Telemusik – a system of planetary order

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

In Dag Solstad’s existential novel T. Singer from 1999, we follow the trivial everyday life of the main character, T. Singer, whose main goal in life consists of withdrawing from life. But before he has accomplished this we meet him when he is a daydreaming student at the University of Oslo, where he struggles with the first sentence of a book in an attempt at becoming an author that never winds up going anywhere:

His whole attempt at becoming an author ultimately boiled down to the polishing of one sentence: “One fine day he stood eye to eye with a memorable sight.” This sentence came to him when he was 20 years old, and in the following years, in all his years as a young man, he pondered and rewrote this sentence. “One fine day he stood eye to eye with a memorable sight.” Why a fine day? Did it have to be a fine day? Couldn’t it be a horrible day, a day with a blizzard, for instance? “A memorable sight in a blizzard.” Yes, a memorable sight in a blizzard. But what sort of blizzard? What did he see, what was he standing eye to eye with?1

Page by page, Solstad’s novel continues in this fashion as the years in T. Singer’s life go by, much in the same way as Sartre’s high school teacher Mathieu Delaure mercilessly approaches old age.

And much in the same way did the work on this article begin. My somewhat vaguely defined problem was to examine how Stockhausen could go from the extremely strict serial structures in his music in the 50s to two hours of free radio drama in Hymnen seven years later. My whole attempt at the beginning of writing this article ultimately culminated in the polishing of one sentence: “At the start of the 60s, Stockhausen could look back at an incredibly creative and revolutionary decade unparalleled in music history.”

This sentence came to me at the beginning, and in the following days, toward the end of a chilly autumn month, I pondered and rewrote this sentence. “At the start of the 60s, Stockhausen could look back at an incredibly creative and revolutionary decade unparalleled in music history.” Why was it an incredibly creative and revolutionary decade? Did it have to be a revolutionary decade? Couldn’t it simply be a decade characterized by the German Wirtschaftwunder? Or, what about “marvellous decade where he himself had been at the centre of a development unparalleled in the history of music?” Because precisely the fact that it was he himself that had been at the centre of this now marvellous decade, literally on the ruins of a bombed-out Europe, is important. And lest we forget, he was very young:

“At the start of the 60s, Stockhausen could look back at marvellous decade where he as a young man in his twenties was at the centre of a development of music that is hard to find a parallel to in the history of music.”

No, this isn’t going anywhere. Upon completing Kontakte in 1960, Stockhausen had written an electronic serialist masterpiece. Six years later he wrote Telemusik – a work based on audio recordings of folk music and temple instruments. What compositional strategies lay at the foundation for this transformation? It could, of course, be the case that this was due to a change that took place overnight.

Perhaps the festivities were especially heavy after the world premiere of Kontakte on July 11, 1960? In that case, one could imagine the following: “When Karlheinz Stockhausen was awakened by restless dreams on the morning of July 12, 1960, he found himself transformed into a man of the 60s. He lay with his back on a tie-dyed sheet, and when he raised his head, he saw his puffy rainbow-colored shirt, divided into curved ornaments, where the blanket on top hardly managed to stay put, but threatened to slide down completely. ‘What has happened to me,’ he thought. It was no dream. In his room, which was real but just a little bit too small for a normal-sized room for a person, he lay quietly between the four familiar walls. The 50s were over.”

This fictional scene is not helping us either. Therefore, let’s go six years forward in time to Tokyo in January 1966.

A vision of sounds, formal relations, human relations
At the beginning of his stay in Japan in 1966, Stockhausen had what he called a “Vision”. For several days he had been sleepless due to jetlag while simultaneously working long days in the Studio for Electronic Music at the Japanese radio station NHK in Tokyo with no results. An unfamiliar culture, work environment and technical equipment probably took its toll. In this state of mind he had a vision of sounds, technical processes, formal relationships, pictures of notation, human relationships, etc. All of this in a network too entangled to be wound up into one process.2 And it was no little vision he had had, and not whatever type of music:

In all this I wanted to come closer to the relationship of an old and recurrent dream: To take a step further in the direction of composing not “my” music, but a music of the whole Earth, of all countries and all races.3

The topic of this quote is Telemusik (1966). This is a work where music for the entire globe is to be composed, music from all countries and all races, the ultimate international music.

Compared to the works from the 50s where everything is serially structured, e.g. the attack and sustain of synthetic spectra (Studie II), electronic timbre continuums that coincide with speech sounds (Gesang der Jünglinge), and pulse trains on a sliding scale, from durations through pitch to timbre (Kontakte) – Telemusik is far more freely structured. This is not to imply that Telemusik lacks compositional structure, quite the contrary. An oft-recurring technique in Stockhausen’s compositions is the use of the so-called Fibonacci sequence. In works such as Zyklus, Klavierstück IX, Stop, Mikrophonie II and Adieu, Stockhausen has made use of this sequence of numbers4. Put simply, a Fibonacci sequence is a sequence of numbers where each number is the sum of the two previous numbers (after the two initial numbers 0 and 1). The first thirteen numbers in the Fibonacci sequence would then be 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 and 144. Applications of the Fibonacci sequence closely corresponds to one of the most central proportions in the history of art often referred to as the golden section.

Cosmic proportions and relationships
The golden section is a proportion you get if you “have a line divided into two unequal parts”, as Plato urges in The Republic. The reason Plato couldn’t reveal what the golden section was, other than in the form of a puzzle, was that he was sworn to a Pythagorean oath. This was secret knowledge of the inner workings of nature. The golden section is the proportion one gets if one divides a line into unequal parts, and the longest part has the same ratio to the whole line as the shortest part has to the longest part. The number phi (1.6180339…) could then correspond to the whole line, 1 corresponds to the longest part, and 0.6180339… (the so-called small phi – 1/1.6180339…) corresponds to the shortest part.

The golden section can be transferred from a line to a plane, and can for instance be seen in the proportions of the sides of a pentagram (a five-pointed star that according to folklore has magical qualities). Plato viewed these kinds of continual geometrical proportions as the deepest cosmic bonds, and in Timaeus the world’s soul is held together precisely through such series of proportions. Perhaps this reasoning was not altogether unfamiliar to Stockhausen when referring to sound as the oscillation of atoms, and for example in the work Stimmung as “cosmic music”5.

The ratios of the golden section.

The Fibonacci sequence is named after Leonardo Fibonacci, who in his book Liber Abaci from the early 13th century used it to describe the rate of growth in a rabbit population. The sequence occurs when one adds together the two previous numbers; e.g. the numbers 3, 5 and 8 are made up as follows: 3 (1+2), 5 (3+2) and 8 (5+3). If one on the other hand divides the numbers in the Fibonacci sequence with each other, one will gradually come closer to the ratio in the golden section, the number phi (1.6180339…): 5/3 (1.66666), 8/5 (1.6), 13/8 (1.625), and with an inverse operation one will gradually get closer to the small phi (0.6180339…): 3/5 (0.6), 5/8 (0.625), 8/13 (0.6154). The correspondence between the Fibonacci sequence and the golden section gradually becomes more accurate the higher up in the Fibonacci sequence one goes, and using this sequence as a starting point enables one to build complex optical structures.

The fact that Fibonacci used this number sequence to describe a natural phenomenon is no coincidence, and it can be found in everything from chemical relationships to the distribution of shell segments on a turtle. In light of this knowledge, it may perhaps be fitting to say that the central role that the Fibonacci sequence and the golden section has had in cultural history is reminiscent of the last few decades’ preoccupation with fractals as found expressed in the Mandelbrot set, where one can zoom in along the edge and continually find smaller copies of the Mandelbrot set itself – a self-similarity and symmetry also found in various applications of the golden section and the Fibonacci sequence. Fractals can display an infinite number of variations, but with similar patterns, and describe anything from plants, clouds, mountain ranges, lightning and coastal lines to snow crystals. Since the 80s, fractals have frequently been used as structural elements in contemporary music.

Number mysticism and cultural applications of ratios
Music history is full of number mysticism. Throughout history, the Fibonacci sequence and the golden section has been utilized in everything from Egyptian architecture to painting (e.g. Leonardo da Vinci’s pictures) and music. A well-known example from music history is the composer Guillaume Dufay’s motet Vasilissa ergo gaude from the 15th century, where the structure of the whole work is based on the golden section.

We also find the Fibonacci sequence and the golden section in the French architect Le Corbusier’s work. His scale of proportions, Modulor, falls in with a long tradition where mathematic proportions in the human body are utilized to improve the form and function of architecture.

Our “magic square”, the Fibonacci sequence, has been much used in 20th century music, e.g. in Claude Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau from the piano composition Images, where the succession of keys is guided by intervals from a Fibonacci sequence, or in the third movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, where the opening passage utilizes a rhythm based on a Fibonacci sequence. Incidentally, Bartók’s use of the golden section and the Fibonacci sequence is well documented by the theorist Erno Lendvai in his 1953 article “An Introduction to Bartók’s World of Form and Harmony6. Stockhausen also showed a keen interest in Bartók during this period, and wrote a 186-page analysis of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion for his final exam in 1951, so it’s fair to assume that he was aware of Bartók’s use of the golden section and the Fibonacci sequence.

In Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel Doctor Faustus, he describes a so-called magic square, which in this novel could symbolize the Faust Legend’s magical attraction and demise – Faust sells his soul to the Devil. However, the square could also point to musical mathematical construction7, as we find, for instance, in Schönberg’s 12-tone technique.

On the wall above the piano was an arithmetical diagram fastened with drawing-pins, something he had found in a second-hand shop: a so-called magic square, such as appears also in Dürer’s Melancolia, along with the hour-glass, the circle, the scale, the polyhedron, and other symbols. Here as there, the figure was divided into sixteen Arabic-numbered fields, in such a way that number one was in the right-hand lower corner, sixteen in the upper left; and the magic, or the oddity, simply consisted in the fact that the sum of these numerals, however you added them, straight down, crosswise, or diagonally, always came to thirty-four. What the principle was upon which this magic uniformity rested I never made out, but by virtue of the prominent place Adrian had given it over the piano, it always attracted the eye, and I believe I never visited his room without giving a quick glance, slanting up or straight down and testing once more the invariable, incredible result.8

An example of a magic square of the kind Mann describes in Doctor Faustus, where all lines horizontally, vertically and diagonally yield the same sum: 34.

This use of magical combinations of numbers, proportions and conversions is, as mentioned earlier, as ancient as the history of composition itself, and has fascinated composers from Pérotin’s 13th century organum through Bach’s Kunst der Fuge and all the way to our time.

As of the 60s, Stockhausen no longer had any desire to serially structure every component of the composition from the sound’s spectrum to the work’s form, as is evident in his electronic works from the 50s. There is, nevertheless, a clear structure in Telemusik; the basic structure consists of durations, and they are taken directly from the Fibonacci sequence. Telemusik consists of 32 so-called structures, or “moments” as Stockhausen also calls them. Every structure is a segment varying from 13 to 144 seconds, and every part opens with the stroke of one of six various Japanese ceremonial percussive instruments, where the instruments with the shortest duration introduce the short structures, and the instruments with the longest decay introduces the long structures.

In this way the structure of the composition becomes very clear, and the introductory percussive sound also gives us an idea of the length of the segment’s duration. Each new attack signals the passage of time, and a change to a new form of modulation and timbre. The structure’s duration is simply taken from the Fibonacci sequence and translated into seconds. The number of times each duration is to be repeated is also multiplied by a number from the Fibonacci sequence, thus leaving us with 32 structures. The duration of the structures vary somewhat, and the number of times each variant is played is also taken from the Fibonacci sequence.

34534 (X2)353637
21821 (X3)22 (X3)23 (X2)
131313 (X5)14 (X8)
Structures in Telemusik corresponding to the Fibonacci sequence9.

Thus there are 32 structures, which in turn have subdivisions in time determined by the Fibonacci sequence in such a way that structure 22, for instance, is subdivided into the following durations: 34, 21, 13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 1 (though not in that order)10. Here we accordingly see that our “magic square”, the Fibonacci sequence, exists on all levels in the structure of durations in Telemusik – from a macro to a micro level. We have in other words revealed Stockhausen’s “magic square”, and this naturally raises the question of whether it is audible. Let’s go back to the composer Leverkühn and his endless discussions of music with the book’s narrator and protagonist, Serenus Zeitblom, a withdrawn and composed, but perhaps somewhat dull academic:

“[…] The decisive factor is that every note, without exception, has significance and function according to its place in the basic series or its derivatives. That would guarantee what I call the indifference to harmony and melody.”

“A magic square,” I said. “But do you hope to have people hear all that?”

“Hear?” he countered. “Do you remember a certain lecture given for the Society for the Common Weal from which it followed that in music one certainly need not hear everything? If by ’hearing’ you understand the precise realization in detail of the means by which the highest and strictest order is achieved, like a system of planetary order – no, that way one would not hear it. But this order one will or would hear, and the perception of it would afford an unknown aesthetic satisfaction.”11

“A system of planetary order” is no doubt something that Stockhausen is rather familiar with, and it is precisely this feeling of an underlying order we notice in Telemusik. One does not necessarily perceive the various time units in Telemusik, and for instance nod one’s head knowingly after five minutes and say: “Yes, there we have the fourth step in structure number fifteen”, but it should be possible to sense the existence of an underlying order. The fact that the structures are pronounced to this extent (due to both varying material and each structure starting with a percussive stroke) also contributes to structuring the listening to otherwise multitudinous material, especially seen in comparison to the pure expression in the earlier electronic compositions where the sounding material was synthetic and serially produced. All in all, it’s fair to say that this Chinese box of temporal proportions derived from the Fibonacci sequence helps focus the listening in an otherwise discursive auditory experience.

Borrowed “flashbacks” from own compositions
Something that completely separates Telemusik from the earlier electronic music form the 50s is the use of borrowed material. Certainly, samples of a boy’s voice was used in Gesang der Jünglinge, but these were pre-composed speech sounds that were placed into a matrix of timbre continuums and linguistic meanings, whereas in Telemusik borrowed musical material is used directly. In 1966, however, the use of borrowed material was no longer alien to Stockhausen.

He had already quoted from his own music in the performance work Originale – Musical theater with Kontakte in 1961. Originale is a classic 60s performance where the cast, among others, consists of a street musician, a lady of fashion, a cameraman and a newspaper vendor. Among the performers we find David Tudor, Christoph Caskel and Nam June Paik. In this work, music from Kontakte is used in a 90-minute theatre performance. This was an attempt at the reuse of music for scenic purposes. However, four years later in the work Mikrophonie II, Stockhausen includes with the score a tape that plays back direct quotes from works such as Gesang der Jünglinge, Carré and Momente in what he calls “time-windows”, or what in film jargon is referred to as “flashbacks”.

This employment of quotes from his own works is something we find again in Prozession from 1967, where the performers simply are given general structural guidelines in the score and they themselves must choose which earlier works by Stockhausen to use as material. In other words, quotes of various kinds had already found their place in Stockhausen’s music prior to Telemusik, but it was not until Telemusik that these quotes were given a structurally integrated function in the composition.

The utilization of external material in Telemusik turned out to have an impact on Stockhausen’s subsequent works, and in Kurzwellen, Spiral, Pole and Expo, which were written in the period 1968-1970, borrowed material in the form of shortwave radios is an important element. The shortwave radio also plays a key role in the works Stop, Adieu and Trans from the same period, although here simulated in the instrumental music. One would think that the use of radio had an extra dimension, owing to the fact that Stockhausen had experienced radio as an instrument of propaganda in Germany from 1933 to 1945, but this is something that the composer considers to be of little importance.12 In addition to these works, where the radio is central, borrowed material is naturally a central element in the two-hour long Hymnen (1966-67).

The material in Telemusik originates from all over the world and consists of various forms of classical music, folk music and ritual music from places such as Japan (where emphasis is placed), Spain, Hungary, Vietnam, the Amazon, China, Bali and Africa. The range is varied, and among other things we find traditional Gagaku music, music from the Japanese Kabuki theatre, singing Japanese monks from the Kohyasan temple, Japanese conch trumpets, singing Japanese monks accompanied by traditional Japanese Geta wooden shoes (!), music from the Balinese traditional Baris dance from, flamenco and other music from Spain, and music from a rite of passage for young girls of the Shipibo people in the Amazon.

However, this is by no means a form of synthetic “world music” per se, where one would for instance paste together a rhythm from an Indian tabla solo with a melody from an Irish jig, and add some synthesizer sounds on top for the perfect marketable result. The elements are instead viewed as “pure” musical material – various oscillatory models that are transferred to the electronic timbre development rather than used as cultural collection items. The elements are seen as neutral, universal acoustic principles with various kinds of pulses, interferences and transitions, and are used as global musical primordial forms, or “a music of the whole Earth”, as Stockhausen himself puts it. This idea of a global music is something that Stockhausen revisits in works such as Hymnen (1966-67) and Michaels Reise um die Erde (1978) from Donnerstag aus Licht.

The composer as a medium
It is hard to derive any political agenda from Stockhausen’s use of borrowed material in Telemusik. Yet, one can pick up an international tendency in the work, and the use of material from Vietnam naturally had special meaning for listeners in 1966:

I am certain you will hear them in Telemusik, these mysterious visitors: […] From the Vietnamese highlands, about whom I read gruesome and distorted news every morning in an American-Japanese newspaper in the hotel; and again from Vietnam, and even more enchantment from Vietnam (what a wonderful people!) – (I landed in Saigon and saw the clouds of smoke rising right next to the airport, and the military and the bombers and the terrified eyes)13

In other words, Stockhausen is clearly influenced by the war in Vietnam. However, we don’t find any concrete political quotes, as we do, for instance, in Steve Reich’s electronic civil rights work Come Out from the same period. The sound primarily acts as a structure, and the music from various parts of the world are “guests” in the electronic music:

They all wanted to participate in Telemusik, sometimes simultaneously and interpenetrating each other. I had my hands full in keeping a new and unknown sound world of the electronic music open to these guests: they should feel “at home”, not “integrated” through some administrative act, but rather, really united by free encounters of their spirits.14

In this quote, the composer almost appears to be a “medium” that lets various musical elements from all of the world’s music enter the work to find their place, and this is a far cry from the serially defined pulse trains as we find them in Kontakte.

In 1991, the Danish vicar and composer Jørgen Lekfeldt published the book Sölle og Stockhausen – musikkens teologi og teologiens musik, where he makes a comparison between the German theologian Dorothee Sölle and Stockhausen. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds, considering both Sölle and Stockhausen both grew up in the same spiritual climate in postwar Germany. When Stockhausen’s frequent use of religious elements in his composition, from the Catholic text in Gesang der Jünglinge, through the magic names in Stimmung, and the whole spiritual universe in the 29-hour opera cycle Licht, is brought to mind, it becomes clear that Stockhausen’s Catholic background and religious worldview has been central to him as a composer. (This is only in a slightly less sober way than with his teacher, Olivier Messiaen.) In any case, Jørgen Lekfeldt claims in his book that by the inclusion of musical elements from Vietnam, Stockhausen included an explicit message in the music:

Precisely in these works [Telemusik and Hymnen], where the interplay between quotes and original material and the interplay between the quotes internally is easily followed, the idea of connection and equal status, of a ”free meeting”, will clearly stand out in the music itself. What Stockhausen has meant by the repeated use of Vietnamese music in Telemusik is immediately understandable – or was at least in the first nine years after the work’s creation. The quotes are not treated as objects, but as subjects: they become pictures of individuals in a context.15

The problem with viewing this borrowed material in Telemusik as a political commentary is that we, after the material has gone through a sufficient amount of transformations, are strictly speaking left with the same electronic timbres that we are familiar with from Stockhausen’s earlier works. In Hymnen, however, the use of quotes is often explicit, and Lekfeldt’s conclusion seems more appropriate. The fact that the theologian and vicar Lekfeldt doesn’t point out that much of the musical material in Telemusik is taken from religious spheres, however, is remarkable.

A higher musical entity
In the Studio for Electronic Music at the Japanese radio station NHK, Stockhausen had access to several good amplitude modulators that he utilized in a technique we find for the first time in Telemusik, namely intermodulation. This is a continuation of the ring modulation techniques he used for the first time in Mixtur (1964), and later in Mikrophonie II the same year. With this equipment he consequently had the opportunity to modulate one musical element with another. The borrowed objects were used as material for modulation of the electronic timbres, which in turn could be modulated by other material.

One of these chains of modulation and filtrations he dubs “the Gagaku circuit”, named after Japanese Gagaku music, which was the first material he modulated in this manner. Here Stockhausen achieves, as he himself puts it, “rhythmical, dynamic [and] timbral intermodulation of all sorts – between electronic sounds and found music or between found music and other found music.” The possibilities presented by the amplitude modulators of that age were certainly extremely limited compared to the complex forms of modulation of spectral data that can be managed by today’s software, but the quality of the result shows that the decisive factor is the musical thought process, and to a lesser degree the technical equipment.

The borrowed musical elements are often well hidden, and only sometimes can we hear them permeate the timbral web – as gentle pulses in the electronic timbre, as transformations of the spectre, and on occasion as clearly borrowed objects. In this way, Stockhausen manages to ensure the integrity of the soundscape. The modulation changes for every one of the 32 structures that combined amounts to Telemusik, and thus a constant variation in the timbre is ensured. We do not, on the other hand, find sound objects in Pierre Schaeffer’s definition. This is not musique concrète, but musical processes applied to electronic material:

Telemusik has become the beginning of a new development in which the situation of the “collage” of the first half of this century will gradually be overcome: Telemusik is not a collage. Rather – through the process of intermodulation between old “found” objects and new sound events which I made using modern electronic means – a higher unity is reached: a universality of past, present and future, of distant places and spaces: Telemusik.16

Telemusik stands as a clear critique of the musique concrète tradition and its “collage”, as Stockhausen calls it, something he rather arrogantly describes as a thing of the past. By utilizing the borrowed material’s structure to modulate the sound rather than to use the sound objects directly, one avoids the sound collage. He doesn’t stop there however. Through this intermodulation we achieve music of a higher order, a music where past, present and future, faraway places and space melts together into a work. In other words, he claims that only by this structural use of the material can one achieve this melting together to create a higher entity.

Modulation is, in addition to temporal proportions and timbral treatment, one of the chief principles in Telemusik, and the use of ring modulation saturates the whole soundscape. Upon reading the score, one will quickly notice an abundant use of extremely high modulation frequencies, and these naturally yield quite high-frequent results. The modulations span over a wide register, as we are familiar with from Kontakte, from rhythmic values with only a few fluctuations per second to modulation frequencies topping 10 kHz (ten thousand times a second), something that results in a high-frequent screech in the timbre. The high-frequent sound is strong, and a spectral analysis of the piece would most likely reveal that much of the music’s energy is focused around the high frequencies.

Changes in the use of timbres from Studie II to Telemusik
Another aspect one immediately notices in Telemusik is the strong focus on timbre. As we already have seen, much of the timbre is a result of cross-modulations between various materials, as we hear in e.g. Struktur 5, where two layered modulated rhythms, one with material from Bali and one with material from southern Sahara, are played simultaneously with continuous, pulsating electronic high frequencies. This form of layering of various electronic sounds with continuous and rapidly shifting modulations is very prominent in the composition.

However, we also find regions where this modulation is not as strong as in Struktur 3, where the electronic high-frequent sounds are contrasted by an accelerating percussive sound. The percussive sound, which might as well have been taken straight out of Kontakte or Gesang der Jünglinge, has a dry, electronic character, but in Telemusik these types of electronic, short and dry sounds are replaced by recordings of Japanese percussive instruments. In light of the work’s nature, this is not unnatural, especially when considering that many of the electronic sounds in Kontakte actually are based on hundreds of analyses of acoustic percussive sounds performed both by the composer himself and by his assistant Gottfreid Michael Koenig17.

The character of the sound in any case gives this section an electronic-dominant timbre despite being based on an acoustic recording. If we look at Struktur I, all sound is electronically produced without any form of modulation from external material with the exception of the obligatory introductory stroke of the Bokusho drum. These relatively statically sustained electronic spectra are something we recognize from Studie I and Studie II, and we hear how the composer continually explores the relationship between impact and resonance. Indeed, we find such percussive timbral studies all throughout Studie II, the difference being that in Telemusik the composer lingers on the timbre to a greater degree. The first static spectre in Telemusik, for instance, lasts for ten seconds whereas the longest parts in Studie II seldom last more than a couple of seconds.

Still, what the works have in common is that they explore the relationship between short separated timbres and long outstretched parts. The stretched-out timbres in Telemusik give the listener more time to focus on the timbre whereas the rapidly changing serially composed timbres in Studie I and II does not afford time to such focused listening. We also see that the cool engineer-like style in the written score of Studie II is replaced by a more gestural notation of events, something that perhaps also indicates a more free relation to the sounding material. Another aspect of the score is that it, in addition to describing sounding details, also includes detailed descriptions of the work process, as in how one produced electronic music in 1966. Here we get a rare glimpse into sounding, structural and practical aspects of the composition, while the understanding of most other electronic works must solely be based on listening.

An extremely disciplined and creative mode
Telemusik was realized in little more than a month (January 23 to March 2, 1966) at the Studio for Electronic Music at the Japanese radio station NHK in Tokyo. Each structure is composed for realization in studio in the course of one day, and with few exceptions they were realized in the order as they appear in the score18. One can therefore follow Stockhausen’s thought process and working method down to every minute detail. This pragmatic method of working, one day per structure, perhaps shows that Stockhausen was both in an extremely disciplined and creative mode, and that he had good working conditions during his stay in Tokyo. The composition of a seventeen-and-a-half-minute work in the course of a month is remarkable even for Stockhausen. In comparison, the last of Stockhausen’s prior electronic works, the thirty-minute Kontakte, took him two and a half years to finalize.

To be sure, Kontakte contains elements that make it a time-consuming production: Large amounts of timbre analysis of acoustic instruments transferred to electronic models, complex serial structures, time-consuming tape editing for the realization of the serial structures – and these working methods tied to the technical aspects of production are time-consuming in their own right. When we know in addition that Stockhausen planned two extra movements for Kontakte that he wasn’t able to realize, it becomes clear that this work was an extremely time-consuming and difficult project. The working methods in Telemusik, on the other hand, were far less time-consuming, which includes the intermodulation of musical material, the use of a multi-track tape recorder with the possibility of building up the sound layer by layer with immediate results, and the manual execution of various curves19, all executed within well-known proportions derived from the Fibonacci sequence. Still, the difference in the working methods cannot fully explain why one work took two and a half years to realize whereas the other took one month. What we are dealing with here are two completely different ways of thinking. Yet Telemusik does not appear to be a rushed work, and the many timbral details combined with the structure-inducing Fibonacci sequence make the piece one of the finest listening experiences from Stockhausen’s works in the mid-60s.

After Telemusik
With Telemusik, Stockhausen had taken a large step forward from Kontakte six years earlier. Not toward a “better” piece of music, but toward a completely different form of composition, where musical material no longer constitutes an absolute truth. The opening up of the work for external material happened gradually during the first half of the 60s, but in Telemusik we see a compositional strategy where this way of thinking is integrated into the creation of the sound itself. From the 50s he brought the semi-serial idea of structuring of proportions with the Fibonacci sequence, and thus ties Telemusik to a wide array of works from cultural history. The number mysticism becomes both an engine for the creative work, and an audible “planetary cosmic order”. The opening up of the work, and the structuring of time combined with an insight into electronic timbre treatment that he had built up through his work in the 50s, makes Telemusik something more than an ordinary sound collage. The innovative compositional methods also shine through in Stockhausen’s subsequent electronic work, the nearly two-hour long Hymnen (1966-67), a work so complex in form and material that it is fitting to draw parallels to radio drama.

Stockhausen’s production of electronic music spans over a period of 55 years, from Etude in 1952 to Cosmic Pulses in 2007. In between these works we find the serialist music from the 50s, the open works from the 60s, the formula composition Sirius performed on an analogue sequencer from the 70s, and the several hours of electronic music written for the approximately 29-hour long opera cycle Licht (1977-2003). In this production, we see that Telemusik constitutes the break between the strict structural thinking of the 50s’ works and the more open form of work that manifest itself in the remaining electronic compositions.

Translated by Notto Thelle


  1. Dag Solstad, T. Singer (Oslo: Oktober 1999) pp. 25-26. Excerpt translated by Notto Thelle.
  2. Karlheinz Stockhausen, Program text for the world premiere of Telemusik (1966/69), from the cover text of Stockhausen CD 9 (Kürten: Stockhausen-Verlag 1995) p. 98.
  3. Program text for Telemusik, see footnote 1.
  4. Robin Maconie, Other Planets, The Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2005) p. 562.
  5. Karlheinz Stockhausen, Stockhausen Work list (Kürten: Stockhausen-Verlag 2008) p. 10.
  6. Erno Lendvai, Einführung in die Formen- und Harmonienwelt Bartóks. From Béla Bartók. Weg und Werk (Kassel: Bärenreiter 1972).
  7. This topic is still discussed among Mann specialist, and in 1983 the author Rosemaria Puschmann released the book Magisches Quadrat und Melancholie in Thomas Manns Doktor Faustus: Von der musikalischen Struktur zum semantischen Beziehungsnetz (AMPAL 1983).
  8. Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus (London: David Campbell Publishers Ltd 1992) p. 92.
  9. Jerome Kohl, Serial Composition, Serial Form, and Process in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Telemusik. From Electroacoustic Music: Analytical Perspectives, (Westport, Conn. and London: Greenwood Press. 2002) pp. 91–118.
  10. Richard Toop, Stockhausen’s Electronic Works: Sketches and Work-Sheets from 1952–1967. Interface 10: (1981) pp. 149–97.
  11. Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus (London: David Campbell Publishers Ltd 1992) pp. 195-196.
  12. Karlheinz Stockhausen, Stockhausen on music. (London, New York: Marion Boyars 1989) pp. 136-137.
  13. Program text for Telemusik, see footnote 1.
  14. Program text for Telemusik, see footnote 1.
  15. Jørgen Lekfeldt, Sölle og Stockhausen – musikkens teologi og teologiens musik (Danmark: Schønberg, 1991) p. 189.
  16. Program text for Telemusik, see footnote 1.
  17. Robin Maconie, Other Planets, The Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2005) p. 205.
  18. Unlike most other composers of electronic music, Stockhausen has produced scores that describe in detail the realization process behind most of his electronic works, making them far easier to study in detail. Especially the score for Kontakte (which even with the help of his assistant Jaap Spek took more than a year to complete) is carried out with extreme detail. Stockhausen himself claims that this is done in order for the work to be recreated in the future, and in this way ensure the work’s place in “eternity” and counteract the devastating effect of time on the physical tapes.
  19. Judging by the score’s gestural character and the timbral results, it seems that the various structures could be realized in real time without too many problems.