Superformula – a formula of musical material which provides that structure that has always been so essential to any of his works, and yet has coded into it the life and air in which musicians can breathe and create freely, too.

Whenever I bring you any of Stockhausen's music on The Sound Barrier I never seem to have the time to really delve into what the pieces are doing musically, nor to give you the real pointers about what to listen for. I try to do a little more of this in the show's regular blogs, but even this only ever scratches the surface. But his music, perhaps more than that of anyone else, rewards the time you give it, and it has certainly rewarded me the time I took to come to it.

It is what brings me back, time and time again, to this small and wonderful town in Germany where Stockhausen lived and where his Archives now flourish, thanks to the untiring work of the Foundation, where you can come and book time and study how these works were created, as if you are looking over the composer's shoulders while he worked. You see not only how the works were formed musically – how he gathered ideas for structure, just as an architect might do, and then slowly and always creatively, filled in the details – but also the things that interested him at the time: articles he was reading about some new black hole that had been discovered, or a comet that was on its way to Earth, or some interesting religious ritual practised by a remote tribe or culture he had just read about. He always put these things aside and included them amongst the folders and folders of musical sketch material, because this is what he wanted people to see when, in the future, they sought to understand what was in his head as he composed.

Stockhausen's works are in some ways like a set of runes or tarot cards – you can read them in many different ways but, once you decide upon the things that you believe their component bits to signify, then when you look at how he has assembled those bits, how he fitted them together, always there will be something interesting to learn. Whatever you take into his music, he will tell you something new about it, give you a new perspective. And always, even decades afterwards, the sounds he has created are new and interesting and, once you know a little of how they have been put together, you, like me, will find reason to be agog at the inventiveness of it all, and to continue to marvel at how both the architect and the designer are bursting with ideas in everything he did.

It was a long way, it seems, from finding that amazing bit of music at the end of the radio dial in Niddrie in 1970 to now, as I sit in the Stockhausen Guest House in Kürten typing this. But it is a journey that has, for all the years it has taken, felt like a whirlwind. It is why I keep coming back here to study more and why I keep coming back to the chair of The Sound Barrier, each week, with yet another reason to bring you some of this music that never stops giving something new.

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