New Mexico is full of wonderful characters, many of whom are disconnected from one another. Lots of people in Albuquerque and Santa Fe moved here from elsewhere, so we have distant networks around the world and smaller ones locally, networks that don’t always quickly or naturally overlap.
About a year ago I met one of these characters, Joseph Franklin, who founded the Relâche Ensemble in Philadelphia in 1977. He gave me a copy of one of Relâche’s CDs. I spun it in the car driving south on I-25 between Socorro and Truth or Consequences. The land opened up and the music started, and it was like a flashlight shone into a cave I didn’t know was there. The first piece was Robert Ashley’s Outcome Inevitable. There’s another version on YouTube. But in Relâche’s recording especially, with its tenser rhythms, the piece is like a lean, elegant mystery novel. The sentences are short, clipped. One wonders if the dialogue is less important than the things left unsaid. Each solo instrument gives its statement of events, and you have to try and figure out who the murderer is.
I shared this impression with Joseph, and he told me Ashley was a big fan of film noir and detective stories. In this remembrance he tells a story of Ashley visiting Relâche’s office and commenting on its dark, wooden entry staircase, complete with a single hanging light bulb.
Ashley’s most famous works, rightly, are the operas. I was floored by Dust; it’s a work of amazing cumulative power, with one of the great endings, an ending on the level of Before Sunset or Blood Meridian. The operas are overwhelming—by design, of course. They’re floods of information, and they have their own logic. The smaller pieces are useful as narrower wedges to get inside Ashley’s aesthetics. I’m thinking of For Andie Springer: Showing the Form of a Melody, “Standing in the Shadows,” by Robert Ashley (what a title!). Like Outcome Inevitable, it’s a piece of unbelievable simplicity, and simultaneously it is just the most mysterious and inexplicable thing you’ve ever heard. Like the songs at the end of Dust, like the melodies in Outcome Inevitable, the violin tones in For Andie Springer hang with almost naive earnestness, like a meditator who doesn’t realize he has levitated two inches off the ground. More than how Ashley wrote these tunes, you wonder how he ever thought to situate them so subtly, uncomfortably, perfectly. They don’t quite sit inside their forms. They wiggle.
On the 21st I heard Roomful of Teeth in Santa Fe. They performed Ted Hearne’s monumental Coloring Book, which sets the words of three Black American writers of different generations: Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Claudia Rankine. It was quite a piece to hear on a national day of marching, demonstration, and protest. I’ve written before, tongue somewhat in cheek, about my misgivings with the traditional practice of text setting. I have sometimes found it exploitative. But Ted gave me some new ways to think about it, in the music and in his onstage remarks. He acknowledged the “perversity” (his word) of a white composer setting these texts. He said he wanted to explore what it would feel like if he was the one saying these words, to see how it would shift their meanings. And he said that for him, setting these texts was a way of reading more closely. Now that, I like quite a bit. I like that humility, that respect. I like the way it puts the composer on the spot, doing the good and hard work of understanding. It doesn’t imply a complete understanding or vision of the text. It implies only sincere personal effort.
Coloring Book is information-dense, somewhat like Ted’s big-time achievement The Source, which has not stopped revealing itself to me, even as it seems to hide more and more with each listen—behind its ambitious form, its distracting shifts, its sheer mass of content. (It’s something like Twitter, in that way. I’ve been off Twitter lately. I know I can’t blame it for the current desperations, but the fact that it’s T****p’s preferred medium, this fact does mean something.)
So: text-setting as a way of reading more closely. Certainly Ted seems to have spent a lot of time with Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How it feels to be colored me,” especially the section that comprises his fourth movement, “Letter to my father.” This is worth quoting in the composer’s formulation:
He has only heard what I
I felt. He
He is far away but I
I see him.
Him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us.
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I
I am so colored.
Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him.
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I
I am so colored.”
The music pores over this text with such intensity that it becomes no longer a meditation but some kind of exorcism. Especially in the flow of the whole thirty-minute piece, it’s extremely moving. Ted really tried to understand what Hurston meant by “I am so colored,” and he tried seeing through the only spectacles he has, those of his own experience. Maybe that’s perverse, and maybe it’s futile. But he really tried, and in the process he wrung the emotion from this superficially simple text like it was a sponge soaked in wine.
Roomful of Teeth opened the concert with the Allemande from Caroline Shaw’s Partita for Eight Voices. It was a joy beyond my expectations to hear this music live in person. The first thing Caroline says in the program note is that the piece is simple. Which is evidently some kind of defense mechanism, an intentional disarming of the listener, because it really isn’t true. I mean, it’s not Le marteau sans maître, but in its way the Allemande as dense as Coloring Book, dense with syllables and consonants, dense with energetic waves.
What is simplicity, anyway? Something can be simple in one way and terribly complex in another.
How about focus? What is focus?
How about reading?
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts