Stockhausen: Kontakte, Ensemble Contrechamps, Geneva Les 6 Toits, 16 February 2023

Another in an occasional series in which concerts I’ve been to are used as a pretext to recall formative experiences with the artist in question. This is not a live review but a reminiscence, an extract from an autobiography that will never be written.

I was interested in Stockhausen from a relatively young age. In 1985, when I was seventeen, I learned that there was a BBC festival of his music taking place at the Barbican in London under the title Music and Machines, at which the composer himself would be present. I wasn’t familiar with Stockhausen’s music at the time, but I’d read about him in the papers and was intrigued by his legendary reputation. It was, of course, out of the question that I should travel up to London from Salisbury to attend any of the concerts. However, I took advantage of the fact that all six of the concerts were broadcast live on Radio 3 by recording them off air. I still have the tapes, and I recently bought a cassette to mp3 converter, so maybe I’ll get around to digitizing them someday.

A few years later, I took my then girlfriend to my (and her) first Stockhausen concert, a performance of Hymnen at the Royal Festival Hall at which, once again, the composer was present. An air of mystery surrounds this event to this day. I went out with the girl from 1989 to 1990, which enables me to date the concert with some degree of certainty. But the funny thing is that I can find no record of a concert of Hymnen at the Festival Hall in either 1989 or 1990. Stranger still, when I met Stockhausen after a concert at the Barbican in 2001, I asked him if he remembered that Festival Hall performance. He denied all knowledge of it, insisting that he had never played Hymnen at the Festival Hall. Now, I wasn’t about to argue the toss with Stockhausen about where and when he had played, so I got his autograph (see photo) and politely retreated. But I know I saw him at the Festival Hall that time, I remember it very well. I also remember that the hall was no more than 30% full, which is ironic in view of the vast audiences that attended his concerts in later years.

Things were different in the pre-internet days. I wrote to the Stockhausen-Verlag in Kürten, Germany, and got myself added to their mailing list. Every so often they would send catalogues of CDs for sale and courses that they were running, which would of course have been led by Stockhausen himself. I would have loved to attend one of these courses, but, having no musical ability whatsoever, it’s hard to imagine what the point of my attending would have been. Inevitably, I never took the plunge.

At some point during this period, I also became aware of something called the Stockhausen Society. It had a phone number, which I called. I got through to what sounded like a teenage girl with a strong west Midlands accent, who yelled up the stairs: “Dad! It’s someone about the Stockhausen Society!” When the man from the Society came to the phone, he turned out to be a thoroughly engaging gentleman filled with enthusiasm for Stockhausen and his work. He even hummed his favourite Stockhausen piece down the phone, which was not something I’d expected to hear. It turned out that the Stockhausen Society consisted of an extensive collection of albums, scores, videos and so on, which the gentleman was offering for viewing and listening at his home. Free accommodation, it was emphasized, would be provided. Again, I demurred.

That 2001 concert at the Barbican I mentioned earlier was part of something called the Elektronic Festival, at which key works by Stockhausen were presented alongside new work by electronica artists such as Aphex Twin, Talvin Singh and William Orbit. This tendency, which sought to “contextualise” Stockhausen as some kind of godfather of electronica, can be traced back to a 1995 interview in The Wire in which Stockhausen was asked to comment on music by Aphex Twin (again) and Scanner, among others. Rightly giving short shrift to these pygmies, Stockhausen mercilessly skewered their pretensions to equivalence: “I don’t appreciate at all this permanent repetitive language… as soon as it becomes just a means for ambiance, as we say, environment, or for being used for certain purposes, then music becomes a whore.” In 2000 the group Coil, who knew a thing or two about music being used for certain purposes, bumped into Stockhausen backstage at the Sónar festival in Barcelona and had the cheek to ask him to become an honorary member of Coil, seemingly without regard for how rude the request was; he was too polite to decline.

Stockhausen seemed to attract a certain type of acolyte in those days. Speaking of rude, there was an instructive moment during one of the pre-concert talks at the Barbican in 2001. It wasn’t a question-and-answer session, but that didn’t stop some bloke from interrupting the composer in full flow after he had used the word ‘timbre’ a couple of times in his introduction. “Karlheinz,” yelled the bloke at the top of his voice, apparently unaware that it’s impolite to call a stranger by their first name. “What do you mean by the word timbre?” The composer seemed nonplussed. “Timbre? It’s an English word. See me afterwards,” he replied dismissively.

The last time I saw Stockhausen was at his final British concert, at Old Billingsgate Market in London in 2005. Predictably, the 1000-capacity concert was sold out, as the 2001 Barbican concerts had been. And yet, as mentioned earlier, when I saw Hymnen in 1989, there were hundreds of empty seats. The music writer David Stubbs, in his 2009 book Fear of Music: Why people get Rothko but don’t get Stockhausen, explored the paradox that while modern art is extremely popular with the general public, modern classical music is very much a minority interest, being perceived as “difficult” or “unlistenable”. Which may very well be true, but on the other hand, the people at those concerts in 2001 and 2005 had hardly been pushed in there with cattle prods.

I think the shift in Stockhausen’s reception between the 1980s and the 2000s stems not from greater acceptance of his music but from the fickleness of fashion, driven by publications like The Wire and their insistence that distinctions between classical and popular music are at best meaningless, at worst elitist. (One of the many small things that pleased me when I lived in Vienna was that the German-speaking world distinguishes between “E-Musik” (ernste Musik, or “serious music”) and “U-Musik” (Unterhaltungsmusik, or “light music”). Even the left-leaning weekly listings magazine, Falter, separated its concert listings under these headings.) Not so much fear of music, more fear of missing out.

The other big difference between the 1989 and 2005 concerts was that while the earlier one was a mix of live and electronic elements, the later one contained only pre-recorded sound, projected by the composer to a number of speakers positioned around a completely dark room. It’s a shame that Stockhausen turned increasingly to this type of performance in later life, as if he no longer trusted mere mortals to convey the sounds he was hearing in his head.

Which brings me to the ostensible reason for this article, last week’s concert by Geneva’s leading contemporary music ensemble, Ensemble Contrechamps. At Billingsgate, Stockhausen had presented one of his most well-known pieces, Kontakte, in its purely electronic version. Last week Contrechamps presented the piece in its alternate version for piano, percussion and electronics, and it was a revelation. With Antoine Françoise on piano and Thierry Debons on percussion, and sound projection by David Poissonnier, the piece’s 35 minutes passed by in a vortex of rich harmonics, clashing sonorities and needling percussive stabs. I was waiting with bated breath for the moment halfway through when a crashing cymbal attack gives way to a single electronic tone that descends vertiginously before revealing itself as a series of tiny, secret pulses. But that was just one of many fine moments in this exquisitely detailed performance.

Signed booklet from the Momente box set (Deutsche Grammophon, 1976).

Antoine Françoise (piano) and Thierry Debons (percussion) of Ensemble Contrechamps performing Kontakte in Geneva, 16 February 2023.