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Crosscurrents in Elektronische Musik from Germany

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

In the previous episode, we explored early examples of electronic tape music created in France in the style of musique concrete. Now we turn our attention to vintage tape music created in Germany during the same period, the early 1950s. This was a time, as you know, that tape composition was at the forefront of electronic music composition and state-sponsored, university, and institutional studios were cropping up around the world. If one wanted to experiment with this type of music, you generally needed to be affiliated with an institution to make that happen. This was the state of the field until the early 1970s when synthesizers and tape machines became affordable to even an independent musician.

Whereas the French had been dabbling in musique concrète for several years, the Germans took a more cautious approach. The catalyst for German electronic music was a thinker from the world of information science, Dr. Werner Meyer-Eppler, a physicist who took an interest in the development of instruments for electrically creating musical sound. In 1949, Meyer-Eppler published the book in which he outlined the development of electronic music technology up until that time. Also, around this time, another German composer named Herbert Eimert became interested in electronic musical instruments as an evolution of serialism, a mathematically governed composition process with roots in 20th-century Austria and Germany. He conceived electronic music as a new frontier, a source of originality that could stand on its own, disconnected from the cultural traditions of his war-torn country. To them, electronic music represented a fresh start. The link between Meyer-Eppler and Eimert was a sound engineer named Robert Beyer and together they collaborated on establishing an electronic music studio in Cologne funded by the government broadcasting system the Northwest German Broadcasting (NWDR and later WDR). The first director of the studio was Eimert.

For several years, there was a palpable friction between the French and German schools of electronic music. Not only was there a cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States but one between the Cologne studio and the French studio. The aesthetic starting points of each were completely different. Whereas the French worked with concrete sounds that they transformed using the tape medium, the Germans at first produced sounds that were only electronic, that could not be recorded with a microphone. Pierre Schaeffer, the head of the French studio, once recalled that although they had literally driven back the German invasion during World War II, they had not yet driven back the invasion of Austrian music: serialist and 12-tone music. Musique concrète purposefully veered from anything suggestive of Germanic traditions.

So, Germany pursued a slightly different approach for several years. They called it Elektronische Musik or, in English, Electronic music. The primary differences between the French and German schools were the approach taken and the methods used: how a work of electronic music was composed and the sources of sounds employed. The French transformed acoustic sounds and doctored them using tape effects; the Germans used electronic sound sources and followed a serialist approach to composition for several years. By the end of the 1950s, however, both so-called schools had relinquished what could only be called a dogmatic approach to composing and ventured into more freewheeling expressions in sound.

In the early days, because the German studio leaned towards serialism, it was equipped with tone-generating devices and filters, reflecting the German interest in working directly with the physics of musical tone production. Among the tools at their disposal were several tone-generating electronic musical instruments. One such instrument was the Monochord—an updated version of the monophonic Trautonium built especially for the Cologne studio by Friedrich Trautwein. The NWDR also had a Melochord, originally built by Harald Bode in 1947 for Meyer-Eppler to use during his physics lectures and demonstrations. The Melochord had two monophonic tone-generating systems that were separately controlled using a split, five-octave keyboard for which the upper three octaves could be assigned to one tone generator and the lower two octaves to another. Two notes could be played at a time. It also had controls for shaping the attack, sustain, and decay envelopes of the sound. In 1953, the NWDR studio commissioned Bode to build a second Melochord for them. The new model had two separate keyboards. Another new feature was the ability to control the filter from the keyboard, adjusting the timbre of the sound. One could, for example, maintain a steady pitch and only change the tone color.

The Melochord was capable of generating stable and relatively unadorned sine waves, making it a valuable tool for composers. Like latter monophonic synthesizers, in order to use the Melochord for additive synthesis they had to build the works using multiple tracks of tape and then start the synchronization and the montage work.

For this episode, I am going to play in roughly chronological order several works from the German studio from the 1950s. The playlist for this podcast contains an abundance of details about these works, so please refer to that for a history of some of the more significant works.

What you will hear is the progression of German electronic music through three stages: musique concrete with works by Riedl and Stockhausen, serialist compositions using only electronic tones by Stockhausen, Eimert, Koenig, and Heiss and finally a broadening of the sound palette to include electronic sounds as well as sounds recorded with microphones, represented by works from Stockhausen, Eimert, and Kagel.

By the latter 1950s, you will witness some of the landmark compositions of this medium, Stockhausen’s Gesang Der Jünglinge and Kontakte, as well as Mauricio Kagel’s Transicion I. Stockhausen is all over this episode, but so are five other composers and you will hear some works that are much less known than the ones by Stockhausen.

Episode 97

Crosscurrents in Elektronische Musik from Germany


1. Josef Anton Riedl, “Studie 1b, 1a” (1951) from Zeitgenössische Musik In Der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 3 (1950-1960) (1982 Deutscher Musikrat). Early example of German tape composition, categorized as musique concrète as it includes more than purely electronic sounds, but the edited and processed sounds of human voices and instruments (a harp, string bass) as well. But it’s the vocal utterances and the way they were edited for effect with unpredictable silences that makes this work stand out for me. Riedl completed this after visiting and hearing musique concrète in France. After that, the Cologne studio came into existence and provided a new means to create electronic music not with microphones, but directly through electronic signals on tape. Riedl switched from making musique concrète to elektronische music. Realization by Riedl in association with the Studio für elektronische Musik des Westdeutschen Rundfunks, Köln (WDR, West German Radio in Cologne). 5:34

2. Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Étude” (1952) from Elektronische Musik 1952-1960 (1991 Stockhausen Verlag). Realized by Stockhausen during a stay to ORTF, Paris, where he learned the basics of musique concrète, which is how he categorized the piece before working purely electronic music at WDR. 2:56

3. Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Studie I” (1953) from Elektronische Musik 1952-1960 (1991 Stockhausen Verlag). One of two purely electronic “studies” composed by Stockhausen at the WDR. His serialist approach dictated all aspects of the sound and he composed the works using a graphical approach to depict the shapes and values of the volume, duration, pitch, and timbres of the sound. “Studie I” is among the first works of electronic music composed entirely for sine waves. Although the means for creating “Studie I” are readily available today using computer synthesis, its composition in 1953 required much manual intervention and ingenuity by Stockhausen. “Studie I” was a completely serialized composition in which the composer applied the mathematical analysis of tones and timbres to the way in which he generated, shaped, and edited sounds for a tape composition. With electronic tone generators and tape recorders at his disposal, Stockhausen felt that it was possible to “compose, in the true sense of the word, the timbres in music,” allowing him to synthesize from base elements such as sine waves the structure of a composition, its tone selection, and all of the audio dynamics such as amplitude, attack, duration, and the timbre of the sounds. He approached the composition by first recording a series of electronic tones that met certain pitch and timbral requirements that he prescribed and then using serial techniques to devise an organizational plan that determined the order and duration of the sounds as he edited them together. 9:23

4. Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Studie II” (1954) from Elektronische Musik 1952-1960 (1991 Stockhausen Verlag). The second of two purely electronic “studies” composed by Stockhausen at the WDR. For “Studie II,” Stockhausen extended his experiments with sine waves begun on “Studie I” by exploring the use of attack and decay characteristics as elements of composition. “Studie II” is one of the first post-war tape works to have a written score, albeit a graphic one in which overlapping translucent geometric shapes are used to denote the occurrence of a tone of a given amplitude in a given frequency with specific attack and decay characteristics. For “Studie II,” Stockhausen defined a set of frequencies based on the same ratio, resulting in an 81-tone scale of tones divided into one-tenth octave steps. The loudness and attack characteristics of the tones were divided into five stages. Tones based on such equal divisions of the frequency spectrum proved to be more harmonic when mixed. Stockhausen recorded short passages of the given tones and spliced them together in a loop that could be played repeatedly. These loops were then played through a reverberation system and then recorded to provide the final material with which the composer worked. Stockhausen’s extensive use of reverberation added body and a noise quality to the sounds that embellished the raw sine tones. Using serial techniques to determine how to edit the material together, Stockhausen varied the attack characteristics and then also played some of the sounds backward to create a ramping decay that would abruptly cut off. His application of attack and decay characteristics in five prescribed stages of amplitude resulted in passages that were highly articulated by cascading, irregular rhythms. 2:59

5. Herbert Eimert, “Fünf Stücke” (1955/56) from Zeitgenössische Musik In Der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 3 (1950-1960) (1982 Deutscher Musikrat). Realization, H. Schütz, Herbert Eimert. Produced in the WDR studios, Cologne. Like Pierre Schaffer in France, Eimert had a background in creating music and sound for radio. He was one of the founding directors of the Cologne studio. Of the works included here, this one is a good example of his serialist approach that incorporated constantly changing combinations of defined sounds. 12:31

6. Gottfried Michael Koenig, “Klangfiguren II” (1955/56) from Zeitgenössische Musik In Der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 3 (1950-1960) (1982 Deutscher Musikrat). Realization by Gottfried Michael Koenig. Produced in the WDR studios,Cologne. Koenig was with the WDR Studio for ten years from 1954 to 1964. There he experienced the fundamental aspects of creating works with electronic sound devices, most of which had never been intended to make music. His work led him directly to computer music composition in the 1960s. In “Klangfiguren II” “every sound goes through several working steps, and both the original sound and the various intermediate results of the transformation process are heard.” 10:13

7. Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Gesang Der Jünglinge” (1955/56) from Zeitgenössische Musik In Der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 3 (1950-1960) (1982 Deutscher Musikrat). Realization by Gottfried Michael Koenig, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Produced in the WDR studios, Cologne. “Gesang der Jünglinge” was begun three years before Varèse completed “Poème électronique.” Like the Varèse work, “Gesang der Jünglinge” was produced using a host of electronic music production techniques cultivated earlier at the WDR studios. Stockhausen’s approach was to fuse the sonic components of recorded passages of a youth choir with equivalent tones and timbres produced electronically. Stylistically, Stockhausen avoided the choppy, sharply contrasting effects that were so evident in many early magnetic tape pieces, instead weaving his sound sources together into a single, fluid musical element. He practiced his newly formed principles of electronic music composition, setting forth a plan that required the modification of the “speed, length, loudness, softness, density and complexity, the width and narrowness of pitch intervals and differentiations of timbre” in an exact and precise manner. The piece was painstakingly crafted from a visual score specifying the placement of sounds and their dynamic elements over the course of the work 13:03

8. Hermann Heiss, “Elektronische Komposition 1” (1956) from Zeitgenössische Musik In Der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 3 (1950-1960) (1982 Deutscher Musikrat). Realization by H. Schütz, Hermann Heiss. Produced in the WDR studios,Cologne.One does not often hear the name Heiss in relation to electronic music, although he went on the direct the Studio für Elektronische Komposition at the Kranichstein Music Instutute. At the time of this composition, he was focused on adapting electronic sounds to serial composition, for which he thought they were ideally suited. 5:11

9. Herbert Eimert, “Selection I” (1959) from Panorama Électronique: Electronic Experimental Music (1968 Limelight). For electronic and concrete sounds. 10:03

10.Herbert Eimert, “Sechs Studien” from Epitaph Für Aikichi Kuboyama (2005 Creel Pone). “Sechs Studien” was composed 1962 & realized by Leopold von Knobelsdorff and released in 1962 on the Wergo label. For electronic and concrete sounds. Interestingly, Eimert was also branching out with the addition of keyboards and what sounds like a theremin (although it might have been an Ondes martenot). The WDR studio had a keyboard instrument built by Harald Bode in 1953, the Melochord, along with a a Monochard made by Friedrich Trautwein. 17:48

11.Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Kontakte”(1959-60), parts 1 and 2 from the album Gesang Der Jünglinge / Kontakte (1962 Deutsche Grammophon). Composed and realized by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Produced in the WDR studios,Cologne. This work was adapted for phonograph from a 4-track original tape composition. Given that the album could only hold about 25 minutes of sound per side, they divided this piece in two and presented it as parts 1 and 2. I’ve joined the two parts together for the podcast. Note the experiments in sound movement between the speakers, a facet of electronic music about which Stockhausen was captivated. Around this time, he began using contraptions invented for the Cologne studio that would, for example, rotate a loudspeaker in space from which fixed microphones could pick up fluctuating signals based on the frequency of the speaker rotation. He would eventually use this same technique with live performances and 4 or more speakers to enable the sound to, in effect, rotate around the audience. By the time her wrote the liner notes for this recoding in 1962, he had “publicly performed” the work “more than thirty times in all large European cities as well as in Canada, the USA, and Brazil, and broadcast by most radio stations in both versions” (stereo and radio mixes). Stockhausen’s sound palette had also grown more sophisticated by this point and contained many seemingly organic elements that stood out from the earlier, purely electronic music output of the WDR. It is also one of his last electronic works to exploit “total serialism” in which he painstakingly composed around the parameters of sound to “bring all properties” such as timbre, pitch, intensity, and duration under a single control." In 1981, music scholar David Toop looked back on this work and noted that Kontakte was really the culmination of Stockhausen’s attempts to apply serialism technique to electronic music and succeeded only at the broadest level. Many other composers by this time had discovered that the fundamental nature of electronic music was to deal with the basic elements of sound and calling it serialism seemed quite meaningless. After all, the structures and tonalities were only as interesting as the listener found them to be. In his case, Stockhausen’s uniquely vibrant and organic music, tinged with introspection and shocking contrasts, provided an emotional impact that serialism had never intended. Don’t miss hearing the sequence beginning around 17 minutes in that presents a sequence of pulsing electronic tones that are sped up, at first, to sound like a smooth waveform but then lowered in frequency so that you hear the component particles and beats that comprise the faster tone. This was quite a trick using tape manipulation, probably requiring several playbacks of the sound at different speeds and then some eloquent mixing to join the pieces together. 34:33

12.Mauricio Kagel, “Transicion I” (1958) from Panorama Électronique: Electronic Experimental Music (1968 Limelight). This is one of several reissues of the work that was originally released by Philips (who owned Limelight, its US label). I have several versions of this work and this was in the best shape. Realization by Gottfried Michael Koenig, Mauricio Kagel. Produced in the WDR studios, Cologne. “Transicion I” for electronic sounds (1958) was composed when Kagel first traveled to Cologne, where he remained for the rest of his career. Clearly influenced by the Cologne school of serialism, “Transicion II” was characterized by an exploration of the many aural possibilities of his sound sources set to an arrhythmic, seemingly formless sequence of sonic exclamations without pattern. These works were similar in effect to some of Stockhausen’s instrumental pieces of the same period, but radically different from the German’s evolving approach to methodical tape composition. 12:49

Opening background music: Four short sections of “Kontakte” (1959-60) from Elektronische Musik 1952-1960 (1991 Stockhausen Verlag). These are not presented in their original order, but comprise Struktur parts 11, 12, 13a and 13b. the CD release on Stockhausen Verlag presents “Kontakte” not a one uniform track but as a set of parts originally created and edited together by Stockhausen.

Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

See my companion blog that I write for the Bob Moog Foundation.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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