KURZWELLEN (Short-Waves), 1968

This work for six players, with a duration of about 50-60 min., is available from Stockhausen-Verlag on CD 13 and CD 61 (two versions).

The composer (from the booklet to CD 61; program notes 1968):

"KURZWELLEN, like PROZESSION, was created for the ensemble with which I tour since 1964. The instruments are piano, electronium, large tam-tam with microphone, viola with contact microphone, 2 filters with 4 faders, 4 short-wave receivers. The work may also be interpreted by a different combination of instruments which corresponds to the one mentioned.

"In TELEMUSIC I composed various processes of intermodulation, combining "found" (folklore) music of different countries and epochs with electronic music.

"These experiences were expanded in HYMNEN (ANTHEMS), through integrating national anthems into electronic music. In PROCESSION, the musicians transform events taken from my earlier compositions. And now, in KURZWELLEN, each player has in addition to his instrument a short-wave receiver with which he receives the musical "material" to which he reacts: he imitates it, transposes it, and modulates it, playing together with the others in reciprocal reactions and intermodulations."

Stockhausen comments on the material used, in relation to the composition (from the booklet to CD 13):

"What could be more general, more supra-personal, inclusive, universal, instantaneous, than the broadcasts that become musical material in KURZWELLEN? How can we break out of the sealed world of radio waves that enclose our globe like a musical retina? Does not a great deal of what we receive via short-wave radio already sound as if it came from completely different spaces, beyond speech, reportage, music, Morse code?

"KURZWELLEN is the culmination of a long development and at the same time the beginning of a new consciousness. Whatever happens consists only of world-wide broadcasts NOW; it is structured by the human spirit, but also forms and constantly transforms itself because of the interference of all braodcasts with one another; it is brought to a higher unity by the players during a performance. The former opposites of the old and the new, the far and the near, the familiar and the unfamiliar are dissolved. EVERYTHING is the WHOLE and SIMULTANEOUS. Tenses disappear, as will preconsciousness.

"And now? Into the world of extreme attainability, extreme unforeseeability, to whose limits we have trust, something extra-terrestial must penetrate, something which cannot yet be found on any radio on earth. Let us take up the search!"

KURZWELLEN is one in a series of so-called process compositions which were written by Stockhausen in the 1960s and early 1970s as follows: A process is defined in the score resulting in a detailed form plan , but the concrete sound events produced are left to the discretion of the players, who shape and transform them during performance according to the notation of the process.

Stockhausen explains (from the booklet to CD 13):

"I composed the process of transformation: HOW the players react to what they hear on the radio; HOW they imitate and then modulate it, transpose it in time (longer or shorter, more or less rhythmically articulated) and in space (higher or lower, louder or softer); WHEN and HOW and HOW OFTEN they play synchronously or alternatingly, in duets, trios or quartets; HOW they call and invite each other to hear together an event which wanders among them for a prolonged period of time, letting it shrink and grow, compressing and expanding it, darkening and lightening it, concentrating or playfully decorating it."

The composer outlines in more detail (from the booklet to CD 61):

"By way of explanation, I will cite a few of the playing instructions:

"There are four parts. Each instrumentalist receives one part. It comprises a sequence of plus, minus and equal signs: plus means higher or longer or louder or more rhythmic segments; minus means lower or shorter or softer or fewer segments; equal means unchanged. When changing from one event to the next, a player follows the given sequence of signs. The signs may be applied to the register, the dynamic level, to the duration and to the number of the segments of an event. An event is played using either the short-wave receiver, or with the instrument. The first one must be a short-wave event. With each event, a player reacts either to the event which he has just played or to an event of another player which is just beginning and to which he first listens in its entirety, before he reacts.

"The rhythm, timbre, melodic contour and envelope of an event played on an instrument should be as close an imitation as possible of the event to which one is reacting, and transposed according to the prescribed degree of change.

"When and how often a player alternates between short-wave and instrumental events is left to his discretion.

"Completely unmodulated, realistic short-wave events should be avoided. In order to find a short-wave event which corresponds to the prescribed degree of change, one should first search quietly for a setting, and then begin with the event. The search (at low volume) for a suitable short-wave event tuning from station to station should be perceived as a characteristic quality of this composition, and should therefore always be executed carefully and musically; even unwanted stations should be listened to momentarily, with varying duration and loudness, before tuning to another.

"Each player gives himself a name in the form of a musical signal. With this name he may be called by another player to participate in a duo, trio or quartet. There are six different signs in the parts that cause a player to call others to play with him synchronously or in alternation.

"At four "stations" the players must wait for each other. At these places, each repeats the event he has just played until all have arrived, and one of them according to his part gives the downbeat for the continuation.

"A performance should not last much longer than circa 55 minutes."

Two performances available on record

The two recorded performances that can be obtained from Stockhausen-Verlag very much differ from each other their dissimilarities go far beyond the different short-wave signals and broadcast fragments heard in the two performances. Rather, the main distinction between the two performances is the overall audible presence of short-wave signals, a situation that leads to apparently different implementations and thus appearances of the composed musical architecture.

The sound quality of the two recordings is so unequal that I clearly have to see one as the primary recording to have, with the other one rather serving as an alternative recording, but as an important one because of the profound differences between the two performances. The primary recording would be the one on CD 13 from Stockhausen-Verlag, made in 1969 an excellent recording that features crystal clear sound in which every detail is handed to the listener on a platter as it were. It is a very direct and powerful sounding recording, and its dynamic range is huge. The alternative recording would be the one on CD 61, a recording that derives its importance also from the fact that it was made on the day before the 1968 world premiere (along with two other recordings of the work). Thus it can be seen as a kind of dress rehearsal for that performance, and as such is a valuable documentary. This recording sounds more spacious than the very direct sounding 1969 recording, which has a special appeal in itself. However, the clarity of sound is not great and it takes much more effort by the listener to hear into the textures in my view a bit too much effort as for me to be able to recommend it as the recording to start with when exploring KURZWELLEN. Considerably more than the clarity of the instrumental textures, the clarity of the short-wave signals suffers, up to a point where it is not always easy to discern which signals the players react to. The recording also sounds less powerful; passages of climactic activity have less sonic impact and apparent grandeur than in the recording of the 1969 performance. The timbre of the recording sounds dated as well.

Eventually, the listener nonetheless will want to acquire CD 61 featuring the 1968 recording, not only for the fact that the performance of KURZWELLEN is very different, but also for the fabulous LITANEI 97 featured on it. This is a powerful choral work (and excellently recorded) in which a text is sung that was written by Stockhausen in 1968 and in which also the work KURZWELLEN is mentioned.

In accordance with the above, it may be no coincidence that the 1969 recording was issued by Stockhausen-Verlag earlier and, as an alternative, the 1968 recording only years later.

In view of this situation, I have decided to first write an essay on the specific implementation of the architecture of KURZWELLEN in the 1969 performance and to review the 1968 performance primarily by pointing out the differences to the performance recorded one year later. The texts and descriptions of differences do not include specific details of the contents of short-wave broadcast fragments, since these necessarily vary for each performance anyway.

In the text on the 1969 performance I have described the characteristics as if they all would hold for the work itself, also those characteristics which rather specifically seem to hold for this particular implementation of the score. I have decided to do so in favor of readability of the text a discussion for every single characteristic whether it seems specific for this performance, or whether it holds for the work as such, would rather disrupt the reading. Also, writing in this manner reflects my impression how well this performance draws the consequences from all the possibilities apparently inherent in the score of KURZWELLEN, leading to a highly organic entity of music and a fundamentally novel one. Later, from comparing the description of the 1968 performance that follows, it will be clear to the reader which characteristics hold for KURZWELLEN in general, and which seem to be specific for either performance (given mainly by the differences in audible presence of the short-wave signals).

The work as implemented in the 1969 performance

KURZWELLEN is much more than just an imitation of short-wave sounds by instrumentalists. The work is a monumental musical architecture which is shaped, in a profound way, by the specific characteristics of short-wave sounds.

In contrast to what the listener might be expecting from events coming from a radio, KURZWELLEN does not just elaborate on specific contents of radio broadcasts, such as music or speech. Even though these are also and frequently used as significant musical material, the intermodulation sounds between stations, so typical for short-wave reception, are the main player in this music. As musical material which the players react to, they appear to be as important as the contents of broadcasts, and they are the most important radio sounds in shaping the overall structure of the work.

These short-wave sounds, probably known more to listeners of an older generation than to younger ones, are high-pitched, quickly oscillating frequencies which lay a bed of noise onto the searching between short-wave stations and which interfere with much of the broadcast content on short-wave radio as well. These hissing, rushing, whistling sounds, at times somewhat reminiscent of Morse code transmission without being one, are sounds of high and often frenetic activity within. Although frequently streaming, they sometimes show considerable dynamic variability, making them "bubble".

The frenetic activity within these sounds is the basis for much of the building of architecture in KURZWELLEN. When used at low volume, they create tension as "hyper-active silence", as compared to the usual background silence against which music plays; when used at high volume, they can develop climatic force or aid the instruments employed in the composition in achieving such force literally at the turn of a knob.

The musical motion within KURZWELLEN is very diverse. This varied array is already given within the short-wave signals the simultaneous sounding of several short-wave receivers provides a mixture of streaming short-wave noise and broadcast events such as music or speech. Furthermore, the sounds coming from the instruments can involve rather individual, isolated gestures that do not carry considerable forward momentum, or the instruments can play with more rapid activity that mimicks the streaming of the short-wave noises.

Despite this diversity, overall the motion in KURZWELLEN seems largely defined by that ever-flowing stream of frenetic short-wave activity, mostly present in the music. This stream of sound provides an important level of unity between the different passages of the work.

In passages where mainly individual, isolated instrumental gestures occur, the stream of short-wave sounds mostly appears at low volume (often much lower than the volume at which the instrumental gestures are played). This low-level stream of sounds supplies an ongoing underpinning of tension by constantly providing a contrast of more continuous activity. It also unifies these passages with those where overall streaming motion also from the instruments is more prominent. The low-level short-wave sounds in these passages almost seem like a subliminal stream of energy infused into the musical texture. When bubbling of short-wave sounds occurs (see above) it is sometimes heard against the streaming sounds from another receiver, operated by another player in the performance.

In episodes where more rapid, intense, streaming activity of the instruments is heard, that streaming motion blends perfectly into the already existing stream of sounds from the short-wave receivers, now fed into the texture mostly at higher volume. In this manner, the overall motion of the music is intensified into a single one and from there climactic activity is achieved effortlessly.

However, such streaming activity of instruments, overlaid to short-wave sounds and imitating their motion, also may be disconnected from climactic events: it may occur in more quiet passages as well.

Even though rarely present, there are also islands of activity of the instruments alone, without or with very little sound from the receivers. In those episodes, the sounds of instruments against a background of relative silence create tension in relationship to the otherwise broad presence of short-wave sounds. In the context, the background silence and the instruments' playing against it at times may be experienced as almost magical. Sudden moments of breakthrough of short-wave energy that may occur in these passages add a powerful effect as well.

Since such passages with relative background silence both contain hardly any short-wave sounds and mostly feature individual, isolated instrumental gestures, there is practically no streaming motion found in them. Thus, in terms of musical motion they stand in strong contrast to the many other passages that are energized or driven by the stream of short-wave sounds, either at low or at high volume. However, the connection to these other passages is effortlessly given by the fact that the passages with relative background silence continue the musical argument(s) generated during episodes with more presence of short-wave sounds.


In terms of the climactic massiveness of sound, or rather, in terms of the climactic massiveness of sound intensity, developed at certain stages of the composition, the music of KURZWELLEN can, in a way, be compared with grand symphonic music.

A profound and essential aspect of the fascination of KURZWELLEN is the turning upside down of the usual temporal relationships in music. Commonly in music, the frequency of occurrence of "big events" (such as fortissimo musical statements in symphonies for example) is related to the tempo in which musical events evolve. As an example, the music in a slow movement of a symphony usually evolves at a slower pace than the music in a fast movement, and also the "big events" commonly occur at less frequency in the slow movement even though once they occur, they may create huge climaxes. In KURZWELLEN however, such relationship between pace of activity of the music and pace of occurrence of big events is completely overthrown.

In KURZWELLEN, heightened or even climactic intensity is of great importance for the overall structure, yet the events of climactic intensity occur with low frequency and once initated, they may last for quite an extended time span. Additionally, although they may arise rapidly, sometimes these events of climactic activity may be internally evolving at a slow pace. Overall, on a large scale, the work seems to be very slowly moving. In strong contrast to this, the activity of the short-wave sounds so prominent in the work is very fast throughout and often frenetic, given by their nature of course. Also, in accordance with that, the mimicking and transformation of the short-wave sounds by the instruments may often be fast-paced in activity as well it produces those moments of intensely streaming instrumental motion. This disjunction between pace of musical activity and frequency of big events results in a unique, fascinating structure.

In the large-scale development of the work, the character of "composition" clearly and powerfully shines through, even though on the immediate small scale the unforeseeability of the specific events and the players' response to them results in a more improvisational feeling (the way how the players respond is also composed, yet it appears to leave them considerable freedom nonetheless). This juxtaposition adds to the fascination of the structure as well.

In the context of KURZWELLEN being a composition with a very slowly evolving underlying large-scale architecture, its long duration of almost an hour makes perfect sense. It only may take some effort by the listener to tune in to the large scale of development, since it stretches into dimensions not usually heard.


Even though heightened or climactic activity and intensity is important in the large-scale development of the work, actual climaxes in a strict sense hardly seem to be created. In general, the passages of climactic activity appear to lack the (relative or more absolute) finality of statement usually associated with true climaxes; rather, they develop as big waves of intensity upon which the music rides.

The non-directionality of climactic waves, evoked by such lack of finality of statement, is in agreement with the overall non-directional moment form as it is found in the work.

The composer: "KURZWELLEN are a moment form."
(Letter from May 14, 2005 to the author German original: "KURZWELLEN sind eine Momentform.")

The character of moment form is fundamentally given by the intense concentration on the here and now, as the occurrence of unforeseen short-wave events and the reaction to them by the players demands. On the other hand, the almost constant streaming of short-wave sounds and its variations of inner life and dynamics frequently lend the music a forward momentum of energy, a momentum that appears to provide a certain driven directionality.

This blend of moment form with directional energy is another source of the fascination of the musical architecture of KURZWELLEN.

The intensity of the short-wave sounds as heard in the work is frequently enhanced by the simultaneous sounding of several short-wave receivers (each one of the four players operates their own receiver) and through their transformation by the instruments: this transformation appears as a magnification and dramatization of these fast-streaming sounds.

The instruments chosen for the work very well correspond to the nature of the short-wave signals. The tam-tam as an instrument producing noises fits well with the noisy signals, and it also lies in the range of sound of the electronium and electric viola to be used to augment the noisy character of the short-wave signals they are employed efficiently for this purpose. The "scratchy" sounds from the electric viola show, resulting from their lack of smoothness, microoscillations within themselves that are reminiscent of the microoscillations heard within the short-wave sounds as are some sounds resulting from scratching the surface of the tam-tam. The "whistling" sounds sometimes associated with the short-wave signals are effectively mimicked and amplified by tam-tam and electronium as well. The expressive range of the piano of course gives wide possibilities (also, in some passages the strings of the instrument seem to be excited directly, or its sound appears to be influenced by the filtering applied to electric viola and tam-tam), and the transformation of the short-wave signals in lower registers of the piano portrays their sound character with a massive weight that they themselves do not possess.

With all these instruments employed, often in a cumulative manner, the magnification and dramatization of the short-wave sounds can be impressive.

Astonishing and powerful is the effortlessness of building climactic activity. It is based on two elements:

First, the onset of the proceedings on the road to climactic activity, as well as this activity itself, features mostly more rapid and streaming motion in the instruments, blending with and enhancing the stream of short-wave sounds which it mimicks and transforms. This intensification of the overall motion of the music into a single one displays a firm focusing of energy, which allows for a natural flow towards climactic momentum.

Second, literally at the turn of a knob, the volume knob, the short-wave sounds can develop great force, and this sudden appearance of force seems natural since in its effect it parallels a real-life situation using a short-wave receiver the sudden occurrence of noisy signals by dialing the tuning knob on the receiver. In addition, once instruments respond to this short-wave impetus, individually or in a cumulative manner, the short-wave signal can be elevated even more in volume to tower alongside or even above all that instrumental activity. In this manner it provides further effortless enhancement of musical intensity towards a climactic ride as much as the instrumental music can magnify and dramatize the short-wave sounds, as much these sounds can magnify the character of climactic activity of the instrumental music.

The timing of short-wave intensity in the passages of climactic activity is impressive. At certain moments the high-volume appearance of these sounds almost seems to open floodgates in the music. At one or two places in this performance of the work it is shown that the climactic waves can be built mainly just by short-wave sounds at high volume, with instruments mostly providing only a driving supporting motion.

Even though in climactic passages mostly fast-streaming motion of instrumental activity occurs, some layers of simultaneous and climactic instrumental activity may be less rapidly moving, and due to their heaviness of momentum they enhance the overall impression of power even further.

As effortlessly as they are generated, the climactic waves can simply dissipate. Often the organic nature of the dissipation of energy is aided by the continuation of the streaming of short-wave sounds, albeit at lower volume, throughout the process of lessening climactic activity.


In the gestures played by the instruments in reaction to short-wave sounds and to specific content of broadcasts (music, speech), an equalization of the sound world of these different kinds of radio events takes place to a certain extent. This is due to the fact that, when the instruments imitate or transform any of these types of radio events, their spectrum of timbre of course remains within certain boundaries. The thus experienced embedding of all events into a single confined, even though diverse, array of timbres contributes in a captivating manner to the impression that all the short-wave sounds and broadcasts are molten into one music.

The way short-wave signals are responded to by the players is an important source of tension in the work, especially in the softer passages. A main role in this plays the diversity of timing of the response immediate or delayed , and sometimes gestures created in the instruments as a response to short-wave signals even seem to recur a few minutes later than these signals. Furthermore, tension is generated by the appearances of music or speech that are not responded to (see also the comments by the composer above about unwanted stations). The ping-pong responses of instrument players to each other, triggered at certain stages by a single initial response of one player to a short-wave event, can sound enthralling. At times such multiple responses of instruments to each other, following a triggering short-wave event, go on for minutes.

KURZWELLEN is one of Stockhausen's most radical sounding compositions and a fascinating one at that. The specific implementation of short-wave sounds, combined with the instruments used and the way they respond to, mimic and transform these sounds, results in both a sound world and a musical architecture that are most original.

The 1968 performance in comparison

In the 1968 recording the short-wave signals are almost always more in the background, and even at high volume they are present with far less immediacy. All this may also be a function of the recording balance and the overall lack of clarity of the recording. Thus I cannot entirely exclude the possibility that in the actual performance they were also present at low volume more often than is audible on the recording up to the point where they could have been present with a frequency not quite unlike that heard in the much clearer recording of the newer performance. This possibility might seem within reach also given the instruction of the composer (see above): "The search (at low volume) for a suitable short-wave event tuning from station to station should be perceived as a characteristic quality of this composition, ...".

However, even though I cannot exclude such a situation I cannot automatically assume it; rather I have to go by what I actually hear on the 1968 recording, and that is virtual silence of short-wave signals for a considerable part of the time (the noticeable presence of tape hiss virtually absent in the other recording does not simplify matters as well).

In this version, short-wave sounds often appear only briefly at a higher sound intensity, and a number of times as a stream quite linearly growing in volume, starting from different levels of initial volume. This more or less linear growth in volume results in a very directional stream of energy, guiding the music at certain points.

Such a burst of short-wave sounds of course may also initiate passages where the instruments mimic the rapid, frenetic, streaming activity of these sounds, or they may work as intensifier of already ongoing instrumental activity of this kind. However, more than in the other performance of KURZWELLEN, such streaming activity in the instruments is heard by itself as well, without concomitant high-level presence of the short-wave sounds that are imitated. The sounding of this activity in the instruments alone, or with short-wave sounds only faintly in the background, has a powerful effect of its own.

As musical material for transformation by the instruments, the overall importance of the streaming activity of short-wave noises, relative to the content of music or speech in short-wave radio broadcasts, appears to be as high as in the 1969 performance.

The relative silence of short-wave sounds in passages where the instruments play more individual gestures, gestures that seem to transform (fragments of) broadcast contents rather than streaming short-wave sounds, heightens the sensation of the players listening to each other and reacting to each other. When instrumental events with more abrupt outbursts of energy are played, they may appear quite explosive against the silent background.

Due to the frequent virtual absence of short-wave sounds, the contrast between streaming, rapid activity in the instruments and more isolated gestures in less dense passages often appears even greater than in the other performance of the work. There the more or less permanent presence of short-wave sounds provides connectivity of musical motion (see above).

In general, hearing the instrumental gestures frequently more isolated against a rather silent background, as compared to the 1969 performance, confers an own specific appeal to the 1968 recording.


For a more philosophical take on KURZWELLEN, I recommend Ingvar Loco Nordin's review.

This review also includes photographs from the booklet to CD 13.

© Albrecht Moritz 2002, text edited 2005


Additional links:

Kurzwellen - Wikipedia

Stockhausen: Sounds in Space: KURZWELLEN