A wise Irish gentleman once told me that when you travel across a country, what you see is not really a place but a time. I traveled through early 2014 as a composer, and in this four-essay cycle I’d like to tell you about it.
In December 2013 I gave away many of my possessions, moved out of my apartment in Chicago, and set out on the darkest day of the year—abutted in nearly every direction by sleet and snowstorms—to drive to the west.
Jon Krakauer once wrote that mountains make poor repositories for dreams. If the same accusation has never been leveled at cities, it is perhaps only because they kill us more slowly. Chicago has for years offered healthy topsoil for my musical exploits and a proving ground for my vagrant aspirations toward domesticity, but I can’t seem to stick around too long at a stretch. I’ve spent each of my recent summers in the west, and fled portions of the winters for artist residencies. The city has a way of pulling me back, though. It’s a Scylla-and-Charybdis situation wherein the open spaces of the west are the beautiful sea goddess that pulls me from my tasks, and the city is the whirlpool of personal and artistic gravity. If there is a middle path, I haven’t found it yet.
This time I had a professional excuse to go west, in the form of a month-long artist residency at the Brush Creek Arts Foundation in southern Wyoming. Just like artists themselves, every residency program has a different way of surviving, and Brush Creek is primarily a fancy guest ranch; most of its patrons arrive by private plane. The artist program is off to the side, well apportioned but still seeming only a charming accessory to the opulence. The main lodge contains a few of the largest antler chandeliers I have ever seen and a library with a leather floor.
A corporate group of about forty from Google visited for a one-week retreat. The rest of the month it was just nine artists and the program’s intrepid director, Sara Schleicher, an accomplished printmaker and University of Wyoming graduate. When Sara accepted the position at Brush Creek she was pictured on the front page of a local newspaper, the Rawlins Daily Times, riding a mule. Her office is a hut formerly used as a smokehouse, tucked amongst the artist studios. The titular creek babbles nearby.
I arrived at the ranch on January 6, in the dark, after a long western drive listening to music. My favorite band these days is a piano trio called The Necks. They live in Sydney, Australia, where since 1987 they have steadily woven sinuous, hushed, hour-long experimental jazz fabrics. It is impossible to avoid textile metaphors with The Necks. I envision them sitting in some enchanted wood, working quietly at three magical spinning wheels all the afternoon long.
This is one of those bands better suited to European musical culture than American. They rarely play in the states, but their seventeenth studio album, Open, released last year, got some press here and made it to my ears in Chicago in December. It was early in the winter and we were just realizing what we might be in for. Chicago gets extremely dark toward the solstice, and for a week or so, after forcing myself out for long early evening walks in the single-digit gloaming, I would hide under a blanket and listen to Open. When it ended, I hit play again. A path began to unfold.
On the drive to Brush Creek I listened to Open again and heard the music I would write during the residency. Strictly speaking, I “heard” only the first bar, but more pressingly I caught a feeling and saw an emerging process. I wanted my music, like Open, to be as moored and methodical as it was exploratory, aspirational, and free.
Life at Brush Creek was quiet, snowy, steady. We worked in the morning, walked or went cross-country skiing or kept working in the afternoon, gathered for a drink and dinner and conversation, and then usually went back to work in the evening. Visual artists seem the most nocturnal by type. I found myself unusually a morning person at Brush Creek, rising at dawn. My only superior in matutinal discipline was Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, a recent near-Oprah’s-book-club-level literary success. Heidi was close to finishing the (her words) “shitty first draft” of her second novel. Upon arrival she gave herself two days to acclimate, not working at all, and then worked with complete assiduousness for about three weeks. The last week she lifted the pedal from the floor a bit and started telling stories. Heidi is a former attorney, journalist, and actor who once made her living traveling to NBA and NFL rookie camps, performing in skits and teaching life skills to the newly minted professional athletes. She said she knew it was time to move on when her role in the barbecue scene progressed from The New Girlfriend to The Baby-Mama to, finally, just Momma.
My closest friend at Brush Creek was Amy Bonnaffons, a fiction writer, teacher, and increasingly reluctant New Yorker. We groused about our love lives and spent a number of afternoons loafing at the glorious community hot springs in nearby Saratoga. At night we sometimes sang folk songs, picking out the harmony lines of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings tunes.
There is a full Welch-Rawlings concert on YouTube that I consider mandatory. One of the YouTube commenters called it “pure minimalist music, clean, pure, like drinking from a cold spring on a hot summer’s day.” Isn’t it fascinating, the range of musics that have garnered the adjective “minimal” in recent decades? This music isn’t structurally minimalistic, but I’m willing to lob the m-word at its lack of frills, its lack of production, its lack of pretense to contemporary “relevance.” It is melody, harmony, lyric. It feels unadorned, direct, cooled close to absolute zero that it spins so slowly you can see every side of it. And there is simply something trancelike in that performance of “Elvis Presley Blues.”
A day or two before Amy left, we drove to a nearby settlement called, illustratively, Encampment, for the town’s winter carnival. We had read about the carnival in a local events bulletin, the evocatively titled Sno-Rag, and had been anticipating it for some time. When we arrived in Encampment (pop. 443), we saw no signs of a festival—in fact, we saw little that indicated any sort of human presence. In the otherwise empty post office parking lot, a tireless car sat on cinder blocks. On the ground nearby was a lone flathead screwdriver.
A few minutes later we found the festival, such as it was, up by the church. We had missed the chili cook-off, and activity had proceeded to about a dozen kids sledding with a handful of adults spectating. Encampment feels, is, on the edge of something—or better yet, on the edge of nothing at all. One downtown corner had been set aside for an ice sculpture competition, with a dozen piles of frozen snow prepared for art-making, but there was only one entrant: a ten-year-old girl, working with intense focus as her father looked on from his vehicle. “You should’ve seen what she did last year,” the carnival organizer said quietly. “It was amazing.”
We stopped at a combination coffee shop/antique store with carpet and wallpaper direct from a 1980s church basement. A few kids hung about as the proprietor made me a fine cup of coffee from beans roasted by Carmelite monks in northern Wyoming. “This summer I’m going to do horchatas,” she told us. You can see the edge of Encampment from everywhere in Encampment, so you never forget the open space that lurks just on the other side of that last line of houses.
On the way back to Brush Creek we stopped at the Whistle Pig Saloon outside Saratoga, famous for its karaoke nights. Like all Saratoga businesses, it has interior walls lined with hunting trophies. (At the grocery store, two bears guard the produce coolers.) A sign on the Whistle Pig’s front door boasts a $5 deal for bottomless Pabst Blue Ribbon. I have related this detail in hushed tones to a number of my urban musician friends.
I didn’t work compulsively at Brush Creek. I worked patiently and steadily. Everyone responds to these experiences differently, and when I went to my first artist residencies I was terrible at it, because I pushed myself so hard and set the stakes so crushingly high. I’ve learned recently to simplify the process:
(1) Start right. Get up early. Start at the same time every day, in the same way every day. It doesn’t take years of discipline to feel the positive effects of a creative routine.
(2) Stop right. Set a reasonable goal for the day, meet it, and then quit. I don’t allow myself to write more than I set out to in a given day. I prefer to stop when I still have some juice, when there are still some ideas in the pencil. I trust that they’ll still be there in the morning, and that I’ll be back, on time, to write them down. There is power in this.
Brush Creek’s community outreach comes in the form of a monthly presentation in Saratoga, and about three weeks into the residency we drove to town to share our work. Our audience turned out to be a Boys and Girls Club after-school group, about twenty grade-school kids with a smattering of adults. I played a couple songs; Amy read a story she had to redact on the spot to avoid (her words) the weird sex and dead dogs. The visual artists showed their work. Susan Mulder had never painted animals before, but at Brush Creek she depicted majestic horses in starkly beautiful black house paint. Meanwhile, photographer Lucy Capehart was creating a series of cyanotypes of her late mother’s old dresses. They’re breathtaking and seem to be in motion, these haunted floating dresses set against bottomless fields of deep, deep blue.
The group had begun this residency quiet, as they do, but by that night after the presentation we were drinking beer and playing rollicking surrealist word games. We go to these places to start over in a sense, to introduce ourselves to people who have never met us before, to reconstitute our ideas surrounding who we are and what our work is. We can teach each other things, by sharing not just our art but the ways in which we have shaped our artistic lives. We give each other a gift by taking each other, and each other’s work, seriously.
A lot of the artists I meet at these residencies are on breaks from full-time teaching. I’m thinking of a brilliant if somewhat bilious piano teacher who once told me that teaching is a process of justifying one’s own instincts. I wonder if, by removing myself from academia and from the whole teaching racket in a period of personal growth, I’ve been able to sharpen mine—to develop my instincts more slowly and idiosyncratically, step by brooding step, having no one to justify them to, having no one in a position of artistic or professional authority regularly justifying their own instincts all over my sometimes shapeless early efforts.
I hope so. The tradeoff has been a craggy half-decade marked by bouts of intensity and periods of relative inactivity. Musical academia does provide a steady flow of activity, or “activity,” depending on one’s mood. But maybe the inactivity too has its benefits. “It’s a beautiful thing to be left alone until you’re forty,” Philip Glass once told a room full of composition students.
I wrote expansive music at Brush Creek because Brush Creek made me feel there was space enough for such music. When I walked up on the ridges in the afternoon, I saw no one for miles around. Returning at dusk, the sky would ignite purple and orange, and for a moment the snow luminesced a dark blue. I couldn’t have written a quiet, 35-minute piece called Open in Chicago.
At the end of the month I drove up the divide to Montana. It was the last day of January and bizarrely mild and dry around Wyoming. Sunlight glowed from red rocks and distant ridges. I stopped in Thermopolis, where the Hot Springs State Park features a “state bathhouse” that looks like a highway rest stop and offers free soaking in the mineral pools… but only for twenty minutes. There is the new-age idea that different places have different vibrations, and you might notice in a given place that your personal vibration is either in phase with the local vibration, or it is not. I feel electrically, magnetically comfortable in the mountain west. Sometimes you’re in a high valley and there are mountains set against the sky, marking the distance between you and the horizon. These open spaces feed something in me—or perhaps that isn’t quite right. Perhaps they actually inflame a certain hunger. Really they don’t satisfy me, not at all. They make me want more life, and they make me want to write music.
Back on the road I listened to a CD Amy made for me. Have you heard “Captain Saint Lucifer” by Laura Nyro? What a wild performance. How about Kate Wolf’s magisterial “Across the Great Divide?” It’s a perfect little song, and the only one for such a road trip.
“It’s gone away to yesterday
And I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the great divide.”
I find myself on the mountainside, and I feel like I have two choices: east or west. But maybe I don’t. Maybe, like the raindrops that flow to the rivers that flow to the oceans, my destination has always been set.
Luke Gullickson is a nomadic composer and singer-songwriter of musical folk puzzles and maps. His projects include surrealist folk trio Grant Wallace Band, whose unique sound the New York Times described as “spidery original bluegrass”. Luke has been artist-in-residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ucross Foundation, Joshua Tree National Park, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and the Banff Centre. Luke holds music degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and Illinois Wesleyan University. He has also worked as a theater music director in Colorado and as a wilderness guide in New Mexico.