Stockhausen: Always Flying high

Portrait of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen

The Kronos Quartet from the USA has performed plenty of unusual works over the course of its long history. Only once has it ever had to say no – in 1995, when asked to play a work by Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the 20th century’s most uncompromising composers. In Stockhausen’s »Helicopter Quartet« the four musicians take to the sky in separate helicopters, and the sound and video feed are transmitted live to the concert hall. They decided that that was a little too dicey even for them, and they turned Stockhausen down. In the end the work was premiered by the Arditti Quartet from the UK. Stockhausen was present as the air traffic controller of sound to witness the fulfilment of a long-held dream: »Music should fly because I fly«.

Karlheinz Stockhausen bei den Darmstädter Ferienkursen
Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Darmstadt vacation courses © unbezeichnet


Karlheinz Stockhausen dedicated his life to a vision of music that was completely without boundaries, that was liberated from earthly coordinates and conventions. The composer, who was born in Kerpen near Cologne in 1928, began his artistic career as a poet, before going on to study piano, musicology, German and philosophy in Cologne. He retained close ties to the city on the Rhine his whole life, and he made the WDR’s Cologne studio for electronic music an international hotspot for all tape, multitrack and contemporary music aficionados.

Stockhausen never lost this boundless imagination even right up to his death on 5 December 2007. Over the course of almost 60 years, he composed 362 works that revolutionised music and turned listening habits on their head.

»New music evokes new feelings. It allows us to have very different, unusual experiences such as we’ve never had before. That’s why it is so important. It expands us.«

Karlheinz Stockhausen



His scandal work »Gesang der Jünglinge«, which was premiered in Cologne in 1956, is known as the first masterpiece of electronic music. In it, Stockhausen had combined recordings of the human voice with electronic sounds – a dissolution of boundaries that many regarded as a provocation. Furthermore, the music was not performed live on stage, but was played out of speakers placed around the room. The public’s response to this innovation was divided, with cheers and boos finely matched at the premiere.


In 1958 Stockhausen further developed the technique of distributing sound around the room with a work in which three orchestras are positioned around the audience. In »Gruppen«, Stockhausen had sweeps of sound the like of which had never been heard before hurtling and buzzing around the concert hall over the heads of the audience – an event that can be seen as a precursor to surround sound. Although the piece is only rarely played due to its enormous complexity, it is regarded as one of the great works of the 20th century.


With the electronic piece »Hymnen«, a collage of 40 national anthems, Stockhausen laid the groundwork for the technique of sampling, which would later become a central feature of hip-hop. He felt that national anthems, i.e. melodies that everyone knows, were well suited for this piece: »When you integrate familiar music into a composition of unfamiliar new music, it’s easy to hear how exactly it has been integrated: untransformed, more or less transformed, transposed, modulated, etc. The more obvious the what, the more attentive one can be to the how.«


As controversial as some of Stockhausen’s works were, there is hardly another composer who has been so admired by musicians from the worlds of pop, rock and techno. The Beatles immortalised him on the cover of their legendary LP »Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band« and even drew inspiration from the new techniques he developed, for example in their experimental song »Revolution #9«.

The list of admirers includes artists from all genres of music: Berlin-based New Age electronic innovators Tangerine Dream, Düsseldorf’s synth-pop collective Kraftwerk, legendary Cologne krautrock set-up Can, jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Anthony Braxton, the pop singer Björk and cult bands such as The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

Karlheinz Stockhausen Karlheinz Stockhausen © Clive Barda

»When our minds reach the limits of what can be analysed and described, that is where mysticism begins. That’s where I want to go.«

Karlheinz Stockhausen


Stockhausen never left anyone cold: when he and his ensemble spent six months in the Japanese city of Osaka and designed a spherical auditorium for the 1970 World Expo in which the audience is surrounded on all sides by sound, he drew more than a million fans. In Germany all they could do was shake their heads with bafflement at such a response. At home, Stockhausen had long been regarded with terror by those who associated contemporary music with cacophony. Yet the composer had unshakeable self-confidence and disregarded all criticism and malice – he simply carried on exploring new paths with single-minded determination.


In his later years Stockhausen also increasingly enjoyed recognition in his home country too. However, his biggest work – the cosmological piece of musical theatre »Licht« – was never performed in full before his death. He dedicated the years from 1977 to 2002 exclusively to working on this epic project. With religious, mystical, autobiographical and esoteric elements, »Licht« tells the story of the battle between Good and Evil. The piece comprises seven parts, each named after the days of the week. To perform the work in its entirety would take 29 hours. The Hamburg public had to content themselves with just one of the seven parts: »Thursday« was performed on 6 May 2018 during the 3rd Hamburg International Music Festival.

Text: Guido Fischer, last updated: 9 May 2018

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