Tag: storytelling

February: New Mexico and the Holes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lembit Beecher: To Tell a Tale, To Sing a Story

When Lembit Beecher was named composer-in-residence with the Opera Company of Philadelphia (in collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group of New York) in 2011, he didn’t bring a large portfolio of operatic work with him to the brand new three-year program. An instinct and affection for storytelling, however, already infused his compositions. Though he clarifies that he doesn’t often approach a piece programmatically, his music—whether for the operatic stage or for piano trio—often begins on a strongly emotional level, and its development is focused on how various elements interact and play off one another to achieve balance.

Raised in California with strong ties to his mother’s Estonian heritage and native language, Beecher went on to earn degrees at Harvard, Rice, and the University of Michigan—schools, he says, that seemed “pleasantly outside the loop” in that students were free to pursue their own interests, absent particular ideologies. Once he realized that even though he loved playing the piano, he didn’t love practicing, his focus began to shift towards writing his own music. “I don’t think I’m one of those composers who’s felt that I always had to be a composer,” Beecher admits, “but I’ve always been unhappy unless I was making something.”

He found himself particularly attracted to the subtle shadings that music can bring to the expression of emotion. “It’s seldom ambiguous but it’s always nuanced,” he explains, “and there’s always a sense of an emotion being incredibly deep and varied. More than writing or painting, it’s what speaks to me most vividly.”

He can follow this braid of music, emotion, and storytelling back to a childhood spent listening to his grandmother’s accounts of the occupation of her native Estonia, tales he equates with scenes straight out of a Hollywood movie. He built And Then I Remember, a 50-minute chamber opera, around the memories she shared. It’s a piece he describes as a “documentary oratorio—a combination of This American Life, Different Trains, and maybe a little bit of Les Noces thrown in there.”

By mixing recordings of her actual voice from interviews he conducted with instrumental portions and sung sections built out of arrangements of selected phrases, he was able to capture the “sense of legend” he felt as a child. “It doesn’t matter if all the facts are true [in the musical representation]; there’s something deeper that’s being expressed.”

Beecher has taken these lessons and is now applying them to his opera residency work. Not all stories translate well to the form. For Beecher, the best sources are not necessarily found in plays or novels, though admittedly he finds it hard to generalize. “Part of the challenge is not just what stories, but what parts of stories can best be expressed,” he explains. “Personally, the stories I’m drawn to have emotional clarity and deeply felt emotions.” Opera provides a way for him to frame those feelings for an audience.

It’s a task that he notes is particularly challenging when dealing with contemporary audiences likely to be turned off by the overt displays of sentiment common to the genre. Opera can be powerfully expressive, but as a result it can too easily come off as fake to a cynical consumer. It can’t compete with movies or even the straight drama when it comes to expressing reality, Beecher points out. However, “what opera can do is express an emotional reality that is in some way more true to our experience. The audience can then come along for the ride realizing that this is part of an inner experience of the world, rather than trying to show us what the world looks like from the outside.”

By putting on display what is rattling around inside our heads rather than flashing before our eyes, the listener accesses an experience that opera—even in an age of CGI and reality TV—is still perhaps especially suited to revealing.