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A performers approach to Stockhausen’s Nr 9 Zyklus

A performers approach to Stockhausen’s Nr 9 Zyklus


Zyklus (Cycle) is a short work for solo percussionist for a set of approximately 20 instruments which was written and premiered in 1959. Zyklus was commissioned for the first percussion competition at the Darmstadt summer school. It is a radically experimental work which makes use of proportional notation and is marked by a deeply aleatoric aesthetic. It was one of the first pieces ever to be written for percussion solo and soon became one of the most frequently played works in the repertoire.


The title Zyklus reflects the cyclic form of this work, which has no particular start point. The performer is instructed to start the work at the beginning of any page, read from there left to right (in the normal way) and, when the work has come full circle, to finish with the first note of the first page that he played. In this way the score embodies the piece’s structure: it is literally a cycle. The sixteen page score is bound with no cover page or any blank pages in order that it is possible to do this. Although there are sixteen pages, one of these pages is split in two by a horizontal double-line, so there are effectively seventeen pages of music. Each of these pages represents one ‘period’ in Stockhausen’s conception of the work’s form. Each of these periods comprises thirty equal divisions which represent a constant pulse. Although there is no given tempo, the performer must retain the same pulse for the duration of the work; ‘Durations and intervals of entry are drawn to scale; equal distances correspond to equal amounts of time’ (Stockhausen, 1960). In other words the piece uses a controlled form of proportional notation, where the divisions ensure some rigour on the part of the performer.


The pages of the score are unnumbered. In this way Stockhausen chooses to give the performer an uninfluenced choice of where to start. Interestingly, however, in his Texte zur Musik Vol. II Stockhausen numbers the periods (pages) 1 to 17. The performer must, therefore, ask if these numberings are merely for convenience of analysis or whether Stockhausen did indeed have a starting point in mind Since the work is aleatorically conceived, and the choice of the piece’s beginning is a practical decision for the performer, whether or not Stockhausen had his own preference for a beginning is largely irrelevant.


Stockhausen’s concept behind the complex structure of Zyklus is that if the piece were recorded, looped on itself and accelerated enormously, it would become constant pitch. In short it is ‘conceived as a single immensely distended pulsation of a note of indescribable richness’ (Maconie, 1976, 115). The idea for this structure emerged as an aside from the research Stockhausen was doing for Nr 12 Kontakte (for electronic sounds). The structure of Zyklus is based on nine layers (assigned to different instruments) each of which undergoes a mathematically configured accelerando for eight periods, reaches a climax of density for one period, and then gives way to a measured ritardando (for a further eight periods). Each of the nine main instruments is out of phase with the others and they reach their individual climaxes during different periods of the piece. This structure can be shown graphically as follows:


Figure 1 (Harvey, 1975, 116)


As well as this rigorously conceived background there are processes (of various degrees of determination) overlaid to obscure the audibility of this basic structure. The overall effect is that of expanding and contracting events of shorter or longer durations.


In performance Zyklus is conceived in such a way that the performer gradually turns around either clockwise or anti-clockwise, focussing on each instrument of the set-up as he turns. This is another way in which the cyclic form of the work is realised. The notation in the work moves gradually from total precision in Stockhausen’s period 1, to the uncertainty in period 17. For this reason, as the performer turns around he moves either from certainty to ambiguity, or – if reading the score ‘upside-down’ – from ambiguity to certainty. This offers a sense of dramatic direction in this incredibly mathematical work.


This outline of the structure of Zyklus by no means even scratches the surface of the enormous depth of Stockhausen’s compositional process for this piece, but it is a good starting point for a performer who is approaching this work.


There are many aspects of this piece which are left up to the performer; at which point should he start and end the piece? In which order should he play certain ‘structures’? Which option should he take when there is more than one? Also there are many different types of notation with which he must become acquainted.


One major decision facing a performer is whether to prepare every aleatoric aspect of the work or to improvise these decisions during performance. The latter was attempted by percussionist Max Neuhaus when he recorded Four Realizations of Stockhausen’s Zyklus all starting at different points and making different decisions as he went along, which is a process he employed when Stockhausen took him on his first US tour. To employ this process the performer must learn and study every single part of the score in great depth to be able to perform with the fluency of a ‘prepared’ performance. One of the advantages of a ‘prepared’ performance is that it takes a shorter amount of time to study than an improvised performance.


Presuming the performer decides to prepare all aspects of his performance one of the first questions he will want to answer is where to start his piece. In order to find a sensible solution to this decision I will outline the ‘material’ starting from Stockhausen’s notional ‘period 1’.


The first period has the most ‘pointillistic precise notation’ (Maconie 1976, 118) and therefore there are no decisions to be made by the performer except for regarding the duration of the notes. Notational difficulties aside, this is probably the ‘easiest’ period. The second period presents the performer with a decision between three semi-identical pathways; Stockhausen names this ‘Structure type 2’. As you can see from the figure below, whichever path the performer chooses here, the main pulses are in the same place, and only the smaller ‘ricochet’ beats, and/or the sustain, is changed:


Figure 2


We can see from the earlier Figure 1 that period 2 marks the crossover between the side drum peaking in period 1 and the hi-hats in period 3. So in this period those two instruments are of equal importance and are more important than all of the others. For this reason I think I would choose the first option (in Figure 2, the top line) as it has the fewest pulses that could distract from the hi-hat and side drum parts.


In period 3 we see the first example of ‘structure type 3’:


Figure 3


In this structure the performer is required to play the snippets in any order but each one starting at one of the three points indicated by the thin lines. The performer can chose any order based on what sounds best to them or using any type of random selection. This is followed, in period 3, by another example of structure type 2, where the performer decides his pathway. Again, here I would make that decision based on the fact that this period marks the peak of the hi-hat, and would therefore choose the path with the most involved hi-hat part.


In period 4, we see the first example of structure type 4, where the performer has to perform all the phrases but at anytime during the length of the box they are in. We can see on this page the gradual ritardando of the hi-hats after they peak in the previous period. The next instrument to peak is the triangle and we can also see on this page the gradual accelerando of this instrument leading to the next period.


The score continues like this. There are constantly choices to be made which can be made either by analysis of the structure or at random. In all of these choices I would follow the path which least obscures this fundamental background structure (shown in figure 1) in order that the dramatic implications of the fundamental structure become audible to the audience.


In periods 9 and 10 we are introduced to structure types 5 and 7. Both are fairly self explanatory from the notes in the score, but as we can see in figure 4, there are extra arrows on the score which are not explained in the key.


Figure 4


Do these arrows (which appear to point at the instrument symbols) mean that you can play the phrase on either marimba or vibraphone as long as the corresponding phrase (in the other box) is played on the other? Actually, after reading a small-print note in Stockhausen’s Texte II, he says that the performer is to play one set of three ‘phrases’ then a set of three from the other box (corresponding with an arrow) then repeat with the other two sets of three phrases. 2 This itself shows that researching this piece would make big changes in the way it is performed.


Something which is not mentioned in Stockhausen’s Texte is the abundance of arrows in the next box:


Figure 5


One can hazard a guess as to what these mean but with no certainty that was Stockhausen’s idea.


One additional confusing notational ambiguity is Stockhausen’s use of a symbol for an instrument with a “3x” or “5x” by it. This first appears in period 9 and seems to make sense.

Figure 6

There are five phrases in this box in total so that would suggest three are to be played on tam-tam and two on gong. Then in period 11 we see:


Figure 7


Here the score suggests five phrases on marimba and five on vibraphone, but there are only eight phrases in total. It is possible that Stockhausen wants the performer to repeat one of the boxes at random, but one cannot be sure.


Once the notational issues of the score are overcome, and decisions about paths and orders are chosen in the more aleatoric structure types, it is time for the performer to choose the beginning of the work. Based on the analytical understanding of the background structure, which is largely informed by the secondary sources (notably the composer’s own commentary) I would choose to start at period 1. It has a strong yet spacious opening, and also allows for the long journey to ambiguity through all of the different ‘structure types’ and then finishes in the same way it started. The piece would also work starting from period 17 and turning the score over to play in reverse order. This way, the listener journeys slowly from complete vagueness to certainty. I feel that since the form of the work can be understood as a movement either from complete notational precision to the opposite excess of freedom, or the same structure reversed, that a performance should aim to convey this audibly. It would then be for the performer to communicate to the audience this journey from one notational premise to another. This would dictate choice of tone quality, poise of the performer and any ‘non-musical’ dramatics of stage presence.


Having said this, it is clear that an aleatoric aesthetic is essential to this piece. In light of this, the fact that it ‘can begin with any page’ (Stockhausen 1960) is fundamental. Stockhausen is almost pushing for a work which is as multi-determined as possible. Hence a performer would be wise to think very carefully about the structural and aesthetic advantages of each page (and each direction) as a starting point.


This analysis has considered the structure of Zyklus as it can be variously realised in the score. It has made use of secondary sources to grapple with the structure as conceived by the composer. It has tackled the ambiguities of the score and the practical performance decisions with which they face a performer. I conclude that the clearest way of structuring the pages is the path through the material that most audibly expresses the transition from one notational extreme to another. This notational transition can only be discovered through gaining an analytical understanding of the work.



Sadie, Stanley and Tyrell, John (eds)

The new Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, London: MacMillan, 2001


Stockhausen, Karlheinz Nr. 9 Zyklus, London: Universal Edition, 1960


Stockhausen, Karlheinz Texte zur Musik Vol II, Cologne: DuMont, 1975


Stockhausen, Karlheinz Nr. 12 Kontakte, London: Universal, 1968


Harvey, Jonathan The Music of Stockhausen, London: Faber and Faber, 1975


Maconie, Robin Stockhausen, London: Oxford University Press, 1976


Wörner, Karl H. Stockhausen, Life and Work, London: Faber and Faber, 1973


Williams, Michael Stockhausen: “Nr. 9 Zyklus”, Article in Percussive Notes Magazine, June 2001



Stockhausen, Karlheinz Four Realizations of Stockhausen’s Zyklus. Neuhaus, Max. 2004 (ALGA 054CD)




1 For the purpose of this essay I will use the same numbers as Stockhausen. To find period 1, open to score to the page with the double line through the middle, put the bound edge on the left and period 1 is the lower half of the page. Turn the page as a conventional score and the next page is period 2.

2 This, unhelpfully for all but the most committed performer, is only to be found in German, and is not referred to in the score whatsoever.