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Perspectives: Holger Czukay, musician, on Karlheinz Stockhausen

When I was a schoolboy in the early 1950s, there was a new-music programme on Radio Cologne where they transmitted serial and electronic music, jazz – any compositions that were adventurous.

The first studio for the creation of electronic music had been founded in Milan, but the output from Cologne was huge: you could hear new things every week.

It became a world centre of music. New York, for example, could not compete.

Among the music I heard was that of Stockhausen, who was actually employed in the station’s Studio for New Music, and I found his compositions extraordinary, pieces like “Gesang der Jünglinge” (Song of the Youths).

He wanted to create a type of music that had never been heard before. I thought then, and think now, that Stockhausen was a hero, and his music the centre of the world.

Then around 1958, while I was a student at the conservatory at Duisberg, near Düsseldorf, he visited with Christoph Caskel, his percussionist, and they played his first electronic pieces and explained what he was trying to do.

People in the audience were laughing – it was too unusual for them. And Stockhausen said, “I have also seen people laugh while watching a traffic accident.”

A guy in the audience said he could make music like we were hearing on the spot. So Stockhausen invited this guy on to the stage and he proceeded to bash the keys of the piano while singing like a child, or an animal.

Stockhausen listened quietly and then said, “Very good, but when you’ve practised a little more, you will be much better.”

A musician who was sitting beside me said, “Mr Stockhausen, all you do is make a lot of money by shocking the public.” Stockhausen replied, “I can promise you I do this only for musical reasons, and where money is concerned I have a rich wife, so I don’t need money.”

I was deeply impressed by this, and vowed to imitate him – and find a rich wife!

What Stockhausen did was he thought a lot about form and then he filled that form with musical content. He was not concerned with conventional beauty.

This is what he has in common with rock musicians, who are not concerned with playing beautiful guitar: we switch on the distortion pedal. It was the same with Jimi Hendrix; when he played the American national anthem, it was not meant to sound nice.

But this is really where the music starts, where the beauty starts.

Stockhausen, however, couldn’t handle pop or rock music – it was not his field. And his music is mainly scored. In my group, Can, we did exactly the opposite: we improvised everything – performed with an “empty head” – and composed the music afterwards by editing the tape.

When Can started in 1968, it was understood we wouldn’t speak of him, because we had to do the opposite. We had to kill him so that we could start something new.

Over the years, I have often used radios to create music and this is something I learned from Stockhausen, after I attended the first performance of his piece called Kurzwellen (Short-waves) in Bremen in 1968, for which he used short-wave radios as unpredictable synthesisers.

The six musicians on stage were using radios as instruments, with Stockhausen sitting in the middle of the group mixing the audio like a DJ and making something out of it. What was important was not finding the right station; it was the fact of searching.

As told to Joseph Murphy. Holger Czukay performs Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge” and other works on 14 May at the Roundhouse, London NW1, as part of Short Circuit: Festival of Pioneering Electronic Artists