Karlheinz Stockhausen - Hymnen

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Released 1969 on Deutsche Grammophon
Reviewed by Lord Lucan, 28/08/2000ce

“When I was a boy the radio in Germany was always playing typical brassy marching music from morning to midnight, and it really conditioned the people.”
(Karlheinz Stockhausen)

This double album of some of the most alien-sounding music ever committed to tape still sounds astounding three decades on from its realisation. Its influence and implications are still being felt in the worlds of rock, techno, ambient, classical and any other genre of modern music you care to name and will be for decades to come. This huge feat is as much testament to Stockhausen’s patience and tenacity as anything else. Visions of studios filled with sliced-up tape and constant splicing and manipulation are conjured up, as this is all pre-sampler days. A direct line can be traced from this work to the way Holger Czukay (a student of Stockhausen) would later construct Can’s pieces. The full title of the work is ‘Anthems for electronic and concrete sounds’ and in this piece Stockhausen integrates the until-then opposing worlds of musique concrète (manipulating sounds gathered from the outside world) and electronic music (investigation of music made solely from electronic sounds).

The first region is the radio in a constant state of tuning. Anthems burst in an out at will, sometimes slowed down, sometimes speeded up, sometimes so electronically modulated as to be unrecognisable. However, this is no drifting collage: Stockhausen is never afraid to make sounds crash in rudely. The sounds used aren’t designed to be merely pleasing to the ear. They often sound metallic or are buzzing in the most irritating way. The whole thing is so wondrously fascinating, however. No concession is made to the aesthetic sensibilities of the audience. This is the way it is, you either listen or you don’t. It’s not made for you, it exists on its own. The brown voice of a croupier punctuates the occasional moments of silence. Electronics sometimes threaten to mutate into bird sound. This trick is fully realised in the second region, when electronics slowly mutate into a huge flock of screeching birds. These birds change size and form from small garden birds to hefty geese as their calls are sped up and slowed down, also transforming into crowds of peoples voices. A goose honk then does a solo of the Marseillaise and the whole thing is so gloriously disorientating.

Throughout the work Stockhausen manipulates sound via electronics to total extremes. Sounds are increased or decreased in pitch to the furthest extreme he can push them. Rhythm is sped up until it becomes tone and vice versa. And sounds are reverbed to extremes, only to come speeding towards the listener. All these tranformations are happening simultaneously. The whole point being that ALL parameters are in constant change. This is the essence of Stockhausen’s moment form. The whole nature of how sound works is on display here. And indeed, Stockhausen wants is to hear how it all works: “National anthems are the most well-known music that one can imagine. Everyone knows the anthem of his own country, and perhaps those of several others, or at least the beginnings. When one integrates in a composition known music with unknown, new music, one can hear especially well how it was integrated: untransformed, more or less transformed, transposed, modulated etc. The more self-evident the WHAT, the more attentive the listener becomes to the HOW.”

Various electronic manipulations eventually bring us to the really controversial point of this composition. The German national anthem is irreverently chopped up, the pieces flying around the room. It then freezes and flies off into the high-pitched distance, as the end of the anthem is sliced up again and juxtaposed with African anthems, ending with the sound of a crowd of jeering men. A perfect condemnation of all that the anthem had come to represent during the Nazi era. After further electronic manipulations we are then invited into the studio in a post-modern fly-on-the-wall insight into the process of creating this piece. Stockhausen is caught in conversation with David Johnson (Stockhausen’s assistant on this piece who would later be a short-lived part of the first incarnation of Can), as they discuss the best next step, and Stockhausen fluffs his lines cursing as he does so. The piece then continues with juddering cut-up modulations flying all over the place.

Region three is all harsh electronics, as the manipulation of the source materials is pushed into more stellar territory. The anthems (including our own Queen-saving one) only start to emerge later to be bastardised and fucked with, as ancient wireless screeching and interference fly around and the whole thing dives under water, emerging buzzing, humming, whirring and clicking. Then another aside from the studio, as David Johnson and Stockhausen discuss how they are going to get quickly from Spain to America. Then Keystone Cops anthems zoom past at the speed of sound.

The fourth region is the darkest and most disturbing region. Stockhausen has called ‘Hymnen’ the sound of music after the apocalypse. This is the sound of the fall-out. Descending mountain-sized blocks of metallic sound rain down with their sharp edges cutting through the low end billowing wind, and disembodied voices cry out in the distant darkness. The slow breathing of the last person to die is intermittently interrupted by more electronic manipulations. Appropriately enough the celestial croupier is back: “Faites votre jeu Messieurs-Dames, s’il vous plaît.” as we hurtle towards the conclusion, where that breathing finally expires. Then we’re left hanging in the bleak emptiness.

The constant and unpredictable changes make for a difficult but fascinating listen. Stockhausen himself said: “You have to switch very quickly when you listen to my music and to change from one character to another. Like a person who, very dramatic at a given moment, then becomes completely quiet, meditative, then outgoing.” In many ways this is the sound of musical research. The nearest equivalent in rock music is The Beatles ‘Revolution 9’, which was John and Yoko’s George Martin-baiting Stockhausen-inspired piece. It says much for this piece of music that it is still challenging today, and in no way any less radical than it was all those years ago. It is still the sound of an alien translating device eavesdropping on Earth’s broadcasts into the ether. This record is massive in every sense of the word. Julian’s mention of it in ‘Krautrocksampler’ places it in one context, but Stockhausen’s music will be influencing the future of all types of music for decades to come, and this recording will be top of the heap, at least for those coming from the rock and electronic spheres.

“Be more open, universal, more cosmically oriented. Sooner or later, when one has achieved this consciousness, one will travel there as a cosmic tourist and by that show that everything exists at once.” Right on, Herr Stockhausen!


‘Hymnen’ is, unfortunately, a rare find. There are currently only two options. The first is to hunt around in second-hand shops, where the staff have now cottoned on to its value, and so it is usually excessively overpriced. The second is to order it from the Stockhausenverlag. However laudable it may be that Stockhausen has managed to gain control of all recordings of his work and start releasing them on his own label, the prices are sometimes as astronomical as the works themselves. ‘Hymnen’ is unfortunately one of these, as it comes on four CDs (both electronic-only version, and version with live soloists) at a cost of over £50.

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