Stockhausen: Kontakte (Barton/Rhys)

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Some physicists hope that evidence will be found that contradicts the Standard Model, opening up an entirely new understanding of how the universe works; in the meantime, the theory remains disappointingly consistent. At times, it can seem that a vast swathe of electroacoustic music over the past sixty years has simply been a matter of spinning off variations of elements from Stockhausen’s Kontakte. Alternative pathways are investigated, but Kontakte persists as its own standard model. Its brilliant use of sound and space, its theatricality, the innovation born of thorough application of an elaborate internal logic make it irresistably seductive to a composer; perhaps dangerously so, for with its appeal to the imagination comes the implication that its methods are irrefutably correct. The last time I heard it live in its piano/percussion incarnation was in a concert in Berlin last year, and when it came up while describing my holiday to a friend she sighed “Not that again.”

A new recording has now been released as download only by All That Dust. This follows up on their previous download releases of works by Babbitt and Nono, which suggests that this Kontakte shares a mission to re-examine and renew works from the past. The GBSR duo of percussionist George Barton and pianist Siwan Rhys play the instrumental parts, accompanied by the four-channel electronic tape. This is a binaural recording, so even in this stereo presentation the spatialisation of sound is notable. The sound quality is wonderfully clear and detailed, which suits Barton’s and Rhys’ playing style admirably.

When I’ve listened to recordings, it’s almost always been one from the 60s (Caskel with Tudor or Kontarsky) so my judgement might get clouded here. The technology of the time makes it almost inevitable that one of the ‘contacts’ referred to in the title is in the connections between the electronic and acoustic sounds – certainly to modern ears. GBSR have described their own approach in detail, describing it as “the key work in the piano and percussion duo repertoire.” It’s a telling remark, placing the focus firmly on the instruments over the tape part that gets so much attention. They proceded to ‘internalise’ the piece, playing from memory; an approach that Stockhausen himself came to demand with regularity over the following years. The result is strongly theatrical despite the absence of visuals, combined with an immensely detailed and colourful sound. Details I hadn’t focused on before, even in live performances, stand out here. Perhaps the playing approach allows for a slight but significant feeling of spontaneity to the instruments, even though the tape cannot really allow it. Wood or skin sounds come out distinctly organic in contrast to the electronics; piano and metal have their own unique characteristics, too.

It almost feels a little weird, finding these little flecks and splashes of new colours in the once familiar texture. (Even in the concert hall, the piece can tend towards homogeneity in parts, owing to the composer’s passion for constant activity at the service of a theory.) If Barton and Rhys are somehow taking liberties, then I’m for it. Stockhausen built a career out of finely-judged transgressions, so it’s nice to keep him weird.