Improving the practice and performance of contemporary music

Surpassing Improvisation

Dragana Jeremić-Molnar & Aleksandar Molnar wrote an interesting article which considers the intuitive music of Karlheinz Stockhausen in the context of improvisation. The article is called “Surpassing Improvisation?” (1). I pinpoint some of the most interesting passages:


In 1968 Karlheinz Stockhausen invented the concept of intuitive music, which was designed to free music from the obstacles of ‘preformed material’ (i.e., clichés rooted in some existing styles) and connect it to the vibrations of ‘universal consciousness’. However, Stockhausen's intuitive music never transcended the borders of improvisation. It could best be described as controlled improvisation (within the domain of serialist music), facing all the problems common to this species of improvisation. Stockahusen's persistent efforts to stress the superiority of his intuitive music to all kinds of improvisation (as well as connecting the identity of the contents of his consciousness with divine and ‘universal’ ones) were only ideologically motivated and never meant to be elaborated in precise musical terms.

‘Fatal’ Sunday

One of the most famous episodes in Stockhausen’s life, also important to his work, is the ‘fatal’ Sunday in May 1968, during which Satprem’s (Bernard Enginger) book Sri Aurobindo or the Adventure of Consciousness raised him from a depressive state (manifested through insomnia, starvation and even suicidal thoughts) following the departure of his wife, Mary Bauermeister. From that book Stockhausen learned about Aurobindo’s theory of the relationship between sounds (vibrations) and different levels of consciousness. According to Aurobindo’s theory, poetry helps to create ‘holes’ in men’s consciousness, through which divine inspiration can enter; music is the medium through which the divine inspiration transfers man into higher spheres, where cosmic vibrations clearly resound. ‘Identifying’ himself with the Indian guru, Stockhausen believed that he possessed the occult knowledge which enabled him to create such textual pieces, that could function as a door into the ‘universal consciousness’. Moreover, by practicing principles of meditative music (in which a man should ‘lose himself’, ‘surpass’, ‘raise to divinity’), he experienced a changed relationship with reality: the world seemed to him as ‘new’, because the web of the functional relationships between outside objects was destroyed, and the objects themselves started pointing to something else,13 that is, to a ‘higher reality’.

4 principles

The concept of intuitive music was based on four principles:
  1. Intuitive music is new music – never heard or created before – because it is determined exclusively by ‘universal consciousness’, which, basically, any man can reach (provided he is sufficiently spiritually exalted);
  2. Intuitive music is not attached to any style, or period; it flows from the inner (sacral) regions of the human spirit, not from the outside (profane) regions of planet Earth;
  3. There are no compositions of intuitive music stricto sensu; there are only textual pieces, specific guidelines for performers, who, while playing, should bring themselves and the audience to the highest spheres of ‘universal consciousness’;
  4. Intuitive music, eventually, cancels the difference between the composer and performer; it promotes the members of the performing ensemble as equal participants in the spontaneous creative act, which, therefore, becomes collective. Stockhausen, who always had difficulties accepting this ultimate consequence of intuitive music, attempted to reserve for himself, as the author of textual pieces, the role of the guide or guru, who inspires, enlightens and directs all members of performing ensemble.


Stockhausen’s instructions for ‘discovering intuitive music’ were, in that way, heterogeneous. Generally, they could be any of the following:
  • describing musical events and processes in a more or less concrete way (‘extremely long quiet sounds’, ‘abrupt ending’, etc.,);
  • determining relationships between performers during the performance of musical events and processes (‘sing / play as parallel with the others as possible’);
  • suggesting musical events or processes through interpretative techniques (‘play single sounds with such dedication until you feel the warmth radiating from you’);
  • fundamentally useless instructions, imposing on performers the obligation to ‘operationalize’ them (‘try to sing synchronically with others, without visual signs, / play more and more attacca’);
  • utterly senseless (‘play a vibration in the rhythm of your atoms’).


The best way to understand Stockhausen’s concept of intuitive music is to put it into the context of overstretched avant-garde attempts to make a break in the whole earlier musical tradition, including all forms of improvisation. Stockhausen discarded this tradition because it reserved – very rare – moments of ‘intuition’ (that is, creative ‘revelations’) for composers only (reducing the performers to ‘manual work’, and the audience to the way of listening which respects only ‘virtuosity and routine’); contrary to this, intuitive music was based on a new (religiously framed) way of life,35 new spiritual techniques (which would enable one to come ‘into contact’ with the intuitive ‘whenever we want, for as long as we want [wann immer wir wollen und für wie lange wir wollen]’36) and new musical patterns (not of human, but of cosmic origin)37 – which would be accepted by composers, performers, and the audience.


  1. JEREMIC-MOLNAR, Dragana & Aleksandar Molnar (2008), Surpassing Improvisation? Stockhausen’s concept of intuitive music, New Sound: International Magazine for Music, retrieved at