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Jacob Hammonds

Contemporary Music
Stockhausen Kontakte

Karlheinz Stockhausen is one of the most important composers and musical minds of recent
history. Born near Kerpen ermany in !"#$% Stockhausen fostered his skills as musician as a child% and
studied at the Cologne Conser&atory of music. His pieces range from serialism% point music% orchestral%
and electro'acoustic music. Stockhausen also pioneered the art of realizing a piece of music in the
recording studio using electronics and (hat one can consider e)tended recording techni*ues. Kontakte
or +Contacts, is one of these pieces% and (ill be the focus of this discussion of electronic art music.
-n lecture number fi&e of Stockhausen.s english lectures% Stockhausen lays out the four criteria of
electronic music and e)plains some of the process behind Kontakte. - (ill be referring to the complete
electronic realization of the piece% ho(e&er there is also a &ersion that incorporates electric keyboard
and percussion. /hroughout this essay the four criteria of electronic music% and the conception and
process of Kontakte (ill be discussed. -t (ill include brief e)planation of basic synthesis% and aural
transcriptions of certain elements of Kontakte.
/o understand the ne( sound ob0ect created by Stockhausen in Kontake% it is important to ha&e a
basic understanding of ho( modular synthesis (orks. 1ithout an understanding of synthesis it easy to
become o&er(helmed by electronic sounds. Modular or subtracti&e synthesis (orks by taking a pure%
unaltered (a&e form and altering it (ith &arious means of electronic de&ices. /he most simple form is
the sine (a&e 2 3 (hich is pure in tone. -t is similar to a pure +4, &o(el and can be described as
glassy and calm Because of this purity% it is far easier to hear micro'tones on sine (a&es. /he ne)t (a&e
in harmonic comple)ity is a triangle (a&e 2 3. /his (a&e is similar to a sine (a&e but is brighter. -
like imagine triangle (a&es as plucked strings (ithout the attack. S*uare (a&es 2 3 are the ne)t
most comple)% and ha&e a tone similar to a bo(ed instrument. /he most dense simple (a&e form is the
2 3 sa(tooth (a&e. /his (a&e is e)tremely bright and contains more o&ertones than the pre&ious
(a&es. 5lthough e&en sa(tooth (a&es can be created by the proper addition of sine (a&es% these four
forms of (a&e are the most common in modern synthesis. /hese (a&es can then be used in
combination to create more comple) timbres. 1hite noise can also be generated by an oscillator and is
pi&otal to Stockhausen.s fourth criteria of electronic music.
4nce one of these initial sounds is generated by an oscillator% it is then modified by other
electronics. /here are countless types of modules% but there are some that are more common an
practical than others. /he most basic modification one can make is &olume. /his can be controlled by
an en&elope (hich shapes the attack &olume% ho( long the note can be sustained and the release
&olume. 5nother common modifier is a filter (hich cuts out certain parts of the sonic spectrum
determined by the user. /his can be done manually of using a similar en&elope as &olume. /he final
most common modifier is an 674 or lo( fre*uency oscillator. 8ssentially an 674 is an e)tremely lo(
pitched oscillator (hich can be used to modify other perimeters. 7or e)ample if one (ere to route a
sine (a&e 674 to the pitch of a sounding (a&e the resulting effect (ould be the pitch rising and falling
in the same manner of a sine (a&e. -f one (ere to do the same (ith a s*uare (a&e 674% the pitch
(ould immediately rise and fall. 674s can be routed to pitch% &olume% filter fre*uency% panning% mi)
bet(een t(o (a&es
-n his lecture Stockhausen states that the four criteria of electronic music are time structuring%
splitting of the sound% multi'layered spacial composition% and e*uality of tone and noise. /ime
structuring in traditional (estern music is determined by the indi&iduals perception of time. /his is
largely based on the speed at (hich humans function at. 5ny tempi an indi&idual is accustomed to
becomes the median tempo and anything faster than that is considered fast and anything slo(er than the
median tempo is percei&ed as slo(. -f one is e)posed to a music that is much slo(er than he is
accustomed for an e)tended period of time% the pre&ious percei&ed tempo then becomes much faster.
4ne of the techni*ues of electro'acoustic musicians is to take a recorded sound ob0ect and use
electronic methods to alter or transform the sound. 4n may take a relati&ely large sound 2Stockhausen
uses the e)ample of a Beetho&en symphony3 and compress it into a single second. 5t this point a
complete form of music is transformed into a single sound (ith a uni*ue timbre. 4ne may also e)tend a
short sound o&er an e)tended period of time. /his elongation of a single sound into a complete (ork
transforms (hat (as pre&iously considered a sound into a form. /he form in this case is a reflection of
+micro'acoustic structure,. 4ne may also take a single pulse% and repeat it at a high rate of speed. 5t a
certain threshold% the pulses (ill blur together into a single tone. /he timbre of the resulting tone is
determined by the *uality of the initial pulse. 4ne may also take a rhythmic structure and perform the
same process. /he timbral result (ill &ary according to the &arying rhythm. /he ability to transform
rhythm into tone or sound% sound into form% and form into rhythm destroys the traditional notion of
harmony% melody% rhythm% and from. Since all of these elements are no( percei&ed as different degrees
of a larger sonic spectrum% composers are no( open to unify these element in a more sophisticated (ay.
/he second criteria is described as the splitting of sound. Stockhausen claims that after the !"9:.s
+sound is no longer 0ust a sound,. Since it is possible to e)pand a single sound into a piece or form% it
is no( also possible to compose a sound. 8lectronic techni*ues% such as synthesis or the time (arping
techni*ue described in the pre&ious paragraph% allo( a precise control of timbre. Stockhausen states
that +/raditionally the ideas or themes (ere more or less descripti&e of reality. 1ith composition of
sounds or decomposition% passing through time layers is the theme its self. ;ather than meaning
something (ith a sound its o(n beha&ior is the meaning,. Since comple) sounds can no( be composed
they can also be decomposed. /hrough his studies of acoustics and analysis of the sound properties of
acoustic instruments% as (ell as found% e&eryday sounds% Stockhausen began his (ork on synthesizing
and composition of sounds. He initially used sine (a&es in different combinations to emulate the the
&o(el sounds created by the human &oice% and then (ent to synthesizing e&eryday noises% to original
sounds. -f a single sound is composed of layers it is then possible to alter slightly or not so slightly the
parts of the sound. /his re&eals the elements composing the sound and effecti&ely decomposes the
Space and spacial relationships are a crucial element to Kontatke and Stockhausen.s other
electronic music. Stockhausen claims that +musical space has been fi)ed in traditional (estern music.,
/his means that the position at (hich one percei&es the sound coming from is not of importance.
/raditionally% both the performer and audience members are static. /he performers position is dictated
usually by tradition and the audience member is positioned by their access to money. Stockhausen
claims that +mo&ement gi&es sounds a characteristic that static sounds lack% and configurations in space
are as meaningful as inter&als in melody and harmony,. Stockhausen (as the first composer to e)ploit
this concept an had to de&ise a system of notation for position. Sound can be positioned in t(o (ays to
create a three dimensional space. /he first in a t(o channel speaker set up is left and right. By using
panning one can position sounds in a one dimensional plane. 1ith a four channel surround sound set up
one may position sounds left% right for(ards% back(ards or any combination./he second is distance%
(hich is controlled in t(o (ays. 7irst is &olume or dynamics% simply loud sounds are closer and *uiet
sounds are far a(ay. Second is distortion% (hen one hears a distant sound% (hat one really hears is an
indirect reflection of sound (a&es. 5s sound tra&els it is changed o&er time and distance by the medium
it flo(s through. /he combination of these positioning techni*ues allo(s the composer to manipulate
not only the position of any sound in space but also can dictate the motion that the sound tra&els in.
7amiliar en&ironmental sounds are easier to position due to our familiarity (ith them. <nfamiliar
sounds are more difficult to place. Stockhausen gi&es position to unfamiliar sounds by the (ay in
(hich they are reacting to other sounds in the piece. /he comparati&e position of the sounds in the
piece helps clarify the spacial relationships. 5nother techni*ue Stockhausen uses is to familiarize the
listener (ith a certain sound o&er a period of time% and then mo&e the sound one the listener has
become accustomed to it. By notating and positioning sound specifically% Stockhausen is able use space
and spacial relationships (ith intention ne&er before heard.
-llustration of three dimensional sound space
/he fourth and final criterion for electronic music is the e*uality of tone and noise. /his
balancing of noise and pure tone is similar to Saariaho.s ideas of consonance and dissonance.
Stockhausen states that in traditional (estern art music% noise (as taboo. =recise notation of inter&als
for the human &oice (ere sang (ith &o(el sounds. /he function of noise in this conte)t is only to gi&e
clarity to the starts and ends of the sound through speech consonants. 1hite noise is an e*ual pro0ection
of all fre*uencies across the entire sound spectrum. -f one uses a filter to remo&e some of these
fre*uencies% and create smaller bands of noise% the noise begins to sound more pure. /his blurring of
the line bet(een noise and pure sounds allo(s on to percei&e noise and pure tone as 0ust different
points on a large spectrum. >o( any noise can be used as material. Stockhausen states that the balance
of these *ualities should be carefully handled (ith ones intuition% because +the balance of noise and
tone is not numerical. Because noise is percei&ed by the a&erage listener as being more harsh or
+primiti&e,% it must be balanced (ith more pure sound. Stockhausen then ends the lecture (ith% +>o(
there is a relationship bet(een form and material% to (here form and material are one.,
/hrough these ad&ances in the (ay music is understood% the composer is no( able to (rite music
that is tonally% timbraly% rhythmically% and structurally consistent. <sing electronics to create and
manipulate sound has gi&en man the ability to realize total serialism% and create a completely unified
(ork. Stockhausen.s four criteria of electronic music allo( not only the means for total serialism% but
drastically e)pand the sound (orld and a&ailable options the composer has a&ailable. 1here pre&iously
musicians (ere confined by old instruments in fi)ed positions% no( one can mo&e a sound through
space musically. Stockhausen says +ne( means change the method% ne( methods change e)perience%
ne( e)periences change man. Man.s ad&ances in technology ha&e allo(ed for a completely ne( (ay of
percei&ing sound% (hich should be e)ploited by the composer. Stockhausen.s (ork Kontatke%
e)emplifies these four criteria.
Kontatke is broken up into smaller structures or Strukturs. 8ach structure has a uni*ue
conception and mo&es the piece along. ?ue to the immense comple)ity of the piece% - find it more
effecti&e to focus on indi&idual structures. - (ill focus on structure -@% because of their shorter length.
Structure -@ begins (ith filtered (hite noise (hich is controlled by a triangle (a&e 674 pulsing at
about four cycles a second% as (ell as a slightly ascending (a&e% most likely a s*uare (a&e.2# seconds3
/his sound is follo(ed by t(o pulses (hich descend and turn into a sustained pitch. /his pitch is
*uickly attacked by t(o bursts of (hite noise 29 seconds3. 5n 674 controlled filter creates a creaking
sound similar to a rusty door. 5bo&e this sound is a sine tone morphing in pitch% ascending and then
distorting itno noise 2" seconds3. /his is follo(ed by a sine (a&e (hose pitch is being altered *uickly
using an 674 to create (hat - like to call synth'bugs. 1hich are punctuated by distant bursts of (hite
nose (hich then zoom closer to the audience member and seem to attack.2!9 seconds3. /heses t(o
sounds then retreat. /he (hite noise bursts e&en out into a consistent noise stream% and the synth'bugs
pulse at a slo(er speed and then begin retreat further 2#A seconds3. -n the distance% *uiet (hite noise
pulses% and the the pitched sine (a&e synth'bugs retract and are mo&ed across the field of aural
perception for the remainder of the structure. 8&en in this single A9 second e)ample Stockhausen
satisfies all four criteria of electronic music. Sounds are split from more simple to comple)% space and
distance are thoroughly e)plored. /he t(o main dueling sounds% one composed of mainly sine (a&es
(hich are e)tremely pure sound% the other composed of noise. /his satisfies the e*uality of tone and
noise concept.
Stockhausen% more than a conceptual artist% is an imaginati&e artist. -t it ob&ious that the
perimeters for his electronic music composition are (ell thought out% but Stockhausen in his first
english lecture says that% (hen dealing (ith form or constraint% a good composer (ill not allo( himself
to be bo)ed in by the process. /he composer is obligated to transcend the form or transcend the
structure. - belie&e Stockhausen transcends this four criteria of electronic music and creates sounds
(orlds (hich one can &isit. /hese criteria of electronic music are not limiting in any (ay. -n fact% using
e&en a fe( of these parameters can greatly enhance creati&e fle)ibility as a composer. /he last three
criteria can e&en be applied to acoustic music. /his ne( (ay of thinking% not only about music but
human perception (ill e)pand the potential for ne( music.