Pioneering Electronic Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen Presents “Four Criteria of Electronic Music” & Other Lectures in English (1972)

Where did mod­ern elec­tron­ic music come from? What­ev­er the genre markers—EDM, house, glitch, dub­step, ambient—any dis­cus­sion of the his­to­ry will inevitably pay homage to a few found­ing names: Bri­an Eno, Kraftwerk, Afri­ka Bam­baataa, syn­the­siz­er inven­tor Robert Moog, Daft Punk’s per­son­al hero Gior­gio Moroder, super­star DJs Lar­ry Lev­an and Frankie Knuck­les… the list could go on. In most main­stream dis­cus­sions, it will often leave out the name Karl­heinz Stock­hausen. And yet, though he decid­ed­ly did not make dance music, no his­to­ry of elec­tron­i­ca writ large is com­plete with­out him, some­thing film­mak­er Iara Lee rec­og­nized when she fea­tured him promi­nent­ly in her 1999 elec­tron­i­ca doc­u­men­tary Mod­u­la­tions.

In an intro­duc­tion to Lee’s tran­scribed inter­view with Stock­hausen, James Wes­ley John­son describes the exper­i­men­tal Ger­man elec­tron­ic com­pos­er and the­o­rist as “his own best spokesman,” for the way he “describes the the­o­ret­i­cal under­pin­nings of his work with a sim­ple clar­i­ty which belies its com­plex­i­ty.”

Try­ing to describe Stock­hausen’s work proves dif­fi­cult, since “he’s always exper­i­ment­ing.” Any­one who thinks they “ ‘know’ what to expect from him,” John­son remarks, is “des­tined to be sur­prised by fur­ther muta­tions.”

Stock­hausen, who died in 2007, began his career as a stu­dent in the 1950s, study­ing under influ­en­tial French com­pos­er Olivi­er Mes­si­aen while devel­op­ing his own con­cept of musi­cal spa­tial­iza­tion. Through­out the fifties and six­ties, he pio­neered live per­for­mance and record­ed com­po­si­tions with tape recorders, micro­phones, ring mod­u­la­tors, Ham­mond Organ, and oth­er ana­log elec­tron­ic devices, along with tra­di­tion­al instru­ments, voice, and musique con­crete tech­niques.

Stock­hausen com­bined—writes Ed Chang at the Stock­hausen blog Sounds in Space—the results of his exper­i­men­ta­tion with the “har­mon­i­cal­ly-lib­er­at­ing meth­ods of the 2nd Vien­nese School (basi­cal­ly Arnold Schön­berg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, who explored the chro­mat­ic scale through the use of unique ordered tone rows and inter­vals).” This fusion gave rise to the lec­ture at the top of the post, deliv­ered at the Oxford Union in Eng­land on May 6th, 1972, in which Stock­hausen lays out his “Four Cri­te­ria of Elec­tron­ic Music.” They are as fol­lows:

  1. Uni­fied Time Struc­tur­ing
  2. Split­ting of the Sound
  3. Mul­ti-Lay­ered Spa­tial Com­po­si­tion
  4. Equal­i­ty of Sound and Noise

Chang pro­vides a detailed, tech­ni­cal sum­ma­ry of each point. Much more enter­tain­ing, how­ev­er, is watch­ing the eccen­tric and enthu­si­as­tic Stock­hausen elab­o­rate his the­o­ry. “One might ask,” he says at the open­ing of his lec­ture, “why are [the four cri­te­ria] inter­est­ing, as there is elec­tron­ic music, and every­body can make up his mind about what to think about this music?” His answer is clas­sic Stockhausen—cryptic, ellip­ti­cal, intrigu­ing­ly vague yet self-assured:

New means change the method; new meth­ods change the expe­ri­ence, and new expe­ri­ences change man. When­ev­er we hear the sounds we are changed: we are no longer the same after hear­ing cer­tain sounds, and this is the more the case when we hear orga­nized sounds, sounds orga­nized by anoth­er human being: music.

Thus he launch­es into his fascinating—if not always ful­ly comprehensible—theory of music as “orga­nized sound,” with ani­mat­ed ges­tures and sev­er­al exam­ples from his own com­po­si­tion from the late 50s, Kon­tak­te, which you can hear above. “Four Cri­te­ria of Elec­tron­ic Music” is the fifth in a long series of lec­tures Stock­hausen deliv­ered in Lon­don that year. If you have any inter­est in music the­o­ry, avant-garde com­po­si­tion, or in how elec­tron­ic music—and hence how our world—came to sound the way it does, you should not miss these. You can watch them all on Youtube (or below) or at Ubuweb. If you can­not sit in front of the screen and watch Stock­hausen’s strange­ly com­pelling deliv­ery, you can also down­load a PDF of a pub­lished ver­sion of “Four Cri­te­ria of Elec­tron­ic Music” at Mono­skop.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Fas­ci­nat­ing Sto­ry of How Delia Der­byshire Cre­at­ed the Orig­i­nal Doc­tor Who Theme

Hear Sev­en Hours of Women Mak­ing Elec­tron­ic Music (1938- 2014)

Meet the “Tel­har­mo­ni­um,” the First Syn­the­siz­er (and Pre­de­ces­sor to Muzak), Invent­ed in 1897

Mr. Rogers Intro­duces Kids to Exper­i­men­tal Elec­tron­ic Music by Bruce Haack & Esther Nel­son (1968)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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