Entretien Björk & Karlheinz Stockhausen

Dazed & Confused n°23, août 1996

Björk meets Karlheinz Stockhausen - Compose Yourself

I went to music school from the age of five and then, when I was 12 or 13, I was into musicology and this Icelandic composer and teacher at the school introduced me to Stockhausen. I remember being almost the fighter in the school, the odd kid out, with a real passion for music, but against all this retro, constant Beethoven and Bach bollocks. Most of it was this frustration with the school’s obsession with the past. When I was introduced to Stockhausen it was like ‘aaah’ ! Finally somebody was speaking my language. Stockhausen has said phrases like, “We should listen to ‘old’ music one day a year and the other 364 days we should listen to ‘now’ music. And we should do it in the same way as we look through photo albums of when we were children. If you look at old photo albums too often they just become pointless. You start indulging in something that doesn’t matter, and you stop worrying about the present.” And that’s how he looked at all those people who are obsessed with old music. For a kid born of my generation who was 12 at that time it was brilliant, because at the same time I was also being introduced to the electronic music of bands like Kraftwerk and DAF.

I think when it comes to electronic music and atonal music, Stockhausen’s the best. He was the first person to make electronic music before synthesisers were even invented. I like to compare him to Picasso for this century, because like him he’s had so many periods. There are so many musicians who’ve made a whole career out of one of his periods. He goes one step ahead, discovers something that’s never even been done before musically and by the time other people have even grasped it he’s onto the next thing. Like all scientific geniuses, Stockhausen seems obsessed with the marriage between mystery and science, although they are opposites. Normal scientists are obsessed with facts : genius scientists are obsessed with mystery. The more Stockhausen finds out about sound, the more he finds out that he doesn’t know jack shit ; that he’s lost. Stockhausen told me about the house he built himself in the forest and lived in for ten years. It’s made from hexagonal pieces of glass and no two rooms are the same, so they are all irregular. It’s built out of angles that are reflective and it’s full of spotlights. The forest becomes mirrored inside the house. He was explaining to me how, even after ten years, there would still be moments when he didn’t know where he was, and he said it with wonder in his eyes. And I said, “That’s brilliant : you can be innocent even in your own home”, and he replied, “Not only innocent, but curious.” He’s such a humorist.

Björk : It seems to me that your electronic music is more like your voice and your other pieces are less personal, somehow. Do you feel that too ?

Karlheinz Stockhausen : Yes, because a lot of things that I do sound like a very alien world. Then a notion like ‘personal’ is irrelevant. It is not important, because it is something that we don’t know, but I like it, and I make it.

Björk : It seems to me that you just put your antennae out, and that is like your voice, your point of view, like from the outside. Or something like... (pause) I can’t really explain it.

Karlheinz Stockhausen : No, neither can I. The most important thing is it is not like a personal world, but something that we all don’t know. We have to study it, we have to experience it. If we catch something like that, then we have had luck.

Björk : Are you sure it’s not you ?

Karlheinz Stockhausen : Oh I am surprised myself, very often. And the more I discover something that I haven’t experienced before, then the more excited I become. Because then I think that it is important

Björk : I’ve got a problem that I get very excited about music. I panic because I feel I don’t have time to do it all, does that worry you ?

Karlheinz Stockhausen : Yes and no, because I have learned now in my life that even the very early works made 46 years ago are not understood by most of the people. So this is a natural process that if you find something that surprises you, then for others it’s even harder to incorporate that into their being. So it would take sometimes 200 years before a large group of people, or even for individuals to have reached the same stage that I have reached after having spent, let’s say, three years eight hours in the studio to make something. You need as much time as I did just to hear it. Let’s not even talk about understanding what it means. So that is the natural process that certain musicians make something that needs a lot of time to be listened to many, many times, and that’s very good.

Björk : Yeah, but I am also talking about the relationship between you and yourself, and the time that you have between birth and when you die. If it is enough to do all of the things you want..

Karlheinz Stockhausen : No, you can only do a very small portion of what you want to do. That is natural.

Björk : Yeah, maybe I’m very impatient. It’s hard for me to...

Karlheinz Stockhausen : 80 or 90 years is nothing. There are a lot of very beautiful pieces of music of the past which the majority of the people alive now will never hear. These pieces are extraordinarily precious, full of mystery and intelligence and invention. I’m thinking at this moment of certain works by Johann Sebastian Bach, or even earlier composers. There are so many fantastic compositions, five or six hundred years old, not even known to the majority of human beings. So it will take a lot of time. There are billions of precious things in the universe that we have no time to study.

Björk : You seem to be so patient, like you have all of this discipline to use time. It freaks me out, I still haven’t learned how to sit in my chair, it’s very hard for me. Do you always work eight hours a day ?

Karlheinz Stockhausen : More.

Björk : Do you think the core of your urge is more to show or record the things out there : to prove they exist, like just for scientific reasons, or is it more emotional to create an excuse for everybody to unite. So that maybe something will happen, like your music could achieve that ?

Karlheinz Stockhausen : It’s both.

Björk : Both ?

Karlheinz Stockhausen : Of course. I am like a hunter, trying to find something, and at the same time, well this is the scientific aspect, trying to discover. On the other hand, I am emotionally in high tension whenever it comes to the moment when I have to act with my fingers, with my hands and my ears, to move the sound, to shape the sound. It is then I cannot separate thinking and acting with my senses : both are equally important to me. But the total involvement happens in both states : if I am more a thinker, or more an actor ; I am totally involved, I get involved.

Björk : I used to travel with my little ghettoblaster, and have my pocket full of tapes, and try to always find the right song. I didn’t care what song it was, as long as it would unite everybody in the room and get everybody together. But sometimes that can be quite a cheap trick, you know ? I remember once reading that one of the reasons why you don’t like regular rhythm is because of the war.

Karlheinz Stockhausen : No, no, that’s...

Björk : That’s a misunderstanding ?

Karlheinz Stockhausen : Mmm, yes. When I dance I like regular music. With syncopation naturally. It shouldn’t always be like a machine. But when I compose, I use periodic rhythms very rarely, and only at an intermediary stage, because I think there is an evolution in the language of music in Europe which leads from very simple periodic rhythms to more and more irregular rhythms. So I am careful with music which emphasises this kind of minimalistic periodicity because that brings out the most basic feelings and most basic impulses in every person. When I say ‘basic’, that means the physical. But we are not only a body who walks, who runs, who makes sexual movements, who has a heartbeat which is, more or less, in a healthy body, 71 beats per minute, or who has certain brain pulses, so we are a whole system of periodic rhythm. But already within the body there are many periodicities superimposed, from very fast to very slow ones. Breathing is, in a quiet situation, about every six or seven seconds. There’s periodicity. And all of these together build a very polymeric music in the body, but when I make the art music I am part of that whole evolution, and I am always looking for more and more differentiation. In form as well.

Björk : Just because it’s more honest, it’s more real ?

Karlheinz Stockhausen : Yes, but what most of the people like is a regular beat, nowadays they make it even in pop music with a machine. I think that one should try to make music which is a bit more... flexible, so to speak, a bit more irregular. Irregularity is a challenge, you see. How far can we go in making music irregular ? Only as far as a small moment when everything falls into synchronicity, and then goes away again into different meters and rhythms. But that’s how history has been, anyway.

Björk : I think that in popular music today people are trying to come to terms with the fact that they are living with all of these machines, and trying to combine machines and humans and trying to marry them in a happy marriage : trying to be optimistic about it. I was brought up by a mother who believed fiercely in nature and wanted me just to be barefoot 24 hours and all of these things, so I was brought up with this big guilt complex of cars and skyscrapers, and I was taught to hate them, and then I think I’m, like, in the middle. I can see this generation who are ten years younger than me making music, trying to live with it. But everything is with those regular rhythms and learning to love them, but still be human, still be all gritty and organic.

Karlheinz Stockhausen : But regular rhythms are always in all cultures : the basis of the structure. It’s only very lately that they come to make a more complicated rhythm, so I think it is not so that the machines have brought irregularity.

Björk : Yeah, I think what makes me happiest is your optimism, especially about the future. And I think, for me, here I’m also talking about my generation. We’ve been taught the world is going down the drain and we’re all gonna die very soon, and to find someone as open as you, with optimism, is special. A lot of young people are fascinated by what you are doing. Do you think it is because of this optimism ?

Karlheinz Stockhausen : Also I understand that the works I have composed give a lot for studying, for learning and for experiencing. In particular, experiencing oneself, and that gives people confidence, so they see there is a lot still to do.

Björk : And also maybe because you have done so many things that I think that so many young people just have to find one per cent of its worth and they can identify with what you’ve done.

Karlheinz Stockhausen : Maybe with different works, because they cannot know them all. I have 253 individually performable works now, in scores, and about 70 or 80 CDs with different works on them, all different, so there is a lot to discover. It’s like a world in a world, and there’s so many different aspects. That’s probably what they like : all of the pieces are very different. I don’t like to repeat myself.

Björk : Do you think it’s our duty to push everything to its limits, use everything that we have, like all the intelligence and all the time, and try out everything, especially if it is difficult, or do you think it’s more a question of just following one’s instincts, leaving out the things that don’t turn us on ?

Karlheinz Stockhausen : I am thinking at this moment of my children. I have six children, they are quite different. In particular there are two, who are the youngest by the way, who are still drawn into many different directions that concern taste, or excitement, and there is one son who is a trumpeter who tried at a certain moment a few years ago to become a spiritual teacher. To be a Yoga teacher and help other people who were desperate to cheer up and to believe in a better world, but then I told him there are enough preachers, and stick to your trumpet. It took him a few years before he came back to his trumpet, and now he seems to be concentrated and leaves out most of the things that are also possible for him. I could have been a teacher, an architect, a philosopher, a professor in God knows what amid many different faculties. I could be a gardener or a farmer very easily : I was a farm hand for a long time, for a year and a half of my life. I was in a car factory for a moment, and I liked that work as well, but I understood at the end of my studies, when I still was working on a doctorate and as a pianist I rehearsed four or five hours a day the piano, as a solo instrument. I played every night in a bar to make a living, but since I composed the first piece where I felt it sounded very different from all I know, I have concentrated on composition and I have missed almost everything that the world offers to me, other faculties, other ways of living as you’ve just said, excitement of all kinds, entertainment of all kinds. I have really concentrated day and night on that one very narrow aspect, composing and performing and correcting my scores and publishing my scores. And, for me, it was the right way. I cannot give general advice, because if one does not hear that inner call, one doesn’t do it. So you have to hear the call and then there is no question.

Björk : Yeah, it’s like where you can go furthest.

Karlheinz Stockhausen : I don’t know. I just think I couldn’t achieve anything that makes sense to myself if I don’t concentrate entirely on that one thing. So I miss a lot of what life has got to offer.

Björk : And learn how to sit in a chair.

Karlheinz Stockhausen : You know I conduct also, it’s not just sit in a chair. I conduct orchestras, choirs, rehearse a lot, and run around and set up speakers with the technicians and arrange all the rehearsals, so it’s not just sitting on a chair, but I know what you mean, yes, it’s concentrating on that one vocation.


Text : Desmond K. Hill

Stockhausen is one of the 20th Century’s most renowned composers, a dominant figure in Europe’s avantgarde who is synonymous with experimental music. A scientist and sound explorer, he was the first person to record electronic music and among the first to perform it live. He was appointed as Professor of Composition at Cologne Music College in 1970, and held the post for seven years. In 1990 he was awarded a Distinction by the Prix Ars Electronica jury. In more than 250 pieces and over 80 CD releases, Stockhausen’s challenging and complex music has always been the sound of tomorrow.

Born near Cologne in 1928, Stockhausen was orphaned during the war years, and pursued higher education under conditions in which he had to struggle to sustain material life. The piano had been his first instrument at school, and at the Cologne Hochschule für Musik he continued studying. Concurrently he enrolled at Cologne University in musicology, philology and philosophy classes. Eagerly he absorbed the work of contemporary composers Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartók, but it was not until he became acquainted with Webern’s music and that of the new generation of serialist composers at Darmstadt during the summer of 1951 that he found his own path and committed himself to making music.

In 1952 Stockhausen relocated to Paris to study composition. His studies in analysis were complemented by a thorough investigation of the physical nature of sounds. At the musique concrète studio of French radio, directed by Pierre Schaeffer, he penetrated the acoustic microworld of sounds and applied himself to electronic music on return to Cologne. At Cologne’s WDR studio Stockhausen challenged general understanding of compositional technique by recording oscillators and tone generators, literally the radio station’s signal testing equipment, to create sound patterns.

Stockhausen belongs to the first generation ever to hear music through the wireless. The immediacy of the tuning dial profoundly influenced him. He has written interpretive scores for short wave receivers, cultivating elegant methods to illustrate elaborate concepts. The intuitive music of Aus den sieben Tagen (1968) instructs performers to :

live completely alone for four days without food 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 just listen.

Allowing performers to infer themselves was a revolutionary gesture. A decoder of human technology, an author of concepts rather than compositions, Stockhausen has consistently experimented with the way that sound is perceived, almost to the point of grandiosity.

At the World Fair EXPO ’70 at Osaka, 20 performers recited Stockhausen’s work five hours a day for 180 days. In a metallic blue auditorium, pierced by tiny stars from light artist Otto Pien, visitors sat on ochrecoloured cushions on a sound-transparent platform at equator level. Soloists occupied balconies whilst Stockhausen operated the mixing desk, projecting sound from seven concentric rings and 55 loudspeakers, along circular and spiral paths. Over a million listeners immersed themselves in the experience, hearing the movement and forms of layered sounds.

Last year in Amsterdam the amplified strains of violins mixed with the beating of rotor-blades of helicopters, each carrying one member of a string quartet, rose in unison into the air. The strings mimicked the rotors, increasing in intensity as the crafts ascended. The helicopters turned and banked to change the pitch and speed of the whirring blades. On-board cameras beamed live pictures to the audience watching the performance on monitors positioned like a string quartet in the concert hall. Highly composed, with each component an intrinsic part of Helicopter Quartet, all were directed by Stockhausen from the ground.

At the frontier of composition and presentation, Stockhausen has always managed to locate a position from which to implement his ideas. When these could no longer be expressed conventionally he illustrated manuscripts with colours, lines, symbols. In his writing, Stockhausen has constantly related his music to abstract propositions of a religious nature. He has been widely active as a teacher, and involved in many performances of his own music since founding his Ensemble in 1964. Although academic conservatism and postmodernist critics have conspired against him, he has shunned expectation by buying the rights to his works. Stockhausen Verlag is gradually remastering and reissuing his own catalogue.

By introducing chance elements, Stockhausen liberated 20th Century composition from linearity and extended the established terrain of Western music. Absorbing spiritual impressions into the mainstream of artistic life, he has worked through intellect toward intuition, gathering together all the means available to the composer of the 20th Century. In the breadth of the synthesis achieved lies the justification for its grandeur. Stockhausen is the randomiser who has opened a myriad of musical doorways to an infinite universe of experience, life and thought.

publié dans Dazed & Confused n°23