Social top


Kontakte by Karlheinz Stockhausen in Four Channels

Analysis Notes, October–November 2008, April 2009


A North American homage to the memory of one of the great composers of the past century, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen’s influence on western music is well-known. His continuing impact on the discipline of electroacoustics is felt everywhere. This presentation will start with a short “guided tour” of some of the features of Kontakte, in a rare presentation of the four-channel tape version — with the introduction (and numerous examples) given by Kevin Austin.

These notes have been prepared as a kind of “word-based guide” through Stockhausen’s Kontakte. They may be freely adapted by those who find them useful, for Stockhausen’s work is of the universe, and Kontakte is no less so as he explored unknown sonic potentials.

This presentation is not so much about the technical details of the piece, general concepts and details of which can be found from many sources, but is rather a guided tour designed to help the listener develop “accelerated listening”, in fact, to “hear more” on a first (or fiftieth) hearing by pre-focusing the mind and potentially removing a number of layers of pre-processing.

It is April 2009, and I present this introduction at the SEAMUS Conference as a sort of personal / North American homage to the memory of one of the great composers of the past century, Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose influence on western music is well-known. Even some fifty years after the composition of Kontakte, his continuing impact on the discipline of electroacoustics is felt everywhere.

Having listened to the piece for over 40 years, I hear new things on every occasion, and like most people, my experience had been with one of the stereo versions available on LP, and later on CD. The four-channel version — the original, has been quite another experience.

My description is based solely upon listening, an informed listening having heard the four-channel version possibly 15 times complete, and having shared detailed aural analyses with many classes I have taught at Concordia University, in Montréal.

I suggest that the reader have the CD at hand, and that for analytic listening, it be heard in an environment with good speakers, and played from a sound program that gives a detailed amplitude timeline and also makes spectrograms available.

Following you will find about 38 divisions of the piece, sometimes corresponding to Stockhausen’s own sections, but frequently not. This does not place the two views in opposition in any way, as the composer’s divisions are based on compositional considerations, while mine are based on how to “present” a long piece to a mixed audience in such a way as to continually maintain interest by varying the sizes of the examples.

Kontakte, composed in 1958–1960, is about 35 minutes long, and for now I will consider the piece as a theatrical / spiritual event, beginning from silence, and returning to it. Although the silence is forever changed.


As a general note on the creation / use of space, Stockhausen treats the four channels as four synchronized mono channels. The technology of the time did not provide for (easy) matrix-based panning, and the rotating sounds were created by the famous rotating loudspeaker and four microphones.

Some of the characteristics of this technique include:

  • no real “panning”
  • subtle Doppler effects
  • off-axis coloration as the speaker changes position

Kevin Austin, Montréal. November 2008, April 2009.

Sections in Kontakte and Descriptive Timeline

I use the convention of naming the channels by their location: LF / RF / RB / LB for left front, right front, right back and left back, respectively.

Stockhausen noted that the timings given in the score did not quite correspond to those on the tape, therefore timings will have to be adapted to correspond [see SideBar]. Note: the tape starts with eight seconds of silence. All timings and durations relate to the four-channel digital audio files purchased from Stockhausen Verlag.

User’s Guide

The sections as I have done them are presented individually below, each comprising several components. Immediately underneath the screen capture of the 4-channel waveform, the Key Characteristics for each section are listed in point form. At the bottom left of each section you can play an audio file (MP3) of my presenting the Analysis of the Section at EuCuE Series XXVII.1 (Oscar Peterson Concert Hall, Concordia University, Montréal 5 November 2008). An audio Excerpt of the Section (bottom centre) provides a recording of the excerpt played as accompaniment to my live analysis in the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall. 1 [1. The permission from Stockhausen Verlag does not allow a high quality audio presentation of the excerpts here. The reader is encouraged to visit the Stockhausen Verlag website for CD ordering information. Kontakte is published on Stockhausen Verlag CD 3 (electronic version described in this article) and CD 6 (version for electronic sounds, piano and percussion).] Finally, click on the Spectrogram links (bottom right) to view spectograms of the the 4 individual channels as well as a mono summation of all four channels (“4ch”).

Click on a section title (e.g. “Section 1. — dur. 02:04”) or on a section number at the top of the page to load a page containing the components described above for only that section. Click on “Home” (top left of page) to return to the page containing all 38 sections and texts.

Introductory Remarks

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.


Social bottom