Author: lukegullickson

April: Texas, New York, and the Oppositions

In the early evening of April 22 I sat depleted outside an apartment house in Red Hook, Brooklyn. From that stoop I could see the choices and oppositions of my life laid out like they were chalked on the sidewalk. Sometimes it feels like life is a tug of war—between east and west, life and career, social and personal, work and play, urban and rural, composer and singer-songwriter, professional and academic, serious and jocular, art and business, collaboration and solitude—and I can’t seem to choose my side.
April had been a rapid-fire reunion, a gonzo retrospective. It was like one of those broadly staged final scenes in Wes Anderson’s films where all the characters are seen together at once, their relationships’ dynamics laid bare. In just three weeks, I had visited most of my important places and seen many of my important people. I set foot in New Mexico, Colorado, and Iowa; I played shows in Chicago, Austin, New York City, and at my alma mater Illinois Wesleyan University. After April 26, I had no further gigs on my calendar. Plans, but no dates.

This happens to freelancers. We build a run of work, and then the run ends. It can be a difficult transition. I think of my days in theater, when the closing of a show would effectively disband a group of friends. At the end of each season, we were sent back to the drawing board; professionally, creatively, and socially, we had to reconstitute ourselves.

One time, during one of these reconstitution phases, a friend encouraged me with the words of his teacher: “Growing into yourself as an artist requires lots of time feeling lost.”
Here is Rebecca Solnit, the poet laureate of being lost:

That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost. The word “lost” comes from the old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army…I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.

We disband our armies, we find ourselves alone. We find ourselves.

Many creative people experience their first disbandment, their first dramatic, forced reconstitution, when they leave school. Such was the case for me when I left Austin in 2009, after completing my master’s degree. I’ll borrow the idiom again, abused as it is, because it is so terribly precise: my two years in Texas were when I found myself. I left town as soon as I finished the degree because I felt I had to keep moving forward, but when I landed in Chicago that fall, I immediately missed Austin’s atmosphere. I have heard Austin called “the world’s largest retirement community for young people”; no similar description applies to Chicago. There are swarms of creative twenty-somethings there; most of them work from nine to five at Groupon. There is bohemian culture, but it doesn’t feel endemic. Office jobs feel endemic. Commuting feels endemic. Sleet feels endemic.

I eventually found collegiality and inspiration in Chicago’s new music community, but in late 2009 I felt a bit like the narrator of Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues,” the best song ever written about wishing one was in Austin. I walked the neighborhoods, kicked the pavement under granite skies with cold winds slipping between me and my jacket. Chicago didn’t need me. The city is a vast, fascinating patchwork of deep, disparate stories, but it’s stretched over a reservoir of such infinite sadness. It hides it well; the patchwork holds. But Austin was warmer. It felt like it had some holes, and I could find my way in.

My favorite composer these days is Morton Feldman, whose late music I find unimaginably brave. This spring, after the April fury wound down, I discovered that WQXR had posted a complete recording of the FLUX Quartet performing his String Quartet no. 2 (1983)—that’s the one that’s six hours long. As mentioned, I had no further gigs on the books, so it was time to conduct some business, and one day I dialed up the Feldman as I set to an afternoon of emails and tasks. The piece susurrated in the background, but every once in a while it leapt out and grabbed me by the spleen. It sounds like a field René Magritte might have painted, the grass glowing midafternoon green, the sky above black and starry. It’s like you’re walking a wide meadow of rolling hills, of night flowers, and occasionally you find an old wooden trap door set into the hillside. It could go anywhere. But actually you don’t open it. You keep walking the meadow instead, for hours and beautiful hours.

Feldman’s quartet lay over my emailing like so much diaphanous cloth, and in it I heard the magic of the everyday. I used to be terrified of routines, always coveting more adventure, but I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of assembling a life durable enough to make sense multiple days in a row. We don’t always see the magic in this, but as artists we simply have to trust in its presence, beneath our daily rituals, in all of our work, in the revision, the tedium, and the suspicions of futility.

I hadn’t seen much routine during April. A few weeks previous, on April 9, my bandmates and I landed in Austin a few days in advance of the Fast Forward Austin new music festival. We had a lot of rehearsing to do. We had been separated for most of the previous four months, and we were preparing two separate sets for the weekend: one with piano for Fast Forward Austin, another without piano for a bar show the previous night. A number of friends and collaborators were in town for the festival, and there were meetings and reunions to balance with our work.

Grant Wallace Band in Austin

Grant Wallace Band performing in Austin, TX.

Our subsequent New York trip, the very next weekend, was a wilder whirlwind. Ben and I landed on Friday and caught the new Anthony Braxton opera. On Saturday, Elliot Cole and I split a show at Spectrum. On Sunday Ben and I spent some time with Elliot in the studio, contributing some singing to an emergent track. On Monday we heard Bearthoven rehearse our pieces at New Amsterdam Records’ warehouse space in Red Hook, then walked to the Fairway by the water and ate grocery store sushi in the sun.

Rehearsing with Bearthoven

Rehearsing with Bearthoven at New Amsterdam Records.

That night, Ben and I heard TIGUE and So Percussion at Le Poisson Rouge. I was electrified by this show. Chris arrived from Chicago that night, and the three of us walked the streets of midtown until late, talking band talk, scheming schemes.

TIGUE performing at LPR

TIGUE performing at LPR.

Our show was the next day, at the New Amsterdam space. We found our way back to Red Hook and the apartment of Chris’s brother, Danny Fisher-Lochhead. Danny is a saxophonist and composer, and his place is just around the corner from New Amsterdam. We rehearsed, sound-checked, and returned to Danny’s place for burritos. I was so spent, I could barely socialize. This was the point when I removed myself to the stoop and admitted aloud that I felt totally empty. I was looking another reconstitution phase in the eyes. I had no home, no plan, and no way to unify the oppositions.
It hit me hard, that evening, that my work is in one place (the city) and my soul is someplace else (the west), and I don’t know what to do about it. The music in New York is so powerful, but I just don’t think I’m personally constituted to live there. In May I fled back west. Over the summer I’ll spend some time in Chicago with the band, play a few shows, and finish our album. We’ll be back in New York in early September, to play on the Resonant Bodies Festival. By then Ben will have moved to North Carolina; he recently accepted a teaching position at Appalachian State University. Chris is still working on his doctorate at Northwestern.
I used to feel, if one was very rural and ten was very urban, that I might someday be happy in some sort of three and a half. But I’ve lived one and ten in recent years, and it’s made me doubt that the middle, in America at least, can really share the benefits of either extreme. I grew up in a five-sized town and I didn’t hike mountains on my off days, nor did I have regular access to a standing, working community of world-class musicians. Subsequently I lived in Rocky Mountain National Park for four summers, then embedded in Chicago’s new music community for two years. I suspect that deepest life will always be in the ones and the tens. But I wish there were some way to live moderately.

I think again about Edward Abbey and our culture’s opposition of wilderness and civilization. The American environmental ethic has always been about extremes, about subjugating nature (see: Iowa, industrial agriculture) whenever we are not enshrining it (see: Colorado, national park system). Is there a model in which civilization and wilderness can coexist more fluidly?
The presently dominant code of wilderness travel is Leave No Trace: when passing through a wild area, one is instructed to “impact” it as little as possible. (Yes, you bury your excrement, and you also eat the nasty little food scraps from your dirty dishes rather than dispersing them on the ground or in a stream, and you find a spot for your tent where there isn’t any vegetation.) Isn’t “impact” a funny word? In environmentalism we are supposed to minimize it, in art we are supposed to maximize it. Isn’t there some way to live moderately?

A similar opposition plays between life and music. In America we have excised art from the daily flow of our lives, sequestered it to safe, respectful shrines built for its enjoyment and study (museums, concert halls, universities). We don’t play music with our kids as part of our social existence; rather, we buy them music lessons. And we are perpetually surprised to learn, to paraphrase the critic Dave Hickey, that in the special, clean spaces we set aside for culture, culture doesn’t work. Can’t life and art be hopelessly intertwined, every single day?

One and ten, life and art, work and play. Austin was all lifestyle to me, Chicago all career. The space is in New Mexico, the music is in New York. Do I have to pull myself back and forth so rapidly? It has become so exhausting. It is, to brandish the word of our era, unsustainable. Isn’t there some way to live moderately?

I think about Eric Holthaus. I don’t know if I can do this without flying, but I can try. I can try to slow down, travel with intention, stay for a while when I go, take trains instead of airplanes. Have you taken a train across the country? It’s so civil. You get treated like a human being, and no one is in a hurry: delays of multiple hours are not uncommon on long routes, and without our usual sense of entitlement toward punctuality, time takes on a different tint, and you sit and look out the window for hours as the land steadily changes and the light moves from east to west, from a glow to a blaze to a glow again before it disappears over the horizon, leaving you in limpid flowing darkness.

It’s like listening to Feldman’s second quartet. It rolls on and on.

Last August, a New Mexico friend came to visit me in Chicago. We used to work together as wilderness guides, and it was pleasantly incongruous to see him in the city. I even took him to his first new music concert. One day we went to the beach, sat and watched the waves of Lake Michigan.

“We talk about time like it’s money,” he said, his feet speckled with wet sand. “We ‘spend’ it, we ‘waste’ it. I wish we didn’t think of time as something we can gain or lose. We should just think of it as a shifting of light.”
Beach ending

March: Virginia and the Dancers

Mary Page Evans's Big Amherst Sky

Mary Page Evans’s Big Amherst Sky

In March I traveled through an unlikely southeastern snowstorm to spend the month at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. It’s a kind and peaceful place—far from the forceful, dramatic aura of my first formal residency at the Banff Centre, which sits at the confluence of two rivers surrounded on all sides by immense mountains. The VCCA won’t carry you to the terrifying brink of the sublime, but if you stay quiet for a few days, a little bird might land on your shoulder.

The center sits on a hillside from which little is visible but trees. Across the road is Sweet Briar College, a tiny school on an enormous property with miles of wooded trails. The setting fosters extended walks and quiet minds. The place itself almost disappears as your thoughts take the foreground. There is only you, and the work.

It was deeply dark the evening I arrived, the steep driveway covered with ice. I carried my bags into the residence. A group of people sat talking and drinking wine by the fireplace.

There is only you, and the work, and a host of wonderful artistic characters.

Something about the VCCA encourages quiet modesty; residents tend to be serious about their work and disinclined to pry into that of others, with the result that one can easily pass the first week of a residency without knowing anything about anyone’s art. You sit together at dinner and talk about the missing Malaysian Airlines plane or the new Wes Anderson film. It is only when someone plans an evening of presentations that you realize what deep, bizarre, and fabulous artistic worlds are clicking along behind all those closed white studio doors.

My favorite piece these days is Peter Garland’s first string quartet, In Praise of Poor Scholars (1986). Like the VCCA, this piece sneaked up on me. It pleased me with its superficial warmth and charm while setting to ravaging work on the walls of my subconscious. It wasn’t until about the fifth listen, when the final theme came pealing on, that I felt all the surging emotion beneath this music’s surface decorum and restraint. Suddenly I realized how linked it all is. The piece is a series of dances, flowing from one to the next; it takes a few listens to recognize that though the dance is continually changing, the dancers are always the same.
The first showing I attended at the VCCA featured paintings by Olive Ayhens and Markus Kircher. Olive is a New Yorker who paints incredibly detailed cityscapes in which everything seems about to rip apart with nervous energy. She has also spent time in Montana and Wyoming, and some of her paintings feature bears or buffalo descending on urban environments. She is at home with paint and less so with computers. One evening I helped her write a Facebook event page for a gallery event she was curating.

Olive Ayhens's Manhattan Rooftops

Olive Ayhens’s Manhattan Rooftops

Markus is an affable Austrian who paints a one-page piece every day in a large book. It’s already bound in there, then, and he has to accept it. The next day he paints another, on the back of the page, and so on. On a walk one day I encountered Markus returning from the Sweet Briar library. He was excited: he had borrowed Woody Allen’s Sleeper. I spotted a few ’90s rap albums in his jacket pocket.

Natasha Mell-Taylor is from Philadelphia. We chatted a number of times before I got around to asking about her work. “I mostly paint Godzilla,” she said. Natasha’s sense of humor reminded me of certain corners of my work with the Grant Wallace Band. She knows it’s funny that she paints Godzilla over and over, but she’s also completely serious about it.

Natasha Mell-Taylor's Prostitutes and Fashion Models meet GODzilla

Natasha Mell-Taylor’s Prostitutes and Fashion Models meet GODzilla

Shortly before departing, I met an ebullient septuagenarian named Mary Page Evans. We sat at the dinner table and talked about J.S. Bach and Dave Brubeck, two of her favorites, as she sipped red wine on the rocks. She studied music in college, and now she paints landscapes with a joyous embrace of color and texture. We share a birthday, April 24 (along with such luminaries as Willem de Kooning, Dave Volpe, Erik DeLuca, and Barbra Streisand). Mary Page lives in Delaware. She likes to paint clouds at Joe Biden’s house.

An abstract painter with a penchant for the geometric, Laura Young lives in my home state of Iowa and shows at my hometown’s Campbell Steele Gallery, where I’ve played piano a number of times. She also regularly visits New Mexico–to teach painting classes at a place called Ghost Ranch–so we had plenty to discuss. One rainy day in the lunch room, the topic of meditation arose. The unlikely international home of the Transcendental Meditation movement, Fairfield, Iowa, is also the site of one of Laura’s favorite galleries.

Laura Young's Structure III

Laura Young’s Structure III

A.K. Benninghofen writes short stories of snappy charm. She previously worked as an actor in New York and Los Angeles, and now lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She is almost uncomfortably similar to a certain ex-girlfriend of mine: they come from the same place, have parallel life stories, and speak with an eerily identical cadence. Late one warm afternoon, I sat in the gazebo listening to A.K. tell stories from her acting career. I thought about the old European doppelgänger myths.
One of my favorite characters, about whom I learned not enough at the time, was a writer named Jeffery Paine. He was reticent in groups, but turns out to be a prominent explainer of Eastern religious cultures to Western readers. He is working on a book about Crestone, Colorado, another unexpected spiritual center. He has spent a number of summers there and says it’s the only place he fits in, but he won’t consider moving full-time from his home base of Washington, D.C. “My abiding sin is indolence,” he told me.
That’s just a sampling, just a few of the wonderful artists I got to know in one little month. Such evanescent cohabitations of diverse creative personalities are among my greatest inspirations. I study these people’s life stories like Catholics study the lives of the saints. They teach me.

In the afternoons I set out for long walks and runs, along the road, down the hill, across the highway, and over to Sweet Briar to explore the network of trails. This sort of roving reminds me of certain childhood Saturday afternoons when I used to cross the street, walk through my neighbors’ backyards, and similarly drop into the woods. There were patches of forest near my family’s house that appeared to be unclaimed territory. Leaving the linear, programmed world of the video games I’d been playing inside, I entered a liminal, analog universe of sounds and smells. I’d drop into those woods, get away from the roads, walk awhile and emerge someplace else, surface in a park down the way or in the backyard of some house I’d never seen from that angle. There followed a delicious moment of recognizing the house and recasting my geographical understanding accordingly. I gained a different sense of the physical connections between things, a new experience of space, away from the grid of the streets. It wasn’t unlike walking the surface world of one of the old Mario side-scrollers and disappearing down a pipe to find another region opening, below and apart from the two-dimensional state in which I’d been proceeding.

I want music to make me feel like this, like I’ve dropped into another numinous dimension where I have access to new senses and unused potentials. I want to drop in and emerge somewhere else, linear connection uncertain. The Necks’ Open is like this; Morton Feldman’s late music is like this; Peter Garland’s first string quartet is absolutely like this. Garland walks you through a canyon, leaves you by yourself, but then you suddenly find yourself in a palace observing a stately dance. One moment is wispy and intimate, the next stentorian and communal. He throws you around in time (“Back to the 14th Century,” one tempo marking reads). I seek in my own music this special, steady non-linearity.

Evidently I also want life to make me feel like this. Because I keep moving around, as though attempting to simulate some manner of non-linear existence.

On one VCCA walk I was listening to a podcast called 99% Invisible. The episode in question involved a surprising find on Google Maps: a small island in Massachusetts labeled “Busta Rhymes Island.” With apocryphal place-names in mind, I proceeded down an afternoon-length Wikipedia rabbit hole, and by dinnertime I had a scheme for a cryptogeographical jazz album called Mountweazel Songs.

Lillian Mountweazel, you see, was a fictitious person included in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia as a copyright trap: if any other encyclopedia was discovered to have a Mountweazel entry, the NCE had evidence they’d been plagiarized. Lillian’s fabricators wrote her a fetching bio. She was a fountain designer and mailbox photographer by trade. Unfortunately she met a tragic end in 1973, in an explosion, while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.

So I poked around that afternoon and found nine nonexistent places. Some of them are fictional like Mountweazel, “paper towns” invented as copyright traps for atlases. Some are islands long charted but never conclusively found. Some used to exist but are now under the ocean. I wrote a little piece of music for each place. I love writing music about places. Even fake places.
I wrote them with a lovely, simple, and absolutely rigid morning ritual. I had breakfast early, went to my studio, played Bach for thirty minutes, meditated for ten, and then composed until about noon. My day thereafter was unstructured. Sometimes I’d stroll to Sweet Briar, drink coffee and attend to business matters. There is a little Starbucks on campus with a TV always blasting CNN, which was inevitably and interminably poring over the tragic and mystifying story of the Malaysian plane gone missing over the Indian Ocean. Various experts were engaged to speak about grieving, about closure, about relevant airplane and satellite technology, about the truly enormous size of said ocean. One anchor weighed the possibility that the plane had been sucked into a black hole. The passengers on the missing flight included a group of 24 artists and calligraphers, one of whom was vice-chairman of the Chinese Calligraphic Artists Association.

The coverage was yellow and the story was sad. I usually tried to tune it out, listening to Donny Hathaway Live, clicking videos my friends sent along, like this gem of Elliott Smith singing “Independence Day” with Brad Mehldau. Staying current with friends and colleagues.

I would practice later in the day, but not compose. I’ve found that I am most productive and happiest with that productivity when I respect composition by addressing it each morning, for a reasonable and bounded time, and then leaving it.

What I sought through this strict procedural geometry, in Mountweazel Songs with its little meters that shift back and forth by a single sixteenth and its musical patterns that repeat and repeat while always slightly changing, is a trait which, in the warm, wet vagueness of my mind, I call “Objectivity,” and which I can explicate no further within the partitions of logic—though I can admit that I see it in Schoenberg’s early piano music and Travis LaPlante’s solo improvisations, in Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles and Bartók’s Out of Doors, in the duet performances of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, in Ben Hjertmann’s Bicinium and Eric Malmquist’s Piano Sonata, in the warm swirls of Chris Cerrone’s Memory Palaceand of The Sea and Cake’s Oui, in Elliott Smith’s chord changes, in Captain Beefheart’s growls, in the crisp two-part harmonies of the Murphy Beds.

Douglas Preston’s book Cities of Gold recounts the author’s 1989 journey on horseback to trace the conquistador Coronado’s 1540 path across what is now Arizona and New Mexico. His companion was a painter named Walter Nelson. One night, Nelson explained how a tragedy in his life propelled him toward that which I so non-rigorously label Objectivity:

I realized at that point I wasn’t the only hurt person in the world…I’ll tell you, Doug, this is a hard thing for us to realize, being creative people…To ourselves, we are the greatest, most unbelievable person. To us. But actually we’re just one thing in billions of trillions of other little things out there. That’s what we really are. You have to realize that, and when you realize that, your creative work will start having a lot more validity…When you start realizing that you’re just one person among billions, the work that you do start producing, it can end up being unbelievable. It can actually deal with the unknown.

Objectivity: am I referring to the sensation of hearing music being made from outside one’s self?

When we leave ourselves behind in this way, our selfish doubts dissolve. In the period just after I finished my master’s degree, I would often lie in bed at the end of the day and wonder what the fuck I was doing, how I would ever survive, whether I was doing the right things to capitalize on my talents. Now I know the end of the day doesn’t matter: it’s the beginning that counts. At the beginning of the day, all of them, I am a musician. I just attend to music first. This way there can be no question. The artist residencies of my twenties taught me this discipline, taught me to play the long game, and in a way, these lessons saved my life.
My first formal residency was a ten-week stint at the Banff Centre in 2010. After three weeks it snowed and the temperature dropped to about twenty below, and for the remainder, I experienced a heavy bit of loneliness. I had left, in Chicago, a nascent professional network and a precarious girlfriend. To go to Banff and sit alone at the piano all day, I jeopardized my relevance in the former and irreparably kiboshed my relationship with the latter. That winter I read Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in which several pivotal scenes take place at the bottom of a well. We all visit such wells, the moments in our lives when we feel our efforts don’t matter and no one is paying attention. In Banff I sat in the well for two months, and I found, left to my own devices down there, that I was still a musician. In my lowest moments, I still wanted to write and play music. I don’t lie awake worrying anymore, because I know that when I wake up in the morning I’ll still be a musician. And that I’ll be fine.

Mary Page Evans's March Mountain #2

Mary Page Evans’s March Mountain #2

I left the VCCA on March 30, caught a ride to Charlottesville with a poet named Richard Foerster. Richard grew up in New York, went to grad school at UVA, and has held numerous residencies at the VCCA. He now lives in Maine. His poems are dense, viscous, ruminative. When he read them aloud to the group it was hard to follow the semantic thread, but easy and rewarding to slip into the sonic flow of his complex diction. A few days later I found a book of his poems in the VCCA library and paged through it, giving each idea the time it deserved. One expects a Maine poet to write about nature, and Richard does write nature poems, but they seem to really be about people and our caprices. Actually I suppose they are emphatically about nature, inasmuch as they beautifully recognize that people are nature.

Richard and I drove in the chill and rain and he told me about the loves of his life, the joys and the tragedies, the unexpected turns of fortune, the slow developments and the sudden transformations. He remarked a number of times on how much Charlottesville had changed. “There was nothing here before,” he said, once on entering a residential neighborhood on the south end of town and again passing through a faceless landscape of big-box stores on the way to the airport, from which I was scheduled to fly back to Albuquerque.

First, though, we grabbed a quick sandwich and a matinee of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is really about the same challenge I discussed in the previous essay, about maintaining a sense of art, a sense of decorum, and a belief in details, and the importance of all of this to civilization, even–especially–in the face of war. It’s a bit like Peter Garland’s first string quartet, isn’t it?
The Grand Budapest Hotel drops the viewer into the forest of a nested structure, beginning in the present day before jumping back to the 1960s and then settling down for most of the narrative in the 1930s. One of the narrators is an author who writes the story of the titular hotel. In the first and final scenes, a contemporary student holds the book at his grave. A monument is printed with his name: AUTHOR.

Just Author. Because he’s all of us who write something.

February: New Mexico and the Holes

Bootheel mountain
Driving south out of Albuquerque I felt the work streaming off my shoulders, my ambitions loosening their grip on my upper back muscles. The space opened before us, to the southwest the whispering Magdalena Mountains, to the southeast the yawning expanses of the Jornada del Muerto. This wide-open desert is still a blank spot on the map. Somewhere out there, early in the morning on July 16, 1945, a team of scientists detonated the world’s first atomic bomb. The U.S. government still owns 3,200 square miles of that desert as the White Sands Missile Range. Even for those who know New Mexico well, this space is a hole.
For ten years now, I have taken occasional road trips with my friend Jordan Stone. During college we crossed the West a few times in his Honda Civic Hybrid, filling in our knowledge of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, California, darkening the map with images and memories. Each time we depart for a trip I enter a special mental space where my thoughts can lengthen. The more I access this space, the more easily I’m able to find it.

For this trip we had rough plans to drive down to Silver City and spend a couple days hiking in the Gila Wilderness. It was February but warm enough to camp. New Mexico was in the grip of a deepening drought. The wildfire season had already begun, and everyone braced for a hot, dry summer.

Jordan and I have an enduring tradition of reading speculative science books to one another during long drives. On one trip we tackled Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and on another Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality, which explicates several theoretical models of parallel universes. (My favorite is a universe that exists practically tangent to our own, millimeters away but shifted through an infinitesimal physical dimension we cannot see.) For the present excursion we had packed Seth Lloyd’s Computing the Universe, which contends that the universe is a giant quantum computer. Cruising down I-25 south of Socorro, we read the opening chapter and worked to absorb some proper definitions of terms.

What is a computer? I suppose it is a thing that processes information. And what, pray tell, is information?

My favorite singer-songwriter these days is Will Oldham, who records under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy. In May 2013, I drove from Chicago to New Mexico listening to his album Master and Everyone (2003). It sounds like he took a dozen half-written love songs and left them out in the rain. Now they are pulpy, full of holes. But he adds nothing, just sings them as they are, down to the letter.

The first song, “The Way,” has a hole in its third verse. For two lines he plays without singing, and then he says, “Places you should be afraid / Into the river we will wade,” and goes right into the sparse chorus again: “Love me the way I love you.” What? Something has been omitted that would explain the metaphors. Instead they stand on their own, upright but ungrounded. The song drifts about two inches above the earth.

The title song has a hole in its second verse. The words just stop—“And like a bird freed from its cage, all night and all day I’ll play and sing…”—and two empty lines lead into the (again, sparse) chorus. It has the same musical structure as the previous verse, but lyrically, a hole.

The same occurs in “Lessons From What’s Poor.” Each verse ends with a hole. There is space enough for another line of lyrics, but he leaves it empty. I used to talk about “incomplete metaphors,” verbal symbols that don’t quite work, that intentionally leave things pendent. (Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde is a master class on this device.) Envision an abstract comparison of two sides, each reaching across the theoretical void toward the other. Into the gap between their fingertips we unleash our imaginations.
Driving over the Black Range west of Hillsboro, we listened to the initial episodes of the fiction podcast Welcome to Night Vale. Like Will Oldham’s songs, Night Vale has holes in it. Not just the hole under lane five in the fictional town’s bowling alley, which leads to a lost civilization, but a formal hole in the recurring narrative structure. At the apex of each episode’s action, the radio-host narrator “takes us to the weather.” A song plays, in full. It is always something different, by some indie artist or another, and it’s usually quite good. The drama halts during the song, but the conflict hangs in our minds, colors the music. The climactic events “occur” while we wait, and by the end of the song all that remains is denouement. The narrator fills us in, in the past tense, on what has proceeded during the pause. Like Oldham’s songs, these stories withhold key details.

We arrived in Silver City and headed to Little Toad Creek Brewery for refreshments and conversation. The next day, after some hiking and exploring, we met a friend-of-a-friend named Kyle Durrie. Kyle is a letterpress artist who runs a fabulous studio in Silver. Her partner, Dustin Hamman, is a touring musician and general raconteur. We had a look around Kyle’s studio and talked by the campfire in their backyard. The couple had generously offered us accommodations for the evening in their Type Truck; this lovely 1982 Chevy step van was Kyle’s mobile letterpress studio for a year as she crisscrossed the country for printmaking workshops and residencies, racking up 40,000 miles in the process. Presently it resides in their backyard and functions as a charming guesthouse. We slid the door shut, dialed up the space heater, and slept like birds.

In the morning, I awoke late on the floor of the Type Truck. Jordan had been up for some time, assisting Dustin in spray painting a plethora of empty beer cans for a music video shoot taking place that afternoon.

After a bowl of granola, we drove out of Silver down from the mountains and across open desert to I-10, Lordsburg, and the wide, forgotten New Mexico Bootheel, the tag of land in the state’s southwest corner that borders Mexico on two sides.
Bootheel Abandoned House
Jordan and I have worked a combined nine summers leading wilderness trips in the area and can accordingly claim a fairly comprehensive experiential map of New Mexico, but neither of us had been to the Bootheel, nor had anyone else we spoke with. Aside from the aforementioned missile range, it was the most prominent blank spot on the map, and certainly the most alluring. The maps showed a national forest unit down there, and we wanted to check it out.
We were excited. Animas Peak rose before us and the Chiricahuas hummed off to the west across the Arizona line. The sun shone hot. After a while, the road turned to rough gravel and the overgrazed landscape began to look ugly and forbidding. But around the time we hit the supposed location of Cloverdale Ghost Town, the intensity of the sun seemed to abate, and its light glowed softly and easily in the fields of yellow grass. We stopped at a long-abandoned house, the only one in evidence. It was full of old blue plastic garbage cans. We crossed a cattle guard onto what we gathered was the promised national forest land.
Bootheel road
And there were trees—beautiful junipers giving shade—and our spirits were higher. Maybe we’d stop and camp there tonight? We didn’t know where the road was going, but we planned to find out.
And then we came to a locked gate across the road.

We stopped. There was no way forward. Little winds teased through the tall grasses.

We turned around. We noticed the tiny signs, the fences. We had been wrong: the land around us was private, property of some enormous ranching operation. There is national forest land back there, but evidently one cannot access it from that road. Multiple printed maps had misled us.

We drove back toward Animas Peak and pulled over, leaned against the car, ate chips and salsa, and looked at the mountain. We talked about our past travels and the key decisions that had led to the finest adventures. We talked about the landscape; we talked about old friends gone missing.
The Bootheel was a hole in the map. We never did find the ghost town or get up into the Peloncillo Mountains. Geronimo’s final surrender happened up there, somewhere. Holes remain.

There is freedom in the holes. My composition teachers used to encourage me to fully “exploit” my musical material. Their exhortations arose from the conventional wisdom that we must go all the way with whatever ideas we have, that we are somehow obliged to subject each theme to a full and comprehensive presentation. I guess Beethoven gave us this mindset. It has never made sense to me. I prefer things to be a little bit broken. The holes remind you that the universe is still expanding, the world is still a work in progress, and there is space for your own contributions.

I learned to love the holes when I studied 20th-century composition as a college student, primed by music history classes to more fully apprehend the efforts of Schoenberg, Webern, and others. The semester I waded into Webern’s music I was also waist- (or perhaps chest-) deep in the popular television program LOST. There is a divisive moment in the series’ first episode in which a polar bear emerges from the jungle of a tropical island. At this moment, when many people were repelled, I was hooked. I love a non sequitur, and LOST, with its questions upon questions, is a wonderful pop-cultural opportunity to love the holes. The series’ dense mythology and layers of red herrings were more thrilling than any conceivable resolution of its enigmas. Some of my friends expressed frustration with LOST, wondering when its writers would ever answer any of the mysterious questions posed in the story. I never wanted answers. The questions themselves were too delicious.

Webern’s music is almost all holes. Especially the early atonal stuff, like the Bagatelles for String Quartet — a movement will go for about twenty seconds and then just stop. What? He barely said anything. Yes, Webern says. That was the piece.
Perfection is boring. The holes invite us to participate in art, to offer something of ourselves.
That we will create, that we will participate, is not a simple or foregone conclusion. No one makes us do this. Usually it does not pay. We could just stop. But we don’t. We do it anyway.

Art-making is a profound statement of optimism. I once wrote, “At its best, music, like poetry, like art, like love, is never about emphasizing difference. On the contrary, it’s about opening up to shared fields of experience. It’s about feeling that life is remarkable and humanity is something worth giving a shit about.”

I may have been inspired by composer Peter Garland, who wrote in his book Americas, “Human expression, in the face of this [20th] century’s death and solitude, a will to recreate thought and life endlessly, rather than passively accept the human despair mistaken for life today, is a heroic gesture, all the more heroic with the knowledge that it is, only, a gesture…”
We can’t stop the bloodshed. We can’t delay our own deaths, either. But we can make art, with each other, while we’re here.
Gila Hike (river)
I drew my experiential map of New Mexico during three summers guiding wilderness expeditions with an organization called the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation. The Gulch takes teenagers on Odyssean road trips around the Southwest, camping and hiking and meeting local experts and characters along the way. Leading such trips has become more challenging in recent dry and regulated years. Wildfires spring up every summer and wilderness areas heighten restrictions, sometimes even preemptively closing to the public in the height of the summer fire season.
The Gulch has been guiding in the Southwest since 1926. Back then they were based in Indianapolis, and they would drive the kids out, in the vehicles of the day, in an era before the interstates, to a Southwest of rough towns and dirt roads, a country of dead ends and blank spots. They did not carry with them the information, and the information access, that we now mentally and digitally cast across our experiential maps of the world.

And they slept wherever they wanted to, probably, because often there was simply no one around. By contrast, today’s Southwest is neatly divided into regulated public and private lands. In some areas, we have to plan and route backpacking trips to an amazing degree of specificity, in consultation with teams of Forest Service bureaucrats, months in advance. Such a system is necessary because of the extremely high use such areas see during the summer. We guide in some of the most wide-open, desolate, and solitary places of the American West, and yet nearly everywhere we go, there are at least a few other people around.
Gila Hike (truck)
The primary intellectual patron of Cottonwood Gulch is Edward Abbey, who worked as a ranger in Utah and Arizona in the 1950s and ‘60s. His non-fiction collection Desert Solitaire is perennial campfire reading on our summer expeditions. Abbey was a passionate advocate for landscape preservation and a biting critic of public land policy. He was humorous, he was incisive, he was altogether an exemplary crank. I love his writings, but I sometimes fear his philosophy is only a thin sheet of butcher paper stretched tight with nothing beneath but misanthropy.
Abbey wanted to be out in the desert by himself because he thought American civilization, as it stood, was a pile of bullshit. And many days I agree with him, but though such rabbling anarchism can encourage healthy contrarian impulses in teenagers, it doesn’t make enduring sustenance for artists. Musicians especially cannot afford misanthropy; our art is too beautifully social. Music builds communities. This is music’s unique power, and denying it will ruin us. Sometimes I, too, feel like moving to a shack in the desert and waking up alone with the sun every day, but I’ve come to realize I can’t live like that for long, because if I have to keep making music (and I do), I also need to keep making music with other musicians.

We need each other. This is an especially pivotal fact in an era of human life when we are realizing the world doesn’t just not need us, it might quite prefer to have us gone. Awoken in large part by my time in the desert and accordingly increased sensitivity to water issues, lately I think about global warming every day, and I don’t know what to do about the fact that my presence on the planet, my very existence, is part of the problem.

After Jordan and I returned from the Gila, I sat at an Albuquerque coffee shop and read about the meteorologist Eric Holthaus, who made news in October 2013 when, galvanized by one of the increasingly terrifying reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he decided to lower his carbon footprint by pledging to never again set foot on an airplane. Holthaus writes for Slate and is active on Twitter, where his decision garnered both lauds and rebukes. Among the latter was a recurring reductio ad absurdum: if you really want to lower your footprint as much as possible, a few hundred helpful tweeps suggested, why not kill yourself?

Let’s consider this argument, for a moment, as musicians and as humans.
One of my first jazz teachers told me to make sure that anything I play during an improvised solo constitutes an improvement on silence.

Is any of my music truly an improvement on silence? Globally, is my presence superior to the alternative? Ecologically, the answer is no. But though I am a resource-devouring primate, I am also a thoughtful human being, and maybe I don’t need to improve on silence but only on despair. To reduce oneself to a carbon footprint number is to allow only negative effects into the calculus. To treat ourselves this way is base misanthropy: it is depressing, it is undignified, and worse, it is unimaginative. We must resist the cold logic of this dead-end worldview. How?

Heading north from Silver City, Jordan and I wrapped around west of Whitewater Baldy, past forests decimated by a major 2012 wildfire, through Cibola National Forest and down to the Plains of San Agustin. Out there on the continental divide is a hamlet called Pie Town. It has two pie shops, though the better one is often closed. Websites discussing Pie Town emphasize its altitude (8,000 feet) but don’t bother listing a population number.

A friend of ours owns a hostel there called the Toaster House. I counted two dozen old toasters festooning its picket fence. All summer the house is a free refuge to thru-hikers attempting the Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada. In February, it was deafeningly vacant. Its rooms remembered the travelers, their nights drinking beer, laughing, swapping stories from the trail. But now everyone was gone. There were only empty chairs.
Pie Town Winter Hours
It was too eerie to stay, so we returned to the highway and started east, down toward Socorro. On the way, in the town of Magdalena, we turned south and drove up into the foothills to the ghost town of Kelly. The old mine’s tower is still intact, gazing over the valley in commanding silence. There are house foundations in Kelly, even a hidden cemetery and a boarded-up church, but somehow it felt more welcoming than the Toaster House. We lingered, made dinner in the parking lot by the church, and watched sunset violets fall across the mountains. We felt a powerful peace. The Toaster House exists to host visitors, but Kelly is more comfortable in its solitude.
Kelly Mine
An intelligent Greek man once proposed that the secret of happiness “is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” I fancy myself a minimalist, adhering to certain principles that simplify my life, clarify my focus, and yes, lower my carbon footprint. But it has become clear—as I hold my breath in the direction of Eric Holthaus—that I practice one regular, mortal sin against the earth, and it lies in my addiction to travel.
I asked Holthaus about individual positive action on global warming, and he sent me to this article from The Guardian. The piece reports that a single flight from New York to Paris produces one and a half times an individual’s annual carbon ration.
Travel is foremost among my muses and, one assumes, professionally necessary for a contemporary musician. I’m not sure what to do about this. Jetting to New York for two days to play a little show—or to sit in the audience to hear someone else perform my music—no longer looks very responsible. Carpooling there or taking a train and staying for a while, making the most of the trip, is better. This might involve intentionally slowing the pace of my professional activities. It is worth it.
Meanwhile, I might invest more fully in where I am. Maybe we can stay current with each other’s activities without traveling quite as frequently, while doing more work at home. In the process we might build more vibrant local musical cultures, encourage creative lifestyles, and afford our whole musical society more natural diversity. Maybe in the internet age we can have regionalism without provincialism.

Being a musician in the 21st century will require facing these questions. If we want to make anything worth a damn in the face of global warming, we must somehow convince ourselves that there’s still something beautiful about humanity existing on this planet. We must behave as responsibly as we can without reducing ourselves to carbon footprint calculations, because there is more that we do. We must challenge ourselves to minimize our negative impact on the earth while maximizing our positive impact on each other.

I have to trust that all of us are doing something good by living our musical lives as honestly and meaningfully as we can. Because the alternative is simply too dark.

This is why I like imperfect music, songs with holes, maps with blank spots. Because I have to believe there is space for what I make. I have to.

In his vital essay “Global Warming and Art,” John Luther Adams cites a story about Claude Monet. World War I was raging in France, and the elderly Monet felt guilty that he couldn’t help more directly. What he did instead was paint water lilies, because that was the best thing he could do. Monet gave us the water lilies, and we have all benefited from his faith. May we all experience the trust in life to know that we are offering the best that we have, for ourselves and for one another.
Ed Abbey, too, affirmed the beauty of human living—in his sideways manner—with the instructions he left for his burial. He requested that his remains be stuffed in an old sleeping bag, transported out to the Arizona desert in the bed of a pickup truck, and thrown down a hillside someplace. “I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree,” he wrote. After thus disregarding state burial laws, his friends were instructed to throw a tremendous party. Abbey specifically requested gunfire, bagpipe music, and corn on the cob. “A flood of beer and booze!” he continued. “Lots of singing, dancing, talking, hollering, laughing, and lovemaking.”

His friends complied, of course. May we all have such friends.

January: Wyoming and the Open

A wise Irish gentleman once told me that when you travel across a country, what you see is not really a place but a time. I traveled through early 2014 as a composer, and in this four-essay cycle I’d like to tell you about it.
In December 2013 I gave away many of my possessions, moved out of my apartment in Chicago, and set out on the darkest day of the year—abutted in nearly every direction by sleet and snowstorms—to drive to the west.
Driving West
Jon Krakauer once wrote that mountains make poor repositories for dreams. If the same accusation has never been leveled at cities, it is perhaps only because they kill us more slowly. Chicago has for years offered healthy topsoil for my musical exploits and a proving ground for my vagrant aspirations toward domesticity, but I can’t seem to stick around too long at a stretch. I’ve spent each of my recent summers in the west, and fled portions of the winters for artist residencies. The city has a way of pulling me back, though. It’s a Scylla-and-Charybdis situation wherein the open spaces of the west are the beautiful sea goddess that pulls me from my tasks, and the city is the whirlpool of personal and artistic gravity. If there is a middle path, I haven’t found it yet.
This time I had a professional excuse to go west, in the form of a month-long artist residency at the Brush Creek Arts Foundation in southern Wyoming. Just like artists themselves, every residency program has a different way of surviving, and Brush Creek is primarily a fancy guest ranch; most of its patrons arrive by private plane. The artist program is off to the side, well apportioned but still seeming only a charming accessory to the opulence. The main lodge contains a few of the largest antler chandeliers I have ever seen and a library with a leather floor.

A corporate group of about forty from Google visited for a one-week retreat. The rest of the month it was just nine artists and the program’s intrepid director, Sara Schleicher, an accomplished printmaker and University of Wyoming graduate. When Sara accepted the position at Brush Creek she was pictured on the front page of a local newspaper, the Rawlins Daily Times, riding a mule. Her office is a hut formerly used as a smokehouse, tucked amongst the artist studios. The titular creek babbles nearby.
I arrived at the ranch on January 6, in the dark, after a long western drive listening to music. My favorite band these days is a piano trio called The Necks. They live in Sydney, Australia, where since 1987 they have steadily woven sinuous, hushed, hour-long experimental jazz fabrics. It is impossible to avoid textile metaphors with The Necks. I envision them sitting in some enchanted wood, working quietly at three magical spinning wheels all the afternoon long.

This is one of those bands better suited to European musical culture than American. They rarely play in the states, but their seventeenth studio album, Open, released last year, got some press here and made it to my ears in Chicago in December. It was early in the winter and we were just realizing what we might be in for. Chicago gets extremely dark toward the solstice, and for a week or so, after forcing myself out for long early evening walks in the single-digit gloaming, I would hide under a blanket and listen to Open. When it ended, I hit play again. A path began to unfold.

On the drive to Brush Creek I listened to Open again and heard the music I would write during the residency. Strictly speaking, I “heard” only the first bar, but more pressingly I caught a feeling and saw an emerging process. I wanted my music, like Open, to be as moored and methodical as it was exploratory, aspirational, and free.

Life at Brush Creek was quiet, snowy, steady. We worked in the morning, walked or went cross-country skiing or kept working in the afternoon, gathered for a drink and dinner and conversation, and then usually went back to work in the evening. Visual artists seem the most nocturnal by type. I found myself unusually a morning person at Brush Creek, rising at dawn. My only superior in matutinal discipline was Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, a recent near-Oprah’s-book-club-level literary success. Heidi was close to finishing the (her words) “shitty first draft” of her second novel. Upon arrival she gave herself two days to acclimate, not working at all, and then worked with complete assiduousness for about three weeks. The last week she lifted the pedal from the floor a bit and started telling stories. Heidi is a former attorney, journalist, and actor who once made her living traveling to NBA and NFL rookie camps, performing in skits and teaching life skills to the newly minted professional athletes. She said she knew it was time to move on when her role in the barbecue scene progressed from The New Girlfriend to The Baby-Mama to, finally, just Momma.

My closest friend at Brush Creek was Amy Bonnaffons, a fiction writer, teacher, and increasingly reluctant New Yorker. We groused about our love lives and spent a number of afternoons loafing at the glorious community hot springs in nearby Saratoga. At night we sometimes sang folk songs, picking out the harmony lines of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings tunes.
There is a full Welch-Rawlings concert on YouTube that I consider mandatory. One of the YouTube commenters called it “pure minimalist music, clean, pure, like drinking from a cold spring on a hot summer’s day.” Isn’t it fascinating, the range of musics that have garnered the adjective “minimal” in recent decades? This music isn’t structurally minimalistic, but I’m willing to lob the m-word at its lack of frills, its lack of production, its lack of pretense to contemporary “relevance.” It is melody, harmony, lyric. It feels unadorned, direct, cooled close to absolute zero that it spins so slowly you can see every side of it. And there is simply something trancelike in that performance of “Elvis Presley Blues.”

A day or two before Amy left, we drove to a nearby settlement called, illustratively, Encampment, for the town’s winter carnival. We had read about the carnival in a local events bulletin, the evocatively titled Sno-Rag, and had been anticipating it for some time. When we arrived in Encampment (pop. 443), we saw no signs of a festival—in fact, we saw little that indicated any sort of human presence. In the otherwise empty post office parking lot, a tireless car sat on cinder blocks. On the ground nearby was a lone flathead screwdriver.
Wyoming
A few minutes later we found the festival, such as it was, up by the church. We had missed the chili cook-off, and activity had proceeded to about a dozen kids sledding with a handful of adults spectating. Encampment feels, is, on the edge of something—or better yet, on the edge of nothing at all. One downtown corner had been set aside for an ice sculpture competition, with a dozen piles of frozen snow prepared for art-making, but there was only one entrant: a ten-year-old girl, working with intense focus as her father looked on from his vehicle. “You should’ve seen what she did last year,” the carnival organizer said quietly. “It was amazing.”
We stopped at a combination coffee shop/antique store with carpet and wallpaper direct from a 1980s church basement. A few kids hung about as the proprietor made me a fine cup of coffee from beans roasted by Carmelite monks in northern Wyoming. “This summer I’m going to do horchatas,” she told us. You can see the edge of Encampment from everywhere in Encampment, so you never forget the open space that lurks just on the other side of that last line of houses.

On the way back to Brush Creek we stopped at the Whistle Pig Saloon outside Saratoga, famous for its karaoke nights. Like all Saratoga businesses, it has interior walls lined with hunting trophies. (At the grocery store, two bears guard the produce coolers.) A sign on the Whistle Pig’s front door boasts a $5 deal for bottomless Pabst Blue Ribbon. I have related this detail in hushed tones to a number of my urban musician friends.
Whistle Pig Saloon
I didn’t work compulsively at Brush Creek. I worked patiently and steadily. Everyone responds to these experiences differently, and when I went to my first artist residencies I was terrible at it, because I pushed myself so hard and set the stakes so crushingly high. I’ve learned recently to simplify the process:

(1) Start right. Get up early. Start at the same time every day, in the same way every day. It doesn’t take years of discipline to feel the positive effects of a creative routine.
(2) Stop right. Set a reasonable goal for the day, meet it, and then quit. I don’t allow myself to write more than I set out to in a given day. I prefer to stop when I still have some juice, when there are still some ideas in the pencil. I trust that they’ll still be there in the morning, and that I’ll be back, on time, to write them down. There is power in this.

Brush Creek’s community outreach comes in the form of a monthly presentation in Saratoga, and about three weeks into the residency we drove to town to share our work. Our audience turned out to be a Boys and Girls Club after-school group, about twenty grade-school kids with a smattering of adults. I played a couple songs; Amy read a story she had to redact on the spot to avoid (her words) the weird sex and dead dogs. The visual artists showed their work. Susan Mulder had never painted animals before, but at Brush Creek she depicted majestic horses in starkly beautiful black house paint. Meanwhile, photographer Lucy Capehart was creating a series of cyanotypes of her late mother’s old dresses. They’re breathtaking and seem to be in motion, these haunted floating dresses set against bottomless fields of deep, deep blue.

The group had begun this residency quiet, as they do, but by that night after the presentation we were drinking beer and playing rollicking surrealist word games. We go to these places to start over in a sense, to introduce ourselves to people who have never met us before, to reconstitute our ideas surrounding who we are and what our work is. We can teach each other things, by sharing not just our art but the ways in which we have shaped our artistic lives. We give each other a gift by taking each other, and each other’s work, seriously.

A lot of the artists I meet at these residencies are on breaks from full-time teaching. I’m thinking of a brilliant if somewhat bilious piano teacher who once told me that teaching is a process of justifying one’s own instincts. I wonder if, by removing myself from academia and from the whole teaching racket in a period of personal growth, I’ve been able to sharpen mine—to develop my instincts more slowly and idiosyncratically, step by brooding step, having no one to justify them to, having no one in a position of artistic or professional authority regularly justifying their own instincts all over my sometimes shapeless early efforts.
I hope so. The tradeoff has been a craggy half-decade marked by bouts of intensity and periods of relative inactivity. Musical academia does provide a steady flow of activity, or “activity,” depending on one’s mood. But maybe the inactivity too has its benefits. “It’s a beautiful thing to be left alone until you’re forty,” Philip Glass once told a room full of composition students.
I wrote expansive music at Brush Creek because Brush Creek made me feel there was space enough for such music. When I walked up on the ridges in the afternoon, I saw no one for miles around. Returning at dusk, the sky would ignite purple and orange, and for a moment the snow luminesced a dark blue. I couldn’t have written a quiet, 35-minute piece called Open in Chicago.
Sunset - Brush creek, Wyoming
At the end of the month I drove up the divide to Montana. It was the last day of January and bizarrely mild and dry around Wyoming. Sunlight glowed from red rocks and distant ridges. I stopped in Thermopolis, where the Hot Springs State Park features a “state bathhouse” that looks like a highway rest stop and offers free soaking in the mineral pools… but only for twenty minutes. There is the new-age idea that different places have different vibrations, and you might notice in a given place that your personal vibration is either in phase with the local vibration, or it is not. I feel electrically, magnetically comfortable in the mountain west. Sometimes you’re in a high valley and there are mountains set against the sky, marking the distance between you and the horizon. These open spaces feed something in me—or perhaps that isn’t quite right. Perhaps they actually inflame a certain hunger. Really they don’t satisfy me, not at all. They make me want more life, and they make me want to write music.
Wyoming's open spaces
Back on the road I listened to a CD Amy made for me. Have you heard “Captain Saint Lucifer” by Laura Nyro? What a wild performance. How about Kate Wolf’s magisterial “Across the Great Divide?” It’s a perfect little song, and the only one for such a road trip.
“It’s gone away to yesterday
And I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the great divide.”
I find myself on the mountainside, and I feel like I have two choices: east or west. But maybe I don’t. Maybe, like the raindrops that flow to the rivers that flow to the oceans, my destination has always been set.
Brush Creek, Wyoming

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Luke Gullickson
Luke Gullickson is a nomadic composer and singer-songwriter of musical folk puzzles and maps. His projects include surrealist folk trio Grant Wallace Band, whose unique sound the New York Times described as “spidery original bluegrass”. Luke has been artist-in-residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ucross Foundation, Joshua Tree National Park, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and the Banff Centre. Luke holds music degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and Illinois Wesleyan University. He has also worked as a theater music director in Colorado and as a wilderness guide in New Mexico.