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When Stockhausen’s youngest daughter was two years old, he used to make her laugh by teasing her about her growling stomach and the “music” she was making there. Later, in 1975, this inspired him to write a performance art piece called MUSIK IM BAUCH (or MUSIC IN THE BELLY; also at this time, the titles to all of Stockhausen’s works started appearing in all capital letters, without either italics or quotation marks). The dreamlike theatrics of this work come to a climax when a performer reaches into the belly of a life-size puppet and pulls out twelve music boxes. Stockhausen’s task of actually writing something these music boxes could play yielded twelve melodies, one named after each constellation of the zodiac. After laboring over the contours of these twelve almost tonal-sounding melodies so that they would symbolically depict the traditional personalities of ancient Babylonian astrology, they were published and performed separately under the title TIERKREIS.
The melodies in TIERKREIS created a small controversy at first, some critics claiming that Stockhausen was reinventing the music of Paul Hindemith — much to Stockhausen’s delight, actually. Other controversies in Stockhausen’s life, including the interest he was receiving from some of the more ambitious rock groups of the day and an interview he did with Rolling Stone with extremely mystical underpinnings, shocked the purists of the classical music world to such a degree that they hardly noticed that Stockhausen was giving them something they had been relentlessly complaining new music lacked — catchy melodies. Stockhausen re-used four of the TIERKREIS melodies in a piece called SIRIUS, exploring how the melodies could determine the form of the entire work, with two more melodies, PISCES and AQUARIUS, used during the coda to symbolize the beginning of “the Age of Aquarius.”
Stockhausen’s interest in such melodies, which he called “formulas,” actually goes back to a 1970 piece for two pianos called MANTRA, where each note of the melody determines the sections of the piece – an approach he then called “formula technique.” This formula technique and the way singable melodies determined the form of an entire work came to its ultimate realization in his cycle of seven theater works, one for each day of the week, called LICHT.
By the end of his life, TIERKREIS had been performed so many times in so many different ensemble settings that Stockhausen realized that although the revolution these simple melodies represented never resonated to the same boiling point as other controversies in his life, they certainly were an important new direction in music. In 2004, he orchestrated five of them (VIRGO, LIBRA, SCORPIO, SAGITTARIUS, and CAPRICORN) under the title FÜNF STERNZEICHEN (or FIVE STAR SIGNS).
— Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin.