Technical influence and physical constraint in the realisation of "Gesang der Jünglinge"

Sean Williams

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Since the digitization of the realization tapes of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (Stockhausen, 1955-56) and their availability for research from 2012 it has been possible to gain new insights into the creative process of the piece to the level of individual sounds. These insights lead to a greater understanding of the performance practice used in the realization process, and the extreme level of detail shown by Stockhausen’s extension of the composition process down to the level of each element of each sound. In turn, they illuminate the influence of the particular instruments available at the West Deutsche Rundfunk Studio for Electronic Music (WDR Studio) and the performance practice developed there on the compositional process itself.

This paper describes the realization process of specific groups of electronic sounds in Gesang der Jünglinge using examples of my own to illustrate their development and change during the lengthy time period of realization from 1955-56.

By combining a detailed examination of the realization tapes alongside Stockhausen’s sketches (Stockhausen, 2001), and using a combination of original 1950s technology and digital audio tools I have been able understand how each sound used in the piece was created. The only way to verify this has been to recreate each electronic sound type using historic equipment where possible, and creating digital models only when no other solution was available. Interviews conducted with Gottfried Michael Koenig who assisted Stockhausen in the realization of this piece have provided an additional source of detail, as has my previous realization of Stockhausen’s Studie II using period technology.

Using period technology has allowed me first, to work out the physical processes and performance practice of sound production, and second, to experience and solve similar problems that Koenig and Stockhausen encountered during their work in 1955-6. It has allowed me to observe through experience the evolution of the creative process as each successive sound element in a certain series (for example the Impulse Complexes in Sections A and B) becomes more and more elaborate in their construction up to the technical limitations of the equipment. I can therefore show through experience where and how the technology influenced the compositional process. I suggest areas where compositional pressure forced new technical practices to evolve and where technical limitations modulated compositional practices.

The sketches provide clues as to how the sounds were constructed, but they are far from complete and have required considerable effort to decode. Several different realization methods were tried for various sounds, but the use of historic equipment helped to encourage an overall methodology which made the reconstruction process easier and easier as the project has progressed. I built up a tacit knowledge of the tools so that simple, short instructions which at the start of the project would have been undecipherable, with experience, became quite straightforward to understand. This knowledge consisted of a feel for each machine’s capabilities, and an appreciation of favoured combinations of instruments, and reliable systems or meta-instruments. Experience with certain devices and their parameter values and ranges enabled many parts of the sketches to be more easily decoded. This enables a much deeper understanding of how Stockhausen used serial methods to compose each of the sound elements.

Careful study of the sketches has helped to form a theory of which sound elements were created first, and at which point the realization processes changed. Working through the realization process of each sound type brings practical insights which help us understand the significance of the changes and evolution in working methods. I show how these methods and techniques evolved during the two year realization process, leading from Studie II to Kontakte.

The use of digital audio technology to measure frequencies of sound elements has allowed me to observe the deviations and tolerances between what is specified in the sketches and what was achieved in the studio. When a sine wave of 1133 Hz is specified, for example, there is no scope for interpretation but some scope for error. However, as Koenig sets out in his score for Essay (Koenig, 1960), when patterns of statistical sounds such as the “Impulse Complexes” are given, or “strong distortion” is specified, there is considerable scope for interpretation and a strong need for qualitative judgment. Realising such sounds often requires physical performance, with both musicians actively controlling the instruments, rehearsing and repeating until “getting it right”. On the one hand there are technical influences on the accuracy to which the sketches are followed, and on the other hand there are interpretative influences. Both affect the results, but only through reconstruction can we get a feel for the relative weight of each influence.

Pulling back to look at the construction of the piece as a whole I have been able to observe the somewhat flexible approach to timing of individual events. I show a number of instances where Stockhausen has allowed events to take longer to unfold than the serial values in his score specify, and I show significant places where pauses have been inserted, deviating from the serial structure, in order to make the piece sound right. Taken together with the insights into individual sound production methods I demonstrate that the compositional process in Gesang der Jünglinge has been strongly influenced by the technology and practices used in realizing the individual sounds.

Koenig, Gottfried Michael (1960) Essay: Composition for Electronic Sounds. Universal Edition: Vienna.

Stockhausen, Karlheinz (2001) Gesang der Jünglinge : elektronische Musik : 1955- 1956 : Werk Nr. 8. Stockhausen Verlag: Kürten.

Stockhausen, Karlheinz (1955-56). GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE Realisation Tapes. Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik Kürten ( [Digitised by the WDR Studio, 2008].
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 8 Oct 2015
EventTracking the Creative Process in Music - IRCAM, Paris, France
Duration: 8 Oct 201510 Oct 2015


ConferenceTracking the Creative Process in Music

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Stockhausen
  • electronic music
  • performance practice


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