Stockhausen: Klavierstücke I-IV

performed by David Tudor, or the first below by Herbert Henck


II here, also played by Henck

So… Karlheinz Stockhausen… I have decided that in the future, for composers getting their first post here on the blog, I will include their full name in the post. If I really decide to stick with that, I’ll have to go back and make some edits to old titles. Except everyone knows who Beethoven is, and there are many different ways to spell Chopin’s first name, and what order does Bartók’s name go in? Anyway, the words ‘Karlheinz’ and ‘Stockhausen’ and ‘Klavierstücke’ were a bit long for a title, so we only get ‘Stockhausen’.

You might know him as the guy who wrote a string quartet where each of the four players performs in a separate helicopter, with the sound broadcast into the concert hall, or the composer of the enormous Licht cycle of operas, totaling something near 30 hours, or that he, at least at one point, claimed to have come from another star to earth. So he’s an interesting one. But watching his lecture below (the first part of four), if you set aside his awkward pausing and mad-scientist aura, he makes some fascinatingly interesting statements about his music that also apply to most everything we’ve been discussing this month:


All his potential weirdness aside, he was hugely influential as a composer and musician overall in the mid-nineteenth century. You might want to read about how he became a huge influence on The Beatles and is even included on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He’s there. Also watch this, and I’ll reference it again below. It’s much shorter:

That being said (or rather glossed over), I should very probably do an Influential People post on Stockhausen, but… I will not now for the same reason I haven’t yet for Mozart or Bach or many others, and it’s because I feel like I need to digest their work more to be able to write an article actually about their influence and my perceptions of their work rather than regurgitating what I find from other articles. Mozart, to be honest, I could go ahead and write an article about when the time comes, but I have a lot more processing and digesting to do for Bach. And Stockhausen, so we’ll skip that for now.

In any case, of him, his Wikipedia article says “He often departs radically from musical tradition and his work is influenced by Olivier Messiaen, Edgard Varèse, and Anton Webern.”

The Klavierstücke I-IV were not the first works he wrote, but they are as good a place to start as any, in my opinion. In fact, he’d written 11 works (according to this [official] site) before the piano pieces, including a sonatine for violin and piano, Kreuzspiel, and Punkte and Kontra-Punkte, the more recognizable from that list of earlier works. He begins to talk about the latter two in the above first section of that lecture. They’re also just the first four in a larger collection of what he referred to as his ‘drawings.’ The shortest are the earliest works, at less than a minute, but VI, X, XIII, and XIX are each around a half-hour long. Wikipedia also mentions that the later works were written “for the synthesizer or similar electronic instruments, which Stockhausen had come to regard as the natural successor to the piano.”

I can’t help but think of these first four klavierstücke as Stockhausen’s first little sketch pieces, his answer to Schoenberg’s op. 11 or Boulez’s Notations. Schoenberg began to work seriously in a new and compelling way with his Drei Klavierstücke, using intervallic relationships (interval content) as the backbone of each piece, still using classical ideas of development and transformation to construct the movements. Boulez, apparently depending on when you ask him, either says his Notations were because he was just getting his feet wet with serialism (the explanation I’m far more inclined to believe) or that he was making fun of “the dogmatism of Leibowitz”, rather a caricature of the 12-tone concept. In any case, for both composers, they were exploring ideas that they later developed in new ways and moved on from, but both represent, at least to me, important ‘starting points’ of a type, even if they weren’t the very first works of each composer.

The same is true with Stockhausen. Also, the works (these first four, mind you; some of the later ones get quite long) are all rather short, the four totaling around 7 minutes. Liam Flenady, at his website Usage and Continuation, discusses his original distaste for Stockhausen, followed later by his interest in the composer’s ‘group composition.’

If you look up group composition, you’ll (likely unsurprisingly) find references to it being where a group of people work on a piece together… no. That’s not what we’re talking about. Flenady says:

Group composition was not so much a matter of building a rigorous method where everything would be justified (as is the caricature of serialism), but of pushing composition into new spaces.

It’s not just a method of ‘disciplined composition’; above all, it’s a way of exploring unknown artistic territory with three primary objectives…

Go to his site (linked above) for those three objectives, but the early works mark a turning point for the composer, as Wikipedia says:

The first four Klavierstücke together mark a stage in Stockhausen’s evolution from point music to group composition (Maconie 2005, 118). They were composed in the order III–II–IV–I, the first two (originally titled simply A and B) in February 1952, and the remaining two before June 1952 (Blumröder 1993, 109–10).

They were performed for the first time on 21 August, 1954 by the dedicatee of the set, one Marcelle Mercenier.

The first of the set was the last to be composed, as Wiki says, in only two days’ time. It continues:

…not only is each group distinguished by the number of notes, range, direction, etc., but even the timescales of successive measures form order-permutations of a series of 1–6 quarter notes (Maconie 2005, 121). There are six of these series (and therefore 36 groups), and when the six series are arranged in a square:

Klavierstück I
5 2 3 1 4 6
3 4 2 5 6 1
2 6 4 3 1 5
4 1 6 2 5 3
6 5 1 4 3 2
1 3 5 6 2 4

it may be seen that, reading down each column, one always gets the sequence 1 5 3 2 4 6 or a rotation of it (Toop 1979b, 27)

I’ll be honest. While the idea of a series, a collection of significant numbers to which one always sticks, is a familiar one, I’m not entirely sure how this is applied differently in Stockhausen’s case, or what makes group composition especially unique.

What I will say, ignorantlyis that just reading this cursory discussion I’ve pasted together (or even the more detailed one at Wikipedia), it’s easy to see how one might be… turned off by the seemingly arbitrary, mathematical ideas of such number-y composition.

However, do give a listen to the Stockhausen lecture above, if you can manage the first 20 minutes or so (where he starts drawing lines and points on the easel on his left to represent pitches and sounds), or more, because as much as you might not want to like his music, and as much as you might not understand it (I’m in the latter group), what he says is exciting, as he describes things being different, being unrelated, expressing contrast, newness, etc. That is what to focus on with music like this, and while his lecture and the one below is given to who I assume are music majors, the idea of stripping everything away and experimenting with entirely new ideas and sounds, of exploring new ground and being fascinated by sound itself, is a compelling one.

Professor Anthony Braxton’s lecture (he also a composer) gives a lecture about Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke (as linked above) and asks some very basic questions about the work(s): what’s different? What’s the same? What’s new? What’s happening in this short time span? So again, I know there’s tons to unravel here in these short little works, lots of logic and process and things, but it’s a bit beyond me… Despite that, what can be done is to listen to it and ask the same questions you might ask if you were listening to Beethoven or Haydn or Chopin or Bartok. What’s happening? What’s new, what’s the same?

While I can’t necessarily say I enjoy these four little works in the same way that I came to enjoy what were once equally-intimidating works from Boulez, the idea itself interests, perplexes me, but, maybe unfortunately, it’s been more like that Rubik’s Cube, something I know can be solved, with either the right approach or just lots of time and a little bit of luck, but at this point, these piano works sit off to the side, still in my periphery but not really a focus for now. I did what I could with it… at this point.

Anyway, stay tuned, because we’re going to need all that interest and passive listening and basic question asking and open-mindedness for Thursday’s piece, arguably Stockhausen’s most famous work and the great final end to what has been a very challenging but rewarding month of modern music.

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