Sunday, December 01, 2013

Le deuil


I'm sitting in the bus station in Albany. The dreaded mandatory pit stop for most buses between New York and Montreal. This station is where busloads of passengers are required to spend 30 minutes in deep reflection while the driver rests and the bus is refuelled. This is what purgatory must feel like. It's an unredeemable place. This visit has already proved fruitful; our bus driver declared that the McDonald's was a little far "and besides it's pretty much the worst McDonald's I've ever been to anyway". I once considered using my sole $2 (USD) to purchase green apple slices in a moment of desperation and decided against it. Green apples (the worst variety of apples, sliced, but oddly not oxidized) at a McDonald's by the Albany bus station. Too depressing.

Reasons I haven't written:

  1. I've recently fallen in love with too much new music to begin to know what to write about.
  2. I've recently become self-conscious about the way I construct sentences and overuse commas. This is to blame on the high volume of great fiction I've recently read as a result of taking the subway every day instead of biking (due to a leg injury). I am one of those rare people not playing iPhone Bejeweled on his commute.
  3. I've recently moved back to NYC and begun a new job working for people I respect tremendously. This takes up a lot of time. The rest of it is spent sleeping, cooking, doing the dishes, and waking up early to write music every day.
Today (November 21st 2013) is the one year mark of having lost Peralta. I thought about him every day since it happened. Though I haven't done it yet, I'll be erasing his number from my phone. It seemed impossible the first month, unreasonable the second, and so on. For a person usually not emotionally tied to dates, November 18th marked one year without having organized a concert of my own music. There were recording sessions, pieces of mine played by others (3 continents!), many gigs with other projects; none of them my own. These two dates have a lot to do with each other. The death of Austin marked an ending of my desire to run my large band and perform the music I had written for him.

I had considerable anxiety about my lack of musical presentations until I realized that I was better off taking my time. Over this last year I've come to the realization that our musical culture has been cornered into thinking that a constant stream of content should be the norm. This is why aspiring groups are making videos on rooftops and parks and any unseemly location that will make us want to click their links- it has very little to do with music. It's attempting to attract our limited attention in the course of days navigating what seem to be endless distractions. Even musicians I admire are guilty of this (I've also been a part of these ploys, with no regrets). I will resist the temptation to "go all Franzen" on you, but I think he's right. Depending on how you view it, I'm fortunate or unfortunate enough to be in a position where I no longer make my living off of performances. This means that I'm able to focus on what I want to do – I'm not at the mercy of “money-gigs”, at least not right now. This is neither good or bad. As a writer of music, all of this means that a lot of time is spent in solitude working towards very specific goals instead of scrambling to have enough gigs to cover rent. I empathize with those around me that are in that position, as choices have to be made on which gigs to take, weighing creatively fulfilling gigs against financially fulfilling ones.

The point of this all is to say that the passing of Austin made me think hard about what I wanted to say and do with the time I have to express it. It comes down to Sondheim making a hat, where there wasn't a hat before (see all of “Sunday In The Park With George” to understand my point). The whole premise is only worth it if we can give ourselves away to the task with the most genuine of intentions. Do I really need minor works of quasi-social-media (sort-of-but-not-really) engagement to get to the bottom of what I want to create? My personal answer is no, but all the more power to you if this is part of your vision. There's been an insurgence of this kind of artistic thinking since I began thinking seriously about music a decade ago. I'm convinced social media is the biggest culprit. I have two minds about this: some of my peers have gone on to receive attention they may not have had prior to this social environment, but I have a feeling deserved recognition is inevitable no matter the time or place. I'm more focused on the artistic intentions (or lack of) around me than ever before.

Just as every lover at some level believes that he or she makes love as it's made nowhere else on the planet, so every artist clings for dear life to the illusion that the art he or she produces is vital, necessary, and unique.”

Jonathan Franzen, from his 1997 essay “Books in Bed”

The point being that the will to share should not be superseded by the belief that what is being said wouldn't be cared about were it not for the person responsible for its creation. That is the fundamental flaw in the intention behind a lot of the material I hear, which is the same as the fundamental flaw inherent in sharing oneself in any form of online representation (such as this fine blog). The reason Franzen's writing resonates so deeply with me is the fact that he was able to convey MY feelings in a way that exploited them – you feel the relationship with the artist as being wholly personal. Sami Bronowski satirized it best, appropriately in a tweet:

"This is how I decide if a movie is good or bad. I watch it and I ask myself : 'How much is this about me?' "

Perfect! Exactly the attitude that pervades the world of bad songs. I've decided to stop indulging it, and in doing so uncovered what I think is wrong with this culture of “artistic intentions”.

The man next to me is snoring. Woe is me.



I spend today tracking for my friend Henry's first album at Hotel 2 Tango in Montreal. Something about playing guitar makes me uneasy. A part of me feels proficient enough to contribute positively to the music, and the other part believes I'm just faking. I console myself with this quote:

An early tutor of mine in radical journalism, the late James Cameron, once confessed that every time he addressed the typewriter he thought to himself: 'Today is the day they are going to find me out.' ... I am consoled, when I suffer this very same apprehension, by the thought that the pope and the queen and the president all wake up with a similar gnawing fear. Or that, if they do not, they deserve to be doubted and distrusted even more, if that were possible, than I doubt and distrust them now.”

Christopher Hitchens from “Letters to a Young Contrarian”

I felt like I could play better than what I'd been hearing in the playback. Afterwards at home, I try to read through Schubert's last piano sonata, which I would love to learn in its entirety, but I know this won't happen. I'm hopelessly bad at playing the piano, but I feel like my limitation may be an asset to my musical being in some strange way. I recently realized that I don't know a single piece of music by heart. If you were to ask me to play anything, I would have to play based on what I believe to be the general idea of the music (speaking strictly about notated music). This is a problem. Maybe there's a Mozart minuet deeply lodged in my memory, but even my attempt to recall it feels like an imitation. Maybe I really am a musical fraud. Why haven't I retained anything? I have less than perfect pitch, good rhythmic identification but horrible output. Harmony is what I think I know.



In the second day of tracking, my opinion fluctuates between thinking my choices are valid and thinking they aren't. I have the thought while tracking that maybe part of my attitude stems from not having been at home for 5 months. The duality of feeling like everything is in its place (family, friends) but also that the rest of it all is stuck right where you left it, as if the story has to continue now that you're back.

You: "But I'm 5 months older!"
Montreal: "Not to me you're not."

I'm not the musician that I was when I was a part of this with Henry. I have a feeling the record will sound good, and I'm proud of Henry for getting to where he is now. All I want is to be able to give him what he's looking for. What if I'm no longer this guitar player though? Or even a guitar player at all? The frame of reference is too wide. Stephen Sondheim, Stravinsky, Louis Cole, Blake Mills, Brahms, Randy Newman, Daedelus, Coltrane. Is this asking for too much?


I bring this up in a conversation with my mom. She says it sounds like it's "le deuil".

F: "C'est quoi le deuil? What does that mean?"
M: "Tu sais quand quelq'un meur. Tu fais le deuil. I don't know the English word for it."
F: "Oh, mourning."
M: "Oui c'est ça. Tu fais le deuil pour certaines musiques."

Peraltitas, she found it! C'est le deuil de certaines musiques! C'est une immense partie de pourquoi que tu me manques. I miss you because you allowed a certain kind of musical existence in me to live. I will not be a jazz player. I already knew that. I will not be a self-proclaimed guitarist. I guess I already knew that, but it's a tougher pill to swallow. So what's left?

John Adams wakes up everyday and the frame of reference is pretty clear, at least I assume. I've been writing a music theatre piece with two of my greatest friends for nearly two years. We go into so-called "production" in January. We know it's a broken piece. We would never make the same mistakes we made in putting this together again. Was it Ravel or Stravinsky (or someone else) who said that we never finish pieces of music, we only abandon them. Our piece is at the end of its rebellious adolescence and it looks like it's heading into its dysfunctional adult phase. What is there to do except love the imperfections for where they came from.

Today's session ended early enough for me to go hear one of the youth orchestras my sister plays in. This is exciting because I'm meeting Jean, the conductor who has agreed to let me write a piece for their June 2014 concert. This is an opportunity I'm incredibly excited about.



I felt good about the way the overdubs went for Henry's session today; why do I do this to myself? I love the guitar – but it's my mistress, I mostly lust after it. Composition is my wife, through good days and debilitatingly bad days.

I took a break in the middle of the day to meet with Jean at Shaika Café in NDG. She is the kind of woman I would have easily become friends with had we met at the same age. She is in her 50's, looks a bit like Joni Mitchell and has the Western Canadian attitude that I know and love. We talk of the orchestra's strengths and weaknesses, as well as the avenues we can explore for this piece. She is charmingly encouraging, and speaks with passion about what she does and what it means to her. This is someone for whom music has mattered every day of her life. She basically gives me free reign to do whatever I want to do. I will begin writing my first orchestral piece.


I'm back on the bus, this time headed back towards Montreal. The driver informs us that it will be windy for most of the ride, and he'll do his best to not make the ride too bumpy. Nevertheless, I'm unable to sleep – nauseated from the motion.

I haven't listened to my recording in a while, so I put it on. Some things I like, others I don't.

Arthur sounds amazing.
Austin sounds amazing.
Matt Baltrucki engineered the hell out of it.
What the hell is up with the third movement? Why did I write that? Oh well.
Dillon's solo is so strange... I like it.
Michael's solo is hilarious, that's exactly what I asked for. He laughed when I proposed it to him...
The way Austin ends it (improvised) is perfect. It asks a question with that last chord (we feel like the penultimate chord should be the ending, but he extends it ever so slightly).

I wouldn't write this piece again. It's naive and jumbled. I guess that's a good thing – here it stands, knees wobbly but functional. I guess I made a hat.

I delete Austin's number from my phone. He hasn't called; my rationality so badly wanted to be irrational. It still does. I can see why religion consumes the majority of this world - it's less secure to live in uncertainty.

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”

Joan Didion, from “The Year of Magical Thinking

C'est le deuil de certaines musiques.