Program Notes Presented at the Concert
incredible colors, textures, and rhythmic complexity of Stockhausen's
music are of a distinctly 20th-century vintage. Indeed, the taped
sounds and electronically generated sounds of Gesang
der Jünglinge were not technologically possible
until after World War II.
many of his peers, Stockhausen wanted not merely to collage together
found sounds, but to analyze them into such constituent elements
as their attack, decay, frequency, amplitude, and distribution
of overtones, in order to construct entirely new sounds. Stockhausen's
approach to sounds is analogous to uncovering the DNA of a living
organism, and then inventing new gene sequences and new forms
of life. Just as DNA is invisible to the naked eye, and yet governs
the observable structure and behavior of a living organism, in
der Jünglinge, a complex but inaudible mathematical
series governs the music's audible form and activity.
Stockhausen's methods are radical, they exhibit classical music's
centuries-long quest for order and organic unity. Thus Gesang's
recurring phrase, "Preiset den Herrn," meaning "Praise the Lord,"
can be thought of as a descendant of one of Bach's chromatic fugue
melodies, which, in augmentations, diminutions, and inversions,
binds together a fugue. The phrase "Preiset den Herrn," fragmented,
transposed, sped up, slowed down, and altered in timbre, similarly
the screen is a sketch (image 1,
at right) by Stockhausen of what we might call Gesang's
"refrain." The unconventional musical notation is read like a
Cartesian graph, with the vertical axis representing pitch and
the horizontal axis, the passage of time. In this sketch, the
phrase "Preiset den Herrn" is repeated twice, with the resulting
eight syllables distributed over thirteen distinct pitches.
I'll play an excerpt
in which the clearest version of the refrain appears, early in
the piece. It is only five seconds long, so we'll hear the clip
the phrase is fairly comprehensible, but in Gesang's thirteen
minutes, such clarity is the exception. In his treatment of Gesang's
text, the composer quite deliberately skirts the limits of hearing
and of language in order to explore how people make sense out
of sounds. Words and sounds will seem alternately familiar and
strange, and, as the composer intended, they are often indistinguishable
from each other. Indeed, sounds that lie somewhere in between
the human and the mechanical are among Gesang's most mysterious
and affecting timbres.
der Jünglinge's premiere in 1956, nearly half
a century ago, Stockhausen's electronic and spatial innovations
have spread out in all directions. The composer's appearance on
the cover of a Beatles' album (image 2)
is just one example of the many tributes to his enduring influence.
Now let's listen to Gesang