PRINT March 2008


IT IS AN HONOR to write about Karlheinz Stockhausen, since he was my hero in the late ’50s. I was perhaps predisposed to twelve-tone technique because my high school harmony teacher, Clyde Sorenson, had studied at UCLA with Arnold Schönberg. I also took classes at LA City College from 1953 until 1957 under Leonard Stein, the noted pianist and former assistant to Schönberg.

Leonard was very kind to me and took me under his wing. He selected which recordings of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók, Schönberg, Berg, and Webern I should listen to and pulled them from the music department library, along with scores for my study. He literally introduced me to contemporary music, and I began to study composition and counterpoint with him privately. He was my most important composition teacher until 1970, when I became a disciple of Pandit Pran Nath and took up my lifelong study of Indian classical raga singing. Not only did Leonard introduce me to Stockhausen’s music, he introduced me to Stockhausen himself. Because Leonard was Schönberg’s disciple, his letter of recommendation gained my admission to Stockhausen’s elite Advanced Composition seminar at the International Summer Courses in Darmstadt in 1959.

In 1957, in my octet for Brass, I began to introduce, within the serial style, very long tones. In the middle section, there are tones sustained for comparatively long durations. There are also silences, after which another long tone enters. This technique became more refined and perfected in 1958 in the Trio for Strings, which, while constructed as a serial piece, has silences and pitches of longer duration and greater emphasis on harmony, to the exclusion of almost any semblance of what had been generally known as melody. Even though the Trio introduced an approach to composing and hearing that had not previously existed in music, I consider it to be a very classical work. It is a serial composition constructed with classical twelve-tone technique. The macrostructure follows classical form in that there is an exposition section, development, recapitulation, and coda.

From the mid-’50s to this day, Webern’s work stands out among my influences as one of the most important examples of clarity. In Schönberg’s music, theme and content are frequently separated from row technique, whereas in Webern, row technique is very strictly coordinated with thematic and motivic materials. Just as the music of Webern was an important model for Stockhausen’s development of serial technique, in my Trio for Strings I tried to carry Webern’s coordinated approach much further by making the serial technique synonymous with the audible structure of the work. For instance, the entire exposition section is taken up with one statement of the theme, which is comprised of only the twelve notes of the row in its original form. As in Webern, the entries and exits of the pitches are quite independent, but the handling of time is like late Webern in augmentation. It is as though time were telescoped: What for Webern would have taken a few minutes, for me takes about an hour. Many years later, the musicologist K. Robert Schwarz would call the Trio “a landmark in the history of twentieth-century music and the virtual fountainhead of American musical minimalism.”

I completed my Trio for Strings in Los Angeles just before leaving for graduate school at UC Berkeley and proudly presented the score to Seymour Shifrin, who was teaching the Free Composition seminar. However, after considerable attention to the Trio, Seymour basically told me I was writing music like an eighty-year-old man and I should be writing music that was going places, with lines and climaxes, vitality and youth, and, further, if I wrote in the style of the Trio in his class, he would not be able to give me a grade! I told Seymour that I didn’t think music had to go anywhere and that I was interested in stasis such as the gamuts (constellations of pitches in which given identities are repeated at the same octave placement) found in the music of Webern, Nono, and Stockhausen and in the restricted sets of pitches in modal music such as gagaku and Indian classical music.

Ultimately, I wrote Study I for piano (January 1959) to demonstrate to Seymour that I could indeed write music that more overtly included elements considered to be the conventions of European classical tradition. I wrote Study I in such a way that the slow sections are an outgrowth of the style of the Trio for Strings and, even more clearly than the Prelude in F minor (1957) and the Sarabande (1959), portend the slow sections of The Well-Tuned Piano (1964–), while the fast sections were more inspired by Stockhausen’s “as fast as possible” writing and portend the clouds of The Well-Tuned Piano.

After Schönberg, Berg, and Webern, Stockhausen, Boulez, and Nono became the Holy Trinity of serial music. In my first year as a graduate student at Berkeley, I was so enthralled with Stockhausen’s music that I cut my Technical Projects Composition seminar with Professor “B” in order to travel to Los Angeles to hear the California premiere of the electronic composition Gesang der Jünglinge (1955–56) at UCLA. I was deeply moved by Gesang and thought it was very beautiful. When I returned, Professor “B” asked me why I had missed class, and I explained that I had gone to Los Angeles to hear Stockhausen’s music. Professor “B” said, “I don’t think that was very important.” Always having a tongue that was sometimes too sharp for my own good, I quickly replied, “I thought you would think that.” When Seymour learned that I liked Gesang der Jünglinge (literally, “Song of the Youths”), he said that Stockhausen had been a Hitler-Jugend, and therefore a Nazi, and that he thought Gesang was horrible, like cutting the voices out of the throats of little boys (it was created from a number of electronically generated sources, as well as the processed sound of the singing of a young boy). The atrocities and wounds from the Holocaust were still fresh and bleeding, and Seymour’s reaction was emotionally completely understandable but musically totally unjustified.

Having had such a discouraging result from showing the Trio for Strings to Shifrin, I did not show the Trio to Karlheinz when I first arrived in Darmstadt in the summer of 1959. At that point, I felt that most people would probably never understand it, so I showed him Study I for piano instead, since it was inspired by his approach to piano writing, including “as fast as possible”–type passages and large intervallic leaps.

Karlheinz was a brilliant lecturer. In class, when he was talking about the concept of combination-permutation, he said, “It’s simple. Any hausfrau can do it. You have a fish. You chop it up this way or you chop it up that way. You cook it this way or you cook it that way. But in the end, it’s still fish.” It brought the house down!

David Tudor was the pianist-in-residence at Darmstadt that summer, and Karlheinz did a great deal to promote John Cage, who had been the featured composer the previous summer. I was very impressed with David’s interpretations and performances of indeterminate scores by Cage, Bussotti, and others. Although Terry Jennings had earlier introduced me to the Cage String Quartet in Four Parts (1949–50), and Dennis Johnson had introduced me to the Sonatas and Interludes (1946– 48), at Darmstadt I had the opportunity to read more of Cage’s lectures, hear recordings of his works, and hear his philosophy expounded by Stockhausen. When I returned to Berkeley, I began performing Cage’s music and talking about his work, much to the dismay of the music faculty.

In Stockhausen’s class in Darmstadt, I wrote Study III for piano. The entire work is based on the number seven. My presentation of the structural techniques created quite a stir in the class, and Karlheinz devoted considerable class discussion time to talking about my ideas for composing the work. In the composition, there are seven pitch gamuts, each with seven pitches; a series of seven durations; six duration augmentations, each augmentation seven times as long as one of the durations in the original set, making a total of seven sets of durations, including the original set; and seven dynamic values. Further rules of seven pertain to the repetition of pitches before moving to another gamut, when to move from one set of durations to one of the augmentations, and so on. At that time, Karlheinz even suggested that I could also use frequency ratios factorable by seven. It was a good idea, but I would have had to use electronic equipment, which in 1959 did not exist outside of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne, or to retune a piano, since all the pianos at Darmstadt were in equal temperament.

One thing I will never forget, however, is that the day before the student recital for Karlheinz’s class, David Tudor, who was to play Study III, inexplicably lost the score and then, just as inexplicably, found it the day after the concert. I was always suspicious about this sudden loss and sudden recovery that there might have been a conspiracy. How could David Tudor, the greatest and most meticulous performer of new music of all time, lose a score? It was a radical piece for its long silences and long sustained pitches, which, of course, faded away long before their notated values—but was it that radical? It was only eleven minutes, forty-five seconds long. David later played much more radical examples of my music all around the world. But in all fairness to him, Study III was probably completed only hours before the deadline, and it did contain ferociously fast passages with wild leaps and complex rhythms. Knowing how hard David would work to realize a difficult piece, maybe there was just not enough time for him to learn it, and perhaps he thought it best to lose the score overnight. Study III was my last serial composition. The permutations of serial technique primarily imply possibilities of ordinal organization. Ordinal organization applies to sequence, which in music is line or melody. However, the increasing emphasis on concurrent frequencies or harmony in my work implied the possibility of the organization of the cardinal (quantitative) values in regard both to how many frequencies are concurrent and to the relationship of the frequencies to one another.

On my last day at Darmstadt, all of the students and teachers gathered together outdoors on the front lawn. I was sitting with Stockhausen, and I finally got up the courage to show him the Trio. After studying it very seriously for a while, he said to me, “Why didn’t you show me this at the beginning?” This immediately made me realize that my earliest intuitions about Stockhausen’s highly creative imagination had been absolutely correct and I should have shown him the Trio straight away. He was on a totally different plane from the academic composers at Berkeley, and over time we developed a long and interactive relationship. One of the tapes I brought back from Darmstadt was Stockhausen’s Gruppen for three orchestras (1955–57). For me, it was and still is a masterpiece from the period of advanced serial writing of the late ’50s.

On his earliest released recording, of 1959, in Elektronische Studie I (1953) and Elektronische Studie II (1954), Karlheinz used sine waves, and in Studie II they were processed through an echo chamber in groups of five. He was one of the first composers to work with sine waves (my electronic-music teacher Richard Maxfield wrote Sine Music in 1959), and it is perhaps noteworthy that I later went on to create music with sine waves as the exclusive sound sources in my Dream House sound environments.

Cornelius Cardew was in the enviable position of being Stockhausen’s assistant for his Darmstadt Advanced Composition seminar. Cornelius was a very creative composer and a brilliant performer. He was the first person to write about Stockhausen in relation to my work. In the Musical Times (London) of November 1966, Cardew wrote:

The tape was a recording of a recent private performance by La Monte Young in New York City. Many god-fearing musicians in this country will no doubt deny the existence of this composer, claiming complacently that he is a figment and a hoax foisted on the public by a snide BBC (the Third Programme’s New Comment series once broadcast 62 for Henry Flynt [Arabic Numeral (any integer) for Henry Flynt, April 1960], a composition by La Monte Young that consists of repeated loud clusters played on the piano as uniformly and regularly as possible). But he is real.

. . . (La Monte sent the Henry Flynt piece in response to a request from [Leonard] Stein for a piano piece to take on European tour—Stein did not play the work). In 1959 he [Young] came to Europe for the composition course given by Stockhausen at the Darmstadt Summer School of New Music. It was difficult for the two composers—both “giants” of new music as it has turned out—to find a level of communication, but there must have been some important interchange of a non-verbal kind. Stockhausen’s Piano Piece IX begins with 139 repetitions of the same chord progressing from maximum to minimum loudness—a weak, aesthetic version of the piece For Henry Flynt—and conversely the complex manipulations of random number tables that constitute the groundwork of La Monte’s early pieces surely owe something to the “statistical field” theory that Stockhausen was elaborating at the time. My conjecture is that La Monte was impressed by Stockhausen’s ability to think schematically, and Stockhausen was impressed by La Monte’s ability to act (i.e., write music) schematically. Subsequent developments have shown that the two “giants” had at least one vital weakness in common: an enormous susceptibility to the seduction of pure sound.

In 1968, Stockhausen attended my solo vocal performance with sine waves of Map of 49’s Dream the Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals with Marian Zazeela’s Ornamental Lightyears Tracery projections at the Barbizon-Plaza Theatre in New York. However, he listened from the lobby during the entire performance because he was concerned that the loudness of my sine waves might damage his hearing.

In Minimalism: Origins (1993), Edward Strickland states: “Just as Young helped lead his teacher Stockhausen towards the overtones of Stimmung and similar works, his sustenance influenced Cage works much later, notably the 1989 string quartet Four.” In Four Musical Minimalists (2000), Keith Potter wrote: “Young’s influence on John Cage in the 1960s has already been discussed. His influence on already established composers who were themselves his student mentors is not, however, confined to Cage. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s exploration of the harmonic series, notably in Stimmung (1968), has often been linked to Young’s example. . . . The German composer seems to have visited Young and Zazeela when in New York, in 1964 or 1965, and listened to a rehearsal of The Theatre of Eternal Music. He requested tapes of the group’s performances which, perhaps surprisingly, Young gave him. Stockhausen’s own musicians [the entire Stimmung ensemble] visited Young and Zazeela’s Dream House installation in Antwerp in 1969 [to hear them sing amplified over sine wave drones].” In fact, Jon Hassell first heard my music on the tapes Stockhausen took to Cologne and presented in his seminars, and those recordings apparently inspired Jon, who would later become one of the most important performers in the Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble.

My synchronization of rhythm with frequency in The Well-Tuned Piano may owe some of its original inspiration to Stockhausen’s delineation of the continuum of rhythm and frequency presented in his Darmstadt Advanced Composition seminar and the article “. . . wie die Zeit vergeht . . . ” in Die Reihe in 1957, translated by Cornelius Cardew as “...How Time Passes...” in the English version of the journal in 1959. (Die Reihe was, of course, the new-music periodical edited by Stockhausen and Herbert Eimert from 1955 to 1962.) Although composer and critic Kyle Gann feels that Stockhausen is indebted to Henry Cowell for the basic concepts, it is nonetheless a fact that I first encountered the idea through Karlheinz.

In order to have a concept of the measurement of time, it is necessary to have a concept of periodicity. Notions regarding the interrelationship of rhythm, frequency, and time from Stockhausen’s class and essay must have quietly percolated over the years in my internal creative-processing system until they evolved into one of the most important techniques I introduced into music: the realization in real-time performance of the continuum of rhythm and frequency. Since it was possible to have the piano on location for one month prior to the Well-Tuned Piano performance series in 1975, I was able to perfect the tuning to rare degrees from time to time over the total two-month period of tuning and concerts. Then, as a result of this careful tuning of my harmonically related intervals and through the application of the special fingering techniques I had developed, a remarkable series of events transpired. As I played some of the longer sections of very fast permutations and combinations of specific sets of pitches, it actually became possible to hear the composite waveform of some of the sets. Extraordinary periodic acoustical beats became suspended in the air like a cloud over the piano, sometimes even filling the entire space during the energy accumulations of the longest passages. It was at this point that I became aware of the development of a phenomenon that, to my knowledge, no other musician has ever presented. That is, I found that my fingers were synchronizing the rhythms of the hammers with the rhythms of the acoustical beats in such a way that it became a type of resonance system. In this system of resonances, the positive pulses created by the rhythms of the hammers are synchronized to reinforce the positive pulses of the waveform of the frequency of the acoustical beats, which in turn determine the frequency of the rhythm of the hammers. And concomitant with the phenomenon of this system of resonances is the demonstration of a controlled, audible, acoustical synchronization between rhythm and frequency in live performance (without the aid of electronics) for the first time in the history of music.

Sometimes important events come with surprising coincidence, and inasmuch as this is a memorial tribute, I am sure Karlheinz would want me to mention the great American musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock and the distinguished American composer Andrew Imbrie, with whom I studied Twentieth-Century Chamber Music Analysis at Berkeley, since all three died on the same day, December 5, 2007. And in the same spirit, but on a much more tragic note, the untimely and much-unsung deaths of Terry Jennings, who was murdered on December 11, 1981, and Cornelius Cardew, whose end came from a hit-and-run driver two days later.

I want to thank Karlheinz for being there for me as an inspiration in the late ’50s. Also, it was partly through his influence that I went on to be inspired by Cage.

When we heard that Karlheinz had died, Marian and I said to each other almost simultaneously that it was hard to believe, because he was such a strong presence it seemed like he would live forever. Two days later, one of my students from Ireland, Brendan O’Connor, wrote to us and said, “I am stunned. I thought he might live forever. What a man, and what a composer. He’ll live on in our hearts and minds forever more.” Such is the impact of one who dedicates his life to his dream, his vision, with purity and never-ending commitment. Of course, his music and his influence will live on forever, eternally reminding us of . . . how time passes . . .

La Monte Young is a New York–based composer.