Stockhausen Edition no. 6
(Zyklus / Refrain / Kontakte)

Karlheinz Stockhausen – “Zyklus” (1959) / “Refrain” (1959) / “Kontakte” (1959 – 60)
Stockhausen 6
Christoph Caskel (percussion) (“
Zyklus”) – Aloys Kontarsky (piano & woodblocks), Karlheinz Stockhausen (celesta & antique cymbals), Christoph Caskel (vibraphone & cowbells) (“Refrain”) – Aloys Kontarsky (piano & percussion), Christoph Caskel (percussion), Karl Sieben (sound engineering), Karlheinz Stockhausen (musical direction & mix-down) (“Kontakte").
Duration: 62:05.


Krakabang! Prrrrrrrrrr! Plipprrring! Swooossssh! Goooong! Wuawuawuawua!
You’re in the middle of it right from the start, with nowhere to hide. Maybe that’s how the player feels, completely surrounded, as he is, by his instruments, which encircle him. The feeling that you’re right in there from the start is true, too, since the piece has no beginning, no end; hence the title…

We’re listening to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “
Zyklus” (1959) for solo percussionist, here performed by Christoph Caskel in 1960.
These days we’re used to percussion music. We’ve grown accustomed to lots of banging and crashing, and intricate rhythmic patterns too, sometimes within the realm of electroacoustics, sometimes in the world of purely acoustic instruments, and at times within mixed forms, and there are a few very good percussion ensembles around, like the Kroumata Ensemble and Les Percussions de Strasbourg. I doubt whether they would have emerged without the early “
Zyklus” by Stockhausen.

Christoph Caskel performing "Zyklus" in Amsterdam 1959

Zyklus” is Stockhausen’s first graphic score, and one critic said at the time that “the initial impression is that one is looking not at a score but at a drawing by Paul Klee”.
Zyklus” is the first fully notated score for solo percussion, and it was the piece which paved the way for the world of percussion in art music, notated as well as improvised, and the fabric of sounds we hear today in contemporary orchestras would appear quite different, and certainly much poorer, hadn’t it been for Stockhausen and his well-documented ability to think outside established frameworks, musically and philosophically, arriving at astonishing conclusions and utterly unexpected solutions to problems that themselves weren’t readily apparent before Stockhausen focussed on them. A creativity like this, channeled through this rigid discipline, bears witness of a deep suffering, I’m sure, but as every real artist knows, the suffering, though hellish, is a much needed force, in the end leading to a deeper kind of joy.

The resistance that Stockhausen at times, over the years, has encountered by the envious or the ignorant, is probably all too natural, since a man with Stockhausen’s abilities and resources, paired with a stubbornness and a talent unheard of, and a frantic will to work, work, work, is bound to cause a stir. This man would not, at any cost, mingle with the dilettantes, or subscribe to their rules, but would always do his own thing, regardless of the social result, regardless of the enemies he’d make in the process. (One should also ask oneself where the original and innovative creations of those enemies of Stockhausen are to be found...) Bob Dylan – a man in a totally different setting, who always has done his very own thinking too – once said, in a song (“
Up to Me”): “If I’d paid attention to what others were thinking, this heart inside me would have died”. For sure this is true of Stockhausen too, and we should all be very thankful that neither Dylan nor Stockhausen scare easily, but keep right on their own track, no matter how insane the establishment and the critics, clinging to their long-established and pleasantly secure traditions, may think they are. This is civil courage. Dylan and Stockhausen have a dump truck each of it – be glad!

The layman impression of “
Zyklus” is that of expanding and contracting events of shorter or longer durations, with different timbres, sudden fast speedups and terrific stops, and colorful ringings of high shrills across deep bass hits, beating out the time with brown, golden and chilly blue attacks. At certain passages the percussion actually sounds like electronics, like in track 13 of “Zyklus”, where I get a déjà vu of John Chowning and Denis Smalley, except that the pieces they wrote arrived many years after “Zyklus”. None the less, this plainly shows how far ahead of his time Stockhausen was when he composed “Zyklus”, and how much he served as a spearhead of musical thought, invention and practice! In this bewildering but refreshingly clear fabric of sounds you get transported just as quickly to eastern sound-worlds of early Japanese temple mornings, with mist appearing up the mountainside and Zen masters slapping your cheek to give you insight!

Zyklus” was written out of necessity, one could say. Stockhausen experienced that the twelve percussionists who performed “Gruppen” had many problems with their parts, and he realized that there was a need for a more exclusive training for them, so he asked Wolfgang Steinecke at Darmstadt to set up a percussion competition. Steinecke bluntly replied that there weren’t any percussion pieces around to practice and compete with, but that he would set up the competition if Stockhausen would compose a piece – and indeed Stockhausen did! This background also means that the music was written as a pedagogical piece, which has been done many times before in the history of Western art music. I might just direct your attention to Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote many pieces for pedagogical reasons, like for example the wonderful “Wohltemperierte Klavier”.

As usual when Stockhausen goes about something, he plans it in detail, and arrives at a very much worked-through score, which also sometimes, inside all the fixed notation, allows for the interpreter’s initiative and choice, in combinations and combinations of combinations, inside the framework of the work as a whole. The score for “
Zyklus” really is something new in the history of Western music, and has become a key work for percussionists. It has also been recorded extensively.
For those interested in the workings behind the piece I recommend the CD booklet – a book, actually, of 184 pages – and for those who really want to get inside the nitty-gritty of every last detail I usher you directly on to
Texte zur Musik, Volume 2, where you can study the whole story behind “Zyklus” on pages 73 – 100. This is fascinating reading, so don’t fear the extra effort it takes to do the study. In my text here, which aims at presenting a review with the limited ambition of providing a layman’s impressions and simple, causal insights into the pieces reviewed, I’ll just touch on the structure of “Zyklus”, to give the visitor of this Internet page a quick idea of the wonder of the music, but to really understand it you have to go to the real source of it all, to Stockhausen’s own explanations in Texte zur Musik.

Zyklus” is composed in a cycle of 17 periods, wherein 9 dominant timbres, or timbral groups, emerge:

1. Snare drum
2. Hi-hat
3. Triangle
4. Vibraphone
5. Tam-tam / gong
6. Guero
7. Marimba - Glissandi
8. Bells
9. Tom-toms

The group of instruments used during a recent Swedish recording of “
Zyklus” differs somewhat from the instruments of the premier, and of the recording presented here. Stockhausen explains that at the time of the composition he had to choose instruments that were available then, in 1959. If other instruments help refine the sound and make it clearer, interpreters may choose those, but if that end is not met, the prescribed instruments should be used.

These timbres, these timbral groups, appear and intensify, until they reach a climax, after which they slowly die down; accelerando – ritardando. The 17 periods should all be of the same length, and each period is divided into 30 time units of equal length, the duration of which the player can decide himself. The skeleton of the piece is made up of the nine temporally fixed attack-cycles, which are divided into two semi-cycles of variable events, which can be inserted between the fixed attack-cycles in the chosen order and moment of the interpreter.
The printed score, on unnumbered pages, is spiral-bound, and the interpreter can start with any of the pages and work himself around in the chosen direction, until he stops at the first sound of the beginning page. He can also turn the score upside down, and perform it in reversed order. The instruments are grouped in a circle around the percussionist, and he will therefor turn around as he is playing through the dominant timbres. Amplification is utilized in this piece.

This short description is enough to convey the understanding that there is so much more than just a straight traditional compositional process at work here. The score, though rigidly notated, allows for many variations, which the interpreter can decide, and no two performances will sound exactly the same, while at the same time the method of composition assures that there will be as much diversity and variation, within the given framework, as Stockhausen intended, while the 9 timbral groups also will appear, no matter where you start, or in which direction you chose to progress. It is amazing!
The spiral-bound score naturally also correspond, on a higher level, to the processes in infinite space, where the spiral galaxies move majestically through the void, and also to the principle of fractals, which also form spirally, and contain the signature of the whole in each little part. In Stockhausen’s music you will always find all these other implications, in addition to the beauty of the vibrating sound of the music, leading wherever your intellect and intuition may take you, in accordance with the level to which your awareness has risen.

Olson III” by Terry Riley also applies the circle and the possibility to start anywhere in the composition, but it has to run in just one direction. However, the similarities makes me wonder if Riley may have glanced at “Zyklus” when writing the minimalist “Olson III” for the orchestra and chorus of the Nacka Music School in Sweden in 1967. The piece consists of the words “to - begin - to - think - about - how – we – are – to –be”. The individual singers or small groups of singers are to repeat each word a number of times, then move on to the next word. The instrumentalists have an instrumental score with short motifs too, treated in the same way. For Riley this lead to the composition “In C”, which established the California composer and musician as one of the more influential personalities of the latter part of the 20th Century.


The second piece on the CD is “Refrain”, composed in 1959. The instrumentation is piano, wood blocks, celesta, antique cymbals, vibraphone and cowbells, so the percussive character lingers on. The recording was made in 1968, performed by Aloys Kontarsky (piano and wood blocks), Karlheinz Stockhausen (celesta and antique cymbals) and Christoph Caskel (vibraphone and cowbells), but it’s in no way aged. The sound is crisp and clear to me, even though Stockhausen notes that the spoken sounds in particular are not clear enough, due to the circumstances surrounding the recording process. I don’t hear this, but naturally the composer had a vision of the sound, and if the reality of the moment didn’t quite measure up to the intentions, he has to say so. He justifies the release anyhow, referring to the fact that this is the only recording of “Refrain” with these particular interpreters, who later performed the piece many times.

It’s a beautiful piece, with many solid sounds, rolling out like clear-colored marbles on a stone floor set with ancient mosaics, in a large hall with Greek statues on pedestals along the walls, and great columns supporting the ceiling way up.
Nearly static chords dissolve into melodies. There is some kind of peace inside this sounding space. In each chord, one note decides the duration of the chord by the dynamic level of the attack and its natural decay. Six times during the performance of the piece a varied refrain is appearing, disturbing (or livening!) the sound process. The exact occurrences of the refrains are variable and determined by the players, thus shaping a version. Pitched loud tongue clicks and called syllables are combined with many of the attacks. A certain amplification is used throughout.

The score is of a very special kind. It appears in two semi circles facing each other, each containing three groups of staves. A transparent strip with the six refrains printed onto it is fastened in the middle of the score. This strip is then moved into the position decided for each performance, thereby having the refrains appearing at different places in the composition each time. Once again Stockhausen turned the composition at hand into an event, through the unique score with the possibility of variations by way of the moveable strip with the refrains.

A stunningly beautiful part is CD track number 28, which is part 10 of “
Refrain”; “second side-trio”, which pearls out like a magic precipitation of metal drops in an enchanted forest, while little Kinglets (Regulus regulus) are disclosed by their high pitches way up in the green dusk of fir tree branches, like out of a painting by John Bauer.

Stockhausen’s texts about the electroacoustic performance practice of “
Refrain” can be studied in his Texte zur Musik Volume 3, pages 25 – 27, and in Volume 6, pages 65 – 67. In Volume 1, pages 242 – 249 you can also see a beautiful reproduction of the first page of the score of “Refrain” and three likewise beautiful versions of this page. On account of the reduction of the scale to fit the pages of the book some color information is not conveyed precisely, having been lost in the printing process. This score is a beautiful piece of art in itself, though, well suited for exploration and meditation.


Stockhausen projecting "Kontakte"
at the Museum of Modern Arts in Stockholm 1960

Finally this CD presents “Kontakte” for electronic sounds, piano and percussion (1959 – 60) in a recording from 1968 with Aloys Kontarsky (piano and percussion), Christoph Caskel (percussion), Karl Sieben (sound engineer) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (musical direction and mix-down).
Kontakte” – a justly enormously successful early electronic work – exists in two versions. The first one, presented on Stockhausen Edition Volume 3, is the tape composition by itself. The second version, appearing here, is the version with instrumentalists playing with the tape.
As the title implicates, the tape part aims at setting up relations between electronic sounds and instrumental sounds, with gradual transformations between the sounds, so that you may not be able to tell the origin of the sound you hear. For this recording the instrumentalists worked for eight hours, trying to optimize the way the electronic sounds on tape would mix with the instruments. They went about this by electrically mixing the sounds from the 4-track tape – without loudspeakers - with the instrumental sounds, which were picked up by a number of microphones. The musicians then each heard everything through headphones, i.e. the tape sounds, their own playing and the other instrumentalist’s playing. This made an uncanny precision possible, which we can now appreciate on the CD.

Stockhausen in “
Kontakte” also applies a transition from pitch to rhythm, by slowing down a sound until the pulsation is audible. I believe that this is an invention – or discovery – by Stockhausen, because I cannot recall any earlier experimentation by anyone else into these forms of transitions between two so seemingly different qualities of sound.

Kontakte” is so extremely rich in events that you could easily divide the thirty-five minutes into five-second parts and analyze them separately! It’s a joyous experience to immerse yourself in these sounds, these spatial events in sonic space! It’s a wonder that anyone, after hearing “Kontakte”, could dare trying to compose electroacoustics, but luckily, the adventure continues – but this is an ultimate masterpiece! “Kontakte” represents one of those magic moments in history, like when Saul saw the light on his way to Damascus and transformed, on the spot, to Paul. “Kontakte” is a one-time wonder, a masterpiece of masterpieces in its genre.

You’re supposed to hear “
Kontakte” from four pairs of loudspeakers set up according to Stockhausen’s instructions around the room, with ten microphones amplifying the instruments. For a live performance of “Kontakte” there are also exact instructions concerning the lighting, which during a performance heightens and alters the experience considerably. For the CD two-channel stereo version the distribution of the channels looks like this:

Channel 1: left
Channel 2: circa 1/3 left
Channel 3: circa 1/3 right
Channel 4: right

Comprehensive texts about “
Kontakte” can be read in Stockhausen’s Texte zur Musik; Volume 1 (p. 144 ff., p. 152 ff., p. 189 ff., p. 216 ff.), Volume 2 (p. 104 ff., p. 107 ff.), Volume 3 (p. 28 ff., p. 175 ff., p. 247 ff.), Volume 4 (p. 360 ff.), Volume 6 (p. 68 ff., p 140).
The text in the book that accompanies the CD is also ample, on pages 61 – 106 (German) and pages 150 – 178 (English). In the German part you can also see pictures of the instruments involved.

Stockhausen projecting "Kontakte" in Nuremberg 1968

Stockhausen says: “To meet the familiar and identifiable in the realm of the unknown and nameless makes the unknown even more mysterious, fascinating; on the other hand, the familiar, even the old and banal, becomes wholly new and alive in this new atmosphere of the unknown”.
Surely this is an insight into how our psyches work. In an attack of anxiety or panic, or when personally revolutionary tragedies hit, like a dear one’s death, for example, the lighting suddenly changes, and the world looks and sounds very much different, like you’ve been thrown into a parallel universe, another dimension, which just remotely resembles your own world, even though, on the surface, it acts like your own world, as if to trick you – and this is a horrible discovery: the realization how thin the layer is between this secure and warm place and an unknown, weird, scary place where the most secure suddenly is threatening, dark, auspicious, even evil. It’s like suddenly seeing the look of the devil through your own child’s eyes.
And surely the reason why we feel comparably at ease here on this magic globe in space, in a totally unreasonable and absurd situation, right in between microcosmos and macrocosmos, must be the fruit of habit; we’re so used to living that we don’t see the wonder (or the absurdity) of it.

Stockhausen in Stockholm May 2001:
Introducing "Kontakte"

Stockhausen in Stockholm May 2001:
Answering questions about


Volume 7