Stockhausen Edition no. 4
(Kontra-Punkte / Zeitmasze / Stop / Adieu)

Karlheinz Stockhausen – “Kontra-Punkte” 1952-53) / “Zeitmasze” (1955-56) / “Stop” (1965) / “Adieu” (1966)
Stockhausen 4
The London Sinfonietta, Karlheinz Stockhausen, cond.
Duration: 67:08. Released 1992.

Fresh air, clear water, contours, outlines, transparency!

In some composers – too many… - you find malaise, infection, inflamed ideas, a haze of thoughts; but not so in Stockhausen. The air around him is fresh to breathe, healthy - and his music is remarkably transparent. I wonder why this is. It cannot be by pure chance, because it is so obvious and so consistent throughout. It must be a deliberate action, based on the inner clarity of the composer’s own personal character, formed in childhood and youth, and who knows; maybe much earlier than that!


I listen to “Kontra-Punkte“ from 1952-53, and though the musical shape and form differs a lot from masters of earlier periods, the inner clarity and the outer radiation apparent in this early Stockhausen piece is of the kind we also find in some of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, maybe as they’re played by Wilhelm Backhaus, and in the keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach, for example the Two- and Three-Part Inventions, played, perhaps, by Glenn Gould or Tatiana Nikolayeva, where you can follow contra-punctual lines simultaneously, in full view, as if they were being written with light directly on to your retina. I don’t know how Stockhausen can create the same outlined beauty in modern, complex 20th Century works, and even in his younger years – but he does!

Kontra-Punkte“ is an ensemble piece for ten instruments, which, from the conductor’s and the audience’s view were placed in the following order, from left to right:

cello – violin – trombone – harp (a little closer to the audience) – trumpet – piano (in the center, somewhat further off from the audience) – bassoon – bass clarinet – clarinet – flute.

A graph of the placement (the set-up) is provided in the CD booklet. I appreciate the information that is always provided in the booklets of the
Stockhausen Edition, making the listening process much more initiated and rewarding. In this case you can sit in front of your sound system, in your listening space, with the placement graph in front of you, and hear exactly where the different instruments are placed, as they appear, one after the other and then in unison, and the feeling you get is that of part-taking, as if you were actually there, at a live performance, and especially so because there’s no filter of dismal sonic residue in the vivid representation of the sound; only the sound of the instruments is audible, and that sound is clear, crisp, transparent.

Stockhausen early 1970s
(Photo: Bernard Perrine)

You always return to this word in Stockhausen’s oeuvre; transparency. This transparency, even in highly complicated situations, when many instruments of different families and characteristics share the vibrating sound space, is always a key element in the way the players interact, making the dynamic sonic fabric, the colorful tapestry of sound, appear in an intense presence. You could compare it to studying a complex Persian rug from Mashed or Isfahan, being aware of each knot in the fabric, while at the same time enjoying the collected effect of all these innumerable knots in the resulting figures and symbols, and the whole rug with the aesthetic and emotional effect it has, also in the way it feels under your hands, and the way it smells when you bury your head into it, conveying a whole Asian tradition of past millennia to your perceptiveness. This is the character of the transparency of Stockhausen’s compositions also. Once you discover – feel – this, it is truly awesome, and it is also a happy discovery! You’re then a practician of La Gaya Scienza, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it.

On reading Stockhausen’s own clarifications in the CD booklet it is apparent that he followed a strict plan when composing “
Kontra-Punkte”. He says – among many other things – for example that he used six different timbres, according to the instruments used, and that the string instruments were of three different sorts, with struck, plucked and bowed strings. He also says that the premise here is that “in a many-facetted sound-world with individual notes and durations, all oppositions are to be dissolved until a state is reached in which everything that is heard is unified, immutable”. The plan for the piece involves all possible parameters, and I encourage the listener to read Stockhausen’s notes carefully. They are very revealing!


Zeitmasze” is written for five woodwinds; oboe, flute, English horn, clarinet and bassoon, which are also placed in that order, from left to right, in a slight curve in front of the conductor. As the title – Time Measurements – implies, Stockhausen here dwells on tempi, and the combinations of these. I won’t go deeper into this (it can be studied in the booklet), but some of the measurements are “as fast as possible”, “as slow as possible”, “fast – decelerate” and “slow – accelerate”. It is not as simple as that may appear, though, because many other sub-instructions are also given. The measurement “as slow as possible”, for example, applies to groups of notes that the player has to execute in one breath, and so the actual duration depends on the characteristics of the notes involved. “Zeitmasze”, therefor, is a highly intricate construction, allowing for many variations in the framework given, depending on the players involved.
The music, all other considerations left out, is very enjoyable, intellectual, like a game of sorts, being played by sophisticated brethren in a social club, where the light from the chandelier is reflected from the bottles of cognac and whiskey over in the corner, as the smoke from the pipes rise in the lofty quarters, spreading a distinguished smell across the room.


Stop” for orchestra has a somewhat fantastic background. It was written by Stockhausen during the course of only seven hours at the blackboard during a session at The Cologne Courses for New Music 1964 – 1965, as a direct result of a question put forth by one of the participants of the composition course about the “process of writing a work, with exact details”.
The orchestra is divided into six groups, and the instrumentation, very varied, is stated as follows, group by group:

Group 1: oboe – piano – electric organ.
Group 2. electronium – trumpet – violoncello.
Group 3: vibraphone – tam-tam – bass clarinet – electric violoncello.
Group 4: English horn – synthesizer – bassoon.
Group 5: clarinet – violin – harp – trombone.
Group 6: flute – electric bassoon – alto saxophone – synthesizer – horn.

The set-up also calls for loudspeakers connected to the electrified instruments.

When I study the instrumentation I get the sense of a heavy brown wooden living room table set with glass bowls, each containing chocolate candies (Pralinen) with brandy inside them, wrapped in silvery and golden tinfoil, and maybe there is a Christmas tree somewhere in the wings, hung with colored glass balls that look like individual tones from a xylophone amongst the spruce needles! Some of the walls are covered with heavy bound volumes of the classics; Goethe, Dante, Tasso, Leopardi, Schiller, Plato etcetera.
Sometimes in this music it feels like Stockhausen is a little boy all alone in that winter room, choosing from the Pralinen on the table!

The set-up for this piece is also provided in the book-let. Sit down and identify the instruments in the sounding space! Great fun!


Once the catastrophe alarms where I live, which are tested at three o’clock PM on the first Monday of every third month, got jammed, and they didn’t stop, but just kept on blurting out the sound of imminent danger. I took the opportunity and jumped on my bike with a portable tape recorder, and moved in this fantastic sounding space. I biked through a wooded area of my home town, and as I was moving I moved away from some of the alarms, while at the same time moving closer to others, and they were all around me at different distances, with slightly different pitches and characteristics. This kept on for hours, and the whole world seemed to have become a sound stage for an environmental concert of blurting sounds of distress. Later I fed these sounds into a Macintosh, changed the pitches and let the signals loop at different speeds in different channels, while I recorded the result directly onto DAT.
When I start to listen to Stockhausen’s “
Adieu” for woodwind quintet I get a similar feeling.

Adieu” was written in a short time-span; just one weekend. The oboist Wilhelm Meyer had asked for a woodwind quintet for an Asian tour in June of 1966. After receiving the commission – or the request – Stockhausen attended an exhibition with the paintings of Piet Mondrian. As he studied the paintings and contemplated the methods used by Mondrian in arriving at his perfectly balanced compositions on canvas, he realized that Piet Mondrian sometimes must have been able to finish a painting in just an afternoon. Stockhausen thought to himself why he couldn’t acquire the same simplistic focus in a limited time frame, and thus set on paper a complete musical composition in a short time. He also thought about the one time he actually did this, as he composed “Stop” in seven hours, as related earlier in this review. With this in mind he went home to Kürten and wrote and copied “Adieu” in just two days, a Saturday and a Sunday, delivering the piece to Meyer on the Monday thereafter!

Stockhausen 1973

(Photo: Frank Horvat)

Though the music might seem simple, it is very hard to perform. It consists of few notes, but played in free glissando curvings with occasional rapid changes in the way the notes are to be performed, with other complicating circumstances as well. This calls for a well-rehearsed group of musicians, and Stockhausen always prefers an ensemble that is tightly knit together over extended periods of time, living together, getting to know each other personally as well as professionally, as has been the case with, for instance, some of our most talented string quartets over the years. Just getting a temporary group of musicians together, rehearsing for a few days, won’t do when it comes to pieces like “Adieu”, or for that matter any piece, really, if you want to get past the immediate, and immerse yourself deeper in the work involved. If you don’t take the music seriously, you might as well not play it all, since that would be an act of abuse.
The instruments in “
Adieu” are flute, oboe, horn, bassoon and clarinet, grouped in that order, from left to right, in a semi-circle around the conductor. The sound is eerie at times, with the sound-waves floating in space between the instruments, hovering, it seems, inside your skull, as the sound penetrates a static vibrating plane, swaying left, right and around, until other occurrences break the perceptual trance and veer off in different directions, only to collect themselves in sudden attacks, which dissolve in long notes of hypnotic characteristics, tickling your neck and parietal bone in light fingerings. I can understand why this work, which was premiered in Calcutta, and then played in Hong Kong and Tokyo, was so well received there, since it has an Asiatic atmosphere about it, which is clear but hard to define. Nonetheless, “Adieu” has a Zen-like quality of rock gardens and haiku poetry about it, which any initiated person may recognize. It was written for Wilhelm Meyer’s son Wolfgang Sebastian Meyer, who had died early 1966, age 29. Stockhausen learned of the calamity upon returning from a trip to Japan.

Adieu”, to me, is a kind of Zen requiem, could one imagine one. I know the Asian world has a very different concept of Death, compared to western ways, and I clearly remember the burning of the remnants of Indira Ghandi, and the way her bones were kept in bronze urns, where the sound of the hard bones clattered hollowly as the urns were being moved, and I recall how her ashes were spread from air planes across the great snowy expanses of the Himalayas. The Asians know Death, and they live close to it. “Adieu” somehow conveys that Asian attitude towards Death.


Volume 5