Stockhausen Edition no. 23
(Atmen gibt das Leben)

Karlheinz Stockhausen – “Atmen gibt das Leben”;
Choral Opera with orchestra (or tape) (1974/77).
The North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Karlheinz Stockhausen [cond.], The North German Radio Chorus
Stockhausen 23. Duration: 49:07.

Atmen… Breath…
The common rhythm all through existence, the movement back and forth, in and out, up and down, hither and thither; from the faintest short breath of the most miniscule creature to the 80 000 000 000 years of an YLEM; the duration between Big Bangs, as the Universe expands and contracts in a Breathing of breathings… All is breathing, sustaining, recreating – which is why it is true that “
Atmen gibt das Leben”; “Breathing gives life”… And in ourselves we sustain this rhythm of breathing, syncopated with the rhythm of our heartbeat – and we can let those two rhythms dance together in a brilliant exposition of the principles of life, as they swing along together through space-time like a sling-shot; the marked, heavy, hasty beat of the heart and the slower, sweeping, wheezing, encompassing rhythm of the breath… and we can turn inwards and probe deep down through the layers of matter, past molecular structures, past atomic jitter into the strange worlds of the trajectories of elementary particles which in another sense of the word “reality” appear to be nothing but a vibration of un-matter, i.e. a vibration that “is” matter without any mass, or to say it differently; that the vibration of un-matter is the true property of matter… and yet, the vibration is a movement, so movement, back-and-forth, hither and thither… seem to be at the heart of existence as a breathing process; Atmen gibt das Leben! Or we can reach out through the solar system, past it, through the galaxy, past it, past the clusters of galaxies, to the farthest thinkable reaches of the Universe – and you are in the exhalation part of a breath that involves the All…

In the fall of 1971 Stockhausen assumed the position as Director of a composition class at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne, as an appointed Professor of Composition. He had been hesitant in doing so, in fact rejecting the position for a number of years. When he finally accepted, he lost his position as the Director of the Electronic Music Studio at the WDR on a technicality, but he retained a collaboration with the studio as its adviser.

Formula composition was at the heart of Stockhausen’s teachings, though in the beginning he still used the word “mantra” for what he later called “formel”; “formula”.
At one time the German Choral Association commissioned Stockhausen for a composition that could be sung by amateur choruses. This in turn made Stockhausen invite his students in the winter of 1973 – 74 to write simple choral pieces from the texts of “
The Bowl of the Cup-bearer” by Hazrat Inayat Khan. You may recall the name from “Aus den sieben Tagen” (“Goldstaub”) and “Inori”, since Stockhausen used the text on HU by Hazrat Inayat Khan in connection with those works. The response from the students was rather cool, but Stockhausen began composing a piece himself, in fact completing it in one mere day (1 February 1974). It was to become the first part of “Atmen gibt das Leben”. Later, in 1976 and 1977, Stockhausen completed the composition, adding a section where the chorus is colored and given the extra strength and support of an orchestra.

This recording – made in 1979 – utilizes a pre-recorded part by the orchestra – recorded in 1977 -, played back over loudspeakers. The whole 1979 session herein presented was made without any edits or cuts – which is almost unheard of these days, when there can be hundreds of edits in a recording, and when the musicians sometimes never even meet, making their different tracks continents apart, shuffling them back and forth on inter-continental flights or via fast Internet-connections with heavy band-widths. That might be a fun way of doing things too, but then it really is a whole different bag than a whole, single, live take of a chorus event… which of course always is more direct, more attentive, more a fruit of a vibrant presence, a continuous breathing through the 49 minutes of the take – and remember, breathing gives life; Atmen gibt das Leben!

(Interested choirs can order the orchestral recording mentioned above from
Stockhausen-Verlag, together with the performance material.)

Stockhausen wrote the text of the work, albeit using some quotations, like three haikus, and a sentence each from Socrates, “
the Gospel according to St. Thomas”, and Meister Eckehart. I must reflect here that it often is the case with Stockhausen that he broadens, widens, extends the meaning of his works by, for example, establishing connections with different important writings, with important teachings, different parts of the world, different cultures, different religions or different periods of human history, thus intertwining his own thoughts, his own art, in a common, age-old and worldwide web of awareness, refined down through the ages, generously outpoured in his art, for anyone to see, for anyone to understand, for anyone to see that we all belong in this flow of causality, karma, through this life, through this Universe, and further on ahead, for many lives to come… Does this sound unfamiliar or pseudo-philosophical? Well, I suppose this depends on the willingness (or not) of the reader/listener to reflect a little further, introspect a little deeper, think a little harder – because it is always the easiest to remain in the regular, down home blindfoldedness of the daily chores, right? The choice is anyone’s to make… In Stockhausen’s music it is apparent that the reviewer’s view that “All places are here, all times are now” (Somebody jokingly remarked to me once that it must be pretty crowded…!) is shared by the composer, since this re-connection in his music with all kinds of influences from afar – in time and space alike – boils down to that notion, of all times being now, all places here… It’s a wonderful feeling, giving equal importance to the despair of a little Inca girl hundreds of years ago and an environmentally deprived boy in Murmansk of 2001. Everybody is in the center of life. Everybody also lives in the middle of his environment. I see all this as one aspect of Stockhausen’s music.

The work begins with just the choir (the whole first section is choir only) sounding like something out of the movie “
2001, A Space Odyssey”; at least providing that same feeling of pre-historic Man gathering around the monolith in the desert, and later the space-travelers around the monolith on the moon or at the hovering monolith in space near Jupiter… It’s an eerie feeling, and the heavy breathing sounds just like the breathing in and out inside a space-suite (the way it is sometimes envisioned in the movies) or in a diving suite. The choir provides the ominous backdrop of drone-like singing with many layered overtones, and the breathing appears in front of that, closer to the listener. It gives the impression of a slow progression through un-chartered territory. The choir gets stronger, much stronger, like a mixed choir of angels or extra-terrestrials or beings who know much more than we do, harboring wonderful secrets in their minds. Through this a female keeps – sort of – hick-upping short exclamations, bringing an uncertainty to the event, making it hard to envision what is about to happen. The exclamations are supposedly – according to the part of the score that can be seen in the booklet – for the most part “py:”, but shortly before the first textual part she exclaims “HU”, the name of God according to Hazrat Inayat Khan.

It should be mentioned that there also is a certain choreographic course of events throughout the piece. In the booklet you can see pictures of Stockhausen giving choreographic instructions to the members of the choir.

Stockhausen and Marc Chagall 1977.
"Atmen gibt das Leben" was performed at the
Musée Chagall for Chagall's 90th birthday
(Photo: Giancarlo Botti)

After the exclamation of “HU” the texts start emerging, the first one being “Breathing gives life” (in German), presented in a liturgic vocal fashion, as a priest at a mass would sing it. The breathing goes on, sparse. The mixed choir takes on that 2001 feel again… or like something from “Aniara”; the famous space opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl, with the fantastic and wonderful texts by Harry Martinson. Then a female speaks the words “Atmen gibt das Leben” with clarity and authority, and you hear sounds resembling whispers. I get a vision of an angel teaching the first people that the breathing is the key to sustaining life…
When the evolution of the text leads into the continuation of the first line with “
but only singing gives the form”, Stockhausen applies varying styles and techniques, like choral speech and humorous twists and turns of the voices.

There is a mastery of the choral counterpoint at work here, and let’s not forget that Stockhausen in fact started once upon a time with vocals, like in “
Chöre für Doris”, “Choral” and “Drei Lieder”, which can all be found on the first issue of the Complete Stockhausen Edition. This evident mastery of the vocal idiom was to prove instrumental later on, when Stockhausen set his mind to the gargantuan task of “Licht”. We will get back to “Licht” in coming reports!

A triumphal tone of voice is introduced in the choir as the first part of the work draws close to its conclusion, and before the end the choir quiets down into choral speech whispers.

The second part, wherein the orchestra is introduced for the first time, starts with a serene mood and the text:

If I sing for me, you sing for thee.
If I sing for thee, you sing for me

sung, in the beginning, in a way that to me sounds a bit medieval. A layered choral speech, introduced in a sound poetic guise, then leads up to the text:

Christ was here, secret messenger,
Disguised as a man with a normal body.
HE brought the news to the crew of the captured planet,
That the loved ones wait in the homeland,
And that the Cause is not yet lost:
Everyone should try to free himself at his own risk from Satania,
And to the one who dares, a boat will be sent in night and fog…

Clearly, many visions of a common imagery familiar to modern man are introduced here, as codes, keywords, or key phrases. You have the secret messenger, who is being portrayed in many myths and tales, as an unknown guest at the table, who later is found out to have been Christ, or a long gone lover or husband/sailor returning in disguise, and you have Woody Guthrie’s song “
Pretty Boy Floyd”, dealing with the good outlaw who left a thousand dollar bill underneath a napkin in the poor but hospitable and generous family’s kitchen – but of course this image ultimately refers to Jesus Christ.
In the verse you have the dream of a homeland in a deeper sense, which from time to time also assumes a more concrete meaning, especially for the Jewish people who have a greeting phrase saying: “Next year in Jerusalem” - but unfortunately the bad conscience of the Western World after World War II and the formal formation of the state of Israel displaced the Palestines in refugee camps and humiliation, and now that people carries the dream of the homeland… Gaza, the West Bank… and… Jerusalem!
You also have the modern image of a planet gone wrong, a home in space on a route down the path of destruction, hi-jacked by evil forces… and then in the end of this passage you have that wonderful reference to 19th century flights across waters in dirty wars fought on the European continent, and the boat which will be sent in night and fog could be the small vessels carrying Jews from Denmark to Sweden in the 1940s, or rowboats hauling displaced families or remnants of families across rivers in the Balkans in the 1990s…
Stockhausen wrote this in the 1970s, but the imagery used is universal, timeless, almost archetypal…

The text of this passage is more or less spoken by a female voice, while the orchestra remains attentively in the background.
The orchestra and the choir get livelier, and after a while a haiku by Shiki is sung/spoken aloud by a male singer:

With a bull on board
glides a little boat across the river
through the evening rain

With this haiku an Eastern imagery is introduced, broadening the sense of human communion, a common fate on this “captured planet”… and the vessel is no longer saving refugees, but transporting a bull, with all its inherent symbolics that I don’t have the space or the knowledge to get into… and the multi-layered mixed choir escalates its web of sound to deafening proportions, as if taking on the guise of a worried or angry crowd, or maybe simply portraying the peoples of the Earth, some gathered at the Wailing Wall, others at bull fights in Madrid or holy processions of Catholic Italian towns…

Then happens something very unexpected – If you hadn’t read the score or the booklet and were listening for the first time – with the emergence of this text:

A ray of muons shoots for kilometers far,
through human beings, blocks of houses.
Voices, pictures, signals of all kinds can be sent with muons

With the ease of a gesture of the hand or a nod of the head the composer diverges the flow of energy inwards, downwards, immersing himself and us in the netherworlds of elementary particles, fearing not the micro world in his imagery, as he does not fear the macro world, showing the relevance of all layers of life, down to the faintest trajectory of the faintest shadow of the faintest imagination of “something”; a particle, a vibration, a… (?).

This head-over-heels mixture of imagery, of layers of existence, apparent throughout Stockhausen’s oeuvre, is one distinctive feature that I, for one, couldn’t agree more with! He reflects in his work in this manner the mind and intellect of a true renaissance artist, not standing back to any aspect of the mystery of life.
What isn’t eternal isn’t very real! When you bore down through the molecular formations, the atomic jitter and the sub-atomic halls of spirit, you soon realize that the whole world of matter is sheer imagery, the apparent solidity of matter illusionary displayed by electrons rotating at speeds so fast that you can never say exactly “where” they “are”, creating illusionary spheres, which in turn create illusionary “matter”, but in “reality” most of everything is “nothing”, or “hollowness” or “distances”… proving spirit to be the core of existence, as matter gives away…

Stockhausen and the choir receiving applause
(Photo: Ralph Fassey)

The text above was sung in a clear, close voice by a female, and the next part succeeds her in an accordingly very distinct male voice:

When the mesons, the glue which holds atoms together, decompose,
muons are born, with a life span of two-millionth of a second,
before they can conceive an electron.
And during this life of two-millionth of a second,
a muon can make a distant journey

A female voice soon takes the line in overwhelmingly beautiful articulations, until the male returns, applying almost humorous techniques of the voice in a jerky, hasty up-and-down motion, which is repeated in the choir. Then the name “HU” is exclaimed loudly, and the orchestra kicks in with a thin, static orchestral line giving the base for the now solitary male. In this part other choral sounds apart from vocals are introduced, like stomping of feet and clapping of hands. The choir now stirs like a violent storm at sea, bewildered, confused, but dying down to a kind of apprehensive peace as a female voice sings:

HE came from the centre of the universe
and Lucifer could not stop HIM

As the choir nibbles and pulls at the melody in high female voices I feel a resemblance of vocal parts out of “
Gesang der Jünglinge” for a while in index 14.

Not long after that the next part of the text is introduced:

Even ghostlier particles are neutrinos,
which penetrate in a straight line through the Earth.
They are riding to us on cosmic rays,
on mysterious waves from interstellar space.
([hei], Eve! - - - oh, Adam… - - -
When the mesons - - - - do it with the muons - - - -
- - - - results an electron - - - -
- - - - - not to mention the neutrinos… - - - -)

To begin with this text is spoken/sung by a female in slow, authoritarian articulations, interspersed with humorous unintelligible short exclamations, like the “py:” in the beginning of the work. At index point 16 the music takes on an Orff-like quality, in a light, rhythmical progression of successive, soft-spoken exclamations which suddenly, in a “
Carmina Burana” effect, increases the volume instantly, without a gradual intensification, but just jumping to the next level (and down again), as in “Fortune plango vulnera” or even more in “In taberna quando sumus” of “Carmina Burana”.
The humorous last part of the text, about the intercourse between the particles, is uttered through the voices of Adam and Eve of the Garden of Eden, as the choir amasses as unruly children/neutrinos on stage! You can hear the commotion!

This is the conclusion of the second part of “
Atmen gibt das Leben”, but the work continues without a break into the third part with the text:

They nabbed HIM, JESUS CHRIST,
and hung him up together with a pair of gangsters:

In that text this haiku of Issa is inserted:

A world full of sorrow and pain:
flowers blossom – even then…

Pauses are inserted too, underlining the special importance of the event described.

Then end is almost hilarious, with the loud exclamation: “
He knew too much!!!” – like in any old detective or spy story of the silver screen or the pocket book, adding even a Nick Carter or Mickey Spillane quality to the music…!

The Issa haiku comes forth again, but this time around at first in solitary majesty through a male bass voice, which is succeeded by variations through other voices in the beautiful juxtapositions of a vocal trio. Again, the mastery of the vocal idiom is apparent!

Here this text by Socrates is intertwined with the other texts that are sung simultaneously:

They who have the least desire for things,
are the closest to the gods

Then follows a brilliantly exposed tutti involving all the three texts above (“They nabbed HIM…”, “A world full of sorrow…” and “They who have…”), with inserted silences.

A short humorous event is signaled abruptly in the orchestra:

The stomach retires –
the heart does overtime

An enormous tutti of both orchestra and choir hits you over the head as the stomach-and-heart event is elaborated.

A more serious atmosphere descends as the text continues with a quote from “
the Gospel according to St. Thomas”:

And JESUS said:
“The foxes have their foxholes
and the birds of the heavens have their nests,
but the Son of Man has no place,
where HE can lay down his head.”

After the text is introduced in a single male voice a tutti furthering the same strong text follows, in inwardly sorrowful intonations, bordering on despair.

The continuation is a haiku by Buson:

Evening splendour;
There should also be
a blossoming yellow in it. - - -

immediately followed by this Meister Eckehart line:

Between GOD and the soul, there is neither strangeness
nor distance

The last part of the work is also the longest, constituting a tutti of the texts by Buson and Meister Eckehart, in a magnificent choral display of the Choir of the North German Radio Hamburg, utilizing many techniques of expression, from choral speech to exclamations to almost sound poetic vocals and plain speech, from whispers to loud articulations.

There is also a refrain saying:

That is true, oh that is very true, true,
that is very true, true
That is true, oh that is very true, true,
that is very true, true, true,
that is very true, true, so very true, true,
that is very true, true, so very true

Movements and poses are – as indicated before – required from the singers, and the text, furthermore, is to be sung from memory without a conductor.

Atmen gibt das Leben” is a truly magnificent display, combining elements and texts of seemingly totally incompatible origins, which Stockhausen unites in a choral work of much splendor, in a surprising coherence that moves the thoughts and dreams and visions of the attentive listener.

Stockhausen advices the listener:

It is best to listen to the recording of this music in the dark, without the slightest distraction, in order to experience the large phrasing of the composition, the continuous development of melody, harmony and rhythm, the increasing complexity of the refrain and the relation of the humorous moments


Volume 24