KONTAKTE - Planning & Design

No.12: KONTAKTE (Contacts)
for 4-channel tape
1958-60 (35:30)

No.12 1/2 (ie 12.2) - KONTAKTE for tape, piano and percussion
No.12 2/3 (ie 12.3) - ORIGINALE (Originals), Musical Theatre with KONTAKTE (1961)  [90 min]

     A discussion of KONTAKTE should probably start with my post on Stockhausen's "4 Criteria for Electronic Music".  That link should be read first, since it acts as an introduction to this more detailed analysis.  It basically summarizes some of the most important ideas featured in KONTAKTE.  

     KONTAKTE is Stockhausen's 5th electronically-created tape work, after ETUDE, STUDIE I & II, and GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE.  The composition plan (consisting of about 700 sheets of paper) was written over 6 months from 1958 to 1959.  Afterwards, Stockhausen used these copious notes to create ("realize") this work at the WDR Electronic Music Studio (with the aid of technicians Gottfried-Michael Koenig and Jaap Spek, in between September 1959 and May 1960).  The premiere was on May 10 of 1960 at a festival concert for the International Society for Contemporary Music in Cologne. 
2 random pages (out of 700 total) from the original design notes of KONTAKTE.
     KONTAKTE marks Stockhausen's first "live" electro-acoustic work in the version with accompanying live instrumentalists.  In GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE, a boy's voice was used in the assembly of the electronic layers, but in this case, the "concrete" sounds would be "joined" at the moment of performance.  Originally planned as an electroacoustic work with 4 live performers playing scores with some aleatoric elements, it was eventually reduced to just tape, piano and percussion, with all of the live parts completely notated out.  After this, Stockhausen would move on to apply electronic signal processing to the live instruments ("live electronic music") in works such as MIKROPHONIE I, MIXTUR, PROZESSION, etc... During these years, the tape-only works TELEMUSIK and HYMNEN would also be major creations.  However, in many ways, KONTAKTE is Stockhausen's signature breakthrough work of this period, and possibly his entire oeuvre, which is saying quite alot, considering the incredible variety and breadth of his 57-year career. 

     From a compositional standpoint, this work is also the meeting point between 2 of Stockhausen's favorite devices.  In KONTAKTE, The synthetic sounds have elements of organized serial technique -  that is, properties such as pitch, duration, dynamics and timbre are organized using unique distribution sequences.  As mentioned in the "4 Criteria", the sounds were also organized with 42 different scales (with step intervals from 1/30th of a 5th up to an entire 5th), each one assigned to a timbre based on its "noise complexity".  The other major idea presented here is "moment form", in which a work is divided into short, consecutive sections which have varying amounts of shared characteristics between them, i.e. - the sections do not necessary have to be related to each other in any kind of traditional thematic way.  The concept of "moment form" was also featured in the concurrently-composed work, CARRÉ for choir and 4 orchestra groups (though moment form elements were hinted at as early as in GRUPPEN for 3 orchestras).

     The title KONTAKTE refers to 3 kinds of "contacts":
  • CONTACT Between Sound Families: 
    • The acoustic (percussion) and electronic timbres of KONTAKTE were organized according 3 pairs of pitched and un-pitched sound families:
      • Metal 
        • Tones (crotales, cow bells...)
        • Noises (tam tam, gong, cymbals, hi-hat...)
      • Wood 
        • Tones (wood blocks, marimba...)
        • Noises (bamboo rattles/claves...)
      • Skin (membrane) 
        • Tones (tom-toms, bongos...)
        • Noises (bongos filled with beans...)
    • The un-pitched noise timbres also basically fall under the group description of "colored noises", meaning bandwidth-filtered white noise.   
    • The differences between these 6 basic sound-types were organized according to a transformation scale (dull to bright, etc...), and the use of electronics made it possible to create smooth transitions between these sound families (wood sound to a metal sound, etc...).  The piano and percussion parts essentially help to make different kinds of contact during these transitions (also, since the electronic sounds have microtonal scales, the piano often either doubles the chromatic occurrences or reinforces the percussion player's parts).
  • CONTACT Between Space Shapes:  The use of spatial movement around the listener (and distance from, to a lesser extent) is helpful in adding a dramatic element to serially-organized music, which can tend to have a "flat, pointillistic surface".  The title "Contact" refers to the connections between the spatial shapes created by the sound projection ("Raumgestalten").
  • CONTACT Between Moments:  As mentioned earlier, KONTAKTE is designed as a sequence of independent sections called Moments (usually coinciding with the Structures).  Since each of these Moments can be very different, the contact between these blocks of texture/narrative is another way to appreciate the title's meaning.  Each Moment is organized by sound family, proportion of pitch to noise, register and process (see below).
     This remainder of this post describes the organizational design phase of the composition of KONTAKTE.  I think it's significant that in his own 1972 lecture on KONTAKTE, Stockhausen talks much more about the "4 Criteria" and the final sounding result than these sketch plans.  However, these early sketches are an interesting look at Stockhausen's planning strategies for this watershed work.  A later post will go into the actual creation of the electronic music - the realized "performance" of the score, so to speak.

Moment Form Types and Partial Moments
     A work composed in "Moment Form" is basically a sequence of short, self-contained sections ("Moments"), which do not depend on a previous or a following Moment in order to "make sense".  In traditional classical music, a main theme (a "Moment"), is stated and then developed through variations (each another Moment).  This produces a kind of dramatic arc, and the theme is sometimes revisited at the end as a coda.  Sonata form is based on the development of 1 or 2 main themes, and in general the drama of these kinds of works is produced by the "journey" that the main theme takes.  In "Moment form", the Moments are regarded as "free-standing", so the flow does not have to be based on the forward development of a basic thematic Moment.  In other words, the sequencing is "non-linear", to borrow a term used in audio/video editing software.

     Related to this concept, Stockhausen also envisioned performances in which different works would be continuously repeated in separate rooms and an audience could move from room to room in order to get a "custom" musical experience.  Moment form is a logical solution to the potential problem of missing the beginning of a work.  Since each Moment is free-standing, there is no beginning.  Or possibly, any Moment could be a beginning, since the order of Moments is not based on a "story".

     Using terminology from Stockhausen's article "Momentform", the basic Moments in KONTAKTE can be characterized with 4 properties and the combinations of these properties: Gestalt (individuell), Struktur (dividuell), Zustand (Statisch), and Prozess (dynamisch), or GESTALT, STRUCTURE, STATIC and DYNAMIC.  When combined, these basically describe how divisible a Moment is, and if it develops in some way.  The below table shows 6 out of 8 possible combinations (2 are missing since there are no Moments which are both Static and Dynamic at the same time).

Static or Dynamic Gestalt or Structure Example of Moment type
Static State

(holding steady pitch ranges, tempo and/or dynamic) 
(individual, indivisible)
6 note chord/arpeggio (even rhythm) with all sounds similar timbre and dynamic.
Static sound density.
Structure (divisible) Repetition of different textures (pitch set, cluster, etc...).
Static intensity and lengths of the individual parts.
Combination One layer of repeating clusters with 1 layer made from a sustained pitch.
Static intensity.
Dynamic Process

(changing from one extreme to another, glissando, crescendi, etc..., usually more than 1 property)
Gestalt  Rising glissando.
Dynamically moving through space.
Structure Repetitions of points and clusters.
Dynamically decreasing intensity of each cluster group .
Combination Repeating sequence of 2 kinds of percussive accents using a narrow bandwidth of sound in even rhythm.
Dynamically slowing down and fading away.
     Seppo Heikinheimo's book, The Electronic Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, conveniently breaks down every Structure and partial Structure into Gestalt, Structure, Static and Dynamic categories, but I think I will refrain from listing them all here, since it may be more rewarding in this case to just listen and make one's own assumptions.

Relationships of Isomorphic Elements
in Stockhausen's Kontakte (Stephen Lucas)
      Alternatively, Stephen Lucas describes KONTAKTE in slightly different terms in his paper, Relationships of Isomorphic Elements in Stockhausen's Kontakte:
  1. Directional (changing, often precedes peaks)
  2. Peaks (loud blocks, acts as transition, often precedes extinction of directionality)
  3. Extinction of directionality (quiet, static, acts as the end of a larger section)
  4. Static fragmentary (divisible but no change or pauses, various timbres)
  5. Directional fragmentary (divisible with change and pauses, contrasting dynamics)
  6. Instrumental cadenzas (imitations of acoustic instruments, phrases/clusters, preceded by fragment phases)
     Adapted from a paper by Alessandro Cipriani, it is essentially the same as Stockhausen's breakdown (directional = dynamic, extinction = static, peaks = gestalt, fragmentary = structure), but it has some interesting ways of looking at the sequencing of the whole structure.  Each of the 5 large group sections basically ends with a sequence consisting of Directional-Peak-Extinction.

     The Moments can also be viewed as being in 3 related levels of structural complexity: partial-Moments (a variation of a Moment), Moments (which are focused and individual), and Moment-groups (groups of Moments which may have an element in common).  The first Moment-group is Structure I, consisting of 6 Moments (usually a Structure is made of similar Moments).  The 2nd Moment-group however is made up of both Structure II and III.  For a partial-Moment, if a Moment has, for example, 6 different chords in an even rhythm (Gestalt-Static), each chord could be considered a partial-Moment.  These ideas of micro- and macro-Moments would be much further explored in MOMENTE, organized in a tree-like heirarchy.

     A major difference from previous serial works such as KREUZSPIEL is that most scales here are qualitative, as opposed to quantitative.  In KONTAKTE, parameters space, instruments, form, tempo, register and dynamic are arranged on a qualitative scale of 1 to 6 (instead of the quantitative, measurable 12 for a chromatic pitch or tempo scale).  Each Structure/Moment is assigned 6 6-step serially-organized properties, resulting in up to 36 degrees of combined change.  Stockhausen calls this "Reihen der Veränderungsgrad" - serial sequences based of levels of transformations:
"from zero change to maximum change there are:
  • series of change (what changes)
  • degree of change (how much is changed)
  • predominant parameter where a certain degree of change is active (what is most changed)"
     For example, in the sketches for KONTAKTE, spatial movement in 6 scale degrees is expressed in 6 diagrams for the movement of sound in 1 and 2 dimensions (in a line to an adjacent speaker, or as a spreading "flood" to 2 speakers, etc...).

     Pitches, however, get a different set of rules, as they are arranged in 42 different kinds of scales depending on the bandwidth of the sound (as mentioned in "4 Criteria").  For the acoustic, pitched instruments (especially piano), a 12-note serial row (starting from A and expanding outwards by semitones) was used in various permutations to organize the pitches.  Rhythmically, they "underline" the electronic and acoustic textures.

Form Structure
     KONTAKTE was originally planned as 18 "Structures", with 6 subsections in each, but Structures XV-XVIII were not completed in time for the premiere (which was at the ISCM Festival in Cologne on 1960).  Stockhausen did, however, put together 2 introductory Structures, which act somewhat as an "overture and bridge" to the completed sections I-XIV.  For this reason, Structure III in the score is actually Structure I in the original sketch diagram, etc...  In any case, the final score of KONTAKTE has 16 Structures, with most subdivided into smaller sections.
KONTAKTE initial form plan sketch, reproduced in Richard Toop's
6 Lectures from the Stockhausen Courses

     In the above sketch plan, many Structures contain a 6 x 6 number matrix which is the 6 x 6 serially-organized properties (space, instruments, form, tempo, register and dynamic).  The ones written in blue (Structures II, V, VII, X, XII and XVIII) indicate the equal appearance of instrumental and electronic sounds, and ones in green indicate mostly instrumental sounds (however, this design was ultimately altered considerably, and electronic sounds are pretty dominant in all Structures).  The circled numbers below them basically give each Structure a rank based on the summed number matrices (a kind of "scale of transformation" between the Structures).

     Below the circled ranking numbers are 6 columns which visually show the "strength" of each of the 6 properties (contrary to most other form schemes, these have nothing to do with the passage of time).  The numbers below the black columns are durations.  At the lower part of the pages, marked in red, are initials indicating the planned sound family (usually for the percussion part) to be featured in each Structure (H = Holz, or Wood, M = Metal, F = Fell, or Skin (membrane), and G = Geräusch, or Noise).  The subscript numbers indicate register (1 = low, 2 = high).

     In other sketches and tables, Stockhausen organizes the predominant transformation types of Structures, distribution of the 6 sound families, the subdivisions into partial-Moments, and the mix of electronic to electroacoustic Structures (in the original plan, 6 were to be exclusively electronic).  There are also some markings which seem to hint that the amount of freedom for the originally-planned live, indeterminate sections was to be inversely proportional to the amount of structural transformation ("The smaller the transformation value, the larger the choice").

     Finally, during the creation of the electronic tape and the subsequent notation of the live instruments, KONTAKTE changed in many ways according to how the results of his sound experiments actually sounded "in real life".  This pattern of creating a plan, following through with it, and then "course-correcting" based on live performance practice, was a technique Stockhausen would use for his entire career.  In any case, these planning stage sketches of KONTAKTE provide an interesting look at Stockhausen's thoughts on how to organize and create a dialogue between electronic and acoustic textures in balanced proportions (though they differ dramatically from the final result).

Continue to Part 3: KONTAKTE - Electronic Music Techniques

Sound samples, tracks listings and CD ordering
Four Criteria of Electronic Music (Stockhausen on Music)
The Concept of Unity in Electronic Music (Stockhausen, PoNM 1)
Wikipedia Entry
Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen (Robin Maconie)
Electronic Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (Heikinheimo)
Compositional techniques in the music of Stockhausen (1951-1970) (John Kelsall PDF)
Kontakte by Karlheinz Stockhausen in Four Channels (Kevin Austin)
On Stockhausen’s Kontakte (1959-60) for tape, piano and percussion (John Rea PDF)
"Zur Entstehungs- und Problemgeschichte der Kontakte von Karlheinz Stockhausen." (On the Origin and Problem of "Kontakte", Helmut Kirchmayer, in German, included with original Wergo LP)
Stockhausen Introduction for “KONTAKTE”, Stockholm, 12th May 2001
Stockhausen Q & A after KONTAKTE, Stockholm, 12th May 2001
Revisiting Kontakte (Talea Ensemble)
Relationships of Isomorphic Elements in Stockhausen's Kontakte (Stephen Lucas)
Problems of methodology: the analysis of Kontakte. Atti del XI Colloquio di Informatica, Musicale. 1995 (A Cipriani)
Six Lectures from the Stockhausen Courses (Richard Toop)
WDR Electronic Music Studio Tour (photos of electronic gear, 2015)
WDR Studios Vintage Pictures & Video Tour (120 Years of Electronic Music)