I've been interested in maps since at least age eight. I remember talking to one of my sister's friends out front of our old house. He wanted to be a meteorologist. I wanted to be a "map-ist." I had never heard the word "cartographer" at that point.
I was ostensibly studying jazz music at the Banff Centre last year; I was there under a jazz fellowship, even if I ended up spending a bunch of my time writing a Disklavier piece and recording a folk album and teaching myself to play drums. But I practiced a lot of piano, too, and worked on improvisation and transcription for a lot of hours. One day I was sitting in the dining room long after finishing lunch, enjoying an irresponsibly copious amount of coffee and ignoring the annoyed glances of the mostly Australian workers who were waiting for us to leave so they could clean up (fellow Banffites will recognize this scenario). And I was chatting with a friend who very astutely recognized that I don't really want to be a "jazz musician" at all -- what I want to be is an explorer.
And that's exactly right. For me it's never been about being a "composer," or a "performer," or a "professional," or an "academic," or God help us an "expert" or "specialist" or even an "artist." It's about exploring, searching. (Verbs, not nouns.) Later that day I wrote a rather lyrical credo on the subject that closed like this:
"I want to explore music in every way I can, searching for myself, for humanity, for the experience of life and of living at its most raw, pulsing, its most vulnerable, its most unadorned, stripped-down, bare, wild."
Incidentally inspired by this passage from the opening chapter of Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, a book of course about searching:
"Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running—that's the way to live. All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach by the sigh of the sea out there, with the Ma-Wink fallopian virgin warm stars reflecting on the outer channel fluid belly waters."
Now, any decent explorer can tell you the importance of a good map.
I've been interested for some time in the analogy of composing to cartography. I suppose this may have originated from my occasionally puppydogish infatuation with the whole musical worldview of John Luther Adams. But JLA isn't really drawing maps of places, at least in his more recent music. He's actually translating the places into music, often using objective data like tidbits of native languages, seismic data, etc.
My approach to musical cartography has always been totally subjective. I go somewhere, it gives me something unique and personal, and I use that impetus to guide the creation of some music.
I wrote about this two years ago, coincidentally also while in New Mexico, and mentioned it recently as a wonderfully serendipitous point of connection between my interests and those of poet Katie Peterson, whose words I set in The Accounts.
Which, let us not forget, will premiere in just a month, 24 September, with Singers on New Ground in Chicago. Curtiss Hall, Fine Arts Building downtown.
But while I was writing The Accounts I was also considering a different sort of cartographical composing. What if there were no physical place involved, but the music itself, as we travel through it in performance, were the place? And then the score becomes the map that the players and listeners use to explore this invented sonic landscape.
I like that very much.
So that was on my mind while I was doing the composing. And then I finished the pencil draft and, as I will, threw everything in the back of my car and plowed west across the country. A couple weeks later I found myself at Cottonwood Gulch base camp in Thoreau, New Mexico, way up in the high desert.
A few days in, a couple guys recruited me (and my vehicle) for a day trip to an isolated canyon full of fantastical hoodoo formations. Did I mention that it's isolated? It's outrageously isolated. This is one of those places that you would never, never, find if you weren't traveling with someone who knew exactly where it was. There are no signs. You're on your own finding this place.
But of course we had a map! It was a beaut, too. I still have it. It was scrawled in Sharpie on the back of a brown paper sack. It included a drawing of base camp with figures standing outside. It was missing road numbers, distances were relative, scale was of course not at all considered. It featured the occasional question mark.
Oh, it was wonderful. We drove off into that lunar desert landscape and followed our map past unbelievable homestead ruins, old hogans with the roofs caved in, houses with decades-old broken down refrigerators, one mysterious windmill. The final landmark was a tire on a pole. You turn left into the chaparral a little ways past that, and Bob's your uncle there you are.
This whole experience accorded awfully well with my aesthetic leanings of the moment. I was polishing off the final, nicely digitized score of The Accounts, and as usual I was looking for justifications of my normal instinct to minimize notational complexity. I didn't want to litter the vocal line with dynamics and phrase markings and inflections. I wanted naturalness, flow. I didn't want a constantly changing landscape of emotional nuances. I wanted an authentic, steady state. Most of all, I wanted the performers to be part of the experience. I wanted everyone in the room traveling together, trying to decode this odd and fanciful little map, arguing about whether to trust it. Everyone involving themselves in the experience. Everyone seeing--hearing--this bizarre and unique landscape for the first time.
I hope it worked! We can all find out on the 24th of September.
Because later in the summer I was staffing a wilderness expedition for a gaggle of 13-year-olds, driving giant vans around the southwest, stopping for hikes, curios, and the occasional four-day backpack. And our group leader had these absolutely beautiful New Mexico and Colorado gazetteers in the front seat. I'm telling you, it was like The Never-Ending Story when I opened those things. Sitting shotgun I would pull out the Colorado map and just fall in. Completely lose myself. There was so much detail, so many little items--old mines, peaks, towns that may no longer exist, roads I didn't know about, routes and connections that I never would have considered.
And we found a lot of things using those maps. We found some places we never would've known about stumbling through with a brown paper sack.
So, while you're still not likely to catch me using seven articulation marks on a single note, I'm forced to admit that a detailed map, when drawn artistically, can be more useful. I suppose that theoretically it can have just as much personality as a roughly drawn map, although I'm not yet convinced (this is why I still love outsider art so much).
I'm starting a new piece soon, and I plan to know the landscape well before I start drawing. I don't want to lose the communal feeling of traveling together, but I'm hoping I can add some details and maintain the feeling of individual involvement in the process.
Because it's important to know a lot about where you are and where you're going. But no one wants to go on a road trip with every detail of the route planned in advance. Everyone wants the opportunity to see a crazy sign on the side of the road and demand that the driver pull over. We all need some space for spontaneity, for serendipity, for the unintentional bliss of experience.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts