Going through Beethoven’s piano sonatas one by one as part of my summer practice routine, I find a piece like Opus 7. It is of no special historical importance, bears no broader poetical or metaphorical weight in the myth of Beethoven. It’s just a pearl of a piece, and you’d never find it if you were looking as a music historian, and quite possibly not if you’re looking as a music theorist; only if you’re looking as a musician. The piece asks that I deal with Beethoven not on the level of myth, but on the level of music.
I won’t say much, because I’m trying to finish the book fast enough to get it back to the library on time, but David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a really excellent read with a lot of provocative economic and political ideas. Big ideas about history. Say, suggesting that what we now call the “major world religions” all had their origins contemporaneously with the invention of coinage. And suggesting that their ideals are tied to market logic, often as its natural inversion. “Pure greed and pure generosity are complementary concepts; neither could really be imagined without the other; both could only arise in institutional contexts that insisted on such pure and single-minded behavior; and both seem to have appeared together wherever impersonal, physical, cash money also appeared on the scene.” (249)
Evidently sometime in ancient China there was a popular outburst of religious devotion and a fad for bodily mortification that culminated in a rash of self-immolations. In 2014, writing on being an artist in the shadow of climate change, I briefly (cautiously) touched up against the ethics of suicide. I found that I had to reject any simplistic logic of human life wherein one’s existence could only be calculated in terms of negative impacts. In his discussion of these horrifying self-sacrifices in the Liang and Tang dynasties, Graeber offers a broader perspective on the kind of logic I was rejecting. He muses on this notion of selfless giving taken to its extreme: “This is the door that necessarily opens as soon as one develops a notion of ‘profit’ and then tries to conceive its opposite.” (262)
The alternative is not so clear, because ideas like profit and sacrifice, greed and generosity, are so much part of how we look at the world that we can’t see through or across or around them. But maybe there's a third way. I keep coming back to his phrasing: “pure and single-minded behavior.” Because, when we really scrutinize our own decisions, are our motives ever so simple? Were we ever capable of unmottled action to begin with? Maybe accepting that complexity is a way to start. Graeber quotes Ursula K. Le Guin: "Free your mind of the idea of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think."
I have decided that I like music that’s about instruments. That's not the same as saying I like music that's about instrumental virtuosity.
The first time I heard Vijay Iyer live was late 2012, his trio with Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore, at Mayne Stage in Chicago, around the corner from where I was living at the time. I went with Ben and we sat up front stage right, maybe ten feet from the piano. After the concert, I walked the two minutes home and dumped out all the beers in my fridge. I would not suggest that I had a big problem with alcohol at the time, but obviously I viewed it as some sort of impediment to the higher work I wanted to be doing. That work can be elusive. The whole reason you want to make it so badly is precisely because it doesn’t exist yet. This, obviously, makes it hard to perceive with any consistency or clarity. It comes in glimpses. Those glimpses are to be cherished.
One of my jobs that year was guiding a neighborhood craft-beer tour on the North Side, and let’s just say, there were beers in the fridge again before too long. But I’ve never forgotten the spark that concert gave me. It didn’t need to instantaneously change my life. It only needed to give me the sense that such change was possible, and worth the sacrifice it might require.
I needed music to be something worth believing in.
I heard Iyer again the other night at the Village Vanguard, with the sextet from his most recent record. This music is forceful. It’s personal, and it’s collective. It’s virtuosic, and it’s atmospheric. In ways that could never be isolated in the score, or maybe even on a recording, this music transcends the specifically aesthetic to become ethical in its basic argument. It doesn’t even make me want to imitate it, as a composer or instrumentalist. It makes me want to live in a certain way.
Because it isn’t about websites or Twitter followers or record sales or grants or professorships or, God help us, “posterity” or history or necessity or talent or “genius” or even “influence.” It’s about loving things and following through. It’s about people, it’s about air, it’s about instruments. It’s about what you actually do.
Another night this New York trip, I heard Ari Hoenig’s trio at Small’s. He’s a favorite drummer of mine, for clarity and for complexity: in one tune he might maintain multiple rhythmic levels at once, but juxtaposed rather than superimposed, horizontal rather than vertical. The shifts happen perceptibly, and happen in the same way enough times that you’re able to parse them. His thinking on the drums is textural, compositional. The band was clean and rollicking and fun.
But I wonder if this is music for insiders. It rewards you for knowing its codes. When Hoenig retunes his drums so he can play the melody of “Moanin” on them, that’s basically a pun on the form and the genre. It’s fine listening on its own, but it’s actually deriving its meaning from an assumption that you’ve heard the original version and recognize what he’s doing with it. Another case: when the bandleader says they’re going to play a standard without announcing the title, then play a coy version of it that might not be immediately recognizable, that’s well and good—it’s fun for the insiders. But it’s also exclusionary. The reward is being in on the joke. If you realize you’re not in on the joke, either you’ll go study the music to try and get there, or you’ll shrug your shoulders and go listen to something else.
When you go to a “jazz club,” especially in New York, this is about waiting in line and paying some money and going down a narrow flight of stairs and entering a very small room, getting a seat, buying a drink. This is a classical music—as evidenced by the fact that no one is talking over it or dancing to it. So what’s the significance of it happening in a bar in a basement? Is this environment useful for the music, the musician, the listener? Is it only a historical contingency? Has it preserved itself for reasons beyond nostalgia for a time when this music had different social vectors? It’s interesting to me that not just a music but a specific venue can proceed from disreputable to reputable to canonical.
When I read George Lewis’ book about the AACM, it struck me that a generation of black middle and working-class musicians fought to get creative music out of bars, whereas my generation of composers, often white, often middle and upper-middle class, was fighting to get it back in.
Another solution to last week’s half-step modulation question, courtesy Bobbie Gentry: just do it more than once, so they know you mean business.
I heard that Bill Orcutt plays a guitar with four strings. “Makes sense,” I thought. But I practically spit out my coffee when he said the two he removed were the A and the D. How simply awful. If it were me, it could only have been the B and the high E. Premise, personality, principle.
Lately when I play Beethoven’s music the word that comes to mind is “schematic.” It’s like in all these early works he was drawing up a pile of careful plans, only to occasionally rip them up and improvise on the construction site. A piece like his first piano sonata, op. 2 no. 1, is fascinating to me. It’s like a beautiful house with no one living in it. By the second sonata he’s picked out the furniture, and is feeling at home enough during the Scherzo, which is in A Major, to go ahead and modulate to G# Minor for a while. By the third sonata the force of his imagination has clearly arrived.
This music makes its premises plain, and any tomfoolery is always within the lines. It is easier to understand these premises now, having studied Haydn and Mozart more closely. The premises are many: things like Sonata form, Alberti bass, harmonic relationship, thematic and cadential syntax. The music introduces itself, gives its name, announces its clans. It has a certain accent we might recognize. By opus 90 or so, the premises widen, and the tomfoolery becomes something more like introspective lightning storms or prayer. But the premises are still important to the exploration, like maps and roads and train lines to journeys, and I think for any music, no matter how original, the premises have to lie along some axis that is shared with other music.
When I was in my late twenties, I told a friend in his mid-thirties that I had a busy autumn of wedding attendance ahead of me. He quipped that he’d passed through the time in his life when he was attending his friends’ weddings, and had begun to attend their divorces.
I recalled this story a month or two ago, after two music-professor friends, who had both recently hosted me for concerts at their universities, quit their jobs.
Given how much information is shoveled at us these days, it’s really something that three years on I still think about this story from This American Life every couple of weeks. It just comes back to me, sipping afternoon coffee, or out on a run. There are really big questions in this story, just beneath the surface. What is honor? Is that real? Is this thing worth risking your life for? If not, what is? Since risk is just mathematics, don’t we risk our lives every time we get out of bed? In that case, doesn’t the question apply to everything we ever do? In that case, how do we choose?
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.
I think the strangeness of this notion—of using our blood-distributing organ as an all-purpose stand-in metaphor for our centers of love and direction—has been well thought through. But why, when you really consider the weird adventures that take place in our sleeping minds, why on earth would we think to analogize and poeticize our worldly aspirations by calling them “dreams?”
People seem to think “weird music” is “hard to listen to,” as though it’s uncomfortable or painful for them in some way.
It’s just sound, of course—but organized differently than how they’re expecting.
On the other hand, I find normal music hard to listen to when it’s too loud. Not long ago I was at a venue with bad sound, taking in a band that everyone was shouting over. Many weird musicians seem to enjoy intense experiences with loudness. I have never had this affinity. In this case, I felt physically attacked by the music.
People evidently feel that weird music, even at quiet volumes over great speakers or headphones, causes a different sort of damage.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts