Is the universe itself oscillating just like the radio waves that travel throughout it? Does the universe grow and expand out of a Big Bang and crest into a large wave before collapsing back in on itself again into a Big Crunch, and out of that singularity is another universe created out of the Big Bang? In 1930 Albert Einstein briefly theorized just such an oscillating universe. As more and more black holes form over the passage of time in the expansion phase, their combined gravitational attraction eventually draws more and more matter into their orbits ending with another Big Crunch. In this cyclical theory an eternal series of oscillations means all possible forms of the physical universe, and all possible histories of earth would have a chance to play out with each new Big Bang, with each oscillating iteration.
Richard C. Tolman, a mathematician and physicist, was quick to point out though, how entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, was prohibitive of this cyclical theory. Entropy can only increase inside of a system, and this implied that successive cycles would grow larger and longer. Inevitable thermodynamic heat death was the only possibility according to Tolma. Meanwhile, tracing the same trend backwards in time the cycles before our present one would thus each have been shorter and smaller, culminating in the kickoff event of the Big Bang.
Yet the cyclical theory of an oscillating universe has much to lend itself. It fits neatly into spiritual ideas on the nature of cycles of time. As such it has been adopted by poets, artists and musicians, and new generations of scientist continue to try and find ways to make the theory work with the benefit of newer models, notions, and research.
This idea of an expanding and contracting universe oscillating between Big Bang and Big Crunch was one of the notions running through Stockhausen’s mind when he came to compose his ensemble piece Ylem in 1972.
The title of the piece, itself a strange, alien sounding word, has a strange story. Ylem was resurrected from Middle English by cosmologist Ralph Alpher, a student of George Gamow, a Russian American physicist and cosmologist who was an early advocate of the Big Bang theory. Alpher had stumbled across the entry for Ylem in Webster’s second dictionary where it was defined as being “the first substance from which the elements were supposed to have been formed.” It had gotten to Middle English by way of the Latin hylen, or hylem which had in turn came from the Greek ὕλη (hūlē, hȳlē) for "matter". In ancient times this primordial matter was conceived of as the cosmic egg, from which the universe itself was hatched.
The cosmologists and physicists of the 1930’s had re-adopted the ancient conception, and with the rediscovery of the word ylem, tied it back to the insights of the world’s elder philosophies.
Gamow and his colleagues posited that the ylem is what existed immediately after the Big Bang. They assumed that within this primordial substance were a large number of high-energy photons. In 1948 Alpher and scientist Robert Herman predicted that these red-shifted photons should still be able to be observed as an ambient cosmic microwave background radiation, or CMBR. Alpher and Herman thought the CMBR would pervade all of space at a temperature of 5 kelvins. In 1965 when CMBR was first detected the researchers found it to be not far off their predicted mark, at 3 kelvins.
Stockhausen played with these ideas in his composition, and used them to show musically the expansion and contraction of an oscillating universe. In the program notes for a performance that occurred on August 25, 1992 he wrote, “There is a theory about an oscillating universe in which we live: Every 80 billion years the universe explodes, pulls itself back together and then explodes a second time – thus ‘oscillating universe’. The original explosion, or also the primary material, is called ‘Ylem’. All the material that exists originated from a primary material, then expands, the expansion slows down, and then through increasing acceleration everything in the universe melts in fire and becomes the basic substance hydrogen, and then explodes again...
I cordially request that you pay attention to this expansion: how every instrumentalist gradually expands his tone-space and forms the individual tones more and more, so that every tone-space receives a new shape. Very much depends on the inventiveness of each individual musician: how he shapes the tones, how he distributes them within the deceleration and subsequently again during the acceleration. Let the whole have an effect on you, not just by the details.”
The instructions for Ylem are notated verbally. This imaginative piece would require the players to be familiar with Stockhausen’s aleatory and intuitive music practices. The conception is simple but the execution demanding. Ylem was written for a total of nineteen players, including four electric instruments who also use shortwave radios, five stationary instruments, and ten instrumentalists who are mobile, playing throughout the performance space. In the 1973 premiere the instruments consisted of electronium (accordion-synth), synthesizer, electronically-processed saxophone, electronically-processed cello, electric organ, piano, harp, cello, tam-tam (gong)/vibraphone, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin alongside the four shortwave radios.
At the beginning ten of the mobile performers stand close to one of the stationary instruments who creates an initial explosion of sound. These ten players then expand, moving throughout the hall or performance space, taking up positions around the audience as a galaxy of musical points. As they move in space, they also move in sound. They move away from the starting pitch determined by the initial musical Big Bang explosion, and the sounds are slowly attenuated.
This part of the performance takes about ten to twelve minutes, and just as the sounds move away from their initial starting pitches the volume and intensity of the musical attacks also starts to diminish as this universe of musicians reaches its point of greatest expansion. After a few minutes shortwave radio comes in briefly. At the same time short melodic groups start to form that become varied with an increase of glissando and trills. At this maximum point the players start chanting the word “Hu!”, an important seed syllable from Stockhausen’s work Inori. As the seed syllable is chanted the shortwave radio players start tuning across the bands again, in search of transmissions from the aether.
From this expansion point the musicians start to return to their starting point, pulled back in for the Big Crunch by gravitationally dense musicianship. Once they are all back in a second Big Bang or musical explosion occurs. The nine-fixed players at this point switch to portable instruments and join the mobile players from the first phase dispersing gradually out through the hall and then eventually out of the building all together as they continue to play. The recordings I’ve heard are reminiscent of some of the wild swing of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, and just as cosmic. It’s in a mode that is as close to free jazz as it is to intuitive free form classical music.
For this work much is also required of the conductor. He or she must maintain extreme concentration even though he is not outwardly active. He must act as a medium between the musicians who have been instructed to maintain telepathic contact with each other. In his score the maestro writes, "YLEM is music which best succeeds when the players establish telepathic communication with one another (they play with eyes closed) and with a ‘conductor’ who listens with extreme concentration from the middle of the hall, but is not outwardly active." Perhaps the medium by which this telepathic communion is achieved is the aether or ylem itself, as mysterious and magical as the electromagnetic waves which permeate the universe.
The word Hu came from Stockhausen’s reading of The Sufi Message by Hazrat Inayat Khan where he writes:
“HU is the most sacred of all sounds.
The sound HU is the beginning and end of all sounds, be they from man, bird, beast or thing.
The word HU is the hidden spirit in all sounds and words, just like the spirit in the the body.
HU belongs to no language, but every language belongs to it.
HU is the name of the Most High, the only true name of God; a name that no people and no religion can claim as its own.
HU means spirit – MAN or MANA means mind.
A HUMAN is a man conscious of God, realized in God.
Human (German) – Human (English) – Humain (French).
HU, God, is in all things and beings, but it is Man by whom HE is known”
Hu had played a large role in climax of the prayer gesture piece of Inori. Furthermore, before Stockhausen even wrote Ylem, he had experienced it in a musical vision. This was not at all unusual for him as many of his compositions came to him in dreams and visions.
The composer writes, “Before I wrote the score I heard the following: A tone that was very strong and indescribably dense exploded. With its particles, the tone gradually expanded to three octaves lower and higher in the tone-space. The distances between the individual tones became more and more irregular, and also their durations – separated by pauses – became more and more differentiated. I also heard different timbres. The whole process lasted for a relatively long time, and the distances between the tones became larger and larger. Finally, this event achieved the complete range from the highest to the lowest tone.
Then I heard the syllable HU shouted, and this music, which had become very thin in the meantime – but still consisted of all extremes of dynamics and many different pitches and timbres – gradually pulled back together until it finally, after a long time, became inextricably dense, and this dense state, which I cannot describe other than by calling it compact tone-material, then exploded again and everything moved up one tone.”
He related the experience to the theory of the oscillating universe.
Perhaps the universe itself is a continuous infinite waveform. This idea has continued to be explored in different models by brane cosmologists Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok, and also in the Baum-Frampton model. As with many other cosmological models we know enough to know that we don’t know enough.
As inspiration for music it works perfect and I could listen to the oscillating universe again and again and again.
The Cosmos--Voyage Through the Universe series, New York: 1988 Time-Life Books
Oxford English Dictionary
Bernstein, Jeremy (1986). "Out of My Mind: The Birth of Modern Cosmology". The American Scholar. 5555 (1): 7–18
R. C. Tolman (1987) . Relativity, Thermodynamics, and Cosmology. New York: Dover.
Essay and Analysis of Ylem by Ed Chang:
Ylem: Stockhausen Edition 21
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.