My recent teaching exploits have brought me in touch with some principles of formal logic. In the language of conditional statements, certain conditions might be required for the presence of other conditions, but the former are still not necessarily sufficient to establish anything on their own.
Once or twice a year I trot out a new favorite Morton Feldman quotation on this blog. Today, toward the end of my run, I suddenly arrived at a new understanding of this one: "For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I could rival Mozart."
We do make such a fuss about the conditions necessary for our success, our comfort, our happiness, our creativity.
I'd already mentally planned this post before tonight, sitting on the train, I encountered a fantastic passage near the beginning of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. I attempted to paraphrase it just now, but the original is just so good, so here it is. You'll notice, present hipster consensus be damned, that Doctorow eschews the Oxford comma.
"Coincidentally this was the time in our history when the morose novelist Theodore Dreiser was suffering terribly from the bad reviews and negligible sales of his first book, Sister Carrie. Dreiser was out of work, broke and too ashamed to see anyone. He rented a furnished room in Brooklyn and went to live there. He took to sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of the room. One day he decided his chair was facing in the wrong direction. Raising his weight from the chair, he lifted it with his two hands and turned it to the right, to align it properly. For a moment he thought the chair was aligned, but then he decided it was not. He moved it another turn to the right. He tried sitting in the chair now but it still felt peculiar. He turned it again. Eventually he made a complete circle and still he could not find the proper alignment for the chair. The light faded on the dirty window of the furnished room. Through the night Dreiser turned his chair in circles seeking the proper alignment."
p.s. Seriously. I can NOT STOP LISTENING to Buell Kazee.
That I've been cycling between him and Travis Laplante is perhaps sufficient to establish an idea of where I'm at these days.
It occurred to me that when I die I might find myself standing on the Jackson red line platform at around 10:30 on a Tuesday night. The station is crowded. Four men in red baseball caps are singing R&B tunes, a cappella. I'm tired; it's been a good day of work; I'm tired but energized, my mind is alert. More people walk up the steps. Another blue line train must have just come by. The singers aren't quite in tune, but they aren't really out of it, either; none of their songs really finishes, each one just trails off after a while and there is a short interval, they chat for a minute, and then one of them starts singing again. Every tune opens with a solo; they alternate the leads. It's not really late, but it definitely isn't early. I glance down the tunnel, looking for the lights of the oncoming train. It should be here soon.
Well, I'm finally into the Anthology of American Folk Music, and I'm into it deep. I put on a little Vol. 3A while I'm making dinner and pretty soon the whole evening is gone, listening to these amazing voices. I first heard Mississippi John Hurt about ten years ago, and it was one of those unforgettable moments of clarity. Now all at once I have to deal with six discs of similarly fathomlessly deep music, and it's staggering.
Here, friends, is Buell Kazee, doing exactly what must be done. Isn't that just the fucking greatest? You can't fake that.
This is a first: we had to reschedule the Mollycoddles concert due to a NATO summit descending on Chicago in mid-May.
Same concert: music by Brian Baxter, Eric Malmquist, Luke Gullickson, James Klopfleisch, and Ben Hjertmann. Lots of piano; lots of treats; 3/4-assed mysticism; fully-assed compositional explorations; reception to follow at local watering hole. (I'm told there is an acceptable bar somewhere in the loop but have yet to substantiate.)
Curtiss Hall, Fine Arts Building, downtown Chicago.
Friday, May 25, 8pm.
Okay and listen, people, I've got another album full of tasty Golconda tunes for you. Can we accept that this is a big deal? I wrote 'em last summer in New Mexico and did the recording last month here in Chicago. I'm still adding touches and awaiting fantastic album art from a Gulch friend.
Here is a sample you can check out, and I'll even give you an annotated tracklisting to read whilst listening, with song titles, durations, and even where I wrote each tune, because come on, you know me, I friggin love place music.
Golconda - From the Canyons to the Star
1. Water (4:24, El Morro)
2. FR 178 (2:22, Albuquerque)
3. Evening (4:01, McGaffey)
4. Alegres (1:49, Pie Town)
5. July 24 (4:53, Durango)
6. Morning (2:22, Cottonwood Gulch Back Porch)
7. Chaco (2:06, Cottonwood Gulch Staff Room)
8. Road Song (6:42, I think I wrote the lick at El Morro or maybe La Plata Canyon, added words gradually, finished them at an Albuquerque coffee shop the day I left for Colorado and points east.)
Be looking for an early-May release on this one. I'm looking forward to it.
The first gig my high school band played was a teen band showcase at a Cedar Rapids venue called Third Street Live. We were 15 and 16 years old. The guy running the event gave us two pieces of advice as we brought in our gear. The first was "no smoking dope in the band room," which is fairly straightforward. The second was a more complex lesson and one that in our adolescent hubris we were much likelier to violate: "don't be an asshole to the other bands," he told us. "Ten years from now you might still be playing, and suddenly you need a drummer..."
All the papers around Chicago are talking about, and hence contributing to, the explosion of local ex-outsider musician Willis Earl Beal. People are pretty damn starved for authenticity these days, and ironically they can only find it in the bizarre and austere. We're so used to Photoshop and digitized slickness that we just swoon over a little grit and dirt and tape hiss. (This is also why we're currently posting tons of photos to the Internet that are filtered to look lower-quality than they actually are.) I spent last summer leading wilderness expeditions for teenagers, and I was amazed how often they commented that an amazing vista looked like something out of a movie--the truth, of course, is the exact opposite, but we've arrived at a cultural moment where we're so accustomed to being lied to by advertising and polished images that reality itself has become untrustworthy. It's too real, the images too bright; it must be hiding something. Hence also the pre-"worn" blue jeans and baseball caps parents have been incredulous over for a decade, etc. We need something a little rough around the edges. In Beal's case it's his sound as well as his life story. We've been fed too many politicians whose lives have been squeegeed and flattened for easier public consumption; anymore we can only feel genuine identification with someone whose life has been weirder and harder than ours. Only a larger-than-life story feels lifelike.
Whatever you think about his music, you've gotta love some of the delightfully unpretentious things Beal said this week in an interview published by the normally stupid-ass RedEye. Best concert you've seen in the last year? "I don't like concerts." New band you don't know personally that deserves to be big? "I don't really know any new bands." Chicago's best music venue? "The Jackson 'L' stop."
And my personal favorite: "I think I'm a credible artist, but like all things I think it's more hype than anything, personally."
Here is a guy who had an opportunity to play himself as hipper than those reading the interview (the normal strategy for all artists/musicians in these situations, desperate as we are to pick up any sort of that intangible cachet that will make us feel legitimate) by dropping a name, any noun, anything at all--and he chose to be totally honest instead.
Two things I've ascertained to be commonalities among all of my favorite musicians to work with and, often, to listen to: 1) they maintain a positive attitude; 2) they don't care what people think. They just don't care.
I've spoken before about the subtle and layered bullshit castles that artists construct when we talk about our work. We can't help it, we're too interested in doing the work whilst also continuing to eat. It's kind of amazing, though, how quickly the rest of us start to sound frivolous, how swiftly the castle dissolves into dust, when someone just sits in an interview and manages to act like himself. I suppose Beal at this point might be engaging in his own brand of posturing--it's pretty hard to avoid--but for where we are in 2012, it seems that posturelessness might be the most effective posture.
In light of my coming May concert with the Sissy-Eared Mollycoddles, the arrival of spring, and a John Cage festival here in Chicago hosted by Aperiodic (for whose work I am grateful but whose punctuational oddities I will not reproduce), I've found my thoughts returning to a concert in Austin last May with Line Upon Line and Thad Anderson. I wrote on it briefly as part of perhaps my finest diatribe of 2011; it was time for some further, belated thoughts on the matter.
Springtime in Texas can be an awfully dramatic business. Those first hot, humid days are like a dream of summer, heavy, thick, with kilned clay sunsets. But then sometimes the clouds roll in and suddenly there's a furious thunderstorm, the sky turns green and spits hail, the wind blows branches from the trees.
One day last May I was in Austin, out for an extremely sweaty run in the ninety-degree heat. That afternoon I went to a friend's recital, and by the time we left, the temperature had dropped to around fifty. The change occurred over the course of roughly two hours. No one was prepared. This was Texas, after all, where such temperatures are Yule-worthy.
And there was no time to go home and add layers, because we had only a few minutes to head next door to the art building, climb the steps to the roof, and hear our friends from Line Upon Line Percussion play John Cage's Four4.
We arrived to see four musicians situated around the rooftop, each with a whimsical percussion setup. The instruments included a bicycle, a large tree branch, and a power saw. The players explained the piece would last 72 minutes and we were welcome to sit anywhere, move around, and come and go as we pleased. They each had an iPhone that would function as a stopwatch; their parts cued them to play given instruments for given lengths of time (say, 8'15" to 10'30") -- the instruments themselves Cage did not specify.
It appears that most of the ensemble's prep time for the performance consisted in choosing the instruments.
They thanked us for coming, they started their stopwatches, and the piece began.
It was a few minutes before any of the players did anything. We all sat, enjoyed the genial absurdity of the situation, and began to tune our perceptions to the unusual surroundings.
It's a curious and wonderful thing, isn't it, to go sit somewhere and listen to people make noise for an hour? That's all we ever do. Sometimes it's a beautiful day and other times it's cold; sometimes it's a bustling concert hall, other times you're on a rooftop with fifteen or twenty people. Sometimes you've even heard of the noisemakers before! How exciting. At times the noise thrills, at others it disappoints; the relationship of these reactions to intrinsic qualities of the noise rather than, say, to our body chemistry at the time of the performance, is uncertain.
Four4, more so than any other "piece" I've heard, was an experience utterly irrelevant to normal value judgments. It was just four guys making noise on a rooftop. How could anyone laud or criticize that? It made me wonder why we pain ourselves to laud or criticize a pianist who plays a recital, or an orchestra that performs a symphony. It's not so difficult to turn up, sit there and listen for an hour, and then go home. In any case, "good" or "bad," what these musicians have done is from an evolutionary standpoint remarkable and from a humanistic standpoint clearly beneficent.
That last point will be thought stupidly reductive if not genuinely nihilistic, but all I mean to suggest is that music is not a thing to get upset about--and I'm saying this to myself as much as anyone else, because let's be honest here, I get really, really, really upset about music almost every single day. There's just no way to say the next thing without sounding maudlin, so here we go: music is a gift from God. It really is.
And we surround it with such words, don't we.
It was really quite chilly and blustery on that rooftop. I was more fortunate than some, had a hoodie or something, but still I had to move around and keep warm. Not everyone stayed to the end; ten of us, perhaps. We huddled inside for a brief reception, chips, cookies, a vegetable tray. We shared impressions, laughed about the helicopters and sirens that had punctuated the music in unexpected ways. And then we all went home.
We probably played Bohnanza later on. I don't remember. I do recall that later that evening President Obama announced that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden. I'll refrain from any sort of commentary on this truly bizarre coincidence of events.
Now, I've done a bit of meditating, not a ton by any calculation, but I do get irritated when people with no experience in the activity throw the word "meditative" all over any music that is superficially calm and relaxing or related in any tenuous manner to the minimalist tradition. Yes, meditation is initially about relaxation and quiet, but anyone who has had a profound meditative experience will tell you that at the root of it, meditation is deeply, profoundly energizing. It's not about getting drowsy and zoning out, oh god, not at all. It's about awareness, the power and velocity that lies in the space between thoughts, the wholeness of things that clarifies itself as you begin to relinquish attachments, oppositions, divisions.
These are thrilling things to experience.
It is in this regard that I refer, tentatively, to the experience of Four4 as a meditative one. Because all of us just shut the hell up for an hour. I've already pointed out that it was like all concerts in this respect, except more so, far more so, because no one had any intention of judging the experience. Expectations were slim or perhaps nonexistent; I don't think anyone anticipated transcendence and the ensemble certainly never promised it, so there was little space for disappointment--but at the same time, we also didn't expect it to be bad, we really expected only to hear some noise on a rooftop for a while, and that much, we can agree in all objectivity, was clearly provided.
What else can I say about the performance? Can I provide some highlights? What does one say about classically trained percussionists with doctorates smashing plates on top of a building? It was music, that's what I can say. The whole damn thing was music, from the temperature and the tense, gray sky to the traffic, the wind, and the listeners walking around, repositioning themselves, having a look out at the trees.
And I can say this: in music as in life, it is as crucial as it is endlessly difficult to attain the proper balance between gravity and levity, and here I can commend the ensemble, because they absolutely took the piece seriously… but not too seriously. They recognized that the funny stuff was funny, they embraced the light-hearted and silly aspects of the experience, but at the heart of it was a belief that what they were doing was music, and that music is actually kind of a serious thing, because again like living you probably only get one shot at it, so you'd better damn well do it right while you have the chance.
It will be drawn to my attention that the next time I declare a concert lame and boring (as often happens) or exciting and gorgeous (as also occurs from time to time), I will be contradicting the ideas here propounded.
This is true.
Cage's music is often described as emanating from and imbued with Eastern mysticism--perhaps correctly, but also lazily and by Western musicians who don't give a shit about Eastern mysticism. My own admittedly paltry explorations of admittedly bastardized Eastern mystic traditions here in the Occident have yielded two major lessons:
1. Appreciate ambiguity and contradiction. They're fascinating.
2. Shut the hell up when you can. It's beautiful out there.
Playing a John Cage number piece "well" is as much a matter of tuning one's attitude as of tuning one's instrument.
Those in Chicago, check out the Aperiodic John Cage festival on the 13th-15th.
…and the Mollycoddles on 18 May.
It would be wise for today's composers never to attempt to out-Cage Cage. This will never work. He was way too good at being John Cage. None of the rest of us stand a chance.
He also said most of the coolest stuff said by any recent composer, barring of course that which was said by his friend Morton Feldman. A new favorite of mine was offered as an epigraph at the lovely Sonatas and Interludes concert with Eliza Garth the other night:
"One should never go to the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there."
Let's all agree to remember this next time we're in the woods.
Or to reflect on it right now if we're presently there.
• 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