Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge

Stockhausen became increasingly fascinated during the late ’50s with the spatial projection of music in the performance space. It can be said that Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge marked the beginning of the end of classic musique concrete. For Kontakte in 1958, using four-track tape, he devised a clever way make the sound of his tape music spin around the audience at various speeds. He did this in the studio using a rotating platform with a loudspeaker mounted on top. He could manually rotate the speaker up to four times a second.

Stockhausen also used a specialized tape recorder called the Springer. Originally developed to lengthen or shorten radio broadcasts, it used a rotating matrix of four to six playback heads that spun in the opposite direction as the tape transport. As the tape passed the rotating playback array, one of the playback heads was in contact with it at all times. The output was equal to the sum of the rotating heads.

It was characteristic of him that he could not be satisfied with Boulez’s and Berio’s derivation of music from verbal sounds and structure: there must be some general principle, which a single work would be enough to demonstrate completely – some system which a work could bring into being. Such a system he found in the organization of degrees of comprehensibility, across a range from the plainness of speech to the total incomprehensibility of wordless music.

This would require electronic means. He needed “to arrange everything separate into as smooth a continuum as possible, and then to extricate the diversities from this continuum and compose with them”, and he found the way to do that through attending, between 1954 and 1956, classes in phonetics and information theory given at Bonn University by Werner Meyer-Eppler. Since, as he there discovered, vowel sounds are distinguished, whoever is speaking, by characteristic formants (emphasized bands of frequencies), it seemed it ought to be possible to create synthetic vowels out of electronic sounds, so that synthesized music could begin to function as language. Working from the other end, the whole repertory of tape transformations was available to alter spoken or sung material and so move it towards pure, meaningless sound.

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Around the time that Stockhausen was formulating these criteria for electronic music, the nature of his work began to change dramatically. After completing the two electronic Studien, he returned to instrumental writing for about a year, completing several atonal works for piano and woodwinds, as well as the ambitious orchestral work Gruppen.

Gruppen, written for three complete orchestral groups, each with its own conductor, marked Stockhausen’s first major experiment with the spatial deployment of sound. He positioned the separate orchestras at three posts around the audience so that their sounds were physically segregated in the listening space. The groups called to each other with their instruments, echoed back and forth, sometimes played in unity, and sometimes took turns playing alone so as to move the sound around the audience.

Gruppen and his other instrumental experiments of that time were Stockhausen’s bridge to his next electronic work. By the time he embarked on the creation of Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths, 1955-56), his views on the control of dynamic elements of electronic music had broadened considerably.

In this creation the synthesized electronic sounds are composed according to principles analogous to those operating in vocal sounds, and the recorded voice, that of a boy treble, is carried into the electronic stream by studio alteration and editing: superimpositions creating virtual choruses, reverberations to suggest great distance, scramblings of words and parts of words, changes of speed and direction.

Nothing on either side, therefore, is quite foreign to the other, and Stockhausen invites his audience to attend to degrees of comprehensibility by using a text with which he could expect them (the work was intended for projection in Cologne Cathedral) to be familiar: the German translation of the prayer sung in the Apocrypha by three young Jews in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace (hence the title, Song of the Youths). Stockhausen’s electronic composition Gesang der Jünglinge thus attempts to integrate its biblical

German text with all the other materials in the composition (Morgan 442). Even so, the choice of this particular prayer cannot have been uninfluenced by what Stockhausen could have envisioned would be the imagery of the piece, with the boy’s singing surrounded by flames of electronic articulation.

Gesang der Jünglinge is perhaps the most significant work of electronic music of the ‘50s because it broke from the aesthetic dogma that had preoccupied the heads of the Paris and Cologne studios. It was a work of artistic détente, a conscious break from the purely electronically generated music of WDR, in which Stockhausen dared to include acoustic sounds, as had composers of musique concrète in France.

Yet the piece is entirely unlike anything that preceded it. Stockhausens’ Gesang der Jünglinge draws on unorthodox audio materials (Bazzana 74).  Stockhausen’s objective was to fuse the sonic components of recorded passages of a youth choir with equivalent tones and timbres produced electronically. He wanted to bring these two different sources of sound together into a single, fluid musical element, interlaced and dissolved into one another rather than contrasted, as had been the tendency of most musique concrete.  Stockhausen created some stir with works of very new spirit and imaginative form (Collaer 395).

Stockhausen 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. There was nothing accidental about this combination of voices and electronic sounds. At thirteen minutes and fourteen seconds, Gesang der Jünglinge was longer than any previous worked realized at the Cologne studio.

It was a “composed” work, using a visual score showing the placement of sounds and their dynamic elements over the course of the work. The result was an astonishingly beautiful and haunting work of sweeping, moving tones and voices. The text, taken from the Book of Daniel, was sung by a boys’ choir as single syllables and whole words. The words were sometimes revealed as comprehensible sounds, and at other times merely as “pure sound values”. Gesang der Jünglinge deals with a much greater variety of sonic material than did the earlier studies (Morgan 466).

Stockhausen’s assimilation of a boy’s singing voice into the work was the result of painstaking preparation on his part. He wanted the sung parts to closely match the electronically produced tones of the piece. His composition notes from the time explain how he made this happen: Fifty-two pieces of paper with graphically notated melodies which were sung by the boy, Josef Protschka, during the recording of the individual layers.

Stockhausen also produced these melodies as sine tones on tape loops for the circa 3-hour recording sessions. The boy listened to these melodies over earphones and then tried to sing them. Stockhausen chose the best result from each series of attempts for the subsequent synchronization of the layers.

Gesang der Jünglinge is historically important for several reasons. It represented the beginning of the end of the first period of tape composition, which had been sharply divided aesthetically between the Paris and Cologne schools of thought. The maturity of Stockhausen’s approach to composing the work, blending acoustic and electronic sounds as equivocal raw materials, signified a maturing of the medium.

The work successfully cast off the cloak of novelty and audio experiments that had preoccupied so many tape compositions until that time. Stockhausen’s concept of “composing the sound”—splitting it, making the changing parameters of sound part of the theme of the work—was first exercised in Gesang der Jünglinge. Rhythmic structures were only nominally present, no formal repetition of motifs existed in the work, and its theme was the continuous evolution of sound shapes and dynamics rather than a pattern of developing tones.

Gesang der Jünglinge was composed on five tracks. During its performance, five loudspeakers were placed so that they surrounded the audience. The listener was in the eye of the sonic storm, with music emanating from every side, moving clockwise and counterclockwise, moving and not moving in space.

Gesang der Jünglinge was originally prepared for five tape channels, later reduced to four, and its ebullience is greatly enhanced by antiphonal effects. Stockhausen himself was to apply in many later works the discoveries he had made here in the treatment of language and of space, of which the latter was already claiming his attention in Gruppen for three orchestras. But perhaps the deepest lesson of Gesang der Jünglinge was that music of all kinds, whether naturally or electronically produced, is made of sounds rather than notes, and that the first task of the composer is to listen. “More than ever before”, Stockhausen wrote, “we have to listen, every day of our lives. We draw conclusions by making tests on ourselves. Whether they are valid for others only our music can show.” (Stockhausen 45-51).

Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge provided a major turning-point in the artistic development of the studio, for against all the teachings of the establishment the piece was structured around recordings of a boy’s voice, treated and integrated with electronic sounds. In Stockhausen Gesang der Jünglinge electronic sounds take on a disturbing “otherness” when set in relief by the humanity of a boy’s voice, racked at times out of intelligibility, but never out of recognition, by the dissection of its speech elements.

Effects such as the distant murmur of multitudinous identical voices have a dramatic impact far more direct than Stockhausen’s comments on the work would suggest; his concern is to incorporate vocal sounds as natural stages (complemented electronically) in the continuum that links tone to noise, vowel to consonant. His vivid imagination for broad effects is further revealed in the spatial direction and movement of the sound by distribution.

Stockhausen was the most representative composers of a period which is still in its analytic phase (Collaer 48). Gesang der Jünglinge has subsequently become a crucial aspect of electronic composition and has helped to combat the faintly ridiculous sensation with which an audience concentrates on sounds emanating from a single “pseudo-instrument”. Stockhausen’s fanatical devotion to this art is sustained by a vision of public music rooms (spherical ideally) giving continuous performances of spatial music. However reminiscent this may seem of some deplorable cinematic techniques, complex stereophony is an altogether natural development of machine music and may help it to achieve a persuasive idiom owing nothing to instrumental practice.

Works Cited

Bazzana, Kevin. Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work: A Study in Performance Practice. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Collaer, Paul and Abeles, Sally. A History of Modern Music. World Publishing, 1961.

Morgan, Robert P. Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America. New York. Publication, 1991.

Stockhausen “Actualia”, Die Reihe, 1 (1955, English edn. 1958), 45-51, (see also his ‘ Music and Speech ‘).

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