Saturday, February 13, 2016

Compare/ Contrast of Electronic music pioneers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Richard D. James, A.K.A. Aphex Twin

This paper is dedicated to comparing and contrasting 20th century German composer and innovator Karlheinz Stockhausen with the current English composer, DJ and producer Richard D. James; also known as Aphex Twin. In a way, Stockhausen and his contemporaries in Germany are the “grandfathers” of electro-acoustic music. In respect to the same discussion, Aphex Twin and the rave scene of the 1990s owe much to the exploration and experimentation of European electronic composition in the 1950s. One could also argue that Aphex Twin also deserves the title “Mozart” of electronic music. Aphex Twin, or Richard D. James pushed electronic music to its limits, and in this way is also directly similar to Mozart. This paper will give short biographies of Stockhausen and Richard D. James, then will explain both major differences and major similarities between the two. There are similarities and differences between the two artists; but all in all both were prominent figures in the evolution of electronic music and composition in the 20th century.
            The paper will start with a short biography of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen was born on the 22nd of August, 1928 and died aged 79 years on December 5th of 2007. He was born in Germany. His father was a schoolteacher, and this may have influenced him early; igniting a passion for teaching himself. According to Oxford Music Online (1) Stockhausen was the leading composer of his generation. He was an innovator, and pioneer in electronic music. Following his father’s footsteps, he was also a teacher throughout a great portion of his life. He graduated with a degree in music education in 1951, and early in his career took composition lessons from Frank Martin. Early in his life he considered a career as a writer. He gained and participated in a radio scholarship early in his life with a purpose to study phonetics and communications theory. Though he didn’t complete the program, he still was influenced by it and used the scientific knowledge of sound for his musical compositions.
            By 1953, he was established as a young avant-garde composer. This was also the year in which he started focusing heavily on electronic composition. He was part of projects that revolutionized music, and actually came up with the first structure for composing music electronically. According to Herbert Eimert, “The basis for production of electronic music was worked out in the Studio for Electronic Music of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, from Cologne, Germany.”(7) This experimentation brought multi-channel electronic music to the world, and was the first time that humans could create a machine to play multiple tracks at once. Stockhausen was a member of this electronic music group, and actually composed for them. Stockhausen’s work was the face of European electronic composition in the 1950s.
            By the 1960’s Stockhausen had an international reputation and was a prominent musical figure in the popular world.  His face was even featured as one of the many faces on The Beatles’s “Sgt. Pepper” album cover. One of his most famous works is called Gesand Der Junglinge, and was created in 1955. This work became the first work to establish fully the aesthetic viability of the electro acoustic medium. Much of Stockhausen’s work uses the Golden Fibonacci sequence as a compositional tool. In this way, Stockhausen is known for using mathematical equations in his electronic compositions.
He wrote for and received critical acclaim for both acoustic instruments and electronic sounds. A group a music articles complied by Jon Savage states that there was a “movement in the 1970s that moved avant-garde composition into the realm of popular music.” (4) Following the footsteps of Stockhausen and his contemporaries, a musical group called Kraftwerk expanded on the use of electronic machines for making music in the 1970’s. Kraftwerk, along with Stockhausen helped established a new form of German industrial sound in the 20th century. Though Karlheinz Stockhausen was against writing operatic works for most of his early life, he did indeed compose and write an opera in 1978-1980. In this opera, he used the modern Piano synthesizer, of which he helped build the electronic hybrid’s eminence in the early 1980s. The story of the modern synthesizer is important in the story of electronic music as a whole. Synthesizers were a momentous sales success in the 1980s, and brought about a new sound in mainstream culture. Stockhausen’s words on piano music and new technologies in 1993, “Today I see the development this way: piano music has come to an end and something quite different is coming. I sense it clearly: … there is nothing new to discover anymore.” (5) Stockhausen was correct, and possibly saw the birth of “techno” music in the making.
 Aphex Twin would be the face of this computer music movement, and the next part of this paper is dedicated to a short bio of him. Aphex Twin is the stage name for English composer, DJ and producer Richard D. James. He was born the 18th of August, 1971 in the suburb of Cornwall, UK. He experimented with electronic hardware in his early teens and soon became a noticeable face in the London dance music culture. An interview led by John Peel has James admitting that he was once a miner in one of the lower income areas (Cornwall) of the United Kingdom.(3) This possibly gave him ample seclusion for making music.
His styles are similar to Stockhausen’s in the use of electronic devices, free meters, and use of dark overtones. Richard D. James’s first few albums were promoted heavily in London dance clubs by the time he was 17 years old. By this time in his life, he was also featured on the Warp record label’s compilation album, showcasing his rising popularity at such a young age. He worked with internationally known musician Moby and helped push the idea of “techno” music to its limits. The tracks of Aphex Twin are always different, yet always create a distinct computer music feel. Sometimes the music is as fast tempo as possible, which creates a Mozart feel to the sound at some moments.
Richard D James’s album Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is most particularly similar to Stockhausen’s electronic musical composition style, and has received commercial as well as critical recognition. The album developed a large underground reputation as being representative of the 1990’s electronic music culture in London. Aphex Twin’s music is strictly electronic, leaving little room for acoustic elements. He also created his own electronic music making machines, not unlike Stockhausen and his contemporaries. James’s musical sound took what German compositions invented, and sort of perfected it like Mozart did with Franz Joseph Haydn’s model of the symphony. Some fans actually do argue that Aphex Twin is the “Mozart” of electronic music. In his defense, he has a vast array of influential musical works that took electronic to new heights, and set a standard for future electronic composers and musicians. He is part of the broad “sound art” movement that entails use of any available sounds in artistic creation.
Though both artists do have a lot in common, there are also a lot of things that make each composer different than the other. For instance, Stockhausen wrote for acoustic instruments, symphonies, and classical musicians; while Aphex Twin wrote strictly computer music. It is important to mention that Karlheinz Stockhausen bridged a gap between historic music traditions and new sounds created by electronics. Another obvious difference between James and Stockhausen is that Stockhausen is German, whereas James is English. Stockhausen was born about 40 years earlier, and Aphex Twin was born into a world already starting to use computers (the 1970s.)
The function of the music that was made for the electronic composition experiments in the 1950s was a lot different than the rave culture music of the 1990s. The electronic music of the 1990s focused of dancing, and club culture while the 1950s electronic compositions were strictly experimental and even scientific. It is notable to mention that Stockhausen was a teacher throughout his life; something that James never vocationally got into. It is possible that Stockhausen’s father had an influence on his choice to teach. Nonetheless, being a teacher continuously challenged Stockhausen and led him down a path of musical discovery.
The similarities between James and Stockhausen overshadow the differences in the history of electronic music, however. To start off simple, both were composers; and both could be called pioneers in electronic music. It is safe to say that each of these artists pushed the boundaries in electronic music to darker sounds, and blazed new paths for themselves. In this way, they are each comparable to Beethoven.  Both are key to the discussion of the history of electronic music. Karlheinz Stockhausen and Aphex Twin are each prominent figures of modernist movements (European electronic composition and 1990’s rave culture) and each represent the Romantic ideals of the 18th century well. Each artist signifies the use of new technologies in music making and set the trail for many of the electronic music making geniuses thriving today.
In conclusion, Karlheinz Stockhausen and his contemporaries are the “grandfathers” of electronic music, while Aphex Twin is the “Mozart.” Both of these artists are prominent figures in the history of electronic music, and each are musical pioneers in their own right. While Stockhausen was the original pioneer, Richard D. James took the idea of computer music to a whole new level. Stockhausen took many influences from acoustic music, and bridged a gap between electronic and acoustic sounds; creating a successful electro-acoustic medium. Stockhausen and his contemporaries literally witnessed and initiated the birth of electronic music.
While Stockhausen bridged musical gaps in the 1950’s, electronic music would from this point constantly evolve to new pinnacles. By the time Aphex Twin was born in the 1970s, German music group Kraftwerk was taking Stockhausen’s electronic acoustic ideas, and literally bridging avant-garde music with popular music. Richard D. James took the torch of electronic music to new heights, synthesizing both the electronic experimentation of Stockhausen with the sounds of a new dance music culture. Both James and Stockhausen are faces of their respected electronic movements, an aspect that is comparable to Beethoven in the Romantic era.  There are similarities and differences between the two artists; but all in all both were prominent figures in the evolution of electronic music and composition in the 20th century.

Works cited

1.    Richard Toop. "Stockhausen, Karlheinz." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 12 Feb. 2016. <>.
2.    Ian Peel. "Aphex Twin." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 12 Feb. 2016. <>.
3.    Peel, John. "John Peel's Sounds of the Suburbs - Cornwall (1/2)." YouTube. YouTube, 1999. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.
4.    Aphex Twin.1993.Jon Savage.Village Voice, The. Machine Soul: A History Of Techno/12/02/2016 15:43:14/
5.    Fowler, Michael. "Becoming The Synthi-Fou: Stockhausen And The New Keyboardism." Tempo 65.255 (2011): 2-8. Music Index. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.
6.    Taruskin, Richard, and Christopher Howard Gibbs. "34." The Oxford History of Western Music. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 1038-039. Print.
7.    Eimert, Herbert. Electronic music. Ed. Karlheinz Stockhausen. Vol. 1. National Research Council of Canada, 1956.


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