Everyone, but mostly I am writing for Christie and for my Dad, because they--you--will find this post tucked away into the corner of my website, either on your own or because I'll no doubt tell you it's there shortly after finishing it. I should say right away that I am grateful that you read what I write and listen to what I make, that you seem to seek it out beyond what your spousal or parental roles require. That means a lot to me. And I don't want to try your patience by going on and on, but the day after feels like a lit fuse.
I come to the page to make sense of it; whenever I feel this impulse to write I write myself into a place that feels surprising, that sometimes even constitutes insight. It's almost the form; begin, and the ending reveals itself through the process. I have doubts about that form today. By today I mean two days later, Veteran's Day, because it has taken this long to say anything at all. Sitting with grief, not bending grief into a formula for action or transformation. Taking stock of grief, measuring it, getting to know it. Living inside of it because it is vast.
I wonder immediately if it's fair to call this grief. My life will change, but I won't get deported and my marriage won't be attacked. No one is going to carve a swastika onto our front door. A furious electorate rose up against 'the other' but I don't think it is talking about me. I am a liberal university professor but at this point the crosshairs aren't on my forehead. Maybe soon, but "maybe soon" does not feel like entitlement to grieve.
And yet. The physiology is grief. My eyes burn and I feel like I've been crying for days. I was sure this wouldn't happen. Not because of polls, either; when I filled in my ballot, literally when the pen touched the page, I felt this incredible solidarity with others who were doing the same and I was dead sure we would lift each other up. I knew it. It is hard to let go of something that you know in your bones. Maybe it's impossible.
That's something to grieve. The radical transformation of the known, the way we have to hear it in reverse. I talk to my students about this. Hear that beat drop? Hear how the thing you were feeling before, in the part of you that processes time in music, is actually not what you thought at all? This new event radically recontextualizes the understanding you thought you had. That's what this is. I am processing this in reverse. I am thinking of how much I didn't see.
These moments can galvanize what we believe. But right now, in this expanse of mourning, it is showing me what I don't believe any more.
Yesterday in the convention hall, after the exhibition area closed, the drumming stopped and it was quiet. We were leaving the floor and Michael Burritt started playing a marimba at one of the booths, with soft mallets, a piece he is going to premiere tonight. My friend Robert wrote it, and so he stopped to listen. I stopped with him, and soon others were doing the same, all standing together around a marimba placed there to sell marimbas. At a point in the piece Michael starts to whistle. The contract--I am playing a marimba piece, mallets on bars--gets torn up in that moment, but we are offered a new awareness, an enlargement of what we thought was happening.
It can work that way, too, out of making an offering. I will play this music. We will listen. We are holding each other up, and then, together, we get to rewrite the terms.
I want to rewrite these particular terms somehow. That might look like opposition. I expect it does. But I hope that opposition aims at a radical reframing of our understanding of each other. A way to absorb this moment not as the last move the artwork makes, but as a conceit, a provisional understanding that we will get to un-know, at a moment of expansion yet to come. Changing of terms. Breaking of contract. Not pushing the pendulum but smashing the clock.
Saturday we drove to Minneapolis and watched a cyclist get hit by a car. We were 10 feet away. It easy could have been our car putting someone in critical condition. Then we immediately tried on Warby Parker glasses. The human condition is wholly, wholly insane.
Now Orlando. So I sign petitions and share them on Facebook, and give money to Everytown. There has to be something else to do. Some other way. Write about it. Scream about it. Convince people. There is no moral value in doing nothing. But it's so much easier to throw up my hands in disgust because NOTHING CHANGES. Someone said Sandy Hook was the turning point. Once we accepted that, we would accept anything. Let's not.
First off, don't worry. There's nothing tragic going on over here. In fact I am becoming more and more keenly aware of the abundance in my circumstances and in the world generally.
But I have been thinking about The Tragic Gap, an idea I encountered in a book by Parker Palmer. The rock and hard place alternative. Sitting between them until a third way opens.
This is bending my mind in the best possible way. So many decisions, or even just FEELINGS, hunches, statements of purpose, feel so either/or in my head, and now I have language for what it means to see that, hold both possibilities in the moment, and wait. I say that here to mark this occasion, and because my experiences of clarity are often followed by experiences of forgetting.
It’s Veteran’s Day and I’m flying to San Antonio. That would not be relevant except: a woman boarded the plane wearing a picture pin of a young man in a military uniform. I have no idea what this means. Except I maybe do. Did she lose a son? If so, that son has/had a younger brother, also on the plane, and a father, trailing behind managing the bulkier bags.
I found out after the fact that, while my brother was in Iraq, my father thought about attending a funeral for a fallen marine, quite a drive from my parents’ house. My mom was glad he ultimately decided against making the trip. She said he wouldn’t have made it home.
I called my brother this morning, as I always do on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. I never know what to say. “I’m thinking of you and I hope you have a good day” is the standard. There is a lot more to say, but it’s all so convoluted that I go mute.
My mom and dad flew home yesterday, and my brother came back from Iraq two times. It’s like we just missed being the family that boarded a little bit after me, by a day, maybe by an inch. From his stories I know it was inches. He could hear bullets whipping by. Not the shots. The bullets, the way they stir up the air when they are very, very close to you.
Polite phone calls and no picture pins. Moving along, attending conferences, one foot in front of the other. As I write this, Delta Airlines is saluting veterans over the intercom. We all applaud. They have a small token of their appreciation that they’ll be passing around throughout the cabin. A wing pin to put next to the photograph? She’s at my row with a basket of chocolates. The wrappers say “Remember Our Veterans. Nov. 11th,” and have circular stars and stripes, red white and blue design. Made only with Belgian chocolate.
What are you going to do when you get to that row, though? Give that family three pieces of only-Belgian chocolate, one for each survivor? It’s distinctly possible that the young man is away fighting, not dead. I could look up what this gesture, the picture pin, actually means, duly diligent. Something about the way they carried themselves, though, played into my morbid fantasy. Going forward, getting to their seats with “quiet resolve” and “fortitude” and “courage” and carrying a deep palpable sadness.
The man who drove me to the airport has lived outside of Northfield, Minnesota his whole life. He said he was “too stupid to leave.” No wedding ring. We listened to sports radio the whole way up, UofM just having hired a new coach who I gather had something to do with the “defense kids” because he now wants to spend more time with the “offense kids,” per the press conference. I picture this man all alone watching football in the frigid winter. I imagine that he is lonely and sad. I imagine that this young man in a picture on a pin is dead. I have a strong It Will Be Ok impulse in me. Sometimes I let it drop, and see sadness and pain all around.
For every “click like and share if you like the flag” there’s someone who has endured a loss I cannot imagine, or someone trying to absolve themselves of the guilt of survival, tragedy-free for the moment. It is this way in war and it is this way all the time. And once in awhile we make partial contact with that abyss, the one we cover in layers of It Will Be Ok, Everything Happens For A Reason. And you start inventing stories about sad taxi drivers watching football in the snow, or a family of four now a family of three. Tell me it happens for a reason, make an intercom announcement and then pass out chocolate. Balls of yarn to play with while the world burns. And we are the lucky ones, on the conqueror side of the line. Maybe “lucky” isn’t the word.
And yet. I know I’ll keep telling stories and keep making things, Tommy Cosh singing Mandalay, a line from a poem. Going down not fighting. Going down in song. I can’t articulate why and how that has moral value, I can’t monetize or quantify it. But I know it, because I want it so badly to be true.
Which reminds me of something I heard: if you have a band twitter account, and you haven't posted this week, you don't have a band twitter account. I say that not to value the sentiment but rather to mark the occasion of finally moving past it. And yet I am blogging! But it's not to "get the word out," it's to engage in the practice of marking time.
This weekend we do a video shoot (we=the mighty Mobius Percussion, the wildly talented Evan Chapman, and I) for a new piece of mine, Symmetry and Sharing. For a percussion quartet (the aforementioned mighty Mobius) that happens to sing, and happens to have SATB voices, by some miracle.
Meanwhile I am learning not to write something every time I'm asked. Instead I am focused in whole on F7s#4. Mysterious, no?
I wanted to share the remarkable work of the inaugural class of So Percussion Summer Institute composers. I'm embedding video of each piece below, in the order in which they were read at the close of this summer's institute. It's unbelievable to me that So were able to read these so blisteringly well with precious little time with the scores.
I'm honored to have mentored these six composers over the course of developing these pieces, and grateful to So for pulling me in.
Why is it that in dreams we can't do the simplest things? (Dominic Coles)
Blue, Green, Purple, and Pink (Steven Stavropoulos)
Bright, Loud, Weird, and Delicate (Daniel Allas)
Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (Ian Michael Clarke)
The Creation of Thunder (Christopher Poovey)
What You Want and What You Get (Lonnie Jordan)
My job is to water the garden.
I root for the underdogs,
the transplants we probably shocked
with cold and rain
when we moved them out of the guest room,
hopeful that they could thrive in the yard.
It's not that they're dying exactly,
except for the parsley, which is definitely dying.
More that they're frozen in time
snapshots of what they were on their last day indoors.
There's a metaphor in this, I suppose, and I remember
my father choking up in my dorm room
and down the hall as he rushed away from me
on that first day of my own transplanting.
For his sake I hope I've taken root,
that I tower over the child he left
in haste one end of summer.
My body in decline,
I try otherwise to grow
and hope he can see it
as he takes stock in his own backyard.
His mother controls their garden these days,
lording over the flowers and herbs
with an old watering can,
while I take to the yard with a hose or measuring cup,
envisioning late summer salads
tomatoes in jars,
to feed my budding family from the small plot of earth
in my charge,
hoping we didn't misread the frost charts,
or sever roots
while thinning out the sprouts we grew from seed.
I'm working on a new piece. I wrote some very anxious lines, that will turn into sound, that go like:
The night I found out you were coming
I walked across the street for groceries,
then fried eggs on the narrow stove in the apartment
where we planned to live until you could crawl
over to the drawers or the air conditioner,
find a pair of scissors, or press a button and dissolve
the oppressive radiator heat
to draw us together under blankets in our sleep.
Better that than finding a pair of scissors
or some powder under the sink
designed to break another nest apart and,
like a good worker,
carry it back on your body to the place where we sleep
and bury us all.
I seal kitchen cabinets with elaborate straps and adhesives,
your grandfather builds a staircase gate with the cat in mind,
but today at the doctor
a boy who hit his head was throwing up in a plastic bag,
and I wonder when our barriers
against sharps and poisons
will give out.
Inspired by Deveryminou's Vegan Chopped submission, and by food blogging in general, I decided to do something I have never done before: to think--and write--a little about the process of making something and actually to show the stages. Think of it as live-tweeting composition, except it's not live and I'm not tweeting.
I'm working through a new piano piece for Kate Campbell. The initial idea was to do a kind of Jerry Lee Lewis thing, though it would be significantly masked. Maybe that was just an excuse to raid PREx for old records. Which I did. And then dropped the concept. Like so:
This was the initial marking of the page. Note values and rhythms mean close to nothing. It was more an idea of moving through a "grip" on the keyboard and activating different registers.
Then the charge became finding a kind of propulsive skeleton to hang things off of, which I did here. The thought was for a kind of impressionistic language and gestural vocabulary, but I wanted it to be well in rhythm. Can't really out-Debussy or -Ravel Debussy or Ravel, so I thought I could bring in a different-than-usual profile for this sort of language.
Pushing that led here. Which follows from the other ideas, I think. It intensifies the idea of giving the material a profile in time. But the 7/8 thing felt a bit contrived, so I started thinking about "normalizing."
Which I did here, to a degree. 6/8 but with anticipations for all of the high notes, which are just the tops of the chords that used to be two-handed in earlier versions but are now arpeggiated in just the right hand, expressed over a few beats horizontally instead of in a single moment vertically. It comes from rolling the chords. If you're going to roll them quickly, low to high, then maybe try "rolling" them slowly and high to low?
And then I started seeing all of the opportunities to connect the left-hand line while introducing a kind of rhythmic antagonism, three against two (but with anticipations, to throw off the three.)
I thought the duple left hand was a bit clunky, though, so the next step was to pull that element out. The result was a kind of invention-sounding thing. Which I liked for a few hours. But then...
I realized that the beats had shifted in that last version. so I moved everything over to make things more intuitively related to the time signature. But the way this was just SO 6/8 started to feel clunky as well. The way out seemed to be returning to that three against two idea, but not dividing it so neatly between the hands. What if they're changing roles?
Which got me here, which is where I am now. I'm sold enough on the idea to write about it as an arrival point, but I could have said that about any number of stages that, in retrospect, I was only passing through.
There's something about this compulsive rewriting, or rather of writing into an idea, that I really like. It happened this way for fall down five times get up six and I remember being strangely proud of having persisted through a million drafts of the first few measures. I also remember that the compulsion seemed to be building potential energy for a very different sort of writing later on in the piece, that the overproduction seemed to crack open a more intuitive composing that didn't require all of that labor and rethinking and second guessing. So maybe I am setting myself up for that. I'll report back.
There's no multimedia today. I could post mockups of Electrobot, I suppose, but I'm going to hold out for some real documentation of the first performance at the end of July. Besides, this isn't really a post about new musical/artistic happenings per se, more a post about life happenings (or nonevents that feel like something more) that of course encompass new projects, but those projects are maybe symptomatic of a new or at least refreshed attitude and outlook.
Writing is sometimes like the cartoon image of plugging a dam, stop up one leak and another blows through and soon you're out of fingers and toes. I say that because now, instead of writing about a psychological resetting I want to write about whether making things is the symptom of rejuvenation happening elsewhere or its cause. Neither/nor. More like a feedback loop. Maybe that's the way to think of it: outputs wired to inputs, always, and living well means negotiating the signal. Sometimes the signal gets so hot, though, that you have to pull the plug. And somehow being greeted by DADADADADADA when I got home, along with laughter and a gigantic eight-toothed smile didn't overheat the system. I'm building capacity, it would seem. And now onto the next: a set of new songs for Wassaic, which has a new website (the Festival, not the town). It's a lot to commit to physical memory in six weeks, so there's really no time to waste. Then I get working on the DEFINITIVE audio version of The Exchange, which will then become to definitive video version of the same. And then MORE MORE MORE before the school year starts, taking care to keep the feedback under control.