Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) was a seminal figure in post-1945 modernism and one of the most experimental and progressive composers of the 20th century. He redefined notions of what types of sound could be deemed acceptable in composition and took a pioneering approach with his use of electronics in art music. On what would have been his 86th birthday we take a look at six of the works that him make him stand out from his contemporaries.


1. Sonatine for Violin and Piano

Premiered with Stockhausen himself at the piano and concertmaster of the North German Symphony Orchestra Wolfgang Marscher on the violin, this work demonstrates plenty of techniques from the Second-Viennese school, including serialism and polytonality. An early work of Stochkausen's, this particular piece was completed for his final exam at the Cologne Conservatory.

2. Kontra-Punkte

In the original programme notes for the premiere of Kontra-Punkte in 1953, Stockhausen wrote, ‘in a many-faceted sound-world with individual notes and durations, all oppositions are to be dissolved until a state is reached in which everything that is heard is unified; immutable.’ In other words, the individual parts start out feeling disparate and gradually come together until a single sustained piano line can be heard – stick with it!

3. Klavierstücke XI

Dedicated to American pianist and composer David Tudor, this piece for solo piano draws on the idea of introducing chance to notated music: Stockhausen liked to challenge his performers with the responsibility of choice. There are 19 separate musical ideas notated on a large, single-page score and the pianist can choose to play any of them in any order any number of time – yep, sounds like far too much responsibilty!

4. Gruppen

If you think the modern-day symphony orchestra is big, try listening to Stockhausen’s Gruppen, written for three orchestras of 109 players each. Inspired by shapes of the Graubünden Alps, which Stockhausen could see from his home, the piece is based on 174 different units of music. Again, Stockhausen sets no pulse or tonal centre, leaving the outcome very much up to chance.

5. Stimmung

Stimmung, meaning ‘tuning’ or ‘being in tune with’, was written in 1968 and was inspired by a trip around old ruins in Mexico. Composed for six vocalists and six microphones, this music was one of the first Western compositions to use harmonics as its primary element and it went on to inspire the Spectral school of composition.

6. Helicopter Quartet

And finally, we couldn't leave out Stochausen's wacky Helicopter Quartet. Taken from the Licht cycle of operas, this 20th-Century string quartet places four performers in separate helicopters where they knock out the piece hundreds of feet above the ground. It was a composition that took modern techniques to dazzling new heights, quite literally.

Eliot McGuire
Photo: Kathinka Pasveer


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