Through the Eye of the Golden Needle
Personal experiences of Stockhausens GOLDSTAUB
by Johan Boberg
Live completely alone for four days
in complete silence, without much movement
Sleep as little as necessary
Think as little as possible
After four days, late at night,
without conversation beforehand
play single sounds
WITHOUT THINKING which you are playing
Close your eyes
Johan Boberg talking to Stockhausen
in Sülztalhalle, Kürten
at the Stockhausen Courses of 2001
Fredrik Högberg and I was sitting in the library early fall 1990. In front of us we had a booklet. The title of the opened page was GOLDSTAUB. It is one of 15 texts, to be interpreted musically, which in collective form has the title AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN.
The Composer is Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen locked himself in during a week of deep personal crisis in May 1968. He did not want to compose music anymore, he didn't sleep and he stopped eating. He says afterwards that he has never been closer to death.
During this week he composed AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN. In short, seemingly simple, poetically formulated instructions, Stockhausen presents a form to fill intuitively by the musician. It doesn't look very hard at first sight. There is not a single note, just text. But the texts also raise a lot of questions; what rhythm has my molecules? How can one play without thinking?
GOLDSTAUB is perhaps the most controversial text of them all. It demands that the performer, as a preparation for the performance, isolates himself for four days in a fast. He should experience the rebirth that Stockhausen experienced when he, on the fourth day of his isolation, late at night opens the lid of the piano and presses down a key and lets the tone decay...
Fredrik provoked me and said, "Shall we play this one? And as it can be when you just made friends I didn't really know if it was supposed to be a joke, so I doubled the stakes and suggested a date, one month ahead. There was no releasing laugh and the countdown had started.
According to Stockhausen, the title GOLDSTAUB refers to "the experience of closing one's eyes, relaxing completely (without mental images or thoughts) and concentrating on the "color" which, after an initial black-gray, turns via a warm reddish-violet into gold dust - even in the dark of night". A similar sound metaphor can be found in the text SETZ DIE SEGEL ZUR SONNE, another text from AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN "... until you arrive at complete harmony / and the whole sound turns to gold / to pure, gently shimmering fire".
We were at Framnäs Folkhögskola [a boarding school, similar to an upper secondary school, I think, with a classical music profile] just outside Piteå [a small town] in northern Sweden. The school area had number of houses, formerly residential buildings that had been converted into practicing facilities for ensemble playing. One of these turned out to be ideal. With a single door the house could be divided in two separate parts with small rooms suitable for our purpose and one bathroom each. Additionally there was a room, with entrances from both parts of the house, large enough for our selected instrumentation consisting mainly of different kinds of percussion instruments.
We decided upon total separation. We could not under any circumstance meet or even at distance see anybody, least of all each other. We had put up notes all around the school informing others what we were to do and we blocked off the area around the house so that no one could disturb us. The Venetian blinds were to be kept closed and a single flush of the toilet could spoil the magic. Just to be sure, we decided to wear earplugs the whole time. Changes of plugs were permitted for hygienic reasons. We did also say no to a public performance the last day. Only through a simple cassette recording would other persons be able to hear the performance.
When one week remained I started cutting down on food. The last meal I had was half a bowl of curded milk [typical Swedish breakfast food]. We had only fruit juice to drink during the four days, the thin light lemonade-like kind. The ration was three liters per day, to avoid drying out and ensure the blood sugar level. I chose apple, lemon and grape juice. The only mistake I made was that I didnt taste these beverages before we started.
I was well prepared when I locked the door behind me and put the earplugs into my ears. We had thoroughly studied the information about AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN that our teacher Per Grundberg had helped us to find. I was mentally prepared. I was not afraid of hunger or loneliness, but four days felt like an eternity when just five completely uneventful hours had passed.
One might think of AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN as representing a "point zero" or even an exception in Stockhausens list of works. Surely, for him personally, the week when the texts of AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN were put on paper was a turning point in life. For him it started out as a hunger strike, a desperate attempt to make his wife return to him. He came out on the other side with new experiences and perhaps a new attitude towards life. But musically, the tendencies in Stockhausens music during the Sixties leads towards the dissolving of concrete communication with the interpreter through traditional notation that AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN represent. Stockhausen had during this period gained a position as a musical-spiritual leader for his ensemble whose members he had been working with for a long time. The year before AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN the works PROZESSION and KURZWELLEN were composed directly for these musicians. In these pieces Stockhausen "only" defines how the musicians are to transform arbitrary chosen fragments from certain previously composed works of his (PROZESSION) or from a shortwave radio (KURZWELLEN). During rehearsals of these pieces they also experimented with improvisations. The rationalization that AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN represent is actually not such a big step as one might think. The compositions in AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN are typical for Stockhausen in the way that they clearly are "process compositions". General elements are given but details are to some extent left to the interpreter to complete according to the rules of the composition. This element of freedom is something that is included in the majority of his works since approximately 1960. During the Sixties Stockhausen gradually looses the constrains of the part that is left for the interpreter to "fill in". In AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN Stockhausen wants the musician to function as a "radio/receiver that translates vibrations and signals into music, in the same way as he does when he is composing. He says in the text LITANEI, which functions as a foreword to AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN: "Now I am trying to reach the next stage, to connect you, the player, to the currents that flow through me, to which I am connected" and "so that through me you will be connected to the inexhaustible source that pours out through us in the form of musical vibrations." This can also be interpreted as Stockhausen wanting the outcome to sound according to his personal taste. He coined the term "Intuitive Music" so that this music wouldn't be confused with improvised music, which often is bound by clichés and genre dictated ways of playing. Seeing the texts as a base for improvisation is wrong. The texts define specific musical processes that shape the intuitively created sounds. Whatever is played during a performance must be totally free from all forms of associations with other music and genres. Finally I would like to include the following quotation: "I don't want a spiritualistic sitting - I want music! I mean nothing mystical, but everything quite direct, from concrete experience. What I intend is not Indeterminacy, but an intuitive Determinacy".
AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN is no exception. Between 1968 and 1970 he wrote 17 new texts in a similar fashion that were published as the collection FÜR KOMMENDE ZEITEN. AUFWÄRTS, one of the texts in AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN was used as a part of the work STERNKLANG (1971). The score for YLEM from 1972 is entirely text based.
It has been debated whether Stockhausen can take the sole compositional credit for the sonic outcome; an argument that led to the disintegration of the group that, under Stockhausens direction, had recorded most of the pieces of AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN. The strongest critic was the trombonist Vinko Globokar who refused to let his name be printed on the record cover, but I am inclined to agree with Stockhausen, because it is decisive that it is Stockhausen that is the messenger. Stockhausen is more than a name of a composer. Stockhausen has become a term and an institution; a myth with its own life and integrity that is a source of inspiration to whoever approaches it, him personally or his music. It makes it a big difference if Stockhausen says "play!" or if someone else would do it.
The first hours were naturally filled with expectations and excitement. It was indeed very silent, but still I was a bit anxious that I was going to hear whenever Fredrik went down the stairs to his bathroom. We had split the house in a way so that we didn't risk seeing each other, but we hadn't tested the possible leakage of sound. I got myself acquainted with the room, which was about four times three square meters in size. Two old sofas from the Fifties in yellowish fabric stood facing each other along the longer walls. Between them was a mattress on the floor, a hard green chair with a high back and wooden armrests in one corner and a sink with running water in the other. A fluffy old brown carpet covered the entire floor. The closed Venetian blinds covered the windows. The door to the corridor, which led to my toilet I kept closed.
I thought I heard some sporadic, distant sounds, "thuds". I tried to find out what it was. Was it something Fredrik was doing? It continued, and after a while it felt more and more spooky. But finally I realized that it was my own eyelashes I heard. Each time I blinked there was a faint thud. With earplugs inserted I isolated myself from many outside sounds, but the ones coming from myself were amplified. I heard my heart beating and my blood swishing through my veins, my neck squeaking a bit whenever I moved my head. I could almost hear the signals my brain sent to various parts of my body commanding them do this, do that. Inhale, exhale.
I was determined to follow the rule "think as little as possible". The major part of day one was spent in exercises not to think at all. This proved very hard. As soon as I realized that I didn't think, I in fact did think. I tried to measure the periods of complete non-thinking; a few seconds, at most a minute, but not longer. I realized that in my consciousness I had several thoughts running in parallel on different levels, and that it was pretty hard to control all of them simultaneously. The control also became thought. It was much easier to keep other thoughts away if I permitted one associationless thought to stay, for example a pitch. Doing that I managed about 15 minutes. That might not seem very impressive, but this is in fact a hard and frustrating practice for the non-trained.
Soon I discovered how awful the grape juice tasted so I drank my daily ration under great torment, trying to finish it as soon as possible, but luckily I had the delicious apple juice to look forward to when I was finished with the grape juice. To make sure that I would have at least the recommended amount of water to drink I drank one liter four times a day. Once each day I feasted on a sugar cube to ensure my blood sugar level.
The world on the outside had, unlike the one in my room, not stopped. I changed the angle of the Venetian blinds enough to see the autumn leaves on the ground. I could see a little part of the deserted parking lot outside the main building of the school. I was filled with doubt, I wondered why I did this, when there was so much else I could, or even should do instead. Unlike Stockhausen I didn't see the end in front of me, rather life. In absence of an answer I comforted myself by thinking that this was probably the only time in my life that I would have four days entirely dedicated to myself and my thoughts. I wasn't supposed to do anything; there were no demands in my isolation. And when I managed to mentally free myself from the daily routine old memories started to pop up that I took time to go through. I felt like I was cleaning the attic - away with old garbage, off with the dust and make place for new things, new thoughts.
My sleep was normal, neither longer nor shorter. I went to bed when I felt tired at night and rose whenever I woke in the morning. I had started to suspect already the second day that time had an uneven flow. When the same pattern repeated itself the third and fourth day I felt pretty confident about this. The morning passed pretty quickly, time slowed down around noon but it accelerated a little again until just after three o'clock. Between three and four it slowed down again to almost stop entirely between five and seven. But time accelerated a little again after seven and had reached normal speed at eight. The hour between nine and ten seemed to vary a bit from day to day, but after ten the flow was pretty good. I went to bed about eleven thirty so unfortunately I have no statistics to show for the night hours. However, all in all the day seemed to consist of 24 hours after all, however not in the linear fashion that the face of a clock suggests.
As the fourth day started to reach it's end the excitement started building up for the finale of the piece. We had agreed to meet at eleven o'clock at night. Already at eight I started to feel a little tension. At ten I was really nervous. Was Fredrik still in the house? I hadn't heard a single sound during these four days that would indicate that. Maybe he had given up. Maybe he had gone crazy. How does one look after four days without a shower, without food? I looked at myself in a mirror. Stripy hair, a short beard, generally cheesy, but I was no monster anyway. I wondered what Fredrik would look like.
I couldn't bear it. I went to the room where we had set up out instruments, ten minutes to eleven, and sat down on a chair. Was it even the right day? To keep track of which day it was I had put a paper napkin on the floor in a corner of the room each morning. Maybe I had accidentally put two napkins there one of the days. Had Fredrik kept count of the days correctly? I was afraid to meet him. Four days of isolation had turned me into a shy hermit. I wanted to go back to my room; I didn't want to confront reality. My heart was beating hard when I saw him coming. I looked down and couldn't look him in the eyes when he walked into the room.
Carefully I removed the earplugs. If one has earplugs inserted for a longer time the hearing normalizes, and finally one hears quite normal, despite the earplugs. To remove them was a fascinating experience. I let them fall into a trash bin with crashes and bangs. Just rising from the chair generated an enormous, indescribable mass of noises. I turned to Fredrik who switched on the little tape recorder. Briefly we looked at each other calmly.
We took our positions, concentrated and started to play. I do not remember anything from that. It is like a black hole. I remember having the feeling that we didn't play very long, but I really don't know how long. Perhaps this was the only time during these four days that I actually didn't think at all.
[Comment: it was obviously recorded but I have never listened to the tape, for at the time I felt that would spoil something, while presently Im not sure where the tape is]
I have never felt the way I did right after playing. I had a hard time staying on my feet; I was floating on slippery clouds. I lost my balance several times. It was an indescribable high. After a while we just lay on the floor laughing. After collecting the pieces of ourselves we went, leaning against each other, out of the house and into reality.
Breakfast in the dining hall of the school the next morning served as an unforgettable experience, not because of seeing all these human beings but because of all the sounds. I listened to the shoes on the floor, back and forth, chats, rattling of plates. And above all the sound of 73 coffee cups being put down on their little plates, spoons lightly squeaking when stirred, totally unsynchronized. Those coffee cups became a totally immersing musical experience. Not until now did I feel what Stockhausen describes as the origin of this piece: "... and then on the fourth evening I opened the lid of the piano and played just one note... today, I still think that was like the first note of my whole life [...] this note hit me like a bombshell - I was super-electric, super-sensitive".
Sometimes this feeling reoccurs, a little weaker now, when modest, uncoordinated sound suddenly "harmonizes" and sends a warm feeling throughout my body.
Earlier in this article I described how the texts in AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN are composed to form musical processes. Regarding the text GOLDSTAUB I would say that the sonic outcome isn't very interesting, because in this case it is not the music but the musician that is the target of the process. GOLDSTAUB is for me a turning point in life that a great deal of my musical thinking is derived from. It is difficult to say exactly how, but I believe that GOLDSTAUB changed my life.
Johan Boberg commenting
on newsgroup postings
Johan Bobergs account of his performance of Goldstaub raised some questions over at the newsgroup rec.music.classical.contemporary, and I think this discussion especially pertaining to Johans answers is so interesting that Ive decided to attach it here:
Comment from a poster:
The last paragraph rather gives away the sophomore tendencies:
I believe that GOLDSTAUB changed my life
GOLDSTAUB is for me a turning point in life.."
GOLDSTAUB had a tremendous impact on me, but I felt it hard to describe in words; the practical stuff was a lot easier to write about. Still I wanted to say this in the article because it is true. Also, since I do consider this a composition by Stockhausen I didn't want to be too specific and suggest in a public text that this or that part of my person is a product of Stockhausen. I don't see it that way, but it could be interpreted so.
and worst of all
the sonic outcome isn't very interesting
it is not the music but the musician that is the target of the process
The music that is produced at the end of a performance of GOLDSTAUB is just the tip of the iceberg. It is only interesting in the moment of performing it, for the people performing it. The preceding four days is not just a preparation for performing the piece; it is performing the piece. Unlike the other pieces in Ad7T the "process" is applied to the musician rather than controlling what is played.
From this perspective what it actually sounds like to a listener is not the point, and it shouldn't be. The point is what the musician hears and feels from a four-days-of-not-thinking-and-eating perspective. So, in fact you can never really hear this piece without actually performing it yourself. This is what I am trying to say in the article, I am sorry if it doesn't come through.
The guy writes very well about the preparations and his state of mind.
But the fact that he dismisses the end result so quickly - he's even lost the cassette of it - does trivialize it all as a bit of an ego-trip.
I havent really lost the tape. My GOLDSTAUB partner probably has it somewhere. I was never interested in hearing it since I feared that it would spoil the memory I had from the actual performance. Hearing the tape would forever change the way I remember it. It doesn't say very much about the performance, but of course it can be interesting as some kind of historical document, as in the case of the Stockhausen recording. However, I would have preferred if all the performers of that recording had followed Stockhausens suggestion and written one little text each about it. Actually I contacted them all but Karlheinz for some comments while writing my text, but they didn't want to comment on it, and Herbert Henck felt that he already had said it all. I respect this, but it would have been interesting to hear Michaels and Peters views as well. Stockhausen does in a way share his views of his performance in the booklet. For him it must be very different performing this piece since it is actually reflecting his own experiences in May 1968.
Telling people about my experiences of GOLDSTAUB, even writing a long article about it and making it available on the Internet makes it kind of an ego-trip. But I do not think that I am bragging about it.
I just try to:
1) share my experiences
2) give some background to Ad7T and (hopefully) clear out common misconceptions about it
3) give future GOLDSTAUB performers some things to consider
All the best,