Each chapter (listed at right by "Work No.", and then alphabetically) provides the historical context of a piece, followed by an overview of the composer’s intentions and inventions. This is complemented by a track-by-track “listening guide” to the piece as presented on the Stockhausen Complete Edition CD label (although the guides function for recordings on other labels as well, just not as precisely). Finally I give my own “sound impressions” of the work, and provide some (hopefully interesting) personal reactions.
This Stockhausen resource is designed to complement the ample booklets (books) which come with the Stockhausen Edition CDs and scores. Stockhausen was very astute about giving relevant information to a listener first approaching his works. His lectures and interviews are incredibly rich and cogent. However, sometimes when looking from inside the work, it’s possible that a composer might not think to include an explanation of every relevant aspect useful to the intrepid first-time listener. In these chapters, I tried to present each work so that they could be appreciated by the general music listener, even if they were not deeply familiar with Stockhausen’s oeuvre. A working knowledge of musical notation and classical harmony wouldn’t hurt, but even so, musical “laymen” should be able to follow my articles (I personally am only just moderately musically literate).
At this point it might not be too inappropriate to reminisce about my own introduction to the wondrous world of Stockhausen's “sounds in space”...
I remember the first time I heard Stockhausen - it was a work for piano, percussion and electronically-produced tape, KONTAKTE. At this point in my life (early '90s) I was very familiar with all forms of rock, progressive jazz, and free improvisation. Each of these styles was very important to me and played key roles in my own musical projects. However, when I first heard KONTAKTE on the new music program of the local college radio station (WKCR in New York City) I was completely floored at how it seemed to merge the textures, dynamics and spirit of all three forms of what I considered to be the most exciting styles of the day. And, amazingly, it was recorded in the late 1950s! This was, in fact, the recording of KONTAKTE released on Wergo, with pianist David Tudor and percussionist Cristoph Caskel. Even slotted amongst a broadcast program made up of the best “new music” being produced at the time, KONTAKTE virtually exploded out of my stereo speakers in a fanfare of jaw-dropping, head-spinning multi-dimensional sound.
Not long after this, a program entirely devoted to Stockhausen’s music was aired on the same station. Even now, almost 30 years later I can still recall which pieces were included: TRANS, MANTRA, KONTRA-PUNKTE, GRUPPEN, STERNKLANG, MIKROPHONIE I… (full disclosure: I taped part of the program, so I did get to listen to it over and over again for a couple years…). Some pieces grabbed me right away (KONTRA-PUNKTE, especially), and some left me a bit tired (MANTRA), and some left me confused (TRANS), but in any case from that point forward I was a “Stockhausen-freak”. The following months were occupied with trading “rare” Stockhausen LPs with friends and searching bookstores and libraries for Stockhausen-related treasures (one such being the 2nd, expanded edition of Robin Maconie’s “The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen”, a true predecessor to this site, if anything).
At one point I read a description of HYMNEN and knew instantly that I had to hear it - of course the Deutsche-Grammophon LP was impossible to come across. I ended up calling up WKCR’s mid-week overnight new music program and requesting that they play all four LP sides. Amazingly, they complied (I expect that they didn’t get more than a half-dozen requests a night anyways, and these fellows were obviously Stockhausen fans). Starting at about 2:30 in the early morning, they started Side A and I stayed up to hear the entire 2 hours (3 hours after that I reported to work!). I lost a night’s sleep but gained a magical (and international) sound-world of kaleidoscopic aural imagery. At some point I also discovered such legendary mind-expanding works such as KURZWELLEN and the pieces making up AUS DEN SIEBEN TAGEN. These too, had a profound impact on my development as a listener, performer and composer.
Most of Stockhausen’s popular works at that time came from the ‘50s and ‘60s, with SIRIUS being a kind of cutoff point. It’s not hard to see why, as the LP cover was a bit "distracting", and the textures produced by the EMS Synthi 100 were then not nearly as rich as the manipulated analog tape loops found in the ‘50s works. Additionally, around this time Stockhausen’s catalog was being bought up by the Stockhausen Verlag, and so CDs of more current works were increasingly hard to come by in local shops. Nonetheless, I was able to withdraw CDs of DONNERSTAG AUS LICHT and SAMSTAG AUS LICHT (then still distributed by DG) from the NYPL, and these took me farther into Stockhausen’s '70s world, although I really couldn’t follow the German libretto (nor even fully understand the English explanations in the booklet). However, some scenes (notably MICHAELS REISE and KATHINKAS GESANG) became as much of a favorite to me as the earlier WDR-related “noise” pieces.
My interest in Stockhausen during the following decades can be summarized as periodically-recurring episodes of “Stockhausen-mania”, as I continued in my own musical development as a performer-composer. In the late ‘90s my primary experimental music project Spin-17 (with Motoko Shimizu), recorded a piece dedicated to Stockhausen, “re-interpreting” the “Studio Conversation” embedded in the German region of HYMNEN. Stockhausen never commented on the CD I sent him, but he was good enough to send me the latest catalog from his record label/publishing house at least...
Eventually, in the early half of the 2010s I was developing my skills as a music writer, which led to the creation of this site, easily the largest and most ambitious undertaking in my “music analysis” career.
On a final note, I can heartily recommend that if you really want to get to know Stockhausen’s music, then write your own articles on his works. I tried to make each of my articles/guides as comprehensive as they could be (over 1,000 printed pages in total), but Stockhausen’s works are timeless and multi-faceted, and someone else could create an equally deep overview from a completely different angle - in fact, I’m sure I won’t have to wait long for such a project to arise…