I work with a lot of student musicians at the graduate and undergraduate levels—not usually as primary instructor but as coach/accompanist. The first reflection was that many of these students don’t need a music teacher, they need a therapist. That is, there are personal problems, usually in the family of anxiety, that are getting in their way more often than any issues that are specifically musical. Teach these people to meditate, I thought, and a lot of the musical problems will work themselves out.
The second reflection was that everything I just said also applies to me. My musical problems are fundamentally personal problems. The limitations come from blocks in the mind: from insufficient focus, insufficient compassion, insufficient understanding of present experience. I’m a working professional pianist, and at my level too, the lessons tend toward psychotherapy.
I already know how to meditate. Maybe I need to follow Travis’s example and learn Qigong.
I made an important decision, and it came pretty late at age 27, to never to ask anyone for advice about my creative work ever again. “Feedback” is very popular these days. I don’t oppose it universally, but one needs to be careful. Responses are one thing, but advice about direction is another. Everyone has an opinion. I’ve had plenty. They’ve tended to shift. Hence I mistrust my own opinion, and even more so everyone else’s.
One of my piano teachers said that teaching is primarily a process of justifying your own instincts.
In spite of all this, I’ve come to freshly appreciate the importance of having a teacher. In spiritual communities the dynamic is surprisingly similar. One “practices,” and it is common to have a lifelong relationship with teachers, placing oneself within various lineages. While I distrust the idea of the guru, this is mostly because I think one needs a number of teachers, never just one. That’s where the danger lies.
Decades are overrated. We think just because we have ten fingers that time must as well. Rather I’ve come to see time transpiring in overlapping seven-year cycles. I “went it alone” from age 24-31, then went back to school. My work at UNM has been mostly technical rather than conceptual. Hence the two Master’s degrees actually balance productively, though it’s an unusual academic resume to find in a musician.
I went in with three goals: to deepen my relationship with the instrument, to build local musical community, and to benefit from accepting externally imposed daily and weekly structures. To these I would add one more important and unforeseen result: a new and better approach to having a teacher. Actually I would say the experience has set me up for a lifetime of dynamic and useful relations with feedback. A teacher can give you ideas for how to work, and inspiration to keep the work fresh. One benefits from needing less from this person. Advice can be less important than example, discussion, and regular discursive examination.
I’ve been influenced lately by Seth Godin’s ideas about education. He likes to mock the question “will this be on the test?” We use “test” and “examination” as synonyms without really looking at the words. It should be an opportunity to examine something—to look it over and understand it better. This might be more useful than always “testing” oneself against others’ standards. At best we look closely at things. What we find there is the education.
In further sonata news:
Regarding Pale Fire again — the thing worked on me. I have to admit that I felt his pain, was disappointed on his behalf, when in the final pages he discovered sadly that Zembla was nowhere to be found in the poem.
I would also like to announce that at least three times reading this book I won the internet version of “OED Bingo”—which is where you look up a word in the dictionary and find the passage you’d just been reading among the usage examples. I had forgotten where I heard of this game; cursory googling indicates that it was coined and invented by the author Caleb Crain. (I have no idea how I ever would have found my way to Crain’s blog post about The Faerie Queen, but there it is.)
The most recent win was for the cheerfully unpronounceable “inenubilable.” Leave it to Nabokov, who grew up trilingual in Russia, to write a European emigre who speaks with such vocabulary.
Yeah so, just to get etymological, I’m reclaiming “sonata.” All this word really means is something played, rather than sung (“cantata”), and at first it was no more specific than that. Sonata form, as presently textbooked and termpapered, had its relatively short heyday. For those of us who love Beethoven and Mozart but also love Scarlatti and Cage, the word has always had a broader application.
Here it is applied to improvised music for dance: ( Sonatas for Dropshift )
One of the best writing tips I’ve received lately is in John McPhee’s Draft no. 4. If you’ve got a word that isn’t working, McPhee suggests, don’t go to the thesaurus; proceed rather to the dictionary.
So, I’m back.
On Pale Fire: the first time I read it, as an undergraduate, I thought it was funny and beguiling and mysterious. I like the combination of mystery and unsettling humor. On this re-read it was funnier but more so it was challenging, maybe even heartbreaking, as a commentary on high and low art and the impossibility of reading. The implication seems to be that none of us have the bandwidth to really understand art, and all we ever do is make every poem about ourselves—no matter how impossibly weak the correspondences. When Shade wouldn’t write the poem about him, Kinbote hijacked it and made it about himself anyway, and then made the commentary about himself, and hijacked too the attention of Shade’s readers—because who has ever read Pale Fire and had more fun and found more meaning with the poem than with the commentary? People ask whether Nabokov saw himself in Shade or Kinbote or both. Here I am, obsessing over finding myself in Kinbote. Regardless of the strength of the actual correspondences. (I’m reading a used copy. In one passage Kinbote writes, “If I were a poet…” The previous owner underlined and this and wrote in the margin, “You Are.”)
On songwriting and truth: there is a scenario in which the story in the song might be the truth, but not the whole truth, and certainly not nothing but the truth.
On music and space: here is a Wikipedia article I should study more closely. There is physical space, that which since Einstein has been considered together with time as an unbroken fabric. There is formal space, the space of mathematics, of topology. And there is perceptual space—that which we see, hear, and feel. New Year’s Resolution: do not blithely throw around metaphors about music conveying or exhibiting “space.”
A definition of music: we dramatize, stylize, and aestheticize the passage of time.
On the Hi-Fi
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - Tides
— Because yoga music could use some help.
Chris Weisman - “Backpack People”
— And this interview. Note his point, from Zizek: “Americans picture the total catastrophic end of civilization all the time, but we cannot imagine an end to Capitalism.” Here I am telling my life story, and people are asking me why I don’t press vinyl.
Jimmy Lee Williams - “Have You Ever Seen Peaches”
— This recording is pure light and joy.
I committed in mid-January to write a weekly blog post here, every Tuesday, for the year. If you’ve been reading and appreciating them, I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions. For the moment, I plan to take at least a brief pause before re-committing to a new—or even perhaps the same—approach for 2019.
I’ve been cultivating a public-facing persona as an artist for a long time, since well before I really began to know myself as an artist or even really as a human being. So I’m taking a couple of weeks here, possibly through January, to begin again. I’m still dealing with my October decision to leave social media and what it implies for my ambitions in the short and medium terms. My focuses have been shifting, and I’m trying to understand the trajectory and what’s next. So thanks for reading, and thanks for your patience walking this path with me. We’ll see what comes around.
I had the idea recently to scrub my web presence, withdraw my old work, and start again releasing music only under a pseudonym. I am probably not going to do this. Composers almost never write under pseudonyms, though we’re often asked to use them when submitting work to competitions. Singer-songwriters sometimes do, but usually their real names are roughly as well known as their stage monikers. In both cases a sort of performed authenticity is part of the contract with your listeners (and, for composers, with your performers).
Then there is the hip-hop world, where pseudonyms are widespread, even dominant. While authenticity is still at play, there is an understanding and expectation of sarcasm, exaggeration, role playing, and so on. I would argue that narration in hip-hop is perceived with more degrees of complexity than that in singer-songwriter music, where listeners often resist separating the first person of the song from the subjectivity of the singer. In fact, when the singer-songwriter denies that a song is about them or meaningfully based on autobiographical experience, listeners often refuse to believe it.
The issue is less acute in instrumental music, because when there is no text there is no explicit first person, no explicit narration, and no explicit issue of authenticity. But they’re all below the surface, and we’re still dealing with an expectation of identity construction for an audience. I like that pseudonyms foreground that act of identity construction. I think that could be healthy for the artist and for the listener.
I made up Golconda in 2008, based on the painting by Magritte. It was supposed to be a band name, but I was always moving around and always playing by myself, so it became a singer-songwriter persona. I remember within the first year or two someone telling me that it sounded a bit like my surname.
I went walking last night, over to the park near my house. I walked in the same park the night of the 2016 election, in a state of unusual despair. It was dark that night. I struck up a conversation with a man who was there playing with his dog. I don’t think I ever saw his face. Tonight the park was lit up: my neighbors had lined it all the way round with luminarias. I’m grateful that people choose to place lights along the streets and sidewalks and on their houses. There is a reason we celebrate hope at the darkest time of the year. Darkness is the unknown. It is scary. It can be dangerous. But it is also the seat of possibility. In the dark, we see only by the lights that we choose.
I was honored earlier this month to play a duo concert at Chatter with the great accordionist/composer Guy Klucevsek. This was a meaningful one for me, and I’ve been hesitant to write about it. Maybe I’m afraid to crystallize a rich personal experience into any simple set of statements. But there is one lesson I got from hearing Guy play close up that I wanted to share, and it’s easily put. I don’t know if it does justice to what I heard, but here it is: there is space between the notes, between every note you play. And you don’t need to be in a rush.
My new trio, premiering in February, refers to this poem by Ray Gonzalez, which refers to this poem by Weldon Kees. I had not heard of Kees. He was born in 1914 in small-town Nebraska. He lived in Denver, New York, San Francisco, painted, wrote poems and criticism, played jazz piano, befriended Abstract Expressionist artists and literary lights of the day, was depressed, tried various efforts to jump-start his career, and disappeared in 1955. He took his sleeping bag, his wallet, watch, and savings account book. He had been talking about Mexico. His car was found near the Golden Gate Bridge. He may have jumped, but then, he may not have.
Anthony Lane wrote a 2005 profile, “The Disappearing Poet,” for The New Yorker. He reveals, in the first paragraph, that Kees’ cat was named Lonesome.
His poem “Travels in North America” is vivid, haunting, precise. Right away I felt like I knew him. Evidently Ray Gonzalez felt that way too: in his poem, he puts Kees’ ghost in the car for a trip across New Mexico. Accordingly, for my piece I decided the three of us would all go for a long afternoon’s drive. I too have felt the autobiographical desire to disappear. Sometimes this has meant leaving where I am and going someplace else and not keeping in great touch with people from past lives. Other times it just means disappearing into the work. But I’ve never stayed lost for long. Like Theseus with Ariadne’s thread, I’ve always kept a way back.
The new trio was written like Open, methodically, in one unbroken line. For the premiere we’re going to pair it with Copland’s Billy the Kid. I really love this piece, with its resonant New Mexico connection, and it's been an inspiration. It also represents a simple and romanticized view of Western space that I’ve been trying to get past in my own music. It’s not easy to claw out from under one’s own chosen archetypes. But these two poets have helped.
Kees passes through Los Alamos: “We meant / To stop, but one can only see so much.”
He continues: “A mist / Came over us outside Tryuonyi: caves, and a shattered cliff. / And possibly the towns one never sees are best, / Preserved, remote, and merely names and distances.”
Small-town names are listed, sweeping from Oklahoma and Michigan to Wyoming and Washington, “And sometimes, shivering in St. Paul or baking in Atlanta, / The sudden sense that you have seen it all before…You have forgotten singularities.”
Gonzalez closes his story at an El Paso bus station: “Kees looks at the bus schedule, / runs out of cigarettes / and everything is closed. / He nods at nothing and waits / on the bench with someone / he swears looks like me.”
Maybe my preferred mode of disappearance is not the dramatic and irreversible but something more cyclic and subtle. The Self like a player piano roll that wraps around as it plays, the old melodies still there but coiled back among the gears and dust. The more time passes, the more evidence accrues that I’m not who I thought I was, and I don’t know whether the song keeps wandering in new directions, or whether it ever repeats.
• 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