I was loading up something to listen to on Spotify on my phone. It brought to mind my nephew who has never to my knowledge eaten meat. When he was 4 or 5 my wife he would stop by our house which was steps away from his in our student housing fourplexes in Seattle, my wife would offer him several enticing options of food. He would act like he was considering his options, not saying no to any offered, and say “How ‘booouuuut pea’butter samich?” invariably. He lived on these tidy, protein packed vegetarian marvels. I was a peanut butter freak at that age (and continue to be). This also brought to mind a more recent ritual. My wife calls me some time in the late morning and asks if I would be interested in getting a taco. She picks me up and we go through the drive-thru at Rancheritos in Provo, which we call Beto’s, it’s name for many years before the change a few years ago. She introduced me to the shredded beef taco, which I never would have tried on my own. I realized that I never order tacos at places that don’t make corn tortillas on demand, which is rare. However, this is the one taco that Beto’s fries, which renders the otherwise non-tasty pre-made corn tortilla a thing of wonder. Inside are ample portions of three ingredients: beef, cheese, lettuce. Perfect. She orders a large diet pepsi, I order a medium. It’s become a running joke when we get to the drive through menu/intercom, we mock ruminate over our decision, much like my nephew.
Back to Spotify. I ended up essentially saying “how ‘booouuut” my “everything by Machaut on Spotify” playlist (which includes a few dogs—inexplicable roland synth versions and the like). I have basically been binge-listening to Machaut now for a little over a year. In fact, I mainly have Spotify so I can listen to a lot of Machaut. Binge listening has become much easier with Spotify. A little over ten years ago I got my first iPod for the single reason that I wanted to have instant access to uncompressed versions of every available recording of Morton Feldman. I could trace my ongoing musical education to these multi-year binge-listening periods. Why Feldman? Why Machaut? I’ll come back to that.
I recently spoke with a treasured friend and mentor, a fascinating and mysterious artist in his own right. I had not seen or communicated with him for several years. He was and is a highly trained and gifted musician and musical theorist, scholar and thinker of great insight, intellect and creativity. He told me that when he first encountered my music, he was troubled because he found it compelling, but he couldn’t figure out why. He was used to being able to identify what made the music that he and others loved have the impact they do. My music, on the other hand, often had none of these features and resisted the kind of analysis/assessment that is often used to assign value to a composer in an academic employment or composition community situation. I took this as a treasured compliment. I have little to complain about in my career as a whole, but it has taken many years to convince people that, oh, I don’t know, I’m not a hack—that my music is music, etc. For years I would submit scores for this and that, and I think nobody knew what to do with them. Handwritten. Half notes and quarter notes when multi-tupleted 32nd notes were preferred. Written instructions mixed with notation, figured bass, chord symbols, etc. Freely mixed triads, open fifths, chromatic scales, etc. There were always a few people, enough people, including some incredible performers, that supported what I was doing enough to keep me going. But as far as being an accepted member of any scene – academic new music (uptown), classical establishment composition (midtown), international free improv, minimalism, postmodern, prog, out jazz, etc., it never really happened. I find it difficult to ally myself with any one style community. I suppose “downtown” has been the most comfortable concept for me because it is the least prescriptive. It can kind of take in just about anything.
Anyway, back to peanut butter, shredded beef, Machaut, etc., another composer who has been a perennial influence is Robert Ashley. He’s been perhaps the most pervasive influence on my music. It is beyond the scope of this post to explore the reasons in full, but I will mention the main one, and this should hopefully tie my ramblings together to some extent. I was introduced to Ashley first around 1991 by David Bernstein at Mills College, where Ashley had been head of the music department for about 10 years in the ‘70s. I went to the library and watched much of Perfect Lives. I was simultaneously repelled by the casiotone-esque percussion sounds and the low-res video of this piece, as well as its slow meandering pace, while I was fascinated, compelled, infatuated by this work for reasons I didn’t (and still barely) understand. A year or so later, Bob brought his newest opera, Improvement to Mills for a live performance. This piece shared elements of Perfect Lives, but had gorgeous electronic accompaniments and beautifully mature Ashley-esque vocal delivery and reinforcement. To this day I don’t know what it is about Ashley that is so appealing to me. There are specific aspects that have profoundly influenced me: his text setting, his texts themselves which exist in a liminal space between narrative and stream-of-conscious, and his invoking of the genre opera in its most vestigial form. I could say the same for Feldman. I don’t know why I love his music. The tranquility, the transcendent harmony, the muted timbres are all beautiful, as is the perception-altering shape/form/structure of his pieces, all of which have profoundly influenced me. But there is something else that I can’t place my finger on, that makes me come back again and again to Feldman’s music. Same for Machaut. In the case of Machaut, as with Beethoven and a few others, there is enough data to analyze and talk about to satisfy the academic mind as to their merit. Not so much for Ashley and Feldman. Believe me, I’ve read attempts to break their music down, uncover what makes it tick. Not very convincing/successful. More than anything, these composers have given me the courage, the permission to privilege inspiration over craft, conception over construction, etc.