Karlheinz Stockhausen once said that, in Japan, “everything is art.” The German avant-garde composer was profoundly stirred by his first visit to Japan in 1966. “The change was so great in my life,” he recounted in a lecture at the University of Essex in 1972. “I felt that everything was cultured. The way to eat was a million times more cultured than the country I came from. The way to dress, how to receive someone, how to say goodbye to someone, how to make love, how to make the bed, how to take a bath.”
By the mid-’60s, Stockhausen had already built a formidable reputation as a composer. He had become the director of the famed electronic music studio at WDR in Cologne, where he had started out as an assistant a decade earlier. His courses at Darmstadt were the stuff of legend; he was juggling numerous commissions and invitations to lecture across the world. But he wasn’t prepared for how much Japan would alter his outlook on the world.
The visit was prompted by the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation in Tokyo, known as NHK, who had commissioned Stockhausen to create two new pieces of work in their electronic music studio. NHK’s studio was established in 1955. It was initially modeled on the successes of WDR in Germany, and GRM, the legendary French electronic music studio which birthed musique concrète in the 1940s. In an article on the roots of NHK in Computer Music Journal, Emanuelle Loubet notes that NHK engineers took pains to translate the entire WDR internal mission statement from German into Japanese. Loubet notes that several early works at NHK, by Toshiro Mayuzumi and Makoto Moroi, owed a clear debt to the Stockhausen pieces Studie I and Studie II, developed in the 1950s. Moroi visited WDR in Cologne, meeting Stockhausen and Herbert Eimert, and brought the technical knowledge he gained there back to Japan.
The first eight or nine days in Tokyo I was unable to sleep. I was happy about it, because thousands of sound-visions, ideas, movements passed through me while I lay awake.
But NHK quickly began to establish its own identity, becoming a small but vital center for the budding electronic music scene in Japan. By the time Stockhausen got there, the electronic music studio at NHK was over a decade old. Numerous Japanese composers of note worked at NHK on their experiments in the ‘50s and ‘60s, including Mayuzumi, Moroi, Minao Shibata, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Toru Takemitsu, and Joji Yuasa.
Stockhausen’s maiden voyage to Japan was by turns profoundly inspiring and deeply agitating. He was dazed by the dramatic cultural shift from Germany and the nine-hour time change, and had difficulty adjusting. But the tremendous shift in perspective – and the difficulty sleeping and eating – led Stockhausen into a strange, hyper-creative dream state.
“The first eight or nine days in Tokyo I was unable to sleep,” he wrote. “I was happy about it, because thousands of sound-visions, ideas, movements passed through me while I lay awake. After four nights without sleep and four days of working eight or nine hours in the electronic studio without any useful result (I had to assimilate not only the language, the food, the air, the water, the yes-and-no confusion, but also the different equipment), one vision came back more and more openly: it was what I like – a vision of sounds, new technical processes, formal relations, pictures of notation, human relationships, etc. etc., all at once and mixed up and confused in a network too complicated to be defined in one process. It would keep me busy for a long time! In all this I wanted to come closer to an old dream – going one definite step further in the direction of writing not ‘my’ music, but a music of the whole world, of all countries and races.”
Telemusik was a paradigm shift for Stockhausen. “Until Telemusik I have tried to refuse to let anything come into my music that would be identifiable – as, let’s say, elements of music written during the tradition of European music, or folklore elements that would sound like music of any culture of this globe,” he said in 1972. In effect, Telemusik was a collage of samples of music from around the world, plus electronic sounds, but the goal was unity – emphasizing not the differences but the connection. Telemusik technically has 32 sections (or “moments”), but it sounds like a coherent piece; it’s difficult to pick out the disparate elements inside it.
Stockhausen treated the sounds in various ways, making them harder to pick out. “In Telemusik you can study what modern genetics seeks: namely, to cross living things which do not cross in nature, so that odd hybrid-types arise,” he wrote in 1996, giving an example of how he “modulated the chant of monks in a Japanese temple with Shipibo music from the Amazon, and then further imposed a rhythm of Hungarian music on the melody of the monks. In this way, symbiotic things can be generated, which have never before been heard; the original qualities are perceived as a whole, which then also can no longer be dismantled.”
The line of thinking that inspired Telemusik – Stockhausen’s effort to create a “music of the whole world, of all countries and races” – was further explored in Hymnen, one of Stockhausen’s most celebrated works, created back on German soil and premiered in 1967.
Japanese music is all over Telemusik, not only in the sample sources, but in the concept of time. Each of the 32 “moments” is punctuated with a sampled sound of a traditional Japanese temple instrument, such as a taku. “The first weekend, three days after I arrived [in Japan], I went to a Buddhist ceremony in Kamakura,” Stockhausen said in 1972. “I was extremely amazed by the musicianship of the priest, who used several instruments as punctuation.” Music from a Japanese Noh drama was also used in Telemusik. The spare, understated artistry of Noh drama – a form of classical Japanese musical theatre dating back to the 13th century – had a profound impact on Stockhausen, as it did on many other avant-garde composers, such as Harry Partch. (According to The Music of Stockhausen, a book by Jonathan Harvey, Stockhausen visited a Noh theatre 30 times during his brief stay in Japan.)
Japanese gagaku music and Buddhist ceremonial music from Nara were used in Telemusik, too. But Telemusik wasn’t just about music from Japan; Stockhausen also used elements from Bali, Vietnam, Spanish music, and much more. “The work integrates different Japanese musical styles, as well as elements of folklore from many other societies, into one unified work of concrète and electronic music,” Stockhausen wrote in his essay “World Music.”
In his writings on Telemusik, Stockhausen reaches into a deeper idea of universality. Stockhausen didn’t subscribe to any particular religion – he was allergic to organized religion, to put it mildly – but he was deeply spiritual, in his own idiosyncratic way.
It is absolutely necessary nowadays to have a totally new concept of how human beings can live profoundly, artfully... Japan has great chances at being a new source of culture for the whole world.
“For someone who is interested not only in the culture of the somewhat narrow region in which he lives and moves, but who has also discovered the planetary being in himself; someone whose culture is that of the entire earth, and in whom a sense of responsibility for the future of humanity has awakened; for such as these, a concern for the music of other cultures will be no hobby, but rather a condition necessary to understanding other people better, thus to awaken the whole of one’s being, and to ‘cultivate’ it.”
Stockhausen’s all-encompassing vision might seem impossibly grandiose. But the underlying concept for Telemusik was simple, and quite beautiful: for Stockhausen, music was the universal language, the ideal method of joining the world’s cultures together. “Music is the medium which touches man most deeply and which can bring the rarest resonances in him into harmony,” he wrote.
In the dedication to Telemusik, Stockhausen wrote that “Telemusik ist dem japanischen Volk gewidmet.” (“Telemusik is dedicated to the Japanese people.”) “I recommend that you should go to Japan,” Stockhausen said to the crowd in 1972, in his lecture on Telemusik at the University of Essex. “It is absolutely necessary nowadays to have a totally new concept of how human beings can live profoundly, artfully. And I don’t think it will be washed away by industrialization and new collectivity. Japan has great chances at being a new source of culture for the whole world.”
Electric Sound by Joel Chadabe
Japrocksampler by Julian Cope
The Music of Stockhausen by Jonathan Harvey
Stockhausen, K and Kohl, J, “Electroacoustic Performance Practice.” Perspectives of New Music, Vol 34 No 1 (Winter, 1996), pp 74-105
“Karlheinz Stockhausen” by David Paul, Seconds #44, 1997
Wikipedia entry on Telemusik
Stockhausen, K. Weltmusik (World Music), 1973. From Texte zur Musik, 1970-1977, Vol. 4.
Stockhausen, K. Lecture on Telemusik. University of Essex, 1972 (transcribed from YouTube)
Heile, B. Weltmusik and the Globalization of New Music Loubet, E. “The Beginnings of Electronic Music in Japan, with a Focus on the NHK Studio: The 1950s and 1960s.” Computer Music Journal, Vol 21, No 4, 1997.