Kontakte by Karlheinz Stockhausen in Four Channels
Analysis Notes, October–November 2008, April 2009
Prior to the presentation of the individual sections of the piece, I gave some background on the era and context in which Stockhausen composed Kontakte, the editing techniques of the time and more.
Mélange, many sounds, many locations:
- sustained <-> short
- simple <-> complex
- one channel / several channels
- one sound; two sounds, overlapped on one channel
- use of space, both controlled and chaotic
- mostly loud; noisy, quasi-noise, metallic, pitched, damped oscillation
- similar types of sounds
- occupation of space by quasi-immersion; “unison”, and imitation
- apparent motion
Sustained sounds, quiet.
- long gestural durations
- motion is “between”, and amongst speakers
- use of “contrast” sound(s) / describe them
- densification over time
- controlled use of space
- “one” sound gets moved about
- quasi-cadence is a kind of “section marker”
About space and duration.
- which channels are used?
- three channels “circle” (RF, RB, LB)
- LF is treated as “solo”
- division of space as 3 1
Sustained sound(s); quiet.
- single sound (simple), or:
- an integrated sound containing layers
- pitch–fixed or variable? does it change?
- which channels are paired together?
- how many types of sounds?
- what are their durations? (long, short, solo, groups…)
- how many “characters” pass across the stage?
- who are they?
- what is their mood?
Sustained or transitory?
- dynamics (quiet)
- register(s) (mid / high)
- simple or complex sounds?
- which channels
Individual channels / soli.
- how does the “introduction” function? (first 30 seconds) Rotation.
- sustained or granular?
- how many layers?
- direction of rotation, and speed
- what is the rate of change (velocity of the trajectory)
- is this a pre-echo of the end
- how do the interjections function in terms of changing or displacing the rotating layer?
Sustained and rotation.
- how many layers? (sustained, transient)
- how many sounds?
- are they separated register / gesture / articulation / location?
- how “important” is the spatial / rotational aspect
- there is a decay of independence of sounds and channels, a kind of coming together
- which sounds relate to other sections of the piece
Unison types of sound; how many layers?
- pitch-change; quasi-Doppler
- which channels change? which is last out?
Sound in solo speakers.
- how many layers in a channel (e.g. LF)?
- foreground / background relationship?
- are some sounds related to each other?
- sustained sound (reverb) to separated (dry)
- focus on the direction of the sound
- how does the interruption sound at 12:21 function?
- is this overall a gesture of decay?
Four channel unison.
- resonant sine tone (pulse into a resonant filter)
- (single sound <-> fused sound)
- attack / decay characteristics
- speed of attack
- sustained sound simulated through rapid reiteration (granulation effect)
- dynamics (mostly crescendi); sound aggregates getting louder
- Continuum from (1) sound (2) same sound repeated (3) different sounds fusing.
Canonic unison and cadence.
- LF (180 ms delay) -> LB / RB (180 ms delay) -> RF
- quasi-circular motion, left > back > right
- how many different types of sounds? are the %u2018conglomerations%u2019?
- what are the relationships between the sounds?
- cadential sound, as an addition or summation of previous sounds
Three independent speakers.
- LF and RB share common material
- LB reverberated continuous sound (metallic)
- RB, then LF, impulses, and addition (capture) of continuous sound
- ascending (then slightly descending) glissando interjections
- RB fades out under start (overlapped sections)
- double-canon at 180 ms of RF and LB; compare to 15, above
- Canon A: RF precedes LB by 180 ms
- Canon B; LB precedes RF by 180 ms
- difficulty in sound localization because of the complexity of the relationships of the multiple canons
- segue into 
Accretion of materials.
- dominance of LF and RB; in opposition to cue 
- LB is largely silent
- introduction of resonated pulse
Four channels, two layers.
- bouncing sine tone
- rotating granular (whirling rotation) sound [RB]
- fixed pitch / glissando
- generalized sense of rotation
Unison marker, and two layers.
- quasi-canonic interplay (imitation)
- RF and LB (axis)
- “wooden” resonated tone
- whirling pan
- axis pairing of channels (LF / RB; RF / LB)
Solo channel, multi-layered, RF.
- two distinct layers
- sustained mid-range spectral sound
- band passed pulse complexes
- quasi-union, then decay
- small elements of the sustained sound survive the attack
- from 4 channels to 2 channels
- surround collapses to left side (front and back)
- homophony yields to exchange
- bell-like in RB; wooden chords
- single “line” made up of four-part texture
- single line is panned front and back (left side)
- three layer sound (slow) panned on axis, RF / LB
- includes active BP pulse wave (to recur later)
- FL solo; multi-layered complex, active
- RB silent
Two “layers”; static background, dynamic foreground.
- two / three layered sound moved LF / RF, seven times
- RB channel faded in; same as LB but 180 degrees out of phase
- note eventual “similarity” of the two parts
- front channels are a preparation for 
Tone becomes resonant pulse (continuous sound > rhythm).
- four mono channels with same signal
- one channel becomes four; LF LB RB RF (counter clockwise addition
- adjacent channels are 180 degrees out of phase
- dry > reverb > add low level sustained accompaniment > dry > reverb
- one of the most famous parts of Kontakte
- four mono channels with the same signal
- adjacent channels are 180 degrees out of phase
- mid-low tone and mid-range resonance
- segue to 
Pairs of pairs of channels; apparent motion (180 ms delay).
- channels are paired–LF / RB, RF / LB
- RF / LB pair in phase
- LF delayed 180ms for RB
- canonic tracks–RB 180ms > RF / LB 180ms > LF
- multi-layered drone / resonances (continuous)
- foreground “flickers”, often at 180 ms distance between channels
- drone transforms–how many layers are heard?
- layered rotation
- underlying sound(s) are multi-layered [see below]
- the rotating quality is amplitude and spectrum (mainly)
- change of rate of rotation
- some rotations are (hand) synchronized to the sound source
- acceleration of rotation while slowing the elements of the source
- different cycles / parameters overlaid and mixed
- slowing and synchronizing; introduction of unison (monophonic) element, obliterating rotation
- the speakers are paired on the cross axis: there is no physical source being represented
- four synchronized solo channels
- apparent motion by delay (quasi-canonic); RB 180ms delay > RF / LB 180ms > LF
- rotation is both clockwise and counter clockwise
- gestures of silences and crashes; textures of solo exchanges
- the attacks are coordinated; the sounds are members of the same family
- in the mixed version this starts with the tam-tam
Unison to solos > union and disintegration.
- a game between unison,
- converging solo parts, and
- homophony / (semi-)coordinated attacks
- four solos coming together, becoming similar through use of common aspects of time and materials
- unison attack, and breaking apart
Impulse and response.
- an interplay of unisons with varying degrees of complexity
- different sets of speakers perform different functions at different times
- rotations; stasis; solos; layers
A single gestural type: attack > decay.
- two sounds, paired on the axis of LF / RB and RF / LB
- starts with multi-layered complexity (~4 seconds)
- decays into distant metallic reverberation
- quote similar (not the same) materials paired on L / RB
- unison rotation (clockwise)
- paired response with channel delay (LF / RB)
- unison response (RF / LB)
- short rotation / unison / rotation exchanges
- unison response as cadence before sudden change, with overlap
Axis tone duet of metal (glass) and wood (LF / RB).
- varying degrees of independence / codependence
- both sound families used on both channels
- slow introduction of complementary (sustained) sounds
- in silences, hints of upcoming dominant materials
- increased density of tone dialog / exchange, differentiation less explicit
Structure XIV / XV
Four solos as quasi-pairs.
- axis pairing
- RF / LB general high frequency modulation (ring modulator quality)
- LF / RB noise spectra (lower level)
- small additions as echo and pre-echo
Structure XIV / XV
Sudden break to rotating, two layers; opened spaces.
- LF > RB > RF > LB (quasi-figure 8)
- underlying sound is layered (3–4 layers / variable)
- variable rates of rotation relate to underlying sound complex
- Gesang der Jünglinge quote of descending perfect fourth, twice hinted, then sounded at 32:19
Impulse of energy; an examination on the decay of energy.
- rotation at various speeds
- cycles flow on top of and around each other, not in competition
- several layers freely mixed
- occasional rogue sounds restart the spinning, but decay and peace have set in
An attempt at resurrection.
- a temporary diversion, a last fling
- the piece began in the left front channel
Rotation and the return to silence.
There is usually about 30 seconds of silence on the tape after the final fade.
I would like to thank Stockhausen Verlag for giving me permission several years ago to present recordings of audio examples of Kontakte in concert, and as “hall pick-ups” for later listening. The original plan was to present characteristic examples of this monumental work, which I tried to do on the first few occasions.
In time, it became impossible to find “excerpts” that did justice to the creative fountainhead that Kontakte remains to today. Students and colleagues asked for documentation and more detail. The version which is presented here is a signal example of communication to a wider audience and Stockhausen Verlag’s visionary understanding that such presentations being made widely available could do nothing but enhance the reception of this work.
Thanks to Concordia students Max Stein and Julian Stein for their assistance in preparing the images and for developing the design of this presentation, and jef chippewa for his overseeing the whole process of taking an unscripted spoken presentation into an exceptional web-integrated article.
Kevin Austin, composer, teacher, arts animator,
theorist, lives in Montréal and teaches at Concordia University. His
creative activities run from live electronic improvisation to work with
dancers, visual artists, studio composition and acoustic compositions.
Since 2002, he has returned to public composition and works in mixed
forms (live instruments and fixed media), fixed media ea, and in
MIDI-strations. Most of his work is anecdotal in nature, and his focus
is on the rather small (miniatures), or the rather large, such as Kontakte or Joyce’s Ulysses. He hopes never to find a middle ground to put things in balance.
Max Stein and Julian Stein are undergraduate students
in the Electroacoustic Studies program at Concordia University. They are
founding members of the Concordia Electroacoustic Studies Student Association (CESSA) and the creators of the Montreal Sound Map, an interactive Google Maps-based archive of Montreal's soundscape.