So, if 1 is totally rural, and 10 is totally urban, what's your ideal number? For many people this is an easy question, but for some of my musician friends it's particularly fraught. I grew up in a town that's probably about a 5, and have spent much of the last five years flying back and forth across the spectrum.
Many people who live in a 5 community would probably tell you that it positively incorporates both ways of living; people accustomed to a 1 or 10 would surely find that moving to a 5 would involve enormous sacrifices of a natural or cultural sort, respectively. Does 5 blend the advantages, or does it lose both? This is no simple question.
This month, oddly enough, I've experienced powerful communal musical activity on both far fringes.
This photo was taken from the front porch of the Starlight Theatre in Terlingua, in the big bend country of far west Texas. The mountains in the distance are the Chisos, which fly from the low desert by the Rio Grande to heights of near 8,000 feet at the ceiling of Big Bend National Park, a wild and mighty part of the world. Terlingua is very, very isolated. This is country where the next town over can be an hour's drive away: Terlingua is 83 miles from its relative neighbor of Alpine and 300 miles from the nearest major city, El Paso. It was a mining community of 2,000 inhabitants around 1900, but would later languish into the status of a ghost town. This is a familiar tale in the West. What's odd about Terlingua is that people moved back in. A renaissance of squatters sprung a quirky community of desert dwellers who enjoy a small tourist economy and nightly sunsets like this one:
I took these photos on December 6. To my right down the big porch, people began to gather just as dusk settled in. In this far western outpost of the central time zone, it stays light until after six even this close to the solstice. More cars pulled up and people hopped out, toting guitars and Shiner Bock six-packs. They sat on the benches, on the edge of the patio; they caught up, and a few of them picked out tunes. A guitar player struggled to remember the verses to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." When he finished, everyone took a moment to comment on their love of the song, its personal significance to them.
As darkness fell, the group broke up fairly swiftly. This wasn't a weekend party, just a normal Thursday. In small communities like this one, music-making draws people to porches like a fire gathering us to the hearth. Looking out at the expanse of desert, you could feel the warmth and resonance on that porch.
I don't mean to valorize life in Terlingua. It's quiet, probably too quiet. People and opportunities are sparse; there isn't much money around, and life is austerely simple. It seems clear that this is a blessing that comes in tandem with significant difficulties.
A week later I flew back to Chicago. Within an hour of arriving home, I was hearing Ensemble Dal Niente's "Hard Music, Hard Liquor" program. Winston Choi tore up some Ferneyhough, Austin Wulliman shredded on a Lee Hyla solo, and a chamber group assembled on stage to introduce us to the etherhythmic music of Swedish composer Malin Bång. There were fantastic beers on draft. I was in a room packed with sympathetic and like-minded musicians eager to share sounds and socialize.
And then, of course, there was (Re)New Amsterdam.
I won't retell the whole story, as the show received a fair / amount / of / press, but in brief, Chicago's new music groups banded together to raise some cash for our Sandy-beleaguered kindred spirits at New Amsterdam Presents, and the whole day was just an amazing display of musicianship and generosity. It was the music-scene equivalent of a Saved By The Bell-style group high five. Above is a rough shot from the Grant Wallace Band set, which featured pianoless versions of Anton Jackson, Litany, and Land of the Lenu alongside my brand-new arrangement of an old Irish tune called "The Little Drummer," featuring our friends Chris Wild and Austin Wulliman. To be in the simultaneous presence of so many awesome musicians assembling for a common cause was superlatively inspiring.
I don't mean to valorize life in Chicago. It's noisy, often too noisy. People and opportunities are everywhere; there's too much money around, and life is anxiously complicated. It seems clear that these difficulties come in tandem with significant blessings.
I'm really so grateful for everyone who played and listened and donated yesterday, for all of my friends who dedicate their lives to weird music, and for the opportunity to share it with each other and the wider world. Though there was not a carol to be heard at either of these events, I can't imagine a better way to kick off the holiday season.
• 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