Karlheinz Stockhausen is being awarded the Polar Music Prize for 2001 for a career as a composer that has been characterized by impeccable integrity and never-ceasing creativity, and for having stood at the forefront of musical development for fifty years.
Give up on Beethoven...You've got Stockhausen now.
Childhood and education
Karlheinz Stockhausen was born outside Cologne in Germany in 1928, he grew up in Altenberg with his father and stepmother and studied music at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne. Before embarking upon his public career, Karlheinz Stockhausen had completed not only thorough studies in piano and composition in Paris with Martin and Messiaen, but also in languages and philosophy.
In Paris he met Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Boulez and spent some time in the studios at Radio France, a significant environment for the development of his interest in serialism, twelve-tone technique and the new wave of contemporary composing techniques that would lead him to be part of the Darmstadt group.
Birth of electronic music
He enthusiastically joined the group of young composers who felt that it was time to break with the Goebbels era and rediscover pre-1930 avantgardism and primarily the work of Webern. The result was serialism, which was introduced at the famous Darmstadt summer courses and the Donaueschingen festivals.
From their inception Stockhausen was one of the leading personalities associated with these activities. At that time, Stockhausen became acquainted with Professor Werner Meyer-Eppler of the University of Bonn, one of the “leaders” of the Darmstadt group and a physicist who advocated using electronic equipment for generating music, in order to gain complete control of musical and acoustic parameters. These ideas led to the design of the first electronic musical studio at public broadcaster WDR in Cologne.
A new way of composing and a new attitude towards sound not only as a suite of notes but also as a composite in space was developed in the late ’40s. Therefore, machines that produced and transformed sounds became as important as instruments for the serialist composition. In 1948, the different machines in a typical radio studio such as record players, disc recorders, a mixing desk with rotating potentiometers, a mechanical reverberation, filters, and microphones could pass sounds back and forth through loud speakers, eliminating or enhancing selected frequencies, creating new filters and so on.
These electronic instrument could then create new original sounds out of the ones already existing. The application of the above technologies in the creation of musique concrète led to the development of a number of sound manipulation techniques including transposition, sampling, looping and more. Stockhausen’s early development, with the advent of and even after serialism, can be assessed from his series Klavierstücke I – XI, composed between 1951 and 1957, and Gesang der Jünglinge, from 1957. The latter work first brought electronic music to the public eye and is still considered to be one of the masterpieces of its kind.
At the start of the 1960s, Stockhausen turned his interest toward live electronics, with works ranging from Mikrophonie I, where a solitary tomtom provides the basic sound, to the magnificent Mixture, in which an entire symphony orchestra is connected to the electronic modification instruments. At the same time, he began exhibiting an interest in oriental philosophy and religion and became a pioneer of world music and the meditative form. This is best illustrated in Hymnen, a work of electronic music, based on songs and national anthems from around the globe.
In 1977 Stockhausen started working on the opera cycle Licht-Oper, the greatest musical endeavour since Wagner’s Ring. The piece is all in all seven-part, sci-fi operatic cycle called Licht, or Each sound and musical installment is named for a day of the week. At the time of Stockhausen’s death, in 2007, two of the operas had not yet been staged: Sonntag (Sunday), the last to be completed, and Mittwoch (Wednesday), written in the mid-nineties.
Sonntag finally had its premiere in 2011 in Cologne and the Birmingham Opera premiered Mittwoch (Wednesday) in August 2012. In this venture, the days of the week are portrayed individually in varying lengths and with their own special combination of instruments. The pieces were written and revised separately and all together the whole piece is 29 hours long.
Helikopter Streichquartett is one of Stockhausen’s most famous works and one of the most complex to perform. It involves a string quartet, four helicopters with pilots, as well as audio and video equipment and technicians.
The quartet members are connected via audio technique while playing live in the helicopters during the flight. It was first performed and recorded in 1995, as the third scene of the opera Mittwoch aus Licht (Wednesday from Light). It can also be performed as a self-sufficient piece.
Stockholm May 2001
The Polar Music Prize had three Laureates this year: Burt Bacharach, Robert Moog and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen also performed during the ceremony, which is quite unusual for the Laureates in the prize’s history. Karl Barton from Kraftewerk read the citation for Stockhausen: “Dear Mr Stockhausen, I would first of all with all my heart congratulate you to this award. I hope that in the future all your plans for music will become true: music as a carrier of ideas.”