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.