STIMMUNG for 6 vocalists (1968)

Soprano I – Soprano II – Alto - Tenor I - Tenor II - Bass



Karlheinz Stockhausen


1. The compositional Process.

2. The structure.

3. Performance.

4. Conclusion.

1. The compositional Process.

The motivation to compose Stimmung was a commission of the city of Cologne for the vocal ensemble Collegium Vocale of the Rheinische Musikschule. Stockhausen wrote the work during cold winter months of February and March of 1968, at which time he was living in a rented house on Long Island Sound in Madison, Connecticut with his wife and two children. Previously he had spent some time in Mexico where he had been influenced by his experiences at the ancient temples of the Mexican plains. In conversations with Jonathan Cott, Stockhhausen stresses the importance of this visit in the creation of Stimmung:

What was important for the creation of Stimmung was the fact that I’d just come back from Mexico where I’d spent a month walking through the ruins, visiting Oaxaca, Merida, and Chichenitza, and becoming a Maya, a Toltec, a Zatopec, an Aztec, or a Spaniard- I became the people. The magic names of the Aztec gods are spoken in Stimmung….And then the space. I sat for hours on the same stone, watching the proportions of certain Mayan temples with their three wings, watching how they were slightly out of phase. I relived ceremonies, which were sometimes very cruel. The religious cruelty isn’t in Stimmung, only the sounds, the whole general feeling of the Mexican plains with their edifices going into the sky- the quietness, on the one side and the sudden changes, on the other.[1]

Stockhausen relates his experience of the Mexican landscape to the musical language of Stimmung. As a listener one can see that aspects like the temporal overlap of syllabic models in Stimmung has this ‘out of phase’ nature. This type of technique was used extensively in the 1960’s by minimalist composes like La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley. The music these minimalist composers is characterised by endless repetition of brief musical phrases. Terry Riley’s In C, written in 1965, utilises a technique that is known as ‘phase shifting’ in which similar rhythmic patterns play slightly out of sync with each other creating an overlapping texture, which is akin to a type multi layer canon. The technique enables a slow evolution of repeated patterns through shifts of rhythmic patterns and subtle rhythmic and melodic changes. Steve Reich’s early works It’s Gonna Rain (1965), Come out (1966), and Violin Phase (1967) are all concerned with ‘phase shifting’ and the effects of similar rhythmic patterns falling out of sync with new patterns emerging from the resulting interaction. The syllabic models and magic names that are sung and recited throughout Stimmung are in effect, like these edifices that interrupt the quietness of the Mexican landscape. Throughout the piece edifices are erected and assimilated and the listener, is in effect put in that position of a viewer, who gradually discovers that the overlap of structures creates a new visual repertoire that is far beyond the basic shape of the isolated structures. In Stimmung the assimilation and transformation of patterns has this hypnotic effect that we associate with minimalist music. Comparing Stimmung with minimalist works is a useful comparison. On the level of harmony, Stimmung, for example, is similar to Reilly’s In C, which is limited in harmonic usage. In terms of rhythmic content, the rhythmic change in Stimmung is faster than minimalist music and it is not as subtle in method of introducing new patterns. It is however evident from reading what Stockhausen has written about Stimmung, that the idea for Stimmung was conceived independently from the minimalist composers.     Stockhausen wrote in a letter to the Gregory Rose, the director of Singcircle, how he discovered the technique of Stimmung:

I started composing this work with a lot of melodies, singing aloud all the time. But after a few days my work was only possible during the night. The children needed silence also during the day. So I began humming, did not sing loudly anymore, began to listen to my vibrating skull, stopped writing melodies of fundamentals, settled on the low B flat, started again and wrote Stimmung, trying out everything myself by humming the overtone melodies. Nothing oriental, nothing philosophical: just the two babies, a small house, silence, loneliness, night, snow, ice: pure miracle![2]


This quietness of the frozen nighttime environment and this imposition of silence because of his newly born child prompted him to discover a method of timbral composition that was not his preconceived plan. It led him to abandon his original idea of melody built on a series of fundamentals and instead establish a single harmony built on one fundamental and the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, and 9th harmonics [Ex.1], which outline the major ninth chord on B flat.

Taking these notes: B flat, F, B flat, D, A flat and C as fundamentals in themselves, Stockhausen created an even greater vocabulary of harmonics which gave him a bigger timbral palette. Stockhausen describes this in conversation with Jonathan Cott:

You will hear my work Stimmung, which is nothing for seventy-five minutes but one chord - it never changes - with the partials of natural harmonics on a fundamental, the fundamental itself isn’t there, the second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, and the ninth harmonics, and nothing but that. And then the timbral changes of these fundamentals. And the timbres are precisely notated with the International Phonetic Alphabet and numbers. So when I sing, let’s say [sings a single pitch with many inflections] you can focus on each partial very precisely. With two breaths I could make the whole vowel circle, and I’ve written the numbers up to the twenty-fourth harmonic and the singers six months to learn precisely how to hit the ninth harmonic, or the tenth, eleventh, thirteenth, up to the twenty-fourth. You see, that’s a real composition with timbres where the timbres are rhythmetized the way we formally rhythmetize pitches.[3]


There is an analogy between this type of modulation and the filtering process that occurs in electronic music. Stockhausen uses the sustained chord as his sound source and what we hear is constantly changing timbres filtered out by the voices.

Stockhausen chose the title ‘Stimmung’ after he had completed the musical draft of the work. Stimmung translates into the word ‘tuning’ but as Stockhausen points out it also refers to mental states like psychological tuning. He writes in his notes on the work:

There is in the German word ‘Stimmung’ the connotation of ‘atmosphere’, ‘ethos’, ‘spiritual harmony’ (for instance the word can often be translated as ‘humour’ in such phrases as ‘good humour’ or ‘bad humour’, referring to the harmoniousness or otherwise of the vibrations existing in man and his environment); moreover, in the word ‘Stimmung’ is hidden ‘Stimme’ – ‘voice’![4]


This notion fits quite well with Stockhausen perception of the effect of music: That each person has a unique rhythm of there own which is modulated by the electrical waves produced by the ears response to music.[5] As the music ceases the old periodicities return, but are modulated and have taken different shapes. Stockhausen asserts that Stimmung is meditative music and he says: ‘Time is suspended. One listens to the inner self of the sound, the inner self of the harmonic spectrum, the inner self of a vowel, the inner self’’[6] Stockhausen is talking about is music as a medium to discover oneself in a spiritual transformation in which one discovers a different conception of time is more universally orientated.


2. The Structure.


            The Score consists of four elements, a ‘formal plan’, six pages of syllabic models, six pages of magic names, and a page of poetry. The ‘formal plan’ maps out 51 sections of unfixed duration that specify which harmonic of the low B flat is to be sung [Ex. 2].

It also indicates which voice is to lead each section and which sections involve the use of magic names. In each section there one pitch marked with a thick line, which indicates to a particular singer the introduction of a model. There are no indications to which models should be used for any particular section, as these are freely chosen by the singers from their model sheets [Ex.3].

Each of the 51 sections is introduced by a model, which is repeated periodically until that model is assimilated by the other singers. The female singers have eight models each and the male singers have nine. The models are patterns of nonsense syllables and sometimes words such as days of the week and ‘Hallelujah’ etc. They are notated with international phonetic symbols and numbers that specify overtones 2-24, which determine the timbral characteristics of the patterns. The internal rhythmic structure of the syllabic pattern is indicated using rhythmical notation. As a model is introduced and repeated there is a temporal overlap occurs with previous models. When the identity of the new model has been established the leader passes the incantation to another singer and when he is satisfied that it is fully established he signals to another singer to continue with a new model. Stockhausen lists ways that the other singers respond to a model: “with ‘transformations’, ‘varied deviations’, ‘pulsations’ and ‘assimilation’”.[7] In the formal Scheme a pitch with a thin line is interpreted in different ways according to how it is presented. If it occurs after a pause of after a double bar line then it is brought into identity with the model. If it occurs without a bar line then there is no change in identity and continues as previously. If it occurs after a bar line then the tempo, rhythm, timbre and envelope are transformed into the new model and this continues until the new identity has been reached. This is marked by the symbol T, which indicates a transformation from a previous model to a new model. There are six bracketed sections in the formal scheme, where the voices sing unison pitches. In these sections, the voices on pitches marked with thin lines after pauses, can create varied deviations that move away and come back to the model in continuous fashion. The singer of the model ends these sections by indicating to the other singers to sing on the unison pitch, during which time they finish their deviations.

At points marked ‘N’ in the formal plan a singer introduces a magic name that is integrated into the musical texture [Ex. 4].

This occurs after the identity of the new model has been reached. In 29 of the 51 sections magic names are pronounced and each singer has 11 names that he can introduce to the music. In the sections marked ‘N’ at least one name must be introduced by one voice and up to six names can be added by the other voices. Not all of the names have to be used in a single performance and the choice of names is entirely up to the performers. The names themselves are drawn from the world’s religions and where compiled for Stockhausen by an anthropologist. Stockhausen writes: “After a singer has ‘called’ a Magic Name, it is periodically repeated in the same tempo and with approximately the same articulation as the model until it is finally assimilated, and thus integrated into the model prevailing at the time.” He describes the process of the introduction of models as “tuning up” and the element of “tuning in or attuning, of rhythm, dynamics and timbre while a Magic Name has been freely added to the texture.” This brings about “a reaction in which there is a clearly perceptible change of atmosphere, evoked by the character and meaning of the name.”[8] Each section is articulated by the pattern of repeated syllables of the prevailing model and the names are repeated periodically in the same pitch, tempo, and articulation of that model. The singer must retain the lip and mouth positions of the model, which leads to quite amusing distortions of the name sounds.

 In addition there are four poems that are spoken at various intervals [Ex.5].

The singer may take a word or syllable and treat it in the manner of a magic name. There is one for each of the male voices and one for a female voice. Three of them are erotic poems, written by Stockhausen in 1967 during what he calls were ‘love bitten times’ and are spoken rather than sung. Karl Wörner comments on the significance of these texts:

In these spoken Texts one is directly reminded of the erotic freedom of the ancients, of the association between sexus and spiritus that is peculiar to the tantric art of Eastern Asia.[9]

The fourth poem about the flight of a bird is very short and aphoristic but Stockhausen transforms it into a music statement by repetition of the constituent phonemes of the words.


3. Performance.

In a performance of Simmung there is no conductor, each singer receives a form scheme, a page of models and a page of magic names. The order of the models and names can be fixed beforehand or can be decided during the performance. The singers sing as soft as possible using amplification to enable all the nuances to be heard. Occasionally a pure harmonic sound is played from a tape recorder to keep the tuning.

Robin Maconie in his book “The works of Karlheinz Stockhausen” writes:

The movement, the constant activity going on in the music in consequence of the modulation of the ‘carrier frequencies’ by the chanted and spoken texts. There is always something in transition, and usually at quicksilver speed: syllables chasing one another in canon, condensing into words, fusing into vowel based harmonic mixtures, or disintegrating in a tissue of consonantal percussion.[10]

When singing a fundamental note it is possible by moving one’s tongue and lips to isolate certain inflections or ‘carrier frequencies’. The movement from one carrier frequency to another and back creates what Stockhausen calls ‘swinging periodicities’ or ‘Rhythmetized timbre’.

Perhaps on of the most salient features of Stimmung is the effect created by the superimposition of a model with either another model or a transformation. The sequence of models in a performance tends to vary as models and names are not allocated to the formal sections. Other feature like pauses, timbral modification, dynamic variation and the interaction of performers are all improvised in performances. In view of these facts there is no “final reading” of the score as it just presents us with performance tools and not the predefined sequence of events of a conventional score. Different versions of Stimmung sound different, just as performers themselves have found differences between their own performances. Nicholas Cook comments in his “A Guide to Musical Analysis’: “You could not work out what the score was like by listening to any single performance; you would have to do it by listening to many performances and working out what they had in common.”[11] In other words, analysis has to be informed by performance and one single performance only presents a single face of the piece. Stockhausen along with John Cage explored the possibilities of indeterminacy and the element of chance in performance. Stockhausen’s earlier work Klavierstück XI (1956) consists of 19 fragments that can be played in any order spontaneously chosen in performance, each fragment followed by the tempo and dynamic indications for the next one. Stockhausen followed in the path of John Cage and his aleatoric Music of Changes (1950), in the creation of a musical genre in which the random choice of the performer was incorporated into the fabric of the music.

Two commercial recordings are available: The Collegium Vocale version produced under the artistic supervision of Stockhausen in 1970 in Cologne and the ‘Singcircle’ version recorded in England, 1983. My immediate reaction to these recording is that I feel a much higher level of rhythmetization and transitional complexity in the ‘Singcircle’ version. The internal tempi of the models seem to me to be more sustained throughout sections, whereas the Collegium Vocale’s version tends more towards rhythmic relaxation. Another aspect of Stimmung mentioned by Maconie, is the effect of distuned carrier pitches, which produce the effect of quasi-electronic intermodulation. I feel that is more pronounced in the ‘Singcircle’ version, which perhaps uses more radical transformations of models. The Collegium Vocale version builds up more slowly at the start, beginning with models that seem to have relations of similarity. The faster syllabic patterns are not brought into play until twelve or thirteen minutes into the piece. This is not the case of the ‘Singcircle version, which establishes quicker rhythmetization earlier, and in effect is without the sense of, built up that felt in the Collegium Vocale version. Both of these versions were reached with the collaboration of the composer, but to a greater extent in the Cologne version, which is probably truer to Stockhausen’s original intentions.


4. Conclusion.

Prior to the composition of Stimmung in 1966, Stockhausen spent several months in Japan and on his return to Europe passed through Hong Kong, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Persia, Lebanon, and Turkey. This exposure to the east was certainly an influence on compositions like Carré, Telemusik, Stimmung and Mantra, but at no time does he directly quote the music of these cultures directly in his music. Stockhausen discovered the writings of Sri Aurobindo in May of 1968 and it is in these writings that he found clarification of his own individual philosophy. In the preface to Mantra, Stockhausen quotes Aurobindo who says that music like the mantra comes from the ‘overmind’:

For anyone who has the capacity to enter more and more consciously into relation with the higher planes – poet, writer, artist – it is quite evident, perceptible, that after a certain level of consciousness it is no longer it is no longer ideas that one sees and tries to translate. One hears. There are literally vibrations or waves, rhythms which lay hold of the speaker, invade him, then clothe themselves with words and ideas or with music, colours, in their descent. But the word or the idea, the music, the colour, is a result, a secondary effect: they just give body to the impervious vibration.[12]

In Stimmung the swinging periodicities of repeated syllabic patterns conveys this feeling of impervious vibration that Aurobido talks of. This statement of Aurobindo equally holds true for Stimmung as it expresses an important aspect of Stockhausen’s thinking on music. Jonathan Cott writes:

Stockhausen has attempted to mediate between Eastern and Western musical traditions. His Development of a new time dimension, his exploration of sounds in space, his meditation of statistical and deterministic elements, his revelation how one can transubstantiate one musical parameter into another, and his presentation in his compositions of the process of these changes are all in the service of an integrating conception of art and life.[13]

It is no surprise that Stimmung was a phenomenal success at the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970 in Japan, when it was performed seventy two times, as Stockhausen’s music appeals to the sensitivities of the Japanese. Comparisons have been drawn between the singing techniques employed in Stimmung and Mongolian throat singing. Stockhausen like the minimalist composers Terry Riley and La Monte Young was drawn to Indian culture and the practice of Mantra repetition. Despite obvious parallels, Stockhausen makes the important point that Stimmung came to him from his own experimentation and that often when a composer tries discover new ways of making music he parallels techniques that already are in existence in another part of the world and hence similarities can be drawn.

Stockhausen at the Osaka World's Fair in 1970, where Stimmung was performed 72 times in this spherical hall that seated 550 people. Stockhausen designed it in conjunction with an architect and he placed fifty speakers around the hall so that the audience was surrounded with a circle of sound. Stockhausen controlled the special quality of the sound from the desk on the platform in the centre of the sphere and he was able to make a sound mill that revolved around in circles over the audience's heads. The special movement of the sounds became equally important as the other parameters of the sound such as duration and dynamics.






·        Nicholas Cook, Guide To Musical analysis (Oxford1994, fp.1987)





Collegium Vocale Cologne.

Director: Wolfgang Fromme

Dagmar Apel, Gaby Rodens, Helga Albrecht, Wolfgang Fromme, Georg Steinhoff, & Hans Alderich.

Artistic Direction:Karlheinz Stockhausen

Westdeutscher Rundfunk Cologne

è 1970



Director: Gregory Rose

Suzanne Flowers, Penelope Walmsley-Clark, Nancy Long, Rogers Covey-Crump, Gregory Rose, & Paul Hillier

Recorded 1983

è 1986 Hyperion Records Limited. London. England



[1] Stockhausen-Conversations with the composer, Edited by Jonathan Cott (London: Robson 1974) p.163

[2] From a letter to Gregory Rose, 24th July 1982 (Quoted in the CD notes of the Singcircle version)

[3] op. cit. Cott, 1974, p.38

[4] Stockhausen’s notes in Karl H. Wörner Stockhausen: Life and Work (London: Faber and Faber 1973) p.65

[5] See p. 28, Cott, 1974.

[6] Op.Cit., Wörner 1973, p.66

[7] Op. Cit.,Wörner, p.65

[8] Op. Cit., Wörner, p.64-67

[9] Op.Cit., Wörner, p.148

[10] Robin Maconie The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1990) p.153

[11] Nicholas Cook Guide To Musical analysis (Oxford1994, fp.1987) p.363

[12] Op. Cit. Cott, p.245

[13] Op. Cit., Cott, p.15