I want music to be unapologetic. I need to hear what you’re doing. I don’t need to hear second thoughts about what you’re not doing.
I’ve been thinking about the late work of Bob Dylan. My favorite talking point here is Tempest, his most recent record of original material, from 2012. Really his whole catalog post-Time Out Of Mind is a substantial body of work that has been insufficiently reckoned with. (Time Out Of Mind, notice, is not a recent effort anymore; it’s twenty-two years old.) Tempest crystallizes the enigma. Here is Bob Dylan at age seventy-one, with thirty-four studio albums to his name; and he says, “what I need to do is write a fourteen-minute song about the Titanic.” Since Tempest he’s released three full albums of standards. People don’t know how to deal with this. I do think his version of “Some Enchanted Evening” speaks for itself, but of course your attitude toward Dylan, and toward standards, is going to determine your reaction.
Yet more controversial is Dylan’s “never ending tour.” He has been playing roughly 100 shows a year for thirty years nonstop, often in small cities, often in unusual venues. It is easy to ignore this when, like me, you have caught maybe two of these 3,000 concerts. But with a little perspective, it’s clear that Dylan has dedicated himself to live performance in a way few musicians at his level of fame have attempted. The repertoire on the set lists is unpredictable, and his interpretations have shifted along with the aging of his voice. Bill Wyman’s article for Vulture contends thoughtfully with some of the bizarrenesses of the situation. I especially like his comparison of Dylan to Lefty, from the Townes van Zandt song.
A couple years back when Leonard Cohen’s last album came out, I found it so immediate and beautiful that I had to step into his work from recent decades, from Old Ideas (2012) to Live in London (2009) to I’m Your Man (1988). The growling, the synths, the backup singers: I heard it all differently in the context of You Want It Darker. If the early work doesn’t set up a context for the late work, maybe sometimes the later music can draw a line backwards in time. I’ve had similar experiences with the Beatles’ discography and even the piano sonatas and string quartets of Beethoven.
When someone makes a masterful statement at some point, and they’re still making music decades later, we need to take these later efforts seriously—and more difficultly, we need to take them on their own terms. We need to assume that these musicians know exactly what they’re doing. If it’s something completely different and we don’t understand it right away, that’s on us.
From this day forward, I will jump only through hoops of my own construction.
The political divide is not about policy. There are two types of people: those who distrust power and want it held to account, and those who trust power, and believe it possesses its own justification.
My new trio Crossing New Mexico with Weldon Kees & Ray Gonzalez premiered at Chatter a few weeks ago. Planning my introduction from the stage, I wrote out some notes under three headings. Then I restrained myself and said almost none of it out loud. Maybe it will make a better essay.
Before you hear this new trio, I want to briefly plant three seeds that might suggest how I think about composition and how you might direct your listening.
1. Music as Metaphor for/of Travel
Road trips have always been important to my creative imagination. Consider for a moment the rates of motion you experience when driving down a New Mexico highway. Direct your gaze at the mountains in the distance, and you might seem to be moving slowly. Direct your gaze at the road beside you, and you’ll appear to be moving quickly. Look around within the car, and you’ll find you aren’t moving anywhere at all.
2. Music Evoking Space
Acoustically any sound has four components: attack, sustain, decay, release. Conventional pitch-and-rhythm notation emphasizes attack. I’m interested in the other three. One can listen not just to the notes but to everything that comes right before, right after, in all the space between.
3. Eventfulness/Activity/Eventlessness in Music
The novelist Haruki Murakami has reported that he begins the first draft of each new novel with no plan whatever in mind. He drafts his way through from beginning to end, letting each development come as a surprise; he just begins, and trusts that information will emerge and self-organize.
My composition teachers always emphasized “pre-planning.” You’re supposed to know the length and width and shape of the piece, its form and structure and character, before you write any notes or rhythms. This clearly works for others, but for me the results were lifeless. My teachers encouraged me to “exhaust the material,” exploring and “developing” each idea by carefully considering it from every angle. I’ve preferred to go from one idea to the next, letting each one hang in the air for as long as it seems to want to.
The best composition lesson I ever got came in this three-word bundle: Repetition is Development. You can’t cross the same river twice, and you can’t hear the same musical idea twice, either, and one thing you definitely cannot do is go home again. By the end of the piece, you’re an older person than you were at the beginning. This is the whole game right here, the whole essence of what we do. Music stylizes and dramatizes the passing of time.
Thank you for joining us, and I hope you enjoy the journey.
Postscript is, I’m always looking for ways to close my pre-piece remarks beyond telling people that I hope they enjoy the piece. Submissions welcome.
A couple years ago I played a recital tour with trombonist Chris Buckholz. We performed at universities; the whole thing was underwritten by UNM as part of his faculty outreach. We stayed at hotels; we received per diems. At the University of Colorado Boulder, we learned that a patron had recently donated a new Steinway D for their recital hall. We asked about moving the piano to a different angle onstage. “Sure, but you’ve got to put on the white gloves,” the professor replied. I laughed, but he wasn’t joking. Soon several student employees came out, put on white gloves, and moved the piano. This was a requirement of the patron. They kept white gloves around backstage for anytime the piano had to move.
I’m currently planning a tour with guitarist/composer/improviser Andrew Weathers, who lives in a tiny town in west Texas and does this sort of thing a lot. Andrew is prolific as a solo artist and collaborator, and he also runs a label, Full Spectrum Records. Say what you will about the extremely prolific, but they’re doing what they set out to do, and at such velocity, preciousness refuses to adhere. When I got into Bob Dylan in high school, one of my friends said he was put off by Dylan’s massive discography—he didn’t know where to start. As though that’s supposed to be Dylan’s problem. Similar comments often follow upon mentionings of Anthony Braxton. What do we expect, comprehensive mastery? No one knows everything. We chip off that which our time and curiosity allow, but it’s never more than a chip.
It is worth considering the words of another prolific musician, the brilliant songwriter Chris Weisman. Unlike AW, Weisman doesn’t much tour or even perform locally, and he has little to no digital infrastructure around his work. “I don’t like the whole shows hubbub very much. Lot of driving, lot of waiting, no money or worse. I’ll play a show every once in a while when I’ve got some new material at hand. My practice is as a jazz improvisor, theory weirdo (music theory, not the other kind), music teacher; the music I write—both the songs I tape and the music I put to paper—are like this indirect outgrowth of this life: bonus flowers.”
I’m looking forward to a couple weeks driving around with Andrew talking about this sort of thing. While I’m not sure if I’ll ever tour as much as Andrew, I do admire the rough-and-ready nature of his projects, collaborations, and album releases. By contrast it feels like I might handle ongoing entities like Golconda and Grant Wallace Band, and perhaps ideas and projects more generally, like those student workers at CU with their white gloves.
Free Solo has brief moments that brush armchair psychiatry, and the picture it draws of Alex Honnold does raise the question: if our definition of “mental illness” is not capacious enough to admit of someone like this more the mere fact of choosing to do something like this, is that definition sufficient?
But this is why his example is so powerful. Because the question “why choose to do something so horribly dangerous?” is not so conceptually distant from “why choose to do anything at all?”
Perpetual Caveat: Analogies between athletics and musicianship are problematic, and present cultural understanding is too reliant on them. (See my 2015 thoughts on Grand Piano and Inside Llewyn Davis.)
Essay: I’m a little stuck on Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary about Alex Honnold’s free-solo climb of El Capitan. On the one hand (one thumb?), I’m hesitant to praise a movie that seems almost certain to accrue a body count. On the other, I must acknowledge that this is a new perspective on human capability—and a new document of the lengths people will go to try and be happy.
My hands are sweating at the keyboard just thinking about this movie.
Two moments keep returning to me and suggesting a connection to musical practice. At one point Honnold describes the nonexistent margin of error in free-solo climbing as central to its appeal. “I don’t want to fall off and die either,” he says, “but there’s a satisfaction to challenging yourself and doing something well. That feeling is heightened when you’re for sure facing death. If you’re seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get. And it does feel good to feel perfect, for a brief moment.”
I have previously compared climbing to performing music. While I’m only lightly experienced in the former, I’ve noticed a connection between the moment your foot leaves the ground and the moment you start a piece in front of people. Rope or no, there is a feeling of commitment. The other day I played Lukas Foss’ solo piano arrangement of Billy the Kid for about 200 listeners. Once I started, I was started. I’m thinking of that old chestnut about people fearing public speaking more than they fear death. Maybe, on some deeper level of the mind, playing solo piano in front of 200 listeners isn’t so dissimilar from free-solo climbing.
Later, discussing his preparations for the climb, reading through his notes, Honnold describes his plan for the most difficult move of the route. He looks right at the camera and says, “autopilot.” The Buddhist teachings tell us that if we’re suffering, we are thinking; similarly at the piano, if I make a mistake, it’s probably because I’m thinking. I don’t play solo much lately, or from memory. When doing so, there comes this eerie moment when you realize you’ve come mentally detached from the playing and your hands are just doing it by themselves. Sometimes this realization comes with a lurching stop—I notice that I don’t know where I am in the music, muscle memory disengages from conscious processing, and suddenly I’m Wile E. Coyote having run off a cliff, finally looking down.
Let’s consider this notion of “muscle memory.” No one is suggesting that your hands literally have memory capacities. We’re talking about a different level of the mind. Playing the Copland, I realized that if I ever thought about what was coming next, I was already too late. I couldn’t think. It was too slow.
Over New Year’s I attended a meditation retreat in California with the renowned teacher Shinzen Young, who talks a lot about this mysterious notion of operating “from auto.” In other words, speaking or moving or even thinking with true and complete spontaneity, without surface-level thought breaking the flow. The irony is that we do this all the time: tying one’s shoes is a classic example, or brushing your teeth, or walking. But the difficult thing—and I mean difficult, I mean a lifetime’s work—is to do this consciously, to operate from auto with immediacy and intention and know you’re operating from auto.
This may seem very abstract, but when you see it in action, it is completely palpable, undeniable. It oozes from Alex Honnold’s figure in the climactic footage of his climb. My favorite musical example is this video of an elderly Vladimir Horowitz playing Mozart 330. Look at his face. He is almost completely disengaged, on the surface, from the activity of his hands. He’s watching them like they’re a couple of gazelles grazing in a meadow someplace. That’s auto. These performers become Don Genaro somersaulting over the waterfall. The importance of what they’re demonstrating lies no longer in the specifics of the athletic or musical achievement, but in the manner in which it is achieved.
My new trio premieres at Chatter this Sunday. I’ll be at the piano, with David Felberg (violin) and Jesse Tatum (flute). I talked to Spencer Beckwith at KUNM about the project, and there was also a little piece in the Albuquerque Journal. I wrote about the trio in this space a while back. I’ve also taken on a new role this year with Chatter as Company Manager. I look forward to applying more elbow grease toward presenting a variety of music to our community here in New Mexico.
I’ve been reading the 30th anniversary edition of Forces in Motion, Graham Lock’s landmark book about Anthony Braxton. The subject is a famously prolific composer and reputedly impenetrable thinker, and the book takes a friendly approach, dropping us into one specific moment along the continuum of Braxton’s life and work. Lock traveled England with Braxton’s quartet in 1985, and the book includes tour diaries, reflections on the concerts, and interviews with the musicians. The interviews are illuminating: here is a smart and engaged person really trying to pin Braxton down on a wide range of issues. Most importantly, it’s encouraging for anyone curious about the music. It’s easy to be flummoxed by the mountainous volume of Braxton’s output. If nothing else, Lock shows us that the most deeply researched, well-intentioned, and closely accessed of attempts to decode Braxton’s system will still hit locked doors and dead ends. So you may as well just have a listen. At one point Braxton calls his ideal audience “friendly experiencers.” That much any of us can offer.
It is poignant to read this book in 2019 and notice many timeless correspondences—concerns about political and ecological degradation that are absolutely current if you find and replace “Reagan” with the current occupant of the White House and “acid rain” with “climate change”—as well as sea changes in the musical environment, especially as regards access and distribution of scores and recordings. It is always instructive to hear creative musicians in the heyday of the American recording industry complain about their relationships with record companies. At one point in the text Braxton fantasizes about a box set of tour recordings, and a footnote briefly documents his subsequent struggles to get those recordings released. Today Braxton has his own label, and recordings of the ’85 quartet are on Spotify. The grave illness of the record industry and our attendant loss of the habit of buying recordings has not, in general, been positive for musicians. But here is one artist who has been able to document his work and present it in the way he chooses.
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.
• 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