Before they canceled everything, I was playing rehearsals for a production of La Traviata. Maybe everyone knew this already, but basically Verdi is working as a songwriter here. Most of the arias have two verses, and it has become common practice to cut the second. Evidently in the original performance situations for these operas, the listening was informal. The audience might be walking around or talking or whatever, and might not start listening until the second verse, when a friend elbowed them to say hey, shut up, this is a good one. Today instead we have the assumption of rapt, continuous, focused listening, and the assumption of familiarity. A listener hearing La Traviata for the first time might benefit from hearing multiple verses of each tune, so they can start to learn the music. But we assume they’ve heard it before, and already know these songs.
An interesting comparison is the jazz-world practice of CD reissues including multiple takes, sequentially, of the same tune. While the direction is opposite—including more material rather than cutting it—the impulse is the same, presuming the listener to be a scholar of the music. Only an informed listener engaging in rapt, continuous, focused listening would be interested in two sequential versions of the same piece. As though we’re all listening to these albums so we can write a dissertation in our heads as they spin.
I had a friend who was playing a doctoral piano recital for a degree in contemporary performance. His committee would not let him program Morton Feldman’s music on the recital.
See, there was once this idea that some music is hard, and some music is easy. That some music is “simple,” which means it is less challenging to play that music well.
As though style and elegance could be easy, or simple.
I wrote a few posts before all this happened (if you didn't notice: pandemic, all concerts canceled, social distancing recommendations, etc.) that I'll continue to publish over the next week or so—if my tone seems in conflict with the moment, that's why. For the present, I'm going for runs and practicing, taking special solace in reading through Haydn's Piano Sonatas. This is music in which everything makes sense, for a moment in which little seems to.
When I read an artist biography I want some real information about how they made their living, and increasingly, when the topic is elided, I wonder why.
Reading back over my 2014 travelogue for NewMusicBox I am dismayed by the evident willingness to sell off my personal stories to the project of digital brandmaking. Today I am more protective of my experience. I was so driven—pathologically, I’d now say—to connect my biography to my artistic impulses. Today I find those metaphors facile and embarrassing. Let life be life and music be music. I’ll no longer give one away for free in vain hope that someone will buy the other.
Two Labyrinths Records has been busy in early 2020, releasing two new projects involving favored collaborators.
In January we released Cole-Marr's debut single Joe Hill. This is the fraternal collaboration of Danny and Chris Fisher-Lochhead, taking on a new name that combines the lost family names of their grandmothers. Danny and Chris depart from their distinct musical trainings and professional identities to engage directly with social justice issues in their song choices on this record.
In February we released Vinesines' Colored Over [improvised songs], which documents the initial recordings by the duo of Emmalee Hunnicutt and Ben Hjertmann improvising songs and stories in the studio. The Alibi praised this as "intensely felt and profoundly performed music."
Check these releases out on your next dog-walk or lunch break.
The more hopeless the commercial prospects of recorded music become, the more heartened I am by the work of small, independent record labels. The world is a scary place, but some people feel compelled to speak up about it. Let's listen.
Really we should get less scared as we get older, since in terms of our time and experience, actuarially speaking, we have less and less to lose. Funny that it doesn’t happen that way.
I’ve been busy. Someone told me that Verdi (or someone) called them his “trench years”—working day night on music, forging his craft. But I’m really trying to avoid military metaphors. Maybe let’s say my nose has been to the grindstone. It’s hard to look out the window when you’re crouched over the stone; after a while, one’s neck gets sore.
How to maintain a long view? I’ve tried to maintain a long afternoon dog walk this winter. I stretch out the mind on these walks listening to spacious music, usually instrumental. On the playlist: Rob Mazurek, Jessica Pavone, Streifenjunko, Andrew Weathers/Seth Chrisman.
In Andrew’s recent newsletter he made a point about choosing non-commercial, non-algorithmical, non-industrial entertainments. A perhaps eyerollable metaphor to agriculture: maybe this music, like a local vegetable, has nutrients you won’t get from more depleted soils. I’ll take it a step further: it’s helpful to listen to music by people you know. There is an extra dimension to this. In that spirit, I’ve also been spending time with the two best musicians I shared bills with on tour last May: More Eaze and David Lord, the guitar wizard of Wichita.
Another way to extend mental space is spending time on a long-term project. Eighteen variations in, I am finally ready to admit that I am learning Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! The scheme is I learn one variation a week, and every six I double back for a week or two and review. Learning a piece like this is perhaps like climbing a mountain. South of Albuquerque there is a formidable one called Ladron Peak, named for the bandits that supposedly used to hide out there. You start the day by driving nearly a full circle around Ladron; then you start on foot. Throughout the day hiking, from some angles the mountain looks smaller, more manageable; from others, impossibly tall and distant. There are no trees to block your view; you can see the summit the whole time. You just have to keep trust, and keep walking.
Again to shun the militaristic, I don’t want to “conquer” the Rzewski or “surmount” anything. I just want to explore it, to know a piece or a place well, to spend a day (or a year) walking. In some traditions it is considered disrespectful to actually climb a mountain. The proper act of humility and devotion, rather, is to circumambulate.
Writing boring piano parts doesn’t necessarily make you a minimalist.
I’m thinking about Cormac Begley playing the concertina, about Jacqueline du Pré playing Dvorak, about John Coltrane playing Crescent, about Radu Lupu playing Brahms, about Jimi Hendrix playing “All Along the Watchtower.” I’m thinking about why it’s so arresting to hear a great instrumentalist take a physical object and make it sound almost, almost like a human voice. When the playing is average, you’d rather hear someone singing. When the playing is masterful, a drama arises. You notice how incredibly close they’re getting to the subtlety of phrasing we all take for granted in speech; but all the while you know, it is the nature of this game that they’ll never actually get there. They can’t. That gap is the ineffable beauty of instrumental music. And it points to what’s around us all the time, all the beauty and subtlety of speech that we’re always taking for granted.
• 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