Stockhausen Edition no. 21

Karlheinz Stockhausen – ”Ylem” for 19 players (2 versions)
London Sinfonietta, Karlheinz Stockhausen [cond.] J. Constable [piano], H. Bojé [electronium], P. Britton [synthesizer], M. Robinson [electric cello], R. Thompson [electric saxophone & synthesizer], D. Corkhill [electric organ], C. van Kampen [cello], E. Fletcher [harp], J. Holland [tam-tam & vibraphone], J. Craxton [oboe], J. Miller [trumpet], J. Butterworth [horn], R. Miller [cor anglais], R. Fallows [bass clarinet], M. Crayford [violin], S. Bell [flute], W. Waterhouse [bassoon], D. Purser [trombone], A. Pay [clarinet].
Stockhausen 21. Duration: 52:25.

Spiral galaxies of Canes Venatici

This is probably the piece in which Stockhausen has gone the farthest in one particular direction, revealed in his comment that this is music ”that best succeeds when the players establish telepathic communication with one another.” He also says that they should play with their eyes shut, and that the conductor shouldn’t do anything bodily to steer the crowd, but stand in the middle of the hall, listening with extreme concentration!
I’m sure many potential listeners will be scared off by this idea, but those who stay around can join in the concentrated listening!

I recall the exact moment when – without the shadow of a doubt – a telepathic communication was established – without intent – between myself and my fiancée Sirkka Laine in Finland. Sirkka was (is…) a well-known Karelian writer of psychological novels. We had been seeing each other for about half a year or less, and I was breaking up from my American wife at the time. At one time during those days I was attending a seminar out in the Swedish countryside, and as I walked up a staircase in one of the buildings I found myself looking right into a woven tapestry, strung out across the wall. On it the words ”
carry each other’s burdens” from Galatians 6:2 was woven, and I suddenly felt a violent surge of feelings, understanding, right then and there, that that was exactly what we had not done in our marriage, and I burst into tears. It was like a flash of lightning. The next day, on arriving back home, I wrote a letter to Sirkka in Finland, describing the sudden impact those words from the Bible had had on me. A couple of days later I received a letter from Sirkka. She got my letter that same day that I got hers. The letters had crossed paths on different ships across the Baltic Sea. In the letter Sirkka described how she suddenly had felt those words – ”carry each other’s burdens” – and felt compelled to tell me about it. We called each other on the telephone the same day, marveling at the telepathic experience.

By relating this incident – very important to me – I mean to state that telepathic communication can happen at any time, and that it probably does, ever so often, in an involuntary way, like the experience Sirkka and I had – but that it probably also can be induced by will and concentration. It’s probably just a matter of tuning in to a layer of consciousness that we’re unaware of most of the time.
The problem that Stockhausen sometimes has with some critics probably stems from the natural way that the composer incorporates layers of existence that many people are not aware of – or refuse to think about – in his works. The instructions for this piece – in Stockhausen’s comment above – certainly belong in that realm.

There is also something theatrical or – as some maybe would put it – happening-like about ”
As the music starts the 19 players stand on stage, gathered around the piano (which has no lid). A so-called ”sound explosion” hits, dispersing 10 of the players out into the hall where the audience sits. There they take up their positions along the walls left and right of the audience. 9 of the players remain on stage.
Near the end of the composition the 10 players along the walls of the audience hall walk back up on stage, again gathering around the pianist. A second ”sound explosion” hits, dispersing all the players, who then walk off the stage and out of the hall, still playing. The 9 players who remained on stage play small portable instruments instead of the bigger ones that they leave on stage.

Simon Stockhausen 1967
("Ylem" is dedicated to Simon Stockhausen)
(Photo: Hans Namuth)

The whole idea of the form of the composition originates in ”The theory of the oscillating universe”, which has it that the universe is contracting and expanding at regular intervals; breathing, inhaling and exhaling, in a rhythm; the rhythm of the All, of which all other rhythms are offsprings. Supposedly, according to this theory, the duration from the start of the universal expansion to the completed contraction would be 80 000 000 000 years. The word ”Ylem” is used in this context by some as a term for these periodic explosions. Of course, this means that there is an endless series of ”big bangs” going on every 80 000 000 000 years. Science also proves these days that our current universe is in an expanding phase, as you can measure that the stars within galaxies and the galaxies within galaxies clusters and galaxies clusters in relation to other galaxies clusters are all moving away from each other, causing ”red shift” and other phenomena.

Stockhausen’s composition ”
Ylem” behaves in the same way, but the duration is somewhat shorter than the universal ”Ylem”; about 26 minutes.
Two versions, recorded at the same session in 1973, are present on this CD.

In a comment Stockhausen calls this music ”
Phoenix Music”, referring to the Phoenix bird, which rose out of the ashes, fresh and alive.

Although ”the theory of the oscillating universe” may seem to have little bearing on our daily life, it still might be rewarding to contemplate, in that it promises new beginnings, fresh starts, new tries, like the process of rebirths that are evident in
the Tibetan Book of the Dead, for example, or other holy writings. I can readily understand now, too, why the Swedish writer and philosopher Vilhelm Ekelund collected so much magic strength in the word ”början” (”beginning”) as he did throughout his life. He transformed common words to a kind of keywords in his writings, and ”början” was one of his most important keywords, loaded with meaning.

A keyword that Stockhausen has come to use is ”HU”. I direct the reader to
Stockhausen Edition No. 22 (”Inori”) concerning that.
However, Stockhausen – in the CD booklet of ”
Ylem” - refers the listener to ”Goldstaub” in ”Aus den sieben Tagen” (Stockhausen Edition No. 14) in connection with HU. In ”GoldstaubStockhausen speaks from memory some of the passages out of ”The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan”, Volume 2, Chapter VIII: ”Abstract Sound”. The text reads:

Stockhausen hearing "Ylem" 1973
(Photo: Clive Barda)

HU is ’the only name of the Nameless… this alone is the true name of God’; Haq the truth, knowledge of God; Hu-ek one God and one truth; Aluk God, the source from which all comes; Al-Haq the truth; Huma the fabulous bird (Hu = spirit, mah = water), Human, the God-conscious man, God-realized (Hu = God, man = mind, ordinary ’man’), Hamd praise; Hamid praiseworthy; Mohammad praiseful; Hur beauties of Heaven; Hay everlasting, Hay-at = life (everlasting nature of God); Huwal omnipresence; Huvva origin of the name of Eve, manifestation; Ya-Huva = oh Hu-a (A = manifestation, beginning, one, first); A = alif or alpha, al = the, all, ALL = absolute nature of existence (in German, All = the immense, unknown universe), (Allah-Allahu, Eloi-Elohim, Hallelujah etc.); Ahud (A = without, Hudd = limitation) the only Being, the boundless, all-embracing one; omomenamenameenAMNAUM: A is beginning, M in the midst signifies end, N the final letter is the re-echo of M, for M ends in nasal sound, the producing of which sound signifies life”.

That is how far the implications of a Stockhausen composition may lead, if you dig into it thoroughly, but that is of course not necessary to enjoy the music. One can just listen in from a purely musical aspect, and still benefit a lot from listening.

In the score instructions are stated, even though the instructions are purely textual, i.e. no notes are given. The instructions apply to the evolution of the piece, the placing of the players, the movements of the players and the general progression of the piece.
Concerning the evolution, or if you will, the expansion, the instructions demand that – after the initial note – each player independently plays a ritardando for 11 minutes. In the 10th minute the players are instructed to apply an interval of 90 seconds from one note to the beginning of next note. It is also stated that the ritardando should be very gradual, and that each player should – independently and gradually – broaden out in pitch to include lower and higher notes, until – after about 9 minutes – the whole range of the instrument is utilized. The players should – individually – try to have this expansion, this broadening of the pitch, appear even, but the order of the notes in the pitch range should be irregular, which also applies to the intervals between the notes.
After about 11 minutes the syllable HU is exclaimed by one player at the rear during a soft passage or a general pause, which instigates return calls of HU from the other players at varied intervals. This is the beginning of an 11-minute long accelerando, in which the range of pitches is narrowed down. At the end of this accelerando the players are again gathered on stage, playing ever faster, until a climax is reached, after which the players walk out of the hall, playing until they can no longer be heard.

Stockhausen also says in the score: ”
As the intervals of time during this whole process grow larger, general pauses should come about, as many and as long as possible; whenever possible, several notes should begin simultaneously (without optical signs) and notes should be united into polyphonic formations, separated like solar systems by much empty space.”

Don’t forget, either, the role of the silent and immobile conductor standing in the middle of the hall in concentrated listening.

At the rear wall of the stage the four players of the electric instruments have a special role to fulfill. Each player is expected to find a sustained pitch that somebody else is playing, to join that exact pitch in the same octave for a while, after which he moves upwards or downwards until reaching another pitch to join. He can move fast or slow between pitches, but he has to make the connections between pitches in different ways:

1. continuous, very gradual glissando (perhaps with reverberation)
2. in little waves
3. in glissandi with sudden dips
4. in tiny bits of glissando
5. in regular points
6. in irregular points (and with accelerando, ritardando, Morse code rhythms, differing speeds
7. points and strokes

and more… However, Stockhausen prohibits the use of banal siren-type glissandi etcetera.
Stockhausen also says that the volume of the connections in general should be softer than the individual notes of the other players.

Stockhausen rehearsing "Ylem" 1973
(Photo: Clive Barda)

Even in ”Ylem” the utilization of short-wave receivers appear. The score says that each connection-player should switch on a short-wave receiver once in the first part and once in the second, playing a connection between two notes of his instrument, imitating whatever comes out of the radio, concerning all the characteristics, like rhythm, timbre, melody and so on.

Throughout the piece consideration is to be taken between the players, so as to achieve a desired effect, like having the ritardando and the accelerando approximate in timing to those of the other players, so that they often play simultaneously or almost simultaneously.

I realize I haven’t said hardly anything of how this music sounds… I suppose any reader with any experience of Stockhausen’s music, and with the postulations at hand, also provided with the instrumentation at the beginning of the text, will have a pretty good idea about it. It is also important to remember that – even though the master plan is decided – each performance may sound quite different. I suppose, though, that without the knowledge of the construction of the piece, and the cosmological implications is carries, some people would refer ”
Ylem” to a kind of avant-garde chamber idiom with ”happening” qualities that was fashionable in the decade after ”Ylem” was written, in the 1980s, especially in Scandinavia, and maybe even more explicitly in Finland, with composers like Magnus Lindberg and ensembles like the Toimii Ensemble. There may be a surface similarity, but if you study the work a little more, you’ll realize the difference.


Volume 22