KONTAKTE for electronic sounds, piano and percussion (1959/60)

This version is the more widely known version of KONTAKTE. For the electronic sounds in the work I refer the reader to my text on KONTAKTE, electronic music. The performance score indicates a duration of 34'31,8" (information CD booklet).

The composer says about the version discussed here:

"A series of contact-forms mediates between electronic music which is projected from 4 groups of loudspeakers encircling the listeners and instrumental music, which is simultaneoulsy performed live by a pianist and a percussionist. Six categories of instrumental sounds are employed: metal sound metal noise, skin sound skin noise, wood sound wood noise; the piano either connects or splits up these categories, or it gives signals in the ensemble playing.

"The electronic sound categories create relationships and transitions between the instrumental categories, provide possible sound transformations from every category (metallic, skin-like, wood-like etc.) to every other one, and sound-mutations to completely new sound events; they fuse with them and alienate themselves into previously unknown sound spaces.

"Whereas in the electronic music, 6 spatial movement-forms of different speeds and directions contact each other in ever changing ways (rotation, looping movement, alternation, fixed separate sources each one different , fixed connected sources every one the same , isolated space points), the instrumentalists represent immobile sound sources in space."

And further:

"As already in GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE, also in KONTAKTE known sound events are connected with unknown ones; sound events for which we have names with those we cannot name. In GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE, they are sung tones, syllables, words in the context of electronic sounds; here, they are piano and percussion sounds in all shades with many degrees of more or less definable pitches, timbres, envelopes, durations. The familiar sounds give the orientation, the perspectives of the listening; they function as traffic signs in the unlimited space of the newly discovered electronic sound world. Also the electronic sounds sometimes come very close to the familiar sounds to the point of confusion; they then sound "like darabuccas", "like a marimba", "like huge tam-tams", "like antique cymbals".

"The encounter with the familiar and nameable, in regions of the unknown and nameless, makes the unknown even more mysterious, fascinating; and conversely, the known, also the banal and old that for which we hardly still had an ear becomes completely fresh and alive in the new surroundings of the unknown."

The work consists of 16 structures flowing into each other without breaks; all structures of the work with subdivisions are indexed as CD tracks in the recording from Stockhausen-Verlag (CD 6).


The percussion instruments used in KONTAKTE are highly diverse. There are those that are commonly used, but there are also rather exotic instruments and even ones that were specifically designed for this work, in order to correspond to and interact with the characters of sound and motion of the electronic music. A detailed description of the instruments (with photographs) can be found in the booklet to CD 6 from Stockhausen-Verlag.

Furthermore, the motion of the sounds from piano and percussion interacts with the motion of the electronic sounds in widely different ways:

The musical motion of the figures played by the instruments sometimes supports the motion of the electronic sounds. For example, the electronic "whirlwind" at the beginning of KONTAKTE is supported by piano and percussion, and the piano engages in an intense, colorful dialog with electronic "percussion" in Structure VII. Another example would be the forceful enhancement of the crumbling of electronic sounds by instrumental sounds at the beginning of Structure XIII C. Where explosions of electronic sound occur, percussion often supports and intensifies these.

On the other hand, sometimes the motion set forth by the instruments counteracts the motion of the electronic sounds in a manner that generates captivating musical tension. For example, in an episode in Structure V where electronic sounds develop that show rhythmic modulation stemming from a sort of wah-wah effect (see my essay on KONTAKTE, electronic music), the piano and percusssion play static notes or figures that are spaced apart from each other. It appears that these want to pull the musical motion back into standstill while at the same time it grows in pulse and momentum in the electronic sounds even though, paradoxically, at some brief moments the motion in the instruments seems precipitated, in fast moving figures or trills, above the motion of electronic sounds. All this adds considerable tension. In Structures II and III the electronic sounds flow broadly, and the quicker sounds from the instruments break the tension stemming from the slow motion of electronic sounds, yet at the same time they create new tension by their contrast to these sounds. It is a fascinating interaction.

Sometimes the electronic music seems to surge as a reaction to the instruments. This can go up to the point where the instruments play an energetic pulse just before the electronic sounds enter, such that these directly seem to emanate from the instrumental sounds (see for example some moments in Structure III).

Marvelous in KONTAKTE are the piano trills which respond to, or seem to generate, "trills" from the electronic music that can sound very diverse. Such "trills" sometimes are also heard from the instrumental percussion.

The several imaginary electronic percussion soli, as heard from the electronic tape, are extended here to intense dialogs between electronic sounds and instrumental ones. In these passages it is particularly obvious how spookily imitative of percussive instruments the electronic sounds can be, while still maintaining an own electronic-sounding character. The interaction between instrumental and electronic sounds in the "percussion"/percussion solo of Structure XIII F is especially magical because of the speed with which sounds follow or interact with each other the ear may become temporarily disoriented as to which sounds are instrumental and which are electronic.

In general, with the interaction of electronic and instrumental sounds throughout KONTAKTE Stockhausen generates pure magic. Most great music is exciting, thrilling, beautiful, exhilarating, challenging but not often music is magic. To me, some music of Mozart has magical moments, Beethoven's and Schubert's music often has them, Bruckner's music has magical moments on a regular basis, Wagner, Brahms, Bartok and others create at times magical textures and so does Stockhausen. Without this being an exhaustive list, some examples where I think his music is simply magical or has magic moments would be GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE, MIXTUR, MANTRA, INORI, MONTAG aus LICHT (I get the chills just thinking of the enchanting textures of that opera), VISION and MICHAELs ABSCHIED (from DONNERSTAG aus LICHT), the music for flute (for example CD 28), PIANO PIECE XIII (from SAMSTAG aus LICHT), PIETÀ (from DIENSTAG aus LICHT), ORCHESTER-FINALISTEN (from MITTWOCH aus LICHT), LICHTER-WASSER (the SUNDAY GREETING) and also KONTAKTE.

For a large part, KONTAKTE for electronic sounds and instruments employs entirely different mechanisms to create musical tension than does KONTAKTE for purely electronic sounds even though the electronic tape is identical. Pauses and the slow fading of electronic sounds which are so important in generating and maintaining tension in the version for electronic sounds only (see my essay there), now are largely substituted in that role by the interaction of electronic sounds and instruments. The mutual support or the counteraction of the motions of electronic and instrumental sounds, as discussed above, are most vital in the game of musical tension; pauses in the electronic music are filled up by instrumental sounds (most evident for example in Structures II and III; see above for musical functions of the instruments there). The dynamic contrasts between the electronic sounds, important in creating tension in KONTAKTE for purely electronic music, now stand less isolated due to the additional sounds from piano and percussion. Instead, the dynamic contrasts between sounds from instruments and electronic tape now become vital for the musical tension.


KONTAKTE for electronic sounds, piano and percussion can be obtained at (CD 6), with Aloys Kontarsky and Christoph Caskel as performers. There are also other recordings available, like the legendary performance with David Tudor and Christoph Caskel from 1960 on WERGO.

The composer says about the Stockhausen-Verlag recording:

"... On July 7th (1968) we experimented for about 8 hours to establish the best way of mixing the electronic music with the instrumental sound. The four-track tape of the electronic music was without loudspeakers electrically mixed with the instrumental sounds which were picked up by several microphones. Each musician heard the complete mix over earphones (i.e. the tape, himself, and the other player); in fact, exactly as it sounds on the final stereo recording. Thus they could more clearly than ever possible in performances with loudspeakers precisely follow the electronic music and the playing of their partner, as well as check the dynamic balance of the recording."

An idealized recording thus, and indeed, the Stockhausen-Verlag recording sounds considerably more refined than the widely-known WERGO recording, and the dynamic balance between instruments and electronic music is far more convincing. Also, the recording is much clearer, with the electronic music sounding as transparent as the tape for electronic music alone (CD 3 from Stockhausen-Verlag, see my essay). And, in comparison with the considerable tape hiss of the WERGO recording, tape hiss on this recording is virtually non-existent. Due to the greater refinement of interaction between instruments and electronic music, as well as due to the much greater clarity of sound, the magic of the music develops considerably stronger on the Stockhausen-Verlag recording.

Another important advantage of the recording from Stockhausen-Verlag is that the spatial distribution of the electronic sounds far better mimics the one in four-channel reproduction, and also much better fills the stereo panorama. The tracks are placed as follows: track 1, left track 2, circa 1/3rd left track 3, circa 1/3 rd right track 4, right. On the WERGO-recording on the other hand, two channels sound hard left, two channels sound hard right leaving a hole in the middle. Such flat dimensions also make it impossible for the listener to envision from the stereo panorama the sound rotations (see my text on KONTAKTE, electronic music), something that can easily be achieved with the recording from Stockhausen-Verlag.

Thus, I strongly recommend the latter recording, which has two important practical advantages as well: first, you get more music (on the same CD are also the splendid ZYKLUS and REFRAIN), and second, each of the structures, with some being subdivided, has an own track 25 in total. Since these track divisions are identical to the ones in the version of KONTAKTE for purely electronic music, moment-by-moment comparison of the two versions becomes as easy as it gets. Moreover, the CD comes with a very informative 180 (!) page booklet which, as mentioned before, also contains descriptions and photographs of the particular instruments used in and partially designed for this work.

© Albrecht Moritz 2002, text edited 2005