There is a cave inside, within, below, beneath.
Sometimes it seems that all that separates me
from it is a thin sheet of paper,
lit darkly, warmly from behind.
When I close my eyes I can feel it,
I can almost see it.
I can almost become that emptiness.
New Mexico is full of wonderful characters, many of whom are disconnected from one another. Lots of people in Albuquerque and Santa Fe moved here from elsewhere, so we have distant networks around the world and smaller ones locally, networks that don’t always quickly or naturally overlap.
About a year ago I met one of these characters, Joseph Franklin, who founded the Relâche Ensemble in Philadelphia in 1977. He gave me a copy of one of Relâche’s CDs. I spun it in the car driving south on I-25 between Socorro and Truth or Consequences. The land opened up and the music started, and it was like a flashlight shone into a cave I didn’t know was there. The first piece was Robert Ashley’s Outcome Inevitable. There’s another version on YouTube. But in Relâche’s recording especially, with its tenser rhythms, the piece is like a lean, elegant mystery novel. The sentences are short, clipped. One wonders if the dialogue is less important than the things left unsaid. Each solo instrument gives its statement of events, and you have to try and figure out who the murderer is.
I shared this impression with Joseph, and he told me Ashley was a big fan of film noir and detective stories. In this remembrance he tells a story of Ashley visiting Relâche’s office and commenting on its dark, wooden entry staircase, complete with a single hanging light bulb.
Ashley’s most famous works, rightly, are the operas. I was floored by Dust; it’s a work of amazing cumulative power, with one of the great endings, an ending on the level of Before Sunset or Blood Meridian. The operas are overwhelming—by design, of course. They’re floods of information, and they have their own logic. The smaller pieces are useful as narrower wedges to get inside Ashley’s aesthetics. I’m thinking of For Andie Springer: Showing the Form of a Melody, “Standing in the Shadows,” by Robert Ashley (what a title!). Like Outcome Inevitable, it’s a piece of unbelievable simplicity, and simultaneously it is just the most mysterious and inexplicable thing you’ve ever heard. Like the songs at the end of Dust, like the melodies in Outcome Inevitable, the violin tones in For Andie Springer hang with almost naive earnestness, like a meditator who doesn’t realize he has levitated two inches off the ground. More than how Ashley wrote these tunes, you wonder how he ever thought to situate them so subtly, uncomfortably, perfectly. They don’t quite sit inside their forms. They wiggle.
On the 21st I heard Roomful of Teeth in Santa Fe. They performed Ted Hearne’s monumental Coloring Book, which sets the words of three Black American writers of different generations: Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Claudia Rankine. It was quite a piece to hear on a national day of marching, demonstration, and protest. I’ve written before, tongue somewhat in cheek, about my misgivings with the traditional practice of text setting. I have sometimes found it exploitative. But Ted gave me some new ways to think about it, in the music and in his onstage remarks. He acknowledged the “perversity” (his word) of a white composer setting these texts. He said he wanted to explore what it would feel like if he was the one saying these words, to see how it would shift their meanings. And he said that for him, setting these texts was a way of reading more closely. Now that, I like quite a bit. I like that humility, that respect. I like the way it puts the composer on the spot, doing the good and hard work of understanding. It doesn’t imply a complete understanding or vision of the text. It implies only sincere personal effort.
Coloring Book is information-dense, somewhat like Ted’s big-time achievement The Source, which has not stopped revealing itself to me, even as it seems to hide more and more with each listen—behind its ambitious form, its distracting shifts, its sheer mass of content. (It’s something like Twitter, in that way. I’ve been off Twitter lately. I know I can’t blame it for the current desperations, but the fact that it’s T****p’s preferred medium, this fact does mean something.)
So: text-setting as a way of reading more closely. Certainly Ted seems to have spent a lot of time with Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How it feels to be colored me,” especially the section that comprises his fourth movement, “Letter to my father.” This is worth quoting in the composer’s formulation:
He has only heard what I
I felt. He
He is far away but I
I see him.
Him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us.
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I
I am so colored.
Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him.
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I
I am so colored.”
The music pores over this text with such intensity that it becomes no longer a meditation but some kind of exorcism. Especially in the flow of the whole thirty-minute piece, it’s extremely moving. Ted really tried to understand what Hurston meant by “I am so colored,” and he tried seeing through the only spectacles he has, those of his own experience. Maybe that’s perverse, and maybe it’s futile. But he really tried, and in the process he wrung the emotion from this superficially simple text like it was a sponge soaked in wine.
Roomful of Teeth opened the concert with the Allemande from Caroline Shaw’s Partita for Eight Voices. It was a joy beyond my expectations to hear this music live in person. The first thing Caroline says in the program note is that the piece is simple. Which is evidently some kind of defense mechanism, an intentional disarming of the listener, because it really isn’t true. I mean, it’s not Le marteau sans maître, but in its way the Allemande as dense as Coloring Book, dense with syllables and consonants, dense with energetic waves.
What is simplicity, anyway? Something can be simple in one way and terribly complex in another.
How about focus? What is focus?
How about reading?
I’m working on an album project called Inventions. It originated with my Piano Inventions from Banff in 2010, a set of solo piano pieces derived from recordings of free improvisations. I wrote another set in a similar manner in 2015. I recorded them the other day with John Dieterich, who is in a really good band and possesses some unusual microphones.
As in much of my piano music, there’s some exploration of unique resonances set up using silently held keys and my favorite tool, the sostenuto pedal. This is the middle pedal of the piano, which—unlike the more commonly used damper pedal on the right—sustains just the notes you’re holding on the keyboard, rather than lifting the dampers for the whole instrument.
A sound has four phases, they tell me: attack, sustain, decay, and release. Pianos, being percussion instruments, are most characterized by the first phase. You hit a note. That’s the attack. If you hold the key down (or if you employ the middle or damper pedal) you keep hearing sound, but you aren’t really hearing sustain; unlike, say, the human voice, we have no way on the piano of continuing or growing a tone. As soon as the note sounds, it immediately begins to decay. When you lift the key, or the pedal, there is a similarly audible release.
The music of my Inventions operates under the premise that music takes place during the (non-notated) decay of tones, and at their (sometimes, in my system, emphasized) releases, not just at their (traditionally notated) attacks.
But there is an equally characteristic second premise here: a flat refusal to explore the first one in any sort of systematic way.
Because after all this isn’t really a discursive premise of an argument; what it is is a natural interest of a human being. Interests are like love. They aren’t so clearly delineated. Their subjects and objects are blurred around the edges. They don’t exist for a specific purpose. We don’t ask them to emerge and we don’t use them for anything. We just have them. And they shift as they will.
So I might draw a comparison to a piece of music I’ve been thinking about lately: Dan Trueman and Adam Sliwinski’s album Nostalgic Synchronic, which explores and demonstrates Trueman’s software instrument the prepared digital piano. He hasn’t set up a complete compendium of all the instrument’s possibilities, but a left-brain effort has been made to show a range of its technical potentials. This connects with my old saw about “exploiting material” in composition. The question is whether one has subjected one’s ideas to a thorough going-over, or not. My argument has been, and remains, that while the first approach is perfectly valid (as the whole European heritage of classical music stands to demonstrate), the second is also.
Example: the opening idea in one of my Inventions, “Church Dust.” I’m tempted to call it a groove, but it isn’t, because it never settles in. It does not predictably repeat, nor are the rhythmic variations logically explicated. They just flow from one to the next, at the speed of thought and with the logic of memory.
This was an improvisation; so I took the first idea as a premise and continued and played with it, but I did not stop to notate it, analyze it, and consider my options. When it comes back slightly different later, it’s because I didn’t necessarily remember it the same way I played it the first time. John said something about writing through improvisation—that this way we arrive at different forms that we’d never create if we were working on paper. That’s a good point. Not just for macroforms but also for the individual variations in a single idea.
In this as in other things I have been guided by the flowing, not-quite-repeating music of Peter Garland. The ideas in his music feel connected, even when traditional motivic relationships are hard to isolate, because the ideas move from one to the next at the speed of thought. One of his longer pieces, like either of the two string quartets, proceeds like a long solitary walk. You might think of a memory, a person from your past, something about food, something about politics, something from a book you've been reading. On the surface, these objects of contemplation have little to do with one another. And yet meaning spontaneously arises from their juxtaposition. Connections, while not inherent, emerge.
We’re all experiencing cycles—all the time, all the time—but lately they seem to carry especially complex patterns of overlapping troughs and apexes, with some dramatic amplitudes.
Here is something I told a friend in an email the other day: “I’m having a hard time marshaling a long-term vision for myself as a musician right now, which is something I could always count on over the last 5-6 years, even when the specifics were (quite) hazy.”
To make sense of the present we look for hints of the future, for secret threads connecting things, for invisible resonances barely heard.
Quoth Matthew McConaughey’s character in True Detective, “She articulated a personal vision. Vision is meaning. Meaning is historical.” I’m not sure what that means, if anything, but let’s hazard an analysis:
Vision is the ability, or the proclivity, to see patterns and connect information—even if the patterns don’t really exist outside your personal imagination. In this sense vision is related to, perhaps inextricable from, some notion of faith.
Meaning is also about connection, the connection of events to other events. Meaning is about believing in narratives: after all, you can’t tell a story without one thing leading to another.
History is, of course, the connection of events in succession, is about seeing correlations and positing causal relationships among them.
So maybe vision is the desire, the struggle, the attempt to situate ourselves historically. It’s not about literally believing your music is going to be in the history books. All that’s required is the sense of a connection between your work and the music that IS in the history books, and the belief that your work may open a way to the music of the future—even if it’s only your personal future and no one else’s.
Ned Rorem said (and I’ve been quoting this since my first round of grad school admissions essays): “I compose just from necessity, and no one else is making what I need.”
The idea is, there’s this thing you want to hear. You can almost see it, sometimes. But you don’t totally know what it’s going to sound like. Not until you try to write it down.
For this reason, the most exciting thing in the world is when you catch some glimpse of your ideal music like a flash in the corner of your eye. I’ve had this revelation over and over again, in small hints and breathtaking waves: doing theater as a kid; hearing for the first time Miles Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, the Cavatina from Beethoven opus 130, Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet; cliff diving into the Colorado River, climbing my first fourteener, standing in a New Mexico ponderosa forest at midnight and hearing the wind in the trees and the horn of a distant train.
Just the other day I saw or heard a few shreds of it, whatever it is. It’s always just fragments, but these are the reminders that allow us to keep working. I was working on a piece of music, entering notes from a pencil draft into Sibelius. I was listening to Danny Fisher-Lochhead’s album On Ceremony. And then I clicked through his record label, Fishkill Records, to another recent album, Arktikos by Ross Gallagher.
These albums were both inspiring in the way I’ve described, dropping hints of what I’m looking for in the piece I’ve been writing. Actually the two are in some ways in opposition, as they relate to my project. Danny’s album exemplifies the big beautiful mess theory of which I am an enthusiast. It’s sprawling, oblique, mysterious. The band is called “Danny Fisher-Lochhead Large Ensemble,” which implies genre indeterminacy as well as a possibly democratic sense of pluralism and participation.
Arktikos, on the other hand, is terse, focused, and simple—a probably contradictory ideal I’ve also expressed in my own music. Question: are these values actually contradictory?
I’m reminded of the notion, which I wrote about in 2013, about certain musicians or pieces or recordings as “keys to the church.”
Speaking of musicians in honor of whom churches were literally later established, I really encourage everyone this week to listen to some Coltrane. It seems to help.
All those curious are advised to read the latest edition of my email newsletter, Sonatas and Interludes.
While in Texas with Grant Wallace Band last month, I took a tilt at that strange new beast, the "Twitter essay." I've been enjoying political examples of the form by Jeet Heer and Chris Arnade.
"At his best, he doesn’t really direct a film so much as host it—keeping all his characters involved, rescuing the wallflowers, making sure that everyone is plied with lines and bits of stage business, as if he were topping up drinks."
— Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, regarding Richard Linklater
The other day I struck up a conversation with a fellow bike commuter waiting out rain under the Comanche Street bridge. He was *impressed* to hear that I’m a pianist and *impressed* to hear that I’m a composer. Whenever I impress someone, I begin to feel uncomfortable, and some part of me starts looking for a way out of the conversation. His curiosity was earnest, though his interest in music was apparently fairly shallow. I should have been able to speak to him with equal unbridled honesty about the thing I do all day, but I found my patience exhausted by his reliance on old platitudes about classically trained musicians and what it’s like to watch them play. “Especially when you see a pianist do some blues, or ragtime,” he said, gesturing with his hands.
I should have said: for me, music is a social activity and even a professional aspiration, but it’s also a spiritual and imaginative experience that puts me in touch with alternate ways of living and looking at reality; so I tend to seek out the new and unfamiliar, because that’s where I find novel approaches that make me believe in the future and the holy contour of life. People have a box of what they think music is, based on old European notions of virtuosic performance and emotional self-expression. I hope that next time someone tries to fit me into the box, I’m able to say something like that.
At this time of year when things are accelerating for many of my academic friends, I find myself desperate for a slowdown. I'm so ready for cool air, homemade bread and root-vegetable soups. I want a slower tempo and more whole-bar rests. Summer in the Rio Grande rift is no joke. But this morning the dog was curled up with her tail tucked over her nose, like she does in cool weather. The Equinox is coming, not a moment too soon.
May I please introduce my slow-building Instagram music project, Desert Rhodes. I've been asking lots and lots of composers for short short pieces for Rhodes piano. 15 seconds is my guideline, since that was the original max duration of Instagram videos. Fortunately, they've increased the cap, so I can relax the tempos a bit. The first three pieces I've posted are by Elliot Cole, Eliza Brown, and James Shields. Lots more coming. Follow follow.
In late July - early August, Grant Wallace Band played our first northeast tour, with shows in Maine (at a barn), New Hampshire (at a bar), and New York (on a ba-eautiful rooftop with a sunset view of the NYC skyline). Here we are atop the latter (and also atop the ladder, two of them, now that I mention it), looking as Brooklyny as we can manage:
Tour is (big fresh insight coming, here:) tiring. Fortunately, traveling with these guys is a blast. One night driving late across Vermont we invented a fictional Midwestern chamber ensemble and then began naming and characterizing its members, then populating their backstories and local community of Quintaine, Michigan. (You'll have to ask Ben if I spelled that right.) There's a pretty good local deli there, from what I remember. The ensemble is famed for their annual renditions of Schubert's Trout Quintet.
We're playing lots of new songs these days, many of which will appear on our second full-length album, due this fall. But not before we head to Houston for a workshop performance of our new dramatic song cycle. This will be at the Menil Collection September 23-24, in conjunction with an outsider art exhibition. Very cool.
I listened to a lot of medieval and Renaissance choral music all summer. Favorites, in chronological order of composition: Perotin Perotin Perotin (ca. 1200); Machaut's Notre Dame Mass (mid-1300s); Solage, "Fumeux fume" (late 1300s); Dunstable, "Quam pulchra es" (1400s); Josquin, Missa Pange Lingua (early 1500s); Tallis' Lamentations of Jeremiah, performed by Heinavanker (1500s). This is wonderful music. Most of the summer between Albuquerque temperatures and general political insanities it felt like the world was literally on fire and all I could do to deal with it was drink a lot of ice water and lie very still and listen to this stuff.
It remains curious to me how Youtube commenters like to express their enthusiasm for newfound inspiration in older music by stating its superiority to contemporary (especially popular) musical styles. "This is the real music," they say. It's so hard for us to accept that all of it, even the shit we hate, is real music.
For no other reason than that you may not have heard it, here is Eleanor Hovda's Borealis Music:
For reasons that aren’t totally public, I’ve been revisiting Donald Jay Grout’s History of Western Music. Grout has been the Virgil to countless undergraduates’ Dante as they passed through the infernos, purgatories, and (hopefully? eventually?) paradises of music history survey class. The book begins in ancient Greece and heads right up, tentatively, through the middle of the twentieth century. Such a wide geographical and temporal range leads one to a big question: with so much musical activity covered, what pulls it all together? Dithyrambs, Gregorian chant, troubadour songs, Baroque dances, Classical symphonies, avant-garde complexities; what makes all of this “music” and other things not music?
We don’t know much about ancient Greek musical practice, because music wasn’t much notated back then. We do, however, have their music theory in writing. And evidently the Greek notion of “music” was a wide one indeed. They say that “music” was an adjectival form of “muse,” and was a quality that could describe a whole range of activities.
As composer James Klopfleisch, also bassist of this band, recently told me off the cuff: “Music is a situation we find ourselves in.”
For years I’ve been obsessed with getting past music the noun toward music the verb. Now I find myself most interested in music the adjective, music as a quality of situations.
The most famous medieval music theorist was probably Boethius, who divided music into three categories: (1) musica cosmica, the music of the spheres, the perfect arithmetical balance of heavenly bodies; (2) musica humana, the “music” of harmonious social relations; and (3) musica instrumentalis, that is to say, audible music. Everything we now consider “music” falls under the third category.
In another way, though, little has changed. From ancient times, most people’s notions of music have been restricted to associations with dancing and with sung words, and this hasn’t gone anywhere. Today for most Americans music means a steady dance beat. Further definitions would include people singing with guitars or pianos, on stage, on a recording, or in church. Or—and this ties to the Dionysian history of drama—we might describe music as providing emotional atmosphere for movies and video games. (My friends who teach young composers report that this is the most common area of inspiration for their incoming students.) All other concepts and applications are rarified and unusual. The not uncommon white American dismissal of hip-hop, for example, as “not music” evinces if not a thoroughly deplorable bigotry then at least a fabulously narrow definition of music.
What about the spheres? What about harmonious social relations?
I’ve been listening to Doug Perkins’ podcast. Doug is a high-level percussionist, teacher, and organizer in the new music community. In his recent conversation with Joel Gordon, he said the following somewhat remarkable thing: “I use the music at Boston Conservatory to teach ownership and leadership and thoughtful decision making. I certainly don’t make music because I think it sounds pretty. That’s the last thing I think about.”
The composer and acoustic ecologist David Dunn once wrote: “What I’m really expressing is a spiritual and ethical imperative. The point is not whether someone is making ‘good’ music. The question is: to what use can we put music that is life-enhancing? That may mean not making music in the manner we’re used to.”
In the Republic, Plato famously and fascistically dictated the types of music that should and should not be allowed in the ideal society. This, of course, is even more narrow-minded than the present attitudes described above. But I can only admire the sentiment expressed here:
“He who mingles music with gymnastic in the fairest proportions, and best attempers them to the soul, may be rightly called the true musician and harmonist in a far higher sense than the tuner of the strings.”
Fingers crossed for fair proportions.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts