So, if 1 is totally rural, and 10 is totally urban, what's your ideal number? For many people this is an easy question, but for some of my musician friends it's particularly fraught. I grew up in a town that's probably about a 5, and have spent much of the last five years flying back and forth across the spectrum.
Many people who live in a 5 community would probably tell you that it positively incorporates both ways of living; people accustomed to a 1 or 10 would surely find that moving to a 5 would involve enormous sacrifices of a natural or cultural sort, respectively. Does 5 blend the advantages, or does it lose both? This is no simple question.
This month, oddly enough, I've experienced powerful communal musical activity on both far fringes.
This photo was taken from the front porch of the Starlight Theatre in Terlingua, in the big bend country of far west Texas. The mountains in the distance are the Chisos, which fly from the low desert by the Rio Grande to heights of near 8,000 feet at the ceiling of Big Bend National Park, a wild and mighty part of the world. Terlingua is very, very isolated. This is country where the next town over can be an hour's drive away: Terlingua is 83 miles from its relative neighbor of Alpine and 300 miles from the nearest major city, El Paso. It was a mining community of 2,000 inhabitants around 1900, but would later languish into the status of a ghost town. This is a familiar tale in the West. What's odd about Terlingua is that people moved back in. A renaissance of squatters sprung a quirky community of desert dwellers who enjoy a small tourist economy and nightly sunsets like this one:
I took these photos on December 6. To my right down the big porch, people began to gather just as dusk settled in. In this far western outpost of the central time zone, it stays light until after six even this close to the solstice. More cars pulled up and people hopped out, toting guitars and Shiner Bock six-packs. They sat on the benches, on the edge of the patio; they caught up, and a few of them picked out tunes. A guitar player struggled to remember the verses to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." When he finished, everyone took a moment to comment on their love of the song, its personal significance to them.
As darkness fell, the group broke up fairly swiftly. This wasn't a weekend party, just a normal Thursday. In small communities like this one, music-making draws people to porches like a fire gathering us to the hearth. Looking out at the expanse of desert, you could feel the warmth and resonance on that porch.
I don't mean to valorize life in Terlingua. It's quiet, probably too quiet. People and opportunities are sparse; there isn't much money around, and life is austerely simple. It seems clear that this is a blessing that comes in tandem with significant difficulties.
A week later I flew back to Chicago. Within an hour of arriving home, I was hearing Ensemble Dal Niente's "Hard Music, Hard Liquor" program. Winston Choi tore up some Ferneyhough, Austin Wulliman shredded on a Lee Hyla solo, and a chamber group assembled on stage to introduce us to the etherhythmic music of Swedish composer Malin Bång. There were fantastic beers on draft. I was in a room packed with sympathetic and like-minded musicians eager to share sounds and socialize.
And then, of course, there was (Re)New Amsterdam.
I won't retell the whole story, as the show received a fair / amount / of / press, but in brief, Chicago's new music groups banded together to raise some cash for our Sandy-beleaguered kindred spirits at New Amsterdam Presents, and the whole day was just an amazing display of musicianship and generosity. It was the music-scene equivalent of a Saved By The Bell-style group high five. Above is a rough shot from the Grant Wallace Band set, which featured pianoless versions of Anton Jackson, Litany, and Land of the Lenu alongside my brand-new arrangement of an old Irish tune called "The Little Drummer," featuring our friends Chris Wild and Austin Wulliman. To be in the simultaneous presence of so many awesome musicians assembling for a common cause was superlatively inspiring.
I don't mean to valorize life in Chicago. It's noisy, often too noisy. People and opportunities are everywhere; there's too much money around, and life is anxiously complicated. It seems clear that these difficulties come in tandem with significant blessings.
I'm really so grateful for everyone who played and listened and donated yesterday, for all of my friends who dedicate their lives to weird music, and for the opportunity to share it with each other and the wider world. Though there was not a carol to be heard at either of these events, I can't imagine a better way to kick off the holiday season.
1. An overdue tip of the hat
to the Tacit Group, the Korean laptop ensemble who I had the pleasure of experiencing over Thanksgiving weekend back in the homelands, courtesy of the reliably awesome arts presenters at Legion Arts in their newly renovated home at CSPS Hall.
The folks in Tacit all have degrees in composition, and they made the simple but brilliant decision to express their interests in process-based music visually and through games, thereby easily and light-heartedly letting the audience in on the overarching secrets that often make this sort of music seem inaccessible. (Viz: the music is written via a process or algorithm which is set into motion; so, as the Taciters posited, the process is more important than the results. But if the audience doesn't understand the process, they've been robbed of observing that part of the musical experience which is admittedly the most important! So instead of keeping the equation mysterious, Tacit sets up six simultaneous Tetris games, and you can see how what happens in the Tetris games effects the sounds being created, and you're part of the fun. Games aren't just an analogy; the music really is a game.)
This show was a total pleasure. Tacit's US tour has three stops: Legion Arts, MCA Chicago, and Lincoln Center. Legion Arts is impressive.
I'm therefore justifiably thrilled that they're hosting the Grant Wallace Band at CSPS in January. We're happy to be making our first Iowa appearance under the aegis of this excellent organization.
2. Prelude to a trip to the west Texas deserts
In my rambles to and fro across these united states, of which my feet have alighted upon the ground of forty-six, I've found continually that one of this country's most inspiring corners is the big bend country of west Texas. It's far-flung, wild, and amazing out there, and I'm headed back this week. In preparation, I have purchased two relevant cultural products.
One: R. Andrew Lee's album of the piano music of Jürg Frey. The opening piece, Klavierstück 2, is a seriously, deeply austere and intense sonic construction, and when I listen to it with my feet in the Rio Grande and my eyes reaching to the crest of the Chisos Mountains, surely it will transmute my feeble consciousness into a golden liquid that will proceed to flow freely over all the nooks and crannies of creation.
Two: Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, a book which sports chapter titles such as "Hovering Universes in Nearby Dimensions" and "Endless Doppelgängers: The Quilted Multiverse." I'm going off the deep end, friends, and I'm going there swiftly and enthusiastically. See you on the flip side.
3. Great newses
I'll have to make my way back before too long, though, because there's some great musical stuff in the offing. December 16th is (Re)New Amsterdam, a benefit to help the Sandy-beleaguered New Amsterdam Records. Chicago's new-music scene has exploded with support for this event, and the bill is simply resplendent. Grant Wallace Band will play a short, piano-less set featuring a new arrangement of our favorite creepy old Irish folk song, "The Little Drummer." It's going to be a great afternoon.
More GWB appearances are in the works in January; then, in February, I'm off for a pair of artist residencies, one at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and one at Wyoming's Ucross Foundation. While bivouacked at these august and comely-looking establishments, I'll be working on an album-length piece that takes the next step in bringing together my composer and singer-songwriter sides.
4. More Golconda
The album I promised back in August still exists, is still in the works, has been fully composed, but is still not recorded. Maybe I'll drop a tracklisting here today as an ounce of proof...
1. FR 569
2. Milwaukee Blues
4. June 19
6. El Prado Woman
7. Passacaglia (for Kelly)
More on this project by the first of 2013!
Until then, merry multiverses.
• 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