Old idea: Practice everything slowly.
Newer idea: Never practice at an uncomfortable tempo, ever again.
Last week’s idea: Practice piano like you’re on the surface of the moon.
This week: I’m in North Carolina for a couple concerts, to play songs from To Evening Lands alongside the premiere of my Trio Sonata, commissioned last year by excellent pianist and fine friend Franklin Gross. I’m also making the next Golconda, with Ben. Someone asked me about the name last night. The answer no longer feels honest, in a way. It’s been ten years, and the name has taken on its own momentum. Golconda is a place where I put my efforts as a songwriter. Also, it’s where I make efforts to understand myself as a guitarist. As a pianist and composer I’m overly educated. As a guitarist, almost entirely self-taught, even hermetic.
I try to remind myself that the tendency to perfection, from my classical training, is maybe not endemic here. Folkloric guitar styles are not justified by perfection. There is a different concept of virtuosity at play. Virtuosity of rhythmic feel and color, rather than technical precision. Look at the slide, as an example: slide playing is not supposed to be clean. It’s the guitar struggling to be more like a human voice. There is grit, imperfection, even failure, all embedded in that concept of aspiration.
Nonetheless, it’s difficult. I’ve been working seriously at fingerstyle guitar since 2009. I love its contrapuntal energy. It’s still really hard to voice evenly between the fingers. In 2014 I started to have tendon problems and began to limit the amount of time I spent practicing. Certain tunes I can still only play a couple times in a row before my hand starts to fall asleep.
It hasn’t necessarily helped that I play a resonator guitar. It’s not very forgiving; you hear *everything*.
I started learning guitar because, unlike the piano, it’s portable, and you can play it outside.
It’s also worth mentioning that I’ve learned and understood guitar primarily as an accompanying instrument. This changes the dynamic and the expectation, the vector of virtuosity.
Tonight tonight tonight, in Boone, NC:
I have a commission coming down the line, and I’ve been thinking about how to achieve freedom (you know, freedom) in a notated context. How to create a texture of license, spontaneity, theatrical awareness, without putting the performers in an uncomfortable and unproductive situation.
Notation doesn’t do freedom well. Its currency is specificity. But you don’t need to be specific about everything. So it’s about choosing in what ways to be specific.
In Open, for example, there was specificity of note and rhythm, though I ceded some responsibility of form to repetition. I gave myself the freedom of extemporaneous structure, and hoped that would speak. I was also specific about tempo. The piece gradually moves from quarter = 60 up to 90 and back to 60 over the course of thirtyish minutes, in small increments, one or two bpm at a time.
I thought of revisiting the process I used to write Open, in which I followed sound but no plan, writing a page of notes each day, never more or less, and not subsequently editing the form. I almost accused myself of going to the same well twice. But this is just a question of process, not of materials. This wouldn’t be going back to the same well; it’s a new well, just the same way of handling the bucket.
Question: what other language might we use, besides metaphors of construction and architecture, to analogize musical composition? What about gardening (and its attendant tools)? What about painting (colors, brushes, canvas)? What about weaving (rows, patterns)?
What other sorts of things do we make? (Cooking? Design?)
What other sorts of things have structure? (Biology? Physics?)
Favorite listening for an ebbing winter: Morgan Evans-Weiler’s Unfinished Variations (for Jed Speare) (2017). This is music that does not avert its gaze from the desolation. It acknowledges the desolation. “Hello, desolation,” it says.
I also love Violin/Sine (2015).
Last night I had a dream I was falling from some great height. As I looked at the evening sky suddenly I could see the whole earth there, rotating wildly, so I saw all the oceans and continents whipping around. Neil Armstrong was falling with me, and I asked him how it was possible to see the whole earth, since we were still within earth’s atmosphere ourselves. He explained that we were seeing it looking back through the rings of Saturn. Soon we’d have to travel back through the rings. This was a dangerous thing to attempt.
I didn’t have a parachute, but somehow I landed unharmed. I was in the yard of my parents’ old house, the one where we lived when I was in high school. I went inside and was greeted by a kitchen full of people. But not my family. Strangers.
Earlier in the night I dreamt I was with a childhood friend. We were full grown, but we were in the back of his grandparents’ Buick, and they dropped us off in our old neighborhood, the one where we lived until we were about six. I wanted to sit on the edge of our yards and talk across the street, the way we used to. But he was already walking away.
Proposition: People who are still alive can also have ghosts.
I'm working this month with Opera Southwest, playing piano for their rehearsal process. Our endeavor is Bless Me, Ultima, a new opera by Héctor Armienta; the source novel is a classic of New Mexican literature. Since I have more experience in the trenches with music theater, the question often presents itself: do we really need to sing *everything*? Wouldn't it make sense to talk through some of this setup business, making our introductions, getting people from room to room, and save the singing for when the pitchforks and torches come out? But having my hands and ears inside this new work, feeling my way through it with a crew of professionals who live and breathe in this style, I'm starting to realize that singing everything is the whole game of it. That's the challenge. We're not starting from naturalism and dovetailing with artifice—we're starting from artifice and striving toward naturalism. The one's bread, the other's the jam. It's a question of ratios.
Anyway, as with music theater, I like the intensity of the process. And more than music theater, I like the demands this playing makes on my concentration. Rolling through a whole act of music with the singers, no stopping, no sitting and reading a novel through long scenes of spoken exposition about witches (though a person can only admire Cyd Charisse's waxen stare in the movie version), with all the changes and shifts of the score, that's a good challenge.
Because people make too many sports metaphors about concert performance and not enough about opera, here's one: in rehearsal, the conductor is the pitcher, and the répétiteur (my job) is the catcher. Between the two, you've got to try and control the diamond.
I've been neglecting this space, in favor of my highly occasional newsletter, and more particularly in favor of playing a hell of a lot of piano since roughly September 2016. It turns out that when one can sight read, is polite and punctual, one's time becomes worth something. Being paid to play more has been rewarding, and not just financially. In composer-world one is generally asking everyone for favors all the time; it's nice to be doing musical work for others in service of their ideas for a change.
I find myself less and less in composer-world. Today it occurred to me, out of the blue, to remove the list of compositions from my website. Pen-and-paper notated composition work has been the heart of my creative effort for twenty years. Or, at least I thought it was the heart. Really it's been someplace else for almost ten of those years now. So, I didn't remove the workslist in preparation for a major change in direction; actually I believe the change happened long ago. I'm still writing formal compositions, when people ask me to, but when I get up in the morning and have an hour or two to work on personal projects, that's not where I go. So: I removed the workslist simply because it no longer contained the work of which I'm most proud. That would be the recorded music and the performances over the last several years. Those links are still up. Recordings of my formal compositions are still on my Soundcloud. And I'm still available for commissions. But if you're meeting me for the first time, that's not the music I most want you to hear. That would be the stuff on my Bandcamp, and on GWB's. And the stuff that's still coming.
I've been mixing the new GWB album, the one with Ross Gallagher from last summer, with local mastermind Drake Hardin. I can't wait to share this music. We dug deep, that week in August.
I would tell you about Christmas, but I wrote a song about it, and I don't want to spoil the surprise.
There's more to talk about from the last year, and I hope I'll get to it soon. In the meantime, there's the present. Still walking. In the meantime: Bartók's Contrasts. The Ravel Violin Sonata. A brand new opera. Long walks. PANCRACE. John McPhee's structure diagrams. Appreciating the afternoons.
(Because sometimes you need a little water)
Strategy #1: Distance.
Don't stand right next to the nozzle. Head back a ways, walking outside the flow of the water, and drink from the end, where the water falls closer to the ground.
Strategy #2: Use a receptacle.
Don't put your face directly in the path of the water. Use a bucket or other receptacle to collect water, then drink from the receptacle. Or, better yet, dip your glass into the receptacle for a properly portioned libation.
Strategy #3: Turn it on, turn it off.
Let water collect—on the ground, or in a receptacle, then turn the water off, and then come in for a drink.
This has been, "How To Drink From a Fire Hose."
I want to quickly acknowledge the indebtedness of the previous post to Václav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless (1978). This is the most important read, for me, since the election. While the United States under the Trump administration is far from being a “post-totalitarian state” as defined by Havel, his conception of the state leads him to a general description of the dynamics of cultural oppression that is widely applicable. His broad but precise notion of “living within the truth” is crucially inspiring. This ties to my above discussion of cultural institutions. To draw things down to earth for a moment, I can provide a few examples of “living within the truth” that have been important to me in recent months. (1) Keeping a good clean house. (2) Being friendly with my neighbors. (3) Utilizing the public library. (4) Making peace with that previously dreaded entity, the University Music Department. (5) Having people over for dinner.
Our problems are many and complex, but I’m increasingly convinced that many of the solutions involve cooking and bikes. Until then, music might help too.
1. Living in Austin from 2007-9, from within the university music building, gazing forlornly out the windows, I began to ascribe a certain nobility to musical activities taking place outside the academic world.
2. I did this based on a personal notion of social “relevance,” perhaps—though I did not realize it at the time—indebted to a good old anti-academic and anti-intellectual bias that is, I now realize, ambient, pervasive.
3. I no longer want to hear any arguments performing acts of exclusion on the basis of “relevance.” Social vitality is not to be domesticated by any one person or group to use for their own purposes.
4. Anti-academic and anti-intellectual biases in this country are undermining cultural institutions, and have helped us elect an ignorant, hateful, narcissistic madman to run the executive branch, alongside the cohort of moral cretins currently controlling the legislative area. Little wonder that the inherently abstract, theoretical operations of the judiciary have become so crucial to maintaining normalcy.
5. A little faith in culture, expertise, and earnest study—on their own merits—could be useful at this hour. It appears time to reevaluate the attitudes described in #1 above.
6. It strikes me now as particularly indefensible that I fetishized non-academic musical communities without regard to their various relationships to the commercial system, and to the sale of alcohol, a substance which, among other things, makes people louder.
7. I wasn’t wrong in noticing that music is, seen from one important angle, a set of social strategies: for interaction, for mediation, for decision-making, for communion.
8. Cultural institutions of all types are important for social organizing and the giving of meaning to life. It is impossible to touch on the second point without recourse to cliche, but I think the phrase is precise. People derive meaning from learning, study and teaching; from the playing, facilitating, and attending of concerts; from the giving of healing and the administering of medicine. What draws these activities together is that their basic intentions lie outside the systems of profit and capital, and though organizations spring up around them like wild grasses, these organizations become businesses only through an uneasy set of compromises. But regardless of those compromises, people are people and community is community. If a musical individual finds mutual support and activity within academia, then that group is just as inherently noble as any other community of musicians, and its concerts just as valid, no matter how poorly attended, even if (gasp) publicly funded.
9. My recent thought is indebted in part to George Lewis’ book A Power Stronger Than Itself, which describes how hard he and his AACM associates in Chicago worked to get their music out of bars and clubs and into academic and governmental support networks—just as my generation would blithely move in the opposite direction, fighting the obvious issue of noise differentials to mount concerts in bars rather than advocating for more institutional support in the form of expanded academic presences or—imagine!—direct government grants to individual musical actors.
10. The latter seems to me of paramount importance. If we want to believe our work matters, it should be a simple matter of social policy that we provide its practitioners access to financial support, health care, and other services—public education, child care, and so on. That such basic, direct support is so difficult to imagine in the current system, which finds it so easy to create, for example, aircraft carriers, should be clearly instructive. (Musicians, as I’m always pointing out, are inexpensive pets. Look at the money being thrown around in the public sector, in defense, in technology, in finance, and then consider the way musicians will claw at each other for a $1000 grant.)
11. I decry the cutting of the NEA. But it was never enough. Not since it focused its limited attention on institutional grants rather than individual ones. Though in the present atmosphere of calamity I’m inclined to welcome whatever partial measures I come by, what we really need is a complete change of mind.
12. I think I want to argue that American musicians, though we’ll rarely turn down a paycheck if it’s thrust into our hands, we are, in our deep subterranean composition, as leery of public funding as any good Republican. We’ll take it if we get it, but we don’t want to ask for it, for ourselves or for others. There is the idea, often attributed to John Steinbeck, that we can’t do anything about American poverty because no American sees himself as poor but only as a temporarily embarrassed millionaire. Similarly an American musician is never obscure, merely not-yet-famous. To accept a handout in this mindset is to admit defeat. In this mindset, you’ll only need to ask for help if you’re the sort of non-outlier who shouldn’t be doing this work in the first place.
13. Rugged individualism often works well for those under thirty, but around the time of the fabled Saturn return, I notice it breaking down in people. I think we start to get tired. Those who’ve accrued early individual glories start to feel hollow. Those who haven’t, and still want to keep working, begin to take greater and necessary solace in their fellows and families and find validation in wider and more disparate channels.
14. In the first years of Grant Wallace Band it was so important to me that we function like a band and play shows in bars, even though it was swiftly obvious that most of those spaces didn’t have pianos and when we played there no one could hear us. Why?
15. There’s a both/and solution possible here. But if we want to argue music’s inherent worthiness of support, we might begin by treating “relevance” like a sort of vulgarity, individual discipline as necessary but not sufficient without help, and educational systems and public institutions with deep respect as a crucial part of the fabric of music-making in the culture.
16. I never spilled many tears over the financial woes of American symphony orchestras until I became embedded in the musical culture of a mid-sized city and realized that if our orchestra shut down, a lot of people would lose their jobs, and a lot of musicians would leave town.
17. I don’t want musicians to leave town.
18. I played piano for a singing contest last weekend. During the final announcement of rankings, I left the auditorium and went for a walk outside. Call me a conscientious objector. Placing musicians in order obscures our fundamental interdependence. I really don’t think many of these singers realized how much they need each other to function. I think that on some level they actually wanted the other people in their division to sing less well, so they would have a better chance of winning. But it doesn’t matter whether you win a contest. It never did. What matters is that you have friends. (The best practical advice I received as a high school music student: a teacher told us, at a state jazz band competition, “In a year, two years, five years, you will not remember who won and lost, but you will remember who the assholes were.”)
19. We need each other. Or none of this means anything.
Last summer I quoted percussionist Doug Perkins, an apparently offhand comment from his podcast: "I use the music at Boston Conservatory to teach ownership and leadership and thoughtful decision making. I certainly don’t make music because I think it sounds pretty. That’s the last thing I think about.”
On its face, this is a wildly counterintuitive thing for a professional musician to say. Music is not about sounds? How un-Cagean. (Though it is, maybe, Wolffian. When I played Snowdrop last year, we quickly realized that the piece was not about realizing a specific set of sounds but rather about achieving a certain sort of social mediation and group communication. Maybe it's something about New Hampshire -- Perkins and Wolff both taught at Dartmouth. Live Free or Die, etc.)
Music not about sound? Posh. It can't be, right?
But lately I find myself inside this comment. When you're really in rehearsal all day, especially as the years of toil and underemployment begin to stack up, it occurs to you: most of the time, this really isn't about the esthetic transcendent, the fleeting moment of connection and revelation. That's all great, but it isn't enough to sustain the practice. The pleasure of pretty sounds is too simple; what we're after can't be as easy as taking a bite of dark chocolate. Ironically, Cage leads us back to this. Stipulated: wind in the trees outside can be as beautiful a sound as Mozart. So why on earth do we keep working so hard?
We wouldn't keep doing this unless we were engaging in some deeper sort of creative problem solving, or some useful sort of introspective spiritual cartography.
Maybe it's because my head's been deep in politics, but that's the root I keep coming back to, useful. The practice has social utility—it has to. Or it never could have sustained so many people, for so long, for so little pay.
“I’m a straight-up jazz musician, no doubt," Jason Moran once said. "But I also like to think of myself as an urban performance artist who happens to play piano.” I've played at devising a similar formula for my own activities. What if there's something else, something downy and diaphanous, that I'm really after, and the piano is useful but incidental to the basic quest? What if there's something much more mysterious that we're really doing all day, and the instrument we play is just, well, an instrument?
Maybe Doug was right. It's worth pointing out that he was referring specifically to his interest in "difficult" music, in the new, challenging, and unusual. Music that "destabilizes," to use a word from the zeitgeist.
Maybe we really are organizing something other than sound.
With that, I'm off to a loadbang concert.
[Score excerpt at the top is from Dance by Marta Gentilucci, 2016.]
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts