Stockhausen Edition no. 8

Karlheinz Stockhausen – “Mixtur” for 5 orchestra groups, 4 sine-wave generators, 4 ring-modulators (1964 / 1967)
Stockhausen 8
Hudba Dneska Orchestra, Ladislav Kupovic, (cond.) – Johannes Fritsch, Rolf Gehlhaar, David Johnson, Harald Bojé (sine-wave generators) – Karlheinz Stockhausen (sound projection).
Retrograde and forward versions. Live-electronic performances. No editing applied.
Duration: 57:00.

I come in cold from a chilly and misty December day, and put on a warm woolen sweater from the Lakeland District of England. I sit down in the comfort of my listening room, sipping a hot beverage, and slide the compact disc into the player, as the stereo equipment signals its readiness with a steady green light. All systems are go! I reach for the remote and hit the button!

The sounds move up through the laser light currents, reaching the membranes of the loudspeakers through thick and heavy cables, filling the listening space of my room with vibrations, waves of compressed air, making my tympanic membranes move in time with the compressions, sending an electrical current up the nerve path to the area in my brain where the electric representation of the sounds regroup and take on whatever shape my experience and human imagination will allow.

I’m listening to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ”
Mixtur”, and the sonic architecture that builds up progressively inside my skull is magnificent, spell-binding, outrageous – even provoking, outfitted with a grasping-for-air type of sonic staircases, leading me to empty rooms without floors, having me fall through the abyss as shots of light reveal pictures of horror out of the collective unconscious, shooting by upwards as I speed downwards in free fall, as if sucked into a black hole of sorts, only to be spit out into a different setting, a different time, maybe inside a dreamscape of multi-layered, sifting and shifting timeframes, until I’m finally dumped in some kind of comfort, with ample refreshments for thirsty ears… and the quality of warp speed and the properties of complete immobility (in the absolute zero of 0 ° Kelvin) seem all the same, as if speed and immobility are simply different ways of looking at things… as if riding on a ray of light in the Einsteinian example!

Stockhausen rehearsing ”Mixtur” at IRCAM 1987
(Photo: Guy Vivien)

Orchestral sounds transform into electronic sounds and then just as fast – blindingly! – move back into the realm of the orchestra, in and out of the faintest, most subtle variations of combinations of electronics and instrumentals – and you realize that this is something completely new… well, at least that is what you thought back in 1964, when Stockhausen composed ”Mixtur”. (No other composer has, however – to my humble knowledge – managed anything in this idiom that even comes close to ”Mixtur”, even given the advantage of the decades that have passed since the year of composition; 1964). This is in fact the very first piece for live electronics, i.e. electronic treatment of sound in real time; in this case the sounds from the instruments of the orchestra (more on this later). Stockhausen also was the first composer to make a piece out of pure sine waves, which translates into the first electronic music piece; ”Studie I” (1953). Therefor you can justly claim that Stockhausen invented electronic music.

Here he takes the adventure on a huge leap forward, inventing live electronics. Nothing – not even those stupid little commercial jingles of America (”I drink Dr. Pepper and I’m proud; I used to be alone in the crowd”…) – would sound the way they do, hadn’t Stockhausen feverishly worked these new sonic art forms from a nucleus of brilliant thought to a resounding materialization of adventurous longings! He has shaped so much of the sounding space in which we dwell, that you could say that he’s the main architect behind the whole structure, even though few people remember this, or even ever knew it. However, that’s the way it is! Stockhausen is the man! He gave us electronic music and live electronics, among a multitude of other things.
He’s still pouring out his soul in new auditive and philosophical explorations, and he hasn’t pulled the breaks, even though he’s well past 70 now, setting an example also through this for us middle-aged gentlemen of a succeeding generation! However, age is just a succession of years, an account of how long you’ve been around – but it has nothing to do with how old you are! I’ve known people who must have been born old, and then there are others who keep getting younger, like in Bob Dylan’s song “
My Back Pages”, where the refrain goes: “Oh, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now”. That is Stockhausen, one of the forever young! Fearless ahead!

Stockhausen had worked in the electronic studio for quite a few years – in fact over a decade – and learned how to master sound down to the smallest fraction, down to the darkest corner of the last characteristic of dynamics and tempo. Parallel to this he also applied his seemingly endless energy to instrumental and vocal music in orchestral settings. When Stockhausen got a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation he took the opportunity to combine the two methods; the electronics of the studio and the instrumental of the orchestra, and in just a few weeks the work was ready: “

When Stockhausen eased off into these unthreaded areas of acoustics, he was truly in the domain of basic research. No one had done anything similar before, and Stockhausen was breaking ground, finding new ways, shaping a composition that would have an enormous effect on the direction of music; art music and popular music alike. By now one had almost come to expect wonders of this man, having in view what he had done with electronic music before (“
Studie I”, “Studie II”, “Gesang der Jünglinge”, “Kontakte”) and instrumental music with path-finding compositional methods (“Gruppen”, “Carré”, “Zyklus”, “Refrain”, “Momente”) – and Stockhausen delivered! Once again his solutions were surprising, like a bang on the head! “Mixtur” must have hit contemporary musical life like lightning! Stockhausen must have appeared like a magician, disappearing briefly behind the curtain, only to appear with the most magical finds, bringing up from purely hypothetical worlds sounds unheard of!

When the composer structured “
Mixtur” he began with dividing the symphony orchestra into five groups; brass, woodwind, arco strings, pizzicato strings and percussion, placed widely apart in the performance space. The sound of each instrumental group was then picked up by microphones, and the sound was fed through mixers, on to ring modulators and sine-wave generators; then fed back simultaneously through loudspeakers, arriving at a strange timbral mixture.

In more detail “
Mixtur” might be described as follows: Stockhausen conceived the piece for the five instrumental groups above, designing each group for an unidentified number of players, except for the percussion group, which was to accommodate three percussionists. In 1967 Stockhausen arranged the piece for a small ensemble (comparably…) of 35 or 37 participants. The crew then appeared like this:

- 1 conductor
- 4 wood-winds
- 8 arco strings
- 8 pizzicato strings
- 4 brass players
- 3 percussions
- 4 sine-wave generator players
- 4 or 2 sound mixers
- 1 sound projectionist

This is the set-up used on the present CD, and it should be noted that the recordings presented are reproduced without any editing what so ever. They are true live-electronic works, shaped in the sounding moment, but of course adhering as closely as possible to Stockhausen’s meticulous score, after many strict measurements, balancing acts and rehearsals.
When the microphones pick up the sounds of the orchestral groups they are mixed with sine waves in the ring modulators. This procedure results in pitches characterized by the sums and the differences of the sounds that are fed into the modulators, and even the sums of the sums and the differences of the differences! These mixtures are added to the whole orchestral sound through the loudspeakers that are rigged according to the optimum effectiveness of their placement, with the totality of the auditive expression in mind, conveying the very strange and beautifully wretched sonics of “
Mixtur” – a true joy for any sound connoisseur!

The electronic treatment isn’t automatic, though, but steered right through by musicians or sound engineers, which is one of the characteristics of live-electronics (and, alas; this was the first live-electronic piece, thus setting the standard!): At the mixers the sound engineers control the balance of the microphones and the balance of the sum of each group. The out-put of the four mixers moves through ring modulators and sine-wave generators that are being played by four musicians, modulating the sound that then is fed through the speakers, mixing with the direct orchestral sounds! Wow! This never ceases to amaze me – and makes me jump for joy, at that!
In the fifth group the three percussionists each handle a cymbal and a tam-tams. These percussive instruments have contact microphones mounted in precisely determined positions, feeding the sound to three separate loudspeakers, making possible refined timbrals that before could only be achieved by electronic means.

Sine-wave generator
(Photo: Volker Müller)

Since this is the premier of live-electronics, the equipment involved is of special interest. Stockhausen used this machinery:

- 22 microphones
- 2 contact microphones for 2 double-basses
- 6 contact microphones for percussion
- 4 mixing consoles on stage (two 4 to 1, two 8 to 1)
- 3 mixing consoles for percussion (each 2 to 1)
- 1 mixing console in the hall (7 inputs, 9 outputs)
- 4 sine-wave generators (10000 – 10Hz/100 – 0.2 Hz with one decadic switch, or none)
- 4 ring modulators
- 7 loudspeakers high above the stage; 4 for the orchestral groups, 3 for the three percussionists.
- 2 x 2 loudspeakers at the rear of the hall on 4,5 meter towers.

(Photo: Volker Müller)

It is clear from the rehearsal instructions in the CD booklet and the comments Stockhausen makes on these that it is a delicate and difficult venture to get the electronic nuances working perfectly together in “Mixtur”. He says that “compositions using electro-acoustic equipment require much more patience, and that means more time. Just the testing and level-setting of the 30 individual microphones – 24 of them with modulation – usually takes forty-five minutes at the beginning of each tutti rehearsal. A balance between each group is quite difficult to achieve, since some instruments can be easily covered. The sums of the four mixing tables must be constantly monitored and balanced, because otherwise the ring modulators distort” – and that was just a few of the considerations involved…

The moments of “
Mixtur” are titled:
Mixtur – Percussion – Blocks – Direction – Change – Calmness – Vertical – Strings – Points – Wood – Mirror – Translation – Tutti – Brass – Concert pitch – Steps – Dialogue – Layers – Pizzicato – High C.
The order can be reversed, and on the present CD we hear the two versions; first the retrograde version, and then the forward version.

It might be interesting to glance at what was going on in the so-called popular field simultaneously: Beatles had issued “
Revolver” in 1966, for the first time using some electronic applications, especially in “Tomorrow Never Knows”. In 1967 they released “Sgt. Pepper”, with Stockhausen and many others on the cover. This – if anything – shows the impression Stockhausen had made by then on the crème de la crème of popular music. I suspect John Lennon was the one who was most deeply influenced by Stockhausen, being the intellectual and experimental one of the Fabulous Four.

Stockhausen says, about the period when he composed “
Mixtur”, and invented live-electronics: “I was faced with the welcome occasion to constantly remain open for the unthought, the unheard. I wrote the score quite fast and without interruption in July and August 1964, listening to inspiration only, since experience was missing”. This tells a lot about the nature of this pioneer, doesn’t it! “Beauty walks a razor’s edge”, Dylan said in “Shelter From the Storm”, and in shaping all this beauty, surely Stockhausen walked that thin line too, risking artistically to fall off on either side, managing to stay aloft all through, though, and we have “Mixtur” and the whole history of live-electronics that followed and blooms now more than ever, and I’ve heard some real good new live-electronic stuff out of small recording companies in Norway and California, from Albedo Records, Rune Grammofon Records, PfMentum Records, Pax Recordings and others, fore sure deeply indebted to Karlheinz Stockhausen for those weeks he concentrated on basic sound research, shaping “Mixtur”.

Stockhausen in the late 1960s

Stockhausen’s own words best describe the authority of “Mixtur” in this text from the booklet that he calls “Beauty of mirrored overtone-harmonics”:

The essential aspect of MIXTUR is, first of all, the transformation of the familiar orchestra sound into a new, magical sound world. It is an unbelievable experience, for example, to see and hear strings bowing a held note and to perceive simultaneously how this note slowly moves away from itself in a glissando, the pulse speeds up and a wonderful timbre spectrum develops. Orchestra musicians are astonished when they hear their played notes being modulated timbrally, melodically, rhythmically and dynamically.
From such ring modulations, all shades of the transitions from tone to noise, noise to chord, from timbre to rhythm and rhythm to pitch result as if by themselves.
Finest micro-intervals, extreme glissandi and register changes, percussive attacks of normally soft entrances, complex harmonies, also above single instrumental notes, and many other unheard sound events result from this technique of modulation and the variable structuring.
In addition, the ring modulation adds to the instrumental spectra new overtone and sub-tone series which can be well heard through, especially during held sounds of
MIXTUR. Such mixtures do not exist in nature and in traditional instruments. Through these mirrored overtone-harmonies one is moved to strange enchanted perceptions of beauty which are completely new in art music.
Only such renewals of musical impact give meaning to new techniques

Stockhausen has found a way to channel and utilize – refine! – the energies that mesmerize the Universe, our lives and this whole mystical experience of existence. He’s been absorbing a lot of that energy flowing through space, as if spreading giant antennas, molding the influx through his personality into these precise, diamond-like works of art, in the manner of photo-synthesis transforming sunlight and water into the green pastures of Earth, providing us with oxygen to breath in the process; here sounding refreshments for thirsty ears!

Mixtur” rambles on, and I see animated figures – cartoons – step out of the alley walls, pursuing their jerky choreographics down the back-streets, past garbage cans and the grated windows of cellar chess clubs, where the players drool over their ivory pieces – until suddenly a door is opened and a flood of light wells out rhombically across the alley, scaring the jelly-type cartoon figures back into the brick walls again, as fast as they emerged, back into the posters pasted there; posters of – cartoons!

I believe that Stockhausen, when preparing for his intricate compositions, opens up to the creative energies like an observatory opening up to the incoming ancient light from the stars, falling on our eyes after a journey of millions and billions of years. Allen Ginsberg, in “
HOWL”, talked about people “who bared their brains to Heaven under the El”. I believe this is the right reception of spiritual energies, and I believe this unconditional readiness also is an advantage when truly listening – not only with our ears – to the music of Stockhausen.

Strip off all the layers of what you seem to be – all the social ties, the traditions, your profession, your name, your address, your age, your history, your memory – and resort to the core of you; the core of being. This is a fantastic exercise, leaving you a bright flame of YOU in the Cosmos, leaving you what you are without you! This is what being is. This is communion with the all. This is pure spirit, angel dust through the timelessness!

It’s good-morning-time in life!


Volume 9