I committed in mid-January to write a weekly blog post here, every Tuesday, for the year. If you’ve been reading and appreciating them, I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions. For the moment, I plan to take at least a brief pause before re-committing to a new—or even perhaps the same—approach for 2019.
I’ve been cultivating a public-facing persona as an artist for a long time, since well before I really began to know myself as an artist or even really as a human being. So I’m taking a couple of weeks here, possibly through January, to begin again. I’m still dealing with my October decision to leave social media and what it implies for my ambitions in the short and medium terms. My focuses have been shifting, and I’m trying to understand the trajectory and what’s next. So thanks for reading, and thanks for your patience walking this path with me. We’ll see what comes around.
I had the idea recently to scrub my web presence, withdraw my old work, and start again releasing music only under a pseudonym. I am probably not going to do this. Composers almost never write under pseudonyms, though we’re often asked to use them when submitting work to competitions. Singer-songwriters sometimes do, but usually their real names are roughly as well known as their stage monikers. In both cases a sort of performed authenticity is part of the contract with your listeners (and, for composers, with your performers).
Then there is the hip-hop world, where pseudonyms are widespread, even dominant. While authenticity is still at play, there is an understanding and expectation of sarcasm, exaggeration, role playing, and so on. I would argue that narration in hip-hop is perceived with more degrees of complexity than that in singer-songwriter music, where listeners often resist separating the first person of the song from the subjectivity of the singer. In fact, when the singer-songwriter denies that a song is about them or meaningfully based on autobiographical experience, listeners often refuse to believe it.
The issue is less acute in instrumental music, because when there is no text there is no explicit first person, no explicit narration, and no explicit issue of authenticity. But they’re all below the surface, and we’re still dealing with an expectation of identity construction for an audience. I like that pseudonyms foreground that act of identity construction. I think that could be healthy for the artist and for the listener.
I made up Golconda in 2008, based on the painting by Magritte. It was supposed to be a band name, but I was always moving around and always playing by myself, so it became a singer-songwriter persona. I remember within the first year or two someone telling me that it sounded a bit like my surname.
I went walking last night, over to the park near my house. I walked in the same park the night of the 2016 election, in a state of unusual despair. It was dark that night. I struck up a conversation with a man who was there playing with his dog. I don’t think I ever saw his face. Tonight the park was lit up: my neighbors had lined it all the way round with luminarias. I’m grateful that people choose to place lights along the streets and sidewalks and on their houses. There is a reason we celebrate hope at the darkest time of the year. Darkness is the unknown. It is scary. It can be dangerous. But it is also the seat of possibility. In the dark, we see only by the lights that we choose.
I was honored earlier this month to play a duo concert at Chatter with the great accordionist/composer Guy Klucevsek. This was a meaningful one for me, and I’ve been hesitant to write about it. Maybe I’m afraid to crystallize a rich personal experience into any simple set of statements. But there is one lesson I got from hearing Guy play close up that I wanted to share, and it’s easily put. I don’t know if it does justice to what I heard, but here it is: there is space between the notes, between every note you play. And you don’t need to be in a rush.
My new trio, premiering in February, refers to this poem by Ray Gonzalez, which refers to this poem by Weldon Kees. I had not heard of Kees. He was born in 1914 in small-town Nebraska. He lived in Denver, New York, San Francisco, painted, wrote poems and criticism, played jazz piano, befriended Abstract Expressionist artists and literary lights of the day, was depressed, tried various efforts to jump-start his career, and disappeared in 1955. He took his sleeping bag, his wallet, watch, and savings account book. He had been talking about Mexico. His car was found near the Golden Gate Bridge. He may have jumped, but then, he may not have.
Anthony Lane wrote a 2005 profile, “The Disappearing Poet,” for The New Yorker. He reveals, in the first paragraph, that Kees’ cat was named Lonesome.
His poem “Travels in North America” is vivid, haunting, precise. Right away I felt like I knew him. Evidently Ray Gonzalez felt that way too: in his poem, he puts Kees’ ghost in the car for a trip across New Mexico. Accordingly, for my piece I decided the three of us would all go for a long afternoon’s drive. I too have felt the autobiographical desire to disappear. Sometimes this has meant leaving where I am and going someplace else and not keeping in great touch with people from past lives. Other times it just means disappearing into the work. But I’ve never stayed lost for long. Like Theseus with Ariadne’s thread, I’ve always kept a way back.
The new trio was written like Open, methodically, in one unbroken line. For the premiere we’re going to pair it with Copland’s Billy the Kid. I really love this piece, with its resonant New Mexico connection, and it's been an inspiration. It also represents a simple and romanticized view of Western space that I’ve been trying to get past in my own music. It’s not easy to claw out from under one’s own chosen archetypes. But these two poets have helped.
Kees passes through Los Alamos: “We meant / To stop, but one can only see so much.”
He continues: “A mist / Came over us outside Tryuonyi: caves, and a shattered cliff. / And possibly the towns one never sees are best, / Preserved, remote, and merely names and distances.”
Small-town names are listed, sweeping from Oklahoma and Michigan to Wyoming and Washington, “And sometimes, shivering in St. Paul or baking in Atlanta, / The sudden sense that you have seen it all before…You have forgotten singularities.”
Gonzalez closes his story at an El Paso bus station: “Kees looks at the bus schedule, / runs out of cigarettes / and everything is closed. / He nods at nothing and waits / on the bench with someone / he swears looks like me.”
Maybe my preferred mode of disappearance is not the dramatic and irreversible but something more cyclic and subtle. The Self like a player piano roll that wraps around as it plays, the old melodies still there but coiled back among the gears and dust. The more time passes, the more evidence accrues that I’m not who I thought I was, and I don’t know whether the song keeps wandering in new directions, or whether it ever repeats.
• 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