The mythical Modul 69A Klangwandler and the viability of composer designed instruments

Williams, Sean (2016). The mythical Modul 69A Klangwandler and the viability of composer designed instruments. In: Music and Sonic Art conference 2016, 1-3 Jul 2016, Karlsruhe, Germany.

Abstract

The Modul 69 B is one of the more esoteric electronic musical instruments used by Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1970s, and developed specifically for performing Mantra for two pianos and ring modulators (1970). The design of this instrument, which existed in several revisions, saw the composer develop a working relationship with Hans Peter Haller, chief technical designer at the Ströbel Stiftung in Freiburg.

The story of the Modul 69A Klangwandler, on the other hand, brackets the Modul 69B, with design work commencing before the collaboration with Haller, and the units finally being delivered several years after Haller’s various revisions of his instrument. This near mythical instrument only appears in one tantalising diagram in Texte zur Musik Band 4 (Stockhausen 1977), but then completely disappears from the records. It combines microphone pre-amps, oscillators, ring modulation, amplitude modulation, key switching, band-pass filtering and multiple faders into one single electronic performance instrument.

This paper describes its genesis by way of different versions of technical diagrams, ethnographic material from interviews with its co-designer Volker Müller, and photographic evidence of its past use and current condition. It follows the problematic translation of the composer’s ideas over six years through technical interpretation, and the oil crisis, into a manufactured unit, and a very different social performance context. Analysis is framed by practice-led research into other electronic instruments favoured by Stockhausen which contextualise the Modul 69A. The fact that it was barely used before being abandoned can be explained by the evolving compositional practice of the composer, and the subsequent availability of more standardised electronic instruments.

There are valuable lessons here for current composers and designers regarding the precarious nature of the use of fast evolving technology within a creative practice.

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