The Process Plan Works (aka - the "plus-minus pieces")

(Score Front, (© Universal Edition)
Stockhausen at the mixing desk.
No. 27: SPIRAL
for a soloist (any instrument or combination of instruments, voice) with shortwave radio receiver
(1968) [complete ca. 135', sections 15'–25']

     SPIRAL was composed in 1968 while Stockhausen was living in Connecticut (United States).  It was developed through his association with a guitarist student, Michael Lorimer, and originally dedicated to him (tho never performed by him).  SPIRAL had it's greatest success when it was premiered by the oboist Heinz Holliger (and subsequently performed more than 1300 times!)  at the Osaka 1970 World's Fair Expo in Stockhausen's own performance pavilion, a speaker-lined spherical building where Stockhausen could literally send the oboe and shortwave sounds "spiraling" around the room (right).

     The basic idea for SPIRAL is that after an initial period of random shortwave radio tuning, the performer mimics a chosen radio sound (or station), and then develops this interpretation through addition and reduction of different musical elements, such as duration, register and volume. Since shortwave radio is naturally mired in static and "noise", the performer can get pretty creative as to how exactly he executes the instructions.

     This piece falls into the same kind of category as Stockhausen's other "controlled improvisation" scores (sometimes called "process plan" pieces), such as KURZWELLEN, PROZESSION, EXPO, and POLE, where the score has symbolic "plus-minis" notation instead of traditional noteheads on staffs.  The ultimate result of these kinds of works would later come in the form of AUS DEN SEBEN TAGEN, which is based entirely on text instructions only.

Shortwave Radio:

"Doesn't almost everyone own a short-wave receiver?  And doesn't everyone have a voice?
Wouldn't it be an artful way of life for everyone, to transform the unexpected (which one can receive on a short-wave radio)
into new music - i.e. into a consciously-formed sound process which awakens all
intuitive, mental, sensitive and artistic faculties, and makes them become creative, 
so that this awareness and these faculties rise like a spiral?!"
 - from Stockhausen Edition CD 15 booklet notes

     It might be worthwhile to examine how shortwave radio works and how it sounds in order to make it easier to follow the development of the piece and distinguish the radio sounds from the soloist's actions. Shortwave is able to receive long-distance broadcasts from around the globe because it's wavelength can bounce off the atmosphere ionosphere (and go around the curve of the Earth).  Some frequencies work better at night, and some work better during the daytime.  Additionally, unlike the Internet, it is impossible for a government to censor content. Some of the content available on shortwave radio includes amateur radio stations, utility stations (weather, sea conditions, military, news), number stations (a voice reading out numbers), private 2-way communications, and general audience stations such as Radio Taiwan, Voice of America, Radio France Internationale, BBC World Service, etc...  But most importantly: "shortwave transmissions often have bursts of distortion, and "hollow" sounding loss of clarity at certain aural frequencies, altering the harmonics of natural sound and creating at times a strange "spacey" quality due to echoes and phase distortion." (Wikipedia).

     The score itself does not have an obvious over-arching form, but most performances do have a certain structural rhythm to them.  In a typical performance, the first few seconds involve quiet shortwave radio tuning, with the performer roughly imitating the changing sounds as the tuner dial is rotated back and forth.  Eventually a "station" (or a noise) is decided upon, and the shortwave volume goes up, in order to "state the theme", and the performer does a full imitation to the best of his ability (in general, imitation can only limit itself to a few prominent characteristics of a shortwave sound event, and multi-layered events are interpreted by switching back and forth between layers).  This "Event" is followed by more Events where the performer puts his radio-imitation theme through variations and different forms of atomization, separated by quieter pauses of varying lengths.  Many times the radio plays quietly in the background, or fades in and out (same station though).  Each of these variation Events is typically 30 to 90 seconds long, and separated by pauses of at least 3 seconds.

     At a certain point the player begins searching around stations again and the cycle begins again, with a new "radio-theme", but with different sequences of variations, as indicated by the score.  Alot of times this new cycle is characterized by either a different instrument or a new "technique" on the same instrument.  These "theme and variation" groups can be as long as 5 minutes in some cases, such as when a player develops an Event for awhile before dipping back into the well of random radio sound again.  Usually (but not always) a special event called a "SPIRAL" is hit where the player does a kind of holistic cadenza.

     In most recordings the sounds are also moving in space.  These spatial movements are not part of the score itself, but ad-libbed (however in Stockhausen's next work, POLE, even the spatial movements are scored).  In Osaka, Stockhausen had access to a "sound mill" where he was able to use a kind of "crank" box to make signals go in different circular motions.

     For the most part, this is pretty much all that's necessary to know to enjoy the piece.  The next part goes more into detail from a performer's point of view. 

1st 20 Events with additional handwritten notes by Michael Vetter for his performance.
(S) indicates shortwave radio.
     The performer can use any combination of instruments, including voice.  In order to allow a soloist to simultaneously play an instrument and adjust radio controls, anything goes (including the use of tape-loops and echo/delay).  All radio sounds must be at least a little noisy, "clear" signals are avoided. 

     The piece typically begins with a performer quietly tuning the radio until he finds a station that he/she likes, after which he turns it up and imitates it (with the radio still going).  This the 1st Event.  All following Events can be with or without the radio. However, if an Event is preceded by a vertical divider line ("|") then shortwave is used to generate a new radio-theme (such as in Event 2 in the excerpt above).  This last instruction is not explicitly mentioned in the score, but is included in EXPO (which is based on SPIRAL), and is used this way in most interpretations.

     Events are separated by pauses, where a player does one of the following:
 - Be silent
 - Let the radio play quietly
 - Tune the radio ("musically") to find something that will satisfy the next Event instruction below (during this "tuning pause" the player can also comment on the radio output instrumentally and/or vocally)

     The score signs "+", "-", and "=" indicate how the new Event reacts to the previous Event, as in "more", "less", or "the same of" four parameters (see PROZESSION):
D - Duration (of the Event)
R - Register
İ - Intensity (loudness)
G - Rhythmic Segmentation (number of attacks/rests during an Event; think "words in a sentence" - G is for glieder (German, "limbs")
     Everything else from the previous Event (rhythm, melody, timbre, harmony, etc) is imitated as much as possible until a new radio Event occurs.  So in a way a particular performance is to some extent a sequence of radio-sound "themes" and variations on that theme.  The length of each radio-theme section is determined by the performer, depending on when he plays a new radio-accompanied event.

     To satisfy the +/-/= instruction for G (# of attacks), the radio's volume knob and tuner knobs are turned rhythmically.  Alternatively the radio can be left alone and the instrumental part can add accents to create "segmentation".  The segments themselves also sometimes are of 4 types:
P   - Points (single notes/chords)
Gr  - Groups (fast 1-7 notes/chords)
M   - Mass (dense cloud of notes/chords)
Mix - Mix of all 3 types

Other transformation symbols include the below.  The instructions in BLUE are to be interpreted with instrument/voice only (with the shortwave optionally very quiet in the background)
OR Ornamentation (related to Duration)
POLY Polyphony (including adding reverb/delay, related to Register)
Per Periodic repeat of a motif from the previous Event (somewhat related to Rhythmic segmentation)
[:x:] Repeat previous symbol x-number of times and re-apply modifier each time 
E Echo of previous event, reset parameters for next Event
PERM->POLY Permute the segments, then layer them (could be through tape loops)
BAND Band segments by playing them as fast as possible (into a blur) and then make these fused groups into segments (blocks of sound in the rhythm of the original Event).  "Play until exhaustion".

     (BAND most likely comes from the concept of "bandwidth" in electronic music.  In that case, all of the frequencies between 2 values (such as 800 and 1200 Hz) are completely filled with random noise.  This is sometimes called "colored noise", as opposed to "white noise").
AKK Create an arpeggiated chord from the segments and repeat them in the rhythm of the original Event
(approx. symbol)
Expand (or contract) through repetition the melodic, rhythmic and dynamic intervals to the maximum
(approx. symbol)
Take a segment and continuously alternate it with the other segments (like a rondo?)

And last but not least, the SPIRAL symbol:


For this all visual and theatrical possibilities are also brought into play.


     Finally, a player can end at any of 9 specified points, and then pick up from that point at a later performance.  At this point in time, only Michael Vetter has recorded an "integral" (complete) version.
(© Universal Edition))
Osaka, Japan: EXPO '70 Performers
     The score of SPIRAL is dedicated to 19 people in commemoration of EXPO '70 (and who I assume all performed there):
Helga Albrecht  mezzo soprano 
Dagmar Apel  soprano 
Gaby Rodens  soprano 
Hans Alderich Billig  bass 
Siegfried Bernhöft  tenor 
Harald Bojé electronium, piano 
Karl Heinz Böttner electric guitar 
Christoph Caskel  percussion 
Péter Eötvös electrochord, piano 
Gerard Frémy  piano 
Johannes Fritsch  amplified viola 
Wolfgang Fromme  tenor 
Rolf Gehlhaar  tamtam 
David Johnson  flute, synthesizer 
Aloys Kontarsky  piano 
Mesias Maiguashca  sound supervision 
Michael Ranta  percussion 
Edward Tarr  trumpet 
Michael Vetter  amplified recorder 
     Since SPIRAL is "for a soloist", this means that the instrumentation can be of any kind, as long as there is only one performer.  The earliest performances of SPIRAL were with oboe, but perhaps the most exploratory were the ones recorded by Peter Eötvös and Harald Bojé on "experimental" instruments (Stockhausen Edition no. 15).  Eötvös' recording has him playing "electrochord", which in this case is basically an Hungarian zither wired to an EMS Synthi A synthesizer (see links at bottom).  His bowing and plucking is transformed by the synth into sounds which mesh well with radio interference noise.  It's a very exploratory recording and has some incredible sonics on it, but I'm not sure it really displays Stockhausen's piece so much as display what crazy sounds can be created from a zither processed with a synthesizer.  The same is true of Bojé's "electronium" performance, also based on a modified accordion-like synthesizer.  On a side note, this recording leaves out the "searching for a good station" knob twiddling sounds.  Or perhaps they did it silently and just chose radio stations at random?

     Cathy Milliken's performance (Stockhausen Edition no. 45) with oboe, voice and didgeridoo highlights the structure of the piece a little more, and she changes radio stations a bit more often than Eötvös and Bojé do.  Because she performs with 3 very different instruments, her version also has a greater feeling of being made up of thematic sections.

     The ultimate recording has to be Michael Vetter's almost 2.5-hour epic performance (Stockhausen Edition no. 46) using mainly just voice (and shortwave radio of course). Unlike every other recording, he actually performs the entire score from beginning to end (most people stop at the end of the "first movement").  His performance is also probably the most immediately entertaining, since his vocalizations are completely without reservation - in other words, it's sometimes pretty hilarious what he comes up with.

Sound Impressions:
     SPIRAL is a pretty tough listen, frankly.  The idea of using shortwave noise is something that Stockhausen uses alot, especially in pieces like HYMNEN, KURZWELLEN, etc...  However in my personal opinion the "noise" elements may tend to sound the same after awhile.  There is just not an infinite number of easily discernible noise variations to be found in shortwave radio interference (alot, but not infinite) - though I suppose it's possible that, after several repeated listenings, more subtle variations would become more apparent.  The noise patterns and oscillations are also attractive because they lend themselves well to the kinds of transformations called for in the score.  I assume it would also be less interesting to perform transformations on a polka fragment (and much harder if one's instrument is a tam-tam or zither).

     In any case, each of the various recordings seem to have their own strong points.  Eötvös and Bojé's versions have amazing sonic exploration, Milliken's has the clearest sense of compositional form, and Vetter's is possibly the most entertaining and human.  For more of my thoughts on the factor of performer style to these plus-minus works, see POLE.

A Note on "Analysis"
     These "process plan" pieces (using the plus-minus notation, etc...) are interestingly open to many forms of analysis which go beyond those for "normally-notated" works.  The "normal" questions would be (beyond "where did the idea come from"):
  • 1. How did the composer organize the notes, durations, dynamics, etc...?  Serial?  Theme variation?  Chance?
  • 2. What does the piece sound like, or how does it progress?  (which would get answers like "begins dense, becoming points, polyphonic, then unison etc...")
For these process plan works, other questions arise:
  • 3. How does the performer assign the parameters to each Event? (ie - what parameter and why this one for this Event?)
  • 4. How does the performer interpret each parameter? (ie - in what way is this an "imitation" of the shortwave theme? What element was used and what was discarded?)
     Fortunately the "what" of question 3 is included in the CD booklet to Michael Vetter's integral vocal recording on CD 46.  At some point I'll probably add something here for question 2.  The other questions are food for thought...

Samples and CD ordering:
Buy the Score
Michael Lorimer and Stockhausen (PDF)
On Harald Bojé's Electronium 
On Peter Eotvos' Electrochord
Peter Eötvös' Homepage
SPIRAL (with Electrochord) Youtube clip (alt. ver. from CD)
SPIRAL (with Electronium) Youtube clip (alt. ver. from CD)
SPIRAL (with Flute, voice) Youtube clip
SPIRAL (with Soprano Saxophone, Live, Giovanni Nardi)
Sonoloco Reviews of Spiral: 1, 2,

EMS and the Synthi A
EMS Synthi A (used by Bojé and Eotvos in their versions as signal processors) 
What the Future Sounded Like (The Story of EMS, 2006) 
EMS Synthi Technical Overview 
Florent Perray Synthi A Synthesizer Demos 1, 2, 3, 4
Alka - Improvisations On The EMS Synthi AKS Mk 1