• 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.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts