PRINT March 2016


Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klang

Karlheinz Stockhausen, Klang—4. Stunde: Himmels-Tür (Sound—Fourth Hour: Heaven’s Door), 2005. From Klang: Die 24 Stunden des Tages (Sound: The 24 Hours of the Day), 2004–2007. Performance view, Teatro Rossini, Lugo, Italy, June 13, 2006. Stuart Gerber. Photo: Alan Taquet.

BEGINNING ON MARCH 25, in celebration of the opening of the Met Breuer—the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new satellite in the old Whitney Museum building on Madison Avenue—a complete performance of all twenty-one sections of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s unfinished cycle Klang (2004–2007) will be presented for the first time in the United States. This US premiere, undoubtedly one of the cultural highlights of the spring season in New York, will be performed over the course of two days, in three locations: the Met Breuer, the Met, and the Cloisters.

When the German composer began writing this cycle of chamber pieces in 2004, as he related in an interview with Dutch journalist Thea Derks two years later, Klang constituted the next step in a logical progression of works that engage the affect of temporal cycles.1 The forebear of this series, Stockhausen’s Tierkreis (Zodiac, 1975–77), presents a unique melody for each star sign. Material from this work became a basis for his six-and-a-half-hour, four-part science-fiction opera Sirius (1975–77), which chronicles the twelve months of the year. Finally, Licht (Light, 1977–2003) is an ambitious cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week.

Nominally, Klang is the onomatopoetic, literally clangorous German word for “sound.” For Stockhausen, Klang became the “mystical voice from the beyond, which accompanies the voice of the conscience—in German, die Stimme des Gewissens.”2 The composer explained to Derks that the pieces, although bearing the sequential subtitles 1. Stunde (First Hour), 2. Stunde, and so on, were not literally one hour long, but represented “the different moods of each hour”—reminiscent of how Indian ragas are classified according to times of day.

The works that constitute the Klang cycle are for smaller forces. There is a piece for organ and voices, and another for two harps; there are solo works for bass clarinet, flute, and trumpet, and compositions for electronics, either with acoustic instruments or alone. Stockhausen began the cycle when he was seventy-six years old, and by the time of the Derks interview he was seventy-seven and had by his own reckoning completed only four of the twenty-four parts. His plan was to complete two new works in the cycle each year, so that it would be complete by the time he reached ninety—if, as he put it, “I am not called away before.”

In his late works, Stockhausen articulated a complex network encompassing spectacle, ritual, performance, drama, and spirituality. In a probing 1983 interview in Der Spiegel, the composer was asked whether it could be consistent with his notion of “cosmic consciousness” if listeners encountered his music “in a trance.” He responded, “I would prefer that they watch. . . . The spirit must be fully awake.”

Klang’s theatrical elements, albeit not specifically operatic as with Licht, are nonetheless ever present. In keeping with Licht’s emphasis on the relations among the senses, Stockhausen synesthetically associated each of the “hours” of Klang with a color, according to a cycle originally created by the 1909 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, Wilhelm Ostwald; the musicians are required to wear the requisite color for the hour in performance.3

By 1950, composers such as Stockhausen in Germany, Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen in France, and Milton Babbitt in the United States were pursuing “total serialism,” in which a restricted number set was used to control not only pitch but texture, timbre, duration, dynamics, and much more.Total serialism was an organicist metaphor that promised formal self-similarity, and Stockhausen’s recombinatory refashioning of this classic musical serialism grounds Klang on a twenty-four-note, two-octave chromatic scale.

Even by music theorists, chromatic-scale serialism has been likened to a form of advanced “clock arithmetic” (arithmetic modulo 12), and in that sense one cannot help comparing the plan of Klang to that of Christian Marclay’s 2010 film The Clock, which synchronizes montaged images containing timepieces in Hollywood films to the ordinary time of day being experienced by the film’s viewers. The film lasts precisely one day, and when an on-screen clock shows, say, 2:17, the viewer can check her smartphone and see the same time.

What is more or less missing from the Marclay opus, however, is Stockhausen’s ardently expressed spirituality. While Boulez eventually abandoned total serialism, musicologist Richard Toop noted that Stockhausen saw the practice as a kind of “acoustic theology, an attempted paradigm of a divine creation in which all elements were constantly present in perfect balance, but never in the same configuration.”4 Stockhausen himself raised this fealty to formal systems to a higher power, declaring in the Spiegel interview that “everything I create as a composer should have a relationship to the order of the stars and to the universal laws.”

In contrast to their African American experimentalist contemporaries, such as Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, and Muhal Richard Abrams, few European composers of the twentieth century were noted for consistently addressing spiritual concerns in their work; Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, and Jonathan Harvey are among the best known. Those composers who did address spiritual matters tended to avoid the astrological, as well as decidedly nonmainstream sources such as The Urantia Book, a work of unknown and purportedly extraterrestrial authorship, on which the cosmology of both Licht and Klang is based.5

Stockhausen’s long-standing and complex engagement with the spiritual also encompassed lifelong research into the myths, legends, folkways, traditions, and religious and musical practices of many cultures. Although he found “superficial” the frequent comparison between his work and Richard Wagner’s, Parsifal presages both Klang and Licht with its multiplicity of spiritual leanings. Wagner’s mid-1850s encounter with the writings of Schopenhauer sparked his study of Buddhism, which influenced the rest of his operas and even extended to an 1856 sketch for a music drama based onthe life of the Buddha.6 In a further parallel with Stockhausen’s return to Christian eschatology in Licht, in The Gay Science Friedrich Nietzsche remarks that Wagner was also pursuing “an occasional rapprochement with Catholic-Christian formulas and sentiments.”7

In the 1983 interview, Stockhausen expressed eagerness for first contact with extraterrestrials and had a ready response for this eventuality: “I’d call up the interpreters of my piece Sirius, and if the guests from Sirius would request a musical contribution from me, there would be another performance of Sirius in the cloister of the cathedral in Bonn.”In fact, in the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks’s 1991 novella The State of the Art, which depicts a late-’70s first-contact scenario between an advanced galactic culture and Earth, the massively powerful AI that runs the ship eagerly suggests to a somewhat skeptical humanoid crew that they should listen assiduously to Stockhausen.

The plot of Sirius, in which beings from that star system visit Earth, reminds us that the composer’s work emerged in the age of structuralist anthropology and strongly recalls Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen’s contemporaneously astonishing but now strongly contested research on the West African Dogon people, in which a Dogon creation story centers on their origins in the Sirius system. In any case, those Stockhausen works that anticipated sampling culture also predated current controversies over cultural appropriation and inheritance.

Perhaps Klang was Stockhausen’s premonition of his own passing, but in the Derks interview, recorded well after he started the cycle, he did not sound particularly unwell and made no comments indicating that he saw Klang as his final work. Nonetheless, it is clear that in the last year of his life, the composer was working at an extraordinary pace. In 2007 alone he far outstripped his projected plan of composition, finishing twelve sections of Klang rather than two. In early December of that year, with twenty-one of the twenty-four pieces completed, he died at age seventy-nine after a short illness.

As Stockhausen told his Spiegel interlocutor, “Everything you do on this planet has a meaning if it is in accordance with what you were before being human, and what you become after.”

“Do you consider yourself immortal?” the interviewer asked.

“Yes,” the composer replied without hesitation. “Every spirit is immortal, if it wants to be.”

Composer, performer, musicologist, and experimental musician George E. Lewis is Edwin H. Case professor of American music at Columbia University in New York.


1. Karlheinz Stockhausen, interview with Thea Derks, March 7, 2006, accessed January 26, 2016, Transcription and translation by the author.

2. Jérémie Szpirglas, program notes for Klang, 19. Stunde—Urantia, for a June 8, 2011, concert at the Agora Festival, Paris, accessed January 26, 2016, Translation by the author.

3. Ibid.

4. Grove Music Online, s.v. “Stockhausen, Karlheinz,” by Richard Toop, accessed January 27, 2016,

5. Ibid.

6. Graham Parkes, Nietzsche and Asian Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 14. See also Grove Music Online, s.v. “Wagner: (1) Richard Wagner,” by Barry Millington et al., accessed January 27, 2016,

7. Parkes, Nietzsche and Asian Thought, 14.