Tag: environment

Musical Experiences in Daily Life

What does it mean to live a musical life? How has my perspective as a dedicated musician shaped my experience of the world? How does that manifest in my life and music?

The idea that movement suggests music is an influence from my study of Dalcroze Eurhythmics, as is my interest in rhythmic flow—how to create momentum, and let it subside. And so sometimes life can seem to be a vast counterpoint.  And it can blur the edge between the quotidian and the musical while, at times, they become one.

The counterpoint of life is omnipresent.

Art imitates life, or life imitates art. Which is it?  Both/and? The chicken or the egg…? Looking at life through a musical lens, I see many correspondences that are perhaps easier to see in a city like New York, where the counterpoint of life is omnipresent.


Rush hour between Port Authority and Grand Central is a corridor of music – live, vibrating along subway passageways, on the platforms, or on the trains. Music pairs with the clatter and screech, the footsteps, the travelers, the dancerly crossings and those who come too close during rush hour when so many people are trying to get somewhere else. Then you’re walking through a corridor and hear a drumbeat. Rounding the corner, you see the drummer, Ah!  He drums you through the turnstile and gives you something you didn’t even know you’d needed.

The music fades as you walk away and seems to disappear, but it lingers in your head and pairs with your surroundings, the conversations in polyglot rhythms, the varied paces of the stream of travelers, each with their own tempo, weaving and tacking through the crowd.  Movement is music. Having improvised for a walk as I did in my Dalcroze days, I’m noticing the differing gates and the movement of weight. I weave my own line into the counterpoint as I move through the crowded platform, humming a vamping bass.

Commuters awaiting the shuttle train at Times Square


Walking home one night, I discover an Indian restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue. Turns out it’s good food but nearly empty due to delivery apps and the like, so I had the place to myself.  Soft Indian classical music in my ears, I order.  Waiting for the food, I’m looking out the window, sipping a glass of wine. It’s a charcoal black night lit by the storefronts across the way, the passing yellow cabs amid the vehicle sea, a colorful array of red, yellow, and white neon.  As I’m watching, I start to notice that there’s something more. Cars are going both ways on one-way Amsterdam Avenue.  Everything seems much busier!  Twice as busy in fact.  Comings and goings. Looking to my right, I notice the large mirror covering the entire wall of the restaurant.  These are mirror images; I’m watching contrary motion in practice!

There are various rates of flow.

There’s the direction – the coming towards, crossing at the center line, then moving away like partners in a dual, disappearing into the vanishing point.  There are various rates of flow. Cabs are the fastest, darting to the light, while cars and trucks may saunter.  Eventually, I see that the cab goes through an equal deceleration at the other end, accelerando and ritard referring back to their opposite.  The saunterers, whose speeds are less varied, bring an amazing but ordered complexity to the scene.  And then there are the people. Walking at a steady pace, self approaches self and departs from self.  If that’s not counterpoint, what is?

A baby cart and a car moving as seen from a window from within a restaurant, and their reflections through a mirror.

Contrary motion and variable rates of flow observed from an upper west side Indian restaurant.


My mentor lives at the West 86th Street subway stop.  When it’s cold outside, I take the subway home from her apartment. Waiting for the train, I hear Bernstein—“There’s a place for us…” The train across the platform is leaving the station, and that’s its song. A perfect Bernstein tribute, though unplanned.


I turn on the electric tooth brush in the morning; it sings C.  I join in humming “om” as it does its work.


My dancer friend tells me that she experiences everything in terms of phrase—waiting at a stop light, walking through a department store. Her years of dancing have given her an internal phrase clock. Sometimes it goes on in the background, but it’s always there.


Sometimes I swim in phrases, holding my breath longer to lengthen the phrase.  My mother once told me that she learned to swim in 6/8 time, three kicks to each arm stroke.  When I tried it, it propelled me through the water with much less effort. I tried it walking up the steps, it helped there too!  This must be the most efficient use of energy? A connection with the three-part beat of swing and the indigenous rhythms of African drumming and of original life?

A musician performing in one of the walkways between platforms at the Times Square station.

A lone subway musician at Times Square, but his music is just one layer of the sonic landscape there.

Street Music, Noise, and the City of Joy

The first sounds I hear in Kolkata are the car horns. Composed of dissonant intervals, they rip the air apart with pointalistic short-long abrasions. The car horns are incessant and fascinating. The local driving style involves closing the side mirrors and using the horn to communicate your position to other vehicles. In Kolkata, drivers don’t look for each other so much as they listen for each other.

On a humid day in August 2013, I was standing on one of Kolkata’s many flat rooftops listening to the traffic below. Looking out across the city, my rooftop seemed like a single concrete island among thousands of concrete islands stretching to the horizon. Swirling around me was an ocean of sound. The braying vehicles wove through a landscape of activity as thousands of people navigated the city’s concrete passageways. This human friction produced a sonic canvas of indistinguishable voices occasionally punctuated by the call of a daab-wallah[1] or the clang of ritual metal[2]. Obscured within the marketplace babble, almost spectrally, were the upper partial cries, chirps, and songs of various crows, finches, and mynas as they competed for scraps of food and the best perch. This mid-range chatter was bolstered by the deep lumbering growl of construction machinery and generators whose abyssal drone could be felt as much as heard. As I stood amidst the sound of a thousand worlds colliding, the evening call to prayer emerged out of the soundscape. The call’s percussive language and oscillating pitches soloistically framed the other sounds below. I realized that I was no longer listening to a cacophonous urban din but an aleatoric composition. Every sonic layer was fulfilled. Rhythmic densities ebbed and flowed over drones and textures of sound. Unexpected events gave the piece form, and gluing it all together was a luminous melody. This was the symphonic noise of Kolkata, City of Joy.

I will never forget that day. I came to India on a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies with the purpose of studying Hindustani evening and night ragas. After ten months, I left Kolkata with an expanded view of the relationship between noise, music, and environment. This paradigm shift challenged previous notions I held about identifying sound and clarified the role of the listener within sonic experiences.

Kolkata Rooftops

Kolkata Rooftops. Photo by Jayanthi Bunyan

In the Ear of the Listener

The soundscape I experienced while standing on the rooftop in Kolkata taught me that music is a choice the listener makes and that the difference between music and noise is a matter of perspective. Bart Kosko highlights this subjectivity when he writes, “Noise is a signal that we don’t like.”[3] In this statement, Kosko places music and noise at the mercy of personal taste rather than impartial observation. This has profound implications for what music is, how it is forged, and who gets to represent it. When the difference between music and noise is a matter of perception, the listener becomes more responsible than the sound generator for music creation. This focus on the listener is partially enabled by music’s existence as a purely cognitive experience and our ability to mentally organize sound into systems like tonality.

The listener’s role in music creation is elevated because the act of music making is taking place in the brain rather than objectively in the air. Daniel Levitin outlines this concept in his book This is Your Brain on Music when discussing the human conception of pitch. He writes:

The word pitch refers to the mental representation an organism has of the fundamental frequency of sound. That is, pitch is a purely psychological phenomenon related to the frequency of vibrating air molecules. By “psychological,” I mean that it is entirely in our heads, not in the world-out-there; it is the end product of a chain of mental events that gives rise to an entirely subjective, internal mental representation or quality. Sound waves—molecules of air vibrating at various frequencies—do not themselves have pitch. Their motion and oscillation can be measured, but it takes a human (or animal) brain to map them to that internal quality we call pitch.[4]

Music is a choice the listener makes and the difference between music and noise is a matter of perspective.

Levitin’s account of pitch cognition can be broadened to explain the threshold between music and noise. The nature of music existing purely as a mental process allows adaptation, behavior, and choice to play a role in how we perceive sound. This was exemplified when the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring was reviewed as “close to noise” by some members of the press, while for others “Stravinsky was hailed as a genius.”[5] This mental flexibility allows us to reframe sonic information through active choices and indexical experiences. Limited only by the confines of the mind, our musical acuity can be sharpened to include the full range of sounds we are capable of hearing, including noise.

In order to turn noise into music, our mind has to organize sonic information. If we continue down the track of pitch cognition outlined by Daniel Levitin, we will eventually encounter the systemization of pitch into tonality. This ability to index sound, and its relationship to symbolism, offers a possible model for how we may alter noise perception. Musicologist and evolutionary biologist Gary Tomlinson discusses the emergence of tonality in his book A Million Years of Music.

[T]onality, a pervasive tendency if not universal feature of pitch organization in musicking, shows systematicity and combinatorial hierarchy, both characteristic of the symbol; but tonality shows neither categorical distinction nor a rule-governance tantamount to a grammar, and it symbolizes nothing.[6]

The absence of “categorical distinction,” “rule-governance,” and symbolism within tonality enables a plurality of methods for defining and organizing sound. If the fundamental qualities of tonality include system creation, as well as hierarchies of thought and behavior, can the concept of tonality be expanded to include sounds other than pitch? Can we engineer tonalities out of any sound we experience? Perhaps what I experienced in Kolkata was a psychological adjustment. I went from hearing a cacophonous city ruckus to perceiving a hierarchy of sounds while mentally forming a system of frequency layers and rhythmic textures. If music only exists in our mind’s ability to organize sound, then the only boundary is the listener’s imagination. Perhaps that is the difference between music and noise.

Street music

Street music. Photo by Aakash Mittal

Street Music

Later that year, following one of my lessons with Prattyush Banerjee, I was traveling by bus through the Kolkata noise-scape. It was a weeknight like any other. The air’s pale humidity weighed on my skin, and I could smell the fragrance of burning trash, petrol, and incense unique to Indian cities. The bus came to my stop at the Gariahat crossing, one of Kolkata’s largest outdoor marketplaces.

As I hopped off the bus, I was met with extraordinary sights and sounds. The metal gate that had always enclosed a Kali shrine was thrown open. A display of colored fruit covered the normally empty wooden platform. While chanting cadential phrases, a priest sat among the offerings and occasionally drowned out his own voice by ringing a small bell. The sound that permeated the air was hammered metal and the repetitive thumping of sticks on a large vertical drum. My mind was fixated on categorizing sound. Was this ritual? The context was a Kali shrine. Was this performance? There was an audience of passersby. Was it a jam session? There appeared to be an element of casual improvisation.

What I failed to articulate at the time was that the power of collective sound making could encompass and advance beyond all of my labels. Kolkata was flush with these sonic events, and I encountered them almost daily. The orchestral noise of the city was constantly augmented with the sounds of polyrhythmic hammering, invented instruments, and exalted cries. There was no monetary exchange that occurs in busking, and there appeared to be no agenda beyond resonating the air in celebration. People came together to make music without the same goals or identity restrictions I was accustomed to in the United States. In Kolkata, you did not need to be a “musician” to play music. It affirmed a belief I have long held as an educator: that music making is not the providence of musicians but belongs to everyone. Collective sound making is fundamental to our nature.

Without words to describe these events, and lacking a suitable understanding of what I was experiencing, I affectionately referred to the sounds as “street music.” In the context of a city lush with artistic scenes, street music seemed to embody Tomlinson’s organizing principals of “systematicity” and “combinatorial hierarchy” while being simultaneously devoid of “category,” “grammar,” and “symbolism.” Street music was sound making for the air itself, just as city noise was a symphony of human activity. Both were sounds framed by location and context. This realization uncovered an important aspect of universal music: The environment.

Critical Feedback

Our surroundings physically shape the vibrations we create and amplify our noises with their sympathetic resonances.

Environment frames our improvised existence through the structure of physical boundaries, the supply of material affordances, and the pressures of nature. Just by existing in time and space, our actions and thoughts are continuously relating to and reflecting off of the world around us. Our surroundings physically shape the vibrations we create and amplify our noises with their sympathetic resonances. Environments are so integral to culture that referring to location when talking about music is difficult to avoid. We habitually refer to East Coast and West Coast jazz, North and South Indian music, French and German schools of clarinet playing. When we try to separate music from location, we often suffer the same consequences as creating genre. Music becomes detached from the people who create it. Our habitats act as a powerful symbol for communities and the music they create. Locations contextualize our noises, fuel our identities, and shape our experiences through the shared navigation of affordances and pressures. The environment is a form that our creative existence traverses.

In many ways the range of cultures that emerge from unique environments is the best argument against universalism. How can universal music exist when each setting affects the sounds we create? Isn’t the array of diverse terrain from which cultures and music arise enough to signify distinct categories? I don’t believe Hafez Modirzadeh was advocating a rejection of cultural diversity when he encouraged me to explore the idea of universal music. Rather, he was challenging me to penetrate a world of endless multiplicity in order to discover the fundamental properties that tie all of these sound-locations together. In his essay “On the Convergence Liberation of Makam X,” Hafez Modirzadeh writes:

[W]hen two or more idioms’ acoustical and rhythmic sensibilities are practiced together without compromising the integrity of each, distinctions are enhanced at a focal point rather than blurred, creating another context that sustains rather than dissolves traditional elements, ultimately allowing for all to flourish both within and beyond the boundaries of culture.[7]

Idiomatic music can act as a gateway towards the universal through its relationship to environment. In the same way that time and space are inseparable, communities and the music they make are united through the shared action of creating sound in relation to space. Simply put, culture emerges from this interaction of biology (people) with environment. At the beginning of A Million Years of Music, Gary Tomlinson describes this interaction as a continuous feedback loop. The loop begins when environments influence organisms through selective pressures such as “affordances” and “constraints.” Following that “[o]rganismal impact in reshaping selective terrain includes activities, behaviors learned in a lifetime and passed on to later generations, i.e. culture.”[8] Later, Tomlinson includes a model of the organism and environment feedback loop with a cultural feedback loop inside. As organisms develop they generate a “formalized cultural system that stands outside of co-evolutionary feedback.”[9] This secondary feedback loop is called the cultural epicycle.

feedback loop 1

Using Tomlinson’s model as inspiration we can draw our own picture of a sound-environment feedback loop with one addition: within the cultural epicycle I have added a musical epicycle.

feedback loop 2

The musical epicycle is a result of “thinking at a distance.” As Tomlinson writes, “[Thinking at a distance] developed alongside a ‘release from proximity” whereby humans gradually gained the capacity to imagine things not present to the senses[[10]].” Tomlinson’s “release from proximity” is what allows us to create sonic environments within cultural epicycles. Musicking feeds back between individual listening, decision-making, and sound generation on one side, and the “at a distance” sonic architecture that exists within ensembles, compositions, and noise environments on the other side. During my time in Kolkata, the ambient city noises and street music contributed to my personal feedback loops, just as my perceptions, behavior, and choices impacted the city.

Noise can become music, the streets can be our concert halls, and every listener can be an artist.

A number of artistic questions surface when we examine the role of environment in music making. While creating we can ask ourselves: What do we want to contribute to physical, social, and musical environments? If we are simply resonating the world around us, how does that affect artistic choices? Knowing that music exists purely in the mind of the listener equalizes the playing field for all participants. Art becomes a choice made by the experiencer, liberating us from previous constraints and opening up a world of environmental sounds to explore. We are no longer limited to performer-audience models, allowing us to expand our sonic palette through inclusive social-artistic dynamics. Noise can become music, the streets can be our concert halls, and every listener can be an artist.

These ideas surfaced throughout Kolkata’s Durga Pooja festival as I stumbled upon unidentifiable soundscapes of street music and city noise. Thousands of art installations dotted West Bengal, establishing a framework and form to the event. I was submerged in an ocean of sound and activity. The experience simultaneously encompassed what we would call performance art, music festival, art installation, and a myriad of other terms. These labels are not important. What I realize now is that I was experiencing an environment of explosive creativity, and it was quite possibly the most universal composition I have ever heard.

Durga Pooja

A Durga Pooja installation. Photo by Aakash Mittal


1. A Bengali word for someone who sells coconuts.

2. In the rituals I encountered, the sound of metal was often involved. Usually in the form of bells, as well as a gong or piece of metal struck with a wooden dowel or hammer.

3. Kosko, Bart. Noise. New York, NY. Viking Penguin, 2006. pp. 3

4. Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York, NY. Plume. 2007. pp. 22

5. Cross, Jonathan. Igor Stravinsky. London, UK. Reaktion Books, 2015. pp. 51

6. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music: The emergence of human modernity. Brooklyn, NY. Zone Books, 2015. pp. 193

7. Modirzadeh, Hafez. “On the Convergence Liberation of Makam X.”
Critical Studies in Improvisation, Vol. 7, No. 2. 2011, Criticalimprov.com

8. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music. pp. 46

9. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music. pp. 47

10. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music. pp. 50


Teresa Louis, Matt Moore, Jayanthi Bunyan, and Meera Dugal for reading and reviewing these essays. Molly Sheridan, Frank Oteri, and New Music USA for giving me this opportunity and your ongoing support of the new music community. American Institute of Indian Studies for artistic support through the performing arts fellowship. Brooklyn Public Libraries for providing a quiet and air conditioned space in which I could work.

Listening to Protest and Resistance in the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”

Robinson's Cave

Robinson’s Cave, New Straitsville, Ohio. Photo by Jonathan Johnson.

Throughout this series of posts, I am presenting portraits of people and places of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds region in Appalachian Ohio. Each post focuses on sounds and how paying attention to them can give insight into issues such as labor, protest, recovery, and social life. Recording and carefully listening to these sounds can also suggest ways of bridging between place and creative sound works.

I am at the mouth of Robinson’s Cave, a small recess in a hill above New Straitsville, Ohio. It is late winter, and the area is overwhelmed with the sounds of melting ice and snow crunching underfoot. The wind stirs fallen leaves and moves the canopy overhead. In the town below, an old school bell is quietly heard, and cars drive through the salty slush and snow. These sounds are a reflection of the cave’s contemporary soundscape, but the past echoes here, too. In the late 19th century, coal miners met here secretly to resist unfair wages and to unionize. Local historians note that the secluded cave had “great acoustics,” and miners could meet quietly and still hear each other. Whispers reverberated and remained there. These meetings were key to the formation of the United Mine Workers of America in 1890.

Inside the shallow cave, I listen to the acoustics of an underground space as it alters natural and human environments. The cave carries an additional significance when imagining another meeting that took place here in 1884. Unknown agitators—perhaps miners or operators—supposedly met here, conspiring to set the mines on fire. These fires ended mining in the immediate region and they continue to burn today, more than 125 years later. Brandon Labelle sees the underground as a place of opposition and resistance, and suggests that it functions as “an explicit zone for transformation.” These events, combined with the fact that the cave was used for its acoustic characteristics, give an aural insight into the cultural identity of the Little Cities.

Protest connected to extraction, quiet for several decades in the area, has undergone a shift from labor to environment. Now, it is groups outside the energy industry who carry on the disruptive acts of striking miners. In an area with many seeking work, the new promise of employment further complicates tensions between industry, labor, and environmental activists. It is against this conflicted backdrop that local groups mount strategies of protest, focusing on hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) in particular. Clashing soundscapes of ecology and politics are revealed, and we hear an arrhythmia of discord between the two.

Stairs leading to Robinson's Cave

Stairs leading to Robinson’s Cave, New Straitsville, Ohio. Photo by Jonathan Johnson

“Direct Action” in Training and Practice

In the basement of a community center, I join a dozen women and men forming two lines facing one another. Over just a few minutes, one side moves from curt conversation to confrontation to yelling. “What are you doing here?” screams a woman, pointing her finger close to a man’s face. “Get the hell off my property! You’ve got no right to be here!” The room is reverberating with anger, shouting, and tension-filled voices. At the same time, some of the participants are quiet and calm. They do not say anything despite the screaming that is directed toward them. My stomach is hurting, and I feel disoriented. The situation seems uncomfortable and out of control. I cannot wait for it to be over. When the yelling tapers off, there is still tension in the room as everyone assesses what just took place.

In this moment, the sonic qualities of silence, repetition, and impassioned shouting are entwined, and perform the logic of resistance. As part of a “direct action” workshop, we were in a “hassle line,” a role-playing exercise where participants act out a confrontation between industry workers and protesters at a fracking site. According to the instructor, direct action is a strategic, non-violent event “unmediated by the political process to stop an injustice where it happens.” Simulated situations are a chance to practice “de-escalation,” and staying calm in the face of antagonism. Here, silence is used as a tool of protest. It helps prevent the situation from getting out of hand. Silence also creates a unified message, simply through the group’s physical presence without further explanation.

The “mock-actions” undergone during the workshop are tested later when the group blocks the entrance to an injection well storage site. Chants such as, “Our water, our air, no fracking anywhere!” are shouted antiphonally across the group. “I’m pissed off because those tanks up there are filled with poison,” a woman announces through a megaphone. As trucks drive by carrying frack-waste, the group sings “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and a version of “We Shall Overcome” altered to “We’ll Protect Our Water.” In the end, eight farmers and local business leaders are arrested. They are quiet while the protesting crowd continues an air of celebration around them. Cheering and clapping erupt as they are led away. Words of encouragement are shouted to the arrestees: a woman calls out, “You look beautiful in handcuffs!”

Fracking Protest in the Wayne National Forest

A group gathers at the Wayne National Forest headquarters to speak against proposed hydraulic fracturing wells. Jack Wright, a musician, filmmaker, and teacher, stands up in front, holding a piece of paper. “Fresh off the press,” he says, to the laughter of the crowd. He sings a modified, unaccompanied version of the well-known Florence Reece song, “Which Side Are You On?” The song was originally written in response to striking coal miners in the 1930s. Wright sings, “You rulers of the forest, this song to you I’ll tell/Do the impact study, save us from fracking hell…” Wright’s adjustments to the song are a part of a folk tradition of localizing music to fit to a place, in this case the Wayne National Forest. They are also a form of musical borrowing with a historical awareness.

“That was a good day,” Wright tells me later. “I wish they could have listened a little bit clearer to what we had to say. We still have to insist that what we believe be listened to.” Wright’s assessment points to the struggles of raising one’s voice to not only be heard, but to change the course of events. Singing becomes a forceful act of resistance and listening is the hoped for goal, but without any assurance of communication or success. Voice and listening may be important tools in the battle over fracking in the forest, but are not necessarily enough to change policy. Wright continues, “It was just for the moment, to try to help get those people together and let the Wayne Forest people know we were there in force. If they could hear the force of the song and hear us shouting, that sort of made our crowd a little bit bigger. Even though in the long haul it didn’t change their minds, at least they knew we were there to contend with their violations.”

Co-presence, Becoming, Returning

In this series, sound, place, and traces of history are bound together as they continue to change through time. Addressing issues of place and sustainability, Jeff Todd Titon cites “co-presence” as a sonic trait that allows one to sense “the presence of something greater than oneself through sound.” As I continue to listen to the Little Cities, I observe co-presence again and again, and it is often contradictory: job growth due to fracking threatens many years of sustained efforts to reverse environmental degradation; “geo-tourism” markets the region as a travel destination, while many residents must commute to larger cities to find employment. These contradictions become a web of environmental, economic, and social issues, and they begin to feel like a never-ending game of rock-paper-scissors.

In the acts of protest cited above, shouting, speeches, chanting, and singing bring groups fighting for environmental justice together. These qualities strengthen the groups’ ability to resist hostile opposition. Sounds of resistance also lend an air of celebration to tension-filled moments. They simultaneously bring together and diffuse, and meaningfully hold in suspension situations that could easily descend into chaos and violence.

Through listening, I too hold these diverse and often conflicting realities together. Soundscapes of protest, recovery, labor, and social life all emerge and dissipate at different rates and rhythms; they affect one another, and are often in tension. Henri Lefebvre understands these rhythms as a fusion of both cyclical and linear time, rhythms of “becoming,” or of clock-time, “returning” rhythms, or metronomic rhythms.

Listening is an unfolding process. It observes continual change, becoming, and returning. It is also stratified, a co-presence that opens a sonic space for critical analysis. These qualities become compositional tools to evoke the many voices and sounds of the region. When Alvin Lucier states that “careful listening is more important than making sounds happen,” he is empasizing attentiveness over compositional virtuosity and technique; listening itself becomes performance. I follow this directive and make listening to the Little Cities the central aspect of my writing and compositional work.

The Power of Creation in an Age of Destruction

Volcano eruption

In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.—Ernst Fischer

Most rebels do not succeed, but there are a few who strike the zeitgeist of their times, a few whose intellectual, moral, and spiritual courage tap into the undercurrents of time and space, to face the unknown and emerge triumphantly with vision. The inner struggle connects to the outer struggle. The seismic upheaval of society corresponds within the deeply aware and sensitive individual and allows an opening for profound articulation.

Composers are visionaries and mediators of potential futures. “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life,” wrote Joseph Campbell. Composers hold a kinship with the life-affirming elemental and cosmic forces of creation. The sounds we make matter for our spiritual and physical well-being.

Composer John Luther Adams has said that his music is “not about anything” but it is about everything. Adams’s music is a ritual in altering consciousness. Here is a composer who, amidst rampant destruction of human and non-human communities, seeks to create a new culture from this deluge. His music is “about” many things: resilience, compassion, redemption of the human spirit amidst the collapse of industrial civilization and unprecedented ecological change. In April 1849, in the tumult of revolution in Germany, the young composer Richard Wagner conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Dresden. In the audience was the Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin. So moved by this experience, Bakunin told Wagner later that if there was anything worth saving from the ruins of the old world, this score would be it. In the ruins of our own world, we must look to Adams’s example.

Artists and organizations within the spiritual craft of music (from shamans to Beethoven to John Luther Adams) are not compatible with the short term, supply and demand, and superficial ethic of industry. True craft and meaning, which seeks to ask questions in order to experience and transform, lie within the humanities. It is the humanities that synthesize knowledge and experience, that take the long view, and empower the essence of life, the stuff of myths, and remind us of our individual insignificance in the vast unknowing of the cosmos—as Prospero said, “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

It is in the humanities where we sort out the milieu of experience and cultivate visions of truth through great works of literature, drama, scholarship, art, and music. And the crisis of classical music and the composer’s craft is not the irrelevance of the art to the times which must instead be made relevant or marketable, but that the times and culture have betrayed the values of the art form and marginalized its keepers. Journalism has been degraded to digital buzz-feeds, literature debased to bestsellers of laconic veneer, drama congealed to gory and lascivious entertainments, and composition to a ring-tone, a sound bite emptied of substantial expression and neutered of any real living creative power. The intellectual and spiritual materialism of music is pervasive and deceptive. I have a terrible suspicion that many composers, musicians, and arts administrators today have difficulty separating superficial musical creation from living embodiments of truth.

This war on the humanities is deliberate and calculated; this is done by making it nearly impossible to make a living as an independent artist—de facto marginalization in the social strata. My intent here is to articulate the very real altering of consciousness necessary to address our circumstances and fully empower our roles as creators. We must acknowledge our vulnerabilities and complacencies and strive to see beyond the façade, to challenge, and ask questions. These questions and challenges put forward to the culture must begin in the inner world of the composer.

All societies in decay make war on artists and intellectuals because they offer ideas that are uncomfortable, speaking intrinsic truths that upset the happy-thought spectacle. When societies break down, the language of social discourse and culture become fictitious. This need not be a downer, but a call of resolve and volition to those creators who intuit this struggle, and provide context to where we are in the greater cosmic journey and where you are in your own personal journey as a creator.

We must compose and create, curate and commune this new reality immediately. The deliberate and continuing marginalization of composers in American culture and the obfuscation of our social function and voice ironically provides, perhaps, the best opportunity for revolt, for our power lies in our powerlessness. We have nothing more to lose and everything to gain.

Composers must recover and reinvent a deeper sense of purpose. Composers must ask themselves, “Whom do I serve? Do I live in service of the self? Or do I live in the service of others? What do I offer?” How you answer or interpret these questions will tell you much, and will prepare you for a more substantial journey of discovery into what makes you an artist and why you have been chosen to live this life of a creator.

Justin Ralls


Justin Ralls is a composer, conductor, and writer hailing from the Pacific Northwest greatly inspired by the beauty of the natural world. His works have been heard at the Hydansaal in Eisenstadt, Austria, Oregon Bach Festival, Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, the Fox Scoring Stage in Los Angeles, and the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, as well as venues in Salzburg, Rome, Boston, San Francisco, and beyond. His orchestra work Tree Ride won the 2013 James Highmith Composition Award and received Special Distinction in the 2014 ASCAP Rudolf Nissim Prize. His education includes degrees from The Boston and San Francisco Conservatories and he is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Oregon under the mentorship of Robert Kyr.

Off the Trail: Absorbing the Reflection of the PCT

ascent from Red Pass

Ascent from Red Pass.

Over the course of the last four and a half months, my residency-on-foot was a prolific time. I wrote a couple dozen short works, made hundreds of field recordings, and have been able to think about music and sound in ways previously unimaginable to me. Since all I was doing every day was just walking, the sheer amount of time and space that each thought was allowed was huge—rewarding but also at other times maddening. It is a very privileged few folks who are able to conjure up the finances at the right time (such as when they have their health) and leave everything else behind to go walk across the country, knowing that they’ll be able to enter back into society relatively easily. This privileged set was one that felt oddly familiar to me as a composer: the vast majority of the thru-hikers out there were white dudes, and of both genders almost exclusively white. The process of writing and walking this multitude of landscapes led me to think, read, compose, and make field recordings based on related demographic queries such as who used to live there, how people alter and interact with the landscape then and now, who are the current inhabitants, and how everything sounds as a result.

The Pacific Crest Trail traverses all sorts of different types of land-designations—national parks, national forests, wilderness areas, Department of Natural Resources and Bureau of Land Management land, state parks, private land, and also a few Native American reservations. Each of these different types of land are managed in radically different ways by different agencies and people, yet one point all of them share is that prior to 1492 when Columbus and company washed ashore (opening a wave of change and genocide over the centuries) they were inhabited by various Native American tribes who had a symbiotic relationship with the land—with myriad managements of their own that evolved in tandem with specific bioregions over tens of thousands of years. Fast forward through hundreds of years of disease, presidentially authorized massacres by the military, forced removal, over-hunting, clear-cutting of forests, mining, colonization, romanticization of nature in the occidental arts, and a wave of westward expansion and pioneers, and the landscape is dramatically different. Even John Muir, radical as he was in his day advocating for the preservation of the natural world, helped change things further by pushing for Native Americans to be removed in order to create the first national parks, such as his beloved Yosemite in Central California. Thus, the concept of “wilderness” was born in the American mind—nature being something virginal and pure to be placed on a pedestal and admired from a distance, separate from humans.

near Stevens Pass in Northern WA

Near Stevens Pass in Northern Washington.

So, when walking through all these various landscapes, constantly altered as they are by human interaction of some type, it became apparent to me that part of my job as a composer on this long walk was not to try to capture a series of idyllic bird calls from this mythical concept of a beautiful and pristine wilderness, but to capture the reality of the lands I was passing through. Dark and dense 30-year-old mono-crop forests, replanted after being clear-cut, stand almost silent with little plant diversity or animal life stirring contrasted with an ancient forest only a few miles away that is noisy and open, with a myriad of different sounds humming away from the forest floor to hundreds of feet up to the canopy. Deep scars across the desert floor, generations old, crisscrossed by fresh lines from marauding troops of people on ATVs and four-wheelers. The sound of a flowing stream suddenly joined with the counterpoint of a buzzing power station and lines of wires stretching across the hillsides. There’s the concept of things being very “quiet” out in this American construct of “wilderness”—but should they be? The summer trading parties of the Washo (coming from the east with pine nuts and obsidian) and the Miwok and Maidu (arriving from the west with abalone shells, yew bows, and acorns) in the North Sierra Meadows have been replaced with the sound of a few hundred privileged white people in high tech gear passing through, music being broadcast endlessly through the tiny speakers of their devices which also communicate with satellites to tell them where they are. The Cahuilla tribe no longer are gathering herbs and singing their days-long pieces of music that tell their history in the desert of Southern California. Instead we hear the sound of coyotes circling, in tandem with a security van cruising slowly along guarding a spring on private land; wind turbines whirring from miles away on the desert floor. And should the elk be so noisy walking through the forest? Before, many of these tribes cleared brush and did controlled burns, making most of the forests impossible to burn the way that they do now, massive tinderboxes filled with brush that they are. Indeed, the eery sound of hundreds of acres of creaking burned trees after a devastating wildfire is something we’ve created due to poor forest management.

A lot of these new juxtapositions sound kind of depressing, and I have to admit I found some things downright disturbing (like the sound of logging going on on US Forest Service land), but some of the sounds and combinations thereof when observed objectively are quite beautiful, and I must admit that I missed certain sounds of civilization and found myself delighted when happening upon them. For instance, when resupplying in Southern Washington I ended up lingering in the hallway of a gas station a bit longer so I could listen to the gentle lilting 6ths being emitted from the ceiling vent. And, humans aside, there have been a plethora of incredible sounds I’ve recorded along the way (altered or not by humans and interesting in their own right): noisy dawn choruses, insects humming away, or the almost Feldman-like quality (think woodblocks in Rothko Chapel) of woodpeckers deep in the woods.

Mary Clapp

Scientist Mary Clapp working in the High Sierras. Photo by Ryan Carlton

Sounds being indicators of human alteration are being utilized by scientists as well. Mary Clapp, a Ph.D. student at UC Davis, undertook a bioacoustics-based research project in the High Sierras right by where I walked on the Pacific Crest Trail. Here’s more about her project:

My research, very generally speaking, involves seeing if acoustic recordings are a useful way of revealing and tracking habitat change, degradation, or restoration by the intensity and diversity of the chorus of the biological community that is present there. Specifically, the alpine lakes of the High Sierra have evolved without fish–the way the mountains formed, waterfalls and massive glacially carved granite topography prevented fish from ever colonizing up high–until the mid 1900s, when federal agencies started stocking these fishless lakes with non-native trout. The trout have had huge effects on the biological community in the lakes, and potentially on the species that visit the lake (picture a swallow or a bat darting over a lake, catching mayflies for itself and its nestlings). I’ve noticed that fish-containing lakes are a lot quieter than fishless ones, which led me to wonder if these birds and bats aren’t able to find the food they need at the fish-containing lakes, and whether I could use sound recordings to measure the difference between fishy-lake and fishless-lake communities.

So, she used a mule train (still the way to move goods in the High Sierras—I saw a number of them during my time there) to bring loads of recording equipment up to capture many terabytes worth of field recordings this summer for her research. I’m curious to find out the outcome of her research, but either way it’s interesting to note someone from a completely different community taking stock of the natural world through this type of documentation.

River view from 4,000 feet up.

River view from 4,000 feet up.

Environmental degradation and cultural annihilation aside, the total combination of sounds is something that is interesting and wondrous to behold. Portland composer Scott Unrein just finished his piece for my project, and had this to say:

I’ve hiked small sections of the PCT in Oregon. One of the things that has always struck me about doing it is how sound often precedes sight; particularly when encountering signs of civilization. The catch is that there’s often a delay between hearing and fully perceiving the sounds. That’s one of the things I amplified when combining Nat’s field recordings with other sounds. There’s often a special kind of beauty in the confusion that arises when you’re not entirely sure what you’re hearing.

And so, it feels at this point that the pieces I’ve written while on the Pacific Crest Trail end up reflecting a little bit of all of this. In some ways sound is just sound, other pieces will simply present where humans are in their relationship to these various wilderness areas at this moment in time. A couple others examine the history of places I passed through and the missing human elements or acknowledgement of the people who wandered through in search of a new life more recently. (I’ve been slowing down civil-war-era fiddle tunes for use in one of these.) Hopefully, in the end the recording I’ll release of all of my music will reflect all the topics I cruised through here, and how said topics relate back to the myriad bioregions I walked through as I moved across the country on foot.

And perhaps that is one of the biggest things I’ve taken away from this whole experience as a composer: that immersing oneself in something seemingly detached from music and composing can end up deeply impacting and effecting one’s music and creative life. Walking across the country on the Pacific Crest Trail and living out of a tent for four and a half months is, I admit, a bit extreme, and I’m in a privileged position to be able to do this due to life situation, prior knowledge and experience, finances, and place in society, but the impact of simple activities that make us human, no matter the level of time and effort required, push us too. If you never cook, try cooking once a week! Make a commitment to only eat greens from your garden one summer, join a running group, or take a class on something you’d like to know more about. We don’t spend that much time actually doing the composing itself, so why not engage more fully in the rest of life? The results might surprise you.

Do You Hear the People Sing? Music and Protest in the Street

People's Climate March

All images and video by Molly Sheridan

Last week offered remarkable opportunities to contemplate the intersection of music and protest. For the 300,000-plus people participating in the People’s Climate March in New York City, music was a way to transmit a message over the roar of the crowded streets, to express solidarity with one another, and frankly to keep spirits up during the hours-long process of waiting and walking the jam-packed two-mile parade route.

Musicians met and mingled and joined in impromptu group performances of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “This Little Light of Mine,” the lyrics often tweaked to suit the environmental occasion. When a moment of silent reflection was observed at 1 p.m., it was all the more powerful as a result.

The next evening in a small park across the street from Lincoln Center, the situation was somewhat reversed. Music was absent as a coalition of organizations gathered with the explicit goal of forcing the cancellation of the Met’s planned production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer this season. A crowd of roughly 400, including a bussed-in delegation of high school students, listened as speakers passionately objected to what they considered the opera’s glorification of terrorism and its anti-Semitic libretto.

In a crowd, nuance fades away of course. When the argument is literally framed by a fence in the street, the question of “which side are you on?” can take on a certain stark, if ultimately artificial, clarity.
People's Climate March
People's Climate March
I reflected on this first during the climate march. There weren’t really spectators for this action, I noticed. Even the weary participants who eventually camped out on stairs and railings along the sides of the route often still held their placards or snapped pictures which, one assumes, would soon appear on their social media channels with opinions, explicit or implied, attached. Actually addressing climate change is immensely challenging, but in this crowd opinions were paired down to whatever would fit on a banner or into a six-syllable lyric. Sentiments were neat in their simplicity.
People's Climate March
People's Climate March
The Klinghoffer protest offered something both more aggressive and more complex. One lone man who was clearly espousing anti-Semetic sentiments based on his large placard was placed in his own special fenced area at the rear of the action before being moved across the street. And those protesting the production mostly held one of a few versions of pre-made signs, so their alliance was clear. The speeches from the podium became increasingly heated as the event wore on.
Protesting the Met's production of The Death of Klinghoffer
Taking up the mantle of investigative journalist, I started questioning these holders of poster board. Have you seen the opera? Have you heard the opera? Almost everyone I asked—a sample size of 15 or so, so take it for what you will—said that they had not. Some delivered this with a notable amount of pride or disgust at the suggestion that they would have endured such a thing. One woman appeared confused, because, as she informed me, the production “had not opened yet.”

So I was admittedly feeling a little dismissive when two things happened. First, a woman I asked about hearing the opera explained that she had listened to excerpts of it online and she then spoke passionately about why she found it incredibly offensive and inappropriate. I thanked her for her thoughts, but I realized as I turned away that I wasn’t, if I was being honest, really hearing her at all because I had already formed my own tightly held opinions and wasn’t listening. This was underlined with the bluntness of a made-for-TV movie a few moments later when a group of high school kids unaffiliated with the protest stopped near me and asked what was happening. I tried to explain it as even-handedly as I could—they were students, after all—and I was surprised by how thoughtfully they considered the issues at stake, even asking follow-up questions about the real-life events that led to the opera. This was the most productive bit of conversation I had had about the situation all week. Afterward, by truly listening to the various speakers without the earplugs of my own judgment, I began to hear how the root of the protest was actually less about John Adams’s opera, and more—especially since many were not directly familiar with the piece—about broader fears over examples of hate and terrorism and violence, from 9/11 to beheadings in the desert.
Protesting the Met's production of The Death of Klinghoffer
This did not suddenly make demands for the cancellation of The Death of Klinghoffer acceptable to me, but it did produce a more constructive framework for a conversation about the opera. Unfortunately, we were not gathered to have a conversation. We were in the street where the only response requested seemed to be to a single question: “Which side are you on?”

The night before the protest and away from the asphalt, Justin Davidson laid out a powerful analysis of the opera itself for New York Magazine‘s Vulture website (“The Trouble With Klinghoffer Isn’t Quite What You Think“), and James Jorden, writing for the New York Observer (“In Defense of ‘Klinghoffer’“), offered eloquent comments related to some of the same anxieties I felt that night on the plaza:

The function of art, or a least of high art, is not to reinforce existing prejudices. A work of art is not supposed to agree with us any more than we are required to agree with it. On the contrary, art is supposed to inspire a dialogue, even an argument with the spectator and with society as a whole. If that dialogue is quashed by a few hundred, or even thousands of protesters, then art cannot exist.

Earlier this year when reporting on the cancellation of the HD simulcasts of The Death of Klinghoffer, I was called out on this site by a reader for failing to rally unequivocally to the opera’s defense. I don’t deny that there is a time and place for such action, but then as now, I’m actually more concerned that we take care to actually listen to the music and the responses of those around us to it. Shouting either into silence seems to me the most damning outcome of all.

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.