Capilla Flamenca · Het Collectief
12 x 12 - A Musical Zodiac
English liner notes


In 1975, Stockhausen wrote twelve little pieces, one about each of the signs of the Zodiac. Those twelve little melodies, written initially for twelve music boxes, were among the instrumental building stones of another work, Musik im Bauch (Music in the Belly), which also involved six percussionists and a sound projectionist. It was only later that Stockhausen decided to reuse these twelve pieces and to turn them into an autonomous work. On that occasion, he also edited a score of the work under the title Tierkreis. This is what Stockhausen said about the work, which according to statistics is one of the most frequently performed pieces by the German composer:

“It is evident that Tierkreis is a cycle of musical formulae for the 12 months of the year and the 12 human types, and that these formulae lend themselves to innumerable versions. The largest ‘version’ of Tierkreis to date is my composition Sirius, electronic music and trumpet, soprano, bass clarinet, bass (1975-77). Its duration is 96 minutes. May everyone recognise himself in his sign of the zodiac!”

Among the recordings of the piece already available, this new version by Het Collectief and Capilla Flamenca, going under the name “12x12”, strikes us by its originality. In their approach, Stockhausen's little music pieces are extended and further elaborated, they even quote in a daring but most successful way some 14th century compositions, more specifically from the Ars Nova period, as point of reference. The confrontation, but in a certain sense also the symbiosis between these radically opposed worlds, plunges the listener from the first musical notes into a very special poetic universe.

The poetry, however, is not only due to the connection of two music worlds that are six centuries apart. Contributing to the poetic mood, even considerably so, are other aspects such as the rich, clever and intelligent evocation of the twelve signs of the zodiac by both groups, and also the very beautiful interpretation of the works of G. de Machaut, de Cluny, Ciconia and a few other 14th century masters.

To get a good understanding of this “12x12”, we first have to say something about the overall project for this recording and also about Stockhausen's own composition project. First of all, the choice of the zodiac theme as such creates a great unity, in part at least. This unity and cohesion is reinforced by the choice of the ars nova pieces, by the alternation of these pieces - at certain moments even their well-thought-out intertwining - with the melodies of Stockhausen and by the distribution of these pieces over the whole performance. What we have in mind here are the moments when the ensemble Capilla Flamenca is making cracks into the time flow of Stockhausen's pieces with bits of ancient music, so as to create a discontinuity directly associated with the zodiac sign at issue; or the moments when the ensemble for ancient music associates itself with the ‘modern’ music, and even overpowers it. That intertwining and its effects are fairly striking. We eventually discover that unity also in the project of the composer as well. As we said, he wants performers to create their own version of the Tierkreis. It turns out indeed that by direct incursions into the text, the ensemble Het Collectief manages to make Stockhausen's composition incline to musical gestures that refer to ancient music.

Another characteristic of Stockhausen's composition is that the musical idea is really affected by the properties of the different zodiac signs. Here too, as a way of understanding the musical text, the musicians can find ideas, which they can then freely manipulate so as to transform the text as they choose. Thus the musical idea is sometimes evoked by the pictogram representing the zodiac sign. At other times, it is engendered by the properties associated with the sign. The sign of the Virgin, which is usually associated with rationality and sometimes with mathematics, offers a case in point, in that Stockhausen uses the Fibonacci suite to illustrate it. Incidentally, Het Collectief explicitly relies on this parameter for the arrangement of the latter sign, as can be gathered, amongst other examples, from the energetic accents laid by the bass clarinet. But sometimes the composition is triggered off by the two dimensions, the pictogram and the character traits associated with the signs. In this respect, the sign of the Scales is particularly remarkable, just like that of the Fish, a double sign, composed for two voices - referring to the aspect of the double personality often associated with this sign.

In short, the protagonists of this “12x12” have searched for their music by a careful study of the text, following the method of Stockhausen himself, who did a minute examination of all aspects related to astrology before importing them into his text, sometimes in an explicit way, sometimes more covertly. No doubt it is here, in the light of what the original text teaches us, that this new version of the Tierkreis is really impressive. Neither of the two ensembles would put up with an intuitive arrangement, they really have searched for the essence of the work before transcending it, throughout the “re-composition”.

In the space allowed here, we cannot go into all the subtleties of this recording, but a few passages have particularly struck us. To begin with, the very first notes of the work, when only the music box of the sign of the Aquarius is heard. We then hear a few chords sung by Capilla Flamenca, as the ensemble Het Collectief enters on tiptoe with little scraps of melody, first from the piano and then from the flute ... a very beautiful and modest melody, in which Stockhausen's text, in all its virginity, seems to invite the musicians to join him.

When at some point halfway through the recording, the sign of the Lion can be heard and all protagonists sing his “martial” melody in unison, this passage can be understood, at a first hearing, as a big and particularly convincing rhetorical gesture, in line with the general form of the work, but equally as an homage to the composer of Tierkreis, himself born under the sign of the Lion.

Listening to the sign of the Scales, one is first struck by the great poetic charm emanating from the melody played by the recorder, accompanied by a simple bourdon. The music of this sign, played entirely by Capilla Flamenca, seems to hesitate - not by coincidence one the character traits of this sign - between the modernity of Stockhausen's text and the world of ancient music. In the melody of this sign, the harmony component receives special emphasis by the arrangement that we are offered here. After all, why would we not take this parameter - harmony - into account, when in most treatises on astrology this term reappears for those born under the sign of the Scales.

The beginning of the sign of the Scorpion feels like a new articulation in the form. The violence of these first moments contrasts sharply with the anonymous music of ‘J'ay grant désespoir de ma vie’. Here too, the character traits associated with the sign create the general climate. To illustrate the purpose, two sentences from a work on astrology may clarify the intention of the music: “They (the scorpions) defend themselves against attacks with great aggressiveness ...” “They are their own greatest enemy and their emotionality can overpower them without them being able to lead it in a good direction ...” It seems to us that the piccolo distributing musical pricks with its dart is more than eloquent.

We could multiply the examples that show how relevant the interpretation by both collaborating ensembles is and how well they have realized their original intention. The musical ideas are not just original and beautifully executed, they are also directly linked with and derived from the proposed initial text. So this is not a simple instrumentation of the kind one frequently comes across, it is a rewriting of the text based on a genuine analytic reflection.

With this new recording, the two ensembles have undoubtedly created an outstanding version of Stockhausen's famous work. It will certainly not go unnoticed among the many who will no doubt embark upon it in the years to come.

Jean-Marie Rens
Translation: Louis Dieltjens


Elise Simoens on the premiere of the concert in the Bruges Concertgebouw

Twelve musicians, in two ensembles that at first glance look incompatible, are daring to put together fourteenth-century polyphony and late-twentieth-century chamber music.

In his treatise Ars Nova (ca. 1322), the composer and theoretician Philippe de Vitry tells us precisely what this ‘new art’ entails. In this context ‘ars’ is better translated as ‘skill’ or ‘technique’ than ‘art’. Using an ingenious new system of rhythmic notation, several French composers succeeded in escaping from what they felt to be the overly restrictive Ars Antigua of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The new system allowed them to combine multiple rhythmic lines of extreme complexity. Delighted, they immediately and enthusiastically composed pieces in which several different texts were sung simultaneously. The first to do this were the Frenchmen Philippe de Vitry (1291- 1361) and Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300- 1377), but soon the Ars Nova style was all the rage in other parts of Europe as well.

Six centuries further in time, we come to Karlheinz Stockhausen (22 August 1928 - December 2007). The composer had his breakthrough in the 1950s as a member of a generation of avant-gardists who have become known as the serialists. Along with Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and the Belgians Karel Goeyvaerts and Henri Pousseur, Stockhausen began composing in a style grounded very much in the rational, in which as many musical elements as possible (duration, volume, playing technique, etc. in addition to pitches) were arranged in strictly formalised series. Soon, however, it became apparent that this form of serialism was troubling not just for composers; performers and audiences were also finding it difficult. The post-serial works of these composers seem to be a constant cry of confirmation that besides reason, they also had healthy levels of emotion, flexibility and humanity. Stockhausen's personal website ( has a list of very diverse admirers, such as The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Björk and Miles Davis.

Tierkreis (1975) fits in the context of this more ‘tolerant’ music, with an abnormally lenient Stockhausen allowing his performers exceptional freedom. The original work consists of twelve miniature scores affixed to twelve music boxes. In order not to limit the performing forces to music boxes, however, Stockhausen ultimately rewrote the Tierkreis for various chamber ensembles, leaving the choice of instruments to the performers. This Tierkreis is actually one giant improvisational playground. Stockhausen has only one strict guideline: that the original music-box version must be played through at least once. Although this music sounds almost childishly simple, it is ingeniously constructed.

Stockhausen was able to achieve a virtually perfect balance again and again, using a minimum of material. This performance, eighty minutes of continually flowing music, is the result of an intensive rehearsal process by twelve diligent and enthusiastic musicians. Stockhausen's Tierkreis provided the necessary structure. The fact that Stockhausen chose to compose a zodiac (`Tierkreis’ is German for ‘zodiac’) is not surprising, since his entire oeuvre emanates a great predilection for big, transcendent and difficult-to-grasp ideas.

Although Stockhausen can sometimes be - justly - criticised for a certain hubris and pretentiousness (his magnum opus Licht, for example, lasts 29 hours), this was certainly not the case for the Collectief and Capilla Flamenca. The musicians of the two ensembles explored each other's territories with no fanfare or fuss. In a very natural way, they were able to reconcile Stockhausen with the fourteenth-century Ars Nova - which by the end of the fourteenth century had evolved into an almost mannerist Ars Subtilior, with definite avantgarde traits of its own here and there.

The musicians actually approached their task very intuitively and pragmatically. A thorough Internet search of astrological sites provided the main characteristics of each of the zodiac signs. After these were put alongside Stockhausen's music, the ensemble tried them out to find the most desirable instrumentation. They then decided what improvisational direction to take, and sought out appropriate music from the Ars Nova repertoire. Connoisseurs may recognise Goeyvaerts (Litanie I in section 3. Aries, with the repetitive music emphasising the stubbornness of the ram) or Messiaen (his Quatuor pour la fin du temps in section 12. Capricorn) in the improvisatory passages. To illustrate the capriciousness of Gemini, the twins (section 5), the cellist is made a channel-surfer at whose whim Capilla Flamenca or Het Collectief are commanded to play or sing. The search for the lighter side of life by the playful Sagittarius (section 11) in turn is expressed by the clarinet's foxtrotlike improvisation.

The projected images, titles and texts, as well as the fixed alternation of Stockhausen - Ars Nova will certainly give you some necessary landmarks as you listen. There are also many humorous over-the-top moments to enjoy, as well as wonderful places where old and new overlap or seamlessly flow into one another. People born under Leo should recognise their trademark inconstancy in the alternation of a flashy virtuoso violin solo and an insignificant ditty played in the piano's high octaves and on the very tiniest recorder.

Elise Simoens
Translation: Anne Hodgkinson