A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
Today was the killer frost. It was late, about five weeks late. The kitchen is full of plants and bulbs waiting for this frost, and now they can be planted to bloom next spring.
The frost means the days will be dark and short, and the chill brings with it today's memorial service for Ellie Fisher, a grand lady, mother of ten children, who was one of my small body of marvelous employees when I had a tiny company called Green Mountain Micro. Micro, which lasted from 1980 to 1986, was part of the first generation of small computers, and we partied at minimum wage. Ellie, whose husband was a minister who would eventually marry Stevie and me, came into Micro as a non-technological typist. Within hours she had adapted to the computer for word processing, and in no time she was our resident company mom. She led the local historical society, wrote often, and after her husband Ed died a few years ago, she moved from her gas-powered home far on the hill into town. I'll miss her.
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If you've been reading the texts below the recent photos, you know that we were occupied most of April with a residency at Binaural Media in Portugal. That meant postponing most of the WAAM pieces until May. But during April, I created several pieces for our Birth Song Project, including a small set of variations on an untitled song that I'd transcribed from two women singing while making bread, and Three Songs for Manuela, a set of electroacoustic pieces based on Manuela Barile's voice and the creak of a door. These latter pieces naturally led me to create new pieces in May for the WAAM project. Future Remembrance was asked for by Rob Voisey for his 60x60 project, and came in the shape of the 60-second original for his "Munich Mix" and a longer re-mix for myself. This and the subsequent Dartmouth-commissioned A Village on the Wind were drawn from the many hours of soundwalks and other recordings done in Nodar in Portugal and Utrecht in the Netherlands.
The Songs for Manuela arose from the lovely character of her voice. She is a vocal performance artist, and the contours and colors in her voice were a celebration of sound in themselves, a garden of source material from which the three electroacoustic songs grew. Aside from the sound of the creaking door, only Manuela's voice was used in all three songs.
The bread song is viral. We used it in our final project video and it won't leave. Its slightly irregular rhythm -- modulated by the kneading of the bread -- and simple, clear harmonies work their way into one's backstore of musical memory. We recorded more than sixty songs during our stay in Portugal (a few are in the video), with us experiencing the pull of tradition that I wrote about some years ago about music sessions in Ireland. It was the transition from Portugal to the Netherlands and its sculpted environment that brought the electroacoustic WAAM pieces into play, as well as the April chapter of Lunar Cascade in Serial Time for Seth Gordon (3MB PDF is here). The cultural jerk from rural to urban, from the wildness of former forest fires to the post-War sculpting of Utrecht is the source of both Future Remembrance and A Village on the Wind -- voices of goatherder and shop owner mix, goat bells and church bells, storms in two places, water and crowds, stillness and edginess. Because Rob's commission was for the "Munich Mix" of his project, I called into play all the drama of placing two strange cultures -- one conquered in a war, the other neutral -- together inside a session meant to be played in a German environment. Likewise, the Dartmouth piece was based on the bells ringing across the Netherlands for the Holocaust Remembrance. Voices call, bells ring, doors open and close, storms arrive, and a long coda slowly rings out the remembrance.
It was unavoidable that all of May would be affected by the residency. The May chapter of Lunar Cascade in Serial Time (1.5MB PDF is here) was based on the repetitive patterns in stones and food in Nodar, extracted from the visual patterns into aural ones. The Lunar Cascade series was now taking the shape of the geography and the weather of my experiences rather than the pure abstractions of sound. Similarly, Robert Bolyard's cello duo commission, The Itch is Internal, was begun in the back garden of our friends' home in Utrecht. Here is an electronic demo of Itch, where double-stops and lush melodies create an almost Mahleresque forward pressure.
May was catch-up for April, and like the first part of the year, included many compositions of different character. Two days after Itch came Carson Cooman's organ commission, Détente, a prelude based on the Sacred Harp tune Amity. I've tried to make each of these preludes follow the pattern of variation first, full original music last. In this case, I quoted a few notes of a similar sounding tune used in a Stephen King film (I don't know if the tune is real or just a play on Amity itself; anybody know?), which transforms into the variations and then the original Amity. The voicing of the organ music has been left to the performer because each organ is different. Unlike, say, César Franck or Olivier Messiaen, who created their own voicings for organs they actually played, I was asked by Carson to make the pieces flexible so he could play them on tour. Détente ends with the tune and a simple arpeggiated filigree. Here is an electronic demo; Carson premiered it in Ottawa along with February's Soundings on July 16, but no recording was made.
After Détente came a piece for tenor pan and cello. Oh, yeah, really. Ed Epstein is a renaissance man, having been to Juilliard, sung with the earliest folk era groups, built wood stoves, constructed sailboats, and most recently been several years in a pan band in Trinidad. After a harrowing experience worthy of a novel where he lost his boat at sea and almost perished, he returned to Vermont for the winter -- and, missing his pan band, commissioned a piece for his tenor pan and cello to be played by a friend. This was a tough commission because it required not only learning more about the pan, which I'd first heard played virtuosically in Amsterdam in 1991, but also figuring out how to make what is essentially a diatonic experience into something a little wider. I collapsed before the siren pan-song of tonality, though, and created We're Running Out of Time. Ed loved it, though he was quick to point out that my usual failing of noticing the effect of accidentals made it unplayable as written; he has a revised copy of the score with those low D-flats adjusted to taste. Until Ed plays it in public, an electronic demo is here.
More about the rest of the May compositions tomorrow, and maybe a little about some of the premiere performances as well.
I promised the journal from our residency in Nodar. Here is the third installment. Please write to me if you want a copy of the full journal in PDF format with photos.
Wednesday, April 11
Clouds greeted our awakening. It was 9:45, and the nature walk was to happen in fifteen minutes, so we showered and dressed quickly. But downstairs was empty, with breakfast dishes set out and coffee brewing. The walk was canceled due to rain--it had rained all night, and we'd missed it in our travel exhaustion. After a leisurely breakfast of juice and coffee--there were also bread and a Portuguese equivalent of Nutella--we were invited to speak with the brothers' aunt Ilda Duarte Paiva--'Tia'--lifelong resident of Nodar who we thought might have insight into the birth practices and song.
Her home was a stunning step laterally into a different life, from the Nodar studios and their modern layout and features and laptops, to a kitchen where a fire burned on the stone floor and a vast metal hood half the size of the room carried some of the smoke out through the roof. The rest of the smoke--similarly sour to the charred tree remnants from last night's walk-- permeated the room with a blue haze. A gas stove was also lit, cooking Tia's lunch. A grey kitten pulled down a small potato and swatted it across the room. Heavy pots sat at the edges of the fire, perhaps cooking something or perhaps merely acting as andirons. Tia treated us to nearly an hour's worth of commentary, flitting from subject to subject as Luis translated fragments, unable to keep up with her thoughts. Stevie found it to be a wonderland; she later said how she wished she could simply have stayed there the whole time, with its Vermeer-in-real-life feel, its tablecloth made from butter containers, and the haze of a long life and a wood fire intermingled.
We left amazed by the parallel existences and the rooms where not a single right angle existed or could be imagined into existence, and visited the barn below with its chickens and old carts, and the other building filled with stacks of potatoes and hanging onions, a slate roof overhead held up by bare beams. The door squeaked and creaked so beautifully that I recorded it as Luis slowly rocked it for me. Back at the house, we had a light lunch of carrot salad, cauliflower, and a warm lentil stew, and of course more vinho verte. Afterwards Stevie went to explore the hills while Aaron, Luis and I talked about the difficulty of archiving technological formats. Aaron soon left to record outside with his new mid-side recording rig, and the hike leader Gonçalo arrived looking for Luis, who had left to pick up a friend of Manuela; while we waited for Luis, I helped Gonçalo extract audio from his video.
This afternoon we took a ride into Parada de Ester, Aaron joining us (and explaining that his last name 'Ximm' was invented from the year of his marriage). The road into Nodar had been small; the road through Parada de Ester was nearly impossible. Cobbled streets had walls on each side, with steep slopes and tight curves, together with parked cars, a motorcycle and people--and rain. It made the first trip through town as close to hair-raising as I've experienced at five kilometers per hour. Yet it was beautiful, and after giving up on the forward motion just after the village (where a steep, slick cobbled hill faced us), we turned around and stopped at the local café. Stevie and Aaron each had a beer as we watched soccer on the right big screen (Bayern München vs. Milan) and the local news on the left big screen. Stevie and I could follow the news in Portuguese, and we learned about worker strikes, mass transit extensions, political crises, and how many babies were born in ambulances on the way to the hospital.
As we drove (still slowly) back to Nodar, an electrical storm swept over the mountains, with beautiful lightning and rolling clouds still just visible in the twilight. As we dipped into the village, Aaron mentioned how lovely and dark it was there. We parked up the tiny road and walked to the house, where Manuela and her friend Nati were working by candlelight ... when the reason for the darkness became clear. For the next few hours, dinner was prepared and eaten by candleand fire-light--the latter built skillfully by Stevie. Dinner was eggplant parmesan, rice, bread and wine, deliciously created by Manuela. We talked about language and Manuela's animal imitations (dogs and her canary).
In our absence, the lost bags also finally arrived, mostly intact. They were missing only the small bags of coins: euros, pounds, U.S. change, and the small calfskin pouch of half-dollars. Despite the small loss and the inevitable troublesome feeling it left us with, all the cables and adapters seemed to be there--at least so far. Not until I need one that is missing will the further losses become clear.
And now it is time for bed, because tomorrow once again we will try to take the nature tour from Nodar across to the neighboring village.
Thursday, April 12
It is afternoon, not a time to be updating a journal, but the lights are out again. And that's the least of it. We began the hike this morning with Luis, Aaron, Gonçalo and a friend, across the town bridge and down to the left--I'm still not sure which way is north--but we walked along the river, followed the sheep, and made our way over rocks and sand and grass for what was to be some three hours on the trail. I was wearing my bifocals (the first time hiking with them); with some of the rock descents offering sharp edges and loose pieces and making me nod my head up and down to keep focus. I mentioned to Aaron how annoying it was, but soon the sound of the water and birds and sheep bells was infusing the air and the visual confusion fell away. Stevie was taking photos, but my camera was quiet for the recording.
As we reached a small rock rise, Stevie, who was ahead of me with the group as I was recording a soundwalk, motioned to be sure to hang on as I came down the short drop. I swapped hands, with the recorder in the left, grabbed the rocks, and stepped down and looked just in time to see my foot from the perspective of the glasses' lower lenses and the rock from the upper. The drop was six inches further to what I was sure was solid rock, and I released my right leg--falling backwards a half-dozen feet into a deep eddy just outside a swiftly moving current. In what must have seemed like a nonsense cry, I called for Stevie to rescue my recorder. I desperately swam to the rocks with one hand, trying to keep the equipment from going under, without luck. They helped pull me up, when they (before I) realized my glasses were gone.
Over the next few minutes, I was unloading camera, battery pack, recorder, lenses, cables and other tech from the bag, hoping it wouldn't all have been destroyed; they were looking for my glasses, with Stevie eventually hiking back to the house for my other pair--the ones I should have worn. In the meantime, Aaron decided to take a swim, and ten minutes later felt my glasses in the stream with his feet. By that time the hike was called off for us, with Gonçalo and his friend going on and Luis and I heading back; Aaron stayed to swim some more.
Stevie brought the other glasses and fresh clothes, but we met her nearly at the bridge, so went on to the house where I changed and Luis loaned me his small tools to try to fix the equipment. The power pack and small items had survived and needed only drying, as the water was perfectly clear. But the past six hours, apart from a gorgeous lunch of beef and potatoes and red peppers and rice and bread and wine, were spent disassembling the flashcard recorder and the camera. Neither works--the camera is completely dead--though the recorder is showing some erratic signs of life. As I began writing this, another storm swept in and the lights have been on and off several times. What does this evening bring?
Stevie has been talking to Manuela about birth issues and both of their perspectives. Tomorrow, it is decided, we will do pancakes. Dinner is a marvelous focaccia-based pizza with whole tomato slices and olives. We took photos of snails. The troubles have abated.
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