In the gym, consistent work and repetition over a given length of time tend to give the best results. This is the definition of targeted practice. In art and music, I don’t simply make art just to make art, nor do I simply view creating a masterpiece as the act of creating a so-called masterwork (something which I cannot say I ever have done). I view the action of creating art in very much the same way as a bodybuilder might approach “winning a contest” —that is to say that these actions are not one singular activity but a series of coordinated repetitions of varied movements, gestures, and processes; each undertaken with specific methods of analysis, synthesis, deconstruction, and reconstitution; in varying degrees of abstraction and signification; all united under their own means of the record keeping unique to each medium (i.e. score production, audio recording, photography, videography, painting, drawing, and so forth).
2. Art is not always a team sport and it is alright to work alone.
While I have been in various bands and performance groups, and even in an art collective (which seemed to deny my membership amidst their self-avowed “radical inclusivity”), I still have to admit that there is nothing more satisfying to me than participating in the creative equivalency of a solo sport. I am hardly interested in any egalitarian approach to aesthetics as I have learned that living in any city within the narrow confines of what constitutes American society will make the search —that is my search— for others next to impossible, that search for those who hold similar interests and are open and transparent about them (i.e. free jazz, Stockhausen, Murillo, the aesthetics of bondage and fetishism, Bataille, abstraction and cut-ups, and on and on).
What was appealing about bodybuilding to me were not the results or even the activity itself, but the unsocial nature of being in the gym. Like anything else in late-capitalism, bodybuilding has been co-opted for economic reasons to profit off of various powders and pills, garments and slogans, and has become a cultural meme in and of itself. None of this existed when I first began, nobody seemed interested in going to the gym with me, but now that our cultural wasteland is awash with viral reminders of fitness and millions of sales in pseudo-scientific theories about workout timing, dietary scheduling, and supplementation, and so forth, the solo sport has become a mass movement of impoverished wage-slaves struggling —as Zizek has said— to perfect their only real possession, that of their own bodies, their personal machines of flesh, blood, bone, and muscle. Perhaps the only authenticity left today is an authentic aversion to popularity, to followers and to social media. An authenticity I wish to express in my art by way of expressing the path of the loner and the rebel in a society of social media driven fads.
3. Repetition is key.
If I want to work my chest and triceps, I have a set number of exercises and a set number of reps that I am going to aim to achieve. If I fail on the sixth rep of my last set of eight reps, I will return to the gym and try again after I have rested. This is the key to targeted practice. I know at the beginning of any given week what specific projects are currently underway and what I need to accomplish these things. I know that by the end of a given day I will have produced X amount of drawings and written a certain amount of music, and perhaps read and watched relevant materials. I am not even thinking about whether or not this particular piece or that particular piece is what I need to create to become famous, or how many 'likes' it will garner on social media. I am thinking only about progress, growth and transcendence of my former self —a self that was weaker in terms of sublimation and self-awareness, a self that could not attempt to start what I plan on being able to accomplish in the not so distant future. It is the only way to look at one’s work and generate a personal mythology or similar narrative (that is a mythology generated from the meager materials that have been deterministically bestowed upon the artist by the circumstances into which he was born, which are in my case, those of a Native American from a relatively poor family, who has grown to be estranged from his parents and siblings in adulthood).
I can actually recall —almost perfectly— the first time I heard Stockhausen’s composition Refrain for piano, vibraphone, and celesta. I had ditched school (I was a freshman in high school at the time) and purchased a copy of the piece from a record shop that was around the corner. The cover of this particular album, available on the Koch Schwann Musica Mundi imprint, was memorable in and of itself. This serpentine eye done in green and yellow gazed out from behind the lettering that announced Stockhausen’s name and the contents of the disc.
I was already familiar with the overall layout of Refrain’s score, as it was prominently featured in nearly every book I had picked up on contemporary music, serialism, and post-war classical music. Despite having seen numerous reproductions and facsimiles, nothing really prepared me for the moment when I finally heard this music. I patiently sat through Zyklus for percussionist. When track two began and the first chord from Refrain hit, there was a tangible mysticism in the room, as if a suspension of the banality of day to day existence had occurred —as if I was witnessing a rare occultation of the popular culture and public education that consumed my life. The music sounded incredibly esoteric to me, with unresolved dissonances floating past, only to be broken up by the ‘refrains’ of the composition. The phonetic syllables uttered by the three players throughout the piece sounded ritualistic. This really was truly my first experience of one of Stockhausen’s masterworks. It was obvious that this was the next logical progression from Webern and Schoenberg (I have to admit, even to this day I am still not a huge fan of Alban Berg).
That first chord from Refrain has made its appearance in a few of my own scores, as a nod to Stockhausen’s influence, but also because this is possibly the most life changing chord I had ever heard at that time and may have heard since. Technically, that sound is simply two notes, e natural and f natural. It is their close proximity to one another and the unison sounding of the same chord in all three instruments, that gave the opening of Refrain a particularly initiatory flavor.
Stockhausen forced me to make a rupture with everything I knew in order to gain an understanding of his music. I had already practiced blues music, Hendrix songs, Nirvana songs, and played a number of pieces as a percussionist in concert band, it was Stockhausen who forced me to forget all of that. I had the freedom to study his music, to study contemporary music, just as I had the freedom not to. I have found that most individuals in music take full advantage of the freedom not to study this music. I suppose this is why I still view the best art, as so-called elitist art. Populism and mass appeal —receiving that stamp of approval from the vulgar herd— will always be meaningless to me. As Tony Wilson said, “Some people make money and some make history.”
My high school years would not have been the same if it weren’t for this early encounter with Stockhausen’s Refrain. I stopped socializing. I began reading books on music and art. I took an interest in Japanese philosophy. Most importantly, I began to compose serial music. I did not have access to theory books or a knowledgeable teacher. I had to figure out all the ways I could make variations on single tone-row or cell. I had to develop my own systems for serializing not just pitch, but durations, dynamics, timbre, articulations, and all the other elements of the short compositions I wrote throughout high school. The lesson of Stockhausen’s music was that whether somebody loved what I was doing or not, whether there was an audience or not —I enjoyed working and making art, and that’s what I was put here to do. Despite any setbacks or discouraging experiences, I haven’t really wavered from this path at this point in my life and I love writing, I love painting, and I love studying. I thank Stockhausen for giving me the material I needed to realize this about myself.
In the past year, via social media, I have developed a series of conversations with a young woman from Iran. Her name is Nilufar Farahmand and there really is nobody in my general periphery who can even speak of the things we typically converse with one another about. Our messages span the spectrum of topics like individuation, existentialism, the spiritual meaning of events and experiences, and a number of other esoteric topics related to art, music, and the creative act.
Sometimes she even speaks poetically and it is beautiful and touching like nothing I ever come across on social media.
"A friend asked me how I recently connected to the sky
I moved objects
I dreamed good and bad things
I prayed good and bad
I painted strange pictures with unknown sources
but I still don't know the exact way I connected to the sky"
Speaking to me
on Facebook Messenger
I am not joking, Nilufar actually writes to me this way. Please follow her Instagram account. She's amazing and I don't think I know any artist quite like her.
Although the first place I heard the composition G-Spot Tornado was on Zappa’s The Yellow Shark album, it was first released on Jazz From Hell. My father owned a copy of the The Yellow Shark and there was an excerpt of the first page of the score and whenever I looked at that excerpt, I knew that one day I would start writing full scores.
The composition has an almost Stravinskian feel to it, with a pulsing bass drum ostinato, and this huge monorhythmic theme on top of it. It was incredibly infectious and I probably listened to the performance -given by the Ensemble Moderne- about 100 times a day for at least two months. When I came across a copy of Jazz From Hell, I was actually disappointed to find a piece of synclavier music, but I’ve grown to love that album above Zappa’s other releases from the 1980s, like Tinsel Town Rebellion, Thing-Fish, and Them or Us. I think John Zorn had made a comment at one point that Zappa’s best work from the end of his life was his synclavier music because Zappa had become so enveloped in misanthropy by that point. I can hear it—actually, it is obvious his best work from the end of his life, his most enduring work, is the music from his synclavier and “classical” albums.
I consider Zappa's music a "gateway drug" of sorts, serving to introduce me to Varèse, Webern, Stravinsky, and Bartok -which eventually lead to my exposure to this book called The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play by Ben Watson. That book mentioned people like Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Ferneyhough, and many others. These were new names for me, at the age of 13. Zappa was also influential in terms of the topics of his social commentary, often criticizing humans for their inability to control themselves in their nihilistic drive towards fulfilling their animalistic impulses —a topic which he was in fact an expert, due to his experience as a touring musician during the 60s and 70s. Because of his open criticism of human sexuality, the misogyny issue has come up quite a bit with Zappa, and while there are depictions in his music of men doing awful things to women, I have found songs like “Dinah-Moe Humm”, “Honey, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me?”, and “Stevie’s Spanking” to all ring more true and realistic than songs like “Let’s Stay Together” or “My Heart Will Go On” ever could hope to in their most idealized statements about human love.
Zappa has consistently influenced me throughout the first period of my life (which ended in 2014), I think I matured slowly and Zappa was always there along the way, explaining things to me through his music, giving me direction and renewed perspective on sexuality, relationships, race issues, politics, and music composition. While Zappa came before Webern for me, this was the first piece of his that I was obsessed with after Webern. My father preferred the strictly R&B albums from the 70s, the music from his adolescence. It was the The Yellow Shark where I found an island in my first attempts to swim out into Zappa’s vast catalogue. So this, coupled with Webern, changed my life. And I am forever grateful. . .
Robin Meiksins has a 365 day flute project going where she performs a new piece every day. I had the honor of writing something which she filmed and posted on day 103. Her endeavor is insane! She will play the hell out of anything she gets her hands on. Please follow her YouTube page, TumorsandMusic.
The piece I wrote -. . .ilch. . .- was written using randomized linked lists comprised of synthetic scales. As usual, I have written in miniature form, three movements, I do this because whenever the process finishes one pass, I feel the piece is finished and has said all it really needs to say. It's a different type of minimalism, not comprised of continuous reiteration, but one paroxysm, one burst, one short fragment.
I discovered Webern’s music as I entered into juvenility. I was about 12 years old —maybe 13— and his music represented a loss of innocence for me, a peering into not just adulthood or maturity, but also into a developmental stage where the rational ceased to exist —or ceased to be of significance. Temporality existed in Webern, but not as regular pulsations or as carefully metered out divisions and mensurations; while there was a deliberation to Webern’s music on a microcellular level, the bodily sensations his compositions invoked in me were abstract —both angular and obtuse emotional responses and non-responses to carefully crafted and executed musical ideations.
Frank Zappa once remarked that he could not believe anybody would ever attempt to write music like Webern's. My own impression was similar upon hearing the marcia funebre from his Opus 6. The material was quiet and lyrical but also emotionally muted. The opening bass drum rumble and the hypnotic urgency of the bells sounded almost like something from an alien culture out of science fiction. The delicate melodic fragments played by the woodwinds were light years ahead of what I later discovered Stravinsky to have composed during the same year in The Firebird. The movement’s culmination in a crescendo of percussion instruments —cymbal, bass drum, timpani— aesthetically traumatized me at the time and left me cold. All I could imagine were the tragedies and atrocities of the 20th century, almost as if Webern, who had written this piece in 1909, had somehow prophesied the wars and the cultural and technological revolutions that would lead to the decay of the late-20th century of my own childhood and adolescence.
One might say that Webern’s marcia funebre was the soundtrack to my growing awareness of the actuality of American culture at the time —a culture obsessed with its own illusory processes of intoxication, collapse and extinction— a culture which I have ultimately failed to come to any terms of reconciliation with as both an artist and composer.