Stockhausen Edition no. 19

Karlheinz Stockhausen – “Trans” (2 versions)
Symphony Orchestra of the Southwest German Radio, Ernest Bour [cond.], Karlheinz Stockhausen [sound projection] (Donaueschingen world premier October 16th 1971),
The Orchestra of the Saarland Radio, Hans Zender [cond.], Karlheinz Stockhausen [sound projection] (Studio recording 1973)
Stockhausen 19. Duration: 55:45.

A dream… This entire piece is based on a dream that Stockhausen had the night between the 9th and the 10th of December 1970! We know that Stockhausen has taken his dreams seriously before, but this is the first work that owes every last detail to a dream. The subconscious – which connects to the core of everything, the current of energy through vibrating existence – is here directly materializing in a musical work, in a shaman’s generous gift to the hearing. I can sympathize very well with this way of making use – or letting free – the forces of dreams. In the year 1970 the reviewer – the undersigned… - kept track of dreams rather meticulously too. I had a notebook by my bed, and as soon as I woke up I jotted down notes from the dreams I just woke out of, before they dissipated like morning mist in sunlight. Some of them were easily tracked back to recent circumstances, hopes, fears and so on, but many others were mysteries to me, and sometimes wonderful! I later published some of these dreams on the Internet, and just tonight I got a message from somebody who had read my dreams and wanted to respond to them! Someone responded in 2001 to dreams I had in 1970. That is wonderful! There is no way to get bored in this life! It’s so full of mystery and beauty!

This Stockhausen dream was not allowed the usual instant dissipation, but remained in sharpened contours. Why do we forget most dreams the way we do? When we’re inside a dreamscape it’s real, and we believe it – but as soon as we wake that world withdraws, and once again we find ourselves in a world we call reality… Some say this is what happens when we die too, i.e. that we “wake up” into death, and after a while “life” dissipates in a haze, hard to recall, and that is supposed to be the reason why we do not usually remember earlier lives – even though some people, trained yogis, claim to recall hundreds of lives… We’re here now, and that is proof enough for me that I have been reborn into this world…
The working title of Stockhausen’s “
Trans” was in fact “Musik für den nächsten Toten” (“Music For the Next to Die”), as he felt this dreamed music could serve as a help and guidance to the newly deceased, for the journey further on. This, admittedly, gives a special meaning to this work, even if Stockhausen later dropped that title (which I indeed like a lot) for the more passable “Trans”, in the process also using the working title “Jenseits” (“Beyond”) for a while.

Today I’m responding to a dream that Karlheinz Stockhausen had in 1970, and that is wonderful too. It’s wonderful that Stockhausen obeyed his impulse and composed this dream-music, and it’s wonderful that I can be here and respond to it, react to it…

Stockhausen at a "Trans" performance
at Théâtre de la Ville in Paris 1971
(Photos and superimposition: Bernard Perrine)

In the dream an orchestra became visible in a haze of a purplish, reddish violet quality. Up front were two rows of string players, playing in a robotized way, stiffly, moving only their right arms, producing a dense wall of sound, static, sturdy. At the sound of a weaving loom the web of sounds changed character. Behind the denseness of the strings were other musicians – winds and percussion – and sometimes openings in the wall of strings seemed to appear, through which you could hear these other musicians.
The dream conveyed something otherworldly, in a beyondness of sorts, which is probably why Stockhausen chose the working title for the piece, and also connected it with
The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Stockhausen told Otto Tomek – then Music Director of the Music Department of the Southwest German Radio – about his dream, and before long Tomek called Stockhausen, commissioning him to write the piece for the Donaueschingen Music Festival of 1971. The composer wrote the piece in Kürten between July 17th and September 4th 1971, and the premier, presented here as the first of the two versions on CD, took place on October 16th at the Donaueschinger Musiktage für neue Musik.

Trans” in its translation – transubstantiation - from dream to a physical representation, is a kind of musical theatre, set on a theatre stage.
20 string players sit side by side, closely, in a row at the front of the stage, from one end of the stage to the other, a little curved in forward at the edges, in order to accommodate the visibility of the bowing of the 1st and 2nd violins, seated in the middle. Behind the first row, placed on a podium to make them visible, is another row of string players, placed so that their heads are seen between and slightly above the heads of the players in the first row. Stockhausen gives the possibility also to have three rows instead of two, if the stage isn’t wide enough, given that the last row then is placed on an even higher second podium.
The winds and the percussion – four groups – are placed at the very back of the stage, left to right. There is a conductor in action too, and he sits center-stage behind the strings, facing the four groups of winds and percussion. A black partition bars the conductor off from the strings, which makes the four groups of winds and percussion at the back of the stage invisible to the audience.

The whole progression of this layered music - sometimes audible, sometimes not, with a dense string section in front and another character of sounds from the winds and the percussion beyond the wall of strings, sometimes appearing clearly through openings in the web of strings – gives me pictures, visions, of extreme natural phenomena, like the loud opening and closing of cracks in the glacier ice, or the sudden openings in the crust of a lava field, as a river of lava gushes by right below the crusted surface.
On another level this music may point to the facts of the layers of our minds, with a completely conscious top layer, usually hiding the immense activity that is always going on just below the polished, cultured surface of the civilized Man of Society. Any way you look at it, “
Trans” can inspire many further explorations.

Stockhausen’s performance instructions indicate that the curtain in front of the theatre stage be closed shut before the performance is to begin. Then it should open very slowly, taking a minute or more to complete the withdrawal of the curtain. The lighting is specified as a “violet-red, misty light”, which should drench the stage in an enchanted forest kind of haze. Like when you’re watching a movie in a movie theatre, the auditorium lights are turned down and off. Directed light from above, invisible to the audience, is lighting the score for the players.

As the curtain very slowly pulls back to both sides, enlarging the visibility from center on out to either side until the complete width of the stage is visible in this peculiar light, the string players begin to play in their puppet-like, stiff movements, one by one. When all of them have started to play they move like one man, in exactly timed, rigid movements, like robots. Stockhausen points out the importance of completely even and synchronous bow changes, creating this robotized, machine-like or trance-like impression.

In the premier version the audience sometimes breaks in with applause, and here I really think it is applause. In some other pieces applause is used, taken over by the players and incorporated in the piece, like in the beginning (one possible beginning…) of “
Momente” (Stockhausen Edition 7).
This first version of “
Trans” – the premier – opens with audience sounds of applause mixed with apprehensive exclamations (signs of surprise) and a slight one-time microphone-loudspeaker round-feed noise, like what you might expect at a pop concert, before the string players start and the show is on the road.

Stockhausen at Théâtre de la Ville
in Paris 1971
(Photo: Bernard Perrine)

At the end of the premier performance some boos are mixed in with the ecstatic applause, clearly demonstration the importance the audience placed with a Stockhausen premier, and the eagerness with which they attended. This mix of loudly negative and positive reactions shows that no one left the event untouched. The loud boos also remind me of another recording of another artist – John Cage – on a set of CDs from Italian Cramps Records (CRSCD 038) from a performance at the Teatro Lirico in Milan December 2nd 1977, when Cage gave a performance of his “Empty Words”. Cage simply sat by a table on stage with his manuscript, spot-lit by a small lamp, reading from his text of random words (arrived at through different chance methods) in his soft, low voice. For a while the audience kept still, listening, but slowly unrest spread, until later the audience resorted to downright loud ridicule of the artist, even invading the stage, taking Cage’s glasses from him and pouring out his drinking water – but Cage kept right on reading…
The situation at the premier of “
Trans” didn’t evolve in that ugly direction, but clearly the emotions in the audience were mixed, and I’m glad Stockhausen was so generous as to allow these reactions onto CD.

An important role is attributed to the tape sounds of a weaving loom, shooting through the sounding space from one side to the other. At the first time-stroke of the loom the four wind and percussion groups start playing, and each time the loom sounds each player moves to the next note. At some instances, directed by the loom, some string players stop playing, but remain in position, tip of bow resting on the string.

A piccolo trumpet player emerges like a spirit above the string players and to the left, on an invisible platform to which an equally – from the audience’s point of view – invisible ladder leads.

The piccolo trumpet player, appearing with a military tattoo, isn’t the only anomality in the piece. There are three other peculiarities:

A drummer with an infantry drum marches from the right in front of the string players, between the audience and the players, banging once loudly, causing one viola player to transform into a gypsy violinist, playing frantically!

At one time the orchestra attendant comes on stage, carrying a music stand with an affixed lamp, which is turned on in front of a cellist, who starts playing a sentimental, romantic solo, contrasting wildly to the rest of the sounds of the piece. The attendant switches the lamp on and off twice, thereby also switching the cellist on and off.

At another instance the concertmaster gets stuck on a high flageolet, repeating it 17 times, to the embarrassment of the other players, who lean towards him, starring!

There is also at one time a long pause prescribed by Stockhausen, in which the unrest of the audience is usually apparent.
At the last time-stroke of the weaving loom the curtain slowly closes, and a reversed version of the beginning commences, in which the string players conclude their parts one by one, but as the curtain is completely closed the last high string pitches can still be heard from a distance. The lights of the auditorium slowly light up. End of story.

There is a lot of amplification going on in the piece. The 4 invisible orchestral groups are amplified by no less than 19 microphones. Loudspeakers are placed in the corners of the auditorium. Further more, 2 loudspeakers are positioned to the right and left of the stage, for the tape part, i.e. the sound of the shuttle of the weaving loom, moving left to right or right to left. The strings are fed through 3 loudspeakers, and the 4 groups of wind and percussion are fed through 4 loudspeakers, one for each group. At the center of the hall the sound projectionist sits, balancing the output of the speakers with the direct sound from the players. From the floor plan I also see an electric organ with its own loudspeaker. The floor plan (in the booklet) also reveals soundproof screens in between the four orchestra groups.

The second version on the CD, a studio recording from 1973, sounds quite different from the premier live recording. It is darker, more ominous, more… frightening. As Stockhausen says in the booklet, this all has to do with interpretative practices, the acoustics of the hall or the studio, various methods of amplification and recording technology.

In Jonathan Cott’s “
Stockhausen – Conversations With the Composer”, Stockhausen says about the emergence of “Trans”:

…I was busy doing different things; and completely unexpectedly […] I dreamt an entire piece. Next morning I only had a very short time before going to an appointment to quickly write down a few notes about that dream. […] It says: ‘Dreamt orchestral work’ – ‘orchestral sits in series’. I saw two rows of string players in front from the extreme left to the extreme right of the stage sitting in a straight line without music desks. There was a second row a little bit above the first, and the heads of the musicians there appeared between those of the first row. And they all played synchronously, and extremely slow and loud, a very dense sound wall – a chromatically dense closed wall. I wrote: ‘This sound wall opens with different intervals at periods of about twenty seconds, allowing music behind this wall to come through – brass and woodwinds mixed – and I hear low instruments that are the fundamentals; in timbres they’re colored like organ mixtures. With each low melodic line of one of the lower instruments there are several instruments in parallel, playing softer and coloring this low sound’.
And then I’ve written here: ‘At the same time I hear the sound of a weaving chair’. God knows how I came to that idea. I’ve never thought about the sound of a weaving chair; perhaps it dates back to my childhood. It’s also very similar to the sounds of a train switch – my uncle was a train switchman. Also, I was in Bali in 1970, and there I visited a place, a small room where about twenty young girls between the ages of about nine and fourteen were weaving clothes. And they had these old wooden weaving chairs. I heard this noise in the dream, every twenty seconds, a shuttle of a weaving chair passing loudly through the hall from the left to the right, shooting through the air. And with each shuttle sound the string players were beginning the next upward movement of their bows, all synchronously, and then in the middle of the duration between two shuttle sounds, they started a downward movement.
[…] In the dream I also saw a curtain in front of the audience, which is quite unusual for an orchestral piece. I’ve never seen it before. It was completely dark in the hall, the curtain slowly opened from the middle. […] The entire orchestra appeared in a red-violet light… very foggy. […] … And then I realized it was exactly the same light I’ve seen several times in meditation when you close your eyes and chase away all thoughts and pictures so that you have just the dark and then a lighter gray with many little spots floating around – the light particles – then changing slowly to red-violet light. […] At first, the string wall seems most important during the piece, but it’s the music behind the wall that took so much time to compose; it’s very precisely calculated in all its rhythmic details and pitch constructions.
[…] I told my assistant about the weaving chair, and he mentioned that he knew a woman in a small village in southern Germany who had a wooden weaving chair. And he went there the next Sunday and recorded the shuttle sounds”.

I’m absolutely positive that Stockhausen always taps his subconscious and the unconscious of crucial impulses and energies for all his compositions, through his meditating, and through his general outlook on life, but in “Trans” this is expressively stated – and the result is fascinating.


Volume 20