Music: Kontakte (Karlheinz Stockhausen)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2008-11-19 06:41:21 No comments

Really, this is where it all started with me. Before Godflesh and Merzbow, before Meat Beat Manifesto and Suicide, before John Cage even, there was Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte, recorded over fifty years ago and yet still sounding timeless. Our ears, as Cage himself said, are now in excellent condition.

Aside from being a groundbreaking piece of electronic music—probably the single most important piece of its kind, second only to Stockhausen’s earlier Song of the Youths (which isn’t nearly as impressive or ambitious to me)—Kontakte has something of the flavor of an epic film that would be unrealizable on any budget in today’s world. The whole of Kontakte had been made by taking electronic pulses and manipulating them on tape, processing them with a limited battery of studio effects, and then splicing together and re-recording the results—a process which took two years of work in the WDR Köln studio to pull off. Given that the piece runs 35 minutes total, that meant the average day’s work for Stockhausen yielded up maybe two and a half seconds of sound. It was the sonic version of stop-motion animation—or maybe Stan Brakhage’s filmmaking, which he accomplished by painting and etching directly onto the film itself.

Odd to think that something like Kontake was first offered to listeners on LP through the auspices of classical-music label Deutsche Grammophon. I knew thanks to my dad that the DG name and the process-yellow plaque that emblazoned the cover all of their releases was a sign of quality. You couldn’t go wrong buying a DG issue of anything whether it was a Beethoven symphony or a Bach cantata. That made it all the more curious when one of my visits to the public library’s LP section turned up a record sporting the DG name and logo, but with a composer I’d never heard of—and with blood-red cover art so far removed from the typically sober photos of cellists and conductors and whatnot that I wondered if it was a hoax.

“Stockhausen?” said my brother, the other classical-music maven in the household, as I prepared to install the album on the turntable. “More like Nuthausen.” He knew of him but didn’t know the music in detail, and from what little he’d heard he wasn’t inclined to hear any more. He had trouble enough mastering Debussy’s “Syrinx”. Never mind dealing with some composer who wrote music you could play from the beginning, middle or end indiscriminately, or indulged in any number of artsy-fartsy end-runs around the audience. Well, whatever, I thought, and dropped the needle into the run-in groove.

I didn’t have a single coherent thought about what I was listening to until the end of Side One, where Kontakte had been split at the 11’25” mark for the sake of sequencing. It wasn’t until I’d listened to the whole thing, both sides, several times, before the words came together: This is a music that I have always wanted to hear but never know what it would sound like. Stupefied, I ran off a copy onto a cassette for my friend David Hirmes and brought it to him at school the next day.

“This is really something. When was it recorded?” he asked me after having listened to it.

“1968,” I said.

“Wow. I didn’t know they had MIDI back then.”

I was fairly sure they didn’t. In fact, I was fairly sure they didn’t have much of anything, really. I went back that afternoon and re-read the liner notes, along with Paul Griffiths’s detailed explanation of the composition in his book A Guide to Electronic Music (“…perhaps the electronic work par excellence, since in technical and musical respects it is entirely a work of the new medium”) and the chapter devoted to it in Robin Maconie’s survey of Stockhausen. I read and read, and my jaw hit the floor. And then I crawled into bed and put Kontakte on my Walkman and listened with the covers pulled up over my face, still gob-smacked. The next day I apologized to my friend and explained the real deal. No, it hadn’t been made in 1968, but from 1958 to 1960, and not only was there no MIDI at the time but no synthesizers, no sampling—no electronic instruments as we know them, period. He, too, let his jaw just hang open for a bit.

Stockhausen’s aim in creating Kontakte was to demonstrate what was possible with electronic music—not just technologically, but aesthetically; to show how a new kind of music (and, by corollary, a new kind of listening) was not only possible but desirable. This included using sound to show what sound is—how one kind of sound can be created from another; how sounds can be wholly abstracted from their sources to create things that didn’t exist before; and so on. The most dramatic example of this starts at around the 17 minute mark, when a nasal-sounding buzz slows down, becomes a series of individual pulses, and turns from that to a massive reverberated drone.

Another major element in Kontakte, and in Stockhausen’s music generally, was how things like spatialization can be compositional tools. The latter was especially significant, given that the first public performances of Kontakte were for four-channel sound—arguably the first real use of quadraphonic recording for something other than multitracking. The LP was bounced down to two-track stereo, but with some careful work done to ensure that the spatialization was preserved; I’m still waiting for a DVD-Audio issue that features the original four-channel mix.

Given the amount of work he’d need to go through to accomplish even the smallest piece of the whole, Stockhausen did not “improvise”—he wrote a score and stuck with it quite rigidly during the two years he spent creating the piece on tape. Later, he created another version for both tape and live instrumentalists, and it is this version which has turned up in multiple LP and CD editions. I bought one such edition, but didn’t see the point: the original music was strong enough that it didn’t need to be tricked up with additional call-and-response or counterpoint. The original tape version wasn’t released on CD until the creation of Stockhausen-Verlag, and even now it’s still difficult to find unless you order it directly from them (it's catalog #3). Amazon, for instance, does not carry it, and independent retailers are apparently not allowed to resell it either.

For years the only recording I had of Kontakte was my slightly scratchy tape of the library LP. I put it on one side of a 80-minute cassette and set up the other side in such a way that I could immediately begin playing it again without having to rewind. (I was an early convert to rechargeable batteries, but let’s face it—it was more the inconvenience of waiting for the music to start again more than anything else that bothered me.) I listened to it endlessly: on the bus, while walking to and from school, in the library. It cast mystery and added new and unexpected dimensions to every environment where I brought it.

It still does. It probably always will. I sit here typing this while it plays in the background, and even the trees across the street now seem like different trees. They are always different, of course, but only as long as you can see that. Or hear it.

Tags: John Cage Karlheinz Stockhausen electronic music