Richard D. James released his album Drukqs in 2001 and then “retired”, “disappeared”, and basically “stopped releasing music.” There has been speculation on various messageboards that he has been behind numerous releases, among them titles by Steinvord, The Tuss (officially confirmed to be a project of his own), Smojphace, Jodey Kendrick, Syntheme, and pretty much anything else that is electronic and not obviously associated with a particular entity. He’s been known to drop disinformation in various media outlets, including a claim that his production kit included an MC-909 Limited Edition, a Quasimidi Van Helden and “all the Behringer effects that copy other things” (lulz). I think this a very clever PR tactic on his part. Certainly it must be incredibly entertaining if nothing else.
Like many other IDM heads, I made my first Aphex Twin download on Napster in 2000. I came across his name on a list of futuristic musicians. He was among other artists whom were shoe-horned onto this list such as DJ Spooky, Brian Eno, and Moby. In retrospect, Aphex Twin was the only artist to sincerely be peering into the possible future of what music could become. In fact, he was already performing live with a laptop as early as 1995!!
I credit Aphex with ultimately getting into electronic music production. He opened a world of possibilities for me. He’s also name-dropped artists who are still huge favorites (Tod Dockstader, Venetian Snares, and Holly Herndon). I imagine Aphex to be familiar with Jonty Harrison as well. He’s never really been easily categorized and he continues to make statements in long outdated styles (jungle, drum n’ bass, acid, etc.) and always with a plethora of rare analogue equipment. He is rumored to own a super-rare Yamaha GX-1. I imagine his synth collection, disklavier, and whatever else he has in his studios is worth millions. The guy has always struck me as a true businessman, never bragging about revenue but always on top of his earnings.
Today's blog post is about Alfred Schnittke. Before I start, I want to write a little bit about why I do these blogs and how they fit into my creative process. I treat all creative activity the same way one would approach physical exercise. I always begin with a warm-up of some type. This actually first came about when I began seriously practicing guitar. I would sit with my guitar plugged into a headphone amp and begin with something to get my fingers moving and to achieve a sort of suppleness in my hands (scales, chords, Slonimsky’s chromatic patterns, a brief improvisation, etc). The blogs often serve as a warm-up for various creative activities, I do not always post my warm-up journals, sketches, or improvisational recordings, but I do make a point of doing something before every session. These entries on composers and musicians are actually written rather quickly, with very little editing. This accounts for the content of these entries, the mixture of autobiographical memories and reflections on how the music has inspired me and influenced me throughout my life. They are important to my creative process. I think that the contemporary cross-disciplinary artist is blessed to live in an era where so much of one’s creative process can be laid out and exposed, the artist can be rendered vulnerable in a way that was not possible in previous generations. I express sincere gratitude for this luxury. I also intend to do a series on filmmakers, artists, and writers. I imagine this will be an ongoing process into the next decade of my life.
I would say I was about 15 years old when I first discovered Alfred Schnittke. I had thumbed past his work in the compact discs at Rare Bear for the past year while I was looking for works by Stravinsky and Shostakovich, both of whom I idolized and imitated to the best of my adolescent abilities. The first disc I purchased was a Naxos release, which contained Stille Musik and his Cello Sonata from 1978, which was written around the age of 44 or so. I had recently noticed that his releases suddenly contained his birth year but also his death year (1934 - 1998). Naturally, this intrigued me that he had died since I first noticed his name and Naxos releases were not significantly expensive, as I often left with as many as four at a time -I decided to purchase one of his discs, which did not include his death date.
When I returned home and listened to the recording, I was blown away! This was a different type of modernism from what I was familiar with, it was maybe even postmodernist in its own way, but Schnittke was living under Soviet rule and I imagine his exposure to culture outside of Soviet Russia was rather limited, which would limit the influences he was absorbing. The music was constantly shifting between extremes, between dichotomous textures and sounds (soft/loud, tonal/atonal, slow/fast, etc.) What was even more striking was that Schnittke seemed to favor rather slow tempo markings. In fact, between the Cello Sonata and Stille Musik, the tempo markings were Lento, Largo, Presto, and Largo!!
I had played this music for a girlfriend and she was really into death metal and punk music and I recall her response to the Agitato from his Second String Quartet as she brushed her faded-green mohawk out of her face, “Jesus. I thought my music was hardcore.” I think that just about says it all. She loved Dying Fetus and Cannibal Corpse! Schnittke achieved intensity without any electricity! His electricity was organic and achieved by utilizing elements of dissonance, volume, polyphonic density, and quick pacing. He was definitely a neo-classical composer in his own way, as he was working with sonatas and symphonic form, but he was also very much so a postmodernist, working with what he termed polystylism.
His work also encompassed film scoring and he worked with some legendary directors, including Shepitko and Askoldov among others. One can run through his catalog of work and find the influences of jazz music, Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Gregorian chant, Shostakovich, the Darmstadt serialists, and folk songs of various countries. He was entirely eclectic and eventually shed modernist pretensions of complexity in favor of a haunting and obsessive emotional content at the end of his life’s work, I almost get the sense that he was basically writing the same composition for the last 8 years of his life.
I have created a playlist that includes his Second String Quartet performed by the Kronos Quartet, and his work Stille Musik and the Cello Sonata from 1978, taken from the Naxos recording I purchased towards the end of 1998 and listened to when I was supposed to be at school that day.
Ornette Coleman’s music came to me in my freshman year of high school. I had this really bad habit of saving my lunch money up and ditching school every three days to purchase compact discs from a store called Rare Bear. It was right around the corner from the high school I attended.
I started my journey through Coleman’s catalogue with The Shape of Jazz to Come. I have to admit that I lost interest in his music once I started to explore his work that he released in the 70s and after, but his earlier work was highly influential on me. I also have this memory of being in a car with my cousin who was obsessed with punk rock music (Circle Jerks, Ramones, Dead Kennedys and the like, music which I do appreciate) and she had asked me to put on some of my favorite music. I had two cassette tapes in my bag, a cassette I had dubbed of Henryk Gorecki’s music for strings and an Ornette Coleman birthday tribute I had pulled off of the radio over spring break that year (Ornette’s birthday was March 9). I decided to put Ornette Coleman on as his music was considerably “heavier” than Gorecki’s 2nd String Quartet and also very rebellious in spirit. I will never forget the ignorant tone of her laughter when she heard Coleman’s music! Some things are forgivable, but I cannot forgive poor taste, while I won’t hold a grudge, it’s hard to forget that an individual has a limited knowledge of culture, regardless of whether that limited knowledge is of art, music, film, literature, critical theory, philosophy, or anything else, it just shows that an individual hasn’t really taken time to enjoy anything that isn’t placed in front of them by a teacher, a parent, a friend, the television, a movie, a magazine, social media, and so on. In other words, a limited knowledge of culture shows a lack of intelligence and free thinking and a shallow necessity to fit in and be accepted.
Which brings me to the importance of Ornette Coleman. His music is loved by the elitists in so-called “new music” and “improvised music.” However, I would not call him an elitist. He was famous for dropping the piano from jazz and completely ignoring the implied harmonies of the bass line when he improvised. He played a plastic saxophone. He released an album that lent its name to an entire genre, Free Jazz (a feat that was also accomplished by Venom with their album Black Metal). Another hero of mine, John Zorn, has recorded an entire album of hardcore covers of Ornette’s work, Spy vs. Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman. He made contributions to the soundtrack of David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Burroughs’ controversial novel Naked Lunch.
The point is, at the age of 14, I was completely unaware how Ornette’s music would keep coming back to me as my interests developed and I would eventually become aware of the web of influence that connected Ornette to William S. Burroughs to David Cronenberg; or Ornette to John Zorn to Napalm Death; or Ornette to Weasel Walter and The Flying Luttenbachers to the sounds of No Wave (which could even be connected to Basquiat in a round about way). Ornette Coleman would eventually become this nexus point of the avant-garde for me. I cannot think of anything more cutting edge and more amazing than to be that influential on such a diverse assortment of progressive thinkers. His music epitomizes substance and quality and departure from tradition. Coleman was an iconoclast.
Coleman passed away June 11, 2015.
I also want to acknowledge my thoughts and prayers for the family of Chris Cornell. Soundgarden and Audioslave have been two of my favorite rock groups throughout my life and he was an incredible vocalist. RIP.
I've been reflecting on a conversation I recently had with artist Derek Chan.
Chan raised the notion of taking painting to another level and ideas about stretching canvas in non-rectangular shapes and canvas displayed on the floor in the manner of a rug were expressed. Our conversation also covered notions of knowing when a painting is finished and new directions for our work. This inspired some thinking about execution versus contemplation in my own work.
In my process, there are currently two activities in creation -contemplation (the planning, studying and actual thinking that go into any creation) and execution (the act of painting, performing, filming, and so on). For myself, I consider these to be two very separate activities. Cy Twombly, who is a primary influence of mine, has mentioned that he might think about a piece for several hours, but the execution is rather quick, maybe 15 minutes and everything is finished. I also strive for this separation of analysis and creation.
If I am too careful with something and it begins to take too long, it will be discarded. That always happens as a result of an overlap between contemplation and execution, where contemplation overpowers the execution of a piece. This applies to music as well as visual art. I might spend 15 hours contemplating a work via a combination of sketching, journaling, and reading. But when a piece takes me 15 hours to complete, it bores me to death and I move on to something else before it is finished. One of the alluring aspects of visual art over musical composition is that visual art has a potential to be incredibly direct and incredibly expressive, perhaps even more emotional than a lot of music can be, which often relies on clichés and preconceptions about emotion and expression (slow blues, love ballad, minor keys are associated with sorrow, etc.)
One of the major flaws in the human animal, is that of overthinking. I strive to be more machine-like, but not entirely mechanical -that is to say unstoppable in the directness of its executions, radically indifferent to its own creations, and a human being completely of its era. Chan said something about Gerhard Richter being the quintessential postmodernist and I admit that I strive to be the equivalent in our own hypermodernist era -an extension of my machinery rather than the master of my hardware and software. I want to be useless as an artist without the technology that makes it possible, an endeavor that will take years to achieve and that is taking things to the next level for me.
Composer, Artist, Writer