The political divide is not about policy. There are two types of people: those who distrust power and want it held to account, and those who trust power, and believe it possesses its own justification.
My new trio Crossing New Mexico with Weldon Kees & Ray Gonzalez premiered at Chatter a few weeks ago. Planning my introduction from the stage, I wrote out some notes under three headings. Then I restrained myself and said almost none of it out loud. Maybe it will make a better essay.
Before you hear this new trio, I want to briefly plant three seeds that might suggest how I think about composition and how you might direct your listening.
1. Music as Metaphor for/of Travel
Road trips have always been important to my creative imagination. Consider for a moment the rates of motion you experience when driving down a New Mexico highway. Direct your gaze at the mountains in the distance, and you might seem to be moving slowly. Direct your gaze at the road beside you, and you’ll appear to be moving quickly. Look around within the car, and you’ll find you aren’t moving anywhere at all.
2. Music Evoking Space
Acoustically any sound has four components: attack, sustain, decay, release. Conventional pitch-and-rhythm notation emphasizes attack. I’m interested in the other three. One can listen not just to the notes but to everything that comes right before, right after, in all the space between.
3. Eventfulness/Activity/Eventlessness in Music
The novelist Haruki Murakami has reported that he begins the first draft of each new novel with no plan whatever in mind. He drafts his way through from beginning to end, letting each development come as a surprise; he just begins, and trusts that information will emerge and self-organize.
My composition teachers always emphasized “pre-planning.” You’re supposed to know the length and width and shape of the piece, its form and structure and character, before you write any notes or rhythms. This clearly works for others, but for me the results were lifeless. My teachers encouraged me to “exhaust the material,” exploring and “developing” each idea by carefully considering it from every angle. I’ve preferred to go from one idea to the next, letting each one hang in the air for as long as it seems to want to.
The best composition lesson I ever got came in this three-word bundle: Repetition is Development. You can’t cross the same river twice, and you can’t hear the same musical idea twice, either, and one thing you definitely cannot do is go home again. By the end of the piece, you’re an older person than you were at the beginning. This is the whole game right here, the whole essence of what we do. Music stylizes and dramatizes the passing of time.
Thank you for joining us, and I hope you enjoy the journey.
Postscript is, I’m always looking for ways to close my pre-piece remarks beyond telling people that I hope they enjoy the piece. Submissions welcome.
A couple years ago I played a recital tour with trombonist Chris Buckholz. We performed at universities; the whole thing was underwritten by UNM as part of his faculty outreach. We stayed at hotels; we received per diems. At the University of Colorado Boulder, we learned that a patron had recently donated a new Steinway D for their recital hall. We asked about moving the piano to a different angle onstage. “Sure, but you’ve got to put on the white gloves,” the professor replied. I laughed, but he wasn’t joking. Soon several student employees came out, put on white gloves, and moved the piano. This was a requirement of the patron. They kept white gloves around backstage for anytime the piano had to move.
I’m currently planning a tour with guitarist/composer/improviser Andrew Weathers, who lives in a tiny town in west Texas and does this sort of thing a lot. Andrew is prolific as a solo artist and collaborator, and he also runs a label, Full Spectrum Records. Say what you will about the extremely prolific, but they’re doing what they set out to do, and at such velocity, preciousness refuses to adhere. When I got into Bob Dylan in high school, one of my friends said he was put off by Dylan’s massive discography—he didn’t know where to start. As though that’s supposed to be Dylan’s problem. Similar comments often follow upon mentionings of Anthony Braxton. What do we expect, comprehensive mastery? No one knows everything. We chip off that which our time and curiosity allow, but it’s never more than a chip.
It is worth considering the words of another prolific musician, the brilliant songwriter Chris Weisman. Unlike AW, Weisman doesn’t much tour or even perform locally, and he has little to no digital infrastructure around his work. “I don’t like the whole shows hubbub very much. Lot of driving, lot of waiting, no money or worse. I’ll play a show every once in a while when I’ve got some new material at hand. My practice is as a jazz improvisor, theory weirdo (music theory, not the other kind), music teacher; the music I write—both the songs I tape and the music I put to paper—are like this indirect outgrowth of this life: bonus flowers.”
I’m looking forward to a couple weeks driving around with Andrew talking about this sort of thing. While I’m not sure if I’ll ever tour as much as Andrew, I do admire the rough-and-ready nature of his projects, collaborations, and album releases. By contrast it feels like I might handle ongoing entities like Golconda and Grant Wallace Band, and perhaps ideas and projects more generally, like those student workers at CU with their white gloves.
Free Solo has brief moments that brush armchair psychiatry, and the picture it draws of Alex Honnold does raise the question: if our definition of “mental illness” is not capacious enough to admit of someone like this more the mere fact of choosing to do something like this, is that definition sufficient?
But this is why his example is so powerful. Because the question “why choose to do something so horribly dangerous?” is not so conceptually distant from “why choose to do anything at all?”
• 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