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.
Sometimes when I’m playing through the development section of a piece by one of the German Romantics, knotty modulation after modulation, tortured fragmentation after fragmentation, one wringy uncomfortable key after the next, I wonder to myself: was it something in their diet? Did these people simply have stomachaches all the time?
I’ve often wondered why I took up music, for which I had only moderate early visible talent, when I so loved writing, and had a more immediate knack for it.
Here is why: music was more mysterious.
Also, more social.
One thing I’ve been doing, in preparation for an upcoming project, is listening nearly every day to the Bill Evans Trio’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961). After nearly twenty years of developing familiarity, hearing this album is still something like looking at the ocean. Placid on one plane, churning and chaotic on another, it’s beautiful on the surface, and reflects light in a manner endlessly interesting; but the main thing it leaves me with is a curiosity and fascination to know what lies hidden beneath.
• 1 •
I’ve been playing a church gig, which makes me think about my childhood, and I’ve been playing for students at UNM, which makes me think about my undergraduate piano teacher. At the beginning of each semester he would handwrite a page of repertoire ideas, and I would go to the library some cold night and listen, and pick a few things to learn over the next few months. Lots of Bach, Chopin, and Liszt. Beethoven’s opus 90. Dallapiccola’s Quaderno Musicale. Webern’s Variations. And Ned Rorem’s Second Piano Sonata (1950). I don’t know why he gave this piece to me—maybe because he’d heard me play Gershwin in my audition?—but it struck me deep. He gave me one of his copies of the score. I still have it, his characteristic handwriting across the pages: “Swim—don’t dive.” “Glittery.” “Singing—color.” “Flexibility.” I’d give a lot to have the opportunity to play it for him again. Here is what I see only now, and will never be able to thank him for: he had faith in me, when he had little reason to.
But then, isn’t that what faith is all about? Faith isn’t about reason. Rather, it’s precisely about the absence of evidence. It’s a gift we can give each other. It’s a choice. And coming from a respected teacher, it can make the difference of a lifetime.
• 2 •
Philip Glass - String Quartet no. 5 (1991)
Much is made, with Glass, about ideas. How often he repeats them, and for how long. In this piece, yes, the individual ideas strike me as fresh and bright. But look, more so, at the way he crosses from one to the next. Look at the seams. The transitions. The moments of crossing over. Like each idea is a plank in a rope bridge, high above the waterfall.
When I heard Glass speak at UT, we’d all prepared and submitted questions in advance. He took only two of them, and talked for over an hour. One friend said he thought that was perfect: after all, we’d gone there to hear Glass talk, and talk he had, voluminously. So was it generous of him, or wasn’t it? I thought about the question when I read his memoir a couple years ago, and I still ask it when I listen to his music. Sometimes I suspect he likes the talking itself more than he likes making his point. But this piece, it’s generous.
Half-Baked Proposition: there is a stereotypically Western paradigm (of individuality), and a stereotypically Eastern one (of conformity, collectivism). One dominates our country’s mythos and its ethos, and was important for the twentieth century. The other might be more important for the twenty-first. Glass’s music stands at the crossroads.
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."
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts