This article by Asbjørn Blokkum Flø was originally published by Notam in the text collection Karlheinz Stockhausen, A Pioneer in Utopia in 2008.

The recycling of borrowed material in visual arts has a long tradition. The classic collage works from the early 20th century, by the likes of artists such as Picasso, Braque and Schwitters, can be seen as a continuation of an activity as old as the history of art itself. Naturally, the same can be said about the recycling of musical material. However, it wasn’t until the invention of audio recording at the end of the 19th century that the possibility of recycling concrete audio material arose. In Telemusik (1966) one can see how Stockhausen incorporates borrowed musical material in his electronic compositional structures for the first time and in Hymnen (1966-67) the use of such material would become much more explicit.

When borrowed material becomes as evident as it is in Hymnen, it contains a meaning of its own. Although the material is treated mainly as musical, with acoustic structures in certain ways reminiscent of the method from Telemusik, here layers of memories and meanings can be found to the degree that the material no longer is neutral. The surface of Jasper Johns’ well-known work Flag from the early 1950s is simply a depiction of an American flag, albeit done using a visually fascinating wax technique. However, it is clear that the American flag, then as now, carries many layers of meaning. Similarly, the use of national anthems in Hymnen is carried out by way of an especially fascinating compositional technique. These anthems also carry meanings in their own right, although with Stockhausen it is not an entirely clear-cut picture.

It may be a tall order to compose a two-hour work based on national anthems without being confronted with some political questions. In spite of this, it is hard to think of Hymnen as a work by a political activist, and this would also be rather uncharacteristic for Stockhausen as an artist. His former assistant, Cornelius Cardew, hence committed the ultimate parricide in his 133-page text Stockhausen Serves Imperialism1 from 1974. Despite having been deeply involved both in shaping the work Carré (1959-1960) and in the performance of several works in the 1960s, Cardew views Stockhausen as a tool of imperialism:

Stockhausen’s Refrain, the piece I have been asked to talk about, is a part of the cultural superstructure of the largest-scale system of human oppression and exploitation the world has ever known: imperialism. The way to attack the heart of that system is through attacking the manifestations of the system, not only the emanations from the American war machine in Vietnam, not only the emanations from Stockhausen’s mind, but also the infestations of this system in our own minds, as deep-rooted wrong ideas. And we must attack them not only on the superficial level, as physical cruelty or artistic nonsense or muddled thinking, but also on the fundamental level for what they are: manifestations of imperialism2.

In other words, contemporary art is imperialism’s weapon, and, as Cardew puts it in another part of the text, the ruling classes’ interest is to confuse and mislead the people. It is a little disputed fact that the classical music tradition from Gregorian chants and until the electronic avant-garde has always had close ties to the power elite, but to go from acknowledging this to describing radical music as an undermining force is more difficult. And what would the alternative be to this inaccessible art?

For Cardew, the alternative is to leave his modernistic compositions behind, and to cross over to a folk like style with Marxist lyrics, where titles such as Smash the Social Contract and There Is Only One Lie, There Is Only One Truth are quite telling. Cardew would now write songs for the people and for the time to come. The same mindset also existed in Norway, where several authors in the 1970s wished to write themselves into proletarian history through a number of publications issued by the Workers’ Communist Party’s (AKP) own publishing company, October. As the political climate gradually shifted during the 1970s, this odd cultural self-proletariatization was transformed into other forms.

In hindsight, musical modernism of the postwar period looks like an emancipatory and critical project rather than an undermining weapon in the service of imperialism, but Cardew’s article is descriptive of the radical political climate in the 60s and 70s left-wing environments. And Hymnen has political aspects, although not particularly activist. It is impossible to ignore a clear international tendency in the work, where new states grow into and out of one another as the various national anthems are transformed – while we observe them from a bird’s eye view: Musical objects flowing into and out of each other way down beneath us on the ground.

We find one example of such a transformation approximately halfway through the work, at Region II, where a rattling instrument gradually drops in pitch until it suddenly turns into the sound of a crowd of people. The sound then further transforms into the sound of ducks, which in turn bursts into a quacking Marseillaise! This form of time transformation is something we know well from Kontakte, but here the technique is re-contextualized. At Region III, 2. Zentrum we find another transformation, where national anthems from Japan, England and the USA (USA is the central entity in this region) are interwoven, and where for a short moment we can hear fragments of “Das Deutschland Lied”, written by Joseph Haydn.

Das Deutschland Lied” appears several times in Hymnen, and in Region II there is an addition, the so-called “Horst Wessel Lied”. It was a custom under the Third Reich to sing The Horst Wessel song after “Das Deutschland Lied”. Stockhausen was urged by WDR’s Department for Contemporary Music to scrap this part, and he comments on this later in the work in the role of the narrator. To Stockhausen, this was just a memory.3

It is hard to imagine that this is as trifling as Stockhausen presents it – “nur eine Erinnerung”. World War II was no more than 20 years in the past, and the period that Stockhausen points to here, the epoch of the Third Reich, had culminated with a humanitarian and national catastrophe. On a personal level, Stockhausen had been orphaned (his mother died under suspicious circumstances at a mental hospital and his father died on the front), and this must have made a strong impression on him.

He himself speaks of his time spent at the front, where toward the end of the war he worked in a field hospital and daily witnessed seeing thousands of dead and wounded as an “outstanding political education” against all ideological thinking.4 It is, perhaps, during this period that Stockhausen also discovered his internationalist tendencies. Another German in Stockhausen’s generation who has spent a large part of his authorship processing precisely this chapter of Germany’s history is Günter Grass. His memories5 from life as a child and youth in the Third Reich are also central to his work.6

Memories from Stockhausen’s own life return as parts of the libretto in the opera cycle Licht, and in, for instance, Michaels Reise um die Erde (1978) from Donnerstag aus Licht we join the main character Michael on a musical voyage around the world starting in Cologne via New York, Japan, Bali, India and central Africa to Jerusalem – a composition which in many ways reminds one of Stockhausen’s use of international musical elements in Telemusik and Hymnen.

We have seen how Stockhausen in Telemusik opened up the composition methods from the more restrictive serialist techniques he employed in the 1950s, and moved towards a looser, yet structured form. In Hymnen, the foreground is made up of large musical objects in the form of national anthems, and these musical objects are charged with meaning. Still, Hymnen is not political art with big, heavy-handed headlines, but rather intimations and memories weaved into a complex, musical and electronic web.

Whereas the works from the 1950s were short and concise musical pearls, Hymnen is a two-hour long, constantly shifting stream of sound and information. Granted one has the ability to delve into the work, one of the most remarkable listening experiences in the history of music lies in wait.

Translated by Notto Thelle

  1. Cornelius Cardew, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (London: Latimer New Dimensions Limited 1974)
  2. C. Cardew, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, p. 47.
  3. Karlheinz Stockhausen, Realisation of HYMNEN, from the cover text of Stockhausen CD 10 A-B (Kürten: Stockhausen-Verlag 1995) p. 164.
  4. Karlheinz Stockhausen, Stockhausen on music. (London, New York: Marion Boyars 1989) p. 21.
  5. Günter Grass, Når løken skrelles (Peeling the Onion). (Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag AS 2007).
  6. A lot of international commotion was stirred when Günter Grass in the book Peeling the Onion from 2006 revealed that he himself had been an SS soldier during the last days of the war, and many people voiced the opinion that he, because of this, had lost all credibility as a moral critic.