Another solution to last week’s half-step modulation question, courtesy Bobbie Gentry: just do it more than once, so they know you mean business.
I heard that Bill Orcutt plays a guitar with four strings. “Makes sense,” I thought. But I practically spit out my coffee when he said the two he removed were the A and the D. How simply awful. If it were me, it could only have been the B and the high E. Premise, personality, principle.
Lately when I play Beethoven’s music the word that comes to mind is “schematic.” It’s like in all these early works he was drawing up a pile of careful plans, only to occasionally rip them up and improvise on the construction site. A piece like his first piano sonata, op. 2 no. 1, is fascinating to me. It’s like a beautiful house with no one living in it. By the second sonata he’s picked out the furniture, and is feeling at home enough during the Scherzo, which is in A Major, to go ahead and modulate to G# Minor for a while. By the third sonata the force of his imagination has clearly arrived.
This music makes its premises plain, and any tomfoolery is always within the lines. It is easier to understand these premises now, having studied Haydn and Mozart more closely. The premises are many: things like Sonata form, Alberti bass, harmonic relationship, thematic and cadential syntax. The music introduces itself, gives its name, announces its clans. It has a certain accent we might recognize. By opus 90 or so, the premises widen, and the tomfoolery becomes something more like introspective lightning storms or prayer. But the premises are still important to the exploration, like maps and roads and train lines to journeys, and I think for any music, no matter how original, the premises have to lie along some axis that is shared with other music.
When I was in my late twenties, I told a friend in his mid-thirties that I had a busy autumn of wedding attendance ahead of me. He quipped that he’d passed through the time in his life when he was attending his friends’ weddings, and had begun to attend their divorces.
I recalled this story a month or two ago, after two music-professor friends, who had both recently hosted me for concerts at their universities, quit their jobs.
Given how much information is shoveled at us these days, it’s really something that three years on I still think about this story from This American Life every couple of weeks. It just comes back to me, sipping afternoon coffee, or out on a run. There are really big questions in this story, just beneath the surface. What is honor? Is that real? Is this thing worth risking your life for? If not, what is? Since risk is just mathematics, don’t we risk our lives every time we get out of bed? In that case, doesn’t the question apply to everything we ever do? In that case, how do we choose?
I just reread Peter Garland’s book Americas for the first time since 2008, when it changed the course of my life. He was in his twenties when he wrote these essays, and I was embarking on mine when I read them. It is impossible to overstate the influence this book had on me, as I’ve discussed in writing before. Stepping across each page again after ten years, I don’t admire them less, but of course I read them differently.
For one thing, the ellipses. The first time, I found them distracting. Now I like them, because they signify a willingness to be elusive, pensive, ambivalent; to bring something up without pronouncing on it; to trail off and leave certain things unsaid. May I be similarly absolved, one day, of my semicolons.
Writing in the 1970s, Garland repeatedly mentions culture’s “loss of a future” in the post-atomic age. Climate change has given us a fresh and terrifying claim on that loss. (My only consolation: we’ve never been right about the future before, why start now?) What I fear is not an abrupt cataclysm but a slow one. The mushroom cloud is an effectively terrifying image, but I can ponder the idea of a sudden flash into nonexistence; it’s the idea of fall and winter never coming that I find too horrible to contemplate. When I fear losing the future, what I’m really scared to lose is my whole notion of a universe based on cycles.
Though Garland may have lost faith in the future, he still demonstrates a faith in history, in teleology, in artistic lineage. His is still a world in which composers influence other composers and music marches onward. What we may have lost, in our world of saturation and overpopulation, in our rightful concern towards inclusion, is any faith or interest in the “onward” part.
Not that I’ve ever been much for marching, myself.
To put a finer point on the mention of inclusion:
Garland beautifully describes walking into Conlon Nancarrow’s house and seeing his library of books, scores, and music periodicals. It reminded me of a recent Will Oldham interview where he talked about walking into people’s homes and how you used to see their books and records and know something about this person, who they are, what they love. But many of us don’t own our books or music anymore. Increasingly we keep them “in the cloud,” and trust others to maintain and manage them. Question: what happens to clouds? Spotify is not a public library.
Garland talks too about a revival of regionalism. I remember that from the first time. Back then I wondered whether the Internet could offer diffusion of artistic information such that a composer could live in the sticks and stay connected. Regionalism without provincialism, I declared. But another decade on, the Internet-era ideal is ever more one of mobility to the point of placelessness. My concern is that, like a year without seasons, we might find ourselves swimming in a featureless, centerless soup of cosmopolitanism. I don’t think this is really possible, because I believe in human individuality, but I also think building a distinctive and personal artistic and intellectual concept is hard, long work, and worthy, and we ought to take it seriously.
So I’m not decrying inclusion as individual act or attitude—and I certainly don’t want to extol exclusion, politically or personally. But I do want to recognize the limits of one’s time and attention, the natural gravity of individual instinct and interest, the beauty of simplicity, and the necessity of choice.
Mary Oliver put it better: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
In 2001, I went to a midnight release party at a record store to get my copy of Radiohead’s Amnesiac. In 2007 the band made another album and released it, briefly, on a pay-what-you-want basis. Two years ago they made an album and dropped it: after abruptly erasing their whole Twitter history to get a little attention, they graced it with links to two new music videos, followed a few days later by A Moon Shaped Pool. I bought it. I transcribed “Daydreaming” and, I’ll admit, was emotionally affected by hearing “True Love Waits” at the end. Two years later, I’m not sure if this album has come up in conversation since the week of its release. I pulled up Pitchfork just now, assuming they gave it a middling, equivocal review with a meaningless score like 7.6. I’m wrong, actually. They gave it a 9.1.
I tire of the paradigm in which albums—the work of months and years—are “dropped.” The problem with dropping things is, sometimes they hit the ground with a hollow thunk. Maybe it would do us better to carry things a little while longer, to hold on to them a bit more tightly.
Listen, I’m fine with your pop song having an eff-off key change, but I wish more songwriters would have the decency to change back. Exemplary in this respect (and basically all others) is Hammond Song, which raises another point: why go up a half step when you can go into V for a verse?
And if you really need that half-step dopamine hit, and I don't begrudge it half a second, why not go back down, and then back up, and then back down again? (It’s like the key of the song is itself dancing.)
Then there’s Chris’ song “Ipswich, MA,” in which the B section is just the A section in V. Chris abhors a I chord in his songs. Seriously, check out how infrequently that progression takes a rest. It’s not “Don’t Talk, (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” but then, what is, besides maybe Dichterliebe?
Pre-Internet Metaphor: You write some sketches. These are the directions. Composing the piece, that’s the road trip. It’s rugged country and the roads are not good. Bring a spare.
I was speaking to a musician friend about making albums. It’s just so fascinating to hear how people deal with self-releasing and especially the question of physical media, because it’s a problem with no good answer, and the ground is constantly shifting beneath us. He gave me some recent statistics about vinyl sales versus physical downloads. Then, in the same breath, he said, “the real problem we’re dealing with is, no one gives a fuck.”
Maybe. Or maybe there’s no more industry investment and there’s almost no more music journalism, and it isn’t that people don’t give any fucks, just that we could use a hand in directing them.
One simple way of putting it is, everything I’ve done as a composer has been trying to recreate Tony Williams’ hi-hat on In a Silent Way.
I think the strangeness of this notion—of using our blood-distributing organ as an all-purpose stand-in metaphor for our centers of love and direction—has been well thought through. But why, when you really consider the weird adventures that take place in our sleeping minds, why on earth would we think to analogize and poeticize our worldly aspirations by calling them “dreams?”
People seem to think “weird music” is “hard to listen to,” as though it’s uncomfortable or painful for them in some way.
It’s just sound, of course—but organized differently than how they’re expecting.
On the other hand, I find normal music hard to listen to when it’s too loud. Not long ago I was at a venue with bad sound, taking in a band that everyone was shouting over. Many weird musicians seem to enjoy intense experiences with loudness. I have never had this affinity. In this case, I felt physically attacked by the music.
People evidently feel that weird music, even at quiet volumes over great speakers or headphones, causes a different sort of damage.
The world faces major problems. I have decided, upon reflection and given the perspective of personal maturation, that the music of Eric Ewazen is not actually one of them.
Musician Patrick Higgins, interviewed by Jeremiah Cymerman on the 5049 Podcast:
“That’s what leads to great style…nothing to do with the instrument, particularly…it’s attitude, technique, and social application…[that’s] the shit that works.”
Charles Bowden, in Blue Desert, hiking Sonora’s Pinacate Wilderness in the 1980s:
“And I cannot stop walking. I want to keep moving into the country although all I seem to do is move through it. I fall each night into a dreamless sleep and wake each day in a dream. The landscape comes from the far side of the mind—black slopes, blue sky, burning sun.”
I listen to the recording over and over, until I can sing along with every note. Usually I lie on the floor for this part. Then I go to the piano, and figure out how to play what I’m singing.
In the process I am learning about what, exactly, a musical “idea” is, how large or small a unit (and a unit of what?). I’m learning about how memory works. I’m learning about awareness, about listening. This becomes an exercise in the alteration of consciousness.
Listen deeply enough, and any piece of music will cease to resemble in any way the conceptual ideas or verbal descriptions previously appended to it. Example: Bill Evans’ piano solo on “Solar,” from Sunday at the Village Vanguard. Heard fifteen or twenty times in a row, this three minutes ceases to be “jazz.” The word simply slides off, like the label from a can of tomatoes. I’m hoping that if I keep listening, its essence will continue to clarify until at some point the essence is all there is. This is not merely theoretical. At some point the solo might also cease to be “music.” At this moment both of us will be free.
You can’t un-check your email.
In classical music, excellence is just defined so narrowly. How about a virtuosity of listening — of collaboration — of inclusion — of friendship — of imagination — of openness — of comfort onstage in one’s own skin?
Just in case you’ve never heard what natural swing sounds like in 13/8: here is Bartók at the piano playing the third movement of Contrasts.
I was in love with potential, and it could only end with a broken heart. Time and logic might take you to a place beyond your wildest expectations, but the wildness of potential was always inhered by the foreknowledge of loss. No matter how beautiful the map, it can never replace the question of the white space.
Here, the cartographer said, be dragons.
“Hearts are made to be broken,” Oscar Wilde wrote, more than once.
I’ve read a little poetry lately. I have a method.
First, I try and alternate, fiction, non-fiction, poetry. In my late twenties I found that I was reading disproportionately more non-fiction all of a sudden. I’m told this happens as one ages. Reading fiction is important. I feel better when I keep everything in the rotation.
Second, I endeavor to read poetry the same way I read everything else. I got this idea from someone on On Being. I don’t study it. I just read it.
Third, I go to the library. There is a small one two blocks from my house. This fact was not irrelevant to the choice of purchasing said house. I go to the small shelf which is the poetry shelf. I browse. I pick out a book. I take it home. They are often short.
Fourth, I try to honor my tastes, within a reasonable perimeter of self-challenge. I like Mary Oliver, Jim Harrison, Richard Brautigan, Gary Snyder. More to come, in this space, about Ray Gonzalez.
Fifth, I try and let go of the desire for logic. Because I read poetry like I read everything else, and because poetry is made of words, it’s easy to feel like I’m reading rhetoric. But I’m not. A poem has no thesis. Or at least it doesn’t need one. I try to allow logic to spread out, soften, liquify, seep across boundary lines. I try to think laterally, if at all.
I was speaking to a friend about the quality of her education. I have to admit that this time around I have no concern for this quality, in the abstract. I was abstract enough during my first master’s degree. This time—again, I don’t want to be crass, but I see it as vocational school. I want to learn collaborative piano like I’m training to be a master electrician. I want everything to work. My goal is not any Platonic ideal of musical accomplishment but only that the lights turn on when someone flips the switch.
If anything, I wish my education as a composer had been more technical. I may not have been entirely in the mood for this during my first master’s degree, when I was spending a lot of time sitting at coffee shops writing esoteric plays with titles like Equinox. (It took place at a drilling station in futuristic ANWR, and the main characters, Smitty and Anchorage, conversed at night with their younger selves.) What I got, mainly, was ideas and exposure. That isn’t nothing. I met some real musicians, and got to spend serious time with them. But what I really stand behind as an educational model is what I got in Paris with the European American Musical Alliance. This program bases its approach on that of Nadia Boulanger, who very rarely looked at her students’ original music, but rather schooled them all day long on hard-core musicianship exercises. You want to write music? Great, write music. You want to learn composition? Okay, you’re going to learn to sight-sing; you’re going to read Bach chorales in open score; you’re going to practice realizing figured bass lines in four parts with good voice leading. Then go home and write some music if you want. At least you'll know a thing or two about proper wiring.
As a mystical counterpoint to this pragmatism: still, sometimes, when I’m onstage playing, and usually when I’m not expecting it, I catch a glimpse of someone in the corner of my eye: the spirit of music that has accompanied me all this time, still there, smiling, up in the catwalks.
I learned years ago that getting along musically and getting along personally are not separate concerns. Here’s something I’ve learned more recently about chamber music: two people, always, is a relationship. Add a third, and you’ve got yourself a band. This doesn’t make the dynamics less complicated. But it can make them less intense.
I like Brahms. I do. Just, not for me. For me Brahms is like a really excellent pair of vintage thrift-store jeans that simply don’t fit.
I’m beginning to suspect if there might actually be something irreconcilable between me and German Romanticism. I don’t know what it is, but it’s probably related to my total lack of any relationship with the orchestra and its repertoire. I don’t really understand the orchestra as a method of social organization, and I don’t really understand it as a musical entity, either. A lot of nineteenth-century European music came from the piano. But the orchestra might be even more fundamental. Maybe if I went and spent a year or two just listening to orchestra music, maybe then I could play Brahms.
When I was in high-school physics, my friends and I were assigned to make a bridge out of paper and glue. This was a sort of competition. Whichever bridge held the most weight would win. Our bridge barely held the container which was to hold the weights. We knew we were doomed; we added a flag at the top that read “F = ma,” so we’d at least get one point for knowing a basic equation. We were all liberal arts majors in the making. I am no engineer.
This is why I resist, at times, metaphors of “material” and “structure” in music. I don’t want music to be like engineering, a thing I am so thoroughly and essentially bad at. Here’s what I want music to be like: I want music to be like cooking. Like going to the farmers market and buying some beautiful vegetables, and cooking an elaborate dinner, and pouring some wine, and sharing it with friends, and laughing.
I’ve improved my sight reading. Now it’s my responsibility to use that skill for good, and not for evil.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the fact that I ended up studying classical music had almost nothing to do with music, and almost everything to do with performing conditions—with how, and where, the music was presented.
My demands are simple. I want mystery, ambiguity, and subtlety. And I want to be able to hear.
Ideally, I would also prefer that a few members of the audience are there for reasons beyond a vague sense of professional obligation. This used to be more important to me, but I've come to accept that human motivations are complicated and frankly none of my business. I'll play for whoever is there. That's what we do.
About John Prine Covers.
Listen: what you want in a folk song is, you want it to sound at once like it’s incredibly durable and it’s been sitting out back in the sun and the rain for decades, if not centuries, and nothing could ever break it; and at the same time you want it to sound like it’s so fragile that it might crumble into dust in your hands and then blow away with the breeze, never to be reconstructed, never to be heard again on this earth.
My all-time favorite songwriting compliment is still Elvis Costello, on Dylan’s Basement Tapes: “I think he was trying to write songs that sound like he’d just found them under a stone.”
Is that music actually “bad?” Or does it just deviate from currently expected norms and professional standards?
Modernism is clean, postmodernism is messy. I’ve been studying Cage lately. Even in a piece like the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with over eighty different systems of notation to be deciphered, one sits within the orderliness of his methods.
I’m interested in sloppiness as an aesthetic statement. I was born in the 1980s. I grew up with magnetic tape. With Pavement. With Linklater. With Basquiat. With a VCR with a tracking knob.
I have to believe in everything at once, or nothing at all. I’m just built this way.
I don’t like the concept of “talent,” and I think everyone is “creative.” But if there’s anything to the idea of living life particularly as an “artist,” I think it has to do with believing at every moment, on some level, that the answer might be just around the corner.
(Chris told me the story of Cy Twombly revealing, in an interview, that he’d discovered the secret to a great painting: “Brown.”)
Secondarily, for continuity: it has to do with realizing that there are no ladders, only chutes. So there’s no other choice, really, but one square at a time. (In this metaphor, the work is the board. (The work is not the mountain. The work is the trail. There is no mountain. We walk.))
One other thing about Sunday at the Village Vanguard. I came up listening to CD reissues of classic jazz albums, which often, like this one, contain additional takes not included on the original LP versions, and often, like this one, stick those extra takes in the middle of the album, so if you’re listening straight through, you keep hearing the band play the same tune twice or even three times in a row. I have come to dislike this practice, as it seems to imply the music is something to be studied rather than enjoyed—it seems to assume its listener is a specialist. The approach seems designed to repel the casually curious. But actually, when I was an eager kid and small-group jazz form and composition was terra incognita, this was not my reaction. Rather, a piece followed by the same piece played differently seemed a beguilingly counterintuitive structural gambit. Humbly I accepted the suggestion that there may have been something, the first time around, that I’d missed. I suspect that, in the specific case of my experience with this particular album, the alternate takes might have been part of the mystery.
I have to try and remind myself, every day, that the Industrial Revolution was not really my fault.
Sometimes people at classical music concerts, trying so assiduously to keep the silence, seem to behave like they think music is a terribly fragile thing, like if they’re not careful they really might break it.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts