Thursday, August 7, 2014


No. 1: KONTRA-PUNKTE (Counter-Points)
for 10 instruments (fl. / cl. / bass cl. / bsn. / tp. / trb. / piano / harp / vl. / vc.)   
1953 [14'13"]

     KONTRA-PUNKTE was written during Stockhausen's first "phase" of compositional style, where he was interested in exploring post-12-tone serial techniques in order to break from classical concepts of musical form, such as themes, motives, development, variation, modulation, etc...  During this period some composers were moving away from the Romantic form of establishing a theme and then developing it through variation, modulation and atomization (already brought to its ultimate state by Beethoven, really).  Instead, the idea was to have no melodic theme, but use the compositional technique itself as the theme, or main focal point (continual transformation in this case).

"Not the same figures in changing light, but different figures in the same light" (Stockhausen 1962).

     In fact Stockhausen was even breaking from 20th Century serial music concepts by abandoning techniques like using inversion ("mirroring") and retrograde ("reverse") tone rows.  By concentrating on continual transformation (which would have no beginning and no ending, just movement towards either chaos or entropy), chaotic "point music" of 10 different instruments (as 6 timbre groups) slowly (but irregularly) becomes a single, relatively homogenous, piano gesture.  The transformation is also driven by a process of substituting single notes of different durations with groups of notes (in chord clusters or short and fast ornamental passages).  This is why Stockhausen calls the piece "counter-points" - the points of notes are consumed by groups of notes (and timbre).

Musical attributes which Stockhausen uses to effect this continual transformation are:
  • Timbre (instruments) - Instruments drop out 1 by one (tpt, tbn, bsn, vl, bass cl, harp, cl, vc, fl)
  • Duration - wide variation in note lengths become 16th notes (with small variations)
  • Dynamic (loudness) - Large dynamic variations (sfz - ppp) gradually become soft (pp)
The 10 individual instruments are paired as 6 duo sound groups (somewhat in dialogue with each other):
  • flute & bassoon
  • clarinet & bass clarinet
  • trumpet & trombone
  • piano (left & right hand)
  • harp (left & right hand)
  • violin & cello
     They are transformed irregularly but steadily into a "soloistic style articulated by 'groups', gradually focusing on the piano part" (Stockhausen 1964).  What begins as "punkte" notes disconnected in space, time and color, gradually coalesce into groups, that is chords and brief phrases made of short fast notes ("ausmultiplikation").  The "strength" of these groups can be measured by the number of similar parameter types (from just one, such as dynamic, to all four parameters of timbre, pitch, duration and dynamic).
     The general sequence in KONTRA-PUNKTE ends up as groups of notes alternating with points of notes, while instruments drop out one by one until only a piano solo remains.

Narrative of events (based partly on Stockhausen DVD lecture):
(CD times based on Stockhausen Edition CD 4)
CD Time Bar   Event
0:05 1-7 "Points".
0:18 8-14 2 and 3 note groups become collected by colors starting w  (fl, cl, tb).
0:42 23 More groups played by individual instruments (fl, cl).
1:15 37-53 Groups begin overlapping each other.
1:46 64-74 Tutti chord cluster and Piano explosion.
2:24 88 Swarms of notes are dispersed among the instrumental groups (fast color changes).
2:28 90 Trumpet drops out.
2:31 91-96 Long groups with connected notes (winds).
3:03 115-130 Stepwise dynamic changes in group notes.
Groups of staccato notes separated by pauses, also stepwise dynamic changes.
4:54 183-188 Long groups (winds) accented by other instruments.
5:34 207-216 Trombone cadenza.
5:52 217 Trombone drops out.
6:32 245 Bassoon drops out.
7:35 282-319 Violin & Cello duet.
8:50 324-400 Piano groups accented by other instruments.
9:08 (333) Violin drops out.
10:42 (394) Bass Clarinet drops out.
10:58 404-423 Harp cadenza.
11:55 438 Harp drops out.
12:21 454 Clarinet drops out.
12:50 477 Cello drops out.
13:38 509 Flute drops out.
14:08 530 End.
The bar numbers are based on the original published 1953 score and may not reflect any revised versions since then.
These time divisions are reflected in the waveform at the top of this post.

Bar 64 - Piano Explosion
Bar 88 - Swarms of Notes
Ending measures - The flute drops out leaving only the piano.
(Score pages © Universal Edition)

Live Performance
On Stockhausen Edition CD 4 (featuring members of the London Sinfonietta, 1973) the instrumental positioning is described below.
Strings and Brass on the left, Winds (low to high) on the right, piano center, harp left.
Ensemble Linea performed KONTRA-PUNKTE using a different arrangement:

Sound Impressions
     KONTRA-PUNKTE was one of the first things I ever heard by Stockhausen and I loved it immediately.  It's still one of his "spikiest" works and one his most vibrant.  It can be difficult to follow at first, since there are 10 instrumental lines all playing (seemingly) completely independently and non-metrically, but one way in to the piece may be to just follow the piano part and consider the remainder of the instruments as supporting winds and strings.  After awhile the 7 textures as duo groups becomes clearer.
     One thing that's interesting is that while KONTRA-PUNKTE reduces its instrumental timbres, it seemingly increases in intensity .  That's the exact opposite of what usually happens in most classical works (such as Ravel's Bolero for example, where increasing the instrumental forces makes it more feverish).  It's not until near the end of the piece that one notices so many musicians have left the stage, which makes for an interesting aural illusion.
     I try to avoid too much programmatic analysis, but it almost feels like the piano player is portrayed as a boisterous element amongst a communal group, and each of the other instruments "gives up" one by one and leaves.  The departure of the violin is particularly "personal".

KONTRA-PUNKTE (CD 4) samples, tracks listings and CD ordering 
Buy the Score
Stockhausen Lecture (1972) on KONTRA-PUNKTE Pt 1
Stockhausen's Lecture on KONTRA-PUNKTE DVD (PDF)
Wiki Entry
Sonoloco Review
Video clips from Kontra-Punkte rehearsals and performance, (Stockhausen conducts Ensemble Modern, Frankfurt, August 1992)


  1. Thank you for this innovative, wonderful site about a very important, beautiful work, among the strongest. There is a connection, I believe, with Haydn's 'Abschied' Symphony - there I also feel the increasing intensity as the players leave.
    The recording is among the best I've heard of this favourite music of mine. Thanks again, Gyula Csapó, composer

    1. Thanks for mentioning Haydn's Abschied Symphony - I know it but I never made the connection with Kontrapunkte - interesting! That would be a fascinating concert to program both works in one night.