Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge (1956) is a seminal work in the history of electronic music. With the piece, Stockhausen sought to mollify the dense abstraction of earlier electronic idioms by drawing upon familiar sounds. To that end, Gesang places a recording of a boy's voice within a sphere of electronic timbres. The work is part of a larger modernist effort to bring together the apparently antithetical realms of the familiar and the abstract. There were no clear means or rules for handling these unions. Each work arrives at a unique, and not always successful, solution. Gesang takes familiar elements (the boy's voice and a sung Biblical text) and pushes them into the realm of the abstract (electronic sound and serial constructions). That push is hard to trace as the relationship between the familiar and the abstract takes on three different guises in the work: pure/impure, speech/sound, and childhood/machine. Each of these pairs follows a different course and each goes a separate distance into the abstract. The merger of the abstract and the familiar, as these differences reveal, vexed modernism with uncertainties and strain. In this light, Gesang offers a contrasting view of the high modernist idioms of 1950s Darmstadt, showing them to be full of not only aggression and confidence but also doubts and needs.


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pp. 695-721
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