Contemporary Music as Represented in Stockhausen's Plus-Minus

October 1, 1977

"Art," to combine two well-used adages, "is a mirror to life and a reflection of its times."

It has rarely been made clear, however, what these two images really mean, except on a direct one-to-one basis, and that at the surface level. It is possible to posit that Beethoven's opera Fidelio, for example, is an artistic working of revolutionary ideals, that it embodies fraternity, solidarity against political oppression, and individual courage in the face of opposition—all of which were fundamental to the ideas of the French Revolution, and, more generally, to any progressive emergent political movement.

In a wider sense, it is also true to say that the general idea of heroism and the struggle against oppressive forces may be found in many of Beethoven's works—in the overtures Egmont and Coriolanus, the Prometheus Variations, the Eroica and Fifth symphonies, and the choral movement of the Ninth symphony.

To explain Beethoven's music purely in terms of its revolutionary content as a reflection of its life and times—even in the most overtly revolutionary work, Fidelio—is not only to take a dangerously restricted view of the musical content (i.e., that the music is only describing a struggle, or the funeral march of the dead hero, whereas it does not only that, but much more besides, in terms of musical structure, sonority, thematic development, etc.) but to take the view that art is a reflection of life, and therefore, by some means, directly analogous to it.

The next stage in this line of reasoning seems clear: if art is directly analogous to life, then it may, under given circumstances, be interchanged with it or substituted for it.

Although art is not a direct analogy to life, since that would make all artists redundant in the face of technology, it may be seen as an indirect commentary or influence on certain aspects, fashioned into an artistic form, often, to a greater or lesser extent influenced by the skills and materials of computer technology, higher mathematics, and quantum physics. Although these highly specialized fields may seem remote from everyday life, almost every facet of our lives is influenced by mass production and technology—the books and newspapers we read, the food we eat, the houses in which we live.

To a unique degree today, each production, at whatever strata of society, from the building of a car to the discovery of a new vaccine, is a series of inter-related but separate processes, each person specializing in a small area of job knowledge or expertise, but frequently knowing little of the whole outside of his own particular area, and possibly not knowing those in the very next stages of the chain process.1

Contemporary society exhibits the manifestations of internal momentum and refinement: the continual search for the new and better, whereby the new is often prized above the preservation of the old (an underlying attitude making possible the car and fashion industries, to name but two); a high degree of specialization—particularly using terminology or symbols largely incomprehensible to those outside the specialization; fragmentation—owing to the plurality of presents (i.e., the simultaneity of different "nows," the result of mass communication and speed of travel); and the denigration and alienation of the individual in the face of a hostile, technological, and uniformly faceless environment.2

Of all twentieth-century composers, Karlheinz Stockhausen may be seen as the most representative of avant-garde music (as opposed to mainstream) in the mid-twentieth century. As director of the electronic studio at Cologne, Stockhausen has composed pieces combining purely electronic sound with mutations of natural sounds or human voices (as in Gesang der Jünglinge and Hymnen), combined electronic instruments with conventional ones (as in the combined version of Kontakte), experimented with electronic mutations, such as filters and contact microphones in conventional instruments (as in Mantra), and composed for large orchestras (as in the massive Gruppen, for three orchestras).

Stockhausen reflects the frenetic twentieth-century search for novelty, in that he makes it a point of principle never to repeat himself; by continually producing works in totally different styles and media, he does not allow for the creation of a "stylistic background" against which individual works may be seen as developments or deviants from that stylistic background within the corpus of the output. The lack of such a background not only deprives the listener of a necessary perspective on the music, but places the work in a cosmic, non-referential isolation.

This sense of isolation increases when it is seen how Stockhausen has deliberately diminished two human aspects: firstly, that of the aesthetic content for the listener, and secondly, the interpretative function of the performer. In the former case, Stockhausen, anxious to break away from past conventions of musical organization such as tonality, familiar forms, and instruments, has constructed unusual sonorities and playing techniques, such as electronic instruments or the mutation of familiar instruments, so that the new sounds would have no outworn associations with the music of the past, and the listener of the technological society would come with new ears to electronic music.

Since part of the outworn association is aesthetic content, Stockhausen has, as far as he has been able, eschewed such content, and replaced it with pure constructivist elements; a comparison may be made with architecture—stonework carving and stained glass windows of a Gothic cathedral are an integral part of the design of that cathedral, even if they are not essential to its standing up as a building. In music of the past, the decorative, sonorous aspects of the content have been integrated as an important part of the design in aural form (to Debussy they were the "raison d'être").

By denying these elements, Stockhausen not only changes the balance of internal construction in music, but challenges the whole conception of music itself in the twentieth century.

Although Stockhausen may have extirpated the aesthetic aspect from a compositional point of view, some listeners have nevertheless been conscious of it, as in Gesang der Jünglinge and Gruppen.

The second human function which Stockhausen changes is the "performer as interpreter," i.e., interpreter of a cleanly written score, whose symbols of notation mean the same for each trained performer.

Like many diverse composers of the 1960s and 70s (such as Ligeti, Cage, and Morton Feldman) Stockhausen has moved away from precisely notated scores, where the function of the performer is to play the same notes on each occasion, varying the interpretation according to his understanding of the work. Instead he has moved to graphic or verbal scores, where the precise notes may not be given, but an area of activity and playing technique is indicated by symbols for the area and attack, e.g., the inner strings of the piano, top two octaves, to be played very fast and lightly with sponge-headed drumsticks.

The underlying idea behind the adoption of graphic symbols was to move away from the "master score" (comparable to the literary critical edition) to a freer range in which the performer could exercise his choice for any individual performance. Thus, while different performances of Beethoven's Fifth symphony may vary in details of tempo and phrasing, they are recognizable as the same work. This is not true of contemporary open-plan works, such as Plus-Minus, where the different performances may bear little, if any, apparent relationship to each other.3

Certain fundamental problems have appeared in the scores of graphic notations; comparable to the jargon of specializations, there is no standardization of symbols, and new symbols are frequently produced for each new work.

Consequently, performers have to learn complex systems for pitch area and playing technique, applicable to only one piece. Since systems cannot be transferred from one piece to another, groups of performers tend to work out one realization of the complex system (since it often takes a great deal of time to work out the system once), and play it more or less the same at each performance. Thus, the reason for freedom of choice in graphic notation becomes thwarted because of the very difficulties inherent in the system. Performers may, through necessity, adopt "interpretations of the interpretation."

In Plus-Minus, Stockhausen has created a form-plan of formidable difficulty. Each unit, undefined in terms of length of time, is contained in a square, and represented by a combination of symbols. These squares may be arranged in any order, as in Stockhausen's virtuoso percussion piece Zyklus. Therefore, while certain areas (articulation) are controlled, others (e.g., speed, rhythm of the groups) are left free.

The main symbols in the squares form varying combinations of Zentralton (central or sustained sound) and Accidentton ("accidental" sounds, i.e., those ornamental to the main group). Both Zentraltone and Accidenttone are given by the composer, the former as chords, the latter as split clusters. It is up to the performers, however, to work out a system of interpretation of the symbols.

Another given modification to the symbols could be dynamics, although the medium of realization of the performance and rhythm are free. Whenever a symbol appears for the first time, it must be played ''as given" but on subsequent occasions it may be modified, as indicated in the score, or played in the negative (the "Minus" of the title), e.g., by silence, or by bowing or blowing without sound.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this high degree of intellectual formalization the aural outcome of Plus-Minus is disorganized, free, even chaotic. The reasons for this disparity may be that the ideas behind the organization are more interesting than the aural result. This is increasingly the case in many highly intellectual, intelligent, and articulate composers, because the formal ground-plan and intellectual underpinning to the work are the real stuff of the piece, whereas the sound is often thin and disappointing by comparison—an increasing interest for those involved in process, but a law of diminishing returns for the listener.

A more important reason, however, for the dialectic of formal organization and surface disorganization is the disparity of levels between these two strata. Both Stockhausen and Boulez attempted to avoid having the complete serialization of all parameters (i.e., the most rigid and complete control of all aspects) sounding like complete chaos, by giving ranges of control from strict to free (aleatoric).

The lack of sufficient identifiable referential areas, either rhythmic or pitch-centered or a combination of both, blurs irrevocably the distinction between what is organized and what is not, so that the outcome sounds totally disorganized, in spite of a highly organized, intellectual formal background.

Despite Stockhausen's insistence on new ears for the listeners of the new music, the demand is a naive one. It is impossible to wipe out the past "at a stroke," even if it were desirable; and there is considerable doubt if present music should be our only music. Technology has benefitted us in this respect, in making available an infinitely greater choice of music of all periods and cultures.

In view of Stockhausen's rough handling and suffering under the Nazi regime, it is not surprising that he has wanted to divest his own music of past associations; at the same time, wiping out the past irrevocably means that there is no longer a model by which we might learn, to which we might square up present problems, and which has more in common with that very regime, or 1984, than with mutual tolerance.

Plus-Minus not only has the silence which is the counterpart to sound, but the aural disorganization which is the negation of art. Although Stockhausen's reputation has grown almost as the cultivation of a myth personality, encouraged by his recent absorption in mysticism, if some of his works are made to stand up without intellectual pre-formalization and without mystique, their claims are more than somewhat dubious, and may be sadly seen as disposable artifacts in the consumer society.

1It is this situation which is understood to a greater or lesser extent by both artists and the public. The former feel they have no clearly defined role in society in the absence of direct, and pragmatic, patronage, while the latter are increasingly bewildered by and alienated from esoteric art forms to which they cannot relate, and are, therefore, resentful of artists as superfluous, carried on the back of the society for which they work and to which they contribute their earnings.

2It is not surprising that a strong reaction to these factors has been a "return to nature" of people setting up small communes to live off the land. It is not only the economic cost of living but the desire to produce again, by one's own shared efforts, food, heat, and shelter, and to feel valued for one's individual contribution within a small unit.

3This is not a criticism of variety per se, but merely the recognition that variety of interpretation, in kind and quality, depends to an unprecedented degree on the skill and integrity of the performers.

2051 Last modified on November 12, 2018