This weekend I'd like to take a moment to give thanks for a few small things. Perhaps it isn't great masterpieces and monumental wonders that make the world spin, but weird surprises, stupid jokes, and little touches that make you smile for a second.
1. Count Basie's orchestra playing an instrumental version of "Makin' Whoopee" on the Sinatra at the Sands album.
Thank gods [sic], I've found it on the youtubes. This is one of my all-time favorite recordings of anything ever. The swing is so deep as to basically re-invent the Western eighth note. Can you hear how far the band lingers behind the beat, and yet stays together? And enhancing the poignancy, you can hear the crowd talking, the clinking of glasses; they're not really paying attention. Sinatra has just left the stage to take a break; the audience is taking a break too. And yet the band pours everything into this tune. My high school jazz band director hipped us to this recording and said he'd never tired of listening to it. Neither have I.
2. Wikipedia pages about 13th-century mystics.
Check out what Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 - c. 1327) said about preaching and how much it resonates with contemporary mystically-influenced thought about music-making: "When I preach, I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things..." Evidently this guy emphasized the presence of God in the individual soul. He was also succeeded by "more circumspect disciples," and after his excommunication scholars continued to circulate his texts under the guise of appended pseudonyms.
I love this kind of stuff. On a related, wiki-clicking note, anyone know how many "antipopes" there were between 200 and 1500? More than you'd expect. The concept of an "antipope" offers a blessedly whimsical challenge to my 21st-century understanding of the world. (That we should actually need a wiki for such an idea!)
3. The "Tiny Dancer" scene from Almost Famous.
I mean, come on. This movie came out in 2000; was it a last gasp for '90s idealism? It's such a warm film, with such a refreshing lack of self-awareness. You've got to build up some serious goodwill in your audience to get away with a scene like the "Tiny Dancer" singalong. What movie lately has even tried something like this?
4. This guy:
Jose Mujica, the president of Uruguay, lives on a run-down farm with a three-legged dog, drives an old Volkswagen Beetle, and gives 90% of his salary to charity. He was recently dubbed by international media as the "world's poorest president," but he disagrees with this characterization:
"Poor people are those who always want more and more, those who never have enough of anything. Those are the poor, because they are in a never-ending cycle and won't ever have enough time in their lives. I choose this austere lifestyle. I choose to not have too many belongings so I have time to live how I want to live."
I was immediately taken with this person and his example; most people seem to respond to him with immediate skepticism. The BBC radio story closed with the interviewer saying, with thinly veiled condescension, "at least he's interesting." I have no idea if he's a good president; I wouldn't claim to understand the first thing about Uruguayan politics. But considering for a moment the incredible spending that goes into American presidential elections, and considering the bizarre--nearly surrealistic--progression in our country from Thanksgiving to "Black Friday," I find this gentleman a wonderful corrective.
This year it seems you can't kick off your shoes at the end of the day without one of them hitting a John Cage festival, and yet I see not so many concerts programming the pieces I love the most: the piano and string music Cage wrote from the late '40s into 1950.
The String Quartet (1950) is beautifully constructed, lithe like a crispy autumn leaf, precise, delicate, and ravishing. Even more influential for me personally are the Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard, composed shortly thereafter. This music is so sparse and poetic, so careful and light. It doesn't push you around. It whispers in your ear, like some forgotten August evening. I had the great good fortune to perform the Six Melodies as an undergraduate, and I really didn't know what hit me. Their compositional influence spent time sinking in, not to emerge for about five years, and now I know I'll never be rid of them.
It's always interesting to compare Cage with his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. They're extremely different musicians in so many ways, but they're absolutely akin in that today, a lot of serious people still can't handle their music. (Incidentally, the way into Schoenberg for me was the early piano music, especially opus 23.) I'd like to think the situation is improving as we develop our contextual bearings and conceptual resources for discussing the Second Viennese school, but for the moment it seems that passersby and neophytes will continue to hate the stuff.
A piece like Cage's limpid, spellbinding Dream (1948) is similar. Though it's not likely to raise the same sort of amateur hackles, it's still not part of the standard rep; people still can't handle it. For some professional musicians it is difficult to trust music this diaphanous and lovely. It speaks with such a clear voice, too clear perhaps to be taken seriously. My assertion is that many performers are actually, on some level, afraid to program music like this--and it isn't their fault, because their support comes from a classical music world cantilevered by the ideal of virtuosity, and for such an institution, an innocuously consonant piece like Dream is deeply subversive. How could such subtle beauty and mystery, such forceful musical ideas, spring from a single line of music with a bit of pedal? The tacit assumption is that anyone could write such simple music, and anyone could play it effectively. And yet so few have.
Everyone of course must expatiate on 4'33", but what other experiments can be done in that lab? 4'33" shattered the test tubes--or, perhaps, questioned whether they existed to begin with. For me as a composer, Dream is far more galvanizing.
I decided to write this about Cage the other day as I reflected on the trite and by-now brittle accusation that he is a philosopher and not a composer. It's a cop-out, made facile by the fact that Cage wrote so voluminously and beguilingly about his own music. Of course he was a composer! He wrote so many pieces! No one is obliged to like them, but expressing distaste or aesthetic disagreement by denying the music's existence is juvenile, and what's more, it's an ad hominem argument. Anyone who dismisses Cage in this manner has not actually responded to his music.
I'm sheepish though also somewhat proud to admit that I've received the same "philosopher-not-composer" critique, in a review of my chamber orchestra piece Night Air.
I'd love it if you gave this short, sparse piece a listen before you read the ensuing discussion.
I don't mean to dismiss or even directly respond to the critic, whose argument was not restricted to the piece's conceptual trappings. But I would like to suggest that I made a mistake when I appended this contrarian program note:
Jazz pianists don't tend to play sparsely, spaciously, the way Miles Davis played trumpet. Because a piano has eighty-eight buttons after all, and when you're improvising it seems logical to use as many of them as possible. So the idiom has developed a norm, an expectation, of fuller textures. In composing similarly there is this questionable assumption that you should "exploit the full resources" of whatever instrument or ensemble you're working with. It seems to me that writing music needn't be about "exploiting" anything.
So this is what I'm doing here -- I'm playing like Miles. The piece is a bit terse, there's a lot of space, and I have intentionally, emphatically, not used the full virtuosic potential of the orchestra. Because the tendency is to say too much and say it too often, and I thought I'd err on the other side this time. As a substitute for constant activity there is a thread of mood and atmosphere. I find that when music offers sufficient temporal and textural space, it becomes much easier to poke your head in and have a look around.
Night Air nods to a tune of the same name by Chicago band Tortoise, who were a crucial early influence on my musical conception.
Now, I stand behind the words and the ideas, but I could have saved them for post-concert beer talk. I did the music no service by saddling it with these inflammatory concepts. Admission: In spite of the program note, the theoretical "underpinnings" described therein were actually ex post facto.
How I really composed the thing is this. I wrote some initial boring sketches that I hated. I threw them away. I sat down at the piano with a new, blank sheet of staff paper. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. And then I imagined the ensemble on stage, the conductor entering, lifting his baton, and beginning the piece.
And what I heard was a string of quarter notes on a hi-hat. So I wrote them down. Then some ambivalent chords; an eavesdropped melody in the strings; a brief, vagrant harp solo.
I did not write this piece by thinking. I composed it by listening. I wrote what I heard.
Then, yes, I philosophized about it for a few moments. And truthfully, I'm not much of a philosopher. I'm not interested in developing logically consistent aesthetic dicta--maybe I thought such a thing was possible or desirable as a hubristic undergraduate, but not anymore. That said, I do have an interest in the conceptual side of my music, and for better or worse, I very much enjoy writing persuasively on the subject.
Lesson: a polemical program note might draw attention to the author, but at the expense of distracting that attention from the music. John Cage is still more often debated than listened to. I've heard it said that Milton Babbitt set appreciation of his music back by the manner in which he wrote about it; I don't think the same is true of Cage, who helped shape many a sympathetic mind when he published Silence. Perhaps the debates have engendered more listening than would have otherwise occurred.
My, isn't it so much easier sometimes to discuss the music than to simply let go and listen.
1. Thoughts Create Universe.
I've never developed a personal relationship with the music of Elliott Carter, but since his passing the other day I've spent some time listening. This music is far more sensuous than I'd remembered, an oversight perhaps attributable to the manner in which I was introduced to it. I'm especially enamored of this old recording of his 1940s Piano Sonata. This guy hung out with Charles Ives and studied with Gustav Holst, and he was still writing music during the Obama administration. Light a candle.
Reading the remembrances, two things stood out about Carter and his approach to life and composing. Here is my favorite quotation: "I like to sound spontaneous and fresh, but my first sketches often sound mechanical," he said. "I have to write them over until they sound spontaneous."
That's really such a beautiful and surprising way to look at editing, isn't it? The typical analogy is with sculpture, chipping away at the stone to reveal the statue within; but for Carter, editing was not a process of removal, it was one of accretion. Not a means of adding refinement but of adding energy, infusing the original idea with MORE momentum than it emerged with. I like that very much.
And of course, everyone has commented on the Carter's personal ebullience as well as his truly historic longevity and prolificacy. He said the following at age 103: "I write and write and write. I'm just like a fanatic, composing all the time. I'm not writing for the future. I'm writing for right now. When I wake up in the morning, I think about what I'm going to compose that day. If I didn't have that I don't think I'd be so happy. I'm writing because it interests me. It keeps me going."
Isn't that just wonderful?
Here's the thing: great artistry has never been and will never be correlated in any meaningful way with leading a happy, productive, and/or lengthy existence on this planet.
Positive thinking, on the other hand, is highly correlated with these things.
I wonder what would happen if every composer were able to write music each day from a fundamental position of joy, discarding entirely the prospect that "greatness" may ever accrue to oneself or anyone else as a result.
I suppose that what would happen is we'd all reach enlightenment in that moment and promptly burst into flames and evolve to the next plane of existence. (And that wouldn't result in any music, would it, so maybe we'd better hold on to some scrap of ego for the moment.)
2. Also, obliquely, on the subject of dying.
Does anyone else think that "Wild Mountain Thyme," the old Scottish folk song, is about death? It hit me one day in August 2011 as I drove alone across Colorado, and suddenly I couldn't stop listening to it. The song becomes so devastating and so emotionally complex as I feel this hidden content moving against its basic structural simplicity.
I recorded this version with my banjo last week to greet the month of November:
3. Emily Dickinson said something lovely.
"The noons are more laconic and the sundowns sterner, and Gibraltar lights make the village foreign. November always seemed to me the Norway of the year."
4. What am I up to?
• the Grant Wallace Band continues to accelerate our rate of performances while also plugging away at some recording projects. We're playing tomorrow night, Friday 11/9, at the Gallery Cabaret, with our good friend Alex Temple. The first twenty guests at the show will receive an official alias for the evening, including a dossier with assigned pseudonym and essential biographical information. It's going to be a fun one!
• working on a commission for pianist Nicholas Phillips and his immense American Vernacular project. My piece's theme is guitar fingerpicking styles, so I returned to the source for some inspiration. Mississippi John Hurt is still one of my all-time favorite musicians, and as a composer I'm more than occasionally visited by the ghost of John Fahey. What I didn't realize is that Fahey wrote a solo guitar piece called "Requiem for John Hurt" in 1968. This succinct form packs a lot of content into its five minutes, and it connects the spiritual dots between two of the most influential guitarists in my musical universe.
My piece had found its spark. Fahey's rhythmic structures and sectional forms have carried over, though I'm also using the piano's registral capabilities with some expansiveness. Fahey's music represents for me a meeting place between the woodsy sound of the steel-string guitar and the complex atmospheres of classical music. Working title: Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey.
• Next up is a quartet for two pianists and two percussionists. I've been dying to work in this medium since at least '09, when I played Crumb's Music for a Summer Evening at UT Austin with Franklin Gross, Owen Weaver, and Thad Anderson. Lo and behold: the four of us are reassembling for a reprise performance of the Crumb in March on the Collide Contemporary Music Series in Florida. We'll pair it with new pieces by Franklin and me. It's going to be such a joy to play again with these old friends and consummate musicians.
• Enjoying a Patsy Cline kind of morning before diving back into editing and rehearsing some gospel music for tomorrow's show:
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts