Stockhausen Edition no. 12

Karlheinz Stockhausen – “Stimmung” (Paris version) for six vocalists (1968)
Collegium Vocale Köln recorded in 1969: Dagmar Apel (soprano I), Gaby Rodens (soprano II), Helga Albrecht (alto [mezzo-soprano]), Wolfgang Fromme (tenor), Georg Steinhoff (baritone), Hans-Alderich Billig (bass).
Collegium Vocale Köln recorded in 1982: Dagmar von Biel (soprano I), Gaby Ortmann-Rodens (soprano II), Helga Hamm-Albrecht (alto [mezzo-soprano]), Wolfgang Fromme (tenor I), Helmut Clemens (tenor II), Hans-Alderich Billig (bass).

Stockhausen 12

Duration CD 1 (1969 recording): 75:00. Duration CD 2 (1982 recording): 63:00. Total duration: 2:18:00.

A blue and ice-laden, windswept horizon – h o r i z o n –, a man by the window singing loudly to himself, a woman approaching from the other room, hushing him down (time for the children to sleep) and the man starting to hum silently…

The man was Karlheinz Stockhausen, the woman his wife Mary Bauermeister, and the sequence of events was the birth of “

Just before I sat down to write this review of “
Stimmung” the news flashed on the television screens and over the newsreels on the radio, that Stockhausen had been awarded the Polar Music Prize of 2001! I had been waiting for that announcement a long time, and finally my hopes came true! This is a prize that certainly belongs to Stockhausen, who more than any other composer has shaped the fate of Western art music in our time! The Polar Music Prize, functioning now for ten years, has always been viewed as the Nobel Prize of music, and now I think that it really has become that prestigious, with the choice of Karlheinz Stockhausen! Congratulations to Stockhausen, and congratulations to the Polar Prize Committee!

Stockhausen in Madison, Connecticut with his and
Mary Bauermeister's children Julika & Simon 1968

Stimmung” was a commission from the City of Cologne, for an ensemble at the Rheinische Musikschule; Collegium Vocale Köln. It was written early 1968, in February and March, in a house on Long Island Sound in Madison, Connecticut, where Stockhausen and his wife Mary Bauermeister and their children lived a couple of months.

The years 1967 and 1968 have a special ring to anybody who was in his adolescence or early manhood then. 1967 was a dreamy, very romantic and experimental time, with a surge and a force that at least I haven’t experienced on that scale since, and 1968 was a politically very creative year in Europe, with almost a state of revolution across the continent, with the center of the storm in France and West Germany, including – of course – Berlin, and with the Baader-Meinhof group brewing.
Those years were extremely important for us who grew up then, shaping so much of our way of thinking and evolving, and our attitudes for decades to come. I cannot see anything wrong in that, since 1967 and 1968 brought so much liberation to thought and action, and let art free.

This commission for a vocal work took on a completely new direction when Stockhausen – out of consideration for the children who needed to sleep – started to hum to himself instead of singing out loud. That was when Stockhausen discovered the strange and hidden properties of vowels, and the overtones he could set free by sustaining these vowels, molding them through his oral cavities. With the lust for discovery which is Stockhausen’s, he indulged in the practicing of overtone singing for extended durations. After the initial discovery came the structuring phase, in which he listed the vowels and their overtones, and from then on he completely abandoned the sketch he’d already made for the commission, and began from the beginning – a new beginning.

Before all this took place Stockhausen had been on a journey that was spiritual as well as physical, even involving a certain measure of time traveling. Taking the opportunity while being in Mexico for a series of lectures and concerts, he visited the temples of the Mayas and the Aztecs. It had become a habit of the composer to visit and study temples and other sites on his journeys. A few Stockhausen quotations reveal the importance of this:

Even as a student I counted the windows every time I went along a street in Cologne: how many to the left, to the right, how many on top, how many below, whether there was the same number of windows, whether they were the same size and how they were arranged.
It is like a sixth sense of mine and it always makes me measure architecture because of course I know that a temple, in all its dimensions, reflects the profound secrets of harmony that is mathematically sound, and that good music is the same

Stockhausen on tour with "Stimmung"
in the U.S.A. and Canada 1971

A little later in the same text he says:

In Mexico I would sit for hours in the ruins of temples, absorbing what the Maya religion is and the particular character innate in a Mayan temple. Each temple awakens its own religious feelings as part of its atmosphere. The atmosphere is simply there, it just has to arouse a religious feeling, to reanimate that feeling within people. That is something that I have experienced, and always in a new way, in Cambodia, India, Thailand, Turkey, Greece, Syria, Lebanon, in Tunisia and Morocco, in Persia and Israel.”

Now for the time-travel part of these deep experiences of holy places; Stockhausen would identify his own presence in the ancient holy realm with such a frantic attention that he could transpose his consciousness back to olden times. He says that he was in fact
“becoming a Maya, a Toltec, a Zatopec, an Aztec, or a Spaniard – I became the people… I relived ceremonies…
(Quotations from Michael Kurtz’s book “
Stockhausen – a Biography”)

This intense attention and close feeling of association with past periods of holiness stayed with Stockhausen as he appeared at the house on Long Island Sound in the cold of winter. This feeling of ancient times coming alive and his discoveries of the overtones of the vowels he hummed merged into the emergence of “
Stimmung”, which is a new kind of work in Stockhausen’s line of compositions up till then.

As you listen to the CD it becomes clear to you how meditative – hypnotic – this piece really is. It grows on you in a strange vexation, and Stockhausen takes on the guise of a magician. “
Stimmung” belongs in a tradition of shamanistic rites, no doubt, whether this was known to Stockhausen at the time or not; if the piece was mostly intuitive, on the basis of the hours in the holy ruins and the time traveling, or if it mostly was a conscious construction of sounds with the intent to arrive at this result. “Stimmung” is like a purification rite or an initiation ceremony. Dwell long enough in it, and you’ll soon be transposed too, to some focused point of inner space, where your life’s force wells up! When you sit back and loose yourself in these vowels, these overtones, you find that the music tends to hover in a vibrating oscillation just above the tip of your nose, from where it spreads a warm harmony throughout your anatomy.

The intensity of this music brings to mind a motto that Malcolm Goldstein attached to one of his violin pieces, one of his “soundings” (“
from Center of Rainbow, Sounding): “Go to a lonely place and rub a stone in a circle on a rock for hours and days on end”. This is in fact an Eskimo quotation.
Somewhere in that intensity and attention is the “
Stimmung” focal point, the singularity of a spiritual force that drives us, that drives the universe. You can almost see the consecutive lives flicker by, that you have traveled through and will travel through, until you’ve risen above it all, liberated from the myriads of rebirths and redeaths.

There is, of course, an intelligent and thought-through method in Stockhausen’s composition. That is always the case, but bear in mind that the birth of a composition many times comes out of unforeseen occurrences and random inflictions, which Stockhausen sort of catches on the fly, as he notices them in the corner of his eye, putting them to work in his compositional structure. This is one of the peculiarities of Stockhausen’s compositional creativity that I appreciate the most, because it is such a “nonchalant” and completely natural demonstration of the richness of life, seemingly executed with innocent eyes and an almost absent-minded expression on his face!

The textual content of “
Stimmung” is a fascinating mixture. In some areas in the composition erotic poems out of Stockhausen’s own oeuvre are inserted. He wrote them in, as he says, “amorous days in April 1967 in Sausalito near San Francisco and on the beach Between San Francisco and Carmel”. It might be noted that this ingredient in the music caused some havoc at the time, but I hardly think they will cause any such stir these days, and I don’t know if that is good or bad… The thing is, people were more sensitive to words back then – or were they just more Victorian, hypocritical? I’d like, though, in this context, to make an analogy to the worth of words in the former Soviet Union. The words under the Soviet rule were worth so much more than the words in the Western world. In the Soviet Union a poem could put you in prison or a Siberian camp for decades, and certain literature and poetry was copied in secret and spread in subterranean Soviet Union from friend to friend, as cherished and secret treasures. Every word was full of meaning, worth almost anything – while in the West almost anything could be said and read without as much as the raising of an eyebrow… Of course, there were certain limits in the West, too, which the temporal abolishment of Allen Ginsberg’s “HOWL” in the late 1950s shows, and the persecution of supposed communists in the U.S.A. in the 1950s also hints at a possible dictatorship in America too, but words have never been as valuable in the U.S. as in the former Soviet Union. The stir that Stockhausen’s erotic poems momentarily caused soon died down, and “Stimmung” has been performed widely over the years without demonstrations from the Moral Majority…

In addition to the erotic poems Stockhausen applied names of Toltec and Aztec gods. This seemed a workable path, so he contacted one of his friends – American anthropologist Nancy Wyle – who collected for him names of gods from all different cultures.

The composer shaped 51 models; each focusing on a defined combination of vowels and the corresponding combination of overtones. The recognizable words that sometimes occur – of a religious or a humorous quality - are allowed into the overtone melody because of their vowel characteristics.
After Stockhausen had finished his through-composed models, he assigned 11 magic names to each of the six voices, which add up to a number of 66 magic names defined in the “
Stimmung” score.

This makes for a vibrant song of the blood combined with an intense attention on the spiritual and meditative realm, bringing sex and religion and flowing spirit together in a concentrated expression of humanity and life in a completeness that seldom - or ever! - is this clearly discernable in music. Above it all hovers a divine humor, and what can be fresher than the hollering laughter of a God through the Universe! Stockhausen merges Dionysus and Apollo in “
A particularly hilarious passage is found on track 19 with its henhouse interior exploding in a carnival of flying feathers! Of the two versions of this track I prefer the earlier (1969) one. Really good fun!

The overtone singing in itself produces associations to the cultures where this form of singing is common, like in Tuva and Mongolia. In Kyzyl, Tuva, they even arrange xöömej – khoomei – (overtone singing) symposiums, so the tradition is alive and well.

Maybe the common view of Stockhausen as a purely Western composer is a bit too limited. Much of what he does is perhaps more in the vein of Eastern cultures, and in this case that is all too obvious, but it could be said for other works too, and especially in the way of thinking that makes Stockhausen’s compositional processes possible; it isn’t purely Western. Maybe the fairest way to define it would be to call it universal. There is much more to it, anyway, than just Western tradition, and that is more apparent the more you study it. There is always a spiritual aspect of his music that has to be taken into account, too, to appreciate it as much as it really deserves. There are so many layers at work in his music simultaneously, and it can be bewildering until you find your own way of listening, of experiencing. “
Everything worth while takes a little time”, as Pete Seeger sang in his song “Maple Syrup Time”! The world of instant coffee, fast food and quick TV sequences produces people without the ability of sustained periods of attention, and these culturally, socially and psychologically disturbed ones may find it overwhelmingly tough to grasp the sophistication of Stockhausen’s works.

The singers perform in a pure tuning, singing the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th and 9th overtones of the low B-flat fundamental. Adjacent to the singers a pure overtone chord is softly played back on a tape recorder (maybe a hard drive these days…), so that the singers can attune their voices to it if their tuning is becoming impure.

Before the premier of “
Stimmung” the singers patiently practiced their overtone singing. They had to get used to a new way of singing, because the notes have to be soft, and some overtones are to be dominating. They are indicated by a series of numerals from 2 to 24 and by the series of vowels of the phonetic alphabet. There is no vibrato applied. A separate microphone and loudspeaker is used for each voice, so that all nuances are fittingly amplified and clearly audible. The breathing is calm and even, with long breaths. The singers should sit closely together in a circle, to be able to be constantly intensely aware of the other singers or other parameters of the performance.
In a concert performance there are different ways of arranging the loudspeakers. One way is to surround the audience with them. The decision as to how to project the sound is much dependant on the structure of the hall, and how the audience is seated.

No conducting takes place. The models are divided between the female and the male voices, so that the three female ones have 8 models each and the male 9 each. The 11 magic names that each voice is assigned can be used according to context and the form scheme. When one voice calls out a magic name the other voices react to the name with transformations, varied deviations, beats and identity. The process is lead by one of the model singers, according to voice combination, who then, when he sees fit, hands the lead over to another model singer. The name that has been called out is repeated periodically in the tempo of the model and with about the same articulation as the model, until identity is reached again. The instructions to retain the lip and mouth positions of the model as far as possible cause the names to become distorted. Each new name brings on a different, changed mood, according to the meaning of it and its character.

The poems also bring on reactions and transformations in a startling way, with poem residue flying around the progressing poem like a flock of birds, or like a gang of kids holding up concave and convex little mirrors to the words of the poem. At these points (the poems) I almost feel like stopping to repeat the poem sequence a few times before commencing, because the effect here is so striking! Listen for example to CD 2 (1982 recording) track 16! Brilliant! The same passage is manifest on the 1969 recording too, of course, but in this case I think the later version is superior.

Stockhausen has himself reflected on “
Stimmung” and briefly speaks about it like this:

STIMMUNG is certainly meditative music. Time is suspended. One listens to the interior of the sound, to the interior of the harmonic spectrum, to the interior of the vowel, TO THE INTERIOR. The most subtle fluctuations – rare outbursts -, all senses are alert and calm. In the beauty of the sensual shines the beauty of the eternal”.

Collegium Vocale Köln performing "Stimmung"
at the world fair EXPO 70 in Osaka 1970

The sounding experience of “Stimmung” just keeps growing on you the more you listen, and you hear new things all the time, inside the sounds.

All these names of gods of different cultures inspire in me the notion that these gods are all different paths into the same divine realm, all serving their purpose, which makes the idea of one religion’s superiority over another completely absurd.

Stimmung” has implications way beyond the initial listening. Let it resound! It’s alive!


Volume 13