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.
Experimentation in BDSM
The basic element of BDSM sexuality is one of pure experimentalism. Approaching BDSM with open-mindedness is essential to the enjoyment of BDSM. A commonality between BDSM and other types of sexuality is the spectral nature of the experience. Fetish sexuality exists along a spectrum, perhaps even within a field or universe of its own, and at certain times, the only true tenet in BDSM might be the notion that one cannot enjoy what one has not tried.
A list of hypothetical aesthetic and sexual analogs could be drawn up:
What I do not wish to imply is that my artistic taste or any of my work in music, painting, collage, drawing, photography, or film is influenced by the notion of depicting sexual acts or is intended to be an expression of the emotions tied to sexual activity. All I mean is that the action of choking a blindfolded lover with a belt while she cums multiple times after an hour’s long lead up that involved high-impact flogging, degradation, humiliation, and tit torture—with a harsh noise wall used to drown out the sounds of her moans and her ability to anticipate the next crack of the whip—is about as far removed as you can get from the banality of boring in and out pumping with a club track playing in the background (those types of sexual encounters typically involve the participants fantasizing about other people anyways). I aim to achieve this level of unorthodoxy and rawness in my work, alongside the rational and calculated.
What I am getting at is that the expression of the anomic, the alien, the primal; all those elements of the paradisiacal island of sexual and aesthetic maturity; these are the concepts that I look to express in my music, art, and writing. All by way of experimentation. The promiscuity of forms and content is an exploration that my work is currently focusing itself upon. Building tools from scratch (just as I have built toys from scratch) is also a focus; I currently write patchers in software like MAX and Reaktor for both visual and sound applications. In fetish sexuality, anything can be tried; the gratifying elements are to be retained and the extraneous are to be reserved.
Fetish sexuality co-opts so-called lovemaking (which is an outmoded, strictly confined concept in and of itself) as an act that engages one’s creative faculties. The most intense BDSM experiences are abstract, a sudden and sustained shock of distorted meaning and signification that engages distinct antipodal points of our human instincts (the aggressive and the primal; Eros and Thanatos), into a singular experience in time and space. The experiences are intense, experimental and highly memorable bits of pleasure and pain intertwined with one another. To approach the act of creation in this manner, is not for everybody, and that is the appeal of BDSM.
To get at a really satisfying BDSM experience, one has to explore one’s mind very much in a way that is similar to the methods of the Dadaists and Surrealists. Sexual experiences that have taken place between myself and various partners have been inspired by revelations made in therapy; dreams and nightmares; free writing; films; and the transposition of items not intended for sex into a sexual context (in fact, I pride myself on the ability to be able to walk into a hardware store with $50 and leave with enough material to pleasure a partner for the whole weekend without repeating the same sex act twice).
My early sexual experiences were often boring, by rote experiences of light spanking and gentle hair pulling before I engaged in a long-term study of the human mind and human society. At one point, I intended to formally study sexology and commit myself to a formal research of human sexuality—but I opted for a privately, more personally funded research endeavor instead. Exploring my own psyche involved a long process of dismembering my preconceptions about personal identity, a process of ego-dismemberment that involved experiences that were wide-ranging and unconventional. Part of that self-discovery involved experiences with straight women, gay men, lesbian couples, trans-women and trans-men, married couples, and groups I met through swingers’ clubs and gay bars. These experiences included impact play, wax play, religious play, race play, age play, standard roleplay, WAM, watersports, emetophilia, and so forth. A turning point was when I began constructing my own floggers and canes; spanking benches and restraints; and ultimately realized that fetish sexuality is an art in and of itself that involves an understanding of one’s mind, one’s body, and one’s spirit.
This is the key to creating true art.
Mediation: Scarcity and Saturation
In my life, I have had the recurrence of two extremes of BDSM experience: one with no toys and no paraphernalia; and the other with an overabundance of choices of toys and paraphernalia. Anecdotally, a long term partner and myself had engaged in a lot of different types of play and what we learned was the more complex the experience, the less satisfying it was on a primal level. What we eventually noted, was that when we had spontaneous experiences, say in a friend’s house during a party or in a remote corner of the public library, we still had a satisfying experience due to the presence of our natural sexual apparatus (genitalia and hands). I was still spontaneously capable of choking her, spanking her, and penetrating her. Those experiences were often more satisfying to us than experiences involving a spanking bench, a St. Andrew’s Cross, suspensions, a hitachi, a hundred yards of jute rope, a custom soundtrack, custom lighting, and so forth.
In a technological world, we often forget that we are animals who really only possess the disease of religion, philosophy, opinion, politics, murder, art, music, racism, classism, and the like. We are Idiots. We are over evolved Apes. Our hyperreality is comprised of an abundance of individual choices between sounds, flavors, images, and other sensate experiences. The self-aware realize this and engage both the beast and the intellect. However, these extremes, the primal and the rational, need mediation.
BDSM has taught me the importance of being resourceful when confronted with scarcity but also appreciating saturation and finding a time and place for each extreme. Currently, my work involves a data-saturation of sorts and the utilization of integer sets as generative material for various types of processing and calculation. At other times, my work will involve what might appear as childish scribbling or graffiti markings on paper and canvas. What is important is the mediation between extremes—the primal and the rational—between scarcity and saturation.
BDSM can be an incredibly intellectual, but there is also a state of altered consciousness that is entered. Anybody who has lots of experience and has had satisfying experiences is aware of this state. I need not utter the name of this mental state. Those of us who are initiated know the name of it, and the herd needs to learn it for themselves. Lesser humans have used artificial means to arrive here (think LSD, alcohol, ecstasy, crystal meth, etc.), but this can be achieved by several natural means and BDSM is one of them. For those of us who have experienced great fetish sex, we are well aware of that moment when rationality and intellect cease processing the real and the hyperreal and a trance-state is induced. This is why the spirit has to be maintained alongside the body and the intellect. BDSM is ritualistic and requires endurance, strength, suppleness, and everything in between. BDSM is a true yin and yang experience, as I have said, a mediation.
I am including a list of books, films, and music that have influenced my explorations of the fetish lifestyle throughout the years. While this list is not definitive and it is merely subjective, these have all helped me to understand these concepts and I recommend that those who are interested familiarize themselves with these works. Some of them deal with unorthodox sexuality, others are merely unorthodox:
The Psychick Bible by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
Liber Null by Peter J. Carroll
Seductive Art of Japanese Bondage by Midori
The New Topping Book by Janet W. Hardy
Female Ejaculation and the G-Spot by Deborah Sundahl
Sex, Drugs and Magick by Robert Anton Wilson
Modern Sex Magick by Donald Michael Kraig
The Ultimate Guide to Cunnilingus by Violet Blue
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade
Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud
Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Cities of the Red Night by William S. Burroughs
The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs
The Job by William S. Burroughs
The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave
Crash by JG Ballard
Music for Bondage Performance by Merzbow
Clitoris Projectile Pump Action by Masonna
Ejaculation Generator by Masonna
Adoration of the Faceless Woman split by Vomir/Paranoid Time
Filmworks V: Tears of Ecstasy by John Zorn
Ganryu Island by John Zorn and Michihiro Sato
The String Quartets by John Zorn
STRGTHS by SHXCXCHCXSH
The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski
My Love is a Bulldozer by Venetian Snares
The Piano Teacher (2001)
In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
Rubber’s Lover (1996)
Año Bisiesto (2010)
Get My Belt (2013)
9 1/2 Weeks (1986)
Pink Flamingos (1972)
A Dirty Shame (2004)
964 Pinnochio (1991)
Visitor Q (2001)
Graphic Sexual Horror (2009)
There’s always been something of a unique aura about Grant Green’s music, an ability that is somehow mystifying and intangible. Green played the guitar more like a horn player, having copped Charlie Parker and Miles Davis licks in his youth. Being a guitarist, his music was firmly rooted in Detroit blues and his music swings hard. His solos are almost always perfect, notable for extending repeated three note phrases over as many as 6, 8, 12, and even 16 measures at a time, making subtle rhythmic variations with each repetition, generating an obsessive tension that is relieved with either a flurry of notes or a single held tone. His solos have a strong melodic sensibility and he rarely plays fast for the sake of playing fast. Green is one of the rare few who managed style and substance, rather than sacrificing one for the other. Green died in 1979.
His distinct work has been sampled by Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Wu-Tang Clan, and Kendrick Lamar. Which is testament to the fact that you don’t manage to meaningfully contribute to history without knowledge, without taste, and without heritage.
I first met James T-Model Ford in 1997. He had opened for R.L. Burnside. His music had a memorable approach to a number of blues standards I would eventually grow to adore. Ford’s music served as an introduction, as the necessary open-valve to a whole world of blues music. His renditions of “Cut You Loose” and “My Babe” showed an affinity for James Cotton and Little Walter; and his renditions of “Smokestack Lightnin’” and “Catfish Blues” were excellent covers of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. For me, his and R.L. Burnside’s music were the blues analog of Frank Zappa to classical modernism—that is to say, a gateway drug, so to speak.
I witnessed T-Model Ford play in 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000. I was always the youngest person in the club when I attended those shows, always going with the accompaniment of a parent and always drinking Coca-Cola. One of my fondest memories was having the opportunity in 1999, to play guitar alongside T-Model Ford’s drummer, nicknamed Spam, at Santa Fe’s Thirsty Ear Festival, which primarily presented roots music and underground alternative rock. Spam and I played for about 30 minutes as a duo and he used a snare drum in a North Mississippi Hill marching style, which he muted with a handkerchief to match the dynamics of the small saloon we played in. I ran through a number of styles: Robert Johnson style Open-G riffs; John Lee Hooker style vamps; and Muddy Waters-influenced stomping drones in the key of E. Even to this day, this is one of my fondest memories of my adolescence. Later, Spam admitted that “a white boy learnt” him the drums.
In the interim between these show experiences, I participated in weekly jam sessions and gigs throughout the bar scene in New Mexico. I was thirsty for playing experiences and I was often the first musician to arrive at 8 PM and the last to leave at 2:30 AM. I would be so wound up, I sometimes couldn’t get to sleep and I would cram in as much studying as I could before attending school the next morning around 7:30 AM. Those early morning study sessions often involved practicing for jazz ensemble; studying voice leading for music theory; and writing research papers on music (Anthony Braxton, Eric Dolphy, Arnold Schoenberg and Karlheinz Stockhausen are four names I remember writing papers on at this time). I remember the feeling of walking around school after a great show—having not had time to wash the cigarette smoke out of my hair—and I would have to listen to the other kids gossip and bicker; meanwhile I was living this double life of student and bar musician and there was always this compartmentalization between being the kid with a guitar that the high school cliques ignored and being the kid with a guitar that the college cliques cheered for the night before. After my third gig, I stopped telling the other children because they usually didn’t believe me, the response was always, “Sure, in your wildest dreams you played at a bar last night and some older girl with a fake ID gave you kiss on the cheek as she was leaving.” I was fourteen when this started and it went on until I was seventeen.
I estimate that I had something like 8,000 hours of gigging, rehearsal and practice and jamming experience by the time I reached legal adulthood. Between studying classical, jazz rehearsal, guitar class, and watching movies with my guitar in hand; I was playing about 4 or 5 hours a day, and I’ve done my best to keep this pace up with all my passions throughout life. These were crucial, formative years for me and I still prefer early morning to any other time for work, often rising as early as 3 AM to start weightlifting, write critical essays, compose music, and create visual art; I also typically read for 1 or 2 hours every night before bed. I don’t drink, I don’t take drugs, I don’t pursue unnecessary partnerships, I make time for meditation, and I attempt to sublimate everything into my work. I feel truly blessed at this point. I wish I could tell T-Model Ford how much he and Spam set the forces of my passion for music into motion. James T- Model Ford passed away in 2013. He was about 90 years old.
I was very fortunate to see R.L. Burnside perform when I was 13. I was fairly unfamiliar with his music at the time, but the show changed my ideas about guitar playing. I had heard his collaboration with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, An Ass Pocket of Whiskey, which was good, but I was unfamiliar with his music, the music of his family, the traditions of the Northern Mississippi style for which he was known —I was completely unprepared for what I was to experience at that show. R.L. performed with his son Cedric on drums and Kenny Brown on slide guitar. The show was legendary. He hit the stage at about 10 P.M. and played without a break until 2 A.M. I have never seen anything of this magnitude since then.
I didn’t know it when I was in the moment, experiencing this music, but Burnside’s guitar was tuned to the same ‘Spanish’/Open G tuning that a number of the Paganini Sonatas I was learning were written in. The big revelation came when I was studying his music and realized that simply from watching him for four hours straight, I had learned exactly where to place my fingers to recreate these sounds of Northern Mississippi blues. As it turned out, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and so many others had also performed in this key. It wasn’t long before I not only set about learning Burnside’s music, but started to learn songs like ‘Boogie Chillen’, ‘If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day’, ‘Rollin’ n’ Tumblin’, and other classics of the genre. Burnside was the gateway to Junior Kimbrough (who was appropriated for white audiences by The Black Keys), T-Model Ford, Lurrie Bell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Junior Wells, Robert Nighthawk, Hound Dog Taylor, and literally a hundred other musicians.
Aesthetically, Burnside’s music was pure —no sociopolitical or spiritual pretensions lyrically- the hypnotic rhythms and his voice had more soul than anything I had heard at the time. I consider myself blessed to have been exposed to this at the age of 13, it may have saved me from MTV and hip-hop. I consider this to have been a key experience during the formative years of my psyche, another formative experience for which I am eternally grateful. R.L. Burnside died when I was 22 years old, when I was in college studying engineering and computer science.
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.
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.
Composer, Artist, Writer