I think from now on, whenever I hear or see the word “entrepreneur” or “entrepreneurial” in any context whatsoever, I’m just going to scream as loud as I can for about five to ten seconds. That should help.
Three Augusts ago I walked through the doors of UNM’s music building to start another Master’s degree. I was about ten minutes early for the first entrance exam, and I walked into the classroom and walked right out again. It was the closest thing I’ve had in my adult life to a panic attack. At the time I could only articulate it like this: it was unbearable to walk into a room of fresh Master’s students and look in their eyes and see that they hadn’t yet been forced to confront the fact that they are completely and totally fucked.
Three years later, I am prepared to explain this differently.
The deeply unnatural thing about music school is that it is predicated on criticism. Your teacher’s job is to fill the hour with ideas about what’s wrong with your music. They are paid to care, or pretend as much, and to provide critique. If you look up to them, you might see this as a skill worth developing, and you too might begin to value and practice criticism.
As soon as you leave music school, you will never be in this situation again. As soon as you walk out those doors, the default position is that no one knows who you are and no one gives a shit about your music. No one is going to expend brain power critiquing it, and no one wants to hear your critiques either. Actually the situation is the reverse: now you have to do something music school never prepared you for, and I don’t mean operating Quickbooks. You have to come up with reasons for people to care.
You will find at times that you yourself have joined the group of people who do not care, and you will be forced to conjure reasons to keep yourself in the game, too.
They might not want to admit it, but this truth breaks a lot of young musicians’ hearts, and it’s why a lot of them quit within a few years, or end up back in the institution. For those of us who believe that a life in music is not necessarily the same as a life in music school, the road is a cold and bumpy one.
When one performance is described as “more musical” than another, I’m reminded of the encouragement to “just be yourself.” Is it possible to behave otherwise? Can any music be unmusical?
A piano teacher once told me I wasn’t Horowitz. Good to know: I’ll add him to the list. To date I have also determined that I am not Robert Oppenheimer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Jim Davis, the cartoonist of Garfield. Recent studies as to whether I am Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933, thirtieth president of these United States) are within the margin of error.
Addendum to Word 63, on Bob Dylan: it would be appropriately Shakespearean to describe the current phase of his career not as a third act but as a fifth.
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.
• 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