Gesang der Jünglinge
There is a mystery in the sounds of the vowels. There is a mystery in the sound of the human voice as it is uttered from the mouth and born into the air. And there is a mystery in the way electrons, interacting inside an oscillating circuit, can be synthesized and made to sing. Karlheinz Stockhausen set out to investigate these mysteries of human speech and circuitry as a scientist of sound, using the newly available radiophonic equipment at the WDR’s Studio for Electronic Music. The end result of his research was bridged into the vessel of music, giving the ideas behind his inquiries an aesthetic and spiritual form. In doing so he unleashed his electroacoustic masterpiece Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths) into the world.
Part of his inspiration for Gesang der Jünglinge came from his studies of linguistics and phonetics at the Bonn between 1954 and 1956, with his mentor Werner Meyer-Eppler. The other part came from his spiritual inclinations. At the time of its composition Stockhausen was a devout Catholic. His original conception for the piece was for it to be a sacred electronic Mass born from his personal conviction. According to the official biography, he had asked his other mentor Herbert Heimert to write to the Diocesan office of the Archbishop for permission to have the proposed work performed in the Cologne Cathedral, the largest Gothic church in northern Europe. The request was refused on grounds that loudspeakers had no place inside a church. No records of this request have been uncovered, so this story is now considered apocryphal. There are doubts that Eimert, who was a Protestant, ever actually brought up the subject with Johannes Overath. Johannes was the man at the Archdiocese responsible for granting or denying such requests and by March 1955 had become a member of the Broadcasting Council. It is likely Heimert and Overath were associates. What we can substantiate is that Stockhausen did have ambitions to create an electronic Mass and that he experienced frustrations and setbacks in his search for a suitable sacred venue for its performance, one that would be sanctioned by the authorities at the church.
These frustrations did not stop him however from realizing his sound-vision. The lectures given by Meyer-Eppler had seeded inspiration in his mind, and those seeds were in the form of syllables, vowels, phonemes, and fricatives. Stockhausen set to work creating music where voices merged in a sublime continuum with synthetic tones that he built from scratch in the studio. To achieve the desired effect of mixing human voice with electronics he needed pure speech timbres. He decided to use the talents of Josef Protschka, a 12-year old boy chorister who sang fragments derived and permutated from the “Song of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace” in the 3rd book of Daniel. In the story three youths are tossed into the furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. They are rescued from the devouring flames by an angel who hears them singing a song of their faith.This story resonated strongly with Stockhausen at the time. He considered himself to be a fiery youth. Still in his twenties he was full of energy, but was under verbal fire and critical attack from the classical music establishment who lambasted him for his earlier works. Gesang der Jünglinge showed his devotion to the divine through song despite this persecution.
The electronic bedrock of the piece was made from generated sine tones, pulses, and filtered white noise. The recordings of the boy soprano’s voice were made to mimic the electronic sounds: vowels are harmonic spectra which may be conceived as based on sine tones; fricatives and sibilants are like filtered white noise; and the plosives resemble the pulses. Each part of the score was composed along a scale that ran from discrete events to statistically structured massed "complexes" of sound. The composition is now over sixty years old, yet the synthetic and organic textures Stockhausen pioneered for it are still fresh. They speak of something new, and angelic.
Stockhausen eventually triumphed over his persecution when he won the prestigious Polar Music Prize (often considered the "Nobel Prize of music") in 2001. At the ceremony he controlled the sound projection of Gesang der Jünglinge through the four loudspeakers surrounding the audience.
These breakthroughs in 20th century composition practice wouldn’t have been possible without the foresight of the WDR in creating an Electronic Music Studio and promoting new music on their stations.
As the world caught wind of the work being done at the WDR’s Electronic Music Studio, other radio stations and broadcasting corporations followed suit. NHK (Nippon HosoKyokai) in Japan built their electronic music studio in 1955, directly modeling it on the one at WDR. In 1958 the BBC created their famous Radiophonic Workshop. (I blame starting to watch Doctor Who as a ten year old, with its strange soundtrack and incidental music, for what became my lifelong fascination with electronic music.) The studio at NHK was just over ten years old when they invited Stockhausen over to work there and create two pieces for their airwaves.
When he arrived in Japan Karlheinz was severely jet lagged and disoriented. For several days he couldn’t sleep. That’s when the strange hallucinatory visions set in. Laying awake in bed one night his mind was flooded with ideas of "technical processes, formal relationships, pictures of the notation, of human relationships, etc.—all at once and in a network too tangled up to be unraveled into one process.” These musings of the night took on a life of their own and from them he created Telemusik.
Of Stockhausen’s many ambitions, one of them was to make a unified music for the whole planet. He was able to do that in this piece though the results sounded nothing like the “world music” or “world beat” genre often found on CD racks in coffee houses and gift shops. In the 20 minutes of the piece he mixed in found sounds, folk songs and ritual music from all over the world including the countries Hungary, Spain, China, Japan, the Amazons, Sahara, Bali and Vietnam. He also used new electronic sounds and traditional Japanese instruments to create what he called "a higher unity…a universality of past, present, and future, of different places and spaces: TELE-MUSIK." This practice of taking and combining sound sources from all over is now widely practiced across all genres of music in the form of sampling. But for Karlheinz it wasn’t simply making audio collage or taking one sample to build a song around it. Even though he used samples from existing recordings to make something different, he also developed a new audio process that he termed intermodulation.
In his own words he speaks of the difference between collage and intermodulation. “I didn’t want a collage, I wanted to find out if I could influence the traits of an existing kind of music, a piece of characteristic music using the traits of other music. Then I found a new modulation technique, with which I could modulate the melody curve of a singing priest with electronic timbres, for example. In any case, the abstract sound material must dominate, otherwise the result is really mishmash, and the music becomes arbitrary. I don’t like that.” For example he used "the chant of monks in a Japanese temple with Shipibo music from the Amazon, and then further imposing a rhythm of Hungarian music on the melody of the monks. In this way, symbiotic things can be generated, which have never before been heard"
Stockhausen kept the pitch range of Telemusik piece deliberately high, between 6 and 12 kHz. This is so that the intermodulation can project sounds downwards occasionally. He wanted some of the sections to seem “far away because the ear cannot analyse it” and then abruptly it would enter “the normal audible range and suddenly became understandable". The title of the piece comes from Greek tele, "afar, far off", as in "telephone" or "television". The music works consistently to bring what was “distant” close up. Cultures which were once far away from each other can now be seen up close, brought together by the power of telecommunications systems, new media formats, new music. By using recordings of traditional folk and ritual music from around the world Stockhausen brought the past brought up close and into the future by mixing it with electronics.
To accomplish all this at the NHK studio he used a 6-track tape machine and a number of signal processors including high and low-pass filters, amplitude modulators and other existing equipment. Stockhausen also designed a few new circuits for use in the composition. One of these was the Gagaku Circuit named after the Japanese Gagaku orchestra music it was designed to modulate. It used 2 ring-modulators in series to create double ring-modulation mixes of the sampled sounds.12 kHz was used in both the 1st and 2nd ring-modulation, with a glissando in the 2nd ring modulation stage. Then music was frequency-filtered in different stages at 6 kHz and 5.5 kHz.
Writer Ed Chang explains the effect of the Gagaku Circuit: “For example, in one scenario the 1st ring modulation A used a very high 12 kHz sine-wave base frequency, resulting in a very high-pitched buzzing texture (for example, a piano note of A, or 0.440 kHz, would become a high 12.440 kHz and 11.560 kHz).The 2nd ring-mod B base frequency (in this case with a slight glissando variation on the same 12 kHz base frequency) has the effect of ‘demodulating’ the signal (bringing it back down to near A). This demodulated signal is also frequency filtered to accentuate low frequencies (dark sound).These 2 elements (high buzzing from the 1st signal and low distorted sounds from the 2nd) are intermittently mixed together with faders. By varying the 2 ring-mod base frequencies and the 3 frequency filters, different effects could be achieved. This process of modulation and demodulation is what Stockhausen means when he says he was able to ‘reflect a few parts downwards’.”
The score was dedicated to the Japanese people and the first public performance took place at the NHK studios in Tokyo on 25 April 1966.
Telemusik prepared Stockhausen for his next monumental undertaking, Hymnen (Anthem) made at the WDR studio. The piece had already been started before Telemusik but he had to set it aside while in Japan. Hymnen is a mesmerizing elaboration of the studio technique of intermodulation first mastered at NHK in Japan. It is also a continuation of his quest to make a form of world music at a time when the people around the planet were becoming increasingly connected. To achieve this goal he incorporated forty national anthems from around the globe into one composition. He had collected 137 anthems in the process of composing the piece, by writing to radio stations in those countries and asking them to send recordings to Germany. The piece has four sections though it was first slated for six. The last two never materialized. These anthems from around the world are intermodulated into an intricate web of sound lasting around two hours long. Thrown into the kaleidoscopic mix are all manner of other sounds produced from sine wave generators, shortwave radio, his voice speaking, and many others. Whenever I listen to Hymnen the sounds of the music from different nations reminds me of someone tuning across the shortwave bands. In the audio spectrum and in the radio spectrum borders and boundaries are porous, permeable. And that is one of the things I love about amateur radio: the sharing of good will between women and men from all across the globe, our signals reaching each other across space to make the formerly distant close. Hymnen ends with a new anthem for a utopian realm called "Hymunion". Perhaps it can be reached through the shared communion that comes from truly listening to each other.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.