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An analysis of Stockhausen's text pieces

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An analysis of Stockhausen’s text pieces.

 by Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen, Aalborg University, Denmark, 2006.

 The basis for this article is a longer article in Danish which can be found on the internet International Improvised Music Archive (http://www20.brinkster.com/improarchive/) under my name and under the title "Sprog som musikalsk notation".  There is one more short version in German, to be found at the internet location mentioned above.       


Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote two collections of verbally notated pieces for freely variable ensembles: From the Seven Days (1968) and For Times to Come (1970) - I will use the abbreviations Ft7D and FTtC in the following. There are thirty-one pieces in all. And they have many different degrees of freedom, as I am going to demonstrate here. They also range from down-to-earth to very meditative. Besides the original German versions, official versions of both collections exist in English and French as well – see specifications in the literature list. Thus, they have long been available to musicians and scholars internationally. Yet, there still seems to be a need for more exact information on what is really the musical substance of these pieces.

Since the seventies I have had extensive experience with these pieces. In the Group for Intuitive Music Group we have, since 1975, played Stockhausen’s text compositions and our own pieces which were often non-traditionally notated or notated with mixed means. And since 1983 I have regularly lead improvisation courses at Aalborg University and elsewhere. 

The following sections of this article will deal with different instruction types found in these collections: fixing, circumscribing, suggesting and evoking. As should become apparent, "fixing" is the more concrete and direct form in terms of describing the musical outcome, "evoking" the more indirect one, and there are intermediary steps.



Unanimity (from FtTC) begins like this: "Play and/or sing / extremely long quiet sounds / and / extremely short loud sounds". That is, to be sure, a clear description of the material to play, is it not? There are further two pieces in FTtC having as their theme the use of solely long or short sounds – Elongation and Shortening. Right Durations, the very first piece that was composed as part of Ft7D, takes as its theme the duration of single sounds: "Play a sound / play it for so long / until you feel / that you should stop". From this, a greatly sensitive music of durations can result. Like in serial music from the fifties, this music is emancipated from rigid metre, but it is here more immediate and closer to language, because it arises in the moment and was not written out on paper. I have instructed many groups of students in this piece, and while the sounding result of course differs according to the group, it is however every time very clearly a version of the same piece. Set Sail for the Sun (Ft7D – see quote below) is carried by long tones and slow intonation movements of tone. In Communication (FTtC) one finds categories like "as quietly, gently and as long as possible", "moderately loud, rather agitatedly and moderately long" and "as loud, excitedly and as short as possible". They stylize the activity, and every category has a signal function in the piece. Many pieces start explicitly from the single tone or single sound. – Also as to describing the processes there exists quite clear instructions. In Awake (FTtC) the text concludes with "Abrupt end" – a relevant challenge to the habitual way in which improvised often will fade out very gradually. And in Interval (FTtC) one can speak of a form scheme: two single tones are to grow gradually into two chords of each ten tones – after having reached this, chords are to get smaller until only two tones are left again. 


 In this category, specific musical ideas are described which need a certain interpretative activity from the musician. In the examples to follow, various musical states are circumscribed in a both metaphorical and matter-of-fact way: "Play/sing as parallel with the others as possible" from Bird of Passage (FTtC). I would interpret it like this: relatively individual parts, relatively constant playing without much pause, being open to inspiration from the others. "Place each note / on the head of another" from Presentiment (FTtC) – "Break through the note of another" from Outside (FTtC) – "Penetrate into the note of another co-player" from Inside (FTtC) – "Divide the sound of another" from Spectra (FTtC). Those last four examples could be seen as models for the forming of contrasts or, oppositely, the melting together in the process of a common sound created by two players. And what is the theme of Set Sail for the Sun (Ft7D) - ? "play a tone for so long / until you hear its individual vibrations // hold the tone / and listen to the tones of the others / - to all of them together, not to individual ones - / and slowly move your tone / until you arrive at complete harmony / and the whole sound turns to gold / to pure, gently shimmering fire". In my experience this is simply about intonation. It can be achieved by the musicians solely in a teamwork – it could only be prescribed as a certain character they should aim at, but not in a mechanical and exact way. Regardless whether the character in question is "like gold" or like other, interesting qualities! 

There are also descriptions of a common poetical nature being less matter-of-fact. Examples are "Fly away" (Bird of Passage – FTtC) – "nocturnal forest with dialogues" (Awake – FTtC) – "until all [notes] ... / begin to burn" (Inside – FTtC). One can imagine different interpretations, but I would presume there is a good chance of agreeing on something characteristic, because of the probability of a common "program music" frame of reference as to what could be "nocturnal forest" (quiet, low pitches, dark timbres...) or "fire" (fast changing polyphonic movement...). Here, like in most pieces, one may try out a piece several times, maybe with a common dialogue in between and thus, in a sense, "intone" the interpretations together. 

In many cases pieces have very simple, recognizable basic structures which can form complex situations and developments through heterophony –  the part itself appears in various simultaneous augmentations and diminutions and other kinds of variation. Together with the other parts, a complex structure results (one well-known model of such a procedure in composed music is the fugue). This is the case with Meeting Point (Ft7D): "everyone plays the same tone / lead the tone wherever your thoughts / lead you / do not leave it, stay with it / always return / to the same place". It will be easy to hear how the parts move away from the agreed-upon tone and come back to it. But how the complex pattern of these movements turn out has not been determined. Something similar is valid for Right Durations (see above). In Unanimity (FTtC) there is a special direction for the process: "Try to play/sing / more and more attacks / SYNCHRONOUSLY with the others / without visual signs". Taken literally this might be impossible. But the attempts produce a special intensity and alternating episodes of condensed activity followed by relative relaxation. Despite the short statement this is a piece having a strong identity. To my ears, it always sounds "pronouncedly expressionistic" (also when played by different groups).  


I will quote Vibration (FTtC) as an advanced example of a multi-layered music:

 All together – all separate 

All together – all separate 

    and so on: slowly accelerate (linger three times)


accelerate further




Now we have reached, however, only the first level. The process is to go on, by square multiplication as it were -:


    All together – all separate


    All together – all separate





To my experience this is literally a piece that can make you dizzy, and yet all descriptions are rather concrete. The process must be synchronized, and the idea of "together-separate" may be easy enough to understand. But to realize it is a challenge that calls for collective virtuosity! 


There is a series of five pieces (in Ft7D) dealing with macro- and micro-dimensions of cosmos. Here, the imagination of the musician is required in order to translate, for instance, the following elements from "Downwards" into musical phenomena:

 play a vibration in the rhythm of your limbs

play a vibration in the rhythm of your cells

play a vibration in the rhythm of your molecules

play a vibration in the rhythm of your atoms

play a vibration in the rhythm of your smallest particles which your inner ear can reach (...)

 For all these pieces, the serial notion about a continuum is the structuring principle, and this might perhaps simplify the task of the interpreter. "First, to fit all isolated phenomena into a continuum, and then work out and compose contrasting elements from this continuum" (Stockhausen, 1959). Both the interpreters and those listeners who look at this text will have an inner "map" on which the different "landscape forms" appear with a common denominator – comparable to elevations, for instance.

Stockhausen relates how "rhythm of your thinking" was once concretized: as a preliminary exercise, close the eyes and tap with a pencil every time there is a change of thought.  

In this preliminary exercise we have an instance of that which is the matter in the next section:



Finally there are also instructions for preparations which are to produce or evoke meditative dispositions in the musician. Bearing in mind the big controversies having taken place in Germany, it is of primary importance to observe how different the pieces are. Gold Dust (Ft7D) is probably without discussion the most extreme one – one may only perform it after having lived four days alone without eating. Arrival (Ft7D) is much easier accessible – to imagine energies within your body, in a way comparable to that of usual yoga practise, like it is taught at yoga schools everywhere. A different meditation, that seeks out of the multitude of thoughts and waits for inner silence to appear, form the introduction of IT (Ft7D) and continues during the piece. A very simple, but potentially very effective imagination which could be categorized as bordering on the category of  poetic descriptions can be found in Unlimited (Ft7D): "play a sound / with the certainty / that you have an infinite amount of time and space". Related to this is Intensity (Ft7D): "play single sounds / with such dedication / until you feel the warmth / that radiates from you (...)". So, the target groups of meditation practitioners consists in the first case of only special adventurers, in the second case it includes all those who have had some yoga meditation training, and the two last pieces are suitable even for untrained people! 


 Some pieces, for instance Right Durations and Unanimity, preserve their sounding identity to a high degree from one performance to another and from one group to another. This is not necessarily the case with all pieces. Hugh Davies gives us a dialectical view on this, in stating, concerning Intensity, that this piece sounds in all cases different from a totally free improvisation without any givens. So the basis for Intensity is an inner structure, just like composers may work with inner structures which one cannot directly hear. This is, however, an extreme case in practise. Even a piece like IT, which maybe has been "fixed" to an amount of 40% but of which 60% has been "evoked" in a seemingly unpredictable way, has according to Stockhausen (in "Fragen und Antworten...") a very definite sounding identity, consisting of sudden actions – and personally I can only confirm this.


In Ft7D and FTtC we encounter a number of instruction types which may be combined and which can be viewed in a continuum:

 1) instructions which describe musical phenomena and processes in quite concrete terminology, for instance: 

"extremely long quiet sounds" 

"Abrupt end" 

2) instructions which characterize musical phenomena in a circumscribing way: 

- in a metaphorical-concrete way, for instance:

"Play/sing as parallel with the others as possible" 

- in a metaphorical-poetic way, for instance:

" nocturnal forest with dialogues " 

- models of processes which do, statistically, govern a specific character but which also produce unpredictable results, for instance:

" Try to play/sing / more and more attacks / SYNCHRONOUSLY with the others" 

3) Instructions which suggest musical phenomena but which leave a wide space open for individually different interpretations, for instance:

"play a vibration in the rhythm of your atoms" 

4) Instructions which aim at suggesting or creating a disposition for playing, for instance:

"play single sounds / with such dedication / until you feel the warmth / that radiates from you"  

The existence of such a continuum of instruction types is scarcely accidental but has come out of Stockhausens' serial thinking – cf. Kohl's striking observations. As Maconie says, the musical thoughts in FTtC "by and large...take on a more practical turn", compared to Ad7T. Even though there is not a sharp transition, in the second collection there is more fixing, while the "cosmic" pieces and those concerned with meditation form a strikingly large part of Ft7D.  Historically, FTtC came later, however, and it may still be less known.  


One of the reasons why Ft7D and FTtC consist of very useful contributions to a repertory with a new performance practise is the fact that they were created by a musician who was familiar with working with musical parameters in an exact way. Any musician seeking around here can select pieces with just the right kind of freedom or fixing, the right kind of meditation or concrete description. 

In music literature, Maconie, Kohl, Davies and Bojé provide helpful information about the text pieces – see the literature list and its comments. 

Critical mention must, however, go to several other authors here. Brindle, author of a book on experimental music which are in other respects both comprehensive and reliable, makes a  summarizing statement. He reproaches Stockhausen for having written "deliberately and fanatically impracticable" pieces, along with such ones that are "reasonably enough". How can he make the first statement when even Gold Dust has been made successfully at several occasions ? However, he can, at least, be credited for allowing Stockhausen's endeavours to appear before the reader represented by two very different examples. He is also aware that the text pieces constitute instructions of quite different kinds: this could be, according to him, "a verse or text which suggests a mood the players must create, a manner of playing, a certain kind of musical action, combinations of these, etc". In other cases however, one might doubt whether the authors have even studied the collections they make characterizing statements about. Sutherland, also author of a general book on experimental music history which treats other kinds of improvisation and new notations seriously, describes the text pieces as simply "deliberately vague or enigmatic". Hermann-Christoph Müller who is even the author of  pioneering books on indeterminate performance practise and on Stockhausen's Prozession, wrote in an article on that work about the text pieces that they, in his view, "rather suggest a psycho-physical disposition to music making than a clear musical notion". As we have seen, this may be true for some pieces using "suggesting" and "evoking" strategies, but not for them all. It seems that all these authors fail to grasp the fact that Stockhausen indeed does deal with music material using words, making indications of what is to sound or not. Such superficial statements in general music history books and from authors who appear as specialists in the field blur the discussion.

 What we are waiting for as something really new about new music seems to be a performance practise which no longer negates the possible exuberance of a free playing together. Through teamwork on equal terms between composer and musician, musicians and listeners are not just having a more interesting time, but also more musical insights. If anyone at this point thinks about Stockhausens' much-commented role as sound projector at the mixing console, then one will have to say that this arrangement has no relevance whatever for what other ensembles do at their own performances. We should loosen the authority of the notes. We are entitled to enjoy, musicians and listeners alike, that we can be nearer to the creation process. That the only form of music-making should be a reproductive one exactly like at the time of Papa Haydn is not ethically defendable any longer either. Verbal notation is a practical means among others to make possible this freedom, no more, no less. 


Shorter articles on Intuitive Music can be found under Stockhausen Society 'Articles' Link



Bailey, Derek: "The composer - in practice" (1), Improvisation. Its Nature and practice in Music, S. 70-74, Dorchester (The Brit. Libr. Nat. Sound Arch.) 1992. Interview with the musician Anthony Pay about his experience with the orchestral piece Ylem in Stockhausens' instruction. This touches also upon principal aspects of improvising from the musicians' point of view 

Bailey, Derek: "The composer ‑ in question", Improvisation. Its Nature and practice in Music, S. 79‑781, Dorchester (The Brit. Libr. Nat. Sound Arch.) 1992.  Contains comments from Hugh Davies to Intensity (From the Seven Days). These statements are dialectically being opposed to statements by Evan Parker about dealing with composition at all instead of freely improvising. 

Bergstrøm-Nielsen, Carl: see also the articles stated right in the beginning of this text. 

Bergstrøm-Nielsen, Carl: Experimental Improvisation Practise and Notation 1945-1999. An Annotated Bibliography. http://www20.brinkster.com/improarchive/ , 2002.  The section G2.2 (both text part and appendix part) deals with Stockhausen literature relevant to the text pieces. 

Blumröder, Christoph von: Die Grundlegung der Musik Karlheinz Stockhausens, Stuttgart (Franz Steiner Verlag) 1993.  The serial procedures in some of the pieces from Aus den Sieben Tagen are contemplated p. 167f 

Bojé, Harald:  Feedback Papers 16, August,  1978.  Twelve of the pieces from Aus den Sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days) are scrutinized with a view to the practical interpretation. Bojé was a member of the Stockhausen Group which toured 1968-70 with intuitive music. 

Brindle, Reginald Smith:  (1975), Oxford (Oxford University Press) 1986 (sec.ed).  This is a general book on new music which also treats themes like improvisation and new notationsl, despite a certain sceptical attitude. 

Brinkmann, Reinhold:  Neue Zeitschrift für Musik Nr.9, Sept.,  1974.  In the name of Marxism this author airs an absolute allergy against everything which is not rational, as well as against meditation. 

Davies, Hugh:  Musics 1, april/may, 1975.  General introduction to Aus den sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days) from a musician. 

Kohl, Jerome: "Serial determinism and "intuitive music", In Theory Only. Journal of the Michigan Music Theory Society vol.3, number 12, March, Ann Arbor, Michigan 1978.   The author examines Stockhausens' notion of serialism and the compositional construction of the pieces of Aus den Sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days). Furthermore, the relations of the pieces to one another in the collection is also analyzed and seen as organized according to similar principles. This is an important article that clarifies the relation of the Aus den Sieben Tagen pieces to Stockhausens' general notions of music. 

Kurtz, Michael: "Aus den sieben Tagen (1968-70)", Stockhausen. Eine Bibliographie. Kassel (Bärenreiter), 1988. Biographical and performance history information around this collection (From the Seven Days)


Lekfeldt, Jørgen: Section "Aus den sieben Tagen: den personlige oplevelse, meditation og kreativitet", i: Sölle og Stockhausen - musikkens teologi og teologiens musik, p. 147-155, Viborg (Schønberg), Denmark1991 Describes the biographical background of the music, the inspiration from yoga and the open, verbally notated music as an invitation to creative activity. The book also contains a detailed portrait of aesthetic principles in the music of Stockhausen. On both music analytical and general philosophical basis, the music of Stockhausen is compared to the theology of Sölle. Both are interpreted as expressions of emancipative/utopical modernity. A key concept with Stockhausen is the equality of the musical elements - an aesthetic principle that originated in the equality of parameters and their steps within serial music of the fifties. In music with ambiguous notation, also both musicians and different performances are equal.

Maconie, Robin: "Aus den sieben Tagen" + "Für Kommende Zeiten", The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen, p.250‑261, London 1976.  Analytical comments. Also a second edition from 1990 exists. 

Müller, Hermann-Christoph: Zur Theorie und Praxis indeterminierter Musik. Aufführungspraxis zwischen Experiment und Improvisation. Regensburg (Gustav Bosse Verlag), 1994. Part of a series: Kölner Beiträge zur Musikforschung (Niemöller, Klaus Wolfgang ed.) Band 179.   The author examines analytically some important open works: Cage: Variations I - Wolff: In Between Pieces for Three Players - Stockhausen: Prozession - Earle Brown: Folio. December 1952. As a conclusion of the book it is maintained that it is inadequate to view indeterminate music only from the method of composition or from the reception. Only when performance practise is considered it becomes clear that interpretation of the music overlaps with the area belonging to composition. 

Stockhausen, Karlheinz: Aus den Sieben Tagen / From the Seven Days. Wien (Universal Edition UE 14790). The first UE edition was in German solely, a later edition has English versions as well. French edition is separate: Venue des sept jours: UE14790F. 1968. 

Stockhausen, Karlheinz: Stockhausen, Karlheinz: Für kommende Zeiten (For times to come / Pour les temps a venir). 17 Texte für Intuitive Musik. Kürten (Stockhausen-Verlag), 1970. 

Stockhausen, Karlheinz: "Aus den sieben Tagen", Texte III, Köln (DuMont) 1971B.  Program note. 

Stockhausen, Karlheinz: "Fragen und Antworten zur intuitiven Musik", Texte IV, p. 130-144, Köln (DuMont) 1978. (English version, see below).  Transscript from a discussion with Stockhausen. Important text on intuitive music, on the freedom from clichés and the intuition. To be highly recommended. For an English version, see the booklet to Stockhausen Complete CD Edition CD14A-G. 

Stockhausen in Nevill, Tim (ed.): "Intuitive Musik", p.35‑44, Towards a Cosmic Music, selected and translated by Tim Nevill, Longmead, Shaftesbury, Dorset (Element Books Ltd.) 1989.  Includes, among other things, interviews with Stockhausen on intuitive music from 1969 and 1973. 

Stockhausen, Karlheinz: "Musik und Sprache", Darmstädter Beiträge zur neuen Musik 1, Mainz 1958. Also in: Die Reihe 6, Wien 1960 – both German and English versions ("Music and language"). 

Maconie, Robin (ed.): "Intuitive music", Stockhausen on Music. Lectures and interviews compiled by Robin Maconie, London/NY (Marion Boyars Publishers) 1991.  From a lecture in London 1971. Stockhausen tells about experiences with the works in plus-minus notation which preceded those From the Seven Days and examines some of its works (Right Durations; Unlimited; Connection; IT) providing comments and reports from the playing experiences. Good introductory text. 

Sutherland, Roger: New Perspectives in Music, London (Sun TavernFields), 1994.

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