For a long time I felt like I was pushing a boulder up a hill. At some point, without precisely realizing it, I must have reached the top, and now the work is running after the boulder as it rolls down the other side, to try and catch up with it, not to let it get away. That’s still hard work. But it’s different.
1. One of my jazz piano teachers told me to straighten out my eighth notes. A “bouncy” swung eighth was anathema. He said that when he was playing his best, he noticed the eighth notes tending toward evenness. It has long been observed that at a faster tempo, the difference between straight and swung eighths begins to disappear. I have been listening to Cormac Begley. Question: are those straight eighths?
2. Milford Graves said a metronome would give you a heart attack. He dismisses the metronome as a military taskmaster and tells his students to listen to their own heartbeats. I went through a heavy period of metronome practice years back; recently I use it less. That said, last year I was learning the Brahms F Major Cello Sonata, and I found myself reaching for the timekeeper. Brahms’ time is not metronomic, it’s romantic, phrase-based, breathlike, and so on, but it also operates simultaneously on multiple rhythmic levels, and sometimes features hard shifts between the foregrounding of those levels. So a metronome seemed useful to keep myself honest—I wanted to see if my eighth notes, my triplets, and my sixteenths were all actually happening at the same tempo as I hopped back and forth. In Brahms these levels are like the different floors of a house. You want them all built on the same foundation. Now I’m learning the Horn Trio, and I’m staying away from the metronome. I want to let the time grow out of the music, rather than imagining that the time is already there and the music is just being set down within its preexisting walls.
My favorite songwriting compliment is still Elvis Costello, writing about Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes: “I think he was trying to write songs that sound like he’d just found them under a stone.” I’ve aspired to that quality. But lately I’m wondering if I shouldn’t wipe the ideas clean, maybe give them a quick rinse under running water. Just so their natural shapeliness can show.
My latest Golconda, The Lost Forest, is now available on Bandcamp and all the digital streaming platforms. This completes a diptych with Ghost Stories, documenting the songs I wrote at PLAYA in 2018.
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I think a lot about what Leonard Cohen said to Terry Gross:
GROSS: “Do you feel, as a songwriter - do you feel a connection to, say, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen - those guys - the kind of classic American popular songwriters?”
COHEN: “Well, I think they're better than I am. You know, I just think they know more about music. Someone like Cole Porter - his rhymes are, you know, much, much more elegant than mine. I have a very limited kind of expression. But I've done the best that I can with it. And I've worked it as diligently as I can.”
I try to remember that the bar has been set very, very high, by people who led harder lives than mine. I try to be inspired rather than discouraged by this. I try to maintain a sense that the work is its own reward, and while I too am entitled to the occasional break, I am never entitled to feel sorry for myself.
Every time a famous composer dies, I read in their obituary that they possessed an “encyclopedic knowledge of music.” As a human creature, I do not aspire to the condition of a book.
I had a few teachers who judged young composers primarily on their knowledge of repertoire. Their voices wormed into my head, and now part of me will forever feel inadequate. Judge yourself based on your knowledge and you will never know enough; judge yourself based on your looks, and you will forever fear the mirror. Anyway the more I learn, the less I seem to know. But the learning gets sweeter.
My knowledge is not encyclopedic, but maybe it’s prismatic. The more I hear, the more connections I hear in any individual piece of music, bridges across time and space. The most recent quantum leap in my music came when I stopped trying to learn new pieces all the time, gave up on “catching up,” and just played the same few Mozart sonatas and Bach preludes and fugues every day over and over again, sat with a few favorite American songbook standards and transposed them through all twelve keys off the lead sheets. I send my attention into this music and watch the multi-colored light streaming out in every direction.
They’ll never say I had an encyclopedic knowledge of music, but maybe they’ll say other nice things. Maybe they’ll say I used music socially, to connect with other people. Maybe they’ll say I had a wide imagination, an abiding curiosity. Maybe they’ll say I listened with love and enthusiasm. Maybe they’ll say I was an explorer.
One of the nicest compliments I’ve gotten as a performer was when someone told me they felt, from the moment I sat down at the piano, like they were in good hands. I’ve come to feel the same way with certain composers. As I’m learning a new piece, I start to wrap my mind around its language and logic; the piece starts to teach me how to play it. That’s the feeling of being in good hands. I’m learning a piece by Hans Abrahamsen right now. While his music is notated using conventional symbols, there is a strange disconnect between how it looks and how it ends up sounding. He uses meters unconventionally, and the parts relate in unexpected ways. Never mind: after a while, I begin to understand it. Something falls into place. I’m in good hands.
One of the only bad things about choral music is how long it takes the musicians to file on and off stage.
I am engaged in a late-game effort to learn George Crumb’s Eleven Echoes of Autumn for a concert October 12-13. There are the usual interior and exterior piano techniques, muting, harmonics, pencil erasers, whistling, chanting, et cetera. I showed someone one of the spirally pages. “Play anything!” she said. “Who will know?!”
This might feel true, to someone seeing or hearing Crumb for the first time, but it’s not. Crumb has his own dialect with its own rules. It’s incredibly logical, once you get into it. I’m not one of those people who can juggle pitch-sets in his ear while listening to Boulez or Carter; I’m not talking about mysticism or witchcraft here. Quite the opposite: the compositional means are pretty specific, maybe even too specific. Sometimes I feel like he wrote the piece immediately after walking out of the final exam for a set-theory class.
So, I can’t just play anything. If I played “The Girl from Ipanema,” they would know. Okay, maybe that’s a bad example. If I started playing the national anthem, or “What a Fool Believes,” or the slow movement of the Hammerklavier, they would know. Especially after it went on for a while.
I wrote a few undergraduate pieces that tried to rip off Crumb, Webern, Bartok in his night-music mode. This, as it turns out, is hard. It’s hard to write something that precisely spooky (Crumb), that wild-mercury (Webern), that serenely unsettling (Bartok). It’s hard to execute bombast like Beethoven or unpredictability like Cage. I once sat through a concert of piano works by Ferneyhough and a bunch of Ferneyhough-adjacent composers. All of the music thought it was intense and bewildering, but only the Ferneyhough piece actually hit that bar.
Anytime you’re accusing a composer of being too overt, maybe what they’re actually doing is being clear with their intentions.
• 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