The Stockhausen Project

Photo by Matt Nash.

Ludwig van Beethoven took approximately two years to compose his ninth symphony. Fourth-year contemporary music studies major Steven Roberts is composing pieces every month. 

Roberts has teamed up with pianist and faculty advisor Dr. Alex Peh to take on The Stockhausen Project, a 12-month web-based project that explores the arrangements of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Tierkreis,” a collection of 12 serially-based melodies that are each named after one of the zodiac signs. 

Each performance is recorded, then uploaded to the Internet on the first day of the corresponding sign.  

In 1975, Stockhausen composed 12 melodies for his piece titled “Musik Im Bauch” and used it to create “Tierkreis,” which translates to “zodiac” in German. The piece grants the performer the freedom to make creative variations, selecting instruments and adapting the music within certain rules. 

“Stockhausen took each of the zodiac signs and wrote a melody,” Roberts said. “When he’s talked about it, [he’s said that] each melody corresponds in character to someone he knows [who’s] a Pisces or Aries.”

Roberts and Peh originally started learning the melodies with the intention of composing all 12 pieces for four hand piano, but realized that the approach was limiting. Instead, they decided to arrange each piece for different chamber groups. 

“The reason why we’re doing the arrangements is because [Stockhausen] invites you to arrange [them] for different chamber groups and to modify or remove pitches, so he gives some freedom to create arrangements based on the music,” Roberts said.

Roberts has so far arranged and recorded compositions for four zodiac signs: Virgo, Libra, Scorpio and Sagittarius. 

Roberts composed Virgo for solo piano, which was performed by Peh. He arranged it in canons, similar to Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach, with two melodies moving in fourths, fifths and octaves around the keyboard. 

Libra was arranged for two toy pianos and melodica. Roberts and Peh invited toy pianist Phyllis Chen to perform with them for this composition. 

“It was a lot of fun to work with her, she’s a delightful person,” Roberts said. “Those two were based on simple displacements of the melodies and canon.”

Roberts was inspired by Anton Werbern — a composer from the Second Viennese School who would condense large pieces to approximate three-minute lengths — for his arrangement of Scorpio for violin and piano. He started experimenting with different techniques for strumming inside the piano and tried to make the arrangements more complex.

Their most recent recording was Sagittarius, which featured Dr. Joël Evans on oboe and Peh on piano. Roberts realized that his previous arrangements sounded intense and wanted to infuse Sagittarius with a light jazz sound.

“Most of my inspiration was taken from the melody and hearing it,” Roberts said. “I would first listen to a bunch of recordings of it and then decide what else I could add to it and enhance what Stockhausen already intended.”

Next in the zodiac sign is Capricorn, which has not been recorded yet due to winter break, but will be later this month for flute, violin and piano. For the first time in his arrangements, Roberts decided to modify the melody instead of leaving it untouched. 

Roberts is currently working on his composition for Aquarius, which will feature flute, marimba and piano. 

“The rest of the project is still under work and the hope is to make it more and more experimental and interesting,” Roberts said. 

The recordings can be found on Youtube under TheStockhausenProject or at