I just reread Peter Garland’s book Americas for the first time since 2008, when it changed the course of my life. He was in his twenties when he wrote these essays, and I was embarking on mine when I read them. It is impossible to overstate the influence this book had on me, as I’ve discussed in writing before. Stepping across each page again after ten years, I don’t admire them less, but of course I read them differently.
For one thing, the ellipses. The first time, I found them distracting. Now I like them, because they signify a willingness to be elusive, pensive, ambivalent; to bring something up without pronouncing on it; to trail off and leave certain things unsaid. May I be similarly absolved, one day, of my semicolons.
Writing in the 1970s, Garland repeatedly mentions culture’s “loss of a future” in the post-atomic age. Climate change has given us a fresh and terrifying claim on that loss. (My only consolation: we’ve never been right about the future before, why start now?) What I fear is not an abrupt cataclysm but a slow one. The mushroom cloud is an effectively terrifying image, but I can ponder the idea of a sudden flash into nonexistence; it’s the idea of fall and winter never coming that I find too horrible to contemplate. When I fear losing the future, what I’m really scared to lose is my whole notion of a universe based on cycles.
Though Garland may have lost faith in the future, he still demonstrates a faith in history, in teleology, in artistic lineage. His is still a world in which composers influence other composers and music marches onward. What we may have lost, in our world of saturation and overpopulation, in our rightful concern towards inclusion, is any faith or interest in the “onward” part.
Not that I’ve ever been much for marching, myself.
To put a finer point on the mention of inclusion:
Garland beautifully describes walking into Conlon Nancarrow’s house and seeing his library of books, scores, and music periodicals. It reminded me of a recent Will Oldham interview where he talked about walking into people’s homes and how you used to see their books and records and know something about this person, who they are, what they love. But many of us don’t own our books or music anymore. Increasingly we keep them “in the cloud,” and trust others to maintain and manage them. Question: what happens to clouds? Spotify is not a public library.
Garland talks too about a revival of regionalism. I remember that from the first time. Back then I wondered whether the Internet could offer diffusion of artistic information such that a composer could live in the sticks and stay connected. Regionalism without provincialism, I declared. But another decade on, the Internet-era ideal is ever more one of mobility to the point of placelessness. My concern is that, like a year without seasons, we might find ourselves swimming in a featureless, centerless soup of cosmopolitanism. I don’t think this is really possible, because I believe in human individuality, but I also think building a distinctive and personal artistic and intellectual concept is hard, long work, and worthy, and we ought to take it seriously.
So I’m not decrying inclusion as individual act or attitude—and I certainly don’t want to extol exclusion, politically or personally. But I do want to recognize the limits of one’s time and attention, the natural gravity of individual instinct and interest, the beauty of simplicity, and the necessity of choice.
Mary Oliver put it better: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
In 2001, I went to a midnight release party at a record store to get my copy of Radiohead’s Amnesiac. In 2007 the band made another album and released it, briefly, on a pay-what-you-want basis. Two years ago they made an album and dropped it: after abruptly erasing their whole Twitter history to get a little attention, they graced it with links to two new music videos, followed a few days later by A Moon Shaped Pool. I bought it. I transcribed “Daydreaming” and, I’ll admit, was emotionally affected by hearing “True Love Waits” at the end. Two years later, I’m not sure if this album has come up in conversation since the week of its release. I pulled up Pitchfork just now, assuming they gave it a middling, equivocal review with a meaningless score like 7.6. I’m wrong, actually. They gave it a 9.1.
I tire of the paradigm in which albums—the work of months and years—are “dropped.” The problem with dropping things is, sometimes they hit the ground with a hollow thunk. Maybe it would do us better to carry things a little while longer, to hold on to them a bit more tightly.
Listen, I’m fine with your pop song having an eff-off key change, but I wish more songwriters would have the decency to change back. Exemplary in this respect (and basically all others) is Hammond Song, which raises another point: why go up a half step when you can go into V for a verse?
And if you really need that half-step dopamine hit, and I don't begrudge it half a second, why not go back down, and then back up, and then back down again? (It’s like the key of the song is itself dancing.)
Then there’s Chris’ song “Ipswich, MA,” in which the B section is just the A section in V. Chris abhors a I chord in his songs. Seriously, check out how infrequently that progression takes a rest. It’s not “Don’t Talk, (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” but then, what is, besides maybe Dichterliebe?
Pre-Internet Metaphor: You write some sketches. These are the directions. Composing the piece, that’s the road trip. It’s rugged country and the roads are not good. Bring a spare.
I was speaking to a musician friend about making albums. It’s just so fascinating to hear how people deal with self-releasing and especially the question of physical media, because it’s a problem with no good answer, and the ground is constantly shifting beneath us. He gave me some recent statistics about vinyl sales versus physical downloads. Then, in the same breath, he said, “the real problem we’re dealing with is, no one gives a fuck.”
Maybe. Or maybe there’s no more industry investment and there’s almost no more music journalism, and it isn’t that people don’t give any fucks, just that we could use a hand in directing them.
One simple way of putting it is, everything I’ve done as a composer has been trying to recreate Tony Williams’ hi-hat on In a Silent Way.
• 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