Tag: creative process

dublab — Samora and Elena Pinderhughes in conversation exploring the boundaries of creation

dublab: Samora and Elena Pinderhughes

Samora and Elena Pinderhughes in conversation around the blurred boundaries between composer, musician, instrumentalist, producer and songwriter. The musical multi-hyphenates dive deep into anecdotes, personal narratives and a bit of philosophy around their processes, their truths and the ways they’ve evolved as creators. They converse with a depth only collaborators who are also siblings can reach.

Samora Pinderhughes is a composer, pianist, vocalist, filmmaker, and multidisciplinary artist known for striking intimacy and carefully crafted, radically honest lyrics alongside high-level musicianship. In addition to his active music career and multidisciplinary artistic work, Samora is a PhD candidate in Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry at Harvard. Elena, who happens to be Samora’s sister, has been a celebrated flautist since she was 9 years old. Having toured and collaborated with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Common, Christian Scott, Future, and many more, Elena is also a singer and songwriter, most recently featured by Apple Music “Freedom Songs” Juneteenth series.

This program is part of New Music USA’s web magazine NewMusicBox “Guest Editor series”, which aims to celebrate a plurality of voices from across the nation and will feature exclusive content written, produced, or commissioned by a rotating artist or organization. The series kicks off with dublab. NewMusicBox, edited by Frank J. Oteri, amplifies creators and organizations who are building a vibrant future for new music in all its forms, and has provided a vital platform for creators to speak about issues relevant to them in their own words since 1999.

The dublab partnership will feature new weekly content from at least 15 different voices through January 2023, presented in conversations, DJ mixes, articles, and live performances all exploring the current landscape of music composition.

The Guest Editor is the first such series in the magazine’s 23-year history and reflects New Music USA’s aim to deepen its impact across the many diverse music communities across the United States. This aim is also demonstrated by NewMusicBox’s ongoing “Different Cities, Different Voices” feature that spotlights music creation hubs across the nation.

Andrew Norman: Anxiety & Creative Process

Andrew Norman sitting by his piano with pages of scores scattered on the floor.

Composer Andrew Norman shares how his creative anxiety has led him into a current period of writer’s block. We discuss how his frenetic language captures how thoughts move in his mind, the underlying sources of his anxiety, and brainstorm together how he can move forward to reconnect with the joy of his creative process.

Anxiety as an Editing Eye

For years in therapy, I focused on recognizing and then extracting my anxious impulses from my creative process to allow greater room for freedom and play. Now, I am examining how my lingering anxiety that appears while I write can actually serve as a tool in the editing process, provided it remains in check and in direct dialogue with my work.

The Art of Being True: To Speak in Memory & The Sun Itself

[Ed. Note: Back in December, in support of their debut concerts of Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (a.k.a. M³), which were presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. The next round of M³ collaborations, which has received funding from New Music USA, will take place June 12 and 13, 2021 (again under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum). In addition, today, M³ has released an anthology of writings (poetry, essays, and more) by each of the participants, edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, entitled The Art of Being True, on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. To celebrate this publication and in anticipation of the upcoming concerts, we will be publishing excerpts from each of the 12 participants’ contributions to the anthology, 2 per week, every Friday between now and June 12. To read these writings in their entirety, please visit the dedicated portal for the anthology on Publik/Private. – FJO]

A few of water to the horizon and an overcast sky.

Photo by Eden Girma (courtesy Eden Girma)

From Eden Girma’s poem “To speak in memory”

I call upon an ancient conversation, of blues in the horizon,
sacred arcs that line an engine’s shape
with dew, with moving water,
to lift us beyond joy or sorrow.

In life, in death,
reality, imagination.
In tapestries that float above

as knitted by our fathers – fathers, known by quiet names,
loving through a softer power,
strings of heaven woven into brutal, mortal earth.

Anjna Swaminatha walking in the water on a beach.

Anjna_Swaminatha (photo courtesy Anjna_Swaminatha)

From Anjna Swaminathan’s essay, “The Sun Itself: Expanding my Horizons as a Queer Multidisciplinary Being”

My abundance lives in intergalactic melodies sung into a frying pan sizzling with shallots, cumin seeds, cloves and bay leaves. It lives in the precarious watering schedule of my 27 plants and their alliterating names (Parachute, Parvati, Pankajam, Pita and so on). It lives in the laughter that echoes through the walls of my fiancée’s and my rainbow-colored apartment. My abundance cannot live on a page (or worse on computer software with poorly produced midi) because it was born from something far less tangible, yet far more intrinsic. It was born in the whisper of crisp winter winds coming into one ear and endless poems and songs flowing out of the other. How can I possibly bastardize this oh so divine and human abundance by fixing it onto a page?

Untangling Anxious Signals and Creative Impulses

States of high anxiety can produce thought patterns similar to those experienced during the creative process – seemingly disparate thoughts connect to create new meanings and stories – but there are also stark differences between imaginative impulses and anxious physiological signals. I unpack the positive and negative impacts of anxiety on creative work, and why the two are easily confused.

Creation is Messy

Record release show for Gretta Harley's Element 115 (Uup) featuring Mettle. (Photo by ML Naden)

Creation is messy. Artistic inspiration without the mess (and an incredible amount of work and planning) will never see the light of day. Our finished work is only as good as it is because of the untidy part. Art needs us to bravely embrace our inner slob, even though most of us prefer a little primping before going outside.

The 19th-century poet John Keats coined the phrase “negative capability” in a letter to his brothers, explaining it as when a person is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This quote encapsulates the messy for me. From a new creation’s infancy through its adolescence, it has awkward moments of vulnerability that can scare many a creator away from ever completing or sharing his or her work. There is so much uncertainty. Is it good? Will anyone like it? Does it sound original enough? Will anyone care? I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what this piece is. This piece sucks. I suck. But if I allowed my work to be held hostage to perfection I would never share any of it. (In fact, that was the case in another chapter of my life.) It is the case now with some people I know, especially some of my students. It can be just too vulnerable an endeavor to share our creations. They are a reflection of us. So if people don’t like my music, will they think less of me?

Negative capability says to me that working with one’s intuition and a huge leap of faith must outweigh uncertainties, concerns, or doubts.

Negative capability says to me that working with one’s intuition and a huge leap of faith must outweigh uncertainties, concerns, or doubts. The artist first must have a vision, and then ride it, with no helmet. But sometimes the vision isn’t clear. That uncomfortable place where you don’t know what is taking shape can be paralyzing. I have learned to embrace that discomfort as an incubator. The irritable reaching after perfection can stifle the idea that needs to wiggle and breathe for a while. This part is messy. I like to swim in it like a luxurious mud bath. It does not mean that I am not also terrified or that that part of it doesn’t sometimes suck.

At the same time that we allow the messy, we can’t “wait” for the clarity. It’s not going to just appear. Well, most of the time. We have to actively sculpt it, like making a ceramic bowl where the clay gets under your fingernails and the bowl explodes in the kiln and you have to start over. We need to work. I had a composition student once who suffered so much insecurity because music didn’t come to him as divine inspiration. It was an uphill battle trying to convince him to build his skills and not be afraid to write a bunch of crap for a while. Part of this insecurity is a byproduct of our instant-gratification culture that millennials have grown up with. There has been glossy-clean, easy product of perfection served to us, like that TV show Glee. “Those kids,” I said, “rehearsed something like 15 hours a day, all week long, to make that piece look spontaneous.” Response: “Reeeaally?”

My music is collaborative, but the actual writing of music is a solitary act for me. With the exception of my songwriting collaboration in We Are Golden with Sarah Rudinoff, I have written my music all alone. Sometimes I hear a melody and I write it down. Sometimes I sit at my piano or have a guitar in my hand and I just play. When the music starts taking shape, I put on the recorder and/or jot notes on paper. Sometimes words come, sometimes a violin line, a drum beat… I take my dog for walks and listen to the recordings of the week and am drawn to specific melodies and chord progressions. Then I begin honing, editing, sculpting the music. I allow both my intuitive ear and the compositional skills I’ve developed to shape the music, often not thinking about them at all.

I found a remarkable group of active composers in Seattle who seek to meet once a month on a Sunday evening to share the music they wrote on that particular Sunday. We each attempt to write 20 songs in one day and then play them for each other that evening over drinks and snacks. Over the years these self-imposed parameters have mutated to include larger pieces of music, operas in progress, and my song cycle. Before it was finished, I played some of the music that became Element 115 (Uup) to the small group. A few weeks later, on a warm evening in August, I premiered some of the finished songs at a beloved Seattle venue, Café Racer, which has a stage the size of my kitchen table. One of my Sunday evening composer companions, Matt Menovcik, was at that public premier where I noticed some of the tempos weren’t right, one song needed total revamping, and some lyrics needed attention. I had told Matt that the record producer I planned to work with—someone I had worked with previously—had turned down working on the recording of this song cycle. (This project was different than what I had produced before, and he said he didn’t know what to do with this music. I was a little heartbroken and felt slightly “rejected.”) Matt said that he thought that the producer Kramer would like this music, and he wanted to introduce us. I was floored with the idea, being a Bongwater fan. Matt sent an introductory email, and Kramer and I started corresponding. I sent Kramer five songs that I had demoed. He said he liked three of them. I thought, “Good, he’s honest.” We set up a phone meeting date and, after an hour-long conversation, it was decided that Kramer would produce my record. We set a date in January. I continued writing and sent him demos. (He also asked for the songs in their bare form, with just piano or guitar and voice.) He consistently told me to sing softer.

Readying for my recording session, I knew I had to play all of the music flawlessly. There is no room for mistakes when you’re paying for a session and only have a few days to capture it. So in the month of September I began playing the songs-in-progress at an open mic night at a dive bar in West Seattle, where the audience consisted of 2-10 mostly other songwriters on any given Monday evening. I also put together a rock band. I called it Mettle. We rehearsed this music a few nights a week, beginning in October, and played a total of about eight shows over a six-month period.

Gretta Harley's band Mettle in rehearsal (Photo by Taylor Bowen)

Gretta Harley’s band Mettle in rehearsal (Photo by Taylor Bowen)

The experience of playing with these guys was invaluable. Other people always bring something fresh, new, different to the music. Guitarist Brian Emery played with us once before deciding he had no time for another band and in that one rehearsal played something I kept: that metallic guitar sound on “Innocent,” the sixth song in the cycle. Dave Pascal gave me the idea for the bass line on “Needle In The Groove.” The four-piece band (other members: Mike Katell and Ben Morrow) got tighter over the months, and I was able to explore and decide on arrangement possibilities with them. Kramer, although never hearing the band, did not want to work with a band on this music. He encouraged me to play all of the instruments, to make a real solo record. He called it my Blue.

Come January, I flew to Florida and met Kramer in the parking lot of his Fort Lauderdale condo. We loaded up the rental van with gear and drove four hours north to St. Augustine where I had secured a house to set up shop. We recorded all day and night during two one-week sessions each, to coincide with my teaching schedule. Between sessions I intentionally didn’t want the band to hear what I was doing with Kramer, or the other way around. I wanted the different versions to incubate in my ear and hear what worked best. What made me so happy in working with Kramer is that he kept the authenticity of the original demos I had sent him pre-Mettle, but I still brought some of the choices I made with the band, fully recognizing their contribution to the music. Kramer and I worked well together. He had so many great, unique ideas, but he was also very open to mine. It was a true collaboration that we both left feeling proud of.

Fin Records was scheduling an August release. The plan was to tour Europe in late August, and I was hoping to bring Mettle. Fin had been showing signs of financial trouble for months, and they postponed the release. I still wanted to go to Europe and had already booked some shows there. There was no monetary tour support at that point. I didn’t have any money to bring the band, so I reworked all of the music on just guitar. I bought a travel guitar that fit in the overhead baggage compartments and played shows in four different countries, solo. When I returned, it was apparent that Element 115 (Uup) was not going to be released on Fin Records. They were folding.

It had been over a year since I finished writing the song cycle. I’d worked so hard. I had made my solo record—a long held dream. We recorded the music in a way I dreamt about as a kid. I was happy with the way it sounded. Yet so many obstacles kept coming up. I could recount them all here, but I’ll just simply say that I wondered if the universe was telling me not to release the record. Everything about the music was going so well, but every single logistical hurdle that could get in the way did– Sod’s Law. It was an uphill battle all the way. I had come so far with this music, music that I wanted desperately to share. But I was exhausted. I hosted the December composers meeting and had a mini-breakdown in front of the last straggler in my hallway. Josh listened to me cry, and encouraged me to take my time. I cried myself to sleep that night. I talked with my then-boyfriend, James, who encouraged me to put out the vinyl record that I wanted to release, and I rethought the whole thing with his encouragement, which I will always be grateful for. This release was so close I could taste it, but there was a long haul ahead. I could not abandon it.

I wanted to hear the music with Mettle and an acoustic chamber orchestra. I set up a date with a venue. (I always work better when I have a date to work towards.) I started orchestrating and gathering musicians and talking to venues. But my physical energy was low since I had caught bacterial meningitis between recording sessions and was still feeling its effects. I decided to hire an orchestrator to help me arrange the music, based on the arrangements that Kramer and I had made on the record. Some members of the band got frustrated with me. I hadn’t thought about this detail, but they had worked so hard on our arrangements and felt proud of their contribution to it and I was just asking too much of them to relearn the material, because it was different. I felt terrible because I thought they felt disrespected, but the music was guiding me and it had to be heard in the way I was hearing it inside my head. It was my intuition, and it was messy. I hired a different rhythm section, began rehearsing, started a crowd-funding campaign to pay them, and played the show in June, one full year after completing the recording. (All of this takes a lot of planning and organizing, which is another topic.) The vinyl records were delivered to my house two days before the record release show. It was a nail biter.

It is not enough to write the music. Not for me. I need to communicate it. I need supportive people to cheer me on in my vision. I need people to want to play the music, and to help me with the logistics along the way.

The point I am trying to make is that we artists create works that each has its own process; and we need help along the way. We need to reach out to other trusted people and ask them to swim through the mud in a very messy pool in order to bring our ideas to fruition. It is not enough to write the music. Not for me. I need to communicate it. I need supportive people to cheer me on in my vision. I need people to want to play the music, and to help me with the logistics along the way. Of course there is no communication without the listener. Not everyone likes the music of Element 115 (Uup). I am past caring because to the people who do like it, I have communicated, and that communication means so much to me. My own town of Seattle never reviewed the record. That did hurt my feelings. But the reviews I received from Philadelphia to Belgium warmed my heart. Many artists before me have echoed this thought in their own words: it is not our job to care if people like our work. It is our job to do our work. Period.

In the end, the possibility of the record reaching more people was thwarted once James was diagnosed with cancer a few months after the release show. I canceled the plans with my publicist to promote it further because life got very messy. Messier than art. James passed away a few months ago, in February, and I am just starting to organize my writing again. There are several files of music ideas on my phone, and lyrics on pages in journals and loosely strewn around in messy piles on my piano, and on napkins in my pocketbook. I’ve been talking with Kramer about producing another song cycle, but the music hasn’t taken solid shape yet. I’m planning to premier a few of these unfinished songs at a show in early June. I have a lot of doubts and uncertainties about it. But all I can do is keep working.

(Top photo by ML Naden.)

Mettle live in performance (Photo by Maria Lamarca Anderson)

Mettle live in performance (Photo by Maria Lamarca Anderson)

Define Inspiration

Jim Stephenson sitting in front of his piano, struggling in front of a piece of score paper that is marked up with various things crossed out and a section labelled "Bad"

I’m winging this article, starting now.

I confess that I came up with the title last night and, because I like wordplay (you know, divine inspiration” with a slightly German accent), I knew I would go with it. But beyond that, I merely had a lot of ideas that would need organization.

There are several things I knew going in, regarding the writing of this article:

  • It needs a catchy opening. (Hopefully the title and first sentence accomplished that.)
  • Every single word and sentence should carry the same DNA reflecting the tenor of the article.
  • It needs momentum that carries it forward from one salient idea to the next, all leading to a high point, which brings it all home. (I’m already painfully aware that too many parenthetical remarks will bog that process down—this being a case in point.)
  • It needs an ending that confirms the theme of the entire article, and leaves the audience with the feeling that the whole experience was worth their time.

(You don’t even want to know how many times I edited that list. But because “you don’t even want to know,” I’ll spare you these behind-the-scenes comments in the future. Just know that they’re there, lurking behind every sentence.)

But I better get on with the theme, or I will lose you. I’m already developing too much.

So, here it is…

Every time I give a presentation about my work, I am always asked the following question:

“Where do you get your inspiration?”

And herein lies the paradox that I’m not sure I can answer yet.

My usual answer is this: “I just get to work.”

But let’s consider the case of this article, for example. The title occurred to me in an instant, and within that instant, I knew I had enough ideas to fill an article. Up until that point, I honestly had absolutely no idea what I was going to write about. I am not claiming that it is a “divinely inspired” title, as that would be a little presumptuous. But the fact remains, it came to me when I needed it, so that I could meet my deadline.

Ah yes, there it is. I mentioned it. Deadlines. But more on that later. I just wanted to mention that word, so that I could pick up on that idea again later.

(Important behind-the-scenes note: Right now I am writing via stream of consciousness. If this all structurally makes sense, it is because I have edited it over and over. At the moment, I am merely trying to get ideas out, while they are in my head, not worrying until LATER about their place within the article). Alas, there I go with the parenthetical remarks again!

O.K., back to inspiration: “I just get to work” vs. “divine inspiration.”

(By the way, I can sense that the article is starting to take shape. The ending is already making itself known to me.)

I discovered early on in my composing career that if I were to wait for that “perfect melody” or that “perfect chord,” I would never write a single note. Perhaps I’m too practical, or perhaps I’m too humble, but because music is so subjective, and because there are so many composers who have come before me, and who will come after, WHO AM I to even think that what I’ve just written could ever be considered “perfect”?

Therefore, accordingly, I just start writing, knowing quite well that what I am writing at the moment could very well be bad music. I take inspiration from wherever I can get it, relishing the fact that I am in control of the process and can edit all I want before it ever hits the public ear. In other words, just because one has put notes on paper in private doesn’t mean they are the finished product. We can erase or manipulate them however we want: that is called COMPOSING.

Let’s consider a couple of examples from my own career:

In my first trumpet concerto, two ideas came to me that eventually formed the backbone of the entire piece.

1. The piece was written for Jeffrey Work, who is now the principal trumpet of the Oregon Symphony. He had told me that he wanted something a bit more “mystical” from me. This was an intriguing idea. Now I needed to come up with notes. So, I thought of his name: Jeffrey Work. Solfège, being a mutual interest of ours, led me to “F-Re” which, with a bit of artistic license, sounds like “Jeffrey” (Just trust me.) To add mysticism, I threw an open fifth Db-Ab (rather than Bb-F, for example) below my first two notes of F-D (F-Re), and voilà, mysticism! This would inform the entire piece.

2. I wrote this piece back when I was still playing trumpet professionally. During a concert intermission, I walked into the bathroom (yes, bathroom!) with trumpet in hand and played the 11 notes right at 4:00 in the above link. I don’t know where that lick came from; I just played it. And right away, it occurred to me that I had something. It’s essentially in Eb major, with a raised 4th (A-natural). In that instant I knew I had a duality I could work with: Eb major vs. A Major. The two keys share a tritone relationship. (They both have the same 3rd and 7th inverted.) Again, I played with this duality throughout the entire piece, working it and working it, allowing for it to take me places I never would have known I could even consider. That little two-second motif, combined with the F-Re figure, eventually filled 22 minutes of music. Spoiler alert: A Major wins in the end!

That was back in 2003, when I was merely getting my feet wet as a composer.

Let’s consider something a bit more recent: for example, just two days ago.

I am currently writing a piece for middle school band, as part of the distinguished BandQuest series sponsored by the American Composers Forum.

Have a look at the list of those who have composed as part of this series (link: https://composersforum.org/program/bandquest), and you’ll quickly see how one could feel pressure to compose something earth-shatteringly “perfect” in an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Pulitzer Prize winners and other rather famous composers who have participated in the series.

But two days ago, I might have been in what could be called writer’s block. In an effort to get over it, I forced myself—as I often do—to practice what I myself preach and just got to work. The result was terrible. If I had any courage, I’d share with you the notes I wrote, which are horrifyingly bad. But I knew they were bad, which is half the process. It was time to rethink and to edit. My brain was now going from creator mode to editor mode, which took all of the pressure off, and allowed new ideas to seep in. I remembered a suggested title—from ACF’s own Laura Krider—“Deep Dish” (because of my Chicago connection), and I decided to look for a video describing the process of making this famous type of ‘za, for which Chicago is well-known.

Because of the comments I saw posted on the first video I discovered (“this guy’s voice is soooo annoying”), I didn’t even watch it. But then I happened upon this one

Within the first 25 seconds, in describing the process of making the pizza, he says that you have to “center the dough.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME? This is a composer’s dream, a musical pun giving me the first hints as to what I might compose. (Remember, I like puns, and dough = Do, of course). And when dealing with middle school kids, centering the “Do” can’t be such a bad idea. The video goes on to describe the process in five steps:

  • Center the dough
  • Layer the cheese
  • Add toppings
  • Give it some sauce
  • Now cook! (rotate halfway through)

Every single one of these steps speaks to me musically. I could already hear the piece while he was talking. Furthermore, kids love pizza, kids love stories, and this could be a learning tool as I would be able to describe to them quite tangibly my process of composing—layering some cheesy riffs, adding “sauce,” and cooking (tempo)—in a language they would understand. Add to that some other tricks I had up my sleeve for the percussion and I was all set to go.

Is getting an idea for a composition by watching a video of cooking pizza “divine inspiration”? My humble answer is no, it is not. It is merely allowing one’s ears to open up and to take the pressure off by just getting to work. I’m pretty sure we’re all aware of the 1% – 99% inspiration to perspiration quote. I’m a firm believer.

This is most important when deadlines approach. (I told you I would bring that word back.)

Deadlines are a constant weight on the shoulders of composers.

It is so oppressing to consider that twenty minutes of large ensemble music might have to arrive on someone’s desk within a few months—or perhaps even in a few weeks. As a full-time composer, I can tell you that this is my constant life. But forgive me if I admit something else to you: many times, when the deadline is absolutely crazy (yes, I’ve written twenty-minute pieces in two weeks), I actually finish early. This is the case when I follow my own advice most sternly, and just get to work. That means putting down the phone, turning off the TV, and just writing. Writing bad music, or silly music, or wrong music for the occasion—whatever. Just get it down on paper (or in the computer) and then turn on the editing brain. I think all of us humans are capable of so much more than we know. You just have to trust yourself and allow your unique voice to come through. This can only happen through constant work-then-evaluation, work-then-evaluation, work-then-evaluation. But the evaluation part can’t happen without the work.

Now for the ending…

I told you at the beginning of this article that I was “winging it.” That is entirely true. But I knew all along that this article would be exactly like composing a piece of music, the process of which I was describing the entire time. I put little editor’s notes in the beginning, so that you would see my brain at work. I dropped them out as the article went on—mainly because I knew they were getting in the way (a compositional metaphor for “too many notes”). But believe me, there were many times along the way where I edited, or I stopped to eat breakfast or to take a shower, all while my brain was still at work on composing this article.

Even now, I can confess that what you’re reading has been edited many times. This very sentence is only still here because I read the entire article yet another time and decided it fit the shape and scope of the entire piece. I actually even typed this before finishing the previous paragraph because it was a thought I wanted to get down before I forgot it. I filled in the rest later. (Sound like composing?)

I was worried about getting this done, but in actuality it only took 45 minutes. All because I sat down and got to work.

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.
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


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.

Rethinking How We Teach Composition, Part 1

Teaching composition requires a balance between the student and the teacher; between the micro and the macro. The strategy includes the teacher’s understanding of the creative process, the student’s reflection on that process, and a design of individually tailored tasks for the student—a set of activities mutually agreed upon. Constant shifting between the big picture and the small steps is critical.

Writing music leads composers to strategies for invention. While teachers can guide students through the creative process, students can also help teachers to reassess core aesthetic values. After all, how can one teach without being willing to learn at the same time? The roles of teacher and student become somewhat blurred in the process of making intuitive knowledge explicit. Similar roles between performers and composers exist, and they are fuzzy.

Like most artists, composers are basically lifelong students. Therefore, the most effective composition teachers are foremost learners and listeners. As a composer and a teacher, I encourage the development of preliminary expectations for a piece, ideally before any notes are composed. What is the composer’s musical and/or non-musical intention, and how does that relate to form, timbre, and any number of parameters? Then, and only then, do we move into design. Graphs work really well for me at this stage! After notes begin to emerge, we review the initial intention. Has it changed? Should it change? Maybe the material is calling for a different architecture than originally planned.

Mirar graph

Graph of Mara Gibson’s mirar (2001) for soprano, flutes, cello and two percussionists.

Map of Rain Hitting Water sketch

Sketch from Map of Rain Hitting Water

For example, I refined the graph of mirar after the music was composed (in preparation for the defense of my dissertation), while my sketch for Map of Rain Hitting Water was a general plan that I used as a guide throughout my process, allowing me to adapt the music as it emerged with Mark Lowry of newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (and later the video collaboration with Caitlin Horsmon). I find both approaches helpful and informative in working with performers.

Of course, questions can be tailored to a specific ability level or project, but the fundamental challenges remain the same. In fact, if pressed, I generally provide my young students more freedom early in their career because that is when it seems most necessary. Initially, I started the UMKC Composition Workshop to engage young composers in the same kind of opportunities that more experienced composers tend to have, such as chances to share their ideas in a group setting and hear those of others. It seemed ludicrous to me that composers needed to get to a graduate school level to join in such a forum. We all must find (and reassess) our voice, to recognize what it is that we want to say before we figure out how to say it. This is certainly not a new idea in creative thought. However, when I reflect back on my music and composition education and my teachers, this paradigm is a bit flipped. Participation in a forum should precede (and/or at least coincide with) creative “work.” The creative process is, after all, one of give and take; a combination of having a vision of what is to come and an understanding of what has proceeded—a kaleidoscopic process.

When I was learning the piano as a child, I was rigidly told how to play. However, it was not until I had an opportunity to shape those ideas that I began writing music and discovering my artistic voice. In retrospect, I think I needed to feel a sense of ownership over the music in order to express myself. Composing and interpreting music are very personal endeavors, ones that vary tremendously from personality to personality. I came to recognize my voice when I was granted the freedom to explore. In part, this was about me giving myself ownership, and in part, I needed my teachers to give me permission, to provide an extra nudge. (Yes, back to the Frost.) How and why should children—who many argue are more in touch with their inherent creativity than adults—be given any less freedom, any less room for spontaneity? As teachers, allowing freedom to explore, especially with children, makes our job more challenging on the front end, but I find the results much more rewarding in the long term.