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.
There is a part of me that is proud to say that the first Anthony Braxton recording I acquired was his Three Compositions of New Jazz. The recording featured himself, Wadada Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, and Muhal Richard Abrams. I will never forget the remark made by Carter, the man who ran the record store I frequented. As I approached him with this compact disc in my hands and prepared to pay him for it, he said to me “Oh, man. Anthony Braxton. Denton, my man. That album separates the believers from the nonbelievers.”
I have since interpreted Carter’s words as being a commentary on the nature of jazz music, freely improvised music and the evolution of jazz music as being that of a continuum headed in the direction towards the complete emancipation of the role of the jazz musician in society; from that initial role of entertainer, minstrel, or vaudeville performer; to the penultimate role of high priest, sage, intellectual, and prophet. Jazz music was the product of a time before black musicians and black artists were not permitted to openly speak their minds in public, to speak their thoughts in the realm of the social or in the realm of the political. Braxton's music came at a time when Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, after Malcolm X had been assassinated. I will always contend that jazz music was the artistic product of the muted voice of the black prophetic experience and hip-hop music was the proclamation of the post-Civil Rights Era black prophetic experience. I use the word prophet in the sense that these individuals from jazz music and hip-hop music were inspired teachers and true progressives. For example, Duke Ellington had one of the first truly integrated touring bands; in fact, his pianist and orchestrator, Billy Strayhorn was openly homosexual-a personal reality that was often not acknowledged in mainstream America as homosexuals and jazz musicians were often stigmatized in the 1940s and 1950s and placed in the same social stratum as violent criminals and drug addicts.
Braxton's music was completely prophetic and visionary in terms of freeing up the role of the black musician in American culture. The opening atonal choral, sung as if the group were participating in a solfège of something by Webern, eventually leads into a group improvisation in which Braxton, Jenkins, and Smith performed on saxophone, trumpet, and violin; but also an assortment of cymbals, found percussion, recorder, harmonica, kazoo, bagpipes, slide whistle, accordion, and other instruments. The disc also contained a composition by Leo Smith entitled “The Bell” and another Braxton piece, “Composition 6D”.
For myself, this recording will always be classic and highly influential, not just for its audaciousness in the handling of modern classical and free jazz, but for its lasting influence on a number of other musicians who added to the development of new music. People like John Zorn, Steve Lacy, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore have openly acknowledged the influence that Anthony Braxton had on their music. Braxton has gone on to collaborate with Wolf Eyes, Archie Shepp, Philly Jo Jones, David Holland, Chick Corea, Richard Teitelbaum, Max Roach, Paul Smoker, Marianne Schroeder, Gyorgy Zsabados, Gino Robair, Marilyn Crispell, Andrew Voigt, Frederick Longberg Holm, Peter Brötzmann, and so many more. Anthony Braxton has even been sampled by Venetian Snares!!
I leave you with a playlist of my favorite Anthony Braxton recordings.
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.
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.