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Stockhausen’s larger-than-life persona involved an inimitable mix of the whimsical with the grandiose (one of his later projects calls for each member of a string quartet to fly in a separate helicopter and broadcast their synchronized playing – along with the ambient noise of the rotating blades – into the concert hall). But he brought an ironclad sense of logical investigation to his endeavors. This is especially apparent in Kontra-Punkte, which marked a pivotal point in Stockhausen’s work with purely acoustic instruments that would soon lead to his fascination with the possibilities of the electronic studio.
Stockhausen in fact chose Kontra-Punkte, premiered in Paris in 1953, as his official “Opus 1,” although it represents the culmination of a series of earlier works concerned with a technique or approach he dubbed “pointism” or “punctualism.” This refers to a kind of atomistic music made of “separately formed particles” – a music in which each note (including the parameters of pitch, duration, timbre, and volume) exists independently, so that the music moves from one moment or “event” to the next instead of presenting a seamless whole (Webern’s supercondensed brevity was the model, along with the latest experiments of Messiaen). Stockhausen’s title has multiple meanings that simultaneously play off the idea of counterpoint and suggest a rejection of punctualism (“anti-points”).
The single-movement work enacts a fundamental transformation, one that leads from maximal punctualism at the beginning (marked by extreme heterogeneity of texture) to its reverse, where the moment-by-moment diversity is dissolved into a state in which, in the composer’s words, “everything that is heard is unified, immutable.” This process takes place on the levels of timbre (which provides visual drama, as the players progressively drop out of the ensemble), volume, and duration of notes.
What is left in the end is a “monochrome two-part counterpoint” of the piano alone. At the same time, the highly varied volume levels and lengths of individual notes heard at the beginning are averaged out into a single dynamic (pp) and notes of similar, moderate length. For the listener, the experience is akin to a kind of sonic erosion to a level surface. For Stockhausen, Kontra-Punkte’s structure represents “a cohesive hidden strength” in which we experience “not the same figures in changing light, but different figures in the same light, which penetrates everything.”
Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater.