I want to quickly acknowledge the indebtedness of the previous post to Václav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless (1978). This is the most important read, for me, since the election. While the United States under the Trump administration is far from being a “post-totalitarian state” as defined by Havel, his conception of the state leads him to a general description of the dynamics of cultural oppression that is widely applicable. His broad but precise notion of “living within the truth” is crucially inspiring. This ties to my above discussion of cultural institutions. To draw things down to earth for a moment, I can provide a few examples of “living within the truth” that have been important to me in recent months. (1) Keeping a good clean house. (2) Being friendly with my neighbors. (3) Utilizing the public library. (4) Making peace with that previously dreaded entity, the University Music Department. (5) Having people over for dinner.
Our problems are many and complex, but I’m increasingly convinced that many of the solutions involve cooking and bikes. Until then, music might help too.
1. Living in Austin from 2007-9, from within the university music building, gazing forlornly out the windows, I began to ascribe a certain nobility to musical activities taking place outside the academic world.
2. I did this based on a personal notion of social “relevance,” perhaps—though I did not realize it at the time—indebted to a good old anti-academic and anti-intellectual bias that is, I now realize, ambient, pervasive.
3. I no longer want to hear any arguments performing acts of exclusion on the basis of “relevance.” Social vitality is not to be domesticated by any one person or group to use for their own purposes.
4. Anti-academic and anti-intellectual biases in this country are undermining cultural institutions, and have helped us elect an ignorant, hateful, narcissistic madman to run the executive branch, alongside the cohort of moral cretins currently controlling the legislative area. Little wonder that the inherently abstract, theoretical operations of the judiciary have become so crucial to maintaining normalcy.
5. A little faith in culture, expertise, and earnest study—on their own merits—could be useful at this hour. It appears time to reevaluate the attitudes described in #1 above.
6. It strikes me now as particularly indefensible that I fetishized non-academic musical communities without regard to their various relationships to the commercial system, and to the sale of alcohol, a substance which, among other things, makes people louder.
7. I wasn’t wrong in noticing that music is, seen from one important angle, a set of social strategies: for interaction, for mediation, for decision-making, for communion.
8. Cultural institutions of all types are important for social organizing and the giving of meaning to life. It is impossible to touch on the second point without recourse to cliche, but I think the phrase is precise. People derive meaning from learning, study and teaching; from the playing, facilitating, and attending of concerts; from the giving of healing and the administering of medicine. What draws these activities together is that their basic intentions lie outside the systems of profit and capital, and though organizations spring up around them like wild grasses, these organizations become businesses only through an uneasy set of compromises. But regardless of those compromises, people are people and community is community. If a musical individual finds mutual support and activity within academia, then that group is just as inherently noble as any other community of musicians, and its concerts just as valid, no matter how poorly attended, even if (gasp) publicly funded.
9. My recent thought is indebted in part to George Lewis’ book A Power Stronger Than Itself, which describes how hard he and his AACM associates in Chicago worked to get their music out of bars and clubs and into academic and governmental support networks—just as my generation would blithely move in the opposite direction, fighting the obvious issue of noise differentials to mount concerts in bars rather than advocating for more institutional support in the form of expanded academic presences or—imagine!—direct government grants to individual musical actors.
10. The latter seems to me of paramount importance. If we want to believe our work matters, it should be a simple matter of social policy that we provide its practitioners access to financial support, health care, and other services—public education, child care, and so on. That such basic, direct support is so difficult to imagine in the current system, which finds it so easy to create, for example, aircraft carriers, should be clearly instructive. (Musicians, as I’m always pointing out, are inexpensive pets. Look at the money being thrown around in the public sector, in defense, in technology, in finance, and then consider the way musicians will claw at each other for a $1000 grant.)
11. I decry the cutting of the NEA. But it was never enough. Not since it focused its limited attention on institutional grants rather than individual ones. Though in the present atmosphere of calamity I’m inclined to welcome whatever partial measures I come by, what we really need is a complete change of mind.
12. I think I want to argue that American musicians, though we’ll rarely turn down a paycheck if it’s thrust into our hands, we are, in our deep subterranean composition, as leery of public funding as any good Republican. We’ll take it if we get it, but we don’t want to ask for it, for ourselves or for others. There is the idea, often attributed to John Steinbeck, that we can’t do anything about American poverty because no American sees himself as poor but only as a temporarily embarrassed millionaire. Similarly an American musician is never obscure, merely not-yet-famous. To accept a handout in this mindset is to admit defeat. In this mindset, you’ll only need to ask for help if you’re the sort of non-outlier who shouldn’t be doing this work in the first place.
13. Rugged individualism often works well for those under thirty, but around the time of the fabled Saturn return, I notice it breaking down in people. I think we start to get tired. Those who’ve accrued early individual glories start to feel hollow. Those who haven’t, and still want to keep working, begin to take greater and necessary solace in their fellows and families and find validation in wider and more disparate channels.
14. In the first years of Grant Wallace Band it was so important to me that we function like a band and play shows in bars, even though it was swiftly obvious that most of those spaces didn’t have pianos and when we played there no one could hear us. Why?
15. There’s a both/and solution possible here. But if we want to argue music’s inherent worthiness of support, we might begin by treating “relevance” like a sort of vulgarity, individual discipline as necessary but not sufficient without help, and educational systems and public institutions with deep respect as a crucial part of the fabric of music-making in the culture.
16. I never spilled many tears over the financial woes of American symphony orchestras until I became embedded in the musical culture of a mid-sized city and realized that if our orchestra shut down, a lot of people would lose their jobs, and a lot of musicians would leave town.
17. I don’t want musicians to leave town.
18. I played piano for a singing contest last weekend. During the final announcement of rankings, I left the auditorium and went for a walk outside. Call me a conscientious objector. Placing musicians in order obscures our fundamental interdependence. I really don’t think many of these singers realized how much they need each other to function. I think that on some level they actually wanted the other people in their division to sing less well, so they would have a better chance of winning. But it doesn’t matter whether you win a contest. It never did. What matters is that you have friends. (The best practical advice I received as a high school music student: a teacher told us, at a state jazz band competition, “In a year, two years, five years, you will not remember who won and lost, but you will remember who the assholes were.”)
19. We need each other. Or none of this means anything.
Last summer I quoted percussionist Doug Perkins, an apparently offhand comment from his podcast: "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.”
On its face, this is a wildly counterintuitive thing for a professional musician to say. Music is not about sounds? How un-Cagean. (Though it is, maybe, Wolffian. When I played Snowdrop last year, we quickly realized that the piece was not about realizing a specific set of sounds but rather about achieving a certain sort of social mediation and group communication. Maybe it's something about New Hampshire -- Perkins and Wolff both taught at Dartmouth. Live Free or Die, etc.)
Music not about sound? Posh. It can't be, right?
But lately I find myself inside this comment. When you're really in rehearsal all day, especially as the years of toil and underemployment begin to stack up, it occurs to you: most of the time, this really isn't about the esthetic transcendent, the fleeting moment of connection and revelation. That's all great, but it isn't enough to sustain the practice. The pleasure of pretty sounds is too simple; what we're after can't be as easy as taking a bite of dark chocolate. Ironically, Cage leads us back to this. Stipulated: wind in the trees outside can be as beautiful a sound as Mozart. So why on earth do we keep working so hard?
We wouldn't keep doing this unless we were engaging in some deeper sort of creative problem solving, or some useful sort of introspective spiritual cartography.
Maybe it's because my head's been deep in politics, but that's the root I keep coming back to, useful. The practice has social utility—it has to. Or it never could have sustained so many people, for so long, for so little pay.
“I’m a straight-up jazz musician, no doubt," Jason Moran once said. "But I also like to think of myself as an urban performance artist who happens to play piano.” I've played at devising a similar formula for my own activities. What if there's something else, something downy and diaphanous, that I'm really after, and the piano is useful but incidental to the basic quest? What if there's something much more mysterious that we're really doing all day, and the instrument we play is just, well, an instrument?
Maybe Doug was right. It's worth pointing out that he was referring specifically to his interest in "difficult" music, in the new, challenging, and unusual. Music that "destabilizes," to use a word from the zeitgeist.
Maybe we really are organizing something other than sound.
With that, I'm off to a loadbang concert.
[Score excerpt at the top is from Dance by Marta Gentilucci, 2016.]
Question: Is it possible to locate meaningful profession and meaningful religion in the same pursuit?
A few religions that have wafted through my life, some of them better religions than others: Lutheranism, writing, running, music, hiking, yoga, meditation, leaving town.
David Foster Wallace: "Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive."
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.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts