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.
I have accompanied a lot of undergraduate vocal students. Surely, they need to learn the rep, and they need to learn to collaborate. But I listen to Mary Delaney and I ask: why don’t we also teach them to sing—to perform—a cappella?
Effective music tends to proceed according to clear premises that are either tacitly agreed upon in advance, or set out clearly and immediately so that such agreement can emerge quickly. The lack of ready and consistent premises is why people dislike and distrust new musics. The music can be complex, but the premises have to be simple.
We look at others’ creative efforts and imagine they just sprung up, for better or worse, like Athena from Zeus’ head. They don't seem like products of a complex interaction of human labor, thought, and intuition. They just seem like more things in the world for us to have opinions about.
The real surprise is, after enough time passes, we start to look at our own efforts that way, too.
I learned from one UNM music professor that a few decades ago, when he got his job here, the local paper used to regularly print reviews of music faculty recitals.
It may be that hearing a piece live in person, as opposed to hearing it digitally, is like having a conversation with someone face to face, as opposed to exchanging messages on a Facebook comment thread.
A few words after my 2010 post Crossroad Blues.
Orpheus looked back because he was an imperfect, fallible human. This is also what made him a great musician. And I suspect mortality is also what allowed Marsyas to beat Apollo. He had the one thing Apollo could never have: the foreknowledge of his own death. This sweetens the music.
The only question, practically speaking, is whether it’s okay, like the Robert Johnson of myth, to look outside yourself for improvement—or do you need to fundamentally trust that you already have what you need to be great?
Coltrane described practice as “cleaning the mirror.” His work was to cleanse the pathways that connected him to the divine. No tower-building necessary; the connection was already there. The work was learning to see it more clearly.
I must say, though, I’m coming to freshly appreciate the importance of teachers. Their influence is bounded, but limitless within parameters. Things they say come echoing through the years, gaining in resonance. The truth is that Robert Johnson didn’t sell his soul to anyone. He learned guitar from a guy named Ike Zimmerman—who, the story goes, had practiced his craft at night, in a cemetery, playing and singing while leaning against a gravestone.
Last week I played John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-8). If anyone liked it, or hated it, that’s on them.
I got the score last spring, and studied a variety of recordings. My favorite is this recent performance by Vicky Chow and loadbang, with Gelsey Bell, Drew Blumberg, Nicole Camacho, and Victor Lowrie. I like the balance of sincerity and humor here, which seems connected to the spirit of the notation.
And this is a piece about notation: eighty-some different systems of it, with a big key in the front. I took a tip from David Tudor and made myself a performance edition, which meant going through the score page by page and writing out a legible version that I could play from more readily. I decided to make this part of my morning ritual: with that first cup of coffee, a page of Cage. I did this every day for a couple of months.
Tudor’s interpretations of Cage’s music from this era are virtuosic in execution. I decided not to try and impress anyone with the technical aspects of my performance. I left out as much as was necessary (according to Cage’s instructions, which allow for any amount of the written material, horizontally and vertically) to make the playing comfortable, surprising, (maybe?) musical. Mine was a virtuosity of discipline and attention. I dedicated myself to that daily page and did the best I could with it.
Then I put it with the group, tried to have fun and encourage others to do the same. Our performances ran about twenty-five minutes. We played it a couple times in rehearsal and then again on stage in Keller Hall. We executed it faithfully and at least somewhat joyfully, I'd say. There were parts I liked better than others, which is strange, when you think about it. If I enjoyed or disliked the experience, in any way: that’s on me.
A word on the disappearance of my Instagram project Desert Rhodes.
The idea came all at once. A roving outdoor piano sketchbook and inclusive micro-commissioning project. Everyone could write me a piece and I’d go make a video of it someplace in the Southwest. People liked the idea. They sent pieces. There were limitations: the piano was heavy, time scarce. It turned out the Rhodes is a great textural element but not necessarily a great solo instrument. It turned out I don’t like asking people for pieces. I have other ways I’d prefer to call in my favors. I thought maybe I could offer something this way, but I’ve found it easier to meaningfully contribute to the musical community in other, less digital areas.
More pressingly, it was just time to delete all of my social media accounts. I don’t know what the answer is, but for me at least, it’s not happening on there. The decision to leave social media was complex in a way but also, in the end, incredibly simple. A month or so ago I picked up Jaron Lanier’s book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. The arguments were persuasive, but this turned out not to matter, because I saw right away that I’d already made the decision and was only looking for confirmation. I did a lot of arguing back and forth in my head, but the truth was I really wanted to delete the accounts already, in fact I had for years. I had essentially stopped using Facebook by about 2016, and my relationship with Twitter had become unhealthy.
I could write about this more, but basically, these are silly websites and I didn’t want to waste any more time on them. Moreover: they’re addictive, they’re exploitative, they’re cheapening and flattening our lived experience, and they’re fucking up our politics. For this last reason especially I felt compelled to delete Desert Rhodes also. Instagram is, of course, owned by Facebook, a company clearly unprepared for the amount of power and responsibility it now wields, and while I recognize that not everyone can walk away, I can. So I did.
I regret the disappearance of Desert Rhodes. It was a fun idea. People were nice enough to write me pieces, and I don’t want those pieces to disappear. There are still unrecorded pieces that were supposed to be part of the project. So it may reappear in a different medium.
Then again, it may also be important to simply cut ties and accept sunk costs. Let a project be what it was, and move along. Part of the joy here has been simplifying my digital life and web presence. I have this website, which catalogs and organizes my work. It is not a marvel of design, but at least it's regularly updated, including a weekly blog post. And I have the music, which was supposed to be the point to begin with. I’ve been practicing and performing, but I want to do a lot more listening. I hope this renewed dedication and focus bears fruit that will be of value to others, regardless of the medium of communication. Thanks for reading.
My new favorite band is Memorize the Sky, the collaborative free-improvisation group of Matt Bauder (reeds), Zach Wallace (bass), and Aaron Siegel (percussion). They formed in Ann Arbor in the 1990s and have released three recordings: Memorize the Sky (2007, 482 Music), In Former Times (2008, Clean Feed Records), and Creeks (2010, brokenresearch). I bought the first two on iTunes. I can’t find Creeks anywhere. Based on some comment thread someplace, it appears it may have been a vinyl-only release. There are also three early recordings on Aaron Siegel’s Bandcamp page, digital reissues of 3” CD-Rs the band released in 2001.
Beyond the quality of the music, which has the lightness and sense of freedom and possibility I’m always looking for, I found the shape of this discography worth reflecting on. Twenty years; three albums, released in a three-year span; one of them unavailable on the Internet; three old reissues. We need to question the supposed necessities of constant productivity and absolute availability.
It wasn’t until just now that I realized, I’ve met Zach Wallace. He’s also a wildlife ecologist who studies raptors. We have mutual friends in New Mexico. I think he lives in Wyoming now.
I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to make album every 12-18 months with each of a few different projects. This is not the result of any sort of commercial posture. It just feels like I need to do this to stay current and believe that I’m part of the field. I’ve always released my albums on Bandcamp, because Bandcamp allows me to present my music how I want to see it, and it feels like the kind of digital record store I like to be part of. I resisted Spotify for a long time. When I started Two Labyrinths Records I decided I needed to put official label releases where people wanted to find them, which basically, so far as I can tell, is YouTube and Spotify. Five years ago I would occasionally get the question, “is your music on iTunes?” or “is your music on Amazon?” People don’t ask that anymore. They ask if it’s on Spotify. One time someone up and asked me, immediately upon learning I was a songwriter, if my music was free. I was offended by the question, but actually the answer was, intentionally, yes. I’ve always made it a point for everything I make to be streamable in some way or another. I’m proud of my music and I’d like everyone to be able to hear it, whether or not they’re able to pay. And no one needs to pay for a download if the files aren’t useful to them, or for a CD if they don’t have a way to play it.
But I’ve come to believe that information should not be free—not unless everything else is, too.
I was right about Spotify. It’s a degrading system that doesn’t want me to have economic dignity as a creator of recorded music, and I probably shouldn’t be there. I realize not everyone can choose to opt out. It’s a privilege that I have other income streams, in fact other income streams as a musician, that make my (personally crucial) work in creative music the sort of thing I can do at my own expense for my own purposes. The fact is, I make no money on these recordings. In fact I pay for digital distribution and server space to put them online and barely recoup those costs, let alone the costs of making the albums. For a long time it’s felt like I need to pretend this isn’t the case in order to maintain my sense of worth as a creative musician. But I’m done engaging with the self-flattering illusions that contemporary digital life so readily generates. I’m not making any money on my recordings. Almost no one else is, either. Frequently we are digging deep into our own pockets because the work is really that important to us. We hope that if we keep quiet about this, one night the capitalism fairy will come reward our good behavior by bopping us on the head with a million-dollar licensing deal, and we will be whisked away to the magical sphere of music-making wherein meaningful sums of money are actually exchanged. This is what we’re reduced to: with no viable middle in sight, dreams of joining the 1% are all that’s left to us. That is a shitty deal and needs to be called so to its face. We need to be honest about all of this first, in order to ever have a chance at creating a better situation.
Eventually, when current systems get out of our way, we may realize that it’s a better deal to pay for the art and culture we like and care about—to pay as directly as possible to creators. This is just a better plan, more efficient, more generous and genuine, and it will result in better work and better relationships. Jaron Lanier has pointed out that this model has worked in as mass-cultural a medium as TV. Everyone decided to pay HBO and Netflix for ad-free shows. The result has been what many people call “the golden age of television.” (This ecosystem coexists with the free-admission cesspool of YouTube, which seems correlated to historic levels of teenage anxiety and depression.) Maybe the people who pay for a Spotify membership feel that they’ve signed a similar deal, but the amount paid to musicians is simply too low. In one recent twelve-month period, I made $1.34104278175 on Spotify streams. The mere fact of that many decimal points--billionths of a cent--tells you something. (I could easily get behind a hypothetical Spotify in which everyone has to pay and musicians are compensated reasonably.)
We will find that our money was well spent. What else is money for, anyway? It’s a floating indicator of value that we splash around. Just like love of art. When we buy organic produce from the local co-op rather than a hot dog from Target, we're getting more than just calories. I’m listening to Memorize the Sky as I write this. I started with In Former Times and have been working my way backward. I think I like the early recordings even better than the later ones.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts