Monday, February 10, 2014

The Avant GaRawge - Some thoughts on spaces, spirits, and sabbaths

Some thoughts on spaces, spirits, and sabbaths
By Christian Asplund

Recently a very dear friend and mentor shared with me (I think because he has been so supportive of (not to mention influential on) my work over the years, and wanted to assure me that he wasn't aesthetically snubbing me) his reasons for not attending my Avant GaRawge series.  He shared a moving account of an early decision in his career and life as an artist and scholar, which made it necessary for him to refrain from participating (as a performer or listener) in certain Sunday musical events.  The Avant GaRawge (AG) is on Sunday nights.  This account, in the context of my deep regard for this friend as well as my deep (some would say fanatical) commitment to my religion and more specifically sabbath observance, has led me to ponder my relationship with this day of the week, and with my life as an artist/scholar/teacher etc., and more particularly my activities as a curator of musical/poetic events.  I have very specific reasons for doing these events Sunday nights. 
            I miss the evening firesides of my youth (many of which were musical) and the profound feeling that Sunday night has.  I love the Sunday evening musical services of other religions, such as Compline.  AG is partially to capture this spirit and to be an aesthetic/musical/spiritual/poetic meditation before diving into the more workaday week that follows.  AG is free and no money is exchanged or involved.  I, and the participants (and especially my wonderful wife), offer their time, talents, and resources freely in an act of consecration.  Most leave uplifted, positive, renewed, happy, and optimistic about their community.  There is something transcendent about sounds and words that are created and shared for reasons other than money, or fame, or the building of a career, etc.  When these worldly concerns aren't present, it opens the way for more profoundly spiritual experience to occur. 

Let me say at the outset that I believe that music is a gift from deity.  Every time I make a musical sound, I believe that I am, among other things:
-praising God
-expressing joy in my existence and that of others
-retuning and improving the world and its inhabitants through vibrations

I have a very deep conviction of the Mormon cosmology, which, as I understand it, asserts that people are dual beings, with mortal bodies in the image of deity, each of which is animated by an eternal spirit, which is the source of consciousness, will, creativity, etc.  Moreover, all organisms are animated by spirits and all of creation has a spiritual essence, including sound. 

In most religious traditions that I know of, one day a week is set aside for rest and worship.  I believe that a weekly sabbath is a profound human need, even for people who don't engage in religious activity or belief.  I am a Christian and a Mormon and among the teachings in my tradition regarding the sabbath are:

-the sabbath should be a day in which commerce and gainful employment should be avoided if possible
-activities that would require others to do gainful work should be avoided if possible
-spiritual observances such as prayer and scripture study should occur daily, but there should be much more of this on the sabbath, including attendance at certain community religious gatherings

            Mormonism  has left most other questions about the sabbath up to individual and family interpretation. This discretion is inspired, in part by the teachings and example of Jesus who was impatient with overly prescriptive sabbath guidelines.  I have made a personal choice not to do recording sessions or play or attend gigs at places that sell things on the sabbath.  However, I have always felt good about attending concerts at churches, universities, homes, and other places that are non-commercial in nature.  In these contexts, music is a sacred activity to my mind, and thus most appropriate to the spirit of a sabbath. I also attend art museums on the sabbath for the same reasons.  As another example, I don't believe in playing or watching sports on the sabbath, but I do hike on the sabbath because I feel that it is likewise a sacred act to experience nature.  But these are purely personal decisions, not necessarily reflective of the views of anyone else.  My friends and family are mostly a bit more relaxed about the sabbath in some ways, and some are a bit more rigorous.  But this reflects another part of my faith that is important and wonderful.  Mormonism has at its root the concept of personal revelation.  I think issues of this sort are deliberately left open so that each person can have an experience with the divine, making personal decisions and consulting God in making those decisions.  And learning from and taking responsibility for the consequences of those decisions.

I went to high school when cassette dubbing became somewhat of a craze.  Suddenly it became possible to build up a library of borrowed music for very little money.  I dubbed records from the library, radio broadcasts, and, of course, records of my friends and even my dad's friends.  The eclecticism I engaged in would be nothing in this day in age, but it was a little unusual then.  I had tapes of every possible genre including classical, jazz, reggae, rock, pop, new wave, Gregorian chant: whatever I could get my hands on.  I aspired to be a composer and felt that listening to many musics, in addition to being incredibly enjoyable, was part of my education.  I was very concerned about sifting through all of these musics and finding which were worthwhile and which not. The Book of Mormon has an interesting and powerfully simple formula for discerning value and truth in just about anything:  "the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God….  Search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ."
                        Using this formula (and acknowledging its subjectivity and dependence on faith and inspiration), I discovered that there was music that had this effect, music that was sincere, that had a spark of the divine in every genre.  In fact, whether music was of value to me had little to do with the genre in which it existed and had more to do with the individual artist(s) who created it and their intrinsic yet indefinable qualities.  It was also in high school that I consciously involved myself as a musician in as many genres as possible.  Through the years I have evolved a hybrid practice that basically disregards boundaries of genre or medium, but certainly partakes of the harmonic and design elements of Euro-American classical music, the performance practice of jazz, and the rhythmic and expressive intensities of various vernacular musics.  But it has been a very long time since I have thought about these distinctions in the act of composition, which remains an utterly mysterious process, one that would be seriously impaired by concerns about what box to put something in.
            Moreover, most musics I am aware of have some kind of spiritual origin.  This includes, most notably, rock music, which originated in African-American Christian liturgy, but it also includes Euro-American classical music, Indian classical music, reggae, Indonesian gamelan, etc.

Avant GaRawge

On 29 September 2013 I held my first musical/poetic fireside in the "Avant GaRawge", essentially my garage tricked out as a performance space by Aaron McMurray, Logan Hone, and my father in law, Noel Candland.  AG had been preceded by a series of salons and house concerts that I have curated going back to 1999.  Curating events is as much a part of my activity as a composer as is writing little dots on a five-line staff.  I'm particular that performances at AG be avant garde, in other words, original, creative, pushing boundaries, even oracular, yet competent/professional, even virtuosic; and that they be "Raw", in other words very new, not overly vetted at other venues, and possessing a great deal of intensity.


When I was at Mills College I attended a lecture by Bob Ostertag, who discussed, among other things, his musical collaborations with John Zorn in the 1970s.  A couple of things struck me in his accounts.  The first was that he said that for a couple of years he and Zorn and one or two others rehearsed/jammed every day for something like 6 hours per day during a period of about two years.  This was also a period in which they had no conventional gigs or recording sessions.  The other thing that stuck with me was that he said that, in the absence of venues and gigs, Zorn would do concerts of solo material, which I came to know later as two projects: The Theater of Musical Optics, and the solo saxophone+other noise makers collected on the Classic Guide to Strategy CD.  Bob said that Zorn would distribute fliers to these performances but that the attendance was sketchy.  Sometimes it would only be Zorn and his girlfriend.  This story recalibrated my thinking about music and performance, success, and even life.  It was a tremendously liberating thought, an approach to art that evinces a huge amount of faith. 

Seattle Composers Salon
In my last year in Seattle (1998-99) I taught at Cornish College of the Arts.  I had such a wonderful experience there with some of the most interesting and sincere artists as colleagues and students.  Someone approached me who had rented a classroom-sized room on capital hill near Cornish, one of the hippest areas of Seattle at the time.  She wanted to know if I had any ideas for performances that could be done there.  Everything about the room except its location was sub-optimal.  But I had, at the time, a sort of rule that I would not turn down creative music gigs.  What resulted was the Seattle Composers Salon.  The concept was a monthly event with elements of a concert, a workshop, a party, and an open-mike.  Invited composers, including composers who had expressed interest in participating and had been approved to do so (thus the distinction from an open-mic) would bring a piece and performers a half hour before the official starting time, and we would work out an order and I would act as MC.  Audience members could ask questions and make comments after pieces.  I think we had some light refreshments also.  It was either free or by donation.  My curatorship of the Seattle Composers Salon only lasted a few months because I moved to take a job at Oregon State University.  My good friend Tom Baker took over the series and has turned it into a very exciting and durable part of the Seattle creative music landscape. The series is still going, now in its 15th year.

Tricube Salon
I lived and taught in Oklahoma 2000-2002.  Our house was a modest modernist design consisting of three boxes.  As the first house I had owned I wanted to name it, after the fashion of the British aristocracy.  My oldest daughter (10 at the time) suggested Tricube, and it stuck.  As a composition teacher, I had loved the strategy (originating, I think with Robert Ashley) at Mills College of fostering, or even requiring, many concerts of student compositions.  The thinking was that you learned more from doing concerts and talking about them afterwards than you did from any other activity, so why not do more of them? 
There is kind of an answer to that question: coordination and bureaucracy.  Booking and managing a concert hall can be very complex.  Happily, Mills College had a very simple system.  There was a big calendar for the two halls students had access to.  You would find an open spot on the calendar, which was above the department secretary’s desk, and basically tell her you were putting your name down on a particular date for a concert.  If she knew of some conflict not already on the calendar (rare), she would inform you and you’d pick another date.  Then you’d make, write and rehearse music, make fliers, and play that music for the people that showed up.
             Tricube had few and small bedrooms, but did have an open plan for the living/dining/kitchen, so I realized that I could most easily put together concerts for my students, as well as myself and other willing “grownup” musicians and poets in my own living room with no bureaucratic hassle.  Since Tricube, we’ve owned three houses:  always with too few bedrooms, but large common spaces in which we can host performances.  We only realized in retrospect that this has been the case. 

Locust Salon
 On 8 June 2007, I had my first Locust Salon in the living room of my current house, Exoskeleto, on Locust Circle.  The space is not quite as ideal as Tricube, but it has the advantage of a grand piano.  The Locust Salon has been an intermittent series that featured myself and other local and touring musicians and poets, including Eyvind Kang, Tatsuya Nakatani, Alex Caldiero, Craig Dworkin, Lance Larsen, Steve Tuttle, Alex Woods, Michael Hicks, Steve Ricks, Michelle Kesler, Scott Holden, Jeremy Grimshaw, Steve Call, Jarrad Powell, and many others.  This series owes greatly to my wife, poet Lara Candland Asplund and her incredible cooking, poetry, and preparation of our home for guests. 
Our children also pitch in, preparing the house for guests and helping with food preparation.  They love the salons and always ask when the next one will be.  Our daughter Ingrid who is away at college always requests a salon when she is home on breaks. This series continues intermittently, but has averaged about four times a year.

Avant GaRawge
 Over the summer of 2013, I felt it was time to start a new series, one that would happen more often than the Salon and one that was a bit more raw, a bit less formal.  I knew that it would be impractical to do this series in my living room.  I was especially inspired by the energy and creativity of a group of BYU and Snow College music students who would form the core of the AG.  At first AG was weekly, but, after a month hiatus in November/December, we cut back to biweekly, which seems to work really well.  It is a small and sometimes chilly space, but we pack it consistently.  This is very heartening to me, but not essential. 
My teacher Stuart Dempster liked to talk about Type A, Type B, and Type C concerts.  Type A means there are more people on stage than in the audience.  Type B means there are equal numbers.  Type C means there are more people in the audience than on stage.  This formula acknowledged that there’s nothing essentially wrong with doing concerts for small audiences. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”