Stockhausen’s Trans: an audio guide

Wednesday, November 8, 2017 - 16:06

Written in 1971, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Trans is an extraordinary orchestral masterpiece; as much a visual experience as an aural one, in which the German composer attempts to convey and represent a dream.

As such, almost all the musical action remains unseen with the majority of musicians, and the conductor, obscured by a vividly lit gauze. Only the string players remain in view, instructed to move ‘like puppets’, they hold a series of sustained notes throughout. Initially Trans divided audiences, receiving both applause and protest at some of it’s earliest performances, but it has gone on to be viewed as an important transcendental composition.

Ahead of their performance of Stockhausen’s work at Southbank Centre later this year, the London Sinfonietta have comissioned ths audio guide to the piece from Philip Cashian, to help discover the many musical structures at play.

Trans is heard in three distinct layers, that co-exist through the entire piece:

  1. Four groups of wind and brass
  2. On stage string section holding a drone
  3. Tape part of a loom shuttle panning from left to right and right to left.

Stockhausen uses the sound of the loom shuttle structurally to divide the piece into sections and often as a trigger, activating or stopping certain musical figures.

Karlheinz Stockhausen – “Trans” (2 versions)

The timings below, correspond with the above video.

00.36 (and 00.54, 01.15, 01.34) - You can hear the loom shuttle on the tape part happening in the opening minutes at intervals of about 20 seconds.

01.36–02.08 - The music of the four wind and brass groups often sounds improvised, giving the music a ritualistic quality that juxtaposes the unchanging strings and mechanical tape part. The contrast of the expansive, never-ending string chord and regular ‘all change’ signal in the tape part create a musical background for the wind and brass that is easily discernible.

06.08 - A busy flute solo, heard around very active brass, that continues for over a minute but is activated again by the loom shuttle at 07.49.

08.07-09.00 - The tape starts off a section of brass music, which is characteristic of a march

09.01 - Cello cadenza

12.36 - Repeating string harmonic that slows down towards 12.52 when tape-part triggers new music

15.27 - Chorale-like low brass chords repeating until 15.53, followed by unison trills and rapid figures.

17.00 - Virtuosic, almost-jazzy, trumpet solo and brief muted brass chord accompaniment returning to marching music at 18.06.

Trans comes across as episodic, yet sounds like it’s very loosely put together, playful and irreverent. The composer is trying to make the audience imagine what theatrical misdemeanours are being played out by the musicians who are hidden away whilst teasing us with the monotony of the statically visible string section.