I often relate, with poorly hidden pride, the story of the time I almost got left on an island. It was 2009 and I had taken a trip from Austin to be Artist-in-Residence at Joshua Tree National Park, then a side trip to visit a friend at CalArts, then a side side trip to see the Pacific Ocean, then a side side side trip to Santa Cruz Island, part of Channel Islands National Park. The boat left at nine in the morning across a flat sea, accompanied by sea lions and dolphins, to an island that still looks like what the rest of Central California would look like if all the Europeans had stayed the hell away. The big island loomed. When we landed, they told us we could hike anywhere we wanted to, on or off trail, and that is what I did. I hiked up Scorpion Canyon, lost the trail, cut up the hill toward a ridge. Someplace on a hillside I just sat, completely alone, no one in sight, looking at 180 degrees of ocean. I kept climbing, hoping to meet the Montañon Ridge Trail. I reached a high point with a weather station and a long view of the island. I had a relatively poor park-service map and a compass; I was fairly lost, and out of water. Loath as always to backtrack, always hoping for a more interesting loop route, I moved east looking for a way down the ridge. By the time I found it and reached the coast again, I was completely disoriented. I made my way north along the coastline until I found a ranger cabin with a posted map. This is when I realized I was completely on the wrong side of the island, 3.7 miles from the dock. My journal entry for the day describes my state at this point: “exhausted, out of water, and almost certainly late to the boat”—only almost certainly, because I did not have a watch, so I didn’t know what time it was. So I hiked back as quickly as I could, pushed hard up the hills, jogged on downhills and straightaways. Finally I reached a view down to the bay and saw the boat, fully loaded, ready to leave. I ran down the slope, my backpack falling open, my legs cramping up, and reached the boat. I wasn’t as late as I’d feared, but I was told they were five minutes from leaving me there and sending out the search parties.
It occurred to me that I hadn’t stopped to rest at the high point of my hike, on the ridge, as would have been natural.
I was sheepish, and people were nice about it. I received a memorable lesson in economic fluidity by purchasing a $1 bottle of water that was to me easily worth $100. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted. I was told that two weeks previous, a man had died of heat stroke on the island. I had a Gatorade and another bottle of water, and my exhaustion began to replace itself with powerful euphoria. My journal’s description: “Every intake of breath I got chills all over my upper body. Felt humbled but still exuberantly alive. Full of creative energy. Many thoughts.”
I have a long predilection toward getting slightly to moderately lost in the outdoors. Here, in one of my very favorite passages, composer Peter Garland explains:
“The lure of traveling: its greatest magic is in the chance encounter, the road taken, strangers met, views…The surrealist writers in the 1920’s walked at random in Paris and its environs in search of the marvelous encounter. And this kind of traveling is certainly similar—the call to throw away the maps and lose oneself…In the quiet hours of driving, in hiking silently through deserts, one’s mind works—absorbing views, landmarks, memories, charting past correlations. Traveling as meditation/action combined—the endless unraveling of pavement, the limitless visual scroll of scenery, and an unremitting waking dialogue and waking dream…What attracts more often than not, is not the immediate place, but the lure of the next ridge…”
Since moving to New Mexico I have come to some acceptance of the fact that my favorite thing to do, more than playing piano or writing music, is going for long trail runs in the mountains with my dog. There is a trail system outside Albuquerque, in the Manzanita Mountains. A few months ago I was up there running on a maze of trails, and attempting to circle around, I kept taking wrong turns until I was headed—I’d later learn—in completely the wrong direction, on a trail that stubbornly refused to loop. But it was so difficult to turn around! What was around the next corner? Eventually I did turn around and find my exhausted way out to the highway, which I followed back to the trailhead and parking lot. I’d run out of water long before. I felt a tingling up and down my arms. I felt a familiar euphoria.
I’ve been a runner for a good decade now, and a hiker for longer, so I suppose I should’ve realized years ago that moderate dehydration is part of the point. When I first started lengthening my runs, I found that around mile seven came a moment I took to calling, with casual Western ignorance, “the Zen place.” The tingles, the euphoria, the heady, airy sensation of transcendence. Thirst and exhaustion shaped my awareness of the world around me, blurred things around the edges. I would come home from these runs and scrawl pages of ideas for new musical projects and lifestyle adventures.
I’m no different than anyone else. What I’m looking for is an expansion, or at least an alteration, of consciousness.
The talk in composer-land these last few years is all about entrepreneurship, the not-so-carefully-hidden lesson being that we have no cultural institutions in this country that can help you, you aren’t going to win any meaningful awards or grants, doctoral degrees are a sham, publication is a Ponzi scheme, and the stupendously rare teaching jobs are all at schools you’ve never heard of in states you’ve never been to; and so, though the market is at this point basically a hologram, it might be your best shot.
For those disinclined to sell, there is another popular model of artistic life: if you aren’t a marketer, we’re told, try and be a martyr! I can’t deny that I’m more sympathetic to this particular romantic notion. Here, for example, is the great writer Charles Bowden, extolling the virtue—actually, the necessity—of artistic poverty: “What’s money? I’ve got black coffee in my hand. Is this coffee in the cup? Well, I’ve got enough money…if you can compose music, it’s a gift. You can study and get better, but it’s still a gift. And if you betray a gift, just use it to make money, it goes away. It’s a sin, you know, to do that.” (Side note: I have a very similar mug.)
Marketer or martyr? It’s always seemed there must be a third option. And I think I’ve found one. You’re going to laugh, but it’s more practical than it sounds. It’s shamanism. It’s viewing myself (preferring the less ethnicized language) as a sorcerer—or, more modestly, as a sort of magician.
In 2009, walking the streets of Austin during the hot spring circus of South by Southwest, steeling myself to leave the academic music world—which, though it ain’t much of a world, was the source of whatever feelings of artistic legitimacy I was harboring at that point in my life—I carried around a copy of David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous. Abram is a philosopher with an irritatingly fun biography: his website describes him as “an accomplished storyteller and sleight-of-hand magician who has lived and traded magic with indigenous sorcerers in Indonesia, Nepal, and the Americas.” Sleight-of-hand: in Abram’s working definition of magic, there is an implication of trickery. But I suspect he would draw a distinction between trickery and deception. I think he would argue that illusions skillfully and intentionally created, willingly entered into, can be hugely powerful—can actually create and bind communities.
Because here is the thing with shamanism: it still means signing up for poverty, but unlike the traditional western notion of artistic martyrdom—which is tired, I’d argue, and not representative of recent economic realities—it is not a rejection of community. Abram points out that in many traditional societies the shamanic figures live on the edge of town, close to the woods. “For the magician’s intelligence is not encompassed within the society; its place is at the edge of the community, mediating between the human community and the larger community of beings upon which the village depends for its nourishment and sustenance.” Choosing a spot on the edge of the community, with frequent trips outside, can be a community role of great importance.
Contemporary Christian theologians sometimes argue that Biblical stories can be true without being historically factual. Maybe we can make real connection through the mediating power of our artistic illusions, even when we know there’s a fair bit of sleight-of-hand going on.
In 2010 I chucked everything and went to the Banff Centre for a long residency to try to become a jazz pianist. The effort taught me that basically it’s foolish to try and change who you are, but nonetheless from a still point at center you can extend yourself any way you want: so I learned a lot about playing piano, and even more, unwittingly, about how to compose. Starting from square one again, having left school and my community and my gigs and everything else that made me a “Musician” in my own eyes and those of society, I started the slow work of remaking music for myself one step at a time. And for the first time, I started to write music that was good.
So 2011 was my real becoming as a composer. It was also the year that made me weird forever.
Shortly after returning from Banff I flew to Guatemala. I’d been there the previous year, wandering about in the backpacker mode, and one morning, the day before I left the country, I met a woman swimming in Lake Atitlan who had just finished a month studying meditation and spiritualism of all sorts at a place called Las Piramides del Ka. The whispers about this place had mounted during my time in Guatemala, and that last day, I decided to come back. So a year or so later, I somewhat sheepishly returned to the country just to meditate. I drove to Chicago, flew to Guatemala, negotiated the airport and spent a night in the capital, then caught a van to Panajachel and a boat across the lake to the little village of San Marcos. I walked into the office with my busted Spanish and told the ladies in their traditional Mayan dresses that I was there for the moon course. “Do you want to stay in a pyramid?” they asked. Easy question. I stayed for two weeks before various gravities pulled me back to the states.
I was a “good kid,” and didn’t do drugs. I was interested in consciousness expansion, but never tried psychedelics. Notice my past-tense implication that there’s an end date beyond which a person is unlikely to engage in such pursuits?
One day at Las Piramides I caught wind of a “chocolate ceremony” that took place on the outskirts of town. So that afternoon I found myself on the porch of a man named Keith, known locally as the “chocolate shaman.” What happens here is that Keith is in communication with the chocolate spirit, who tells him where to go in the Guatemalan highlands to find the really good stuff, and some combination of the spirit and the locals have instructed him in the traditional Mayan preparation of chocolate. Essentially there are these psychoactive compounds in chocolate, but anything commercially available has very few of them remaining. Keith’s batches have it all. So he makes this chocolate, and everyone sits on his porch and drinks it. It’s not sweet. It’s bitter and strong. One of our doses could give a horse a heart attack. And then everyone just kind of meditates. And Keith talks to people. And things start to happen. The first day I went with two women from the Pyramids, and around the time I started to feel a mild euphoria, I looked left and right and was surprised to see both of them sobbing. This is not uncommon at the chocolate shaman’s house. Keith has a theory about “empath angels,” the idea that lots of us hold unknowingly onto emotional baggage for others, and that this can have a cost for us. Keith helps people become aware of this tendency, and sometimes release a bit of what they’re holding. What happened to me is—and I want to resist this phrasing, but there is no avoiding cliche, it’s simply the truth: I had the most forceful spiritual experience of my life. I felt uncontrollable, overwhelming, boundless joy. I saw music in the trees. I felt divine power lifting my hands above my head. There was a sense of unity to everyone on the porch and every plant and animal in the world. I didn’t see these things, in the psychedelic sense, but I felt them. There was a sense of knowing. There was great peace.
Keith says that chocolate is a traditional spiritual plant and teacher, but when our culture became interested in psychedelics in the 1960s, we left chocolate out of the mix because it’s mild. The popular line in San Marcos is that a drug like LSD will take you on its trip, while chocolate lets you go on yours; that acid pushes you through the door, while chocolate just shows it to you.
In traditional cultures it is young men, most famously, who go on walkabouts, who step into the desert for four days and four nights, who fast and go thirsty and push themselves to the edge and intend to see visions. Women do this too, and older people, but often it is young men who are dumb enough to try this sort of thing, and hale enough, usually, to survive it. I was twenty-six when I met Keith, and twenty-six when two months later I landed for the first time in New Mexico at a place called Cottonwood Gulch to lead wilderness trips for the summer. I was employed as an expedition cook, but in a deeper sense, really, I had no idea what I was doing there. It was a total hiatus from my previously overwhelming drive toward musical development, and I couldn’t explain it to anyone, even myself. 2011 was the year that made me weird forever.
In July, exploring the Gulch’s fabulously quirky library, I picked up a copy of Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality. This book details Castaneda’s apprenticeship with a Yaqui sorcerer named Don Juan Matus. The author was a Ph.D student in anthropology at the time, and sold his writings as non-fiction. In them, Don Juan feeds Castaneda plenty of psychedelic plants and says a lot of cryptic things. There is a cosmology, or I guess an ecology?, that slowly emerges in Castaneda’s books (and here I joyfully admit, I have read five of them), internally consistent if totally incongruous with everyday experience. Basically everyone now admits that Castaneda made up almost everything in these books. Somehow this dims my enthusiasm none, perhaps only magnifies it.
Because maybe something can be true without being factual? Actually I recommend A Separate Reality to anyone who wants to understand the implications of working as a creative musician in our society. Because we should recognize that we’re living and working in an unseen realm that most people ignore, and Castaneda vividly evokes a version of this. His parallel worlds are strange, thrilling, incomprehensible. This is how people can and do and should hear our music, and it benefits us to remember this.
We seek to expand our consciousness into these realms because of general existential fear and dread: fine, fine. We do this in a desperate search for meaning beyond the meaninglessness that seems so daily evident: I suppose. But we also do this because it benefits us to work with a larger ground of material. And we do this from a simple, natural, and beautiful sense of curiosity.
The other day I heard Alec Baldwin interview Paul Simon. He placed Simon among the greatest songwriters “in music history,” and claimed Simon’s songs will be played “forever.” Does he really think this? Many people in the media commit this strange error of myopia, substituting “music history” for “white American pop music since 1960.” What is Baldwin’s “forever?” Another generation? Two?
We can’t expect anyone to remember our songs, our books, our paintings. Actually to make any claim on the attention of future generations is to reveal tremendous arrogance and a deep lack of imagination and empathy. The past was dazzlingly different from the present. Today there are societies all over the world where people live full and creative lives without ever giving a shit about Beethoven, and if history is any precedent at all, the future will again be even more different than we can imagine. People will have their own songs to sing, books to write, pictures to paint, and walkabouts to walk. They’re going to do their own searching and see what they come up with. If they end up caring about my creative efforts or yours, that is their choice, not ours.
No, we have to insist that what we’re doing has meaning now—meaning to ourselves, and hopefully to our communities, and maybe to people we don’t even know; but that’s a matter of circumstance. I’ll return to the shaman’s hut on the edge of town. Maybe I can live on the outskirts of the capitalist system without rejecting it entirely. Maybe I can tell it about some things I’ve found in the woods.
Gone Walkabout is the title of a two-volume set of writings by the composer Peter Garland, who left the country with two suitcases in 1991 and didn’t return for forty-one months. The passage I quoted above is from his his first book, Americas. I read it when I was twenty-three, in graduate school, living in Austin, all hot with life. I read it in May, sitting at Barton Springs gazing at all the beautiful people around me in the warm blue-green light. We were very young.
Here is what comes after that passage about the lure of traveling:
“The question arises: why, in a book written by a composer with music as a focus, am I discussing at length my ramblings in the Oaxacan mountains? With little or no references to music? ‘Composers must experiment with life, first’ wrote Dane Rudhyar some fifty years ago—and that answers the question.”
I took that as a motto for the rest of my twenties. I needed to get my ramblings in, and I did. A year later I was in a little mountain town in Costa Rica looking for a place to stay, ended up renting an A-frame cabin with no electricity, behind the house of a man we’d found pulling wire out of the ceiling in a ruined storefront; we had breakfast in his kitchen the next day, and when there was no bus down to the rainforest, because the road had been destroyed in an earthquake the previous year, we just walked the road instead, hiked all day gazing across the valley at waterfalls, pulling ourselves from knee-deep mud. I stayed up those months drinking cheap Nicaraguan beer, teaching the card game Golf to fellow ramblers from Canada, Australia, Germany, Israel. The Australians like to ramble on account of the stressful exams they take to get into college, the Israelis on account of mandatory military service. Societies, I found myself realizing, are different from one another as the result of specific political choices.
But during one of those card games in Guatemala, another breezy night with empty bottles of Gallo strewn about the patio, I realized I needed to go home, sit the fuck down, and get some work done. We were in a town called Lanquín, at a hostel called the Zephyr with a lofted dormer and the most beautiful view from the open-air showers that you can imagine. Comely little breezes slipped through the windows while you slept. It was the kind of place I imagined taking me in. I would pay for my bed for a while, then start tending bar, keeping things organized, taking reservations; I’d meet travelers, explore the area on my off-days, work on my book at a desk by an open window. I imagined similar scenarios at a number of impossibly idyllic places around Central America, but none of them kept me. Because finally I had to go home and get some work done.
You don’t go on walkabout to get work done. You go on walkabout to expand your ground of experience, your range of understanding, the radius of your life. You do the work when you get home. You work from the center.
A regulated life of daily routine does not square with our instinctual view of shamanism. In the Castaneda books, Don Juan tries to destroy his apprentice’s attachment to routines. “A hunter that is worth his salt does not catch game because he sets traps, or because he knows the routines of his prey, but because he himself has no routines. He is free, fluid, unpredictable.”
God, I’ve wanted that. One night when I was about nine years old, my mom came in to say good night and was surprised to find me lying in bed, in the dark, in tears. I told her I was sad because my life felt routine. This was the early stage of a fear it would take me two decades to confront. I tried to go home in 2011, the year that made me weird forever, but Chicago wouldn’t stick. I left in 2012 to go back to the Gulch, and bounced back and forth a while before I made a decisive and terrifying break with the city in 2013. I landed in New Mexico in 2014. Now I am home. Now I can get some work done.
It turns out the monsters we face on walkabout are nothing compared to the ones that confront us when we seek to dedicate our daily life to a craft or creative pursuit. On walkabout we are prepared for the world to confront us. When you sit down to work on a Monday or Tuesday morning it is yourself you must confront, and the voices in there are so much worse than anything the world ever threw at you. They say the worst things about you, the foulest things; they know exactly what to say, because they know your worst, most secret fears. They’ll say anything to get you to quit. Maybe I am Don Juan’s hunter and also the game. The monsters would prefer me to be out roaming around, drinking cheap beer, playing cards with charming Australians. Routine calls out the monsters, but it’s also the only way. It’s the only weapon I have. All the achievements on your CV, any positive regard you’ve accrued from others, all that turns to dust when the monsters stare you down. All you can do is keep showing up to work every day. All you can do is promise to keep coming back.
In a recent episode of the cartoon show Adventure Time, one of its characters described the three characteristics shared by all the wizards in the land of Ooo: magic, madness, and sadness. What remains unclear is whether the madness and sadness cause the magic, or the other way around. What comes first?
Here’s what I know: when you sit down to write, when you exercise your magic, the madness and the sadness are right there. They sit to my left and right. We make things together, I think. There’s no sense analyzing their respective contributions. I ran away from the madness and sadness a long time. They chased me back and forth around the country, chased me up mountains and down city streets, nearly got me left on an uninhabited island. I thought I’d learn to conquer them and only the magic would remain. But this was foolish. There’s no magic without the rest. You have to take it all.
Charles Bowden’s book Desierto has tales of the Seri people of Sonora, whose walkabout tradition takes place on nearby, empty Tiburón Island. One old man told of his days and nights there with no food or water. (We learn, evidently, by denying ourselves intake.) Legend says that little people under the rock will come and teach you the language of deer. The old man had a faded tattoo on his arm, a symbol he saw in his visions on Tiburón.
The great secret of walkabout is that it doesn’t matter where we go. We take all the magic to the island ourselves. All the things we see there are just things we already know but rarely manage to look at.
The great secret of walkabout is that we don’t leave anything behind. It all comes back to town with us, whether we live in the middle or on the edge, it’s with us forever, and what we have to do is try and remember it, every day, when we sit down at our desks to get some work done.
A few months ago, a friend of mine left some voicemails describing a recent set of revelations to the effect that he really liked “pop” music—whatever that is—better than composed music, or notated music, or concert music, or art music, or whatever you feel like naming the alternative. I’ve exchanged countless affirmations of this sort with fellow composer-performers over the last decade, denouncing the familiar in favor of the newly thrilling. We’re all seeking discovery. We all want to feel the way we felt when we found that album in high school that defined who we thought we were and where we thought we were going. And we find it here and there, sometimes in unexpected places; but the genre thing is a red herring.
I think my friend was telling me he wanted to write songs and make albums, rather than write “pieces.” It seems a thin distinction to me. Call it what you want. What matters is the socioeconomic way you make your life, the social way you convey your music to others.
How are we reaching other people? How are we reaching out with our music? What kind of community are we making, shaping, asking for in the world?
Am a marketer, or am I martyr? Or might I be something else?
• 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