Julieanne Klein

A Portrait of the Composer Karlheinz Essl


Karlheinz Essl © 2013 by Julia Wesely

Karlheinz Essl
© 2013 by Julia Wesely


Karlheinz Essl transcends his definition as electronic music composer; he is a creator, performer, improviser, and live generator of electronic sounds and sonic texture. Flowing through his vast and diverse body of work is an undercurrent of oppositional forces that become the foundation for a symbiotic relationship between structure and chance, concrète and abstract, composer and improviser, man and machine.

Essl's compositional style finds a poetic depth in exploring various processes: the use of algorithms for musical composition; the improvisatory element inherent in live electronics; and using the computer's random generations as the sole source of sound material. Frequently on stage performing his own compositions in collaboration with other instrumentalists, Essl the performer becomes an integral part of the creation as it is being created, illustrating his philosophical ideal that all chaos contains the potential for self-organization.

Essl's compositional output spans every possible medium: orchestral, chamber, musical theater/performance, live electronics, electronic computer music, real-time and meta compositions, meta-instruments, installations and soundscapes, film music, visuals, text compositions and works for solo instruments. Always looking to expand his creative output, Essl frequently collaborates with artists from other fields, including choreographers, dancers, visual artists, video artists, architects, poets, authors, and graffiti artists.


As a young boy, Essl was infused with rock music and Bach, already showing a penchant for juxtaposing styles at an early age. Although his original instrument of choice was the electric guitar, he later transferred his passion to the double bass, and started to play jazz standards. Jazz afforded Essl a view of the possibilities of an extended harmonic system, with its expansions into panchromatic realms. At the age of fifteen he discovered Stockhausen's writings about electronic music in the 1950's. Essl promptly bought a record of Stockhausen's seminal piece KONTAKTE, and methodically studied the electronic score while listening to the piece. Essl recounts the importance of this early exposure to the ‘godfather' of electronic music: “Later, I applied Stockhausen's ‘scale' concept to other aspects of my writing process, exploring the dichotomy between composition and improvisation, the difference between concrète and abstract or between nature and technique. This enables me to move freely in between, unfolding the power of the differences.”

During his early years Essl tried to strictly avoid tonal music and its related gestures, as he believed it was connected to an exhausted musical tradition. Searching for a new harmonic language, it was not until Essl discovered the serial music of Anton Webern that he was to find a great transformation in his compositional style. States Essl: “That encounter dramatically changed my musical life and my prejudices against dodecaphonic and atonal music. I stopped playing the bass and dedicated myself to the music of the Second Viennese School, which I analyzed with utmost care…. I inevitably arrived at the serial music of the 1950's, and attentively studied not only the scores of Stockhausen and Boulez, but also their articles and manifestos.”

Essl furthered his philosophical understanding of the poetics of serialism when he came into contact with Gottfried Michael Koenig (director of Instituut voor Sonology – Utrecht, Netherlands). Their numerous interactions led to Essl's understanding that the poetics of serialism are not only an extrapolation of the dodecaphonic method ¬– instead, they give way to a new ‘synthetic' way of considering musical composition based on algorithms. Finding tremendous inspiration in the aforementioned Anton Webern and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Essl also cites György Ligeti and the early music composers Perotin, Guillaume de Machaut and Johannes Ockeghem as important sonic influences. Essl enjoyed a prolonged occupation with the poetics of serialism, and this idea became a formative influence on his career. Having come to the understanding that order and chaos can be seen under a common perspective, he saw that these elements are not opposites, but different appearances of the same reality. From this, Essl embraced the burgeoning field of computer-aided composition.

Algorithms vs. Improvisation

Essl has spent his career developing various compositional software environments, based on both algorithmic and computer-based real time structures. In the mid 1980's he developed the idea of structural models that can be used as software, and a decade later this led to the creation of m@ze°2, Essl's personal musical generative instrument. During this time Essl became increasingly fascinated with the improvisatory elements inherent in live electronics. Identifying with and embracing the process of live sound creation, Essl discovered the power of creating gradually moving harmonic fields, likening them to clouds or slowly streaming water. He finds the potential for musical greatness to be high when engaged in live improvisation, and many of his pieces are centered on this medium. In direct contrast to the ever-changing complexity of Essl's former music, live improvisation and electronic sound generation forged a new stylistic path for Essl, and continues to be an inherent part of his compositions today.

Frequently standing on stage alongside the other performers, Essl the performance artist presents a wise, sage-like presence within his music. The integration of his energy into the dynamic output of the performance generates a nuanced vibe, as the other performers are able to create and flow with Essl, the creator, in real time

Karlheinz Essl's performing his interactive composition WalkürenWalk
13 April 2013, Taipeh (Digital Arts Center)


A brief overview of Essl's vast body of work reveals a bit of his fun-loving side. Titles such as Gold.Berg.Werk, Sequitur, While my guitars gently whip, Take the C Train, and Deconstructing Mozart are a nod to the past, a philosophical statement that we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. He strives to choose the title of the piece before he commences composing, finding that this serves as a source of inspiration, and allows him to then focus on the core of the piece.


Essl cites Lexikon-Sonate, an algorithmic music generator, as one of his most important works. The piece was started in 1992 while Essl was working on a commission from IRCAM. During this time he embraced the highly innovative programming language Max, and the advanced technology afforded Essl the opportunity to finally use his own compositional algorithms (developed for score generation years ago) in real-time. Lexikon-Sonate, for computer-controlled piano, is a series of models (humorously named Esprit, Joyce, Dependance, MeloChord, or Ricochet), combined by a ‘conductor' (Essl playing various MIDI controllers and the computer keyboard) to create an infinite series of musical elements. Lexikon-Sonate has survived the test of time (and numerous operating system changes) and continues to be performed by Essl to this day.

Karlheinz Essl performing Lexikon-Sonate on a Bösendorfer CEUS computer piano
12 Dec 2008, Vienna (Bösendorfer-Saal)


Gold.Berg.Werk was created on commission by a friend's string trio, and is an electronic expansion of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations. Though Essl originally resisted the idea of adding electronics to the music of Bach, he then embraced this ‘interesting challenge’. In Gold.Berg.Werk, the movements played by the string trio are interwoven with electronic renderings of the Goldberg Variations. The electronics are based on the harmonic progression of Bach's flourishing and ornamented piece Aria. Essl reduced the piece to its essential harmonic form, stripped of figurations and ornaments, and used these harmonic elements to create a gorgeous electronic soundscape. Gold.Berg.Werk are a lush set of pieces that bridge the Baroque past with the sounds of the new millennium.

Gold.Berg.Werk: Sarabanda Electronica / Variation No. 3
Karlheinz Essl (live-electronics) and drei.klang.wien
4 Dec 2011, Klosterneuburg (SCHÖMER-HAUS)


In 2008 Essl began a series of works with the title Sequitur. Inspired by Luciano Berio's Sequenza series, Sequitur is a series of works for various solo instruments and live electronics. The pieces are performance ready, in that it is possible for the players to play each piece in a solo context, without the direct assistance of a sound technician. This ease of platform as surely contributed to a great many more performances then a piece with more complex technical requirements. Notable instrumentations include Sequitur V for toy piano and live-electronics, Sequitur XIII for extended piano and live electronics, and Sequitur XIV for kalimba and live electronics. Sequitur IX for voice and live electronics utilizes techniques of overtone singing, combined with plainchant singing and "bel canto", as the piece blends together Eastern and Western elements, melting both cultures into a new sonic landscape. Embracing his solo performance artist, Essl later composed non Sequitur, a series of pieces for various gadgets (punch-tape controlled music boxes, kalimbas, sound sculptures) and live electronics. In this piece the electronics are based on side products of Essl's Sequitur cycle, and improvised with by Essl in real-time.

Margarete Jungen & Karlheinz Essl performing Sequitur IX

20 Oct 2009, Vienna (University of Music and Performing Arts)

The complete catalogue of Essl's works is vast, diverse, comical, evolutionary, and sheer artistic prose. Having recently completed works encompassing sound installations (Suspended Suspense), multiple prepared and amplified toy pianos (Miles to go), and a piece for tenor tuba, live-electronics and surround sound (Si!), Essl continues to maintain a continuous flow of innovative creative output.

Teacher and Curator

When not composing himself, he is busy inspiring a generation of younger composers in his position as Professor of Composition at the Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts. Beyond this, Essl is also influential in the cultivation and dissemination of new art, particularly seen in his co-direction of the family-run Essl Museum, a modern art museum based outside of Vienna. Here Essl has fueled a series of innovative programs that expand the boundaries of sonic landscape; educating audiences, inspiring young composers, and erasing the bourgeois line so often perceived in traditionally classical venues. His work, in all its ventures, has already left its mark on the field of electronic music, and will undoubtedly continue to inspire and influence budding electronic musicians for generations to come.

© 2013 by Julieanne Klein

in: Fowl Feathered Review, Issue 4, Summer 2013, ed. by Virgil Kay (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), p. 74-81.

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Updated: 2 Apr 2023