a Place, a Piece, a Puzzle: vol. 7
P. Austin, Texas is home to the world’s largest urban bat colony. Some one and a half million Mexican free-tailed bats live under the Congress Avenue bridge. Around dusk they come streaming out for their evening hunts, which result in the daily slaughter of innumerable mosquitos. A coterie of tourists and bat-lovers gather on the bridge nightly to view the proceedings.
The Texas state capitol rises to the north, a beautiful construction of limestone and sunset red granite. It was mostly built by convict labor. The grounds contain at least one example of every tree native to Texas.
The first night I spent there, we saw the bats and drove south on Congress to Amy’s Ice Cream. There was a drum circle going on in a vacant lot behind the store. It was May, and hot. The light bent around in the dusky heat. I was in love with Austin immediately. People frequently exposed to hippie culture seem to tire of it and grow skeptical. I grew up in a blue-collar community in Iowa, so I still find it refreshing, though I’ve generally partaken of it cautiously, dipping a toe or perhaps a foot rather than submerging myself fully disrobed.
When I think of Austin now, four years after moving away, I think of hot mornings drinking coffee with spicy breakfast tacos on a grubby patio someplace; I think of warm humid evenings with the party spilling into the backyard, rope lights and picking sessions; I think of walking the dark alleys by myself. I think of the last day I lived there, when I drove out into the hill country to a place called Krause Springs. We brought a guitar and a banjo and a cooler full of Lone Star. There was an achingly picturesque tire swing, up high so you could do a flip or two before you hit the water. It is actually a perfect swimming hole, hidden away in the vines and brush. It is near a town called Spicewood. I think Willy Nelson lives out there.
There is a thing in Austin called the Ham Jam.
Every first Monday of the month, a sixty-something bachelor named Daren opens his house to the city’s acoustic music community. Dozens of musicians attend, and from 9 p.m. until the mystical hours of the morning, music pours from every corner and out every window. People walk into the kitchen and grab a beer and some fresh baked ham (it’s not just a clever name), then join the old-time jazz session on the back porch or take their banjo upstairs to one of the bedrooms where songwriters swap their newest creations. A wildly bearded gent with an accordion sings Russian folk tunes on the stairs. Slim Richey, an old timer wearing a red suit and a fedora hat with a feather, lays down blues licks on the guitar and knows every single tune that is called. People have left their business cards on the kitchen counter. Slim Richey’s just says “Expert.”
A handsome young man demonstrates Tuvan throat singing and plays doshpuluur in the hallway. This is Eliot Stone. Two of my Chicago friends had met Eliot while studying in Amsterdam during undergrad. He is one of those people who becomes interested in something and then attends to it with laserlike focus for a period of months. I befriended Eliot during my final months in Austin. He had lived there for some years after growing up in a small west-Texas border town. He is one of the characters you see haunting particular spots in Austin that give the city such vibrant human wallpaper. Eliot builds didgeridoos out of cactuses and plays them in the traditional Aboriginal style. He once hunted down an enigmatic instrument-maker in Switzerland to purchase a rare hand drum called a Hang, which looks like a flying saucer and sounds like a steel drum and evidently made him an unusually popular busker during South by Southwest.
I hung out with Eliot only a few times before we decided to go on a road trip to Big Bend. We stopped in Bracketville, his hometown, and drove a golf cart around the trails late at night until we got it stuck in a hollow and had to walk back. We made it to Big Bend on an uncharacteristically rainy night and shared a campsite with a colorful cohort of French Canadians. We hiked, sat in the hot springs, and attended a party on a pirate ship. I only saw Eliot another few times before I left Texas. He was living a ways off in west Austin, in a large house with a tremendous view and an infinity-shaped pool.
The day I left Austin I packed my one-bedroom apartment by myself and carried my possessions down four flights of stairs. It took about eleven hours and developed into one of the most emotionally harrowing days of my life. The first catharsis occurred when I unpacked my file cabinet and saw my life spread out across the floor, my old scores and papers, letters, concert programs. I was listening to my friend Eric Malmquist’s Symphony for Strings and Percussion. It was too much to bear, seeing my whole life on the floor like that.
The second catharsis happened as I carried objects down the stairs at around five o’clock in the afternoon. As the hot May sun began to relent, the evening became almost unjustly beautiful. The wind brushed the trees that rose above the windows of my apartment.
I felt they had a question for me.
I had loved Austin from first sight and moved there knowing absolutely no one. My first months there were lonely and difficult, my academic trials there had forced me into new self-conceptions. I had undergone baroque romantic turmoils there, made beautiful fascinating friends there, become myself there. I’d always felt I had a relationship with the city and not just its people, not just my Austin friends but Austin itself. I’d adored it with the affection a twenty-three-year-old might have more commonly reserved for a cute and mysterious young cellist.
Why are you leaving, Austin asked me. Where are you going. When are you coming back.
P. As a composer it is most terrifying to consider the piano trio (piano, violin, and viola). It’s difficult to balance these three instruments, the piano being so very large, and to make them equal partners. It is not at all like the string quartet, harmonious and egalitarian. In the piano trio there are dynamics to be negotiated, inequalities to be addressed.
Mozart and Beethoven wrote heaps of piano trios; the famously prolific Haydn wrote forty-five. I often find classical examples in the genre to be boring and practical. They sound like they were written as incidental music to passingly entertain people at a party, which is in fact often the case.
And then there is Maurice Ravel’s one entry. He wrote it in 1914, shortly after France entered World War I. He wrote it quickly so that he could volunteer for the army.
Ravel was a fantastic orchestrator and a brilliant--possibly even underrated--melodist. What’s remarkable in the first movement is not merely the melody but how it is bent and shaped in time. The tempo is always changing, often slowing, with a floating, subaqueous result. The development section has some flash and fire, but it is brief, and then there we are in our little boat on the ocean again.
Everything in Ravel is exquisitely crafted. Stravinsky once compared him, somewhat chidingly, to a master Swiss watchmaker. No detail is left to chance. Every line is perfectly angled and every surface is sanded smooth. Each one is calibrated to the physics of the violin and cello bows. Time is measured in bow length and weight. Nothing extends past the changing of the bow. Like the sequences of up- and down-bows that constitute a violin line, Ravel’s music climbs and descends.
Ravel’s distinct personality operated within a traditional compositional paradigm. When he wrote this trio in 1914 he did so using a traditional four-movement model, with the opening movement in the classic Sonata form used for the opening movements of sonatas, symphonies, and major chamber works since the Classical era.
The idea in Sonata form is that you get music (a primary theme), some other music (a secondary theme), and then things get complex and develop, and then you get back to the original music. ABA. But things change over time. The first time you hear that secondary theme, it is in a different, contrasting key. You don’t get to hear that music in the piece’s primary key until the recap at the end of the movement. If the piece starts in G Major, it’s probably going to go to D Major, and not return to G until that triumphant ending section.
You travel and visit places, and then you go home.
The first movement of Ravel’s trio begins in A Minor. The secondary theme is in A Minor. The development section proceeds. Then we hear the themes again, both in A Minor. He never transposes the second theme. We stay at home. Perhaps we gaze at other places through the window, or imagine them in the pages of a book.
But the key changes at the end. At last we get warm C Major and hear threads of that primary theme, like waves at night lapping against a beach you cannot see.
P. The puzzle runs like this:
As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Every wife had seven sacks,
Every sack had seven cats,
Every cat had seven kits;
Kittens, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?
If you do the math that’s seven wives, 49 sacks, 343 cats, and 2401 kittens--surely the recipe for an adorable, scratchy, and highly contentious trip to St. Ives. The full complement is 2800, plus the happy husband himself.
Are we to count the narrator, who is also going to St. Ives? Then the number is 2801, again assuming that we aren’t intended to count the polygamous, feline-loving patriarch of the operation. The grammar seems to indicate that we are only to count the kittens, cats, sacks, and wives--so I suppose the narrator should be left out, unless she herself is a wife (or, it bears suggesting, a cat). There is no way of determining this information, which makes the puzzle fundamentally undecidable.
The situation becomes yet more tenuous when you consider that the narrator is going to St. Ives, but the party he “meets” may in fact be coming the other direction. Which would make the number of kittens, cats, sacks, and wives proceeding down the St. Ives highway either zero or one, depending again on the identity of our mysterious narrator.
As a mathematical puzzle it is simple and not basically interesting. As a grammatical puzzle, it charms with its ambiguities.
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