Improvisation in Stockhausen’s Solo

Years ago I wrote a paper on a piece by Stockhausen called Solo. The paper itself was long and boring, so I’ll spare you a reproduction of it here. I recently suffered through a rereading of it and discovered that there are some interesting thoughts in it about improvisation which I do find worthwhile to explore a bit. One of the most interesting things about Solo is the methodology of improvisation that it asks the player to use, which I believe is a very rare kind of improvisation.

It’s a bit difficult to describe Solo briefly since it is such a complex work. Solo is an electroacoustic work for a single player and feedback delay. The delay times are much longer than those that we usually associate with delay as an effect, which tend to have delay times in milliseconds. Rather, the delay in Solo uses times in multiple seconds, so whole or multiple phrases could be repeated by the delay after the performer has played them.


The notation consists of six form schemes and six pages of notated music. An example of a page of notation is shown above, and a form scheme is shown below. The player is instructed to letter the pages of notation A-F and place them in order. Since the lettering is left up to the player, the order of the pages ends up being more or less arbitrary. Stockhausen then refers the player to different divisions of the material on each page. Specifically, pages, systems, parts, and elements. Pages and systems have the same definitions that they would in other notated music. Stockhausen defines a “part” as any group of notes contained within a pair of bar lines. This is not called a “bar” or a “measure” simply because the printed music contains both proportional and mensural notation. An “element” is any single normally printed note, any grace note by itself, any group of grace notes, or any single grace note and its associated normally printed note.


The form schemes represent the way in which the player will interpret the notated music. For a performance, only one form scheme is selected to be played. Each of the form schemes are broken into smaller sections made up of cycles and periods. A cycle is the group of periods between two letters as determined in the form scheme. Each form scheme has six cycles which are lettered to correspond generally to the similarly lettered page of notation. So, cycle A is the first cycle of periods on all of the form schemes and generally will contain material from page A of the notation. Periods are smaller groupings within cycles which have time values in seconds assigned to them based on the delay time of the electronics for the corresponding cycle. So, as we can see in the image taken from form scheme II below, in cycle A, there are nine periods of twelve seconds each. Within cycle B there are seven periods of twenty-four seconds each, and so on.

FS topFS top2

A performance of Solo is never a “start at measure one and play to the end” kind of endeavor. Rather, the player is at liberty to select portions of each page to play in a given cycle. Below each cycle there is a group of symbols that tells the player relatively loosely how they should perform the music for that cycle. Stockhausen calls these “what,” “where,” and “how” symbols. A “what” symbol tells a player what size of gesture they should select (systems, parts or elements); a “where” symbol tells a player from where they should select these gestures (from the current page, the current and the following page, the current and the previous page, or all three); a “how” symbol tells the player how the gestures they select should relate to each other (different, the same, or opposite). The criteria for the how gesture is up to the player. So, the player might decide that the how symbol relates to pitch. In this case, the “same” symbol would indicate that the gestures within a cycle should all have more or less the same pitch range.
Two additional symbols indicate the length of time a player may pause between periods, and how the player should attempt to relate to the electronics part within a cycle.

The image below is from cycle B of form scheme V. These particular symbols indicate that, within this cycle, the player must draw musical material made up of parts, from pages A, B, and C, which are either the same or different, with medium pauses following each part, and entrances staggered so as to create a polyphonic texture with the electronics.


So, in actual performance, the player might play this part from page B 1, then this one from page C 2, this from A 3, this from B 4,and so on until they had played a 45 second period from the cycle. Then the player can take a medium pause before they continue the same process again, trying to create a polyphonic texture as the electronics play back what they played from the previous period.

Whew! Remember when I said it was difficult to describe this piece simply? There’s actually quite a bit more to the performance of the piece (for example, we haven’t really discussed the electronics at all!), but I think that’s all you’ll need to know for now.

Solo represents an excellent example of what I would call “composed improvisation.” The term itself seems like an oxymoron, but the concept is actually much more common than one might think. For example, virtually all ‘traditional’ jazz is composed improvisation. Jazz players are generally given, or have learned, some kind of chart or lead sheet which contains the chord changes and melody of a piece, and then improvise based on that information.


In fact, it’s fairly common for this same kind of controlled improvisation based on notation to occur in contemporary classical music as well. What I have seen most commonly, and have used the most in my own music, is a section wherein only pitches are notated and everything else is left to the player to decide. An example from my music is shown below. Note that the given pitches can be used in any order, in any octave, with any rhythm, dynamic, articulation and so on.


These are by no means the only ways that notated improvisation can occur. There are probably as many different ways to utilize these kinds of ideas as there are composers using them. But Solo is actually an example of something very rare in the world of composed improvisation. To work out what that is, we have to take a quick step back.

Music is fundamentally organized into a series of impulses. A note begins on an impulse. That note can be combined with other notes into a larger phrase, which has its own larger impulse. That phrase is then grouped with other phrases to form a section, which has its own, still larger impulse. Sections can be grouped into a large form which we might call a movement, or a complete work, each of which also has its own much larger impulse. Sometimes people refer to this concept of grouping things into larger and larger impulses as “the big beats” of music. I’m deliberately avoiding the word “beat” here because it can be misleading.

This concept is actually alluded to in a Ted talk by Benjamin Zander, which you can watch below, and is more scientifically stated by Stockhausen himself in an essay which appears in Perspectives on Contemporary Music Theory edited by Benjamin Boretz and Edward T. Cone.

Composed improvisation can generally be organized into three levels based on with what level of impulses the player is being allowed to improvise and what levels of impulse have been predetermined. In the first level, the form and the phrases are both predetermined, but the specific notes which are played are up to the performer. In the second level, the form and the specific notes are determined, but the phrases which are constructed out of those notes are up to the performer. In the final level, specific notes and phrases are determined, but the form of the piece is left to the performer.

So, the two forms of composed improvisation that we have discussed thus far are both level-one improvisation. Consider jazz improvisation: the form of the piece and the phrase structure are already given based on the notation within the chart, but exactly which notes are played when is up to the player to decide. Specific notes are undetermined, but the larger impulses are predetermined.

An example of third-level improvisation would be the “open form” music found in some of the works of Pierre Boulez is an example of this as are numerous works by Stockhusen (Zyklus, and Licht, for example). In this kind of improvisation, while entire sections of notes and phrases are specifically notated, the order in which those sections occur is determined by the performers.

Solo is a rare example of level-two improvisation in which specific notes and gestures are determined, as is the overarching form, but the way those notes and gestures organize to make phrases is left to the player. I have not yet encountered another piece of composed improvised music that contains large-scale, level-two improvisation, even among Stockhousen’s works. What’s more, the understanding by the performer that this work functions as level-two improvisation is absolutely imperative to a particular performance faithfully representing Stockhausen’s intentions for Solo.

For those interested in hearing Solohere is a recording of me and horn player Briay Condit playing this piece.

The fact that this work is, as far as I am aware, unique in the world of improvised music makes it more meaningful to the cannon, and likely explains why the work is so notationally involved and difficult for performers to meaningfully understand. And, frankly, this only begins to deal with the things about this work that are fascinating and misunderstood, which probably explains why my previous paper was so long and boring… perhaps more on this another day.

For more from Stephen Bailey, you can visit his website here.


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