1 • Last week I walked past a couple with two young children. They were having a good-natured family argument of some kind, the parents doubtless battling against some ineluctable construction of kid-logic. I heard them say, "here, we'll ask this gentleman."
"Excuse me, sir," they said. I stopped and smiled. "Is there such a thing as ghosts?"
I hesitated. The parents prompted me by subtly shaking their heads "no."
"Not that I've ever seen," I said dutifully. "Nope."
They thanked me and we continued walking our separate ways.
I couldn't help but qualify my response. They'll never know how badly I wanted to say "yes" or "maybe," to leave the door open, to let those little imaginations keep right on believing in everything, everything, everything.
2 • In August 2011 I went to Pie Town, New Mexico with a few friends. As we drove into town we stopped, predictably, for pie. The Pie-O-Neer cafe has one of the world's great front porches. We sat there and ate, and observed under a bench a few large cardboard boxes full of paperbacks. "FREE" was scrawled across the boxes in black marker.
So we took some books. I found a warmly broken-in copy of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary with a bookmark advertising a used bookshop in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Some very intelligent people have told me that this novel is one of the greatest. I didn't plan to read it right away, but I figured I should have a copy. After all, it was free.
I moved it to Chicago with me. It sat on my shelf for two years. I returned to New Mexico, and even to Pie Town. But I never read Madame Bovary. Somehow it avoided the culling that occurred when I moved to a new apartment. For some reason it continued to accompany me.
Today, in the deepening thrall of a minimalism kick, I donated more books to a charitable resale shop. I recently saw a helpful guideline suggesting you should keep only books you plan to read in the next six months--with scrupulous attention paid to your actual rate of reading. I just wasn't convinced I would get to Madame Bovary in half a year.
In his prose Flaubert famously sought "le mot juste," the avoidance of cliche, the right word at the right time.
As a reader I am hopelessly dedicated to serendipity and flow. I'll always take the book that falls into my hands at the right moment over the one that has been waiting in the queue.
So I gave the book away. Which doesn't mean I'll never read Flaubert; now is simply not the time. I felt light as I left the store. For some reason I was chosen to transport that particular book from Pie Town to Chicago, to deposit it on this precise day. I trust it'll fall from my shelf into someone's hands at just the right moment.
I'm spinning from the brilliant, oblique, and inspiring list of "Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing" by Captain Beefheart, originally issued to a new member of his band in 1976. They were republished the other day on Open Culture.
My favorite is #7: "Always carry a church key." Beefheart lists two musicians who he considers keys to the church: One String Sam, a Detroit street musician, and Hubert Sumlin, who played guitar for Howlin' Wolf.
I'm sure we could all list a few musicians or key recordings that opened doors for us; there are times when you hear something new and feel that you're undergoing an initiation.
The first that jumps to mind for me is the moment I first heard Mississippi John Hurt. It was summer 2002, driving at night, and my hometown jazz radio station played "Stack O'Lee." Time stopped, for a second. No one else in the car seemed to notice. I didn't know music could be like that. A new path opened.
Earlier, less a lightning bolt and more a steady conduit of inspiration and challenge: in eighth grade I'd begun to show an interest in jazz, and one of my sisters asked her friend for recommendations for me. "If he's going to be into jazz," the friend said, "he's going to need these two albums." They were Kind of Blue and Giant Steps.
You work for years, right up against it, and occasionally you find yourself in a place where the path unfolds before your eyes. I could see far from my cabin in Joshua Tree, where I was Artist-in-Residence in October 2009. I sat on the porch in the morning and wrote songs, and then I drove around the park to hike and climb and explore.
There were four CDs in my vehicle, and they became the four keys to the church there in the blue-brown expanse of the desert, the four pillars of the revival-meeting tent I set up for myself in the Mojave. It was a spontaneous collection, one that fell together without premeditation or curatorial effort. One of them was brand new, two I'd just purchased off a used rack in Austin, and one was an album I'd loved since high school that I happened to grab from my old collection before I left Iowa in September.
The new one was Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion.
The two used discs were Wilco's (terrifically underrated) A.M. and an album I've scarcely listened to since, Devendra Banhart's Oh Me Oh My.
The old one, a piece of music I adore terrifically & have covered in its entirety, was Beck's One Foot in the Grave.
In Banff in the autumn of 2010 the keys to the church were Sibelius' Seventh Symphony, Mingus Plays Piano, and John Coltrane's Crescent. I was negotiating a breakup and facing the demons of my own musical self-doubt. Crescent pointed the way forward, drew a sinuous line not away from my sadness, but through it.
In May 2011 when I landed in New Mexico, a bit confused as to why my recent musical dedication and spiritual progress had led me to a job leading backpacking trips, a friend played me Charlie Parr. At the moment when I least expected it, there I was standing in another sanctuary.
Sam Amidon posted this interesting list of church keys on his tumblr. I knew most of the artists but none of the specific albums. I've begun to listen to them; Thelonious Monk's Alone in San Francisco is a special revelation.
Often when I cast myself into the world, into newness and the flow of events, I find church keys alongside the road that help me on my way.
My composerly efforts are emerging in many & varied guises this fall. Take a second to look at two Kickstarter campaigns I'm involved with presently:
(1) Nick Phillips' American Vernacular CD project. Nick commissioned ten composers and is raising funds to cover the album release. He has brought amazing effort and musical wisdom to my piece Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey --I couldn't be happier with the results, and I can't wait to hear what the other composers have cooked up. Here's a sneak-peek video of BPR, which he recently finished recording in the studio. (Those leaps are not easy.)
(2) In another wild and ambitious undertaking, the dynamic and snappily-dressed Spektral Quartet have lined up 40 composers to write extremely short pieces for use as mobile-phone ringtones. This is actually an extremely good idea, and if you aren't immediately convinced, the video over at their Mobile Miniatures Kickstarter page should do the trick.
In other news, Grant Wallace Band is teaming up with Darmstadt darlings & Chicago hard-ass new music stalwarts Ensemble Dal Niente to create a micro-musical. The premiere is January 5th, as part of a CD release show for cellist Chris Wild. The show will also feature fiddler Austin Wulliman (also rollerbladist of the aforeplugged Spektral Quartet) and soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (Quince, Color Field Ensemble, general hilarity), with composer Eliza Brown making a special appearance on musical saw.
I'm also working on a new piece for flute & percussions for the Texas-based Peterson/Hayes Duo, and practicing some ragtime for an end that cannot yet be revealed.
I was revisiting Ashley Paul's great record again in the car the other night, driving across the midwest. I have always felt that beneath the veneer of the world there is a reservoir of strangeness churning and bubbling. Certain art has a way of revealing it; David Lynch's work has famously centered upon the scrims that thinly separate our daily activities and proceedings from the strangeness that permeates and perhaps illuminates them. I think the world might be a cold glass, and weird art can help you reach up to it and wipe away the condensation.
Here's an interesting interview with Ashley.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts