Thursday, December 1, 2016

Post-Election Thoughts and the PASIC Panel Talk I Did Not Give

Late Tuesday evening, 9 November 2016, as results were coming in with the likely outcome being the election of someone whose name I will not here, or ever, put in writing I became violently ill. I will spare you the details but it lasted for hours and by early morning I had to make a decision. I had been asked to serve on a panel at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana being the first state to fall in line for the regime forthcoming, which would be chaired by my friend and colleague Bill Sallak and part of an amazingly diverse Focus Day, "Celebrating the European Avant-Garde," chaired by Andy Bliss.  This was to take place Thursday, November 10, at noon. I was really looking forward to participate, had spent a lot of time preparing my remarks for the panel, and was also excited to hear a lot of music I had not heard before performed by some really great percussionists. 

Here's a description of the panel: 

The Shrinking Atlantic?: Europe and America in Contemporary Percussive Art

This year’s Focus Day theme, addressing the European avant-garde, points toward some broad questions about European and American traditions. For several decades in the late twentieth century, “European” and “American” might have been terms that captured both geographical distance and important aesthetic differences between styles of composition, performance, and pedagogy, but in our current practice (and our increasingly connected world), has this dichotomy outlived its usefulness? Both terms are vulnerable to criticism as being too broad (both America and Europe being too large and diverse to fit under a single verbal umbrella), and too narrow (what about the rest of the world?). However, many people in the new music community feel that the terms encapsulate artistic postures and positions that are difficult to sum up in any other way. Is the American/European distinction still useful? Still relevant? Does a discussion of our art form’s future require a fundamental re-framing away from the American/European dichotomy? Or are there kernels of philosophical truth at the center of the American/European discussion that are worth holding on to? Our panelists will address these and other issues.

But I was very sick, definitely not capable of getting on a plane Wednesday afternoon, and for the first time, I think ever, I had to cancel and didn't attend. I wrote Bill Sallak an email and he was very supportive for which I am deeply appreciative, and I later sent him an angry replacement of the talk I had prepared, which I no longer felt represented my feelings about what it means to be an American in a time like what we are going through now. Bill decided not to read it during the panel, for which I'm grateful, but I've heard that during our annual PASIC scotch drinking night, a ritual I was also sad to miss, it was indeed read by Bill and followed by a toast. I have some very good friends in the percussion world and those gathered that night are among my closest and most treasured friends. 

I include what I sent Bill below, but note that I no longer feel this way at all, in fact, if you're willing to read further, and I hope you will, instead I've come to feel exactly opposite of how I felt when I wrote the following: 

I apologize that I can't be with you today. I had prepared a text comparing how European composers and their music are treated here with how American composers are treated in Europe. The inequality of that relationship is something I've deeply felt concerning myself and others, those of us still writing experimental music influenced by the American Experimental Tradition, which was the most important musical contribution on the American continent, including Canadian and Latin American composers not just those in the United States, of the last century. 

But now America is a word I cannot use, American a name I will not claim. Geography and place are essential to the music I write but the place where I live has now become a danger to the world and its people, Indiana being one of its most fervent supporters, a danger to all of us who believe in the rights and freedoms of all people everywhere and not just white people living primarily in the so-called "heartland" of this nation. Make America great again really means make America white again. I vehemently reject that, have lost friends and family over it, and gladly so. I've been called "anti-American" many times by conservative family and so-called friends, but now that's exactly what I proclaim myself to be.

Bill Sallak asked if he can still read what I wrote, even though I personally cannot, and I will let him decide. I am physically sick as I write this and for me to speak of "America" at a time like this is simply impossible, but perhaps those looking at things more objectively than I can, will see differently. 

Whether he does or does not read it, please know this. I no longer accept the label of being an "American composer" and I no longer write "American music." I stand in opposition to everything the United States has become socially and politically as a result of this racist demagogue being supported by a large swath of this country, racist just like him, not the majority (same as when the last dangerous US president was elected in 2000), but then the majority of this country, diverse like the world is diverse, cannot safely live in most parts of the United States any more. If you want to know why demographics and voter suppression really matter, as well as the gerrymandering of 2010, it is by forcing the diverse majority into urban centers, their only truly safe spaces, thus concentrating their votes into fewer and fewer districts, where their majority votes get marginalized as they did on Tuesday. 

So I guess what I'm saying is that while the labels American and European, German or French, Korean or Japanese, pairing intentionally former enemies together, still exist and are real, I intend to defy such labeling, make the most radical music possible and stand with everyone and anywhere in solidarity toward a music of resistance, of fighting the power, of fighting against the evil of what this tragic election result means to this country and to the world. New Music, Neue Musik, whatever.  I pledge to continue making new and radical music, in service of the now necessary revolution against right wing racist extremism wherever it exists in the world. 

I shared this with only my closest friends and family but now I want to share it on this space with the following caveats: 

1. I still agree with what I wrote in the first paragraph and at the end of this entry I will include what I originally wrote.

2. I do not agree with the first and last sentence of the second paragraph, nor with the second sentence of the fourth. I was angry, as are many other Americans in this country, about what happened. But that doesn't mean I'm anti-American, un-American, or no longer an American composer. The most anti-American act of my lifetime, perhaps in all of American history but certainly in recent history, was to vote for the most unqualified candidate to ever run for the presidency. A truly despicable human being. All who voted for him are truly un-American, and have committed the most unpatriotic of acts by putting their own self-interests and biases ahead of the necessity of having a capable leader in place to handle the many challenges facing our world today.  I realize instead that the true patriots were the ones willing to compromise their beliefs, as I have been doing in every presidential election of my lifetime, by voting for the best possible choice given what has been offered. I'm a committed social democrat and the Democratic party is my compromise. I have no problem with legitimate Republican alternatives but what happened this time is that no one did the right thing and instead allowed a demagogue to take over their party and because of their cynical attempts to suppress the vote helped made it possible for a minority of voters to elect someone who has no business representing anyone, let alone president of the United States. 

I agree with everything else I wrote. 

On Saturday I was able to get on a plane and meet my wife Hee Sook Kim in Venice where she was an artist in residence and made a series of prints at Fallani Venezia. By that time I had decided to have Venice be the place where I would choose texts for the opera I'm writing for the Akros Percussion Collective, of which Bill Sallak is a member, an opera that uses texts written by Henry David Thoreau. This is a collaborative piece I'm creating with Hee Sook Kim who will be making video and handling all the visual elements. 

The opera was originally titled "Henry in the Woods" and I taught a seminar on Emerson and Ives, Cage and Thoreau this past summer at the Universität Heidelberg with legendary Thoreau (and Emerson) scholar Prof. Dr. Dieter Schulz. This enabled me to revisit the writings of Thoreau and my goal was to choose texts prior to what I hoped would be a MacDowell residency which, because it is in New Hampshire, would be nearby Concord, Massachusetts where Thoreau lived and wrote. A perfect place, or so I thought, to complete my opera. Of course I didn't get the residency, guess that means I remain outside "the establishment" even after moving to Philadelphia, one of the most "established" locations in the eastern United States, and I guess I'm not altogether unhappy that my excellent proposal was rejected. I assume I will eventually have a MacDowell, most likely when I need it least. 

And now the election had changed, or better yet, radicalized my opera. Thoreau was himself a radical, nothing like the establishment figure literature departments over time have tried to make him, and certainly only canonical if you allow him to retain his truly radical nature. What was originally to include nature-oriented texts from Thoreau's journal, read by the five percussionists of the Akros group, representing Thoreau, and a soprano singing unworded vocalise representing nature, had now become transformed. The soprano will now sing texts from Thoreau's most radical political writings and the percussionists will continue to read the nature texts but with a complete role reversal: the nature writings will be representative of nature, read by the all-male Akros ensemble, and the political writings will be sung by the soprano. Meaning that Thoreau the political being, the radical who wrote Civil Disobedience and in favor of the abolitionist John Brown, will be voiced by a woman. The soprano will be the "lead singer" of the band, as it were, singing Thoreau's most political words, Thoreau becoming, in effect, a woman. One woman voicing a radical politics, politics stereotypically and especially in our present environment a man's role, at least when it comes to presidential politics apparently, and five men taking on the voice of nature, stereotypically viewed as being a woman.  And I chose those texts in the city of Venice which I read in some tourist book was typically thought of by artists "as a woman", whatever that could possibly mean. Role reversal everywhere in other words and an opera that now plays with such things. 

One role reversal was that now I could write about Thoreau as what Emerson called him, "a true American," or as John Cage once wrote, "No greater American lived than Thoreau." And if Thoreau is an American then I am too. I used to also say I wasn't a Christian because of the abhorrent beliefs and behaviors of fundamentalists here and elsewhere but now that Christians unbelievably and overwhelming supported the most un-Christian presidential candidate in all of American history, I'm taking back that too. Those voters have no business calling themselves Christian if they could do that. So now I'm again calling myself a Christian, meaning someone who follows Christ rather than the social dictates of fundamentalist Christianity which undoubtably Jesus would have regarded in the same light as the Pharisees he blamed for allowing those merchant tables he upended in the Temple. 

I'm going to disappear for several months of isolation as I finish composing the opera now tentatively titled "Lost in the Woods." Reminding me of the great and recently deceased Leon Russell's song of the same title, "Can't tell the bad from the good, I'm lost in the woods." I also plan to follow in the footsteps of another great composer who recently passed away, Pauline Oliveros, and do some very deep listening as I try to hear what needs to be heard and write that down. Hopefully I'll return like the last of the Ten Ox Herding Pictures of Zen Buddhism, an ever present influence on me those pictures: a fat man returning to the village and bearing gifts, minus the fat I hope. The other version of that tenth picture is the void, by the way, kind of how things feel right now. But I will try to follow in the footsteps of another composer I'm known to admire, John Cage, ever the optimist, so I'm holding on to the first picture rather than the second. And to hope as a daily practice rather than the despair I daily feel. 

Meanwhile here's the text I prepared for PASIC, with thanks to Andy Bliss for the invitation and apologies to him, Bill Sallak and the rest of the panel for not being able to attend.

I want to lay out some particulars, historically, that may be useful. Particulars that I think carry some larger, more global perspectives. New Music, as the great American composer Henry Cowell envisioned it, was an inclusive word that included all music that was new. This meant that Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg both wrote new music, regardless of whether one said that in English as "New Music" or in German as "Neue Musik." This isn't true today. Neue Musik in German means something very specific to a German speaking person or to someone who participates in festivals located in German speaking places. I'm going to talk a bit about that in relation to Darmstadt, first because it pairs with the fine introduction to the Focus Day that Andy Bliss wrote for Percussive Notes, where he writes of his attending the summer music courses in 2014, and also because it is historically a location where the divide between New Music on this continent and Neue Musik on the European continent began.  Let's go back to Andy's introduction first, because hopefully you've all read it, and if not it is easy to rectify that, and second because it mirrors my experience first attending a Darmstadt summer course, as a percussionist on a Lord Mayor of Darmstadt stipendium, in 1986. I too brought back lots of music by young composers from all over the world, heard music that I'd admired in recordings for years but had never heard live, and generally was in an environment where young people interested in experimental music congregated in large enough numbers that you wanted to stay there forever just so you could, as it were, "preach to the choir" everyday about what you love.      
Anyway the point is, as a performer at the courses you are so busy playing music with other great young similarly minded players that you get the idea that somehow we're in this all together. On the other hand, participation as a composer is another matter altogether. And this dates back to early Darmstadt, 1958 to be exact, when John Cage attended the courses. On this continent it is still not well known how Cage and others were ostracized following that, most famously by Luigi Nono but also, and earlier, by Cage's one time friend Pierre Boulez and eventually Karlheinz Stockhausen chimed in too. For American composers, including I might add American serialists like Milton Babbitt and his followers, the divide has only been bridged if you do the one thing necessary: write like a European. Or to be more specific, because my experience outside of Germany has been much more open: write like a European celebrated at German Neue Musik festivals.
So, then let's get to where this has all been leading: I think it's great that European composers get played here at PASIC and I know Andy's right when he says PASICs don't feature enough and this year definitely gives us all a chance to hear more. But, back to a little history: Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez, Xenakis all had important residencies in the United States, important for them and for those here who got to study with them. But where is the equivalent reciprocity of composers from this continent who were invited back to Europe? With the exception of German radio stations in Frankfurt, Cologne, Munich and Bremen, that served as an alternative--at least for American experimental composers of a certain generation--to the festival scene, the answer is none. Zero. If you think there is no longer a sense of European superiority when it comes to such things, just spend some time with Helmut Lachenmann and ask him.  I myself asked Michael Reudenbach, a great European composer of my generation, at Darmstadt in 2008, what American composers he knew and liked and he, not surprisingly, mentioned composers like Cage (dead), Feldman (dead) James Tenney (dead), not one living composer and certainly no composer of his own generation or younger. This is, in my opinion, a big problem because there are composers out there, I definitely know some, and it doesn't mean you have to accept the banality of the most successful composers on this continent. I think percussionists should be seeking out these composers too, those writing music equal to what can be heard in Europe but not known there, or here for that matter, and not just returning from Darmstadt like I did in 1986, sharing what I'd learned there as if I'd heard all there was to hear.
 I think that the goal should be a return to Henry Cowell's idea of an inclusive New Music and not the historical and still current dogmatism of "Neue Musik. " As John Cage once wrote, following his own first appearance at Darmstadt, "it will be difficult for Europe to give up being Europe," to which I would add especially as it includes the whole world of music under the rubric of that exclusive club called "Neue Musik." But let's not forget how Cage continued that thought, "the world is one world now," with the necessary addition of the fact that we no longer live in the melting pot universalist world of Cage's generation but instead in the spectacularly diverse world of particulars that is the world of my generation and also yours. I encourage you to explore that world and share it with me. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Making of World's End Preludes (2012-2015) for solo piano

Ridge side of the Devisadero Trail (with view in the distance of sacred Taos mountain)

When I composed Devisadero (2002-2007) for solo piano, from sketches made during walks on a trail of the same name near Taos New Mexico, I regarded it as a piece that would eventually be connected to miniatures I had been commissioned to write, by invitation from member Mollie O'Meara,  for the New Mexico Music Teachers Association (now the Professional Music Teachers of New Mexico), that would be premiered by my colleague Falko Steinbach at their next annual meeting in 2002. Perhaps the most misunderstood of all my titles, Four Romantic Miniatures (2001-2002) was written to be played by students, high school and up, though Falko thought it worthy of performance as part of his recitals and he programmed it many times all over the world. The use of the term "romantic" hearkens back to the 19th century sense of self and world, a philosophical stance well understood at that time, rather than solely as a "style," which was confusing for some since neo-romanticism was (yet again) all the rage and, worse, I was exploring tonality for the first time. Each miniature was influenced by a composer whose work I admired and borrowed from something characteristic of theirs. The first (and best of them I think) was influenced by Miles Davis and borrowed material from the Joseph Zawinul tune (Pharoah's Dance) that opens Bitches Brew. The second and third were influenced by Charles Ives and John Lennon/Brian Wilson respectively with the latter a "mashup" of one of my favorite chord progressions (John Lennon's opening to If I Fell) and the last chord (all vocals) before the final section of Brian Wilson's Good Vibrations. These two don't really stand alone so I didn't plan on using them elsewhere. The final one was the first I wrote, influenced by my favorite composer of the time Robert Schumann, whose work I had begun to explore in great detail following an off-hand comment by my dear departed friend, the great composer and writer Konrad Boehmer, who when discovering that I didn't like Schumann, knowing only the orchestral work and hating his awful (and badly written) timpani parts, recommended I listen to his three violin sonatas. That did the trick and I've been studying him, like the master he is, ever since. You can hear all four of my "romantic" miniatures here:

Four Romantic Miniatures (2002), Falko Steinbach, piano

Devisadero was put aside as I worked on my Songs of Love and Longing (2001-2003) and then after finishing that I started writing a four movement piece for winds and percussion, Openings (2004-2007), dedicated to my father Terry Shultis, who had begun the slow process of dying from Alzheimer's Disease. By then, I was living part time in Pennsylvania and pianist and composer Curt Cacioppo, who teaches at Haverford College, asked me to write him a solo piano piece. I finished Openings in June, sketched in the Manzano mountain wilderness in New Mexico but composed in a chapel inside Ardmore Presbyterian Church in Ardmore Pennsylvania, and using sketches from the Devisadero Trail, I composed Devisadero in that same chapel, completing it just before the end of the year.  Devisadero was premiered first in 2008 by Curt Cacioppo, and my father was well enough to attend the premiere of Openings the following year in 2009. He and I sat next to each other in Popejoy Hall as the UNM Wind Symphony, under the direction of Eric Rombach-Kendall, gave a definitive performance.

By then, I had started walking in the woods of Pennsylvania, the trails along the Wissahickon at first, then the trails near French Creek, and finally along the Appalachian Trail, in particular the section that begins at the Hamburg reservoir, past Pulpit Rock up to the Pinnacle, highest point of the AT in Pennsylvania. I composed two pieces sketched from walks on these trails, (From) Waldmusik: Wissahickon, Pulpit Rock, French Creek (2009) for two pianos, one played by a percussionist and Circlings (2010) for four Gayageums, electronics and video by Hee Sook Kim. You can hear and see them by clicking on these links:

Waldmusik (2008-2009) performed by the Hoffmann-Goldstein duo, video by Hee Sook Kim

Circlings (2010) for Gayageums and Electronics, performed by the Gyeonggi Gayageum Quartet, video by Hee Sook Kim

Both pieces include field recordings, the first, a surprise recording of a siren on the Lenape Trail in the French Creek State Park (which turned out to be a warning siren for a nearby nuclear power plant), the second, field recordings in the mountains of Korea from my first visit there in 2009, including recordings of Buddhist chant (male and female) in temples found in Saraksan (male) and Gonju (female). But the inspiration of Circlings began with a disastrous walk in the woods of French Creek, the same trail where I heard the siren, where Hee Sook and I, suffering from heat stroke on a very hot and humid afternoon, got lost in the woods. A park ranger had to actually seek us out. After years of walking alone in the New Mexico wilderness, with (typically) no real trail markings of any consistency, I got lost on a supposedly well-marked trail in the woods of Pennsylvania. The text that accompanies Circlings goes like this: "In the woods, all directions seem the right ones." I'm spending some time on these two pieces because they along with Devisadero and the piece I will now discuss, the World's End Preludes, together with my electronic work Wind, Water, Walk (2008-2009), recorded on the Spruce Spring trail, the same trail where I sketched Openings, complete the piece I've been working on since 2003: Waldmusik (2003-2015) started during a Wurlitzer residency in Taos in the summer of 2003. That piece began with the following, before I'd ever written a note:

walking in woods
listening ...
what I hear :

Interestingly enough, I wasn't really walking in the woods when I wrote that text, certainly not the thick woods of Pennsylvania where the impenetrable forest changed things drastically for me--used to finding my way by the ever-present sun in New Mexico as well as the confidence of knowing that mountain trails literally go up and down, rather than the more typical circles I've found in the Pennsylvania woods. My Pennsylvania pieces are, I think, some of my very best but they are darker, troubled even. And I began to wonder why ... why such dis-ease walking in the woods? In contrast, my walks in New Mexico were a kind of meditation, a Buddhistic "sitting while walking" as the artist Mayumi Nishida once described it in conversation.

Not long after writing those pieces, I went camping and walking in north central Pennsylvania, finding a great WPA built campground called World's End State Park. It started in July of 2012, when I took this picture and posted it on Facebook:

I thought it was funny--the world's end in north central Pennsylvania?--and immediately decided the new preludes I would add to my "Preludes and Miniatures" project would be called my "World's End Preludes." The piece, finished in Taos, New Mexico three years later, ended up not being funny at all, instead pointing me to a new direction in my life and work.

Spending a few days there camping and walking, a beautiful place. Below is a photo from the highest point, Canyon Vista, looking down into the canyon:

The first clue that I had found myself somewhere I'd never been before, similar to how I felt getting so lost on the Lenape trail in French Creek, was when I started reading the historical markers near the campgrounds. Anyone who knows me, knows I stop for all of them, always wanting to know what they say and what in that place has such historical importance. Here's a photo of the first one I saw:

Maybe I'm the only one who finds this sign's message a bit strange. I understand the significance of the path itself, obviously a main thoroughfare and, as I found out, almost all the great Indian paths are now, like this one, turned into a road. But who was this Moravian Bishop Ettwein, so well known apparently that the sign doesn't even include his first name? And who were these Christian Indians with whom he was traveling in 1772, only one year before the Boston Tea Party sparked an eventual revolution in this country? And finally, what was the significance of this "City of Peace" on the Beaver River? I didn't even know where the Beaver river was at that point. I decided to find out the answers to all these questions and following that story became the path that led to my World's End Preludes.

I spent quite a bit of time reading about John Ettwein and the history of the Moravian presence in this part of the United States and learned about how Ettwein and a group of Lenape (known as Delaware by the Moravians) took the long journey from near present day Wyalusing to what they called Friedenstadt (the Moravian's native language was German) or as the sign translates into English "City of Peace." Here's a map of the Wyalusing Path they followed (World's End State Park is located on the Loyalsock):

At the bottom of the map you can see "to Shamokin" and that's the Great Shamokin Path which Ettwein and his converts used to travel across the state of Pennsylvania. Here's the sign that commemorates their journey on that path:

Now we finally learn that it was John Ettwein (not just his last name) and that he had "200 Indians and their cows" with him. We also now know they were at this point of the trail in July 1772. The Great Shamokin Path was, as mentioned, a major thoroughfare and it was used by Ettwein and his followers to take them most of the way west across what is now the state of Pennsylvania.

The map is so big I'll show it below in two parts:

You can see in the upper right hand corner where they would have picked up the trail west, "to Towanda" can be found on both maps and it is likely they would have reached the Great Shamokin Trail somewhere between Muncy and Montgomery.

From Kittanning (the end of the Great Shamokin) to Friedensstadt, or at least the marker where Friedensstadt used to be, is around fifty miles. The nearest present day town would be Moravia near the Beaver River, alongside which (as the original Wyalusing sign mentioned) Ettwein and his followers settled. To give some basic geographical perspective, Friedensstadt is about forty miles north of Pittsburgh. Altogether, from Wyalusing to Friedensstadt would have been approximately three hundred miles, a long trip. Here is a photo of the marker, taken by me in June 2014 during a drive taken by Hee Sook and I following the path of Ettwein west:

So now more information. Ettwein did not "found"the settlement called Friedensstadt (as described in the Wyalusing Path sign) but instead did something that actually makes more sense, joining a settlement already founded two years earlier by his fellow Moravian Bishop David Zeisberger. But it's another sign, found near this same location that tells the rest of the story:

Friedensstadt was "abandoned" because it was no longer safe for them to stay there. So they moved west where they had connections with the native population. Their settlement in Ohio was called Gnadenhütten (which I translate as "Cabins of Grace") and here Ettwein, Heckewelder and Zeisberger formed a large and successful farming community with their Lenape brothers and sisters. Below is a photo of the countryside just outside of the present day Gnadenhütten, taken in June, 2014:

It is the last sentence of the marker previously shown that brought me here. I knew the story already from my research, which led to my trip west in the first place, but following their path in person and physically being in the places where Ettwein and the Lenape with him had been, convinced me that there was something I needed to do. I stayed in Gnadenhütten and visited the site of the massacre, which is described in some detail in this historical marker:

To be exact, ninety-six were murdered on the site where this marker is located, executed, as mentioned, by Pennsylvania militia who "mistook" them for "Indian raiders who had struck in western Pennsylvania," first with a club to the head, followed by each of them being scalped. The village by the way was "abandoned" because the bishops were accused of treason by the British, who by then were at war with the colonies, and were called away to testify regarding their innocence. The massacre occurred during their absence.

When I was in Gnadenhütten I visited the massacre site several times and also visited the Moravian church that still exists in Gnadenhütten, the John Heckenwelder Memorial Church (named after one of the bishops who came there with Ettwein and Zeisberger), where I was given a very informative tour by Sigrid Miller who works there. As someone who attends a Quaker meeting at home (Old Haverford Friends), I felt a strong connection to the Moravians, who, like the Quakers,  share my pacifist beliefs.

I had by then realized that my uneasy feelings walking the trails of Pennsylvania had to do with the sense of absence I felt walking on them. The trails of New Mexico were made by native peoples who were still there; the trails of Pennsylvania by native peoples who were gone and never coming back. For me, the path of Ettwein and the Lenape became a kind of representation of this forced absence, a great tragedy that served as a symbol of the much larger tragedy of what happened to the native population everywhere across what was, at the time of the massacre in Gnadenhütten, about to the become the United States of America. Traveling to Gnadenhütten was meant to prepare me for a reversal--I planned to walk from Gnadenhütten back to World's End, and when I got there take the sketches, some of which I'd already written, and compose my World's End Preludes.

But as we drove back, intentionally following the path's modern descendent, part of it a several lane highway, I began to understand that it wouldn't be very practical to walk three hundred miles with a heavy backpack on highways, even dangerous in all likelihood, and certainly not conducive to the inspiration I was seeking in order to compose the piece. We stopped at one point, where we had read there was still an original section of the Great Shamokin Path. Here's a photo of the sign that led us directly to it: 

If you look back at the map, you can see Cowanshannock, it's not far from Kittanning, as we followed the road leading to the path, we noticed we were driving into a private neighborhood and when we parked, at the head of this section of the trail, we were met with great suspicion by the person who owned the house at the foot of the trail. And though he was fine after he found out why we were there, I was also feeling increasingly apprehensive about someone like me walking across parts of Pennsylvania that probably haven't changed much in their opinions about outsiders since the eighteen century time period that brought me there in the first place. Here's what that part of the trail looks like, with Hee Sook walking on it to give some idea of its scale: 

We took careful notes, looking for places I could camp, measuring according to miles how long I could walk and if there were no areas suitable for camping looking for motels or churches where I might be able to ask ahead. It was time consuming and frustrating, especially since it was so obvious, as is true almost everywhere in the United States, that travel by anything other than car was simply not going to be a very good option. And then, thanks to the long drive, including a visit to Walden Pond where we were researching the opera we are now writing for the Akros Percussive Collective, I hurt my back and went into a long period of physical therapy. My plan for retracing the walk of Ettwein in reverse was over.

But after I recovered from my injury and started walking the trails of Pennsylvania again, I began to also revisit my sketches. One came from a another visit to World's End, written on the Loyalsock Trail in October 2013, where I took this picture:

Here's that sketch, where I've already written what is essentially the material of the last prelude, "World's End" with the subtitle, borrowing from the last three lines of T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men": "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper."

Just recently, the composer Curt Cacioppo (for whom I'd written Devisadero) drew my attention to a recording of Eliot himself reading this poem. I translate the three repeated lines ("this is the way the world ends") into music, not a low D like in the sketch but just above middle C, and played at 40 mm per quarter note, very slow. In Eliot's reading the tempo is quite fast, even faster than my original sketch of 120 to the quarter.

My sketches also provided a very strong sense of form and even back then, long before I visited Gnadenhütten, I had been thinking about connecting the World's End Preludes to Devisadero. While staying at a cabin in French Creek, I sketched out the form and, thinking aloud, tried to decide whether the preludes in their completed version would begin or end with the World's End Preludes, after which I decide ("this is it") in favor of ending with Devisadero.

At this point, I'm still thinking of including the miniatures--MD for five Miles Davis influenced miniatures after the four preludes of World's End, a minute of silence, after which five Schumann influenced miniatures would come before the six preludes of Devisadero to end the complete work. The text above is my writing out of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki's commentaries on the Ten Ox Herding Pictures (number 9 and especially number 10 describing the second version where the fat man returns bearing gifts) which were intentionally being used by me, numerically and otherwise, as a means of making decisions about the form of the piece.

Another important sketch concerns the use of sleigh bells, realizing that I wanted there to be a connection between the World's End Preludes and the "French Creek" movement of my (from) Waldmusik. In fact, the idea of having the same material came to me on the same trail where I wrote that French Creek movement, the Lenape Trail.

Walking the Lenape Trail again, like I am in the picture above, I knew then that putting Devisadero at the end, and the World's End Preludes at the beginning, not only made sense but also told me where I would finish the piece. Not in a place where the trails were empty of native peoples, but back in the place where I lived for more than thirty years, and specifically back to the place where I wrote Devisadero, the high mountains near Taos, home of one of the great Pueblo tribes of New Mexico.

Once I was back above the tree line (above a picture near Gold Hill, altitude around 12,000 feet) things went very quickly. I followed a routine that included long early morning walks into high mountain wilderness and then, thanks to permission from St. James Episcopal Church in Taos, I would spend the afternoons composing in their sanctuary on a beautiful Steinway grand. The movements had already by then been decided, four as previously mentioned, with the titles, "Wyalusing," "Friedensstadt," "Gnadenhütten," and "World's End."Wyalusing" and "Friedensstadt" were composed first, using sketches and then basically improvising at the piano, only writing down in shorthand what was needed to perform and then recording myself after it was finished. In "Friedensstadt" I refer back to the church bell chiming sound found in the second and sixth preludes of Devisadero, there influenced by the sound of church bells as I was composing in a chapel of Ardmore Presbyterian Church, but here related to what will come later in the movement: excerpts from Moravian hymns written at (or before) the time of the massacre found through research in Moravian hymn books at the University of New Mexico library. The Moravians loved to sing hymns and David Zeisberger translated many of them into the Lenape language. I chose three, (in the order shown below with the excerpts I used marked), placed at the end of the "Friedensstadt" movement that moves without pause into the following prelude "Gnadenhütten."

"World's End" was already essentially complete before I came to Taos as can be seen in the pencil sketch I made at St. James (see below):

Here is a recording of me playing the last prelude "World's End" in St. James Episcopal Church, just after I finished composing it (July 2015).

All that was left to compose was the third prelude "Gnadenhütten" which I knew had to be a sonic depiction of the massacre itself. Unable and unwilling to compose this music in a sacred place like St. James, I traveled south to the University of New Mexico where I shut myself into room 1111 in the Center for the Arts, with a piano that had received much abuse from me in the past, and it did that night as well. Ninety six high As, sempre mezzo piano, half note equals forty throughout, with the rest of the instrument played brutally like a percussion instrument--hard mallet on piano interior and left forearm on the keys, gliss on strings. I didn't leave until it was finished, exhausted, I took the long drive back to Taos. It had been only three weeks since I'd arrived and never before had I put a piece of music on paper so quickly.

In March of 2016, I was invited to be part of the John Donald Robb Composers' Symposium and Emanuele Arciuli, for whom I had written the World's End Preludes gave a solo recital during the symposium where he premiered the piece. We also recorded the Preludes in Keller Hall at the University of New Mexico for an upcoming CD. Liz Rincon was the recording engineer and below is a picture of us from that recording session:

You can hear Emanuele's wonderful premiere performance here:

I've always written music out of a necessity, a need inside me, in this case to make peace with the place where I now live and walk by acknowledging those who came before me, those who walked there before me, and who are no longer there.  When I hear the World's End Preludes played alone, I always feel a deep sadness, especially when I hear those hymn excerpts just before what I know is coming next.  But as with the Ten Ox Herding Pictures, the tenth picture has two versions--one is the void, emptiness, but the other is a "fat man returning from the void, bearing gifts." When paired with Devisadero, the one minute of silence after World's End depicts that emptiness, and then, when you hear the "Walking" movement of Devisadero begin, for me (and the opening of the movement is literally the pace of my walking) it is like that second Ox Herding picture, putting the tragic story of the Lenape in contact with Taos--a magical, spiritual and healing place, where I personally was healed long ago and thanks to my own return, now back in Pennsylvania, healed again. And bearing gifts.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Composing "water/peace"

In 1989, artist (and fellow UNM faculty member) Basia Irland asked me to collaborate on what would eventually become "water/peace." I was reluctant. The year before, she and I--along with many others--collaborated on what up to then was the artistic highlight of my life: serving as artistic director for a John Cage retrospective where Cage himself was the featured guest. But 1988 was also the year when I first experienced symptoms of a performance-related injury that, by 1992, would incapacitate me to the point where not only couldn't I play percussion instruments, I couldn't even hold a pencil.  Since percussion was what I knew, and I was losing the ability to play, what could I contribute? Basia wouldn't have known that when she asked; when I agreed it became a way of finding out.

Basia was at that time already a well-established professional artist with a strong sense of aesthetic intention so her invitation came attached with both a general idea--water in relation to peace--and a project: performing at the North American Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution in Montreal, Canada, March 2-5, 1989. Our session was titled "Sculptural and Percussion Performance: Water as Metaphor." Her contribution to the work was the making of light sculptures, which created the environment where the music would be performed, book sculptures included as part of a long list of musical instruments from around the world, and the selection of texts, in some cases hand copied by Basia from the original sources. She also came up with the brilliant idea of wearing spelunking head lamps so we could see our instruments and read our texts in the otherwise darkened space within her light sculptures. I composed the structure: three sections, seven minutes each, with a four-minute collage to begin the work that included all the sounds and texts heard in the following twenty-one minutes.  Much of this was pre-recorded with the assistance of composer Daniel Paul Davis, who also made a computer-generated score by notating all the musical material in the recorded sections, which I myself performed. 

List of musical instruments for Montreal performance:

Score page of "water/peace," Davis transcription:

Sketch of collage:

To connect with the themes of water and peace, I included two water sources, provided by Daniel Davis, who as a sound designer for theater productions had a catalog of choices: the first, an up-close recording of a stream; the second, a recording of ocean waves that included the occasional sound of seagulls.  The electronic tape that we made included seven minutes of piano (played inside like a percussion instrument), seven minutes of vibraphone, and seven minutes of crotales.  At that time, in order to not be influenced by my own personal taste in sound selection, I chose pitches according to whether or not they were found in the source words of what I was working on. In this case, water and peace gave me the pitches, A and E (in water) and A, C and E (in peace).  Not fussy about naturals, sharps and flats, these choices provided me with a fairly large number of pitches: A-flat, A-natural, A-sharp; E-flat, E-natural, E-sharp, C-flat, C-natural, C-sharp. In section I, I played the piano interior, using the pitches A and E (water), and improvising my choices, one every eight seconds. In sections II and III, I did the same with vibraphone and crotales (respectively), improvising my choices every seven seconds and using the pitches, A, C and E (peace). These were recorded by Daniel Davis on the spot and became the underlying foundation of the twenty-one minutes that follow the opening collage.

Here is the piano score I used to improvise that first recorded section:

In addition, there were twenty-one texts chosen and read, both by Basia and I, some live and some recorded, one per minute.  On top of all this, Basia and I divided up the instruments, forty-one altogether, and played them--first (rapidly) in the four minute collage section, and then (in a less hurried context) over the course of the remaining twenty-one minutes. 

If pitch was decided somewhat arbitrarily by word choice, the form of the piece was carefully designed by numerical choices, both global and personal.  I mean both literally, as I was not much inclined then (not much now either for that matter) toward symbolic reference. Global references gave me continents (seven) and countries inside those continents. This latter count, in those pre-internet days not likely accurate then and certainly not accurate now, determined how many attacks there would be in each section. If the large scale form was as previously described a simple ABA  structure, the smaller scale division of seven was determined by the continents, three minutes each. With Antarctica placed in the middle, this meant that for those three minutes, because there were no countries, Basia and I stood in silence--no readings, no sounds.

The personal side of this involved the crisis that was happening in my life concurrent to my composing "water/peace," due to my already mentioned physical injury that, in turn, was inflicting enormous psychological and spiritual damage.  Writing and preparing "water/peace" included weeks of practice with Basia in a small make-shift studio using a boom-box to play the tape and placing the instruments on shelves that surrounded the room. Those practice sessions were, in themselves, healing events. Basia and I became closer as friends, and I was also able to continue playing percussion, which up until then was my entire life.  I enjoyed helping her learn to play the instruments. And it was gratifying to hear how good the piece sounded as we played it together. Only the second composition I had ever written in my life (the first was a solo percussionist piece I wrote for a concert in Baltimore the year before, written to replace a composition I could no longer play because of my injury), "water/peace" was clearly going to be a big success. I was so pleased!

"Water/Peace," at twenty-five minutes, still the longest piece of music I've ever composed, is also the last piece of percussion music I ever performed: an artistic marker of the end of my days as a percussionist, as well as, thanks to Basia's invitation, the beginning of my new life as a composer.  For that, and many other things over more than two decades of friendship, I'll be ever grateful.