Monday, April 09, 2018

Radio Kurzwellen

I was reminded of Karlheinz Stockhausen's work Kurzwellen by a passage in the book Recombo DNA by Kevin C. Smith. The book is ostensibly about the band Devo, but delves so deeply into krautrock, and 1970s protopunk that it also serves as a fine treatise on all three topics. Smith walked himself backwards to Stockhausen from Holger Czukay, a founding member of the German band Can.
"In 1967 Czukay attemded a performance of his mentor's Kurzwellen, which consisted of five musicians playing shortwave radios as well as traditional instruments. Before inviting American expatriate singer Malcolm Mooney to join the band in 1968, Can incorporated random shortwave frequencies into their sets instead. "
The quote is out of context; Smith was writing about Can's exposure to electronic music. He saw the radio as a route to that destination. For our purposes, Can is using Radio as a musical instrument which is a rare thing indeed. [LINK] Excluding the theremin, I can only think of a few composers who also has done so: John Cage, Brian Eno, and more recently Robin Rimbaud and Marc Leclair aka Akufen. More here.

In this small pantheon, Cage experimented with radio first. His works Radio Music and Speech and from 1955 and 1956 respectively. His work Imaginary Landscape No. 4 was actually from 1951 and was composed for 12 radios. But his first radio-based composition was from 1942 "Credo in US" which was scored for a pianist, two percussionists and a fourth performer operating a radio and phonograph. [SOURCE]

Firstly, Kurzwellen is German for "Shortwaves." So the title is a reference to the instrumentation. The worked debuted on May 5th, 1968 in the television studios of Radio Bremen. Bremen only began broadcasting in 1945 during the post-war Allied occupation of Germany, originally on 6190kHz. The station was under American command. In 1949 it's management was handed over to ARD, (German Public Radio). It's appropriate then that Radio Bremen transmitted on 936kHz medium wave until March of 2010.

Kurzwellen is part of a series of works by Stockhausen dating from the 1960s that he called "process" compositions. It was a focus on form over content. In the sheet music he used plus, minus, and equal symbols instead of standard notation. The plus means higher or longer (in duration) or louder or more rhythmic segments; minus means lower or shorter or softer or fewer segments; the equal sign just means no change. So the instruction requires some interpretation. Unsurprisingly even the 1968 and 1969 recordings differ greatly. Today's avant garde enthusiasts still debate their relative merits. [LINK]

It is widely assumed that Stockhausen got the idea of using radios from Cage, though their implementations were different. All of their radio works were dependent on random, unrepeatable inputs from radios. By the 1960s Cage had moved on to different instrumentation entirely. Stockhausen stuck with it and his next three works also features shortwave radio: Spiral, Pole and Expo. His experiments were well-received and he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Hochschule für Musik Köln in 1971, where he taught until 1977. He died in 2007.