Tag: travel

Sonic Cartography II: Questions of Scale

The last blog entry looked at ways a foreigner can find the pulse of a city and help focus local listening, re-evaluation, and discussion. After creating works that grew out of single keynote sounds, new questions arose for me. How could one create a sound map of an entire province? How literal and comprehensive would that map need to be? How could recordings of diverse acoustical spaces exist in a gallery? A commission from Documenta 14 to create Matanzas Sound Map provided the opportunity to explore these questions.

One approach I experimented with in making an audio piece that surveyed an entire province was to play with the scale of perceived acoustical space. Recordings of open landscape were used to create the illusion that an indoor sound installation expanded far beyond the gallery walls. We hear the close-up drone of insect chatter, scattered aviary calls marking territory in the wetlands at dawn, and a distant railroad bell. Listening to this rural audio space creates an illusion of being transported from the urban setting of the gallery and into a vast natural habitat. Changing the scale of the acoustical space can be disorienting and heighten visitors’ attention to what they hear.

Leonard recording recording with Ambisonic microphone in the Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs)

Leonard recording recording with Ambisonic microphone in the Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs), the site where a Cuban American paramilitary group invaded the island in 1961.

Later in the Documenta installation, after establishing this sense of vast space, listeners are transported to an urban soundscape where a former stevedore sings songs of the Abakua secret society, domino players erupt in outbursts as they argue the rules of the game, and a bartender tells of his mesmerizing dream of recreating a vintage 1945 tavern centered around a 78-rpm jukebox. There are no audible vanishing points in these spaces; the scale matches that of the gallery. Before we know it, our sense of place is redefined by the smaller space where the people who we hear seem to be within reach.

A helpful strategy in weaving disparate sounds into one cohesive map was to play with connections made during audio transitions. In one instance, the chatter of the forest fades to musicians singing a song that traveled from the Cross River between Nigeria and Cameroon, through the transatlantic passage, to the ports of Havana and Matanzas. The stevedore’s connection to water is a trope in the group’s songs, and this trope informed my transitions between field recordings, chants, and songs.

Bata drummer

Bata drummer playing the lead Iya drum, in the temple of Yemaya, in former plantation of Álava in the Matanzas province of Cuba

Cross-fading between the sounds of humans, animals, insects, wind through the forest began to evoke for me the paintings of Cuban artist Manuel Mendive. Mendive’s images center on the sensual interaction of beings that are a mix of human, animal, and plant life. One figure may have the head of a bird and the body of a man. A tree might be nurturing people with its breasts and simultaneously being plucked of its fruit by a hovering bird. Without being aware of it at first, my work began to parallel Mendive’s paintings of folkloric myth and metaphor. People, animals, and landscape sounds were sonically blended and the assembly took a turn to become more of a dreamlike map of associations.

When an artist makes field recordings directed by his or her own interests and intuition, the results are shaped by those biases as much as the environment being sampled.

Finally, I had to question how to place myself in the map. When an artist makes field recordings directed by his or her own interests and intuition, the results are shaped by those biases as much as the environment being sampled. I find myself up at dawn, waiting like a hunter for that one call of an elusive owl. My breathing is unusually slow as I wait, as motionless as possible to avoid startling the wildlife. The focus of my attention shifts to the distant traffic, waiting for it to stop, so I can wade into the ocean and record the most detailed sound of bubbles fizzing as a small wave breaks. My sensation of hearing is heightened as I suppress the desire to talk to my local guides.

Additionally, in this age of anxiety around authenticity and appropriation, I questioned how to highlight my subjective experience, as “inauthentic” or out of place as it might be. I sought to express something of the wonder I felt, not just experiencing new sounds on site, but also learning the context in which those sounds exist. For example, in building the Matanzas Sound Map, I attempted to distill the feeling that arose as I walked through the former plantation of Álava, once owned by the Don Zulueta, the richest man in mid-19th-century Cuba. The sugar trade that provided sweetening and spirits for my native New England was being explained, and its songs, silences, and stories profoundly affected me as I dug deeper.

I created sounds for that internal experience in the studio. These pensive saxophone vignettes moved slowly, like clouds passing through the installation. The aforementioned transitions from rural landscape to urban voices were followed by a section comprising saxophone and electronic sounds, recorded to reflect some of the stillness and wonder I felt on site.

My multichannel sound/video installation The Other Map, excerpted for this post, demonstrates how recordings of nature, the human voice, and electronic recordings were sequenced to create a purposeful meditation on the sounds of Matanzas. Waves break gently in a rhythm suggestive of deep breathing. The voices of Andro Mella and Raphael Navaro follow, with extended silences I added between phrases to match the pacing of the waves. The excerpt ends with a saxophone and electronics vignette using the pacing of the ocean and meditative breathing. The video, shot on site, moves just as slowly and so appears to be digitally altered when in fact it, like the sound, is the result of weeks of extended observation and inquiry and noticing moments when reality appears to be an illusion.

The sonic cartography in these pieces relied on surveying a province in a purposeful way, engaging locals to help me understand the site’s history and to guide me to places where the sounds could be collected. This is much different than simply taking photos and video clips with my cellphone and pastiching a work together. Hopefully, as with the pieces discussed in the previous blog post, these sound maps will promote a focus on the specific environments and social milieu that produce these fantastic sounds.

Lago de Maya, Matanzas Province Cuba

Lago de Maya, Matanzas Province Cuba. This bridge was since washed away during Hurricane Irma

Sonic Cartography

My recent sound installations include sonic maps documenting how global marketing impacts our listening. These pieces were made in collaboration with bartenders, biologists, street criers, and dockworkers. Sometimes my work focuses on a single sound encountered by chance. At other times, a site’s social and political significance inspires me to look for a collection of sounds that speak to the site’s history. The result has been a series of multichannel installations, comprising a plane of sound—including keynote voices, landscape recordings, and songs—that invite discussion of how social or economic change can be heard on site.

Listening to the sounds of a new culture when traveling can provide amazing starting points for a piece. Away from home, curiosity, serendipity, and naïveté lead me to investigate sounds that have become commonplace to the locals. In Padua, Italy, I stumbled across Bar Romeo, a small tavern in the center of town where butchers, dressed in blood-stained smocks, sang fantastic a cappella songs, directed by a tailor who conducted with a prosecco flute for a baton. My local musicologist and composer friends had never heard of the bar, located less than a five-minute walk from their offices. These specialists assumed that the noise from radio and TV had all but decimated the practice of amateur singing bars. When I took them to Bar Romeo, they were astonished and were not able to fully decipher the thick dialect and coded lyrics of the antiquated tavern songs. When I asked the butchers if they would collaborate on a work, they answered, “We’ll make an entire opera!” In the end, it turned out to be a much smaller work, but the piece, conceived by the naïve ear of a traveler, sparked a discussion about the city’s disappearing tavern songs—a tradition that spanned back decades, if not centuries.

Bar Romeo

Still frame from Bar Romeo (2006) 1-channel video with sound. Neil Leonard (sound); Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (video).

In Cuba, there is a rich tradition of popular songs about street criers (pregoneros). My father had a 78-rpm disk of Louis Armstrong singing Moisés Simons’s “El Manicero” (“Peanut Vendor”). I heard the recording when I was in elementary school and can still remember Armstrong singing “Mani!!!” then dropping the lyrics and brilliantly scat-singing in place of the original Spanish words. Simons’s lyrics feature the peanut vendor singing his pregón (cry), within the song that Simons composed for us to hear. The sheet music of “El Manicero” is reported to have sold more than a million copies. The tune helped launch the mid-20th century rumba craze in the U.S. Dozens of covers of the tune appeared on recordings. Groucho Marx whistled the tune in Duck Soup. Cary Grant sang it in Only Angels Have Wings and Judy Garland sang a bit of it in A Star is Born. Along with “Guantanamera,” “El Manicero” is one of the iconic pop songs of Cuba.

Small businesses were illegal in Cuba through most of the revolutionary era, however, causing pregoneros to discreetly hawk their goods in silence. During the substantial time I spent in Cuba starting in 1986, I cannot remember hearing a single pregonero, until one day, in 2010, I saw a distinctively oversize man riding a large tricycle down the street in Matanzas City. He pedaled under the shade of an umbrella, chanting his pregónes to sell baguettes. I started recording immediately. Next came an exterminator selling a pesticide to kill “cockroaches, ants, and mother-in-laws.” The social soundscape of the entire island had changed the minute the law permitted small businesses to re-open and processions of pregoneros, theatrically pitching products, reemerged instantly across the entire island. As a foreigner, it was striking that the locals seemed to ignore the pregoneros. Local families were focused on finding a way to afford bread or other wares. Only a foreigner had the luxury of appreciating the carnivalesque antics of the pregoneros.

10-channel sound installation with 2-channel video. Neil Leonard (sound and video).

A subsequent performance piece, Llego Fefa, that I created in collaboration with Cuban visual artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and Havana pregoneros, made the front page of Granma, Cuba’s only national newspaper. Under a lead article featuring a photo of Raúl Castro embracing Hugo Chávez, a smaller news piece on the 11 Havana Biennial declared that our work did much to restore dignity to this core ancestral tradition, which was ignored in favor of survival needs or dismissed as an accessory to what had been a black market crime.

What I present as sonic cartography in these pieces is as much of a personal narrative, created as I survey and record a site. Back in the studio, as I assemble works, my feel for the site and associations help steer the process. I recall flinching upon hearing the almost inaudible flap of a bird’s wings darting inches above my head in an estuary at dawn. Or, struggling with my limited Italian, trying to ask a horse butcher about his songs. I remember the awe I experience upon hearing a stevedore singing songs of the docks for me from his living room sofa. My personal experience and biases are in the foreground and the work feels personal. The most satisfying moments then come as visitors hear the final map and share their own associations to the same materials. More than an accurate record of the site, the work is a dreamlike map of connections exploring our shared listening experience.

Artist Residencies: All Costs Considered

Perhaps the question we get most often from other artists and musicians is: “How do you make all of this financially feasible?” From our perspective, we’re more shocked so many artists and musicians make ends meet in cities where rent prices are high, and opportunities to stay out and spend money are ubiquitous. Here’s the best advice we can give on making it work: it might involve some small sacrifices along the way (translatable into a “consume less” mindset), but we’ve found our life moving from residency to residency to be inexpensive and artistically fulfilling.

We apply to all kinds of artist residencies—those that provide stipends, those that provide in-kind accommodation, and those that ask modest fees. We’re not dismissive of any of these categories of opportunities, as we take into account every aspect of the financial situation. From the cost of the residency itself, travel to the location, and the general cost of living in the country, many factors weigh in. Occasionally, we’ll run into a residency that is very expensive compared to the general cost of living in its location. As we can’t justify for ourselves those expenses, these are the only residencies that we categorically avoid.

One great resource for comparing the general cost of living for travelers is numbeo.com. The website provides continuously updated information about the cost of various items in any location, and lets you compare them to other cities. Using this, we can estimate how much we might spend on food and anything else we might need during our residency.

Perhaps we are early adopters of something that wouldn’t have been possible even a decade ago.

Several factors will increase the affordability of a residency. Longer residencies are typically more affordable, as the cost to travel to and from a location might be the most expensive piece of the puzzle. But lately we’re more focused on longer residencies also because we leave more deeply connected to the communities we were a part of.

It’s rare to find a residency that will pay for your travel; although there are plenty with stipends, we’ve only ever applied to one that provided travel. This is why planning residencies so that you’re moving the shortest distance is very advantageous. After being invited for one residency, consider applying to other interesting opportunities that are nearby, as traveling to those will be significantly cheaper. Beyond minimizing the distances, it goes without saying to consider all the travel options early in advance when prices are at their lowest.

It is worth mentioning that we don’t pay a phone bill; when we need to make a call, we use a Skype credit that’s very cheap, international, and paid per minute with no monthly obligations. In all our travels, we rely on WiFi for communication, and haven’t encountered any serious issues.

Possibly the most important factor is the time you give yourself in preparation for the residencies. If the residency is over a year away, it gives adequate time to find the cheapest travel options, to contact venues and universities for paid engagements, and to apply for grants.

There are so many parts of this equation that are specific to our situation, from starting out right after graduating school with no serious dependencies tying us to any particular place, to being a couple that can always share accommodation and support each other in the more taxing and difficult stretches of our journey. In this way, the financial side is an individualized process, that takes into consideration your own priorities and personal goals.

It seems to us that our ideas about a life spent traveling both access ideologies shared by many people in our generation, and take advantage of everything that technology and the internet has on offer in 2018. Perhaps we are early adopters of something that wouldn’t have been possible even a decade ago. Traveling has never been cheaper; it’s possible to work from anywhere in the world; and social media helps us share our music and keep in touch with others. At the same time, these choices we’re proposing address a lack of desire to own property, the unaffordability of housing, and a prioritization of sharing experiences above all.

Passepartout Duo in Germany

In this way, artist residencies represent a small sliver of things in the world that are in no way property, and are only shared. Each resident comes in with the knowledge that this place where they live will soon be passed onto another artist. Like a family home being passed from one generation to the next, layers of experiences, art, and traces left behind accumulate into a rich tapestry of culture and life.

It is a lifestyle that has led us to think about every aspect of modern living. We feel that travel proposes an alternative cartography—the map of one’s own life, that isn’t at all consistent with the map of the world. What you’ve done and where you’ve been defines you, and defines your art. At the moment, we are extremely happy to travel for music and to have met so many kind and interesting people along the way. We are lucky, and grateful for it, and hope that more people will take on opportunities of their own that help make their own worlds grow.

Artist residencies for musicians: 5 tips on the application process

Finding affordable housing and a space to do one’s work is a task on the minds of many emerging artists; artist residencies provide a solution, freeing up time and space with low or no cost to the artist. Residencies also emphasize the importance of meaningful exchanges, providing insights into local cultures, communities, institutions, and art markets. We’ve been traveling from residency to residency for about a year and have loved our experiences through these programs: they give us clear short-term and long-term deadlines; they help us stretch our collaborative muscles by working with people from many different backgrounds; and they have helped us adopt a more interdisciplinary approach to our music and practice. Here is the best advice we can give to anyone curious about applying to and pursuing residencies.

1. Finding opportunities

There are a variety of ways to dive into all of the opportunities that are on offer out there. The easiest way to start is through these three websites: transartists.org, resartis.org, and artistcommunities.org. Together, the three websites are an index of more than 1000 different institutions worldwide. These organizations also offer support to the residencies themselves, from creating listings for visibility to fiscal sponsorship in the case of Alliance of Artist Communities.

If you’re looking for a residency opportunity and can’t find at least a handful to apply for here, you’re probably not looking closely enough. There was a day when we sat down and went through every single opportunity in these databases, seeing which ones have a piano, accept musicians, and other factors that pertained to our specific situation.

At first glance, it might seem like applying to all these residencies could add up in application costs, but the truth is that the vast majority don’t have an application fee, have a very flexible application process (as they accept artists of all disciplines), and can be applied to on a rolling basis. And with hundreds of opportunities on offer, there are approaching deadlines each month. You can always check Resartis for upcoming deadlines, or start keeping a residency deadline calendar like we do. Anytime we find an opportunity, we add it to our calendar twice with the appropriate URL: once when we think we need to start working on the application, and once when it’s due. This way, you can immediately add any residencies you hear about that sound like a good fit and then not really have to think about it again until a deadline is approaching.

2. The Anti-Résumé

The headline of a New York Times opinion piece reads: “Stand Out With an Anti-Résumé for Your Next Job Application.” Monica Byrne, a writer, has created an Excel spreadsheet of every failure and rejection she’s encountered and coined the endearing term “Anti-Résumé.” Well, we’ve become pretty extreme proponents of the Anti-Résumé. We have a spreadsheet of both rejections and positive responses. It lets us keep everything in check. In our work, we have a success rate of about 1 in 2 with applications (knock on wood). It just means we have to do twice as many applications as opportunities we’re interested in. We’d encourage anyone to take this approach, to learn from the numbers, and to make their own observations about the application process. Even if our average was 1 in 5, or even 1 in 20, we could easily persevere just having the knowledge of how much work it takes to earn a single opportunity. All in all, it takes a constant regimen of looking for and applying for opportunities to travel from residency to residency.

Passepartout Duo in California

3. Turning in a strong application

In many of these cases, you’re going to be evaluated by a non-musician against a lot of other non-musicians, and we think that’s great. Our main suggestion is that, on its own, a straight-shot video of you running through your repertoire might not be super impressive to someone who doesn’t understand your instrument or new music. The video you create, and the portfolio you present, should be as representative of your ideas as the music you’re making. We’d suggest trying to reach out to designers or videographers to help make a dynamic and engaging portfolio that helps your project speak on a visual and conceptual basis, more than just on a musical one.

Making videos has been a huge part of our work as a duo, and we think it has played a big role in making our music more accessible outside of the traditional new music spheres, besides adding a collaborative and interpretative layer to the works.

Secondly, there’s an aspect of project proposals that is very important to the application process for residencies. Constantly sending in residency applications has given us a wonderful opportunity to re-codify our ensemble’s values and beliefs on a weekly and monthly basis. With each application, we try to be even more articulate in the conceptual aspects of our work; “Why are we even doing this, and why is it important and relevant to x place in the world?” Choosing a project that has a clear local and community-based proposition, while maintaining a globally accessible concept, is probably the key. If your project pertains to a specific region, you can easily propose it to many different residencies in that same area as well.

4. Building off an “anchor” opportunity and developing it further

Eventually, there comes a point where you’ve landed a great residency opportunity that makes it worth traveling halfway across the world. Maybe it’s that there’s a healthy stipend, a world-renowned artist nearby, or a friend you’d love to collaborate with. We always strive to take these opportunities and stretch them further. Our research to dig deeper is where we make the most progress in turning one opportunity into many. Once we know we’ll have a residency lined up somewhere, we look at how we can add concerts, university engagements, and other activities into the mix.

Our first suggestion is to like every Facebook page and sign up for every mailing list in that certain music scene; it’s the easiest way to see what’s going on in the world. Getting in touch with past residents is another great way to see what is going on in the local community and how the location might impact your work.

After accumulating these contacts, we’re sending emails and calling institutions; with the residency confirmed, institutions and venues will be more eager to invite you to perform or teach. We’re always looking at cost over time too, rather than just cost per engagement. That means that with this one “anchor” opportunity in place, it frees you up to take on engagements that you wouldn’t fly across the world for, per se, but that really contribute to enriching your life and add a lot of value to the whole of the trip.

This idea of building off a single residency opportunity is what will make these experiences rich and worthwhile, and you may find that a residency is usually just the start of many larger relationships with other artists and institutions.

5. Making something while you’re there (what residencies want)

Showing the work you’ve created at the residency to the local community and your hosts is also a very important part of every residency engagement. Bringing enthusiasm and a willingness to share a window into your creative process is possibly the simplest thing you can give in return for these opportunities. For composers and other people whose work doesn’t contain a necessarily performative or exhibitable element, we’d encourage you to find an engaging way of communicating your project to your hosts and the public.

It’s great to have a community engagement project, a performance, or some kind of presentation prepared for any situation. For us, creating videos that showcase our repertoire while in residence and organizing small touring “house concerts” have been some of our most fulfilling and popular approaches. Filming the repertoire can involve the collaboration of locals, and it can portray these unique places in the world. Organizing intimate concerts can help to stretch one’s ability to present and discuss musical ideas with people who might never have been aware of new music, and meeting local people can create lasting memories everywhere you go.

In the end, our approach is summed up in three words: “just do it.” There’s not really much more to it than that; we’re always trying, failing, and experimenting ourselves with a continually evolving approach. These pointers just represent some of the things we wish we more clearly knew when starting out.

Morocco, Iceland, Finland, and Cyprus: To Change and Be Changed

Before getting into the details of how we discover and apply to artist residency opportunities, we wanted to share our thoughts on some of the benefits to performers and composers of continual travel for music. The main takeaway is that every artist residency is different in its financial burden, its scope, and its circumstance; we’d like to encourage people to take on engagements of every kind, not just those which offer stipends and plentiful resources.

Marrakech, Morocco // Flexibility

Passepartout Duo in Marrakech

In April 2017, we were in residence at Dar Slimane, in a remote location outside of Marrakech, Morocco. Part of the institution’s mission is to revitalize desertified land altered by years of unsustainable agriculture, while also supporting artists in an interesting cultural environment. There are residencies of all sizes out there, and Dar Slimane represents those of the smallest size, where just a local couple is essentially hosting artists in their home. It has a completely different dynamic from those like Avaloch Farm or Banff that musicians often turn to, but one we’ve come to cherish in its own right. Small residencies are normally run by artists themselves, and they can connect you with the local community and environment in ways that huge institutions cannot. The key lesson we learned through our experience, and the one that made participating in this residency possible, was to be flexible artistically.

For the first time, we had a circumstance that necessitated leaving our instrument comfort-zone. We knew there wouldn’t be a piano on the premises, and that we would only be in residence for two weeks. Our solution was to learn and record a piece by Christopher Adler that is scored only for instruments that could all easily fit in a carry-on suitcase. The piece was great for this situation but, better yet, it was a choice that set us on a path to seek out increasingly more portable solutions. Here’s our current traveling instrumentation, as it existed in Åland a couple months ago:

Passepartout Duo's mini set-up

Our stay in Morocco represented the first time we wondered, “Should pianists only apply to residencies that provide a grand piano? Do we need to find a five-octave marimba?” Prefaced by saying that we believe there are an incredible set of residencies all offering beautiful pianos, of course our answer to these questions is no. A recurring theme in the classical music world is to “bring classical music outside of the concert hall,” but that’s not a proposition we can pursue without changing our perception of what is needed for a performance.

Our desire to continue working within situations as culturally vibrant and influential as ours in Morocco has played an important role in how we’re approaching music now. We had a bug—not having a proper instrumentation—that has now been transformed into a feature of our ensemble: being able to travel and perform anywhere. We’d encourage anyone to extend the perimeter of their comfort zone when it comes to artist residencies. Whether it’s about being away from home, having limited resources, or stretching what is financially possible, usually the good will outweigh the bad in the end and you’ll come out with inspiring experiences that would’ve otherwise never happened.

Iceland // Think big (and then make it work)

We were in northern Iceland for a residency at Listhús art space that coincided with their Skammdegi Festival. During our nine-week stay we: recorded an EP, filmed three music videos, played on the Dark Music Days Festival, were on the Radio and TV in Icelandic, had a small house concert tour, and met a dozen other inspiring artists (from the town and abroad). We were even extras on a Netflix show. By our standards, that’s a lot for nine weeks in a completely new location. It wasn’t like we were stretched to our limits either; in the dark and cold North, we had the time to be introspective, to catch up on typical admin work, and still had plenty of energy for fun and discovery within this unique place in the world.

It did come at a price, though. Not all residencies are free, and this was the most expensive one we’ve participated in. The fee and expenses of living in Iceland can sound a bit difficult to swing for most people, but an eagerness to take on this opportunity helped us to find a way to make it work.

One of the hidden benefits of distant travel as an artist is the ability to accrue funding from grants not only from your home city/country, but also abroad. Our residency proposition in Iceland opened us up to many different funding bodies in the Nordic countries that helped us to build a project across many locations and disciplines. We were able to couple the opportunity with an advantageous festival appearance that also helped offset the cost.

Grants and funding aside, we think that giving a fee per month to an arts organization that needs it, is so much more satisfying than giving that money to a landlord. Our project in the Nordic countries quickly expanded to include festival appearances, composer commissions, and residencies in Finland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark. Although it took a leap of faith and a small initial investment, this larger project that accumulated support on the way would have never happened without the Listhús residency as a catalyst.

Fiskars, Finland // City Living and Quality of Life

Passepartout Duo in Fiskars

Fiskars, a small town outside Helsinki that is owned by the Fiskars company, is a true “artists’ village.” Funds from the company helped facilitate an influx of Helsinki-based artists to live and work in the vacant factory buildings. Though a town of just 600 or so permanent inhabitants, it is somehow an epicenter of arts and culture. Couple that with Finland’s incredible public education and social programs, and it’s hard to imagine a place with a higher quality of life for musicians.

It’s easy to think that media center cities like Los Angeles and Paris are the only places it’s possible to be a contemporary musician in touch with the vanguard, but traveling has shown us something different. Going to an artist residency somewhere halfway across the world will give you an outsider’s perspective on your own life and the current circumstances in which you live. It will also give you a window into another kind of lifestyle you may not have yet encountered.

The lesson we’ve learned this time is that the best place for you to choose to settle down may not be the city you grew up near and it doesn’t have to be automatically the city you went to school in; it’s possibly even somewhere you haven’t heard of yet.

Treis Elies, Cyprus // Local and global communities

We stayed in the small town of Treis Elies, Cyprus this past July as part of the Kammari Residency. Kammari was very recently started by a small group of Finnish/Cypriot artists and philosophers. With just 20 permanent residents, the town of Treis Elies represents a shift in Europe where small rural villages are losing residents and becoming uninhabited. With several young couples moving to Treis Elies from abroad, the village’s make-up is now a mix of an older Cypriot generation and a new very international one, not without clashes of lifestyles. The introduction of the artist residency has created a foundation for these two different cultures to interact on and this has drastically changed the sense of community within the village. In Treis Elies, meals and drinks are shared on a daily basis regardless of age, language, or background. In a place with a history such as Cyprus’s we felt this message was very powerful: that artist residencies propose the ability to change a cultural landscape.

La Casa del Herrero in Torralba de Ribota, Spain (population 188) is doing the very same thing: it represents one of three artist residencies in the same small village, and it contributes to building a vibrant and inclusive community there. Our experiences at these residencies were not only defined by the art we encountered, but also defined by memories of conversations shared over lunchtime backgammon and late-night barbecues in many languages. We learn about different cultures and communities in this way and often can draw parallels between them.

The people we know, and have met on the way, are what have made our experiences meaningful, more than the places we’ve been. It’s both for us and for these communities we encounter that we hope to start new discussions about art and create shared memories during our travels.

Morocco, Iceland, Finland, and Cyprus: it was a general openness toward going anywhere and an eagerness to share our music with anyone who will listen that brought us to these places. We’ve learned a lot along the way, and hope that by seeing these four examples you’re encouraged to travel somewhere not only because you want to go there, but also because you think it might expand your world, practice, or ideology in some way. Traveling somewhere new provides us with a thought-provoking invitation, applicable in both life and in new music: to change and be changed.

Passepartout Duo: Music on the Move

Post update 8/14/2018: After criticism highlighting our use of the word “homeless” in this post emerged, we recognized that a revision was necessary in the original article and wanted to offer an apology. We had no intention of equating our situation with that of those living in extreme poverty nor in romanticizing the idea of the struggling artist. Instead, we only meant to indicate that we currently do not have a home base and are hoping to show others a possible way to live and work as artists in a positive environment through residencies and travel. —The Passepartout Duo

A remote permaculture homestead in the Sahara Desert, a northern-Icelandic fishing community half-a-degree south of the Arctic Circle, a family home within the bustling streets of Havana, or a wooden house-building factory in the Swiss Alps: our home moves from month to month, and along the way we meet new people, discover new ways of life, and are continually inspired by the shifting circumstances in which we make music.

At this point, we’ve completely given up location-dependent life. Artistically, it has profoundly changed our practice.

At this point, we’ve completely given up location-dependent life. We have four small bags: one backpack and one instrument case each. We each have one pair of shoes and we use them for everything, until they fall apart; then, we pick up a new pair and keep going.

But it’s not just an eagerness to travel that’s encouraged us to pursue this lifestyle. Artistically, it has profoundly changed our practice and created a sustainable model in which our ensemble can operate, concertize, and continually make work that interests us and leaves us creatively engaged.

Passepartout Duo on the road less traveled

Passepartout Duo on the road less traveled

We still don’t know how to respond when a fellow artist asks, “Where are you based?” but we always manage to spark some intrigue and curiosity with our response. This series of articles is an attempt to codify the kind of lifestyle we’re currently living, while also providing pointers to anyone interested in pursuing similar opportunities.

Artist residencies have been practically and artistically indispensable to us; we created the piano/percussion Passepartout Duo in 2015 as a “long-distance music collaboration” while residing across continents, and it was only through an opportunity at the Banff Centre that our work together was able to begin. Since then, residencies have been both mile markers along the way that helped our projects take shape, and the primary way we’re able to continually travel from month to month.

The Banff Centre was a complete dream world. When we arrived, it hit us immediately how the ensemble that first only existed within this one residency application we had sent in, was now a real thing, and there was at least someone out there supporting it. Those six weeks left a huge impression on us. After we left, on the days when we felt the most behind on our work we’d daydream thinking: “What could I get done with just one more day at the Banff Centre?” At that time, it didn’t occur to us that there are hundreds of other Banff-Centre-like places out there, hosting artists and creating communities of their own.

Passepartout Duo at Banff

Passepartout Duo at Banff

Soon after, we completed the small concert tour of Europe that was the motivation for our residency, stopping in four cities and sharing what we had worked on. In some ways, this model of oscillating between small concert tours and residencies has continued unchanged in our years together as an ensemble. It has been very fruitful to reflect upon the ties between a geographical situation and the work of an artist. Everywhere we go we now wonder: “How is our work going to make a difference in this place? How is this place going to mold our work?”

The bridge between that first Banff Centre residency and this life we live now didn’t happen all of a sudden. We slowly accumulated opportunities with the original intention of being based in a city and traveling frequently, but not indefinitely. There was a point when we realized that it didn’t make sense anymore to sign a multi-year lease on an apartment, because two months after moving in, we would be traveling for nine months straight. If we’re honest, we also became skeptical about the idea of living in a major city: to take on private teaching, day jobs, unfavorable gigs, unaffordable rent, all for what amounts to probably less than a month per year of meaningful and important artistic work that truly requires your presence in that specific place. There’s also a contagious effect within the Londons and New Yorks of the world, a feedback loop that tells people “this is the greatest city on earth, and it’s the only place I can be an artist.” We were skeptical about subscribing to these ideas—and paying for them, too. We loved the time we had spent so far at artist residencies, and thought, “How can we do this more, and that less?”

And that’s where we are now. We’re booked two years out with travels and engagements all over the world. This introduction is just the first of four parts about our relationship with artist residencies, and how others can dive into these opportunities for themselves. We’ll pick it up next week by describing a few of the places we’ve been, and what we’ve learned and discovered from each.

Passepartout Duo in Spain

February: New Mexico and the Holes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January: Wyoming and the Open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

In and Out of Jetlag

Four Clocks featuring time from New York City, Vienna, Moscow, and Beijing

So what time is it anyway?

Although I returned home last Sunday after having spun around the globe, I was rather surprised that I had no jetlag the following day when I returned to the office. I was fine on Tuesday and most of Wednesday as well. But once Thanksgiving arrived on Thursday, my sense of time grew less certain. Friday was considerably worse, and on Saturday and Sunday I was a complete mess.

In my more lucid moments during the holiday weekend, which were sporadic at best, I began to wonder why it was that my inner clock was somehow able to align itself properly during the work week and totally conk out once I spent most of my time at home. The sun barely ever shines through my ground floor apartment so perhaps it was a by-product of underexposure to natural light. But there are no windows in my immediate vicinity here at the office, so that can’t be it. More likely, it was due to having a fixed timetable of activities earlier in the week and a subsequent freeform schedule in the days immediately following that. On Monday, Tuesday, and a good part of Wednesday, I never lost track of what time it was in New York City because there were constant reminders of the time.

Anyway, all this got me thinking about music and the way that music plays with listeners’ perceptions of chronological time. Many people have commented about how a live performance of an exciting new 25-minute piece can feel like it has raced by in only 10 minutes whereas an unfamiliar 10-minute piece that is extremely difficult to get into could feel like it’s gone on for more than a half hour. I’ve certainly had both experiences over the years.

Of course, there are ways of cheating these experiences when the durations of all the pieces of music being performed are listened on a program. Upon occasion, I’ve snuck a peek at a watch to know how much time was left, both for pieces with which I was completely enamored and ones I could not wait to have end. Sometimes I like knowing the duration in advance for a piece of music I’ve never heard before since it can help me to get a sense of the structure of the piece. For example, if something that particularly captures my attention occurs, I’ll look at a watch to determine at what point in the piece it happened.

However, more often than not, I find that knowing the precise length of a piece can spoil the magic of its ability to suspend time. When I’m listening to music, I prefer not quite knowing what time it is and allowing the music to take me to a place that is somehow beyond my own perception of the passing minutes. This is probably why I’m also ultimately O.K. with the jetlag, which is a small price to pay for the opportunity to see other places and have new experiences.

Every Place is a Musical Capital

The Mediterranean Sea

The world is filled with amazing musical destinations even though, admittedly, there’s more water than anything else on the planet.

Over the years I’ve taken a lot of trips that some folks might consider overloaded. Sixteen years ago, I journeyed from Casablanca down to Marrakech, the gorges, the sahel, and the edge of the Sahara, then back up to Fes, Volubilis, Meknes and Tangier (to visit Paul Bowles) then back to Casablanca, all in eight days. In August 2011, I journeyed to three South American countries, exploring both the capital city and an important UNESCO site in each one over the course of 12 days; that’s my idea of a vacation. Back in June, for work, I took back-to-back trips to St. Louis and Dublin to participate in conference talks that were scheduled less than 18 hours apart. Although it’s doable, it’s definitely not recommended, yet I’d do it again in a heartbeat if there were interesting music to experience or interact with. In fact, what I plan to do for the next three weeks might actually trump all of these peregrinations.
On Thursday, I head to Europe to attend the 2013 Annual Meeting and Conference of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC) in Bratislava, Slovakia, and Vienna, Austria. Concurrent with that will be the 2013 World New Music Days of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), which I’ll try to catch as much of as possible while I am there. The WNMD actually starts today in Košice, a city in Eastern Slovakia, but leaving New York City earlier in order to get there in time proved to be a logistical nightmare, so I’ll arrive in Bratislava on Friday and take it from there. It’s not terribly crazy, especially since Bratislava and Vienna aren’t much further apart from one another than Minneapolis and St. Paul. However, since my wife Trudy needs to be in Berlin during this time and we both need to be in Hong Kong the following week to attend her brother’s wedding, it made no sense to come back to North America and fly out to Asia a day later. So at the end of the Ensemble “die reihe” concert in Vienna on Thursday, I will head to the airport and fly to Berlin to start my vacation. From there on Saturday, Trudy and I will fly to Hong Kong, via Doha, Qatar. When we return to New York City on November 24, we will have made a complete 360-degree orbit around the planet, which is really exciting in a Jules Verne kind of way. Because we are traveling in one direction the entire journey we will actually gain a day, although admittedly a great deal more than 24 hours will ultimately be spent on airplanes.

Anyway, the reason I bring this all up is not just because I find it extremely cool that such a trip is within the realm of the possible in the 21st century. (Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, after all, was a fantasy novel.) I mention it because despite all of my trips to various parts of the world I have never before visited Vienna. When I admit this to most music aficionados they tend to be shocked. How can someone who claims to be so enamored of music have not made the requisite pilgrimage to the musical capital of the world—a place that was home to Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, among others? Much as I’ve always been interested in traveling to Vienna, I don’t believe the world has a musical capital. I admire all those aforementioned composers, but I don’t admire them more than Debussy or Alois Haba (which is why I made sure to get to Paris and Prague decades ago). Yet while I’m also pretty obsessed with Galina Ustvolskaja, Alhaji Bai Konte and Ravi Shankar, I still haven’t been to Russia, the Gambia, or India. And as an American composer who is deeply indebted to the so-called maverick tradition, I haven’t even visited the birthplaces of Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, or Harry Partch.

The fact of the matter is that great music takes place all over the planet and you can find amazing things to listen to wherever you go. Believe it or not, as excited as I am about finally visiting Vienna, I’m actually more excited about going to Doha, Qatar, since I have never heard a note of music from there and there’s bound to be something extraordinary to discover. Sadly, though, I arrive in the middle of the night and basically will just have time to change planes. Next time.