Tag: lists

The Books In My Life

All of this came from somewhere. Nothing exists in a void; ideas are in and of themselves a lineage.

All of our human ideas flow back and forth—between parents and kids, among friends, pressing in against relationships—tangentially, sometimes musty, and lent hand to hand. Often, we teach each other these ideas through books. In the process of writing that last essay, I realized that—particularly because I’m not an academic—I feel deeply uncomfortable citing or, more egregiously even, forgetting to cite something. So this essay is a collection of books that changed my way of thinking, as they do. This is like the footnote section, all on its own, annotated with how and why these things got me thinking and how they got me to the beliefs I’ve got now.

Though most of them aren’t in fact books, actually. More on that later.

Henry Miller—The Colossus of Maroussi

Of the things that have most shaped my ideas about making work and living in our world, Miller’s character Colossus, a normal guy with butterflies and retsina and guilt for taking a nap spilling from each hair, looms (though he is likely normal in stature) the largest. Miller writes aimlessly through Greece with friends until he happens upon a giant of a Grecian raconteur, in the guise of just an any-guy guy.

This is probably the reason I’ve been telling stories ever since. I identified with the Grecian (Katsimbalis), wheeling about those streets and hillsides, finding the triumphant in an egg, ecstatic and unabashed moment to moment, sad only about missing something important. The lesson: stay heart forward.

My Mom—Jennifer Rountree (who avoids the internet, so I can’t link to her website here)

To start again: my mom. My mother, Jennifer, is a person, not a book. When I told her I was writing about her in this post, she said:

You can “read” people, so why not. I wonder how we got to the term “read” people. Maybe it was body “language.” You must include Walt Whitman. I’ll paraphrase: Is it night? Are we alone? Who holds this book, holds a man. There’s this incredible interaction between your eye, a reader’s eye (some would call that the window to the soul) and the word (a writer’s idea and voice), and there it is! A conversation. And aren’t all quiet conversations between two people the best—the right way to meet someone. It’s just like reading a book.

So you can see why I included my mom here (who, by the way, is an incredible acting teacher).

She says often these two things I wanted to share in particular:

  • I rarely go to the show. The show isn’t the thing. I live for rehearsal. Rehearsal is the art. There are actors who lay down on the ground, pressing their foreheads into the edge of the stage, focusing their energies and honoring the space, before they’d dream of beginning a rehearsal. That’s intentionality.
  • Making new work, it’s always problem-solving. We’re all problem solvers.

She also says a few other things often too, like: “You can do this.” She’s pretty great.

Alex Ross—Applause: A Rest Is Noise Special Report

I remember with syrupy clarity the exact second I realized that (ostensibly) the pomp of not clapping during classical music concerts was a mistake made at one singular concert Wagner was overseeing—that only one moment, one transitive point of view, was the thing that led us to the deep divisions and divergent beliefs on stoicism we have in our artform. My view of the way we should go forward and that call to action to change our direction was bright blue, white hot—neon even!—in front of my eyes.

This Image

This is the best Venn diagram on the internet. I use this to describe how people should find what they love. I mean, I’ve always felt awkward, and multifaceted, and did I mention awkward? Haven’t we all. That’s enough on this.

Miranda July—You Me and Everyone We Know

Stark simplicity and the unseen depth of little decisions and so many other things come together in July’s work, generally and especially in this film: intense, brief insanity; emotions so complex that the only way to represent them is ritual; love represented as two shoes that keep moving closer and farther from one another; performance art as film as job in film as life; vulnerability as a source of power; neutral tones; helping other people; sex as simple and human and even childlike; the playful in everything.

Krzysztof Kieślowski—Three Colors Trilogy

I’m a visual person. When I’m writing music or thinking about a certain sound or envisioning the way a phrase will sound as a conductor, I see it—I visualize how it will look when it is sounding the way I want it to. I’m not sure when my brain became obsessed with the idea of the tableaux in my own work, but wow did it happen. There are movies, like these three from Kieślowski, plus Godard’s work and countless others, that struck something in me about beauty and how we should harbour it in our lives. Not guard it, but rather just cherish it, be curious about beauty, and seek it out in absolutely everything. In wild Up’s performances, I’ve been fascinated by what light does to the audience. What happens when they’re in just slightly more light than total darkness? What happens when they are in as much light as the performers? I’ve found that my favorite is when each member of the audience is in just enough light to see everyone else in the audience.

Steve Schick—Kurt Schwitters’s Ur Sonate

I so clearly see Henry Miller’s colossus of a raconteur in Steve Schick. I remember stumbling upon this video long before Steve and I had worked together and being floored. This can be music? And you made this thing of considered beauty out of that blank slate of a conceptual Kurt Schwitters piece? Anything is possible when you see it creatively enough.

Lao Tsu—Tao Te Ching

So I grew up in a spiritual community, in and around an ashram in Santa Monica, California, and sometimes an ashram in South Fallsburg, New York. My first experiences with music as a child were chanting Sanskrit words in large groups of people in a gender-divided and basically pitch-black room, with musical leaders intoning pentatonic melodies from one corner of the room and only one little candle visually lighting the way. I grew up learning about seeing God in people and in myself. In art, in nature, in human endeavor, in conflict and mostly in resolution, in fear and contentment and ecstatic bliss all the same. It’s a wonder it took 20 years for me to find the Tao. These teachings are on such an even keel, the words themselves seem to have the life of the teachings included. They somehow know you and your life and your struggles and exactly what’s happening for you and for you right now. Not to mention, exactly what you could do to just sit in it all and be totally saturated in flexibility and it all being ok, and just from reading the words. A favorite set of mine is this set, all numbered and clickable randomly, I keep this open in my web browser often and just click over to it.

Mathieu Kassovitz—La Haine

Just watch it (not just the clip above, the whole thing). I guess what I mean is: grit, activism, the beautiful, the heinous, people smashed against each other in too little space: all these things belong together in one black and white piece.

Kurt Vonnegut—in the preface to Breakfast of Champions

I feel like this could be the singular footnote for my previous NewMusicBox post, or maybe the complete content efficiently boiled down. Vonnegut, Unserious in Chief. The painful and the light, exactly next to one another, like the end of the world and this childish 50th birthday drawing.

G.R.R. Martin—A Song of Ice and Fire—Complete (WHY IS THIS NOT COMPLETE YET!)

I read the entire series in a summer, mostly looking up over a river to Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley while the (then) new Fleet Foxes album flowed through my (then) locks of hair. (Also back in a time when “vacations” weren’t a thing, because my whole life was workless).

Also a definitive moment to add here where a kid points at me—reading, sitting in a chair with my feet in the river—and says to her mother: Mom, why is that bear reading a book?

Back to Martin, here’s what surprised me: the details were so fleshed out, the forethought was enormous, the hell the characters were put through felt real and like so many artistic (read: diplomatic [read: hellish]) relationships that surround simply making things one believes in. Maybe it’s not fair to equate art making to warfare? Doesn’t it feel like it sometimes though? And what an arc! We’ve all got so much to learn from an arc like Martin’s.

Nico Muhly (with Nadia Sirota, Pekka Kuusisto, Valgeir Sigurðsson and others)—Drones

More on Nico’s writing in a second, but I listened to Drones while putting together most of this post, so maybe it’d make a good soundtrack to read it to. Oh, and I was listening to this.

Nico Muhly—this essay on depression

There have been a number of artists recently with whom I’ve been having a conversation about a life around and truly inside of art, and for whom their life makes up the subject matter or close inspiration for their art (as so much of mine does). Nico Muhly’s essay on his own wellness is included here, because Nico lives in this most beautiful way, unafraid to include the trials of his life as his art—and to help other people, as someone to resonate and identify with. My guess is some would likely say here that his writing isn’t his art, but that’s the crux of why this is included. It’s so clear: an artistic life is one lived deeply in artistic practice at all times. Yevtushenko said it best, and this while in a war zone dealing with being actually besieged:

[A]nd what if art be my torment, harass me on every side, I am already by art besieged.

Conversely, what if we all included our artistic selves in our moment to moment, most routine, lives. How beautiful it all would be!

Melancholia / Love Actually

I always watch these back to back on New Year’s Day. Things mixed, all at once. Sappy light, sappy, light, Wagner (so much, too much in this article), a forest, love as controlled falling down, rough edges (curated and considered in this case). This airport thing that is like way too much and why am I still crying, and do I really like Christmas music, and is this because I’m half-British? Also, is love always like this, and grief?

Chef’s Table

Watching people believe deeply in making something of kinetic, spiritual, and physical value with the level of intentionality that these artists do—it’s something else. Food inspires me. The people who make something that so often is unconsidered or momentary or just mundane is, for me, sort of revolutionary. And the way things are put together, the way that they look—the perfect tableaux again, breathtaking and perfect.

I remember watching chef Marco Pierre White (who’s not part of this show) give a talk about what great food is that summed the whole thing up for me. He said something like “great food is just the things, the right things, on the plate. Nothing extra, nothing extra-special. The thing itself, the things as you put them together themselves: they are special. They are pure. Don’t muddy it up.” That changed me completely. Also, he holds his index finger up the whole time while talking, just like Curly from City Slickers about the “one most important thing.” Also, apparently I do this.

Pina Bausch—Bluebeard

Once we’ve built our artistic brains, our critical, burning, on-fire-with-intentionality minds (or the ones we keep working toward) it’s incredibly rare that something actually strikes us as our art, our way of making, our people, our tribe. I’m about to make a most hopeful and heroic statement and I’m sorry about it: If my tribe has a leader that leader is Pina Bausch. So much humanity, the real and the surreal with hands-locked fingers-interwoven running in a line together toward all of us, the onlookers, the community of outsiders, the ones who paid to have our minds blown, and oh are they!

Where would I be forgetting the inspirations for this list: Henry Miller—The Books in My Life and David Foster Wallace—Infinite Jest (because isn’t he just the master of too long lists?).

There could be so many dozens more, even in the core set, but I’ll stop there for now. To sum all of this is a grand duty, one that I’m not sure I could do given any amount of time (other than the perfect amount of time—which as we all know is: not quite enough), but here goes:

All of our particles are resonating and reverberating, thick with our histories. There’s so much there, for all of us.

I guess—after putting together this list of things that inspire me—I’ve realized how immensely profound all of these possibly overlooked bits of culture have been for me. In hindsight, that’s the revelation. Beauty is a practice and I wonder what we’re all missing, day to day, moment to moment, and how all of those things would change us, if we just paused and took a minute to notice them.

Auld Acquaintances

As we prepare for the new year that is upon us, our instinct to look behind and remember who won’t be joining us has been sated by quite a few media institutions. Some separate out their “in memoriam” lists into various categories and sub-categories, while others create more comprehensive remembrances–often combining musicians and other creative artists with scientists, politicians, celebrities, and other names (or at least their contributions) that might be recognized by a portion of the public. Looking through these projects can be maudlin at times, but often these recognitions can engender renewed interest in the works of those who have passed and, if nothing else, remind us to treasure those who are still here.

Recently there was a bit of a dust-up between Alex Ross (of The New Yorker) and Wm. Ferguson (of the New York Times Magazine) on this very topic. For the past five years, Ferguson has been creating a multimedia “collage” of audio and images of musicians who have passed away over the previous year. His collages are technically well-constructed and thought-through (as far as production values go), and they range beyond the well-known celebrities to touch on artists that may only be recognized by aficionados.

But, as Alex Ross points out, these collages are completely devoid of any mention of performers or composers from the ranks of Western classical music. Ross states:

The omission is particularly maddening this year, since we lost two gigantic figures: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elliott Carter. Almost every other genre has been represented at one time or another, including avant-garde jazz (in the person of Rashied Ali). If the feature were labeled “non-classical music,” that would at least be honest. But the editors seem reluctant to admit their bias, which extends also to print: you won’t find Fischer-Dieskau or Carter–born in this city in 1908, astoundingly active until the very end–in the 2012 “The Lives They Lived” issue.

This obviously touched a nerve over at the NYT Magazine, because two days later Ferguson responded with a missive of his own attempting to defend his choices. In his explanation that the project wasn’t intended to be all-inclusive, Ferguson begins to let his own mindset show through:

The unspoken (and rather obvious, if you ask me) criterion to inclusion is that these are artists who have affected popular culture. They are, in the broadest sense of the word, mainstream. The songs in the mix are part of the popular soundscape. Elliott Carter–no doubt to our impoverishment–is not…
This is not a bias against classical music. Every year rock musicians are left off the mix, and every year I hear about it…
I don’t mean to be coy. I fully empathize with Ross and devotees of classical music. I, too, grew up a fan of a music that was marginalized and ignored by the mainstream. Such was the life of punk acolyte in suburban Pittsburgh in 1982.

Here you have one person with distinct views of what does and does not belong in the “mainstream” creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by consistently ignoring musical styles that are outside of his wheelhouse, yet suggesting through mislabeling that his projects are both stylistically diverse and qualitatively encompassing (in his words, a “K-Tel greatest hits compilation”). The editor is using his position to shape that “mainstream” by adding a few names that only indie, rock, and punk devotees would recognize while, at the same time, protecting it by disavowing not only classical music but Broadway and film music as well in addition to including only two jazz artists in six years. (Marvin Hamlisch, Hal David, Claire Fischer, Von Freeman and Richard Sherman are notably missing).

The intentionality of these decisions can be seen much more clearly when one looks at several other newspapers and magazines who did similar projects–both Carter and Fischer-Dieskau, for example, were named as notable passings in the New York Times itself as well as the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and NPR, as well as Carter being listed in US News & World Report and Fischer-Dieskau being listed by USA Today. Each of these newspapers/magazines made their own editorial decisions on who to add or leave off–the New York Times added Hans Werner Henze while the Tribune left off Etta James and Johnny Otis and while NPR and US News failed to mention Earl Scruggs–but the Times Magazine stands out as being the only high-profile institution not to mention anyone from the classical, film, or Broadway genres.

For someone like myself who is working on a long-term project that forces me to decide who to include and whom to leave out, such a blatant reliance on one’s own tastes and biases in such a public and influential setting is indeed troubling. Alex is right to call for a protest, but positive measures must be seen to as well to ensure that Ferguson and others realize the importance and place of these musics within our culture and society.

Whom Should You Listen To?

One of the interesting aspects of writing these columns every week is that I find myself continually looking for issues to think and write about, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to set me off in one direction or another. Last week, as I was writing about Jennifer Jolley’s blog, I found an interesting post of hers describing a lesson she had taken with famed composer Augusta Read Thomas. While others might have simply written up a basic synopses of the lesson, Jennifer decided to give a play-by-play description of her entire time with Thomas–replete with pictures! One of those pictures was of a list of ten composers written on a sheet of paper–I’ll let Jennifer describe the context:

She also told me I needed to listen to more music; I completely agree. Some of my friends wanted that listening list, so here it is.

Whom Should You Listen To?

This jumped out at me for several reasons. First, I loved the fact that Thomas was telling Jennifer to listen to 20 works by each composer, thus ensuring that she become immersed in the sound world and creative concepts of each of those composers. Second, I was inspired to go listen to more music by many of her suggested composers myself because of this assignment. Finally, one could look at this list and get a very clear idea about the person who created it–it creates a window into their background, their priorities, pedagogical concepts, and stylistic tastes.

Thomas’s list got me thinking: What would other composers’ listening lists look like? Was Augusta Read Thomas unique in the method she used to create such a combination of composers to listen to for her students? How much overlap would there be across a wide selection of composers making the lists? What could one deduce from the names that were most often mentioned?

Being the inquisitive type that I am, I contacted a limited number of professional composers both here and in Europe over the weekend and asked them if they could give me a list of ten composers from the 20th and 21st centuries that they would want to give to an undergraduate or graduate student composer to listen to in depth. I’ve already received a good number of responses and the results are such that I’ve already decided to ask a lot more of my composer colleagues for their input on this topic before I make any findings public. I’m very cognizant that one could easily mutate this into a quest for a “best of” mega-list and I’m not interested in that at all. I’m already seeing some interesting patterns as far as which names come up the most and why, as well as the relationship between the overall list and the individual lists each composer is submitting. I will continue working on this and hopefully in the near future I’ll be able to write about what I’ve discovered in a future column–I’ve already decided that I won’t let anyone know who wrote which list, but I can see making both the aggregate list and the individual lists public down the road. If you are interested in taking part, please contact me directly via e-mail and please refrain from writing your list in the comments section below.

A few weeks ago my good friend Daniel Felsenfeld wrote a brilliant article on the “tyranny of lists” and as someone who tends to be a listmaker myself (as I’m sure at least a few of you remember), I want to be clear that I’m not jumping into this little side project in order to just make more lists or to push one viewpoint over another. I do, however, feel strongly that awareness in and of itself is ultimately a positive thing and if this project can shine some light on who we as a community listen to and subsequently pass down to future generations, then some good may come from it.