Notes on Stockhausen’s Kontakte and Oktophonie
Karlheinz Stockhausen is one of the few, true musical pioneers. Right from the beginning of his composing career he has forged paths that others have followed. He’s a musical inventor, explorer and messenger. He has visited the outer reaches of music and reported back. He has been doing this since the early 1950s – for half a century – and he is still doing it today. He knows exactly where the outer reaches of music are located because, more often than not, he established them. He is one of the composers who completely rewrote the rule book of western music after the Second World War, opening up the possibilities of composing with all kinds of sounds not just notes played on conventional instruments. Long established ideas about musical structure, melody, harmony, and rhythm, and the boundaries between what was music and what wasn’t, were pushed and stretched and tested in a seismic wave of radical, modernist thinking.
The two pieces in tonight’s concert, Kontakte and Oktophonie were composed just over 30 years apart – Kontakte in 1959/60 and Oktophonie in 1990/91 – but they share some similarities. The most obvious is that both pieces are electronic music, the sounds come out of loudspeakers, and as the sounds come from the speakers Stockhausen controls the overall dynamic in the auditorium. He is not ‘remixing’ the pieces or improvising with the musical material, all the elements of both pieces have been thoroughly composed and are fixed on tape – 4 tracks in Kontakte, 8 tracks in Octophonie – and, in performance, Stockhausen makes the pieces sit in the space, and, because every space has its own characteristics, every performance is unique.
Kontakte was composed before the invention of synthesizers and digital computers. The equipment used in the realization of the piece was not designed for making music, it was designed for testing and maintenance in radio stations. These devices – impulse generators, filters and amplifiers – produced extremely crude sounds but they were all that was available to composers at that time. By the late 1950s Stockhausen knew how to compose with these resources, to produce rich, complex musical sounds, because, in that decade, he had already composed two electronic studies and the electronic piece Gesang Der Jünglinge. But in Kontakte he took things much further. Firstly the piece exists in two versions: as electronic music alone, as in tonight’s concert, and in a second version for electronic music, piano and percussion. The title ‘Contacts’ refers, among other things, to connections between a purely electronic sound world and the world of acoustic instruments. Secondly, Stockhausen discovered that if the speed of a steady electronic pulse (or clicks as they’re heard in the loudspeakers) is increased then the individual clicks merge together to become a note with a definite pitch and the faster the speed of the clicks the higher the pitch. He had discovered the continuity between rhythm (events separated in time) and pitch (notes, the stuff of conventional melody and harmony). This is heard most clearly at around 17 minutes into the piece where a single note snakes down and up and down, then swoops so low it becomes a series of individual clicks. Finally the clicks resonate to become pitch once more.
The composition of sound in space, the location of sound(s), direction and speed of travel, rotation and ‘flooding’ (starting at a single point, filling space, ending at a single point), all of these ideas were also developed in Kontakte. Stockhausen invented a rotation table, onto which was mounted a loudspeaker, which could be turned to face microphones, one in each of the four corners of the studio. The microphones were connected to the four individual tracks of the tape, which of course, in concert playback, are connected to the loudspeakers. So Stockhausen’s invention enabled complex movement of sound in space – whirling, jumping, flying and spinning, in different directions and at different speeds. This fabulous spatialization, especially the spinning, can only really be appreciated in the concert hall.
Oktophonie also employs structures of sound in space but here there are 8 groups of loudspeakers arranged around the audience in a cube. This piece is the electronic music of Dienstag aus Licht – the opera ‘Tuesday’ from the opera cycle ‘Light’. As with Kontakte, and other electronic works, Oktophonie was conceived as a self-sufficient piece that could be performed alone, as in this evening’s concert. The cube arrangement of the loudspeakers allows, for the first time, vertical and diagonal movements of sound. We hear ‘sound bombs’ crashing down from above and huge walls, or curtains, of sound stretching along the sides of the cube. Stockhausen is building massive structures in space, structures that cannot be seen but perceived only with the ears.
Because Stockhausen’s music often redefines what music is, there is much for the listener to do. This doesn’t mean his music is unnecessarily difficult; indeed Stockhausen, in his talks and writings, makes perfectly clear exactly how he composes. There are no secret methodologies, obscure systems or magic formulas, he tells us precisely how he does it. His CD sleeve notes, for example, are incredibly detailed with descriptions, diagrams and photographs. Not only does he compose the music but he also tells us how he has done it and, in return, all he asks of the listener is that they listen. This music has not been composed to provide the background for conversation at dinner parties or to entertain drinkers in bars and clubs, it has been composed for listening. And the best way to listen to Stockhausen’s music is at an event where he is supervising and performing – exactly as in tonight’s concert.
©2005 Robert Worby
These notes were written for Stockhausen’s concert at the Frieze Art Fair in 2005