People are crossing the ocean from Syria to Europe. People are crossing the desert from Mexico to the United States. These people are “migrants,” or they are “refugees,” or they are “asylum seekers”; they are fleeing war, they are following family members, they are seeking economic opportunity; anyway, intentions are various, words are just words, and people are moving.
Here in the American Southwest, authors like Charles Bowden and William deBuys have written with clear-eyed intensity about border policy, and clear eyes see that we are not facing the real questions. The recent wall-related mania among the Republican presidential candidates is just the freshest batch of this longstanding denial. Walls will not address economic and political ruin in Mexico and Central America. Walls will not ease overpopulation or the warming and drying of the planet. Walls will not stop people from moving. Walls will protect no one’s culture or “traditions,” because culture is just people, and migration itself is the tradition.
Many readers are aware that last month Robert Blocker, dean of the Yale School of Music, came under fire for a blunt comment in the New York Times defending his school’s decision not to prioritize jazz education (“Our mission is real clear. We train people in the Western canon and in new music”). In his response, conductor Michael Lewanski took issue not specifically with the walling-off of jazz, but with an implication in Blocker’s comments regarding the nature of canons. “The notion of ‘training people in the Western canon and in new music’ is flawed,” Lewanski writes, “first of all, because it assumes that the Western canon is a fixed, reified thing that doesn’t change, and secondly, that new music is separate from it (whatever ‘it’ is).”
Almost a decade ago, in an interview with Molly Sheridan, composer Nico Muhly drew an analogy between musical genre/practice and geographical origin. “I feel like I’m very proudly from the classical tradition,” he said. “It’s like being from Nebraska. Like you are from there if you’re from there. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a productive life somewhere else.”
I’m from Iowa, and now I live in New Mexico, for reasons I like to claim are spiritual but are also economic and social. I’m here because I “found myself,” as the saying goes, during summers spent in the West. I’m here because I subsequently found it difficult to deal with life without mountains. I’m here because I got a job in New Mexico in 2011. I’m here because I found a community here. I’m here because my music feels like it makes sense here. And I’m here because there is public land here, for me to roam around and dream in. This land exists for my use and imagination as the not-inevitable result of centuries of land aesthetics, economic values, and specific policy decisions.
New Mexico was not predetermined for me. But then, neither was Iowa.
One Easter weekend when I was about sixteen, I drove with my parents to my mother’s hometown in the southeastern tail of South Dakota, down where it borders Iowa and Nebraska. Halfway between Vermillion and Yankton there’s a little bar called Toby’s that serves broasted chicken on paper plates. On Saturday we took my grandpa out there for dinner. I remember stepping out front and looking at the flatlands across Highway 50, to the north; the floodplain of the Missouri River stretched out to the south. Spring was lifting over the Midwest, and the horizon held just hints of color between pallid green field and pallid gray sky. I felt a certain ancestral gravity. I had to ask myself: is this where I belong?
My grandfather lived in Vermillion nearly all his life, owned the same house for half a century. He was a teacher, a coach, a World War II veteran; he was the patriarch, the moral center of my extended family. But his personal integrity, the depth of his relationship with Vermillion, and his classic Greatest Generation biography do conspire to make my connection to the American Midwest feel more essential than it really turns out to be.
My parents were both born in South Dakota. They moved to Michigan in 1972 for graduate school, then to Iowa in 1983 because my dad got a job there. My grandparents were born in South Dakota and Nebraska. Up another generation, the births are still around the Midwest. Up another, one family is in Canada. One more, and you find yourself in Germany, Ireland, and Norway.
Must I point out that these relatively recent migrations in my personal bloodline were social and economic in intention? People got married, people sought good farmland, people sought jobs. People moved, and they will continue to. Where they’re from is just where they’re from.
Bowden and deBuys are devastating on the effects, current and coming, of overpopulation and climate change on the American Southwest. It makes a person feel horribly guilty about choosing to live here; except, as I argued in an essay for NewMusicBox last summer, feeling guilt for being alive is only a dead-end trap, and it does not lead a person to a useful ethic. We need to know how to live, not why to feel bad about it. For a long time, I didn’t believe in original sin. That was before I read much Native American history or thought much about the foundations of our society in slavery, violence, and exploitation. Anyone with clear eyes knows we’re living on stolen land and borrowed time. Original sin becomes a useful concept because it does no one a damn bit of good to feel guilty about any of this. It’s not your fault, and it also isn’t not your fault; actually the concept of “fault” does not meaningfully apply. Things are as they are, and what we have to do is figure out how to live thoroughly, generously, and creatively right in view of all the outrage.
The road brings me back to art: for me, primarily fiction, theater, and music. In my last essay here I called music a “utopian social idea,” and indeed over the years I have assembled a personal, forceful, poetic, complex and no doubt internally contradictory ethic—my own moral code, as they say—from books, plays, and sound. In a real sense, though one that can’t be accurately described in words, I’ve learned how to live from the novels of Marilynne Robinson, the songwriting of Elliott Smith and Richard Rodgers, the piano music of Bach and Mozart and Schoenberg, the chamber music of Maurice Ravel and Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Bud Powell; from piano lessons and music history classes; from every jam session I’ve been to and every concert I fell asleep during. I learned an ethic from these experiences, just as surely as I learned one from my grandfather’s life story. There are things in this world to aspire to, standards to contend with. We have each other, and we have each other’s stories. We can take those stories wherever we go.
One of the first concerts I attended when I landed in Albuquerque this year was Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Accounts differ on the specifics of the circumstances, but regardless of the details, listen—he wrote that piece in a Nazi war camp. Would you look at that.
People are still moving, the temperature is still rising, California is still burning. I turned thirty this year. I don’t know what the world is going to look like by the time I turn fifty. Neither do you. Neither does Ravel—who has, of course, been dead for almost eighty years. Or I should say, it's not Ravel's absence but rather his life, from 1875 to 1937, that was brief and exceptional, just like our periods of rest and reaction. The world keeps changing and people keep moving. Migration is the tradition—migration, and art, and change. Walls and canons? They’re the exception.
• 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