A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
I'm no longer a city person. I love cities, and spent my first decade as a New Jersey composer in and out of New York for performances and concerts. Cologne and Amsterdam were also homes for a while. But when it comes to composition, it's the countryside that restores my clarity of vision and ability to pace my work.
Where we live significantly affects how we think. That sounds obvious, but it's stronger than it appears, and deeper. A little more than half my lifetime ago, I left a downtown tenement in a New Jersey city to live in a village house in very rural Vermont. It has affected not just my social behavior, but every aspect of my being -- and most importantly, how my senses take in the world.
Those senses have changed, all of them. My patience has risen, my endurance has increased, and my attention has sharpened. Being in a city is now an experience I can welcome with joy rather than stress because the warning signals that were then the bulk of my living experience are now integrated into a richer and more nuanced perception.
When I speak about our barn or garden or weather in these commentaries, it's not a trivial gesture unrelated to our purpose as composers.
Plus we can point to these places in mere seconds with our online communications tools. Where do I live? Here is where I live. Since online maps became available, I've looked at all the places where I've lived, as well as those of many friends and relatives. It's a perspective that I welcome. It's one of the levels of experience, even abstract experience, that did not exist for one who came of age in the 1950s with toy trains instead of computers. It's a great joy for me, this new way of virtual touch.
Okay, some of you have told me you're tired of hearing about Vermont. It's my example because I live here, and because politically and historically and psychologically and environmentally it's so different from the four lands over its borders -- New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Québec. So please bear with me. I'd make my point if I lived in the plains of Saskatchewan or in the fields of Périgord or on the hillsides of Malibu.
The change of perspective from city to country was not instantaneous for me, and certainly not for others. For the Kalvos & Damian radio show, composers sometimes came to Vermont for interviews. One such composer was a born-and-bred city boy from New York who arrived for a two-day visit. He was not unlike me when I arrived here in that, despite being an artist, he could neither see nor hear what was around him; we did not yet have the mechanism to do that.
But more significantly, he rejected letting his senses grow into the place he was standing within. He was filtering his senses through his urban experience. That was to be expected, but what was unexpected was that, as an artist, he did not want to change that filtering. He stubbornly rejected the sky, the stars, the water, the animals, the smells on the breath of air. They had no meaning, no context, no desirability. He was a hard, impenetrable object, a sealed bottle bobbing in the ocean, a cultural container like a time capsule, a bobble that offered an immutable, fixed message.
Of course, he did not have to make the shift, because he would be gone in mere days.
And another anecdote. Many years ago, I was visited by a lifelong Philadelphia painter who, after a week of watching me with a kind of uncomprehension move about through my busy daily rituals, suddenly leaped from his chair and screamed, "What do you do all day? You're always doing things. But I don't know what you're doing!" Like our New York guest, he was behind his hard shell of urban experience -- but at least he was looking out from behind it, and beginning to see differences beyond his ken. He did not stay.
Now a story of one whose shift was substantive. A festival five years ago was moved from rural Goddard College to downtown Montpelier, Vermont -- not a big town, just a few thousand people, but nevertheless a micro-urban setting. Composer Phil Kline was preparing a piece for the outdoors, a boombox piece, the genre he's best known for. The move from Goddard-in-the-woods to building-in-the-town made the first piece impossible. A good sign. He could not transpant one concept to another space. Yet he still wanted to create the outdoor piece, so some weeks before the festival, on Temble Mountain in southern Vermont's Ludlow, he set up his two dozen boomboxes.
You may not know Phil's music. I can't say "Go listen to it" because his works belong in their spaces, are shaped by it and shape it. Last words before vanishing from the face of the earth was such a piece, and as we arrived for dinner, we heard the sound reaching out from the little mechanical plastic shapes on the grass and filling the atmosphere behind the cabin, flowing out from those shapes and down the hillside, belonging to the land and rock and trees and air. Though not entirely shifting to the changed culture, Phil could become one with the changed geography, understanding it deeply enough that he knew first, that the Last words before vanishing from the face of the earth would work on the Ludlow mountainside and second, that it could not have worked confined to a micro-urban space.
We are told that the larger coastal cities offer everything one could desire -- wealth, high style, diverse food, great art, fine music, many cultures -- so there is no need to live elsewhere. Or if one does live elsewhere, it is to gather up the experience like a basket of purchases and bring it back. Having lived in both, I believe the evidence reveals otherwise, save for those like Phil (from Pittsburgh, Akron and New York) who are able to reach deep inside to touch their atavistic things. Last words before vanishing from the face of the earth was a transforming experience.
For all that it does offer, the city is remarkable. To be an alien within it, even briefly, is startling. Not long ago, we brought a big pumpkin to friends in New York. There we were, a sight from another planet, it seemed, two exceedingly pale strangers incongruously walking through Spanish Harlem with a massive fruit from our garden. Smooth-faced children silently mouthed "pumpkin" our way; furrow-browed men playing dominoes looked up and grinned; double-takes abounded like the pumpkins in our patch. (The pumpkin ended up several weeks later as pie.) Yet within a few hours, we were absorbed back into the city culture of our youths, unremarkably normal except for our lack of stylish clothes and accents that had not yet returned to the local cadence.
And then the ride back home always seems a dream: the angry traffic relaxes and thins, buildings grow fewer and shorter, roads less consequential and then, at some point when the billboards have been left miles behind, the change settles upon me.
I'm just beginning to know that the way I speak and write is a measure of how I live. Long sentences, thoughts connected to other thoughts, no clear division of one from the other, much metaphor, little philosophy, logic absent, footnotes inconsequential, but always turning upon itself again in a woven unity. That's how the seasons move -- imperceptibly to the outsider, but clearly and magnificently to me, with each connected to the next and previous, and reflecting what has happened in other seasons, a spiral of years stacked above and below, and past and future rubbing through the present, so that when I look back at photos or hear my music from a decade ago, I can see the seasons and feel the time of living through them and somehow as well the brush of wings that will be the future. Their evanescence forbids holding them in hand or mind. Stevie and I talk about how jarring it is to fly, to be in a different environment so quickly (irrespective of whether or not the culture may shift below the fuselage), while we can move from day to day and week to week and throughout the seasons with a sense of continuity that I can never reclaim from my sub/urban days of isolation from the r/evolution of natural events. Perhaps what I've just said makes sense. Even as I wrote it, the thread of time started to unwind and slow causality. Here there are five or more seasons. We have just risen from mud season, and with many of our roads still unpaved, there's no travel across them for two weeks. Time slows, stuck in & with the mud. And so if I begin today, in wet spring, I feel summer coming on. Not here yet, because there are still diverse greens and a chill in the night air, wet soil, and lengthening days. Then comes summer, solid greens, maturing plants, early flowers fading to their sturdier hot-weather cousins and the magical harvest of salad greens. Slowly it slides toward darkness and there is that one day, that one epiphany, of fall -- a solitary tree where a single leaf has turned over from darkest green to blood orange and there is the smell of robust vegetables and just a hidden scent of rot as summer loses its hold on warmth and the nights chill again. The leaves grow a resonant golden, seeds fly in the air, and the berries are hard past ripe. The stream behind the house has been shallow and warm and boasting of laughing children and we grasp at the last few days to enjoy our indolence. And one night, one fearsome night, we are stalked by the killer frost, a silvery coat that blinds us in the morning with an unbearable beauty and an unbearable message of season's end and massive death that comes with the early tumbling darkness. The nights are colder, Orion rises, Ursa Major falls, and soon the first traitor snow arrives. The days bow deep and close. It never stays with us, this first snow, but it has forwarded its feeling of enclosing, the arms of winter, cold, cold, in four mere months from this moment of spring's promise.
That is where we really live, not on that computer map. (A photo from each month here at home accompanies the "We Are All Mozart" page.)
It helps me remember that when we lived in Amsterdam, it was a struggle to be part of the rich culture below the touristic surface because we had not expected to live there and so had not done any liguistic and cultural homework. We worked at it, but also learned there were Americans who had lived there for twenty years who could not and would not speak Dutch, nor shop in the marketplaces or in any way be part of anything but an English-speaking business or academic culture. Is this the source of the Ugly American image? What gets us into trouble in the world at large?
I must admit to feeling fatigued and even oppressed by change of culture and language in quick succession. Being in Budapest was beautiful but a struggle, as I had so little of the language. And we have yet to give time where the language and culture are far from the West. But I look forward to it, and I look at flat glowing computerized satellite photos to sense what the spaces might be like to put one's feet upon.
The richness of human experience is richer when it is shared. Geography is a significant part of that experience.
Back to my friends from elsewhere. Certainly it's a struggle to shift perspectives even a little bit based on geography and culture, and is especially difficult to do in the space-time of a few days. But I believe it's crucial. Resistance to change of perspective and hardening to the passive absorption of context is resistance to what is inside, before we built cities and codified our existence. Our art is built on grunts.
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