Karlheinz Stockhausen:
Introducing “Kontakte” at The Royal College of Music, Stockholm, 12th May 2001.

Antonio Peréz-Abellán [piano & percussion], Andreas Boettger [percussion], Karlheinz Stockhausen [sound projection]

Kontakte” is an example of the many compositions I have written for the synthesis of traditional instruments and electronic music. The work was composed from 1958 until 1960. It has been performed regularly by different ensembles, and I would like – before you will hear, now, “Kontakte” - [to tell you] what you might be listening for.

As you all know, the music has changed extremely around 1952, 1953, 1954, because of the technical revolution which took place and which was predominant for my life; the discovery of recording sounds, transforming sounds, synthesizing sounds, combining – then very soon – traditional means with electronic music. “
Kontakte” is the first example which combines performance with electronic music, so I’m part of this whole evolution (more than a revolution…) of European art music, [which] naturally has consequences for all of us, because we are used to listen to a music which has been made since a thousand years, mainly based on the same principles of forming, of combining instruments and voices. Now all of a sudden comes a world where we don’t know, many times, what the sounds mean, how they are made, which means, for all of us, that we lose our gravitation; we don’t know where we are; there is no clear orientation, what the sounds are coming from, what they are composed for, and I give you now three aspects. It will take about a quarter of an hour, and then we perform “Kontakte”, which lasts 35 minutes, and after that you’re kindly invited to discuss among yourselves, speak to me; I will answer, and the musicians will stay here as well. You can ask the musicians whatever you like.

Before I explain a few aspects I would like to thank very much Director Holmkvist for having invited us, for giving us a chance to play for you, and, as you know, he has been decisive also in organizing the Polar Prize Festival.

Kontakte” means “Contacts”; what is in contact. First of all, in “Kontakte” there are families of sounds. I started making, in 1958, families of sounds. I made a lot of sounds with a special technique of pulse technique (that is not important now), which had no association. They sounded strange, from very complex noises to very clearly pitched sounds, a whole series, and I worked already at the very beginning in transposing these sounds, or producing them, with many different scales, so no longer with chromatic scales, but with 42 different scales. The largest was the fifths, for the biggest or widest noises, and the smallest was the fifths subdivided in more than 30 steps, because it was possible for the first time to work with these scales, and I was very interested to see what happens if I work with all different kinds of steps.

Stockhausen rehearsing "Kontakte"
at the Royal College of Music, Stockholm
12th May 2001
(Photo: Ingvar Loco Nordin)

So what is really “Kontakte”? Contacting each other are sounds from different families, and I also wanted to add to the family of the unknown sounds, the synthetic sounds, four families which refer to sounds which we know, because I felt – it was already in 1958 – after several compositions which were very abstract, like the “Electronic Studies no. 1 and 2”, a strong need to have orientation, so there are families of metal, of wood, of skin, and of colored noises, and you will hear, in the performance with instruments, in the family of wood, very precise wood instruments like the wood-blocks, or like marimba, or like drums which have wooden plates at the top with pitched sound – everything is tuned precisely to the pitch I’ve indicated – but also bamboo sounds, which are very static in pitches. Then there is the family of metal. It has also all distinctions between metallic sounds; antique cymbals – very clear pitch – and cow bells, also tuned with different pitches, and then there are very noisy (what we call noisy) metal sounds like tam-tams, and modern gong is a pitched sound; it’s not very noisy, except if it is hit with special [words lost in room noise]. Skins – all kinds of skin sounds, from the bongos with beans inside, which makes a rolling noise, but with a very special register, up to the tuned tom-toms, bongos and [words lost in room noise]. Of metal sounds I forgot cymbals, and you can see high-hat.

There’s a whole range of different sources in the instruments; in the electronic music I also created these families by analyzing the sounds of the instruments - that took a long time – all the spectras, and then producing sounds which sounded like instruments, but also gave me the chance to make a transition, for example from a metal sound to a wood sound, or to a skin sound, and the fourth family […] are sounds which sound like voiceless consonants: sshhh, sshhii, fff, sshii – all sorts of instruments; brushes on skins or on cymbals, so sounds which we usually call noises, but as you know, noises are as varied as pitched sounds, only this was new in music at the time when these first works were composed, including all the noise families, so these four families are something that you can identify in the performance very easily, because you see what they [the musicians] touch, what they put in resonance.

In the electronic music you can also identify them, because we have learned this through our lives; we have a name for it; how it sounds [what it sounds like], and what it is. That gives me the wonderful in “
Kontakte” to make contacts with these families, within the families, to create, so to speak, children of these sounds, which then are mixtures, different kinds of contact products between the families – and that is interesting. That shows you my whole attitude towards composition: you first have something [word lost in room noise], and then try to make transformations from one into the other, and when one transforms skin sound into a metal sound, one comes into areas which we have no names for. Now, these are contacts. When you hear [words lost in room noise], then not only identify the sounds that are underlined by the instruments, but also try to close the eyes every now and then, and try not to forget or to remember what you hear as un-nameable sounds; the sounds which we cannot identify with words; one kind of contacts.

The other contacts are as important for me. “
Kontakte” is the first work which not only allows, like in “Gesang der Jünglinge”, which you are going to hear the day after tomorrow in Berwaldhallen [The Berwald Hall], which was the first electronic music for four tracks, when sounds rotate and then contacts between different angles of the room, but in “Kontakte” it goes much further.
I constructed a special rotation table with microphones around it an a speaker in the middle, and sounds on the speaker, and then it rotates up to 6 revolutions per second, and I recorded these rotations through the microphones on a multi-channel machine, and now I can project them in the hall. You will hear them.

So the main contacts are contacts between forms in space, so space music has been enormously developed in my music the last 50 years, up to oktophonic music which I composed a few years ago, where also the vertical movement of sound; diagonal movement of all kinds and all speeds in all directions, become important, as important as pitches, durations and dynamics – so please, when you listen to the music, you will be in a space where the sounds go away very fast, sometimes, and come back in another angle, [and you will] hear dialogues between diagonal directions, in the rear back, or the rear back at left, the front right or vice versa, front left to rear right etcetera – diagonal movements – and then sometimes trios between sound sources, then quartets; all kinds of quartets, or continuous rotations clock-wise or counter clock-wise [words lost in room noise], and with these space movements which you might identify as forms, like “Gestalten”, as we say in German, like musical figures of space. Space has a special orientation; from where the sounds come, with which speed the sounds arrive and move from one place to the other, with which they go away and come close; all these characteristics are new in Western music; in all music – so this was an enormous discovery! Space becomes a parameter, as we say, of composition. That is the second aspect of contacts between space forms; speeds and directions in space… contacts… between Raumgestalten. “Gestalten” cannot be translated… figures… space shapes or whatever.

The last aspect I would like to mention is very important for all of us. Traditionally we think music is [words lost in room noise], chords, melodies, connections of sounds, but in electronic music, since “
Gesang der Jünglinge”, which was composed four years earlier than “Kontakte”, every now and then I come to moments where whole swarms of sounds – I hope you understand swarms; we speak of swarms of birds, of bees – swarms of sound have shape, like a body, and I really compose with shapes that I do, with shapes of whole swarms of sounds, which means [that] many, many sounds with different density make a new form, new Gestalt, and these Gestalten, then, meet each other in “Kontakte”. They have contacts. I compose a Gestalt, and wait for a moment, to leave a silence after it, so that we can remember it, and then another Gestalt comes, and then I make the Gestalten encounter each other, meet each other, so there are contacts between Gestalten, and that, naturally, determines enormous differences of speeds, so “Kontakte” is - more than “Gruppen” for 3 Orchestras which I composed before, much more than “Gesang der Jünglinge” which I composed – an example of music wherein sometimes sound just rolls, just stays with us, and we can listen inside of the sound – so the differences of tempi are enormous, between sometimes 120 individual notes, or how can I say it… individual sounds making a swarm of sounds, and then with a shape, followed by a next moment where the sound lasts 30 seconds, maybe second polyphony player underneath, but very quiet, so the differences between peacefulness and extreme agitation are very, very large, are extreme in “Kontakte”. That changes all our feelings about music. Initially we go with the music, identify with it, [words lost in room noise], even if the rhythm is irregular, but when the music sometimes breathes in and out so slowly that it is not our own breath, and that we hardly can identify with this kind of timing, then this really changes us enormously. We are very often flying in “Kontakte”.

So these are three kinds of Kontakte – contacts.

Antonio Peréz-Abellán is coming to play the piano, and as you can see also percussion, in order to allow for the dialogue with the percussion player, and Andreas Boettger is a Professor of Percussion in Hanover, the Musikhochschule Hanover, and he has reared a lot of very, very gifted percussionists since he’s [been] there. He will play percussion, and now we perhaps breath a few seconds peacefully, and then we hear “
Kontakte” 35 minutes – so I think, once at the beginning, naturally it is very spectacular to see them [words lost in room noise], every now and then, how they perform, but don’t forget, I cannot play this afternoon twice, because [words lost in room noise]. It takes 35 minutes, but you have that chance of 35 minutes to enter into the world [of “Kontakte”] and take in as much as you can. Don’t forget that every now and then it is better not to identify how the sounds of the instruments are made, but just to listen to the music in space, so if you close your eyes every now and then, you will experience your own inner world.

All the best!