I met Jeff a couple of years ago. I met him in Kürten, a small German village in the hills between Cologne and Wipperfürth. Both of us have been visiting Kürten every summer since, attending Stockhausen’s summer courses. To learn about music, to learn about Light, learn about numbers and learn about sounds.
He’s got some answers, he does, master Stockhausen.
He makes things look pretty simple.
First, there’s the music.
And then there is Sirius, the Dog Star.
That’s where the music comes from.
That’s where musicians come from.
They all come from Sirius.
Must have been birds in a former life as well, but originally they’re from Sirius.
And that’s where they will end up eventually.
Master Stockhausen was trained on Sirius.
He used to be a bird.
My grandpa was a musician.
I don’t think grandpa was from Sirius.
I’m a musician, ain’t I?
I never felt much of a bird.
But maybe it doesn’t matter.
Maybe we should have asked Sun Ra.
It’s just so bloody mysterious. It should scare you. It really should. So give it a name. Call it god. Call it Sirius.
But no matter where they come from, there’s the sounds.
Every summer they’re all over Kürten.
He does have amazing sounds, master Stockhausen, he has.
The first time we met, Jeff and I both had just arrived in Kürten. Jeff’s about my age. He flew in from L.A., with a rucksack, scores and a keyboard. Wearing brown leather boots.
It was bloody hot, that’s what it was.
We were sitting on the terrace of some Bierstube and ordered a big glass of cold German beer.
Jeff lit up a cigarette.
“You’re here for the courses?” he asked.
“Yep, that’s right,” I said.
“Man, I’m looking forward to that! He’s the greatest, he is, Stockhausen. You’re going to perform?”
“No. No play. Just look and listen. All ears and eyes. Sort of a spy, really,” I laughed.
“Cool,” Jeff said. “Hope someone around here will be able to show me a thing or two. Have been struggling with those bloody synth-scores for almost a year now.”
“What are you playing?” I asked.
He took a sip from his beer.
“You know ‘Djen-tock’?”
That didn’t sound familiar. I shook my head, hesitatingly.
“You never heard ‘Djen-tock’?”
He looked at me, with big bulging eyes, incredulously, getting mighty red in the face.
“… ‘Djen-tock’ … ? … ‘Tuesday’ …? …”
“Ah, you mean ‘Dienstag’? …”
Now I understood what the guy was saying.
“Yeah… well, sort of, I guess …”
This seemed to reassure Jeff and he took another shot of beer.
“Man, when I first heard that recording, I freaked out. It’s a fucking mind blow, that’s what it is!”
Tuesday is one of the seven main parts of Light. There’s a part for every single day of the week. Of course, there is. And he should have it all wrapped up by now, the master. Has been working on it for over twenty-five years, he has. Industriously, every single hour of every single day, putting all of it down in minute detail, in fractions of seconds, beats and frequencies, a gargantuan, breathing organism, like a body, pretty much encyclopaedic, of human sound.
Human, yeah. It is all in there. Any sound you can imagine. Someway somewhere within Light. You might not like all of it. You might even loathe lots of it. (I really think you will.)
He was right about Tuesday, Jeff, he was.
It soon became one of my favourites as well. The day of war. Its color is red.
(It couldn’t be any different, now, could it?)
The second movement has these bubbles of sonic invasion built from intrusions, explosions, electronic sound bombings, rocket cracks, hits and crashes, then gradually gives way to a wonderous quarter-tone duet for soprano and flugelhorn, recounting how Michaël the trumpeter was hit, right in the middle of his heart.
And meanwhile, Michaël is dying, v e r y slowly, as protagonists in the grand tradition of the opera always do. But I prefer to forget about the story’s fatiguing details and just drift along with the sounds.
Apocalypse, that’s what it is.
It all ends with the Synthifou, also known as Piano Piece XV, for keyboards. That was what Jeff wanted to learn how to play.
Kürten to Stockhausen is what Bayreuth is to Wagner. Except here you don’t have your Ludwig-custom-built theatre. They gave the master the local high school gymnasium instead. Every August of every year. Until he dies. And maybe also after.
Course participants are staying all over and around the village, in inns, hotels, camping places, and in the homes of the local families.
A pretty bizarre sample from the human species.
There are the music students, just looking for something interesting to put on their curriculum. Then there’s your load of professional instrumentalists, urging to get their fill of tricks of the trade, straight from the horse’s mouth; a couple of dozens of composers, from all over the world; some journalists, musicologists. Completed by a surprisingly large group of outright weirdos. Every year I spotted that transvestite poet around, scribbling her lines in a little red book. Cabalists, mysticists, seekers of truth. Astrologists, seers and soothsayers. The master seems to suit them all.
Not that the above categories are mutually exclusive.
The students and instrumentalists, however, always seemed to be pretty straight.
Though that might be mere appearance.
Jeff and I stayed at Haus Homburg, a small hotel way up in the hills, at some miles distance from Kürten.
A quiet place. A clean place.
With a bar and a waitress, and a pool in the garden, to float in and relax by.
And with the professor.
He’s quite an appearance, the professor, he is. A huge guy, somewhat over forty, almost seven feet tall, heavily built, with dark black-rimmed glasses, and a long greyish beard. He is dragging that enormous body of his around on two impressively looking metal crutches with worn leather handles.
He arrived a day or two after the beginning of the first courses at Haus Homburg by cab, proudly announcing his arrival: professor of theology, doctor of musicology, doctor of philosophy, modern composer, organist and priest in the church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.
We had already heard him moving around the place, had overheard waitresses giggle and laughing and talking about him, but we only met the day after his check-in.
That was during breakfast.
He entered, panting, sighing, sweating already, and placed himself at the table opposite ours.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” he said.
“Morning, professor! Did you sleep well?
“Sorry to say, but, no, I did not,” the professor replied, looking sincerely sad and upset. “There are too many of them beezy-buzzy sting mosquitoes around! Yes, Yes! And I really did put the electric contraption with the black light they gave me. I heard it crackle and saw it flashing all night long, but still, I got bitten at least ten times. At least! It’s a nightmare! My back, my hands, everywhere. Ah, they know how to get to you, them little buggers, yes. And they know where it tastes good, too! Sneak in from the woods, they do, that’s right in front of my window, you know. Hide in the pine trees, of course! And yes, I have to open up. Have to breathe, I have!”
He shook his head and stroke his beard. Then he cheered up.
“But this morning there were the birds there, singing. That was beautiful!
“And now I’ll have my eggs, thank you!”
He broke the scales of the hard-boiled eggs on his table with a tea spoon, and peeled them, one by one. Then he swallowed both of them. The professor drank only Coca-Cola, family-sized. Nothing but the real thing. At breakfast, for lunch, for dinner. And also in between. For it had been a long struggle, and it had been a hard one, to overcome the bottle he told us and anyone else that would care to listen.
“It’s the satan, it is the beast that is tempting us, humans, yes!” These are the words he preferred to shout.
Got him on his knees, the whole three hundred pounds of his. He almost died, on several occasions. Liver failure. But in the end, he survived. Miraculously.
It all, he told us, had started way back when he was young, with the usual all-night good-cheer drinking.
Lots, yet fun. For laughs. And inspiration. You can get them sounds out of bottles. Sure thing. Haven’t we been there?
“But me, without the alcohol I could not,” he assured us. “Lots of alcohol, other drugs too, but foremost the alcohol; and of course the smoking of lots of cigarettes, yes! One day the doctor, he asked me, he said, ‘Do you maybe,’ yes, ‘have a problem with alcohol?’ To which I then replied: But no! Not at all! It is that I have problems without! … And it was true. Sad, sad, but so true, yes…”
Followed the early morning small bottle of brandy on the commuters train, on his way to classes. But the more and the bigger the bottles, the fewer the sounds. And it came to the point where, when getting up in the morning, the only way to move his bowels was to sit down on the toilet, and swallow three pints of icy cold beer for starters.
“Away! No more!” the professor cried. “Thank god that these days are far gone! It’s the lord that has saved me! And my dear old mother, she did. She is a strong person, she is. Quite an authority, really. In the habit of commanding, you see. With a strong tendency upwards, yes. Very ambitious. Upwards, upwards. Always upwards! Me and my father did notice that, yes. It was an explosive mixture, she and my father, yes. And then, I was the only child. There were two sisters as well, but they both died when still babies. Mommie taught me discipline. It only has taken me a long time. I always have found it so very difficult to be disciplined, yes. Maybe I did not want to learn. But then finally I had to. Mommie taught me…”
The professor smiled.
“She called me, this morning,” he said. “Told me it was hot in Duisburg as well! But no mosquitoes! Maybe I should go to Duisburg? Ah, no! The master would not like that, now, would he? Maybe he would not say it with so many words, but I’m sure he would notice me not being there…”
Well, yeah, who would not?
He always came to the courses with his Samsonite Saturn suitcases packed with tailor-made suits.
One suit a day. In a colour to fit the day’s concert.
Immaculate, every single one of them, and each with a matching shirt and tie.
“And of course, I bring my flat iron, yes. It is expensive tissue, so you can fold it, no problem. But just in case. You know how things are. When you take your iron, you will have no need for it. If you do not, it’s pli-selon- pli… Boulez, yes! Fold upon fold. Things are like that. So I should be prepared, yes. For I think it is my duty!” he proclaimed. “You know that this is an important, international event! This is a gathering of the highest cultural standard, with the most important of all living composers, yes, one of the greatest that ever lived! Oh, yes! So I say to myself, Heinrich, the least you can do, is wear a clean ironed suit!”
Then he belched, the professor, he did.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s the carbon dioxide… So. Tonight I will wear something nice again. One of the light-coloured suit. And I have a wonderful wine red shirt to match. The red suit, that I will keep for the last day. But then they’re all nice, of course, all of the same cut, all the same texture…”
He buttered his bread, and ate, really slowly.
Then he looked up again and continued his speech.
“Earlier this night, I thought that there was a burglar sneaking around my room, yes! But it must’ve been an animal, maybe a squirrel, or something. Pity, really! I was already looking forward to showing that good-for-nothing what a cripple on crutches is capable of… You see, there’s all these pine trees just before my window, yes? So I heard something climbing there up one of them. But before that, there was the sound of water running, and I said to myself, Heinrich, I said, the bastard’s down there, collecting his courage by drinking a beer. Then there was this gulping sound as from moving a barrel, and then there were steps, and it climbed up to my window, yes? And as my window was wide open, he could’ve stepped right in. But then I thought, just wait, I’ll get you! So I sat up, anticipating, silently waiting… of course, otherwise I would not be able to get out of the bed fast enough … and then I wanted to suddenly … turn on the lights … the big lights … and then with my crutches I bang him … Na — sen — flü — gel — tanz! … right on top of the head, maybe spoiling that pretty pretty hairdo, ha, who cares, and then, after the first surprise, comes a second blow … bleuh! … straight in the stomach, and then … beng! … one in the neck to finish him off, yes! He would never even have known what hit him, the rascal!”
The professor burst out laughing and took a handkerchief to wipe away the little streams of sweat that had formed on his forehead during the very lively enacting of this taking on of the imaginary burglar.
“He’d already be changing profession, by now… “ He looked thoughtful, the professor, then took a gulp from his coke.
“You know that these things happen, don’t you? We for one had this woman teacher at our university, a really nice old lady — afterwards, she died at the age of one hundred and seven, yes! — and she chased away a burglar at the age of eighty-eight! One night her doorbell rang, and there was this guy standing on the doorstep saying that he had a telegram for her and that she had to sign some slip of paper or other. Just to get into the old lady’s apartment, of course. But she became suspicious, right so, yes! The lady used to be a singer also and had always kept that superb way of breathing. And then she had this big stick standing next to the door, just in case, with a solid metal handle, for one never knows, and she also used it for walking, and then she took this stick, and no further questions asked she started beating the guy up, hitting him wherever she could, and then went on beating until he fell down and was unconscious. Then she called the police. And when they arrived and the guy finally came round, he hastily admitted everything, that he would never do it again and he almost begged them to take him away and most of all, please, to protect him from this woman! You see, yes! These things do happen all the time. Maybe he became a car cracker afterwards. But never ever burglar or conman again!”
Every morning we went down to Kürten. Me in my car, the professor in the cab that every morning arrived promptly on the driveway to Haus Homburg.
Jeff had rented himself a bicycle.
It was an excellent area to be on a bike, Kürten and its hilly surroundings—lots of possibilities for a decent workout. When you’re into that sort of thing, that is.
Jeff for one, he was.
In the morning after breakfast, he soared downhill, building up as much speed as he dared.
And in the evening, after the concert, he struggled back up to Haus Homburg, draining his body from the little energy that his ongoing daytime fight with the Synthifou had left.
The days always passed in a similar way.
After lunch, the instrumental classes started. At five there was the master’s composition seminar. In the evening the concerts. All in and around the gymnasium of the local high school.
But to me, apart from some of the concerts, the morning sessions were the most interesting ones. These were the public rehearsals for the evening concerts. The gymnasium, for the duration of the courses, had been transformed into something resembling a concert hall. A stage built from wooden boxes, several hundreds of chairs, and in the very middle of it all, master Stockhausen and his mixing console, with all of its little red and green lights. He always was at the command wearing that same typical outfit, the master, he was. A white shirt, with broad reddish braids along both sides of the buttons, a bit Indian looking. A light pair of trousers, tennis shoes. And suspenders. Of a different colour for different days.
“He used to wear proper suits, like me, yes, the master,” the professor told us. “Until he got this idea for a more eastern look. Must have been in the seventies. At the same time that he started to grow his long hair… He used to have such a neat shortcut, the master! I was happy to see that there still are some attendants that care to wear a suit. There was this other German composer the other night. He was wearing a white shirt and a black pair of trousers. And of course mister Featherpee, he’s always wearing a suit — though he seems to have only two of them, yes! — and then there’s Professor Groenius, also wearing a suit. And this Japanese colleague, and the Spanish, guy, or is South-American? — but to me, of course, that is pretty much the same, yes -, he’s always in a nice dark- blue or black suit. Still. But, quite sadly, that’s about all, yes.”
The musicians that have to perform in the concert run through all of the evening’s programme. In reverse order. The master follows all and every one of their actions to the smallest of details, feverishly noting remarks in a fresh copy of the score, with a red pencil.
I learn a lot, just sitting there, looking and listening. It’s nothing very specific, really. If you would ask me what precisely I did learn I’d probably just wave my hands and smile. But just sitting there in the dark listening to the master’s comments, the little jokes in German dialect, it soothed me a lot. To hear the near-perfect renderings by Stockhausen’s regular performers. Have been living with these sounds for many, many years, they have. Some of them for much of a lifetime. And how the students usually first times off get things completely wrong. Yeah, they’re playing the notes. But how comes they leave out the music?
“It is you I want to hear,” the master told one of the young clarinet blowers, a very pretty girl she was, told her with a smile, but severe. “You I want. Not … Benny Goodman!”
He knows what he wants, the master does.
And he’s pretty insistent about it, in a Prussian way, say.
Meanwhile, day in and day out, in the back of one of the school’s classrooms, Jeff kept messing around on his keyboard, trying to get at Tuesday’s Synthifou.
Insisting he was, Jeff as well.
For here there was something to learn, and much of a lifetime still left to learn it.
‘Mosquitoes’ is a chapter of Greater Achievements, an ambitious bilingual (English-Dutch) fiction/faction text (my “navel”) in four volumes, each corresponding to a large building on one of the corners of a vast square in the middle of a campus, which can be taken, for all intents and purposes, as a metaphor for our universe: ‘Mars and other stars’ is to the north-west,’ — untitled — ‘ is to the north-east, ‘Toekomstmuziek’ (The Future of Music) is to the south-east and ‘ ‘ is to the south-west.
I compose/construct, write and edit all of my ‘Greater Achievements’ on Medium. Here I can efficiently work, see, modify and keep track of these changes, while at the same time being sure that, give or take the very, very few souls that pass by now and then by chance, nobody here is reading what I write and what is written 😂 .
‘Mosquitoes’ was written as part of a short novel, that bore the title ‘Mars & Other Stars’, written under the pseudonym J.K. Harsman in the village of Gavarnie in the French Pyrenees in one single long stretch of time, about 48 hours, in the fall of 2001, less than ten days before the September 11th Al-Qaeda attacks kicked off the new millennium with a bang. The story appeared originally in the second edition of the now long-defunct Canadian online literary magazine ‘Wooden Fish’, in January 2004.
Meer ‘Greater Achievements’ — :
Ik wil een haring zijn niet
Ik wil een haring zijn niet maar een dunkle weer in wat je ons een iedere aangeglommen aangebloemman.