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Stephen Lucas

MUCP 5460

Relationships of Isomorphic Elements in Stockhausen’s Kontakte

Since the time when technology allowed for music to be made using electronic

instruments, composers have worked to refine their concepts of sound and musical form

in order to encompass an ever growing vocabulary. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s musical

aesthetic welcomed this increase in vocabulary, and when combined with his background

in serial composition, his work became innovative and experimental in the field of

electro-acoustic music. Stockhausen’s work Kontakte(1960) incorporates isomorphic

elements and serial techniques in order to create a cohesive aesthetic and a structured

formal design.

I. Introduction to Kontakte

Kontakte, or Contacts, is a piece for piano, percussion, and electronic sounds,

realized in 1958 to 1960 at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk electronic-music studio in

Cologne, Germany. It employs experimental notation and extended techniques in order to

expand the sound vocabulary of the instruments. The piece lasts 34 minutes, 31.8 seconds

and because of the nature of a fixed media electronic part, the duration is absolute. The

piece exists in two forms: electronic sounds alone, and electronic sounds, piano, and

percussion (implying Stockhausen feels a fixed media recording of the performance is an

adequate experience of the piece). In Stockhausen’s words the “Contacts” of the title

“refer both to contacts between instrumental and electronic sound groups and to contacts

between self-sufficient, strongly characterized moments. In the case of the loudspeaker

reproduction, it also refers to contacts between various forms of spatial movement.” 1 In

1 Stockhausen, Karlheinz. Texte vol. 2. 1964. Cologne: Verlag M. Dumont Schauberg.

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order to break down the construction of the piece, one must clarify Stockhausen’s

compositional goals, his electro-acoustic aesthetic, his use of formal implementations,

and his techniques of serialization.

II. Stockhausen’s Aesthetic

Stockhausen’s goals in sound composition (especially in terms of Kontakte) fall

into four categories of conceptualization: 1)the correlation of color, harmony, and meter;

2) the construction and de-construction of timbres; 3) the differentiation among degrees

of intensity; 4) the relationships between sound and noise. 2 He believes that in the music

created before the use of electronic instruments, it was customary to think of these

properties of music as mutually independent, but in his mind, they are all aspects of a

conceptual temporal continuum. When he began to use electronic instruments to

construct sound material, he realized that all acoustic material is made up of changes that

happen on a spectrum of time. For example, when a material vibrates at a frequency that

is faster than 20Hz, it becomes audible as pitch, but if there is a similar vibration that is

happening much slower, it would be perceived as a rhythm or meter. (see Fig. 1) In

Stockhausen’s eyes, the revelation that pitch and rhythm are actually part of the same

physical spectrum of time meant that there was a window into linking all of the elements

of a musical composition into a cohesive whole. Kontakte is his first application of

exploring the possibilities of these relationships and creating a piece with this aesthetic.

III. Moment Form

The primary means of constructing musical forms in Kontakte is based on

Stockhausen’s concept of moment form. The practical explanation of this application is

2 Stockhausen, Karlheinz. The Concept of Unity in Electronic Music. Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 1, No. 1. (Autumn, 1962), pp. 39-48

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that the musical elements are combined into short sections, not unlike a measure or a

phrase in traditional notation. The conceptual emphasis on this type of form is that it

creates an emphasis in the listener’s ear on the “now,” or the current state of the musical

elements; there is a higher importance on the current combination of elements than on the

context of said combination within what has happened in the piece previously and what

will happen after. 3 In order for this emphasis to be created, each compositional moment

needs to be self sufficient in its construction, in that each of its musical elements depend

on one another’s immediate temporal context. Each moment must be an indivisible

gestalt, therefore supplying its own context, and allowing a distinct independence within

the rest of the pieces structural forms.

IV. Total Serialism

In order to combine these two concepts into Kontakte, Stockhausen relies on his

background in serial composition in order to create isomorphic groupings and a cohesive

formal design. 4 This becomes most important in the application of Stockhausen’s idea of

the temporal spectrum of musical elements because the attributes and characteristics of

something as fast as a pitch can be remapped onto something as long as a gesture or

phrase. For example Stockhausen describes the technique of creating the electronic

material of pages 19-20; the same processes and treatments of pitch were then mapped

onto duration, rhythm, and gesture in order to create an entire sequence of sounds that are

fundamentally related in their construction 2 (see figure 1 in appendix). This allows for a

combination of sounds that fulfill his aesthetic of showing the innate relation of musical

3 Toop, Richard. Six Lectures from the Stockhausen Courses Kurten 2002. Kurten: Stockhausen-Verlag.

2005.

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elements, but also creates an indivisible sound gesture, or moment, within the rest of the

section’s context. By serializing all elements in a similar way, and reducing their

characteristics to the same properties, Stockhausen combines his two primary goals into

one formal design.

V. Formal Implementations

Stockhausen composes the structure of Kontakte, using six distinct formal

implementations: directional, peaks, extinction of directionality, static fragmentary,

directional fragmentary, and “instrumental cadenzas.” 5 These are generally made up of

several “moments,” but they are generally marked by section numbers in the piece, or a

combination of several sections. The serialized elements that are used to describe these

formal implementations are: prevailing of gestural or textural models (as described by

Denis Smalley) 6 or intermediate levels; prevailing dynamics and possible spatial rotation;

morphology of sound objects; tendency to variability or homogeneity of timbre;

prevailing timbral typology based on the six groups mentioned by Stockhausen 2 (metal-

noise, metal-sound, wood-noise, wood-sound, skin-noise, skin-sound). 7 These elements

are based off of Stockhausen’s goals of sound conceptualization, but are created through

the process of serialization.

Directional sections are characterized by the use of homogenous timbres,

crescendos, spatial rotation and gestural models.(see Fig. 2) These sections often precede

4 Heikinheimo, Sppo. The Electronic Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen: Studies on the Esthetical and Formal Problems of Its First Phase. Translated by Brad Absetz. Acta Musicologica Fennica 6. 1972. Helsinki: Suomen Musiikkiteteellinen Seura.

5 Cipriani, A. Problems of methodology: the analysis of Kontakte. Atti del X Colloquio di Informatica Musicale. 1995. pp. 41-44

6 Smalley, Denis. Spectromorphology: explaining sound-shapes. Organised Sound. 1977, 2: pp. 107 126. Cambridge University Press.

7 These formal implementations are described briefly in the Cipriani article, but the relationship to serialization is not a concern.

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peak sections and their purpose within the form is often a transition out of a fragmentary

section.

Peak sections are characterized by a co-presence of low and high frequencies,

loud dynamics, a tendency to inharmonicity, and gestural models. (see Fig. 3) These

sections often precede extinction of directionality sections and their purpose within the

form is often for a transition a transition out of directional sections.

Extinction of directionality sections are characterized by clear diminuendo

dynamics, sounds with a long decay, homogenous timbre, and textural models. (see Fig.

4) This formal implementation always acts as a marker for the end of a larger

macrosection, and is always preceded by a peak section.

Static fragmentary sections are characterized by timbral variability, overlapping

of sounds, a lack of pauses, moderate dynamics, and textural models. (see Fig. 5) This

formal implementation sometimes acts as a marker for the beginning of a larger

macrosection, but only when preceded by an extinction of directionality section.

Directional fragmentary sections are characterized by contrasting dynamics, a use

of pauses, an apparent inconsistency of sound objects, a non-overlapping of sounds, and

gestural models. (see Fig. 6) This formal implementation is similar in its placement to the

static fragmentary section, but always acts as a marker for the beginning of a larger

macrosection.

Instrumental cadenza sections are characterized by timbres that tend to imitate

percussion instruments, a tendency to organize sounds into phrases or clusters, the use of

dynamics that are close to said instrumental models, and textural setting models. (see Fig.

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7) This formal implementation is always preceded by either of the fragmentary sections,

and always explores a new grouping of Stockhausen’s prevailing timbral typology.

It is important to note that the combination of isomorphic elements into these

formal implementations manifests Stockhausen’s aesthetic goal more clearly than an

analysis of the implementation of his moment form; although individual moments display

the same characteristic serialized elements, they don’t display a cohesive method for the

fundamental combinations of said elements. In a similar point, individual gestures within

moments often display serialized elements, but once again, they do not display the same

cohesive methodology. Because of the insistence on this implementation of serialization

in Stockhausen’s writings and interviews, it is not wrong to assume that this formal

spectrum of serialization is treated in the same way that sound material is conceptualized;

in this way, all formal structures of the piece are cohesive in their treatment, but the

emphasis on moment form requires a broader scope for analysis, in order to contextualize

said cohesion.

VI. Serialization of Formal Implementations

In order to prove the serialization of these formal implementations, one must

classify the characteristic elements into their own spectra; this shows the cohesive nature

of the piece’s formal structures in relationship to Stockhausen’s aesthetic. (see table 1)

1.) Textural or gestural models: 0-1 = textural-gestural

2.) Prevailing dynamics 0-1 = homogenous-variable

3.) Spatial rotation 0-1 = no-yes

4.) Morphology of sound objects 0-1 = no-yes

5.) Timbral tendency 0-1 = homogeneous-variable

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6.) Prevailing timbral typology (this element only applies to cadenza sections and is

therefore not included as “serialized”)

 

Directional

Peak

Extinction

Static/Frag.

Directional/Frag

Cadenza

1

1

1

0

0

1

0

2

1

1

0

0

1

1

3

1

0

0

1

1

1

4

0

0

0

1

0

1

5

0

1

0

1

0

0

(Table 1)

When the isomorphic elements are displayed in this way, it is very clear that the

relationships that are fundamental to Stockhausen’s goals are evenly distributed within

the parameters of each formal implementation. Although the numbering system is

arbitrary, it is clear that each section has a polarity towards higher intensity and gesture in

three of its elements, and a polarity towards lower intensity and texture in its other two

elements. The one exception to this is the extinction of directionality implementation,

which is polarized towards low intensity and texture in all of its elements; this is why it

creates such a strong marker for the ends of macrosections- because it contrasts so much

with the other sections and creates a sense of closure.

VII. Serialization of Moment Form

The concept of serialized formal implementations would appear to disrupt the

concept of moment form, in that the placement of one formal implementation creates an

interlocking context with the others (this is contrary to the self sufficient gestalt definition

of a moment). However, because these describe many moments put together, the

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indivisible nature of each moment could be preserved in order for it to create its own self

sufficient context. This is accomplished by creating a similar serialized polarity in each

moment that is similar to, but doesn’t rely on the overall polarity of the formal

implementation. For example, if one analyses moment number one from section VB (see

Fig. 2), the same serialization model can be applied (see Table 2).

 

Section VB, Moment 1

1

0

2

1

3

1

4

0

5

1

Table 2

Although the formal implementation of section VB is used as an example of a directional

section, this individual moment does not display the same elemental characteristics as a

typical directional section, but it does display the same balance of elemental polarities. 8

This supports the idea that the concept of moment form is preserved despite prevailing

formal contexts, because the individual moments display similar, but not necessarily

contextually coinciding, constructions.

VIII. Serialization of Macroform

In order for the moment form to be functional, it has been shown that two formal

scales apply a similar serialized construction, but in showing a serialization of the macro

form, one can further demonstrate the moment function. (See Table 3)

8 Dack, John. Strategies in the Analysis of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte fur elektronische Klange, Klavier und Schlagzeug. Journal of New Music Research. 1998. Vol. 27, No. 1-2, pp. 84-119.

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MACROSECTION ALPHA (duration: 7'2,8")

I

directional fragmentary

II

(transitional)

III

directional-peak-extinction

MACROSECTION BETA (dur.: 4'16,8")

IV

static fragmentary

V

directional-

VI/VII-A (1)

-peak (in three phases)-extinction

MACROSECTION GAMMA (dur.: 10'10,3")

VII-A (2)

(transitional)

VII-BCDE

static fragmentary

VII-F

pseudo-instrumental cadenza (skin)

VIII

(transitional)

IX-A

pseudo-instrumental cadenza (wood)

IX-BCDE

static fragmentary

IX-F

directional-

X

-peak-extinction – (transitional)

MACROSECTION DELTA

(6'15,6")

XI

directional-

XII

double interrupted peak

XIII-ABC

prolongation of the peak-extinction

FINAL MACROSECTION (6'46,3")

XIII-DE

directional fragmentary

XIII-F

pseudo-instrumental cadenza (metal) – (transitional)

XIV/XV-A

coda (directional)

XV-BCDEF/XVI

directional ending-extinction (Table 3) 9

9 This table is adapted from the analysis by A. Cipriani.

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Because it has been demonstrated that the formal implementations are isomorphic in their

own structural context, one can apply a similar serialization model to the macroformal

constructions as well (See Table 4).

 

Directional

Peak

Extinction

Static/Frag.

Directional/Frag.

Cadenza

Alpha

1

1

 

1 0

1

0

Beta

1

1

 

1 1

0

0

Gamma

1

1

 

1 1

0

1

Delta

1

1

 

1 0

0

0

Final

1

1

 

1 0

1

1

(Table 4)

Since the directional-peak-extinction sections always function for marking the endings of

macrosections, it is expected that they are present in every macrosection. However, the

other three sections have been constructed in the same serialization model, being

polarized by their presence or absence; each macrosection has a unique configuration of

these sections (and often a similar ordering).

This further supports the self sufficiency of the moment form, because each level

of the formal scale acquires the same isomorphic serialization. However, this calls into

question whether or not the aesthetic goals of the rest of the piece’s construction are

different than the implementation of moment form at all. Stockhausen has already

attempted to characterize the elements of pitch, timbre, and rhythm as isomorphisms (see

Fig. 1), but it is apparent that his goal of extending this characterization across several

levels of form is also successful. In this light, the concept of moment form does not

necessarily describe the score’s marked measures, but because of its cohesion with the

isomorphic serialization, any serialized unit on the temporal spectrum can be considered

a moment, as it is indivisible in its own elemental characteristics. This is only made

possible by the absolute control over sound material available in the electro-acoustic

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medium, because of the aesthetic that the architecture relies on isomorphic similarities

across every musical element.

IX. Conclusion

Although Stockhausen’s music is dense and complex, Kontakte’s formal and

aesthetic architecture is still apparent, even when reduced to binary polarities. This is

because it relies on isomorphic similarities between all musical elements in order to

create a cohesive thread between self sufficient individual parts. Stockhausen’s aesthetic

goals effectively bridge those of the serial tradition and the newer electro-acoustic

medium. With his increase in knowledge about the fundamental properties of music, he

was able to create cohesion throughout the entirety of Kontakte.

12

13 Fig. 1 Kontakte pp.19-20

13

Fig. 1 Kontakte pp.19-20

14

14 Fig. 2 Kontakte p.10

Fig. 2 Kontakte p.10

15

15 Fig. 3 Kontakte p.27

Fig. 3 Kontakte p.27

16

16 Fig. 4 Kontakte p.36

Fig. 4 Kontakte p.36

17

17 Fig. 5 Kontakte p.9

Fig. 5 Kontakte p.9

18

18 Fig. 6 Kontakte p.1

Fig. 6 Kontakte p.1

19

19 Fig. 7 Kontakte p.14

Fig. 7 Kontakte p.14

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Bibliography

Cipriani, A. Problems of methodology: the analysis of Kontakte. Atti del X Colloquio di Informatica Musicale. 1995. pp. 41-44

Dack, John. Strategies in the Analysis of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte fur elektronische Klange, Klavier und Schlagzeug. Journal of New Music Research. Vol. 27, No. 1-2. 1998. pp. 84-119.

Heikinheimo, Sppo. The Electronic Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen: Studies on the Esthetical and Formal Problems of Its First Phase. Translated by Brad Absetz. Acta Musicologica Fennica 6. 1972. Helsinki:

Suomen Musiikkiteteellinen Seura.

Kramer, Jonathan D. Moment Form in Twentieth Century Music. The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 2.

1978. pp. 177-194.

Smalley, Denis. Spectromorphology: explaining sound-shapes. Organised Sound. 1977, 2: pp. 107 126. Cambridge University Press.

Stockhausen, Karlheinz. Kontakte fur elektronische Klange, Klavier und Schlagzeug. 1980.

Stockhausen, Karlheinz. The Concept of Unity in Electronic Music. Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 1, No. 1. (Autumn, 1962), pp. 39-48

Stockhausen, Karlheinz. Texte vol. 2. 1964. Cologne: Verlag M. Dumont Schauberg

Toop, Richard. Stockhausen’s Electronic Works: Sketches and Worksheets from 1952-1967. Interface 10.

1981. pp. 149-197.

Toop, Richard. Six Lectures from the Stockhausen Courses Kurten 2002. Kurten: Stockhausen-Verlag.

2005.