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Karlheinz Stockhausen's Kontakte and Narrativity

ix 1999

Relevant Features of Kontakte
Technology as Narrative
Moment Form as Antinarrative: Serialism Rehabilitated


My intention in this paper is to investigate how notions of narrativity might promote an understanding of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s composition Kontakte für elektronische Klänge, Klavier und Schlagzeug. I will, therefore, not offer an analysis as such. Rather, I intend to explore the potential that narrative might offer in contextualising this composition. Before concentrating on Kontakte it will be necessary to explain some of the ways in which narrative has already been applied to music. My overview will include applications in traditional music as I am convinced that the electroacoustic medium should not refuse to participate in wider musical debates. Narrative is one way in which the meaning of time-based aesthetic objects such as music can be achieved, it is how we, as perceivers, organise and articulate these temporal experiences. According to Littlefield and Neumeyer (Littlefield & Neumeyer, 1998: 116), it is a basic epistemological category. For the musicologist Lawrence Kramer narrative has become increasingly important in both criticism and hermeneutics and by implication the "new" musicology. He suggests a number of advantages gained from narrative approaches such as its ability to configure individual events into wholes and its power to reveal hidden agendas.

As a musicologist and analyst I am invariably suspicious of apparently mechanistic methods. To choose an obvious example: computer programs can with ludicrous simplicity identify pitch-class sets, subsets, invariant transpositions… But such listings should only be the preliminary stage to the interpretation of relationships between sets. The powerful nature of narrative strategies ensures a number of approaches by which different interpretations can be apparent. One method applied to an electroacoustic work is that suggested by Giomi and Ligabue who embark on a standard paradigmatic analysis of a composition. This, naturally, emphasises a connection between narrative and semiotics. Smallest units of signification are identified (either aurally or according to the score - and we all know how complex the notion of the score can be in electroacoustic music). These units can be subsequently listed in paradigms demonstrating criteria of equivalence. Chains of units and, it is hoped, meaning might then begin to emerge. Generally, the process is continued until the materials are exhausted, new units are chosen and the entire process repeated. Thus, by means of the immanent structures of the work its message can be described and understood even if the code is unknown - hardly an uncommon situation in contemporary music. It is perhaps significant that they investigate not only the sounds and their resulting structures but also accomodate extra-musical asociations which narrative invariably encourages. I look forward to reading a more detailed account of their researches in the future.

However, narrativity is not only able to accommodate such a so-called "bottom up" approach. Alternatively the work under consideration can be placed in a wider social/cultural context which concentrates on an examination of broader concerns. Thus, specific features of the work might be disregarded in favour of, for example, tracing the general use of technology in music, of interactions with electronic equipment… As a result, the examination concentrates less on the work’s materials and how they are formed into structures, but speculations about how or even why the work is composed in the first place and the extent to which it participates within a wider, more general cultural context. There is a distinct shift from what the composition consists of to how it interacts within the social fabric of culture.

An additional problem is the bewildering number of theories about narrative. Hillis Miller lists Russian Formalist, Bakhtinian, New Critical, Chicago or neo-Aristotelian, psychoanalytic, hermeneutic and phenomenological, Marxist, reader-response… amongst others. Some common aspects can, of course, be identified. Narrative is not synonymous with any "story" as such though the two concepts are connected. If a story is that specific sequence which is being related or recounted, narrative can be defined as the active process of communication by which this takes place. Narrative is abstract: story is concrete. A story will generally consist of a series of events, which characters experience and initiate in a certain, often logical, order. Even allowing for techniques such as flashbacks, nested structures and extended descriptive passages the reader can generally understand why events occur in a certain order.

Relevant Features of Kontakte

What are, therefore, the features of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte für elektronische Klänge, Klavier und Schlagzeug that encourage an narrative approach? Though composed nearly 40 years ago it remains one of the most celebrated examples of an electroacoustic work combining recorded synthesised sounds and live musicians. Kontakte is, I freely confess, a composition to which I return frequently. It exemplifies many issues important to electroacoustic music and by implication music in general. In a previous study I have investigated the first four minutes of the work (its total duration is 34 minutes 31.8 seconds) by means of a typomorphological analysis in which the French claim of "primacy to the ear" was paramount. Thus, both realisation and performance scores were consulted, but an additional, transcribed analytical score had to be constructed from a variety of recordings in order to facilitate the perceptual groupings of sounds into related families regardless of their electronic or instrumental origins. Such collections are crucial to the formation of "pseudo-instrumental" genres according to Pierre Schaeffer’s system of sound classification. In this analytical strategy, therefore, little consideration was given to any aspect of the work’s pre-compositional planning. Such an approach conforms largely to the "inductive esthesic" analytical situation described by Nattiez (Nattiez, 1990: 140). Consequently, the serial organisation of the work and the ramifications of moment form were ignored. There was no intention to demote the importance of these two concepts. Analysts are always forced to choose between a variety of approaches and I adopted an essentially listener-centred approach.

By alluding to serialism and moment form Kontakte’s roots in late modernist thought are, I believe, self-evident. However, the importance of the work encourages multiple interpretations and it could be argued that a post-modern critique is also applicable. The central importance of instruments and performance traditionally accepted in music is subverted by the presence of recorded sounds. What was primary, one might almost claim: elemental to music - the instrument - at times becomes peripheral, what is performed in real-time exists simultaneously with recorded sounds. As such Kontakte represents a rich musical text open to a variety of approaches. In exploring the potential that aspects of narrative might offer in an investigation of Kontakte the listener’s perception can be consolidated by the composer’s conception. The dimension of poesis in the work is not neglected; it is now assimilated. Clearly, as an analytical activity this has equal validity. It might seem that neither serial thought nor moment form as an aspect of poiesis is a suitable subject for investigation via narrative concepts. Nevertheless, I would argue that certain aspects of both can benefit from precisely this kind of exercise as manifested in an actual work. Furthermore, I will suggest that Stockhausen himself encourages the recognition of specific narrative curves implicit in Kontakte. There is, therefore, an inevitable subtext to this paper. I will, to an extent, proselytise. If it can be demonstrated that a work making use of both moment form and serialism participates in narrative discourses (whether openly acknowledged by the composer or not) then these occasionally forbidding aspects of twentieth century music might be rehabilitated for many musicians. When employed intelligently they are neither mechanistic nor soulless. These are often typical of the criticisms made by musicians. Such attitudes conveniently disregard both the enormous variety of languages that, for example, serial thought can promote and its power to mediate between parameters. Unfortunately such views are then accepted as received wisdom rather than challenged. Perhaps a reinterpretation by means of narrative will help redress the balance.


How can any of the narrative theories and techniques outlined above be applied to music? In the article Narrative and Narrativity in Music Pasler confirms the belief that narrative is the communication of meaning by means of a temporal process. It is, I repeat, how we understand temporal events. According to Pasler the elements of a time-based structure susceptible to examination by means of narrative concepts are: wholeness, transformation, self-regulation. There should be a fundamental point of reference; events should not simply follow each other but reveal a sense of progress, a teleology, a goal. Naturally, local events might be seem lacking in direction until subsumed within a movement towards a larger structural goal. But the perceiver should be able to develop expectations, to organise units as they occur and understand their implications for future developments. In addition, Pasler suggests the notions of anti-narrativity and non-narrativity. Anti-narrativity describes situations where expectations of continuity are deliberately frustrated; non-narrativity makes use of narrative elements but does not allow then to function in the same manner.

There are many examples of programme music imitating narrative structures and Pasler cites An Alpine Symphony Op.64 by Richard Strauss as an example. In this work there is certainly a chronological framework starting with Night, Sunrise eventually proceeding through the section Lost in Thickets and Undergrowth continuing to On the Summit and concluding in Thunderstorm, Descent, Sunset and finally Night. This final section, logically perhaps, uses material from the first section producing an unmistakable narrative curve. The movement is cyclic but with an internal logic, a progression. In other programmatic works certain themes are connected with particular characters and their transformations can be followed according to the necessities of the story or plot. When applying narrative concepts to "absolute" music - and the question which arises immediately is to what extent Kontakte and other electroacoustic works can be described as either "absolute" or programme music - the notion of "story" is less helpful though it can still used metaphorically. With "absolute" music a major issue becomes what the music is "about", what does the music convey, how do we, the audience understand it? This does not solely concern the notes themselves and their internal relationships within the work but the cultural significance of the composition. There is now no need to extract a specific story or the relating of a series of events. Narrativity is nonetheless applicable and moves from the specific to the general. For example, according to Newcomb’s "plot archetype" Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is about "redemption after suffering". Initially, such a description might seem like a naive plea to a music appreciation class where a desperate tutor searches for a common and comprehensible idea by which the music might be understood. Notice there is no need to refer to Beethoven as the hero, to personify one composer. The concern is with a more general set of perceived cultural values. However, Newcomb refers not only to the emotional resonances of the music’s immanent structures such as the reassertion of the major tonality at the conclusion, he also takes account of aspects of the contemporaneous cultural milieu. Accordingly a more historically grounded notion of narrative can be proposed and other works with the same, or similar, "plot archetypes" can be identified. Many works, therefore, can be described as compositions about redemption after suffering and as a result they can be placed within the broad sweep of German Romanticism and historical connections made which often reveal subtle but important links with other works. Thus, a central feature of a narrative approach is to refer explicitly to extra-musical associations, to concerns of what society regards as music’s role even, perhaps, to what music actually is. These are precisely issues which are apparent to many musicians concerned with the electroacoustic medium.

Technology as Narrative

Similarly, in order to know what Kontakte is "about" we can refer to Stockhausen’s theoretical writings. They are, to put it mildly, plentiful, though many writings are more polemical than truly theoretical. An approach which takes the composer’s theoretical writings into account will adopt the method described by Nattiez as "external poietics" (Nattiez, 1990: 140). In addition to the immanent features of the work Stockhausen’s comments on the process of composing can also be examined. This is a fairly new departure for me; I usually relegate such details to biography rather than analysis. The "realisation" score of Kontakte is, in effect, a published version of his principal sketches and work-plans. Stockhausen describes Kontakte as follows: "A series of forms of contact brings together electronic music and instrumental music. (…) The electronic sound categories establish relationships and transitions between the instrumental timbres, fusing with them and departing from them towards hitherto unknown regions of sound." (Wörner, 1973: 46). The work, therefore, according to the composer, seeks to explore connections between two sound worlds whose origins are completely different. A principal narrative feature is that of the "contact": it is after all Stockhausen’s title. The instruments exist in the physical world of actual materials which behave in a certain, predictable way when energy is applied through human gesture. By contrast, the electronic equipment and synthesis techniques might produce such sounds but, due to the lack of physical constraints, the potential exists to extend spectral development, durations or pitch stability. Instrumental play is elaborated beyond the limits of what was formerly possible. Thus "contacts" with two sound repertories will exist in a continuum where some are explicit and others are ambiguous. We can witness the unfolding of small dramas. There is scope for reprises, false turns, premonitions, mistaken identities, notions of similarity and difference, of union, journeys into unknown territories… With such metaphors of characterisation and place the application of narrative structures is not difficult. While establishing "contacts" is the principal objective, others aims should be considered which are less immediately obvious but, as Kramer suggests, reveal their own agendas. Once again the composer has referred to them explicitly. In a lecture entitled The Four Criteria of Electronic Music, Stockhausen used the electronic sounds of Kontakte to illustrate the following concepts:

  1. Composition in the musical time continuum.
  2. The decomposition of sound.
  3. Composition of several layers in space.
  4. The equality of musical sound and noise. 1[1. This lecture was published in an extremely abridged form in the Perspective of New Music in 1962. All my comments relate to the lecture as printed in the fourth volume of Stockhausen's Texte.]

Though the ultimate aim of Kontakte is to make contacts between two sound worlds the means by which this becomes possible is mediated by these four criteria. They, as it were, provide the settings, the musical or sonic space in which the main drama can unfold. He demonstrated each criterion, guiding the listeners through the relevant concepts. Thus Kontakte is not only about making contacts. Stockhausen is determined to demonstrate in an almost didactic fashion how these technological processes can lead to meaningful aesthetic experiences for the listener. This, of course, invokes yet another narrative: the composer adopts the role of teacher, educator, the revealer of hidden truths. For example, the first criterion is often mentioned in this regard. Stockhausen explained the manner in which sounds were synthesised in the late 1960’s - itself an incredibly time-consuming experience. At 17 minutes 0.5 seconds a synthesised sound emerges from a noisy agglomeration of sound objectss. It is, according to Stockhausen’s account, "169 Hertz…roughly an Eb" below middle C. It then descends in a convoluted fashion and as it passes through the threshold of pitch and rhythm at approximately 16 cycles per second it "shatters". Note he refers to it as a physical object, almost a character subjected to a variety of events. The pitch has become transformed (one of Pasler’s criteria) into a series of impulses which are too short individually to have a perceptible pitch. But as each pulse is extended in duration a pitch begins to emerge: the original low Eb. A local, perceptible change can now be revealed as an event of structural importance. It now appears that there was a goal, a teleological imperative. Eventually, the piano enters just after 17 minutes 38.5 seconds with a low E. (In reality the piano’s pitch will be 164 Hz - Stockhausen must have concluded the pitch was closer to E than Eb.) The contact has been revealed; the musical time continuum provided the setting, the sub-plot in which the two worlds could unite. Thus, Stockhausen intends that the listener perceives this particular process of the "musical time continuum". It is, therefore, more than a contact between piano and synthesised sound. We are meant to follow the fortunes of this sound, to trace the events of its existence an even perhaps be acutely aware of the technological processes involved which permit the contact. Each of these four criteria participate in the composition’s fluctuating creation of contacts. Their presence or absence will not necessarily guarantee a contact nor prevent one. They direct and coerce the music in certain directions and run independent courses throughout the work - occasionally corroborating as in the example given above, at other times contradicting. Two examples from the work’s opening section will illustrate this mediation of criteria in the creation of contacts. At the beginning of Kontakte the the pianist slowly rubs around the edge of a large tam-tam in the centre of the stage with a thin metal rod to produce a metallic resonance. Simultaneously an electronic "metal resonance" is heard from the front-left loudspeaker. The contact between the electronic and instrumental worlds is established due to similarity of spectra but as the tam-tam fades into silence the diverging spatial locations reveal the artificiality of the electronic resonance. Different spatial locations (which is a part of Stockhausen’s third criterion) interrupt a strong correspondence. By contrast, at 39.3 seconds there is a seven second subsection in which resonated electronic impulses mix with antique cymbals and notes played in the high register of the piano. Stockhausen ensures this group occupies a narrow register. Thus their pitch content and spectral behaviour make a contact inevitable. This time it is supported by the spatial location as the electronic impulses emerge from a loudspeaker location immediately behind both the pianist and percussionist.

Moment Form as Antinarrative: Serialism Rehabilitated

For Pasler, though Kontakte is "antinarrative", it nonetheless has narrativity. This seems paradoxical but can be supported due to the application of moment form. The very definition of moment form would seem to guarantee that a large-scale narrative "curve" is inapplicable. Moment form seems to subvert narrative but in reality it simply imposes a different kind. If each moment is self-contained and can be appreciated for itself, it need have no connection to succeeding or preceding moments. The listener perceives the moment, whether it is of long or short duration, and can remain rapt in attention. (It would be interesting to trace Stockhausen’s transcendental leanings from what seem to be their obvious origins of nineteenth century German Idealism. Beneath the surface of much post-war German theory transcendentalism seems ever present.) But, according to Pasler, the characteristics of narrative are precisely those of wholeness, transformation and shape. Hence, Stockhausen’s adoption of moment form need not discard perceptible processes with goals; they simply refuse to participate in a globally directed narrative curve, which is, naturally, not their purpose. Indeed, according to the four criteria, individual sections or moments will inevitably have a number of narrative curves. Furthermore, Stockhausen even specifies a typology of moments in which each displays distinct characteristics. He specifies a Gestalt  2[2. According to Heikinheimo a Gestalt was less easily divisible than a structure. The distinction, however, may not always be clear.] in stasis, a Gestalt in process, a structure in stasis, a mixture of structure and Gestalt in stasis, a mixture of Gestalt and structure in process (Heikinheimo, 1972: 140). Thus, as Pasler asserts, moment form only seems to resist the notion of narrative. Moment form refers more to the constituent sections elements than a formal plan as such and the ultimate form will depend on the organisation of these moments.

Once the question of organisation is considered. narrativity has much to offer. For Pasler antinarratives still have narrativity if there is "some organising principle" (Pasler, 1989: 244). Serialism has unparalleled ability to organise and mediate. (I believe serial thought still waits an adequate summary in English.) It is not simply a method whereby individual elements can be ordered and reordered according to apparently arbitrary systems of permutation. When used skilfully it allows a composer to mediate between extremes in any chosen parameter. Such mediation does not necessarily mean an abandonment of directional tendencies. They can be incorporated within, and controlled by, a serial framework. The desirability of some kind of an overall narrative curve in Kontakte was recognised by Stockhausen even though the earliest sketches simultaneously reveal elaborate serial plans. Fortunately, Stockhausen rarely allows any rationalistic method to take precedence over musical instinct. According to Kirchmeyer (Kirchmeyer, 1983: 165) on completion of Kontakte Stockhausen concluded that th opening of work did not sound like a beginning and decided to compose an extra moment as a new first section. Thereafter, still dissatisfied with this new beginning he composed another! These are hardly the actions of a composer under the relentless sway of predetermined serial schemes - good composers usually "know" what works when they hear it. Furthermore, Kirchmeyer suggests that the final sections seem to imply a real sense of closure - though naturally we should in these days of the open work accept that Kontakte stills leaves the option open for continuation. Serial thought is not intended as an abdication of responsibility. It can be woven into local and global narrative strategies providing coherence and form-creating structures.


By taking narrative and narrativity into account when analysing a work such as Kontakte both moment form and serialism become as it were "humanised". This is not to imply that a naive form of anthropomorphism is necessary for a true the understanding contemporary music. On the contrary, it encourages the analyst and the listener to recognise that these developments of twentieth century musical thought can be incorporated within a humanistic framework into a bigger, dare I say, narrative curve including the transformation of nineteenth century Idealism. Contemporary music has a history and a network of relationships with other art forms. For example, serial-like permutations of pages have been noted in Mallarmé’s unfinished book Le Livre - Boulez was surely aware of these experiments in the composition of his third piano sonata. By applying narrative studies to electroacoustic music in particular and contemporary music in general their participation in modern musical thought can be more fully integrated. Electroacoustic music shares many of the preoccupations of traditional music such as the difference between absolute and programme music, whether the sounds represent our emotions or whether they exist purely for themselves. These are debates in which we, as members of the electroacoustic community, should participate. Our medium promotes a genuinely new critique about music. By investigating the connections such as those between narrative discourse and electroacoustic music our opinions cannot be ignored.

Selected Bibiliography

Giomi, F. & Ligabue, M. (1998) Understanding Electroacoustic Music: Analysis of Narrative Strategies in Six Early Compositions Organised Sound 3/1 pp.45-49

Heikinheimo, S. (1972) The Electronic Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen Helsinki: Suomen Musiikkitieteellinen Seura (tr. B.Absetz)

Hillis Miller, J. (1990) Narrative in Critical Terms for Literary Study (Lentricchia, F. & McLaughlin, T. eds.) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Kirchmeyer, H. (1983) Zur Entstehungs- und Problemgeschichte der ‘Kontakte’ von Karlheinz Stockhausen Neuland Ansätze zur Musik der Gegenwart vol.3 Bergisch Gladbach: Neuland Musikverlag Herbert Henck

Littlefied, R. & Neumeyer, D. (1998) Rewriting Schenker: Narrative-History-Ideology in Music/Ideology (Krims, A. ed.) G+B Arts International

Nattiez, J-J. (1990) Music and Discourse New Jersey: Princeton University Press (tr. C.Abbate)

Newcomb, A. (1984) Once More "Between Absolute and Programme Music": Schumann’s Second Symphony 19th Century Music vol.7 pp. 233-50

-,(1987) Schumann and late Eighteenth-century Narrative Strategies 19th Century Music vol.11 pp. 164-74

Pasler, J. (1989) Narrative and Narrativity in Music in Time and Mind: Interdisciplinary Issues (ed. J.Fraser) Madison, CT: International Universities Press pp. 233-57

Stockhausen, K. (1978) Vier Kriterien der Elektronischen Musik Texte zur Musik 1970-1977 vol.4 Köln: DuMont Buchverlag pp. 360-401

Wörner, K. (1973) Stockhausen - Life and Work London: Faber & Faber Ltd. (tr.B.Hopkins)

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