Electroacoustic art music in Germany The Cologne School myth

The circle of composers who held sway in Cologne during the 1950s has often been mythologised as a centre of the musical avant garde.

Under the leadership of Herbert Eimert and aided by the growing reputation of Stockhausen, the WDR Studio for Electronic Music that had been established in 1951 developed into an international meeting place. Composers like Ernst Krenek (Austria/USA), György Ligeti (Hungary), Franco Evangelisti (Italy), Cornelius Cardew (England), Mauricio Kagel (Argentina) and Nam June Paik (Korea) all lived and worked in Cologne.

The key works of those years were not written by Stockhausen, but by Gottfried Michael Koenig, who dominated the WDR Studio like no other as its technical assistant and helped many composers create their pieces. The language and technology of early electronic music found their culmination in his works, including Klangfiguren II (Sound Figures II, 1955/56), Essay (1957) and Terminus I (1962), which are as radical as they virtuosic.

Stockhausen and his impact

In retrospect, the impact of the Cologne School has been of significance at several levels. Firstly, the WDR Studio is regarded as the "mother of all studios". It became the model for comparable institutions, among them Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio’s Phonological Studio in Milan (founded in 1955) and Jozef Patkowski’s Experimental Music Studio in Warsaw (1957), which also worked with sinus wave, noise and impulse generators, tape machines, filters and reverb units. Secondly, Stockhausen, who was regarded for a long time as the form’s most important integrative figure, helped electronic music to gain international respect.

At the same time, there was strong criticism of his apolitical attitude and tendency towards spiritualism, which he expressed for the first time in works such as Hymnen (Anthems, 1966-67) and Telemusik (Telemusic, 1969). Anthems, which Krautrock bands like Can and Neu have claimed as a decisive inspiration, was condemned by Luigi Nono as a shoddy piece of nationalism; in 1974, Cornelius Cardew even raised the accusation, "Stockhausen serves imperialism".

Thirdly, many of the composers initiated into electroacoustic music at Cologne have passed on and further developed the ideas they encountered there. Under the impression of his tape study Artikulation (Articulation), which he had composed in 1958 in Cologne, György Ligeti intensified the orchestral texture of Atmosphères (1960/61) into a turbulent fog of sound based on electroacoustic models. Helmut Lachenmann also applied lessons from his electroacoustic activities. He may only have written a single tape piece, but then went on to revolutionise instrumental music in the late 1960s with his concept of a noise-fixated „musique concrète instrumentale".

Herbert Brün, who taught at the University of Illinois until 2000, interpreted the procedures he had learned in Cologne in the context of his theory of socially committed electronic music. And Gottfried Michael Koenig, who took charge of the Dutch Institute of Sonology in 1964, reorganised this workshop as a kind of "criticism of the Cologne Studio", above all introducing voltage control and computers.

Mauricio Kagel, who created the tape piece Transicion at the WDR Studio in 1963, has dedicated himself increasingly to acoustic art since his radio play Ein Aufnahmezustand (A State of Recording, 1969), applying the montage procedures of electronic music to works with a narrative character. While the writer Ferdinand Kriwet, who cultivated close contacts with composers in Cologne, produced a series of "audio texts” in order to make the graphic, multichannel qualities of documentary recordings fruitful in a literary context.



Nor was musical life in the GDR untouched by electroacoustic music. After many short-lived projects, Georg Katzer succeeded in building up a studio at the Berlin Academy of the Arts, although not until 1986 and then with machines and materials that had to be obtained from the West, sometimes by clandestine methods. Technically, the studio was strongly oriented towards Western production conditions and became a place of political and aesthetic subversion, creating works that countered the normative reason of state with an individualistic, free-thinking poetics.