Actress to The Beatles; the enduring influence of Stockhausen

Thursday, March 21, 2019 - 12:11

Of all the musicians and composers who have striven to change the course of music in the 20th and 21st century, few have done as much to achieve this aim than Karlheinz Stockhausen. Hailed  ‘one of the great visionaries of 20th-century music’ by The Guardian’s Ivan Hewitt in his 2007 obituary of the artist, the much celebrated German composer was known in particular for his groundbreaking work in electronic music.

‘What gives Stockhausen's music its vitality is precisely the tension between a desire for structural experimentation, and the irresistible energies of its surfaces,’ wrote Tom Service, also in The Guardian, back in 2013. It’s this structural experimentation, however, which has often led to Stockhausen’s music being caricatured as an extreme departure from ‘traditional’ classical composition. As Service recounts in the same article, when asked if he had heard any Stockhausen, the English conductor Thomas Beecham is infamously alleged to have quipped "No, but I believe I may have trodden in some".

Whilst Stockhausen’s work is rightly lauded for its technical and revolutionary brilliance, it is precisely the composer’s experimental approach that results in many of his compositions being something of an acquired taste. This is not easy listening, and has even been categorised as ‘difficult listening’ by the Australian broadcaster RTRFM. However, though his sound may be considered perhaps one of the least accessible strands of classical music, Stockhausen’s influence can be seen to have transcended into the world of mainstream pop music more readily and regularly than that of other composers. 


Stockhausen’s influence has been enormous. He invented a new kind of relationship between music’s components. He has changed our view of musical time and form.
Pierre Boulez

Actress on Stockhausen | Southbank Centre

On 14 May we welcome Actress to Southbank Centre to deliver the premiere of his reimagining of Stockhausen's Welt-Parlament (1995); a new composition for voice, AI and electronics. The British electronic musician won’t be the last to respond to, or draw influence from, Stockhausen, and he certainly isn’t the first.

Stockhausen’s 1956 electronic masterpiece Gesang de Junglinge (Song of the Youths), a 13-minute work built around 11 basic electronic elements combining synthesised sound with musique concrète is said to be a favourite of Paul McCartney. Indeed the composition continues to surface in popular music today, with Elastica’s Connection (1995) beginning with a direct two second sample from the piece, and Thundercat’s Tenfold (2013) also featuring a soundscape cut from Gesang de Junglinge throughout.

McCartney and The Beatles’ fascination with the work of Stockhausen (which included the composer featuring in the artwork on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) is reflected in one of perhaps the starkest illustrations of the composer’s influence on popular music, Revolution 9. Inspired by Stockhausen’s Hymnen (1966-67), the experimental sound collage represented a radical departure for a foursome who a little over four years earlier had been shaking their mop-tops on stage at the Royal Variety Performance.



Given Stockhausen’s penchant for experimentation with, and breakdown of, musical structure it is perhaps unsurprising that his influence was particularly seismic in progressive jazz. In his autobiography, the great American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis wrote, “I had always written in a circular way and through Stockhausen I could see that I didn’t want to ever play again from eight bars to eight bars, because I never end songs: they just keep going on.”


Much more than the theory or the admittedly teeming intellectual ideas, Stockhausen's music is about experience and intuition. It's about the way it feels in parts of your brain and body, parts that you may not realise you had.
Tom Service, A Guide to Karlheinz Stockhausen's Music, The Guardian (2013)


The list of musicians to cite the influence of Stockhausen goes on through the decades; Jerry Garcia, Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright, The Who’s Pete Townshend, Frank Zappa, Charles Mingus, Bjork. Although such was the deliberateness of Stockhausen himself, that he was not averse to trying to shape these influences. As recounted by Jack Needham in an article for The Vinyl Factory, Stockhausen infamously suggested that Aphex Twin’s Richard James “listen to my work Song of the Youth, then he would stop with all these post-African repetitions and would look for changing tempi and changing rhythms.” James’ response? “I thought he should listen to a track of mine: Didgeridoo, then he’d stop making abstract, random patterns you can’t dance to.”

Producing music you can dance to was presumably some way down the pecking order in terms of Stockhausen’s own inspiration, being as he was, keen to eschew traditional music forms and tropes. In the early 1950s Stockhausen delved into the movement of musique concrète – the form of composition which uses recorded sounds, be they of the natural environment or synthesized voice or instrument, as the raw material for montages. 

This idea of utilising ‘found sounds’ echoes throughout Stockhausen’s compositions, and continues to be eveident in contemporary music, from the sound of the winding tape deck in the opening bars of The Guillemots' Trains to Brazil (2005) to the gunfire and cash register chorus of M.I.A.’s Paper Planes (2009), and the seagulls and radio tuning at the start and end of Gruff Rhys’ Shark Ridden Waters (2011). And there are composers who take this approach to the extreme, such as Diego Stocco, who’s composition Music From A Dry Cleaner (2011) is exactly what you’re expecting it to be.


Diego Stocco - Music From A Dry Cleaner


Now, as we reach the end of the 21st century’s second decade the world of artificial intelligence offers perhaps the most natural next-step for musicians wishing to follow Stockhausen’s path onwards through the avant-garde. There can surely be no greater example of found sound, than that which could otherwise not be discovered. AI programmes already exist which, having analysed a vast range of music scores, or having been programmed with the basics of music theory, are able to produce short original compositions independent of human input. 

One musician embracing the development of AI is Actress, who has spent the best part of a decade honing his AI learning programme Young Paint to emulate the Greyscale to Silvertone evolutory musical process he himself started during the recording of the Hazyville LP in 2008. Having already released a self-titled Young Paint EP, the next step for Actress comes when he draws on the programme to produce a response to, who else, but Stockhausen, here at Southbank Centre in May.



Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II came to Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 14 May, 2019 as part of Contemporary Edit a series of boundary-pushing, eye-opening new music at Southbank Centre.

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