Last Friday marks the one year anniversary of the passing on of a fascinating mind in the world of music and sound. Karlheinz Stockhausen was a pioneer in audio synthesis who was the first to show that properties of sound once thought to be distinct were in fact the same thing. In other words, all various properties of sound and music that we know of as rhythm, pitch, and timbre are really all the same thing. The only difference is that we perceive these based on the window of time in which we look at them. This idea was a breakthrough both in music and in modern audio synthesis. In this, he succeeded in not only proving but using this new “unifying theory of sound”.
The piece Stockhausen created for this theory was in 1960 and it is called KONTAKTE. Here are some notes on the piece :
“The most famous moment, at the very center of the work, is a potent illustration of these connections: a high, bright, slowly wavering pitch descends in several waves, becoming louder as it gradually acquires a snarling timbre, and finally passes below the point where it can be heard any longer as a pitch. As it crosses this threshold, it becomes evident that the sound is comprised of a succession of pulses, which continue to slow until they become a steady beat. With increasing reverberation, the individual pulses become transformed into tones once again.”
LEANINGS AND YEARNINGS TOWARDS UNIFYING THEORIES
There is something very tantalizing about unifying theories. I’ve realized lately that there is an interesting theme in the books I am reading lately. They all seem to revolve around thinkers who try and even succeed in explaining large chunks of the worlds in a small sentence or two. No matter the subject matter at hand, there is such a feeling of completion to wrap up disparate ideas and put them in a package to put a red bow on top. Stockhausen is not the only mind I admire for his unifying theory of sound. Some of my favorite thinkers are those who attempt to explain our world through a much simpler view. This is my obsession with Joseph Campbell. By looking at all world religions and mythologies from a high level he is able to pull out of them all simultaneously their essence. It’s much easier to understand the world when we can see that any of them could be explained by one simple recipe or archetype. Again in the extremely complex world of linguistics we have Noam Chomsky who strives to explain all languages as falling under the umbrella of one Universal Grammar. I’m still trying to figure out why I am so drawn to this theme, but so far I am content with these ideas going directly to the pleasure center of my brain.
Now finally after crossing these stepping stones of prerequisites we have finally arrived at the FUCK BUTTONS. Have you ever seen two musicians look so happy or show such love for a horse? It just might be because they have happen to have succeeded in creating a piece of music which I believe is a beautiful and engaging expression of Stockhausen and his unifying theory. A great example of this is the opener track “Sweet Love for Planet Earth”. After some introductory chimes we are drawn to a droning bed of fuzz which forms the timbre of the piece. Several minutes later when we are lulled into the function of this sound as a drone, the entire sound is processed with a delay until it becomes what we would normally call the rhythm track of a song. Finally after we have accepted this as our rhythmic center, it now begins to lumber into a sort of melody. All the duties we expect from our sounds get shifted and blurred to the point that no sound or instrument can be expected to perform a certain function before eventually it morphs into something else. Right from under our ears. Also the vocals in this music are not what we tradionally think of as vocals. Instead of carrying a melody or pitch instead they provide rhythm and timbre into an increasingly complex piece of music where sounds slide about in use much like young children on a slip-n-slide. On the Fuck Buttons website not long ago was a statement that their music was a means of transcending melody and rhythm so that they are each other. Continuing beyond this, it also said that there was the effect of their music of creating a oneness between the individual and the Universe. If we follow the logic and (sometimes strange) ideas of Stockhausen, then it looks like they have achieved that kind of unity. Try listening to it reading Campbell or Chomsky. Who knows, maybe you could come up with a theory uniting all possible sounds, religious ideas and parts of speech?