kontakte

Our recording of Karlheinz Stockhausen's masterpiece KONTAKTE is available on all that dust.

The recording was described by Tom Service as a "landmark performance" on BBC Radio 3's New Music Show, and was Andrew Clements' Classical Album of the Week in The Guardian.

We discussed the release with Tom Donald from London Contemporary School of Piano.

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photo © dejan mrdja

TD: Q.1: First, Siwan and George, before I ask any questions I'd like to congratulate you on recording such a landmark composition. My first question is: what influence has Karlheinz Stockhausen had on you and why did you choose to record this piece?

 

GBSR: Thank you for your congratulations! KONTAKTE is a hugely significant piece for us. It is the key work in the piano and percussion duo repertoire; it’s also the first piece we performed together, back in 2013, for an unusual club night hosted by Nonclassical. Since then we’ve played the piece several times and on each occasion we set aside a good deal of time to add more and more to the level of detail of our interpretation. In 2017 we took the step of fully memorising the work which involved a lot of deep study and internalisation of the music. By now it feels that the duo and KONTAKTE are somehow bound together. We were itching to record the piece but assumed it would remain an unrealised ambition for some time. And then in 2018 the record label all that dust launched, we loved what they did with their first batch of recordings and we trusted Mark, Newton and Juliet as a trio of incomparably committed and serious-minded musicians. We were particularly intrigued by their first binaural releases and they agreed that KONTAKTE would be a great addition to that continuing strand in all that dust's catalogue.

 

Q.2: If you are speaking to an everyday music listener, how would you explain the music of Stockhausen to them in a short statement, or is a more detailed knowledge of music required to enjoy the experience of this music?

 

It’s not strictly necessary to enjoy the music, but perhaps a bit of historical context might help initially to understand where this music comes from. In the 1950s, in the aftermath of the horrors the world had seen during the Second World War, Stockhausen was concerned with finding a new musical language that would be something like a clean break with the past. That’s a familiar story about the post-war avant-garde, but for Stockhausen this was far from being a coolly intellectual exercise about his own artistic relevance — it was a deeply personal quest. Stockhausen’s father died fighting in the war and Karlheinz himself was conscripted as a stretcher-bearer, after his mother, having spent nine years in a mental institution following a breakdown in 1932, was euthanised by the Nazi government as part of their policy of murdering ‘useless eaters’.

 

Stockhausen’s quest for a music that would not be in thrall to the same culture that had allowed these horrors led him to examine the basic building blocks of the experience of listening to music, developing a fundamentally radical musical approach through the use of new technology and what it could bring not just in terms of new sounds but in terms of structuring his music.

 

To get a bit more detailed, he was examining fundamental connections between pitch, rhythm, and timbre, and using these insights as the subject matter of his music, as the key element in creating what you might call musical narrative. Initially this work was predominantly focused on electronic music, but in KONTAKTE Nr 12½ he took the step of combining electronic sounds with live instruments, making connections (the ‘contacts’ of the title) between the instrumental sounds and the synthesised electronic sounds, but also between these different building blocks of music, pitch, rhythm and timbre.

 

Understanding all this is not a requirement for enjoying the music, though, and perhaps a mistake many make when coming to some post-war classical music is trying to understand it formally in the same way that one might the music of, for example, Brahms or Beethoven: their music is in some ways immediately comprehensible on a structural level (for example, one can instinctively feel ‘this is a climax, this is a return, this is a build-up’, etc.) By contrast, the structural subtleties and the details of the construction of Stockhausen’s music are for the most part hidden so deeply that they are entirely inaudible. It’s not the intention that listeners be looking for clues and engaging with deciphering structural complexities — they are simply invited to enjoy and experience the sound combinations, the musical narratives, and the intensity of the musical experience. In that sense one ‘understands’ this music best when not trying to follow a structure or expected trajectory, or indeed when not considering its role in music history. If you experience the music and attend to the detail of the sounds and the ordering of the sounds in time, then you are understanding it.

 

Q.3: Contemporary classical music still provokes such a polarised response from today’s listening public. Why should people care about experimental music and what can the everyday listener and music-lover gain from this piece?

 

Perhaps nobody ‘should’ care about any music in particular. There is no moralistic element to liking, recommending or indeed recording and promoting the music of Stockhausen. We just find it to be very beautiful and exciting music, which many more people might like if they were allowed to come to it with an open mind.

 

When we heard this piece, separately, both in our late teens, we adored it. Perhaps it had taken us until our late teens to hear Stockhausen because of the preconceived notions about what that music was and what it signified culturally about you if you liked it — that you are pretentious, or weird, or on the road to becoming a snob. This issue is reinforced when those who work in contemporary classical music say that audiences ‘should’ care about this music, and seem to put their own musical preferences and passions on a higher plane than those who love and care about rock, classical, jazz, pop, rap, metal, ska... Fortunately, in our experience, not many in the classical or contemporary classical musical worlds actually think like this, but what we would definitely say is that while nobody ‘should’ like KONTAKTE or any other piece of post-war classical music, it would be wonderful if fewer people wrote this music off as ‘not for them’ without ever having given it a good listen.

 

In many respects Stockhausen’s music from the era of KONTAKTE (1958-60) and the following ten years is quite accessible because it is such an intense sensual experience. The main barrier is approaching the music with received expectations about how it will operate and how the events will be ordered. For listeners of rock and pop music, it may be alarming that there are no reprises, no repeated material, and a very unstable musical texture. Similarly, for listeners of traditional classical music, the lack of a linear narrative or orderly structure may be alarming. What the music offers instead of these things, though, is an immediacy and intensity at every moment precisely because it’s not governed by these narrative strictures, or by the genre conventions of music that is designed to dance or worship to. (To draw an analogy with visual art, if we were all only used to portraiture, landscapes and still life then the abstract work of artists such as Mondrian, Pollock, Rothko or Kandinsky, lacking the familiar formal signposts, might also be quite alarming.) In this music you never know what’s coming. There is constant invention and surprise, moments of extreme beauty and extreme violence, stillnesses that are sometimes calm, sometimes unsettling, and moments of high drama. It’s a piece that, despite being 35 minutes of narrative-free electronic and instrumental music, is (in our opinion) without longueurs, and which achieves an extraordinary sustained intensity of various kinds throughout its length.

 

For all that there might be no clear controlling narrative in the piece to distract from the intensity of the moment, there’s also something incredibly moving about the end of the piece. It’s almost as if the music ascends to heaven, higher and higher into the auditory plane and beyond its reach, up through music that is both extremely beautiful and extremely harsh, and finally into silence. Maybe this is speaking out of turn, but the end of the work almost has this feeling of deep acceptance that seems spiritual. Or maybe there’s a feeling that the piece’s work is done — the new radical music for which Stockhausen had been searching, the music that would split apart our idea of what experiencing acoustic sound is, had been achieved fully for the first time, and there’s a profound sense of peace. It’s absolutely astonishing and it leaves you almost winded.

 

Q.4: This piece has an incredibly complex score — most experienced readers of music would get a migraine just looking at the detail and complexity of it! How do you pull this piece apart and practise it? Is there anything in common between practising a composition of this complexity and, say, a Mozart sonata?

 

The key thing to understand about preparing a piece like KONTAKTE is that the first task is to understand and internalise what the electronic sounds are doing. Performing or recording this piece is like playing music with a third bandmate who doesn’t ever listen or adapt to what you’re playing, but will always do exactly the same thing.

 

In order to help the players understand the music of the tape part and how to synchronise with it, Stockhausen came up with this quite beautiful notation that runs along the top of every page. It’s sometimes systematic (dividing the sound into four speakers with their own separate timelines at points), but it’s basically an ‘artist’s impression’ of the recorded sound, quite impressionistic (as well as expressionistic), covered with squiggles, curlicues, jagged wedges and swirling circles. Much of the apparent complexity of KONTAKTE’s score is just from seeing this amazing top line. The instrumental parts are (almost entirely) simply in time-lapse notation: the page is structured like a time-line running from left to right: the closer the musical notes occur to one another in the space of the page, the closer they must occur in time.

 

The subtlety here is that as a performer one must analyse the tape part and understand to which sounds the various squiggles, curlicues and wedges correspond, so that you know which ones to play with, between, before and after, and how to orientate yourself with respect to the electronics throughout the piece. The importance of knowing the tape well is most obvious when you're playing a loud note that must synchronise exactly with a loud sound in the tape part. But the presence of the tape has far-reaching implications for how you prepare every aspect of your instrumental part, and the better you understand the tape part the better you can make an informed decision about how to play. The more we’ve worked on KONTAKTE through the years, the more detail we’ve found in this aspect of its notation and construction. That might involve, for example, bending the timing of our instrumental gestures to land a piano and percussion chord just before an event in the tape that for years we didn’t realise was significant. Or pacing an effective acceleration between the two instruments and synchronising with tape events along the way.

 

Pre-determined sonic elements that are rigid to this extent are of course not part of Mozart’s practice, since you choose this example, because there were no concert pieces with a backing track in the eighteenth century! But understanding your part in a chamber composition as part of the greater whole, the bigger picture, that is familiar. Of course, more generally there’s a great deal in common on the musical level between preparing KONTAKTE and preparing Mozart: in both KONTAKTE and a Mozart sonata a particular melodic line might need bringing out; in Mozart a recurring motif might need to be articulated the same between the hands, while in KONTAKTE there might be imitation between instruments and tape, so we must attempt to ape the articulation or sound colour of the tape part. And aside from these small details, and although KONTAKTE does not follow the same expected narrative arc as a Mozart sonata, we are always looking for structural significance and what you might call musical ‘motivation’. That is to say, trying to decide about the roles that different musical actions have — for example, making sure that accelerations and decelerations lead naturally to the next event, making musical gestures that might feel like ‘interruptions’ read as such, or trying to understand the character that each instrument has at any moment and how it relates to the musical whole. That working process and the associated discussions and decisions are common to every piece of music that we have ever learnt.

 

Q.5: This album was recorded in binaural sound: what exactly is a binaural recording and what are its benefits?

 

Recordings in binaural sound are engineered in a very specific way for headphone listening. The recording process is intended to mimic the function of human hearing, so that despite only using two channels of audio, the effect of listening to a binaural recording is immersive and has a three-dimensional quality like surround sound. Sometimes this is done by using a special dummy head with microphones where the ears would be, but in the case of this piece, with the demands of combining so many instruments with the tape elements, the spatialisation (or the placing of the sounds in the space) was done in post-producing, using special filtering and processing during the mixing stage. A great deal of care was taken to recreate for the listener the sense that they are immersed in the centre of a perfectly balanced live performance.

 

Perhaps the important thing to say is that KONTAKTE was designed as a three-dimensional piece of music, and so was almost crying out for its first binaural rendering. The work is one of the very first pieces of electronic music that uses surround sound as a crucial part of its conception and construction. Stockhausen imagined the audience and performers placed within the four speakers, and very often there are fantastic whirling, spinning effects as one sound is made to fly around the audience’s heads, or there is the bizarre Flutklang technique in which a sound ‘floods’ from one point in the three-dimensional space to fill the whole room. The binaural mastering means that these effects that are experienced so well in a live performance situation can now be experienced at home through normal stereo headphones, without the ‘flattening’ effect of a standard stereo mix that puts all of these effects on the two-dimensional left/right plane only.

 

 

Q.6: This music requires a lot of focus and attention from the audience. Ideally in what environment should a listener enjoy this album?

The binaural technology relies on being listened to through headphones (and the higher-quality the headphones the better, of course), but beyond that we wouldn’t presume to instruct people in how to enjoy the recording. We both listen to music attentively while exercising, eating, walking from A to B, on the tube... But of course sitting in a chair and listening with one’s full attention, doing nothing else, is always a great way to listen to music, especially music that’s as highly detailed as this piece, or music that’s unfamiliar.

 

Q.7: This is a rarely recorded work, and your new recording of this piece could be regarded as a second-generation recording, meaning that this music is not as modern as people may perceive it!

Have there been any changes in the way the score has been interpreted, just as you would see in standard classical repertoire?

 

It’s astonishing to think that this piece is sixty years old — it seems bizarre that it was first heard when the Beatles had not yet toured, for example! But, despite its venerable age, in many ways the score is too specific to have something very much like a performance tradition (or multiple performance traditions) in the way that one has with some Classical and Romantic repertoire. That said, the Stockhausen Foundation in Kürten preserves a teaching tradition that includes both a general approach and specific changes or additions to the score that Stockhausen himself insisted on. We went to Kürten in 2017 to study KONTAKTE with Michael Pattmann and Benjamin Kobler and the experience really helped to elevate our interpretation. Being told that ‘Stockhausen actually liked this note to be quiet although it’s not marked’ is certainly useful and interesting, but more importantly it was there that we really imbibed the approach of trying to draw connections between tape and instrumental parts even where not clearly marked, and of trying to explore small structures within the larger picture so that each note has a role and is supported within an interpretative framework, and nothing is arbitrary.

 

That’s basically a description of how interpretation has remained the same rather than changed (at least for those lucky enough to study with Stockhausen or to study within a school that proceeds directly from him), but what has changed since the first performances of the piece is the technology that can be used in rehearsal and performance. Before even beginning the first rehearsal of KONTAKTE we were able to analyse the tape parts (in their separate four channels) in detail in order to locate events more precisely than just by ear. If, for example, there is an acoustic event in one tape channel that we need to synchronise with, but it was not really audible in the stereo mix we used for rehearsals, it was easy to isolate it, and make a note of where it lands, using digital readouts of the waveforms to learn the timing until these visual aids are no longer required. And it’s a doddle to create loops in order to drill difficult passages into muscle memory, or slow down the tape part to practise difficult passages slowly. Any of these things would have been hours and hours of work requiring specialist equipment in the sixties; so maybe the potential detail and reliability of interpretations of the piece has increased over the years, although there is, of course, still much to learn from older recordings of the work from when the piece was brand new. And there is of course a recording that Stockhausen himself supervised, which is available on the Stockhausen-Stiftung website.

Q.8: What new features are in this recording that would set it apart from the few historical approaches to this piece?

 

We hope this recording reaches a level of accuracy and detail in the relationship between the instruments and the tape part that hasn’t been achieved before, perhaps because of the reasons we just outlined. Indeed, the more we worked on this piece, from when we first learned the music six years ago right down to recording it earlier this year, the more we have found new details and new relationships and connections that we could highlight, whether it’s a moment of imitation between the tape and the instruments that is lying latent and waiting to be brought out, a single melodic line that is only heard if the instruments play exactly in the gaps left in the tape line, or even just a precise calculation of tone colour to blend better with the tape part. Combining that with the most obvious new element, the binaural sound, hopefully means that this recording is a fresh and important addition to the catalogue.

 

Q.9: With the vast changes in technology in since the 1950s, what do you think Stockhausen would have done differently if he were writing KONTAKTE in 2019?

 

Stockhausen’s music went through huge changes from the time of composing KONTAKTE to his death in 2007, incorporating many more overtly theatrical elements, more advanced electronic techniques, greater and greater musical and technological resources, etc. etc. You can hear the change in musical language most obviously by comparing KONTAKTE with the opera cycle LICHT, as well as with the electronic piece COSMIC PULSES and the really quite different approach taken to combining instrumental performance with electronic sound in the series of works that followed it (works such as UVERSA and PARADIES). Yet it’s clear from Stockhausen’s letters to venues, performers and programmers from nearer the end of his life that KONTAKTE always occupied a special place in his view of his own career. We don’t think he would have wanted to change the work at all if he were still alive and had to compose it again today. And while many of the extraordinary sounds that he produced for this piece could now be synthesised with far less effort thanks to modern technological advances, perhaps the knowledge that this work was right at the bleeding edge of musical technology when it was being written, and that it was an attempt to present sensually, in the form of a concert piece, some profound ideas about music and the perception of sound, gives an intensity to the musical decisions, and makes it feel that something is genuinely at stake as you listen to the work.

 

Q.10: Where did you record the piece, and what’s the difference between recording this work and playing it live?

 

We recorded the piece over a day and a half at the wonderful Saffron Hall in Saffron Walden. Perhaps the main difference we felt about recording the piece was that we were nervous in a way we don’t really experience when performing it live. This recording was the achievement of an ambition we had had for many years, and the culmination of possibly thousands of hours of work analysing the sounds, learning the music, preparing for multiple performances, memorising the music, and significantly reconfiguring our performance in light of the input we received in Kürten, not to mention many hours of administrative work organising the recording and securing funding. And then there’s the fact that we were recording an absolute masterpiece of twentieth-century music and we felt the pressure to do the piece justice. The hope that we might be able to document something that would stand up for many years as a significant interpretation of the piece adds its own pressure, along with the fact that we had backed ourselves to record this huge work in quite a short amount of time. Luckily in Mark Knoop and Newton Armstrong we had a producer and engineer we could absolutely trust to hear every detail and not allow us to move on until we had captured them all, and who were startlingly efficient to the point that the time pressure soon evaporated. The recording process ended up being fun, perhaps in the way that some things can only be fun if you feel there’s really something on the line.

 

Q.11: Where can we buy this album?

 

As of 15 October 2019 it will be available for download from all that dust’s website (allthatdust.com), as well as on the major platforms such as iTunes, Spotify, Google Play. It can be downloaded in FLAC, ALAC and MP3 formats, and remember to listen with headphones!