Stockhausen Edition no. 13

Karlheinz Stockhausen – “Kurzwellen” for six players (1968).
Participants: Aloys Kontarsky (piano & short-wave radio), Harald Bojé (electronium & short-wave radio), Alfred Alings & Rolf Gehlhaar (tam-tam & short-wave radio), Johannes G. Fritsch (electric viola & short-wave radio), Karlheinz Stockhausen (filters & potentiometers)
Stockhausen 13. Duration: 54:05.

When I was young – and certainly when Stockhausen was young (bodily young!) – short-wave radio was in frequent use. I don’t know how many young people today come into contact with the ever-changing sounds of short-wave transmissions, since they usually tune in to local FM stations with no static and with CD-quality sound; lately even via digital transmissions. However, for us who have been around in our most recent bodies for at least fifty earthling years, the sounds of the short-wave, the Morse-signals, fragments of melodies, the static between stations, sudden emerging and retracting voices from anywhere on the planet (heavily turning over, revolving around its axis with all its forests and mountains and factories and dump trucks and people and ant mounds into new sunrises blinding you out of the east) constitute a fascinating and fantasy-triggering – even vision-inducing – quality of the auditive, mingling all cultures and religions, all political systems and all devoted causes of all points of the compass, from all walks of life, bouncing off the inversion layers of the atmosphere to our receivers in our private chambers, in a linguistic feast, a Babylonic demonstration of the dispersing of morphemes across our heavenly home, floating, turning, revolving in the remote areas of an extremity of a spiral galaxy… transmitters, receivers, transmitters, receivers – and the messages immerse us, even though only a minor fraction of them are intelligible to our limited ears, our limited knowledge.

However, there is another way, other than through familiar linguistics and known morphemes, in which we can benefit from these short-wave sounds, as we can appreciate the underlying wholeness of humanity, of communication – of the static of Existence itself! It’s like the background hum of the Universe, in the average 2° Kelvin of the void. It’s not hard to float into states like that when you’re turning the dial of a short-wave receiver! It’s like being connected to the heart of the sunrise! Maybe secrets lurk there, and probably the sum of these transmissions constitute an essentially different nature and quality than simply being the sum of all the individual transmissions, the way the conscience of a human being far outruns the sum of all the cells of the anatomy.

There once – in the 1960s - was a man in Sweden, in the rural town of Mölnbo, called Friedrich Jürgenson, who tampered with reel-to-reel tape recorders. He thought he caught on tape sounds from another dimension, and he was so sure about this that he insisted on the accuracy of his recordings, where you could hear faint sounds inside the buzz and hiss of the tapes rolling across the heads. Jürgenson thought he succeeded in recording events in the realm of the recently dead, in the Bardo state, to quote
the Tibetan Book of the Dead” . No matter what the truth of this may be, or what people in those days thought, it’s plain to see how basically unidentified sounds of static and disturbances of transmissions take on magic contours, setting forces of imagination, introspection – and maybe insight – in motion.

Alfred Alings, Rolf Gehlhaar, Stockhausen,
Johannes G. Fritsch, Harald Bojé & Aloys Kontarsky
at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam July 1968
(Photo: Maria Austria)

In “KurzwellenStockhausen brings up the sounds of short-wave transmissions into the artistic (and philosophical) sphere, where they take on yet another guise, that of stimuli for the players to react on, instrumentally, musically. Stockhausen says: “Imagine finding an apple on a distant star: that which is so self-understood here is wonderfully magic there”. One could also mention the scene towards the end of the movie “2001”, where the astronaut, after being helplessly transported in unimaginable speed into the atmosphere of Jupiter, all of a sudden finds himself in a room in a house, where, from behind, he sees a man in a suit at a table eating his lunch. The astronaut stands in his space suit in the roam, seeing this. One wonders: “Is that God, sitting over there in a suit on Jupiter, having his lunch?” Then the man turns around, and it is apparent that the man is the astronaut. When you ask the really big questions – which you start asking when you’re around three years old – the answer always seem to be a - …mirror!

Hearing the short-wave sounds this way makes for a very rewarding situation of exploration and beauty. Marcel Duchamp once worked with “ready-mades”, trying to make people see ordinary objects apart from their function, and that soon became a whole “school”. However, Stockhausen goes way beyond that initial thought, applying the “ready-mades” (the sounds off the short-wave) in a constant interconnection with the musicians, producing a sound web that is unknown to everybody – to Stockhausen as well as to the players – until the sounds are heard. There is no way of foreseeing what will come out of the loudspeakers, and the musicians’ reactions are of course dependent on these unforeseeable events, in accordance with the frameset that the composer introduces. As so many times before Stockhausen in “
Kurzwellen” allows for a myriad of variations of the performance, and it is astounding how he can keep this principle up in so many different ways through so many compositions, allowing for this highly creative freedom, this “heart-of-the-sunrise”-connection!

The rules set by Stockhausen for the performance of “
Kurzwellen” concern “HOW the players react to what they hear on the radio; HOW they imitate and then modulate it, transpose it in time (longer or shorter, more or less rhythmically articulated) and in space (higher or lower, louder or softer); WHEN and HOW and HOW OFTEN they play synchronously or alternatingly, in duos, trios or quartets; HOW they call and invite each other to hear together an event which wanders among them for a prolonged period of time, letting it shrink and grow, compressing and expanding it, darkening and lightening it, concentrating or playfully decorating it”.

Harald Bojé at his electronium
rehearsing "Kurzwellen" 1968
(Photo: Karsten de Riese)

There is a point at the beginning of this performance where the listener quite easily can follow the players’ development of a short-wave phrase, when the BBC station call appears, well-known to anybody who ever used the short-wave band for their listening pleasure. It’s first picked-up by the piano. This occurrence also, says Stockhausen, picked out this particular recording for release (any of the recordings that were made could have been chosen, but all sound completely different from one another). The BBC call had been present at the premier of the piece in Bremen a year earlier!
It is interesting also to note that this recording is unaltered, appearing here exactly the way it was performed and recorded in 1969. Another note that should be made is that the sound is so good that it is hard to realize that the original recording took place in late 1960s. This goes for almost all of Stockhausen’s recordings in this ongoing series,
The Stockhausen Edition. The sound quality even of old recordings is remarkable! Another interesting (and humorously absurd) comment is that when Stockhausen works with, and records, radio static and transmission disturbances, you hear them clearly on these good-sounding recordings…! (I love that thought!)

And at the end of the recording; is that Om Kalsoum appearing, out of the Egyptian timelessness? I think so. I’ve heard most of her songs, but cannot determine which one this might be. If anyone reading this knows, please send me an

Johannes G. Fritsch at his viola
rehearsing "Kurzwellen" 1968
(Photo: Karsten de Riese)

The set-up of “Kurzwellen” is 1 piano with a short-wave receiver, 1 electronium with a short-wave receiver, 1 microphoned tam-tam (Paiste, diameter 155 cm) with a short-wave receiver and 2 players, 1 viola with a short-wave receiver and a sound projectionist with 2 filters and 4 potentiometers.

The microphones for tam-tam and viola each connect to a filter, whose output is fed to two parallel sliding potentiometers and shuttled on to two of 4 x 2 loudspeakers fitted in the corners of the sounding space. The projectionist is seated in the center of the hall, in perfect control of the distribution of the sound.

The microphonist goes about his chore as in “
Mikrophonie I”, dampening the tam-tam if needed, occasionally playing it, but otherwise playing the short-wave receiver, adhering to the tam-tam’s part.

Concerning the qualities of the filtering, the dynamic regulation and the spatial aspect of movement between loudspeakers, much freedom is allowed, but the examples of “
Mikrophonie I” and “Kontakte” should be taken into account.

As indicated above, each instrumentalist has a short-wave receiver. Between each performed event the players make pauses of different lengths. The events can be played either on the radio or on the instrument, and a short-wave event may also mix with or accompany the instrument.

The score has a notation that decides the events, regarding qualities like register, dynamics, durations and number of segments. In addition, each event is relative to the preceding event, played by the player himself or another player.

The score indicates 4 parts, and a combination of these. The parts are dispersed between the instrumentalists, so that each one gets one part. The filter and potentiometer player gets the combination of all parts, participating in shaping the macro process.

Each part also contains a series of signs, which the player considers individually at the start of a new event, or in a vertical combination of signs, in a sequence prescribed in his part.

Again, this goes to show how varied, how many-facetted, this piece indeed is, explaining why each new performance of “
Kurzwellen” really is NEW!

The prerequisites of “
Kurzwellen” performances, forcing the players and the audience alike to concentrate intensely on unforeseeable events out of the short-wave radios (appearing instantly from all over the inhabited world!), naturally sharpen and heighten the listening of everybody, unifying all people present in an unprecedented attention, which I think constitute one of the great original benefits of this work. There is a 100% involvement in the present moment here, amassing and focusing a vast collected energy in an attentive apprehension of the unknown, in one sharp beam!


Volume 14