Friday, January 23, 2015


Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici (photo used in score cover with inverted colors)
No. 37: YLEM
for 19 players / singers and 4 shortwave radios:
  • 4 electric instruments (with additional shortwave radios)
  • 5 stationary instruments
  • 10 (or more) mobile instruments
(1972) [about 26 minutes in length]

Instrumentation for the 1973 premiere:
  • electronium (accordion-synth), synthesizer, electronically-processed saxophone, electronically-processed cello
  • electric organ, piano, harp, cello, tam-tam (gong)/vibraphone
  • flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin

Phoenix Music
     The word "ylem" ("eye - lum") comes from a 1940's science term for "matter", specifically the sub-atomic plasma initially created at the Big Bang (theorized creation of the universe) which continues to spread outwards forming the boundaries of the universe.  Stockhausen's composition YLEM musically simulates the Big Bang, as well as it's theorized (at that time) contraction (Big Crunch) and rebirth.  Nowadays the concept of universal mass causing a Big Crunch is largely out of favor - but who knows?  In any case, Stockhausen wrote this as a piece for the London Sinfonietta to play during a 1973 tour featuring his works.

     The basic sequence of events is that players start out on a fortissimo tri-tone tremolo and slowly expand their pitch ranges in aleatory (free) fashion, at the same time decreasing the note density by adding silences in between attacks.  Some players concentrate on glissando figures which connect the notes of the other players.  The phrases also become more elaborate in shape and color as the expansion proceeds.  At one point a shortwave radio signal briefly surfaces.  Eventually, the players begin to shout "HU!" (see notes in INORI), after which the reverse happens (including another shortwave radio event).  When the sounds reach its maximum density on the original tri-tone, a tam-tam strike signals the tri-tone to move up a note, after which the players disperse once again and fade out.

     On the Stockhausen Complete Edition CD 21, there are two performances of YLEM (the 3rd and 2nd recording sessions).  The 26-minute second version (track 2, also the one released on the original LP) has this chronology (with a 10 second introductory silence included in the timings):


(players move outward into the auditorium)
Shortwave radio event 1 2:40

(compression begins)
Shortwave radio event 2 16:03
Single-note tremolo signal

(players return to the stage)
2nd Explosion

(and transposition upwards)

A more detailed explanation of YLEM's "cosmology" follows.

      The piece begins with the "mobile" players (winds, brass, etc...) huddled around the piano.  At the sound of a tam-tam (gong) crash, all of the instruments except the 4 electric instruments (referred to as the "Connection Players") play a very loud 2-3 second tremolo on Eb or A in their instrument's middle range. 

Evolution (Explosion)
     For roughly the next 11 minutes, the instruments "expand" in durations, silences, and pitch ranges.  After a beginning phase of dense staccato "points", the silences in between gradually get longer.  The notes and figures remain generally short, but longer notes and figures can surface from time to time.   Dynamics are free.  Starting from the initial note of Eb or A, each instrument expands it's pitch range (higher and lower), but each pitch must be played at least twice before adding a new note.  The actual sequence of notes is freely chosen (aleatory), but the notes should be evenly distributed over the expanding range.  The rate of expansion for each instrument is individually independent, but at the 9-minute mark, the full pitch range of the instrument should be exploited. The actual sounds and figures increasingly vary in form, using trills, fragmentary glissandi, rhythmic and arrhythmic beat patterns, changing dynamics, timbre changes (multi-phonics, etc...), ornamentation, etc...the variations are only limited by the imagination of the player.  As the expansion continues, more and more extreme values (pitches, durations, dynamics) surface.  "Clumping" also occurs between the note attacks of different instruments to form spontaneous duo, trios, etc....

     At the same time, the 10 mobile players with handheld instruments slowly move outwards from the piano and towards the right and left walls of the auditorium, until they are lined up at both sides (see graphic down below).

     At around 11 minutes, one of the still-seated Connection Players calls out, "HU!", after which all of the other players respond with their own "HU!" exclamation after various short intervals.  At this point, the reverse of the previous phase happens (usually faster), and the notes become denser in attack and narrower in pitch range (but players remain at their wall positions).  Around 8 minutes after the "HU!", one of the Connection Players begins a signal by continuously playing a high, fast, single-note tremolo with crescendi and decrescendi.  At this, the mobile players slowly move back towards their original huddle around the piano, with everyone eventually reaching a point of intense, fast tremolos on their starting note of either Eb or A.

2nd Evolution
     When a state of maximum density is reached, the tam-tam explodes again, and the pitches ascend 1 whole tone to F or B.  At this point the Evolution expansion begins again.  This time however, the 9 seated players of stationary instruments get up and begin playing small mobile instruments.  All players slowly move outwards from the stage, and eventually out of the auditorium, their sounds fading out. 

The Connection Players
     The 4 Connection Players have slightly different roles than the other 15 players.  These electronic sustain-oriented instruments (synths, etc...) each progress by matching notes played by any of the other players.  Each Connection Player "takes off" and "lands" from one "stepping-stone" pitch to another by playing various kinds of glissandi (wavy, dotted, ascending/descending patterns, "points", etc...).  The Connection Players are generally quieter than the other players, but when ensemble pauses occur, the Connection Players can continue quietly in the background.

     At one point during the Evolution (and once again during the Implosion), a Connection Player switches on a shortwave radio, and uses the sound material (rhythm, timbre, melody, etc...) as the model for a glissando between notes (the SW is turned off when the 2nd note is reached, typically about a minute).  In the score, the work SPIRAL is referenced, which certainly fits the image on the cover.

Additionally, Stockhausen writes in the score:  
     "YLEM is music which best succeeds when the players establish telepathic communication with one another (they play with eyes closed) and with a "conductor" who listens with extreme concentration from the middle of the hall, but is not outwardly active."

Live Performance
     The positions of the 1972 London premiere players at the midpoint "HU!" moment is in the diagram below, with the Connection Players above the dashed horizontal line.  During the densest moments (explosions), the 10 players at bottom are huddled around the piano.

Stockhausen's Introduction to YLEM
     The following is the introduction to the concert on 25 August 1992, in which YLEM was performed by the Ensemble Modern at the Mozartsaal of the Alte Oper in Frankfurt. It was the fifth of seven concerts with introductions during the Frankfurt Feste ’92. The programme was: TELEMUSIK [Electronic Music] – YLEM for 19 Players – HYMNEN Region IV [electronic and concrete music].  (from the DVD transcript)

     Before I wrote the score I heard the following:

     A tone that was very strong and indescribably dense exploded.  With its particles, the tone gradually expanded to three octaves lower and higher in the tone-space. The distances between the individual tones became more and more irregular, and also their durations – separated by pauses – became more and more differentiated. I also heard different timbres. The whole process lasted for a relatively long time, and the distances between the tones became larger and larger. Finally, this event achieved the complete range from the highest to the lowest tone.

     Then I heard the syllable HU shouted, and this music, which had became very thin in the meantime – but still consisted of all extremes of dynamics and many different pitches and timbres – gradually pulled back together until it finally, after a long time, became inextricably dense, and this dense state, which I cannot describe other than by calling it compact tone-material, then exploded again and everything moved up one tone.

     There is a theory about an oscillating universe in which we live: Every 80 billion years the universe explodes, pulls itself back together and then explodes a second time – thus “oscillating universe". The original explosion, or also the primary material, is called ‘Ylem’. All the material that exists originated from a primary material, then expands, the expansion slows down, and then through increasing acceleration everything in the universe melts in fire and becomes the basic substance hydrogen, and then explodes again...

     I cordially request that you pay attention to this expansion: how every instrumentalist gradually expands his tone-space and forms the individual tones more and more, so that every tone-space receives a new shape. Very much depends on the inventiveness of each individual musician: how he shapes the tones, how he distributes them within the deceleration and subsequently again during the acceleration. Let the whole have an effect on you, not just by the details.

(from Wikipedia: Big Crunch)

Sound Impressions
     YLEM is a fascinating composition, reflecting in musical form a literally universal concept.  Beethoven was the first to be nicknamed the "universal composer", but Stockhausen here tosses his hat in the ring for that distinction.  The available recordings are interesting documents, but I think a live performance would have a much greater impact, with the sounds moving outwards in space, and eventually out of sight.  The think ideal situation would be where the musicians start at the center of the auditorium and move outwards in a circle, away from the audience in all directions.  On the recordings, the glissandi of the Connection Players are a little bit too low in the mix for my tastes (as well as the shortwave radio events), but they do provide a nice added dimension to the sound ether, almost like shooting stars, or spaceships "taking off and landing" as Stockhausen characterizes them.  Bernard Herrmann first used theremin tones to provide cosmic "atmosphere" to his film score for "The Day the Earth Stood Still", and the Connection glissandi at times reminds me a little bit of that feeling.  Also, when the ensemble moves to the next higher pitch level at the second Big Bang, it's a bit like the universe has been reborn in a higher dimension. One wonders if Stockhausen was aware of current theories about the stacked nature of parallel universes...

Sound samples and CD ordering
Purchase the Score
Stockhausen rehearsing and talking about YLEM, 1992 (DVD)
DVD sample clip
Wiki Entry
Albrecht Moritz on YLEM
Sonoloco Review

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