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.
In Banff in 2010 I began to practice piano using unusual scales from Nicolas Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Musical Patterns.
This amazing book exhaustively catalogues the ways a person can get up and down an octave. I would practice a scale each day, analyzing its leaps and steps, choosing an accompanying chord to play in my left hand, then playing the scale in four octaves through twelve keys—among other arrangements. (Practicing in "thirds" or "fourths," etc.) I came back to scales in general as a way of cultivating a confident touch, but I ended up getting something subtler from Slonimsky. These scales became pathways, possibilities for getting from place to place. They transformed not just my physical sense of the piano but also its visual dimensions.
Around the same time, I began a practice of daily morning improvisations. In Banff I recorded dozens of these, and later transcribed and edited several of them into standalone compositions, most directly the Piano Inventions. My approach in improvisation was guided by Slonimsky's geometric constructions.
Last fall I started recording improvisations again, and I've begun to shape those recordings into a second book of Piano Inventions. Usually they aren't long, say three to five minutes, occasionally stretching towards ten. I'm interested in ideas of boundedness and identity: what makes this little piece itself? How quickly can I establish an identity, and what musical events can follow that maintain, stretch, or break that identity?
Along the way I end up bumping into one of my old albatrosses, the notion of musical "development." As a student composer I often wrote pieces that had lots of ideas with few connections between them, making "more development!" an easy prescription. I grated against it partially because that's what you do with things your teachers tell you, partially out of a genuine if nascent curiosity regarding alternative notions of musical time, and partially because I saw that the lesson reflected a true limitation in my musical grounding. I didn't understand how to "develop" an idea, and it didn't come naturally. "Development" still becomes a very mystical concept the second I begin to interrogate it, but generally as my listening has grown I've come to accept that one event can come from another, and that there are purely musical ways of doing this that can be intuitive and characteristic rather than historically or stylistically labored.
(I think I began to understand development for the first time when a teacher told me that repetition is the simplest form of it. We hear an idea differently the second time; therefore, the idea has been developed. In this broad sense, development might be any way in which the music recognizes and accepts the fact that time is passing through and around it.)
Anyway, with the latest improvisations I'm still less concerned with developing material in the traditional manner because I'm still, on some gut level, unable to accept of the idea of "material" (remember, friends: it's only a metaphor); but nonetheless I can admit that the first thing I play sets up an atmosphere, creates a place, and the work is understanding the shape and color of that place, keeping the listener there long enough for it to be appreciated, and going elsewhere only decisively and carefully.
My latest improvisation project is the Five Epilogues for Rhodes piano. I recorded these five improvisations the same day in May and set them against the same five minutes of environmental sound recorded out the door of my studio. The drone enters at the same moment in each, two minutes thirty seconds, and the environmental sound continues after each improvisation, in its own time, concludes. (Diegetic, or non-diegetic?)
A composer whose work I admire once referred to a different piece of mine as "beautifully contained." This remains one of my favorite compliments.
I have an occasional practice of covering… recomposing?… arranging?… songs by favorite songwriters. The latest essay is this set of five songs by Martha Scanlan, which I call A Following Wind.
(the title is from The Odyssey, Robert Fitzgerald translation: “Grey-eyed Athena stirred them a following wind, soughing from the north-west on the winedark sea, and as he felt the wind, Telemakhos called to all hands to break out mast and sail…”)
This was a fairly similar approach to what I did with Bob Dylan songs for The Moon Was Just Coming Over The Hills. In both cases I started with the lyrics, copied by hand onto a blank sheet of paper. I sang the melodies more or less as is, while creating new music at the piano. The level of reinvention varies. My Charlemagne Palestine/Velvet Underground drone cover of “Going to Acapulco” features some pretty standard chords on the chorus; “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” gets totally fresh harmony.
Perhaps most dramatically, in 2014 I arranged Townes van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” for soprano Carrie Henneman-Shaw and Spektral Quartet. I wound some pretty out-there harmony and complex rhythms into that cover. (The groove shifts between 19/16, 15/16, and 11/16.)
Actually, though the music is simpler, I think the Martha Scanlan project is a more radical reinvention. Because removing the acoustic guitar from her music sort of violates a premise, and trading piano for Rhodes accentuates the ghostliness.
There are two big payoffs in this process. For one thing, I’m able to more precisely locate my own musical personality by taking a preexisting thing I know and love, stripping most of it away and then seeing what’s still there. I try to do very little. So I also end up getting at what’s essential in the song. In these three instances that means separating the singer-songwriter’s performance practice from the “composition”—whatever that is.
I’m thinking of an interview with producer Jon Brion in which he drew a distinction between a “song” and a “performance piece.” The idea is that a song’s distinct identity is in its melody and chord changes, which are limber enough to be reinvented in a different musical context. A “performance piece” is compositionally bare-bones, merely a scaffolding for a dynamic performance situation.
As examples of proper songs he offers George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Nirvana’s “Lithium.” Melody, chord change, and lyric are out front. He demonstrates them at the piano. No singing, no other instruments, and you still have a satisfying musical experience. Example of a performance piece: Led Zeppelin—he doesn’t name titles, but one supposes he’s thinking of a tunes like “Rock and Roll” and “Immigrant Song.” He’s not denigrating the Zep—he loves them too—but he suggests that what we love is not the song but the specific performance on the record.
Of course, like all sharp artistic distinctions this one is an oversimplification if not truly a lie; there are obvious critiques to be made. In these examples, he is ignoring differences in the notions of composition, text, and authorship that exist between the Euro-American songwriting tradition (from Schubert to Gershwin to Cobain) and the complex set of performance practices that comprise the blues.
But is it a useful oversimplification? Is it true, sometimes? Can text vanish into performance until it isn’t a composition anymore, in any meaningful or transferable sense?
By subjecting Martha Scanlan’s songs to this process, I’m asking the question. Are these songs or performance pieces? My work is figuring out how to answer “songs.”
And it isn't the chord changes. One of the easiest ways to make these songs mine is to jettison the chord progressions. This isn’t a surprise; much acoustic, folk, country, western music is built on pat harmonic structures that are not, in isolation, much of a hint at the deep meaning of the performance. For these songs and my process, it’s the lyrics—and the melodies that make them recognizable. That’s what I keep. Then the harmony and rhythm I get to have fun with.
I’ll give you my own comparison, not between a putative song and a “performance piece” or anything textually lesser, but between two songs I love for very different reasons. One is Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s incomparable “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” If the word “perfect” can ever be applied to a song, surely it is appropriate here. The song is so beautifully structured, with that bass line that creeps up chromatically, that melody that swings between a rising chromatic line to a sultry static “Ti-Do”—and then in the bridge, the line shifts to falls downward—a step down followed by a leap down, the isolated Fa resolves down to Mi in the next bar (“He is COLD, I ag-REE”) and it all ties up pretty nicely, contrapuntally speaking, before the stepwise swing up to an apex at that Re (“Although the LAUGH’s on me”) that we revisit at the very end (“bewil-DERED am I”). Tie it up in a fucking bow. Perfect.
Then there is Martha Scanlan’s “Hallelujah,” which features no similar harmonic or melodic subtlety. If you wrote out a lead sheet it would look pretty dull. We’re in I-IV-V town—but Martha happens to be the sheriff. She empties her six-shooter each verse, and every time, the bullets of those six lines hit the center of the target as three beautiful couplets. These are incendiary lyrics. They give you as much you need to tell a story to yourself without providing that extra detail that would prove it isn’t about you. And I’ve found that even when I remove her singing—when I sing this song with other people, or when I sing it by myself with the Rhodes—there’s still enough there. It doesn’t take you on a journey like “Bewitched.” It floats. I, IV, and V are the click, the clickety, and the clack of the train wheels, and the train isn’t stopping until it reaches the coast—or home, wherever that is.
1. The best we can expect from a work of art is transcendence. The second best is permission, which is actually sometimes better.
2. An idea for an ambitious artistic project is like an idea for a tattoo. It’s probably best to ignore it at first, but if it doesn’t go away for a year or two, you may have to deal with it.
3. Is there any correlation between good art and bad behavior? What about artistic breakthroughs and reckless choices? Or maybe creative work and some brand or another of indulgence? Asking for a friend.
3a. Well-behaved composers rarely make history.
4. Sometimes I think “album” as a genre never got past the physical capacity of the vinyl record. Forty minutes is an album. Sixty or seventy minutes is a double album. The break in the middle, after twenty minutes, helps. We could use that.
4a. It’s a rare album that can succeed for fourteen or fifteen tracks over sixty or seventy minutes without any break.
5. In composing: if it’s not fun, or beautiful, I don’t have to write it down.
6. Classical music runs on mastery; new music runs on, well, novelty. Will these things always leave us wanting more? We’ll never be masters enough, and new things get old.
6a. I’m moving toward a model less about mastery, more about work. Less about being good, more about doing good.
6b. About telling the truth without apology.
7. I’m amazed that anyone can spend a long time working on weird music and not have it reconfigure their ideas about lifestyle.
8. A while back I decided it would be a good marketing choice, when making initial descriptions of myself as a musician, not to use the word “composer.” Lately I’m thinking, when people ask what kind of music I make, I should try to avoid the word “weird.” For me there is a smile in that word. But for some, it may sound like I’m giving them an excuse.
9. Work on music for long enough and you’re going to end up doing some serious thinking about what time is.
10. Let’s all agree to stop clapping between solos, start clapping between movements, and take it easy with the standing ovations.
11. It’s funny when a nonprofit starts acting like “growth” is important, because the people on its board are capitalists. A nonprofit is not supposed to grow, except incidentally. It is supposed to follow its mission. Similarly it is possible for an individual to be nonprofit in a capitalist context. Many of my friends are this way. They have a mission and they behave with relative consistency according to that mission. We don’t aim at profit. We hope, perhaps, that profit will find us.
12. RIP Tony Conrad. This must be the most intense Plagal cadence I’ve ever heard.
• “Moon River” is a great enough song that it makes you want to drop everything and watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is not a great movie. Alternate argument: “Moon River” is such a great song that it can carry a flawed movie all by itself. Alternate argument: Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a great movie, but not a good one.
• “Country Roads” is inescapable, irrepressible, undeniable; but listening to John Denver sure makes you want to do those things (escape, repress, deny), because the performance is just so overwhelmingly square. Clarification: I actually kind of love this song. But ohhh, every bar of that chorus, beats two and three just last forever.
• Comparison: Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Now, this song is questionable; but unquestionably, it is not square. Here is a drummer who knows how to play some quarter notes. Wikipedia research uncovers his name—Paul Garrison—but not much else.
• Beach Boys: unassailable. Takes over the room.
• Rod Stewart “Have I Told You Lately”: how is it possible that I did not know this was a Van Morrison song? Stewart’s cover appeared only four years after the original. This live version from MTV is unbelievable. (I mean that literally—not in the colloquial of sense of “unbelievably good”—just simply unbelievable.) Look at him work that mic. Those GESTURES. And the GUITAR SOLO. And the FASHION CHOICES. And the fucking FLOWERS. Unbelievable.
• Above thoughts perhaps explain why I’m no longer able to productively work at coffee shops.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts