I first visited the Hideout for their Wednesday night Immediate Sound Series. The music starts at around 10, and the group is some permutation of improvisers from Chicago’s free jazz community. Occasionally, simpatico musicians from parallel scenes in Norway and Holland stop by to play with the locals. When I strolled in one night in April 2012, the group was led by Harrison Bankhead, a fifty-something stalwart bassist/sideman of the scene, unusually leading his own group for the evening. The bar is a shitty old house, supposedly built by undocumented workers in the late nineteenth century and run for years by bootleggers. The front room has low ceilings and Three Floyds’ Gumballhead on tap. The back music room is small, with a tiny stage and a big fish mounted on one of the walls. Bankhead self-catered his gig: as you walked into the music room, a table on the right offered three crock pots of chicken wings and a few giant bags of Ruffles. Six eclectically dressed, ethnically diverse gentlemen made weird noise on the stage until wild hours. Between sets we sat outside on the patio. The Hideout is in a strange neighborhood, not so far north, but tucked between unassuming industrial buildings, away. You sit outside and you can see the skyline, but you still feel far-off, like you’re just remembering Chicago from some small town in the south. It’s a rare home for a rare music scene. In 2012 for a while they had weekly letter-writing nights at the Hideout, typewriters supplied.
I was back last weekend, not for free jazz but for a string quartet. For the past few years, Spektral Quartet has thrown a lively series of “Sampler Pack” concerts—the programs run the gamut, and the players give themselves permission to place individual movements of Great String Quartets by the likes of Bartók and Beethoven next to disparate modern works—and, in this case, a bit of country music arranged by me.
Austin Wulliman wrote in January to ask if I’d arrange something from the rock/country direction for soprano and string quartet. First I dove back into the catalog of Patsy Cline, because I adore those performances, but when I stripped away her amazing vocal nuance and those smooth, sedimentary rhythm section grooves, the songs themselves were too flitting. I wanted something that worked complexly and beautifully on the basic levels of songcraft, in the foundations of melody, harmony, and lyric. I wanted something that would translate well, that could reach across the musical distance from country song to string quartet. I wanted something with ambiguity. I wanted something with weird holes in it.
So I found my way to Townes van Zandt. The man was a songwriter’s songwriter, like a honky-tonk Richard Rodgers soaked in cheap whiskey and cigarette ash. I didn’t get Townes right away; I’d heard “Pancho and Lefty” around the campfire, but it didn’t stick to my subconscious. Not until I heard Emmylou Harris sing it. The circuits connected. I told a friend, and he commented that the best way to understand Townes’ songs was to hear someone besides Townes singing them.
What is that, exactly? Read some Youtube comment threads and you’ll find all kinds of people accusing Townes of being a bad singer or just a flat-out terrible performer, often shortly before they turn around and extol his songwriting. And yet, as soon as “Pancho” clicked in my brain, I began to love Townes’ own performances. His homey solo rendition of “Pancho and Lefty” from Heartworn Highways is my favorite, now.
For some reason or another, though, Townes is eminently coverable—like Bob Dylan, who despite his inimitable delivery is also perennially accused of being a “bad singer.” Townes’ songs leave space for people, and there is a long tradition of covering “Pancho and Lefty.” I have a few theories.
(1) It’s a story, with just the right level of character and detail, rich in mythological resonance. Like all such stories, it sounds distinct but equally alluring in different mouths.
(2) It’s a story with holes. Who were these bandits? Any connection to the historical Pancho Villa? Did Lefty really sell out his friend? Who is the second person being addressed in the first verse, and why does the song begin so enigmatically before diving into the story proper? And lastly, the cops: are they telling the truth, or just blustering? Were the titular pair really just low-rent criminals? If so, why are the gray federales still talking about them, decades later?
The holes let us in, give us room to wonder.
(3) It’s a metaphor for the traveling life of a musician. It’s a metaphor for the inherently uncertain effects of artistic effort.
So I decided to cover “Pancho and Lefty.” I kept the melody and the lyrics, and I basically kept the form. I changed the harmony and the rhythm. I wrote totally unrelated music to go under the first verse and last chorus, to emphasize the story’s hazy frame. I tripped the gait, I amplified the atmospheric ambivalence.
Carrie Henneman Shaw sang the arrangement. Carrie is terrific. She’s a specialist in early music and contemporary music, so she knows tuning systems and extended techniques and mad chromaticism. I gave her a simple melody in an unusual metric scheme, with very few expressions. I don’t like to write lots of markings over vocal lines, especially when there are lots of words to contend with. That’s enough extra information.
“Directly, with quiet emotion,” I told her for the first verse. Thereafter, “more dispassionately, like a storyteller remembering something that happened near you, but long ago.” Then, over the final chorus, “fading into the distance.” That’s about it. No dynamics. Just these indications tracing the general contour.
I was thrilled to work with Spektral Quartet. I’ve known the players for a few years and have worked with them individually on various projects, but my first opportunity to write for them as a group was last fall, when they commissioned me as part of their Mobile Miniatures project. They employed about forty composers to write little tiny pieces then recorded and released as ringtones.
Really quickly here is why this is so cool: (1) It’s actually new music. The ringtones are real, thoughtful pieces by legit, experienced composers. They’re just extremely short. (2) They’re actually ringtones. The pieces have to function in different ways, and it’s a blast to swap them around on your phone to see how they work. (3) It changed my relationship to my device. “Hey Luke,” people say. “Your phone is making a weird noise.” I now pity the poor uninitiated who still use Apple’s default sounds. (4) It asks new music to function in a specific and practical way that is SO different than the open expectation of the concert hall. (5) You’re allowed to love, or to criticize, the music for totally different, totally functional/practical reasons, and intellectualizing plays no necessary role in the pieces’ reception. (6) It gave me the opportunity to hear my colleagues’ music in a totally new context, in a totally different way, in a fresher relationship with my daily life.
That wasn’t too quick. Anyway it’s clear I think the guys hit this project out of the park. They have a way of doing that. The Sampler Pack concerts are always a blast, and demonstrate the group’s ability to really dig in with a huge variety of music. To borrow something John Updike said about Vladimir Nabokov: Spektral plays music the only way it should be played—that is, ecstatically.
Here is this great picture, by Elliot Mandel, of the quartet and Carrie onstage at the Hideout.
During the break we piled out of the stifling music room onto the patio, looked at the skyline, and talked about Lee Hyla. He had passed away one week previous, and he was a teacher, friend, and mentor to lots of people in the audience. I barely knew Lee personally, had exchanged words with him only a few times, but when I heard he was gone, my breath caught in my throat. I walked around a lot that day, listening to the most bracing, rhythmically virile music I had on my phone, thinking about his legacy.
I didn’t know Lee much, but I felt like I did, because so many of my friends studied with him, and I heard so many stories of his wit and his wisdom. And I always looked up to him as a composer. He knew what he loved—Beethoven’s late quartets, Stravinsky, Cecil Taylor, Captain Beefheart—and that love was clearly always in his ears and in his hands when he wrote.
After they heard the news, Spektral added his fourth string quartet to their Hideout program. They’d played the piece a few years previous. Lee’s music is exacting. He wrote accents over rests, and things like that. It was as precise as it was ferocious. Damn if it wasn’t powerful to hear Spektral play that fourth quartet in a room full of people who knew and loved Lee. Everything in that piece is honed beautifully, never a perfunctory idea or a characterless moment.
I fled musical academia the minute I finished my master’s degree, and I’ve had an uneasy attitude toward it since. Lee fled too, left his doctoral program to live in the city and write music. He found his way back in, and became a powerful example of an artistically vigorous composer who met significant successes within the system while keeping his whole aura remarkably free of bullshit.
I talked about him a lot over the weekend, with Chris (running by the lake), with Ben (playing frisbee golf in the sunset), and with Liza (walking down North Avenue from the Hideout to the L). I talked about him with Dave, who also had a great piece on the program that night.
I can’t memorialize Lee with personal stories, because I didn’t really know him. But I do know his students. Here’s what Dave said about Lee: “what makes me tear up the most is knowing that if he were here, he’d tell us to quit being so bummed.” Passion is a legacy, and I can see his students living it. The next day I hung around Chris’ house while he poked at Adobe Illustrator, writing a wildly complex bassoon piece before heading out to train for his upcoming third marathon. I dug frisbee golf discs out of the shrubs with Ben, who is finishing writing his album Psychopomp, CA and moving to North Carolina for a great teaching job. A few days later I saw a picture on Facebook of Liza goofing around at the piano with a few other composers, at Aaron Copland’s house. They’re out there, my friends, and they’re keeping it real.
Wisely or unwisely, fairly or unfairly, we ask of our teachers not just the knowledge of music but also the lesson of how to live as musicians. I like to believe that music has moral content coded deep within, that certain composers can teach me about ethics like the old-school philosophers tried to do. I want to believe that, like the contemplative life Aristotle proposed in the Nicomachean Ethics, there really is a “best life” out there for an artist to aspire toward, and I think that in the lives and works of our teachers, there are hints.
• 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