In 2019 all live music is experimental.
Sometimes people want to know whether I think I’m a better or worse pianist than such-and-such a person. I have a friend who likes to grow vegetables. Do people ask him to compare himself to other gardeners?
My old neighborhood coffee shop, Royal Coffee, is closing. The experiences described by the interviewees are representative. It was the first place I went on the first day I spent in Rogers Park in 2009. Ben and I used to meet there in the mornings and invent games of chance, work on compositions, complain about residency and contest applications. I was sitting at Royal when I took a deep breath and bought my first plane tickets to Guatemala. Two good friends of mine had their engagement photos taken there, and the owners gave them a cake for their wedding. There’s a photo of a bunch of us on the patio on the first warm day of the spring. Sometimes we met there amidst crisis, but mostly we met there on normal days when we didn’t have somewhere else to be.
My time in Chicago was a crisis of public space. I needed a place to go. I lived one block from a park with an enormous beach, but it is usually cold in Chicago. I wish we didn’t rely so heavily on private, commercial spaces for indoor gathering. It places so much pressure on individual business owners, and the reliance on their personal good will means a lack of continuity (see the article’s recitation of recent business closings in the neighborhood).
Before I moved to Rogers Park I briefly lived in Lakeview. I liked a place called Noble Tree, a three-story coffee shop. Each floor had a different vibe; it got quieter as you climbed the stairs. One time we were there with our laptops when a friend looked up at our silent table and said, “we’re just hanging out in a house with a bunch of strangers.” I didn’t stay long in that neighborhood. Noble Tree closed a year or two later.
I think from now on, whenever I hear or see the word “entrepreneur” or “entrepreneurial” in any context whatsoever, I’m just going to scream as loud as I can for about five to ten seconds. That should help.
Three Augusts ago I walked through the doors of UNM’s music building to start another Master’s degree. I was about ten minutes early for the first entrance exam, and I walked into the classroom and walked right out again. It was the closest thing I’ve had in my adult life to a panic attack. At the time I could only articulate it like this: it was unbearable to walk into a room of fresh Master’s students and look in their eyes and see that they hadn’t yet been forced to confront the fact that they are completely and totally fucked.
Three years later, I am prepared to explain this differently.
The deeply unnatural thing about music school is that it is predicated on criticism. Your teacher’s job is to fill the hour with ideas about what’s wrong with your music. They are paid to care, or pretend as much, and to provide critique. If you look up to them, you might see this as a skill worth developing, and you too might begin to value and practice criticism.
As soon as you leave music school, you will never be in this situation again. As soon as you walk out those doors, the default position is that no one knows who you are and no one gives a shit about your music. No one is going to expend brain power critiquing it, and no one wants to hear your critiques either. Actually the situation is the reverse: now you have to do something music school never prepared you for, and I don’t mean operating Quickbooks. You have to come up with reasons for people to care.
You will find at times that you yourself have joined the group of people who do not care, and you will be forced to conjure reasons to keep yourself in the game, too.
They might not want to admit it, but this truth breaks a lot of young musicians’ hearts, and it’s why a lot of them quit within a few years, or end up back in the institution. For those of us who believe that a life in music is not necessarily the same as a life in music school, the road is a cold and bumpy one.
When one performance is described as “more musical” than another, I’m reminded of the encouragement to “just be yourself.” Is it possible to behave otherwise? Can any music be unmusical?
A piano teacher once told me I wasn’t Horowitz. Good to know: I’ll add him to the list. To date I have also determined that I am not Robert Oppenheimer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Jim Davis, the cartoonist of Garfield. Recent studies as to whether I am Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933, thirtieth president of these United States) are within the margin of error.
Addendum to Word 63, on Bob Dylan: it would be appropriately Shakespearean to describe the current phase of his career not as a third act but as a fifth.
I want music to be unapologetic. I need to hear what you’re doing. I don’t need to hear second thoughts about what you’re not doing.
I’ve been thinking about the late work of Bob Dylan. My favorite talking point here is Tempest, his most recent record of original material, from 2012. Really his whole catalog post-Time Out Of Mind is a substantial body of work that has been insufficiently reckoned with. (Time Out Of Mind, notice, is not a recent effort anymore; it’s twenty-two years old.) Tempest crystallizes the enigma. Here is Bob Dylan at age seventy-one, with thirty-four studio albums to his name; and he says, “what I need to do is write a fourteen-minute song about the Titanic.” Since Tempest he’s released three full albums of standards. People don’t know how to deal with this. I do think his version of “Some Enchanted Evening” speaks for itself, but of course your attitude toward Dylan, and toward standards, is going to determine your reaction.
Yet more controversial is Dylan’s “never ending tour.” He has been playing roughly 100 shows a year for thirty years nonstop, often in small cities, often in unusual venues. It is easy to ignore this when, like me, you have caught maybe two of these 3,000 concerts. But with a little perspective, it’s clear that Dylan has dedicated himself to live performance in a way few musicians at his level of fame have attempted. The repertoire on the set lists is unpredictable, and his interpretations have shifted along with the aging of his voice. Bill Wyman’s article for Vulture contends thoughtfully with some of the bizarrenesses of the situation. I especially like his comparison of Dylan to Lefty, from the Townes van Zandt song.
A couple years back when Leonard Cohen’s last album came out, I found it so immediate and beautiful that I had to step into his work from recent decades, from Old Ideas (2012) to Live in London (2009) to I’m Your Man (1988). The growling, the synths, the backup singers: I heard it all differently in the context of You Want It Darker. If the early work doesn’t set up a context for the late work, maybe sometimes the later music can draw a line backwards in time. I’ve had similar experiences with the Beatles’ discography and even the piano sonatas and string quartets of Beethoven.
When someone makes a masterful statement at some point, and they’re still making music decades later, we need to take these later efforts seriously—and more difficultly, we need to take them on their own terms. We need to assume that these musicians know exactly what they’re doing. If it’s something completely different and we don’t understand it right away, that’s on us.
From this day forward, I will jump only through hoops of my own construction.
The political divide is not about policy. There are two types of people: those who distrust power and want it held to account, and those who trust power, and believe it possesses its own justification.
My new trio Crossing New Mexico with Weldon Kees & Ray Gonzalez premiered at Chatter a few weeks ago. Planning my introduction from the stage, I wrote out some notes under three headings. Then I restrained myself and said almost none of it out loud. Maybe it will make a better essay.
Before you hear this new trio, I want to briefly plant three seeds that might suggest how I think about composition and how you might direct your listening.
1. Music as Metaphor for/of Travel
Road trips have always been important to my creative imagination. Consider for a moment the rates of motion you experience when driving down a New Mexico highway. Direct your gaze at the mountains in the distance, and you might seem to be moving slowly. Direct your gaze at the road beside you, and you’ll appear to be moving quickly. Look around within the car, and you’ll find you aren’t moving anywhere at all.
2. Music Evoking Space
Acoustically any sound has four components: attack, sustain, decay, release. Conventional pitch-and-rhythm notation emphasizes attack. I’m interested in the other three. One can listen not just to the notes but to everything that comes right before, right after, in all the space between.
3. Eventfulness/Activity/Eventlessness in Music
The novelist Haruki Murakami has reported that he begins the first draft of each new novel with no plan whatever in mind. He drafts his way through from beginning to end, letting each development come as a surprise; he just begins, and trusts that information will emerge and self-organize.
My composition teachers always emphasized “pre-planning.” You’re supposed to know the length and width and shape of the piece, its form and structure and character, before you write any notes or rhythms. This clearly works for others, but for me the results were lifeless. My teachers encouraged me to “exhaust the material,” exploring and “developing” each idea by carefully considering it from every angle. I’ve preferred to go from one idea to the next, letting each one hang in the air for as long as it seems to want to.
The best composition lesson I ever got came in this three-word bundle: Repetition is Development. You can’t cross the same river twice, and you can’t hear the same musical idea twice, either, and one thing you definitely cannot do is go home again. By the end of the piece, you’re an older person than you were at the beginning. This is the whole game right here, the whole essence of what we do. Music stylizes and dramatizes the passing of time.
Thank you for joining us, and I hope you enjoy the journey.
Postscript is, I’m always looking for ways to close my pre-piece remarks beyond telling people that I hope they enjoy the piece. Submissions welcome.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues