May 12, 2010

I just received a card that my teacher Johannes Fritsch died two weeks ago at the age of 69. Of all my teachers Johannes Fritsch had the most profound impact on me, despite the fact that my music sounds nothing like his. Among many other things, he taught me my most important and enduring lesson, the lesson about the responsibility of the creative artist: New works have to provide a reason for their addition to the world, otherwise they're just litter in the landscape, at best. A new work has to be "notwendig". (German for "necessary", but it literally and more appropriately translates to "need-turning".)

He demanded awareness from every music creator on what exactly is being set free when a piece is published or performed, an awareness that had to go well beyond the music's audible surface. He was deeply mindful of the historical continuity of music as art, of the shoulders we all stand on as we create, and our resulting responsibility to excellence. He always reminded us, his students, that we are taking life's most valuable resource from our audience - their time. So we better give them something of equal value in return. He also reminded us of the immense power inherent in music, how it can be a corrupting or destructive force just as easily as it can be a beneficial one. He abhorred creations borne in vanity or carelessness, and didn't mince words when he suspected to be listening to one.

But Johannes was by no means an elitist or a snob, he was too smart and knowledgeable about too many kinds of music to fall into that trap. And despite the ultra-purist avant-garde environment of Cologne he himself always respected the genuine affection people like me had for popular music - he just had no use for it.

To me he was also a caring and generous mentor - he hired me to work for his composer's collective while he was on sabbatical in Japan (a job that allowed me to become a true ninja of the xerox machine, back when that was an essential skill for a composer.) He also took me with him to the Soviet Union as an assistant engineer on a tour of music by Stockhausen and others, a trip that had deep impact on me as a person and as a musician, and that to this day serves as the source for some of my tallest tales - and they're all true.

Johannes Fritsch was not an easy teacher - without him and the strict standards he set I would have had a much easier time creating much larger amounts of music over the years. To be honest, if I hadn't received the balancing antidote of carefree "anything-goes" playfulness that I later found at CalArts, the standards Johannes set for me may indeed have caused me to freeze up and stop creating altogether (a demon that haunted him with some regularity, at least for a while.)

But that's just another way of saying that careless, facile, meaningless trinkets are easier to create than meaningful works of art, and that it is very hard (and regularly hazardous to your mental and physical health) to constantly apply the highest possible standards to everything you do.

Johannes gave me the tools to recognize the moment I seize to apply those high standards, and his example always encourages me to keep choosing the high road, even when it is the longer, much harder path to take.