10 Best of 2014
1. Digital Music
The best experience I had with recorded music in 2014 came in late June when I gave Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony (2010) a spin in my car in northwest Montana. I was near the town of Hot Springs (pop. 544), alone. To get to Hot Springs from Glacier you head south on 93, then dip west across the Flathead Reservation. The town is in a small valley off a larger valley. There is, emphatically, no cell service.
I was there for Symes Hot Springs, which is housed at a Mission-style hotel built in 1929. This pink stucco building with quatrefoil windows is, you might say, unexpected. Delighted, I checked in and changed clothes in the hotel’s bath wing, in one of the private stalls that still features an original clawfoot tub.
“Visiting the Symes is like stepping back into the 1940s,” reads the hotel’s decisively pink website.
I sat in the hot water and considered my situation.
It was a few days after the solstice. Earlier that month I’d taken a train from Montana to Chicago, where I saw friends and heard Carrie Henneman Shaw and Spektral Quartet perform my arrangement of Townes van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.”
0. Living on the road, my friend, was gonna make you free and clean
It started in 2009 when I drove west over Rabbit Ears Pass, listening, self-consciously, to an audiobook of On the Road. I thought it was over in 2011 when I drove over the same pass the other direction, car full of possessions, driving to Chicago to move to Chicago. I thought I could decide to turn it off. I was wrong about this.
A few days after the Spektral show I got back on the same train going the other way and took it to northern Wisconsin to spend a week with my sister and her family. I slept in their basement, listened to Carl Ruggles at night, got up in the morning and played Bach on the Kawai upright I grew up with. In the afternoon I would walk across one of Eau Claire’s numerous foot bridges to the alternativest coffee shop in town, to sit and write.
I was born in a river town, but Eau Claire—“clear water”—is something else; it is a confluence town, where the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers meet. The town is situated in a tangle of steep, wooded river valleys. The sense of directionality is not so distinct.
About 15 years ago I found the word “quaquaversal” in the dictionary, but I’ve never encountered it in actual usage. It is an adjective, and it refers to motion from a center outward toward all points of the compass.
I spent the solstice in Eau Claire, typing a .txt document called “manifesto” (not my first) that sketched a year’s ambitions. I planned to listen to a ton of music and practice a lot. I planned to absolve myself, for twelve months, of careerist impulses, and to stop applying to silly music contests. I planned to study all of Beethoven’s string quartets and spend a lot less time on the internet. (For the record: so far I give myself about an A minus overall, with a B in silly contests.)
A few days later my sister drove me to Minneapolis. We went to the Walker and sat and watched Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) for a while. That night she dropped me at the Amtrak station and I was off back toward Montana. I slept in patches and spent the following day sitting in the lounge car looking at North Dakota. The train pulled into Havre, Montana at around 11pm. I brushed my teeth in the parking lot and slept in the back of my car. In the morning I drove to Glacier. It had been ten years since I visited the park on my first big western road trip. I spent a few days there. It rained. I read Carlos Castaneda in the lodge. A young, conspicuously midwestern family asked if I would take a picture with them; I looked exactly like the dad’s brother, the kids’ uncle. I stood with my back to misty Lake MacDonald and smiled for the camera.
Driving south, I stopped and downloaded the MP3 version of Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony at a coffee shop in Kalispell. Down by Flathead Lake the weather was warmer and drier. I lowered the windows.
Owing to my general opinion that composition awards are childish, I rarely feel visceral urges to give Pulitzers to things. But what piece could deserve such a distinction more consummately than the 1-Bit Symphony? It has everything these awards claim to recognize; it is immediately new, yet palpably traditional. It is hugely broad in its scope, swinging for the formal fences, and yet in its timbres, its sonic compositional ambit, it is essentially rigid.
I am forever grating against the conventional wisdom from my compositional education that one needs to start with an irreducible core of “material” and draw from it as much music as possible, explore all its possibilities exhaustively. This is what Beethoven did, with his intricate formal and harmonic schemes that develop from sometimes absurdly simple melodic ideas (“dun dun dun dun!”), and now we’re all supposed to “build” music from “raw material,” suddenly composers have to be engineers, just because of the Industrial Revolution.
I don’t compose well like this—other metaphors better serve my music—but it works for Tristan Perich. His elementary particle is not a melodic motive, but the simple on/off logic of electricity. The 1-Bit Symphony is, yes, a symphony, five movements in 48 minutes, but it doesn’t come on a CD. It comes in a jewel case, but its physical form is a circuit, programmed and assembled by the composer by hand; it actually performs the music when you plug in your headphones.
It isn’t a recording at all. It is electronic music, but it is not really recorded music. Can it be considered live music, then? I don’t know. How did he do this? I have no idea. How was the sound translated to the MP3 version I now digitally possess? I don’t know that either. I do know that these sound files must be treated differently than any others; they are extremely loud, for one, so you have to start with your volume all the way down and then turn it up to a comfortable volume, not the other way around. And I know that the music changes noticeably with each adjustment of volume; turn it up a notch and the texture thickens, new pitches emerge. I don’t know why.
So: there is minimalism, there is reduction, there is paucity of material, an inherent, inviolable perimeter to the composition.
A highly intelligent composer friend once commented offhand that Tristan Perich is our generation’s Steve Reich. I wonder what he meant by that.
There is perhaps an affinity in an ethos of simplification, in the conception of notes or motives as irreducible blocks for manipulation, rather than the mutable entities they seem to be in European art music. There is something basically American and post-Cagean in this sense of notes as objects—like they can exist in space, you can plot them on a grid, you can put them here or there; they don’t have their own agency, as they seem to in Beethoven.
As though at the heart of things you might find a finite number of ones and zeroes. I would propose that Reich’s music and Perich’s are akin in indicating a conception of the musical universe as a fundamentally digital place.
But as processes proceed and microform expands to macro, the similarity dissipates. Reich is no symphonist; that’s not his conception of long forms. Even Music for 18 Musicians, with its essential harmonic organization, is not a symphonic form. It stays in one place. Symphonies have to go somewhere. A symphony has to step out bravely, try some stuff, mess some things up, lament the situation, take a break for tea, steel up, fix the mistake, go home, have a glass of champagne, and go to bed. Reich barely leaves the house; he would rather stand on the deck and watch the sunset for an hour (a predilection I share—given a sunset’s constant process of change from one inisolable state to the next, watching it is among the most forcefully analog of experiences).
Perich, though, is going somewhere in this piece. The timbre is about presence, but the form is about progression. The first movement is an introduction; it sets the table, draws one’s attention to the rabbit hole. The second and third movements then descend, following the white rabbits of textural process and harmonic motion. The fourth movement, down in the warren, is a delightful counterpoint exercise that thickens in its final minute to a beautiful imagistic passage of falling stars.
From the first bar we’ve been descending continuously, vertiginously, like zooming in on a fractal curve, like walking down House of Leaves’ depthless spiral staircase. In the fifth movement we hit the floor. A simple melodic motive thickens until melody becomes scale and scale becomes texture; the hitherto linear music becomes a wall; line becomes plane. Finally there is no more music, only monolithic sound, and he holds it forever, minutes and minutes. Here in particular the composite changes significantly as one increases the volume. I don't know why. It also seems to stop at different points each time I listen, leaving a variable silence at the end of the track. I haven’t cared to verify this, as I don’t want to spoil the mystery. I prefer to believe that this journey of a piece ends differently based on the circumstances under which it proceeds.
In The Time of Music, Jonathan Kramer compares the nineteenth-century conception of musical time to a railroad trip (linear, directed), and some modern conceptions of musical time to airplane travel (internally static; still involving goal-directed motion, but not perceived as such from within).
But wait: perhaps a computer program, he suggests, is the better analogy. “The difference between current and past understandings of time is that, because of the complexities of modern life, we can no longer confidently predict the direction, outcome, total duration, or overall meaning of many of our temporal experiences.” Like our lives, computer programs loop. Like our lives, computer programs function not primarily via linear logic “as by a logic of the whole.”
I got out of the hot spring and went inside to change. I bought a bracelet made by a local artist. Being a composer is scary; no one understands what you’re doing, or why, and the professional landscape is arid and overpopulated. But I decided that day not to be scared. I like to wear the bracelet while I’m playing the piano. It just feels good to have something on my right wrist to remind me. I listened to the 1-Bit Symphony again that evening as I drove down toward Missoula.
10. Analog Music
The best experience I had with live music in 2014 was hearing Heinavanker, a vocal ensemble from Estonia, sing at an old cathedral in Santa Fe. In every evident respect this was a diametrically different experience from listening to Tristan Perich. When the six Estonian singers started their first piece I felt it in my pores, and I felt it precisely because it was so overwhelmingly analog.
I had lately been listening to lots of music, much of it in the form of digital, compressed audio coming through little speakers right next to my ears. It was so powerful to walk in and hear these six people making this sound that was actually kind of quiet, because it was being generated across the room, and it was unamplified, analog, real. And just, subtle. There was deep subtlety to the music (so much information in all the tiny, tiny details of pronunciation, phrasing, ornamentation, in the rhythmic and melodic elaborations as they moved through the verses of these old folk hymns…), and there was deep subtlety to the sound: so round, warm, luminous. I had understood, intellectually, that MP3s literally have holes in them, that lots of information is left out—that’s why the files are so small and portable. Hearing Heinavanker, I started for the first time to truly feel this difference, to notice the presence of all the information I’d been missing.
For about a hundred years now, quantum theory has presented a challenge to our day-to-day, macroscopic conception of a fundamentally continuous universe. The word “quantum” refers to the tiny discrete packets in which light travels. Not in a continuous beam or ray or line. Clusters.
It turns out that within each and every atom there is unimaginable emptiness.
And yet, in those deep spaces where electrons hazily exist, the radiation they emit cannot be understood discretely. According to the physical principle of least action, even light knows the most efficient path through space, and that path cannot be effectively calculated step by step; rather it must be understood in its wholeness.
At the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, the physicist Niels Bohr said this: “We have to renounce a description of phenomena based on the concept of cause and effect.” On the level of the electron, causality is not a useful concept. The same idea might be applied on the level of notes and rhythms.
Sometimes I get in a special mood where I put my cell phone into a drawer! and turn off my computer every night at seven! and insist on only checking my mail once a day!. When I seek to limit the role of the computer and the internet in my life, I'm after a messier, more diffused sense of directionality, a thought process that can move in many ways at once; generally I am seeking a life less digital. I tire of the emotional ons and offs of Twitter-style interface with the world. I want things to change more slowly and more continuously.
But you know? My dictionary doesn’t support this bigger sense of “analog” conveying the fundamental continuity of life. Only in the context of a technical definition that pertains mostly to the field of electrodynamics.
And anyway it’s a losing battle. To say I prefer an analog existence to a digital one requires digital logic (zero or one?). Last night I turned my computer off at seven and read about Richard Feynman. Today I listen to Tristan Perich and type away at my computer. Later this afternoon, with my bracelet from Hot Springs around my wrist, I’ll sit down at the piano.
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• 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