My teachers, and in some cases my colleagues, just knew more music than I could imagine knowing. They could quote chapter and verse. For example, someone mentioned Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1—a piece I’d never heard of—and one of my teachers said, “oh yes, that’s the one with an accordion.” Because there were eight Kammermusik pieces, and he knew all of them. I had some serious catching up to do.
Lacking a structure toward this pursuit, I flailed for years.
Somehow it may have been today, in the year 2020, after everything that’s happened, when I heard Lil’ Jürg Frey perform a set for Experimental Sound Studio’s Quarantine Concerts from within the video game Animal Crossing, that I finally admitted to myself: there will be no catching up.
Maybe I should have known a few months ago, when I heard for the first time Joni Mitchell’s 1988 album Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, wherein she duets with Willie Nelson on the cowboy standard “Cool Water”—but she's just warming up for the dazzlingly problematic “Lakota,” with a vocal contribution by actual Iron Eyes Cody.
There will be no catching up.
They say there is some music you don’t even have to listen to anymore, because it’s so deep inside you. An example for me is the self-titled debut record by Tortoise. These days I listen so hard, repeatedly, to try and let something in. At age 16 I was completely permeable. I couldn’t even help it: my whole body was a nerve ending.
Place the teachings on your heart, the rabbi taught, and one day when your heart breaks, the teachings will fall in. This is more or less what happened to me with John Coltrane’s Crescent.
In a karstic landscape, limestone or other soluble rocks have been partially dissolved by water. Above ground everything seems normal, but below there are systems of caves and aquifers. Groundwater filters through the karst and finds its way out through a lower stream, cleansed by its journey through the subterranean passageways.
My patron musical saint of quarantine is Joseph Haydn. I’ve been playing his sonatas every morning. This is music in which everything makes sense. Haydn is famous for his cleverness, his jokes and formal trickery. But his cleverness never has anything to do with proving himself. This is music from before the invention of genius, as we now have the concept. So there is this lightness. Look away from the supposedly “important” elements of the form, toward the brightness and jocularity of the transitions and the closing themes: there is this a lack of self-consciousness. Even Mozart at times seems to know that he is a genius. Haydn has never even heard the word. Here is a guy just having fun with music, and it sparkles.
• 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