The "How" of "Why" I Write Music

Cultural Studies Colloquium
UNM Art Museum
12:00 PM, Wednesday April 10, 2002

I hope you don't mind my reading this text. I've included almost a half hour of music in what follows and if I stray too much chances are there won't be a timely end of my talk. And, as you will hear, time is of the essence in my work, if not my life.

I gave a short presentation on modernism and post-modernism in music for last year's Cultural Studies Colloquium. After the talk, Diana Robin approached me and said something to the effect of "I think that hearing your music speaks to these issues more than what you presented" or something like that. What I had done basically was present the current scholarly views on the subject, using the New Grove dictionary of Music as my guide. In other words, I had researched the subject as a scholar and presented my results. What Diana proposed was something else altogether; the notion that my compositional work somehow embodied what I was talking about better than what my research had uncovered. This intrigued me as an artist because I don’t think that way when I compose. To me the key is necessity and it is rooted simply in my sense of writing music that, for me at least, needs to exist. That this might somehow resonate in a way that has relevance to scholars and others interested in Cultural Studies may seem self-evident to this audience. But I honestly had never given it a thought. I was too busy writing to have time to then think too much about what I had written.

The opportunity this talk has given me to do so further problematizes the situation. I realized that I was dealing with something Adorno writes about in his Philosophie der Neuen Musik, where the modern composer writes out of a necessity that is determined by the materials that are chosen. And that the only necessary music is written in alienation from "culture," meaning that, or at least in my view, the isolation of the composer is the result of a society that doesn’t want such music, and that this isolation is the only means by which a society gets what it needs rather than what it wants. Adorno thought that paying attention to such things during the creative process actually assures that the results will be what the audience wants rather than what it needs. Engagement of this sort would actually diminish the work’s power by placing the composer/artist in a role that better suits the role of critic/audience: "What do they want? What should I write so that I give them what they want?" etc.

I think I agree with that but worry that continuing along these lines would accomplish exactly what Adorno thinks happens to compositions that pay attention to such things. And while I am insatiably curious about the world around me, when I write, I try to become what the composer Morton Feldman saw as prerequisite: "the artist deep in thought." Something happens to me in that place and the two pieces you'll hear today are the result of long periods of time where I've been able to write something as a result of being there, listening to what I hear, and then writing it down.

The first piece you'll hear is called Blindness. It was written as a result of a commission from Robert Van Sice, a well-known marimba soloist who claimed he was looking for music for the marimba that didn't fall into the typical clichés of marimba compositions. What constitutes a cliché in this regard is obviously beyond the scope of this talk; however, suffice it to say, Bob had heard that my music didn't fall into such categories and, as a result, in 1991 he asked me to write him a piece. I was pretty up-front with him about my concerns. At the time, I had a real problem with pitch and was writing experimental pieces that, if they used pitches at all, used them in non-conventional ways, one example being my piece Decline of the West for heavy metal band which uses pitches that are simply derived from the title: D, E, C, F. By 1992 I would write the following opening lines to my piece Metaphysics: "Music is our enemy; because time is our enemy." Music, for me, at least in how it typically is written and heard, was becoming a problem. How would I then write a piece for an instrument that not only is rooted in pitch, but fixed, tempered pitch with no possibility of alteration whatsoever?

The following summer, I received a large RAC grant so that the marimbist Steve Chavez and I could visit Guatemala, listen to Guatemalan marimba music, and bring a marimba doble back so that we could play the music we'd heard. An important aside here is that my problem with pitch was compositional, having to do with what I wrote rather than what I listened to. I loved and continue to love traditional Mexican and Guatemalan marimba music-all rooted, by design, in standard European pitch.

The idea of Blindness began during that trip to Guatemala. To speak of it too much would over-determine your experience of it. Instead let's hear and see it performed by Erica Jett. What I do with many of my pieces is write texts that accompany rather than explain the music. And at this point, it makes sense to read you that text:

What do you do when you are lost-away from all forms of familiarity that keep you feeling safe? I thought of this piece while in Guatemala, where the marimba is a cultural icon, beauty, in the midst of cultural oppression. What then are pitch relationships if not a form of cultural oppression? What is the marimba without pitch relationships? Robert Blyth in a compilation of Haiku wrote: "The responsibility of the artist is to hide beauty." The marimba is so beautiful. Guatemala is so beautiful. Beauty enables us to sleep and dream. Time to wake up. And seeÉ

(play blindness)

It took me an additional three years to complete Blindness. I finished it in Aachen during one of the darkest, dreariest, rainiest winters I've ever spent in Germany. Bob Van Sice was living in Belgium at the time, less than two hours away. And although he says he performed it in Birmingham, England, I'm not sure I believe him. In any case, I'll say a few things about the piece without trying to explain it. I like mystery and remember a lecture I heard that winter in Aachen by a brilliant Americanist who, using Lacan's theories, was able to fully explain some of the work of Dali. For me, the explanation killed the art. I'll try not to do that here.

The pounding out on the marimba's end pieces is morse code. The beautiful patterns that are found in the middle of the piece are semaphore signals. The text Erica speaks is "dreaming while awake," something I picked up while reading Norman O. Brown, whose work I greatly admire. Language and culture are at play in Blindness, the fact that we don't understand what the piece is communicating because it speaks in languages we don't likely use often enough to recognize, and, even if we do, the context obscures its meaning. I think this is why I started the piece in Guatemala and ended it in Germany, two places where I was treated as a cultural outsider-because I was one. I find it interesting (and mysteriously so) that I tried to write a piece that obscured the marimba's beauty and ended up writing what I think, at least as it is performed by Erica, is a beautiful piece.

It was during my year in Germany that my "experimental period" came to an end. I didn't know that at the time but I do now. The last piece from that period is Written on the Body for musicians and dancers, a piece that has yet to be performed because of technological problems that weren't solvable at the time but are now and that presently awaits my having the time and energy to do so now that those problems are no longer problems. The musical sounds of the piece are the paired heartbeats of dancer/musicians as heard through earpieces that each musician wears. The musician plays those paired heartbeats in real time. Images of the bodies of each musician and dancer are projected at the speed of their respective heartbeats. The version in preparation uses two pairs of performers who are already working on the score. The photographs are done. All that waits is the money to pay for the microphones, earpieces, and transfer of slides to digital images that can be projected at heart-rate speed. I got the title of the piece from Jeannette Winterson's book, Written on the Body. Although I wrote the piece before naming it, I was so impressed by the way one of the characters describes his/her dying lover's body, without symbolism but instead in concrete, outright medical terms that then inspire both love and desire, that I decided to name my piece, an attempt at taking an idea and turning it into a physically felt, heard and seen bodily reality, after a book that I thought shared a similar motivation. I hope to hear and see it someday soon.

I talked a lot about the body in the early 90s. But my own was, quite frankly, falling apart. That's another story for another time. But what I will say here is that there was really no connection between what I was talking about and what was actually happening in my work and my life. Written on the Body was an attempt to change that artistically. Two of the topics of my talk, Listening and Necessity, have already been mentioned and these two are a constant in all my work. But getting my mind and body together took something else-not the artist deep in thought, operating in an intellectual vacuum, but instead physically manifested during walks.

Amazingly, in all the time I spent studying Thoreau, in preparation for a book I was writing about John Cage that included a chapter on the connections between the two, I hadn't read the essay Walking. Or if I had, I hadn't paid attention to what now is a central passion of mine. Here's what he writes at the beginning of the essay: "I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who have understood the art of walking, that is, of taking walks,-who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte-Terre, to the Holy LandÉ"

He continues: "they who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean." And finally, "this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea."

I loved Thoreau from the moment I re-read his work as an adult. But I read what he wrote rather than lived what he experienced. I "sat still in a house all the time" reading and writing like crazy. Blindness, Written on the Body, and all the pieces before it come from a place of quiet reflection, from a mind detached from its own body. I just now remembered a gripping and powerful scene in the Coen Brothers film Barton Fink where John Goodman's character, carrying a double-barrelled shotgun, comes up the elevator of a hotel where he lives and where he has befriended an artist/writer played by John Turturro. "I'll show you the life of the mind" he yells at Turturro as he blows the heads off of two policemen who are trying to apprehend him. That scene shocked some life into my mind I can tell you that.

When I returned from Germany in 1994 I started walking for health reasons, a practice that has continued to grow and develop beginning at about the same time I was commissioned by the saxophonist Carrie Koffman to write a piece. I agreed and began writing a piece of music influenced by the 116th Canto of Ezra Pound. The title of the piece I'll talk about next, "a little light, in great darkness," is a line from that Canto which begins as follows:

"Came Neptunus
his mind leaping
like dolphins,
These concepts the human mind has attained.
To make Cosmos-
To achieve the possible-
Muss., wrecked for an error,
But the record
the palimpsest-
a little light
in great darkness."

This section was what initially got my mind leaping, the acknowledgement of failure, but also the sense that failure recorded might, in fact, be in the nature of artistic greatness. I like these lines too:

"I have brought the great ball of crystal;
who can lift it?
Can you enter the great acorn of light?
But the beauty is not the madness
Tho' my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere."
And then finally that famous ending:
"To confess wrong without losing rightness:
Charity I have had sometimes,
I cannot make it flow thru.
A little light, like a rushlight
to lead back to splendour."

I fell in love with this poem in 1995 and, by chance, I visited the Cimitero di San Michele in Venice that summer and found Ezra Pound's grave. Here's what I wrote during the visit: "Ezra Pound's grave in Venice: a big plant; single; tall; growing ever upward. Growth equals coherence. The piece's coherence: a little light in great darkness. Must come strictly from an exemplification of growth. How do plants grow? The plant, a living symbol placed at the spot where Pound after dying is and the method by which I make the saxophone solo grow. The solo (light) will equal coherence; growth: by nature not intellect, not willed but biologically and inherently growing. The wind accompaniment will be the material that by observation, and singly, doesn't cohere. A mass of information, all willful; but further to find a way to make the darkness equal to the light necessary to see (and hear) the light. Its coherence must never seem lesser because of its lack-something and nothing must need each other to keep on going. Not opposites but parallel paths-however the light steps out of the darkness, of tragedy at the end even though it needs the darkness to do so."

I forgot I'd even written this until finding it again, after I'd finished writing the piece. Is it, in fact, what I did when writing "a little light, in great darkness?" Yes and no. But as Thoreau once wrote, "Yes and no are lies." It's a mystery to me except for one thing: the walks.

All the music you hear in "a little light" comes from my experiences walking. I had decided to write down nothing that hadn't come to me during a walk. Most of those walks happened during my time in Germany. The opening horn solo (and all the pitches in the outer sections of the piece) comes from a crucial walk in the Sch™nbucherwald just outside Dettenhausen, a small village near T'bingen.

An excerpt from a letter I wrote Burton Hatlen, a poet who teaches at the University of Maine, best completes the story of "a little light" which will be played today in a CD version that accurately presents the timings of the piece and, as a result, will be the first public hearing of the work as I actually wrot it:

"Last summer I returned to Italy, visiting Ezra Pound's daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz in Merano and once again going to the gravesite of Pound. I was stunned to discover that the original plant, which as you may know was gigantic in 1995, had died when Pound's companion Olga Rudge passed away and was buried alongside him. As it turns out, I had seen the large plant only a short while before it was gone. The plant that replaced it was very slight in comparison-very young in other words. (Show picture of plant) I used that younger, newer plant (which I photographed in great detail) as a way of structuring a central moment in the piece I wrote that now includes a woodwind quintet accompaniment. I finished the outer two-thirds of the piece while living in Europe last year. (show picture of plant turned into score) The part I couldn't finish was the middle, which I began to realize required my entering the wilderness and singing, simply writing down the melody I found while being there. Lots of woods in Europe but nothing that really felt like the wilderness. I came back to New Mexico somewhat dejected about that until I realized that the wilderness was my own home.On recommendation of a friend I went to Lama, New Mexico, a sacred place that had experienced a very serious forest fire that devastated the community. As I drove into the area that was becoming more and more remote I noted that there was new growth everywhere, similar to the existence of the new plant among the dead in Venice. But to my enormous surprise, the dead burnt trees were still standing, reminding me of nothing else than that living plant growing out of Pound's dead body, the inspiration of the piece in the first place. I got out of my car at that very spot-the melody came to me in an instant. All I had to do was write it down."

(show trees)

Here is the text that accompanies this piece:

no more
idealism grounded in the tragic
"a little light in great darkness"
a plant, now dead
growing out of Ezra Pound's grave
the idea, an inspiration
another now taken its place
the experience, you can hear it

a melody heard
among burnt dead trees
by the wind blowing
thank God I'm alive
I thought, no

and wrote it down.

(play "a little light.")

So there's the how. The why is both intentionally and unintentionally a mystery. It's my sincere hope that it remains that way. I'd hate to someday have a scholar do to me what my friend in Aachen, using those Lacanian analytical techniques, did to Dali. But then that job is up to people like you. All I can do is keep listening and walking. And see if some music results.