This year I'm guest composer for Ars Poetica II, a collaboration between the Chicago concert series SONG (Singers on New Ground) and the literary journal Memorious. The journal held a poetry contest and I collaborated with their editor to choose a winner.
As a result I have the pleasure of setting the poetry of Katie Peterson, resulting in a major song cycle to premiere in September. I explored Katie's other work online a bit and was very pleased with what I found. This article in particular demonstrates some serious resonance with my own ideas and persuasions: while teaching at Deep Springs College, the experimental college/dude ranch in the California desert, Peterson began writing about the West, its landscapes, its feeling. "A poem is a place," she says to close the article. "It does not describe a place." This is straight out of my boy John Luther Adams, who said of his piece Dream in White on White, "I wanted to move away from music about place toward music that in a real sense is place."
And oh, it doesn't stop there! Back in '09 Peterson was working on a new collection that, in the words of the Harvard Gazette, "chronicles road trips taken through dusty, remote locales, tracing--what one imagines to be--endless blacktop highways, discovering the uncanny nether landscapes of the soul."
cough cough Terlingua Meditations cough cough.
Many of my pieces are named after places, though I've never sought to actually equate the places and the music. The places provide the poetic impetus, and the music represents something about the experience of being in the place. My music is centrally about the creation of atmosphere, and I borrow the atmospheric ideas I need from the places. Perhaps in composition I'm trying to get back to the place, and to take the listener with me. To quote Emily Dickinson (incidentally, a major scholarly interest of Katie Peterson's), "Nature is a haunted house--but Art--a house that tries to be haunted." Places are full of ghosts. If I can catch a few of them and get them across in the music, I've done my job. (Redstone May 2009 in particular is all about ghosts.)
After reading a few of Katie's poems I was looking for some characterization, and I couldn't stop summoning up the word "irreducible." So then I had to figure out just what the hell I meant by that, and the other night I formulated this rough analogy regarding fractions, which, like verbal expressions, can be presented in various forms and are sometimes reducible.
So if most prose gives us something like 32/16, then I think poetry is usually about distilling that into 8/4, or 4/2 --maybe, in that rare situation where a complex idea is conveyed in an extremely concise manner, 2/1. (Hemingway is a 2/1 writer of prose; Richard Brautigan's fiction and poems alike probably come in at 14/3 or something.)
Katie Peterson's writing is not about 32/16 ideas reduced, though. She starts with something a bit more rangy that doesn't lend itself to facile simplification -- something like 20/19, or 11/7 (to choose a fraction that also represents a particularly tasty interval in just intonation). This is especially true in the poem I'm setting, The Accounts, which says a lot of things that you just can't say with fewer words. Precise diction is as important as in a shorter form, but the ideas are just a bit longer, and not easily parsed.
The stanza also unites itself into a complete unit, and here's where the math breaks down: each individual idea is irreducible in the above manner, and yet they combine into a larger shape which somehow also becomes irreducible. (This isn't how fractions actually work, but since we're dealing with art I can pretend that 20/19 + 11/7 = 31/26.) I can't really explicate individual moments in the poetry without pointing to the emergent feeling created by their synthesis.
It's terrific stuff, anyway, and I'm looking forward to diving in further in the next few weeks.
I'm headed to Austin this weekend, where I will be busy with eating tacos I mean playing music, with two great concerts in the works.
The first is San Antonio Combustion Chamber 2011, curated by the fantastic Jack W. Stamps. Lots of great piano music and electroacoustic explorations by various cohorts. I'm playing my Piano Inventions and reprising Ian Dicke's wonderful and hilarious Get Rich Quick, which utilizes audio clips from various purveyors of financial advice. Those in the know occasionally refer to the piece as "credit card credit," for reasons you can discover by checking out video or audio of the 2009 premiere featuring yours truly.
Facebook event page here. Next Friday, 29 April, San Antone Cafe and Concerts, 7-9pm.
Then, of course, is the main event, the UT New Music Ensemble, Tuesday, 3 May at Bates Recital Hall in Austin. The estimable Franklin Gross and I will play the piano parts in Paul Bowles' Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds, and Percussion. The NME was a crucial influence during my time at UT--playing with them, being played by them, working with their guest composers, hearing all the music they'd throw out there three times a semester. It's always a fine group and I'm thrilled to play with them again, especially in the company of Franklin, a friend and favorite collaborator.
I ran across the Bowles piece through my reading of Peter Garland, who has been an advocate of Bowles' music and republished the Concerto through his Soundings Press (before it shut its doors; the Soundings edition is now available on Frog Peak Music). Literature buffs know Bowles from his fiction; he was the quintessential late twentieth-century expat writer, spending most of his mature years in North Africa weaving tight, dark novels about alienation. Musicians rarely know his name, although he was a successful composer before he started his writing career, a student of Aaron Copland who did theater projects with Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles. I'm told his songs are sometimes performed; his instrumental music is very rarely heard.
The Concerto is an absolute blast: breezy, spunky, jazzy, neoclassical, harmonically vibrant, rhythmically exciting, formally chunky. I feel a special affinity given Bowles' penchant for avoiding conventional development techniques, which have never felt natural or inevitable in my own music. When he wants to bring something back he just does it, and then just as quickly sprints off to tell you something else. Fun stuff. I'm pleased to have a hand in presenting this rare work of a brilliant polymath and true individual.
The only trouble on the horizon may be the vegetarianism I've undertaken since my last visit to Austin, which will certainly jeopardize Salt Lick- and Don Juan-related activities. Life is fraught with difficulty...
Spending a full day on airplanes and in airports will really exhaust one of ersatz environments: canned air, canned music, canned speeches (one of my favorite flight attendantisms is the shockingly inefficient exhortation to turn "all electronic devices to the off position"). When I hear a truly insipid example of smooth jazz like I did in the Miami airport--and not just standard issue mind-numbing, here, we're talking groundbreaking levels of inane repetition and poor taste--I often wonder about the stiff who made that decision, who looked at a catalog (¿do such things exist?) of muzak options and requested that which would provide a vibe most "Weather-channelesque." Really, what is being accomplished?
It hit me on the flight from Miami to Chicago, where a playlist of three or so tracks greeted us to the airplane and was again switched on during that lovely interval when everyone is standing in the aisle waiting to deplane (I am always, always, in one of the five back rows. Has anyone out there ever been seated in the front of coach?). So, several times in a perilously short period, I endured James Taylor's "Shower the People." This track exhibits that impossibly balanced tempo which, while actually remaining consistent, sounds like it's slowing down more and more every second. And I realized: this is aural riot prevention. Because if you really pay attention, everything about sitting on one of those planes ought to invoke a state of panic. So they attempt to mollify you with music that actually makes the individual cells of your body a little sleepy. I'm surprised third-world dictators haven't yet seized on James Taylor as a weapon for pacifying the revolutionary hordes.
Our culture is misleading, isn't it? We have so many situations in which music is superficially present but nothing is going on that has anything to do with music. The issue is not with Kenny G himself, here, but more the corporations, the radio stations, the dentists' offices, who use his recordings. Their motives appear to bear no relation to the original impulses of music-making, the forces within human experience that cause people, every day, to want to make something with organized sound.
There are large corners of pop music that are nothing but advertising. Or, in this case, mind control. Sometimes, I'd argue, base motivations are implicit in the music itself, or at least in the lyrics; most of the time the issue is more with the modes of its deployment. Here, the use of pop music to make unpleasant environments--supposedly--more palatable. I never dismiss something as "not music" because it doesn't fit my tastes, but I do think it's possible that even something of great quality, through the way it is conveyed, can in fact cease to be music. (Fragments of Petrushka, for example, piped into a Banff Centre restroom.)
Our society has begun to recognize that constant intake of packaged food is unhealthy, that the stuff straight from the ground has a lot of complex content that is lost when we preserve it, ship it far away, add chemicals to it, and consume it in contexts where its presence makes no sense.
• 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