Watch Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Great Helicopter String Quartet, Starring 4 Musicians, 4 Cameras & 4 Copters

Here in Los Ange­les, we learn to live with heli­copters. Whether police, news, or uniden­ti­fi­able, these great mechan­i­cal hum­ming­birds buzz over the city in a kind of omnipres­ence that can dri­ve new arrivals nuts. The movies have turned heli­copters into a visu­al icon of Los Ange­les, but in real life they’ve become more like the city’s son­ic sig­na­ture, to the point where the dis­tinc­tive­ly rapid, repet­i­tive thump of their rotor blades some­times bleeds into our dreams. Whether or not inno­v­a­tive Ger­man com­pos­er Karl­heinz Stock­hausen spent much time here I don’t know, but he, too, dreamt of heli­copters, and the inspi­ra­tion this vision grant­ed him led to his 1993 Helikopter-Stre­ichquar­tett, also known as the Heli­copter String Quar­tet. You can see a 2012 Birm­ing­ham per­for­mance by the Elysian String Quar­tet above. And no, the piece does­n’t mean “Heli­copter” as any kind of metaphor; you’ve got to have not just one but four of the things to prop­er­ly play it.

Stock­hausen, writ­ing about the ori­gins of the Heli­copter String Quar­tet, described the dream as fol­lows:

I heard and saw the four string play­ers in four heli­copters fly­ing in the air and play­ing. At the same time I saw peo­ple on the ground seat­ed in an audio-visu­al hall, oth­ers were stand­ing out­doors on a large pub­lic plaza. In front of them, four tow­ers of tele­vi­sion screens and loud­speak­ers had been set up: at the left, half-left, half-right, right. At each of the four posi­tions one of the four string play­ers could be heard and seen in close-up.

Most of the time, the string play­ers played tremoli which blend­ed so well with the tim­bres and the rhythms of the rotor blades that the heli­copters sound­ed like musi­cal instru­ments.

When I woke up, I strong­ly felt that some­thing had been com­mu­ni­cat­ed to me which I nev­er would have thought of on my own.  I did not tell any­one any­thing about it.

An actu­al per­for­mance, which gets even more com­pli­cat­ed than you’d imag­ine, involves not just sep­a­rate heli­copters for each string play­er but sep­a­rate video cam­eras to cap­ture and send (“pos­si­bly via satel­lite relay”) their images and those of the Earth behind them. It also requires pre­ci­sion-timed and music-syn­chro­nized ascents and descents, “blend­ing” of the sounds of the strings with the sounds of the rotors (via three dis­tinct micro­phones per chop­per), an active mix­er to keep the sig­nals in bal­ance, and a mod­er­a­tor to explain it all. At Ubuweb, Frank Schef­fer­’s 1995 Ger­man doc­u­men­tary has more to show and tell about what it took to bring the lit­er­al dream of the Helikopter-Stre­ichquar­tett into real­i­ty, a painstak­ing effort which must sure­ly count as one of the 20th cen­tu­ry’s largest-scale sub­li­ma­tions of annoy­ance into art.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hol­ly­wood by Heli­copter, 1958

MIT LED Heli­copters: The Ear­ly Smart Pix­els

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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