In March I traveled through an unlikely southeastern snowstorm to spend the month at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. It’s a kind and peaceful place—far from the forceful, dramatic aura of my first formal residency at the Banff Centre, which sits at the confluence of two rivers surrounded on all sides by immense mountains. The VCCA won’t carry you to the terrifying brink of the sublime, but if you stay quiet for a few days, a little bird might land on your shoulder.
The center sits on a hillside from which little is visible but trees. Across the road is Sweet Briar College, a tiny school on an enormous property with miles of wooded trails. The setting fosters extended walks and quiet minds. The place itself almost disappears as your thoughts take the foreground. There is only you, and the work.
It was deeply dark the evening I arrived, the steep driveway covered with ice. I carried my bags into the residence. A group of people sat talking and drinking wine by the fireplace.
There is only you, and the work, and a host of wonderful artistic characters.
Something about the VCCA encourages quiet modesty; residents tend to be serious about their work and disinclined to pry into that of others, with the result that one can easily pass the first week of a residency without knowing anything about anyone’s art. You sit together at dinner and talk about the missing Malaysian Airlines plane or the new Wes Anderson film. It is only when someone plans an evening of presentations that you realize what deep, bizarre, and fabulous artistic worlds are clicking along behind all those closed white studio doors.
My favorite piece these days is Peter Garland’s first string quartet, In Praise of Poor Scholars (1986). Like the VCCA, this piece sneaked up on me. It pleased me with its superficial warmth and charm while setting to ravaging work on the walls of my subconscious. It wasn’t until about the fifth listen, when the final theme came pealing on, that I felt all the surging emotion beneath this music’s surface decorum and restraint. Suddenly I realized how linked it all is. The piece is a series of dances, flowing from one to the next; it takes a few listens to recognize that though the dance is continually changing, the dancers are always the same.
The first showing I attended at the VCCA featured paintings by Olive Ayhens and Markus Kircher. Olive is a New Yorker who paints incredibly detailed cityscapes in which everything seems about to rip apart with nervous energy. She has also spent time in Montana and Wyoming, and some of her paintings feature bears or buffalo descending on urban environments. She is at home with paint and less so with computers. One evening I helped her write a Facebook event page for a gallery event she was curating.
Markus is an affable Austrian who paints a one-page piece every day in a large book. It’s already bound in there, then, and he has to accept it. The next day he paints another, on the back of the page, and so on. On a walk one day I encountered Markus returning from the Sweet Briar library. He was excited: he had borrowed Woody Allen’s Sleeper. I spotted a few ’90s rap albums in his jacket pocket.
Natasha Mell-Taylor is from Philadelphia. We chatted a number of times before I got around to asking about her work. “I mostly paint Godzilla,” she said. Natasha’s sense of humor reminded me of certain corners of my work with the Grant Wallace Band. She knows it’s funny that she paints Godzilla over and over, but she’s also completely serious about it.
Shortly before departing, I met an ebullient septuagenarian named Mary Page Evans. We sat at the dinner table and talked about J.S. Bach and Dave Brubeck, two of her favorites, as she sipped red wine on the rocks. She studied music in college, and now she paints landscapes with a joyous embrace of color and texture. We share a birthday, April 24 (along with such luminaries as Willem de Kooning, Dave Volpe, Erik DeLuca, and Barbra Streisand). Mary Page lives in Delaware. She likes to paint clouds at Joe Biden’s house.
An abstract painter with a penchant for the geometric, Laura Young lives in my home state of Iowa and shows at my hometown’s Campbell Steele Gallery, where I’ve played piano a number of times. She also regularly visits New Mexico–to teach painting classes at a place called Ghost Ranch–so we had plenty to discuss. One rainy day in the lunch room, the topic of meditation arose. The unlikely international home of the Transcendental Meditation movement, Fairfield, Iowa, is also the site of one of Laura’s favorite galleries.
A.K. Benninghofen writes short stories of snappy charm. She previously worked as an actor in New York and Los Angeles, and now lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She is almost uncomfortably similar to a certain ex-girlfriend of mine: they come from the same place, have parallel life stories, and speak with an eerily identical cadence. Late one warm afternoon, I sat in the gazebo listening to A.K. tell stories from her acting career. I thought about the old European doppelgänger myths.
One of my favorite characters, about whom I learned not enough at the time, was a writer named Jeffery Paine. He was reticent in groups, but turns out to be a prominent explainer of Eastern religious cultures to Western readers. He is working on a book about Crestone, Colorado, another unexpected spiritual center. He has spent a number of summers there and says it’s the only place he fits in, but he won’t consider moving full-time from his home base of Washington, D.C. “My abiding sin is indolence,” he told me.
That’s just a sampling, just a few of the wonderful artists I got to know in one little month. Such evanescent cohabitations of diverse creative personalities are among my greatest inspirations. I study these people’s life stories like Catholics study the lives of the saints. They teach me.
In the afternoons I set out for long walks and runs, along the road, down the hill, across the highway, and over to Sweet Briar to explore the network of trails. This sort of roving reminds me of certain childhood Saturday afternoons when I used to cross the street, walk through my neighbors’ backyards, and similarly drop into the woods. There were patches of forest near my family’s house that appeared to be unclaimed territory. Leaving the linear, programmed world of the video games I’d been playing inside, I entered a liminal, analog universe of sounds and smells. I’d drop into those woods, get away from the roads, walk awhile and emerge someplace else, surface in a park down the way or in the backyard of some house I’d never seen from that angle. There followed a delicious moment of recognizing the house and recasting my geographical understanding accordingly. I gained a different sense of the physical connections between things, a new experience of space, away from the grid of the streets. It wasn’t unlike walking the surface world of one of the old Mario side-scrollers and disappearing down a pipe to find another region opening, below and apart from the two-dimensional state in which I’d been proceeding.
I want music to make me feel like this, like I’ve dropped into another numinous dimension where I have access to new senses and unused potentials. I want to drop in and emerge somewhere else, linear connection uncertain. The Necks’ Open is like this; Morton Feldman’s late music is like this; Peter Garland’s first string quartet is absolutely like this. Garland walks you through a canyon, leaves you by yourself, but then you suddenly find yourself in a palace observing a stately dance. One moment is wispy and intimate, the next stentorian and communal. He throws you around in time (“Back to the 14th Century,” one tempo marking reads). I seek in my own music this special, steady non-linearity.
Evidently I also want life to make me feel like this. Because I keep moving around, as though attempting to simulate some manner of non-linear existence.
On one VCCA walk I was listening to a podcast called 99% Invisible. The episode in question involved a surprising find on Google Maps: a small island in Massachusetts labeled “Busta Rhymes Island.” With apocryphal place-names in mind, I proceeded down an afternoon-length Wikipedia rabbit hole, and by dinnertime I had a scheme for a cryptogeographical jazz album called Mountweazel Songs.
Lillian Mountweazel, you see, was a fictitious person included in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia as a copyright trap: if any other encyclopedia was discovered to have a Mountweazel entry, the NCE had evidence they’d been plagiarized. Lillian’s fabricators wrote her a fetching bio. She was a fountain designer and mailbox photographer by trade. Unfortunately she met a tragic end in 1973, in an explosion, while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.
So I poked around that afternoon and found nine nonexistent places. Some of them are fictional like Mountweazel, “paper towns” invented as copyright traps for atlases. Some are islands long charted but never conclusively found. Some used to exist but are now under the ocean. I wrote a little piece of music for each place. I love writing music about places. Even fake places.
I wrote them with a lovely, simple, and absolutely rigid morning ritual. I had breakfast early, went to my studio, played Bach for thirty minutes, meditated for ten, and then composed until about noon. My day thereafter was unstructured. Sometimes I’d stroll to Sweet Briar, drink coffee and attend to business matters. There is a little Starbucks on campus with a TV always blasting CNN, which was inevitably and interminably poring over the tragic and mystifying story of the Malaysian plane gone missing over the Indian Ocean. Various experts were engaged to speak about grieving, about closure, about relevant airplane and satellite technology, about the truly enormous size of said ocean. One anchor weighed the possibility that the plane had been sucked into a black hole. The passengers on the missing flight included a group of 24 artists and calligraphers, one of whom was vice-chairman of the Chinese Calligraphic Artists Association.
The coverage was yellow and the story was sad. I usually tried to tune it out, listening to Donny Hathaway Live, clicking videos my friends sent along, like this gem of Elliott Smith singing “Independence Day” with Brad Mehldau. Staying current with friends and colleagues.
I would practice later in the day, but not compose. I’ve found that I am most productive and happiest with that productivity when I respect composition by addressing it each morning, for a reasonable and bounded time, and then leaving it.
What I sought through this strict procedural geometry, in Mountweazel Songs with its little meters that shift back and forth by a single sixteenth and its musical patterns that repeat and repeat while always slightly changing, is a trait which, in the warm, wet vagueness of my mind, I call “Objectivity,” and which I can explicate no further within the partitions of logic—though I can admit that I see it in Schoenberg’s early piano music and Travis LaPlante’s solo improvisations, in Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles and Bartók’s Out of Doors, in the duet performances of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, in Ben Hjertmann’s Bicinium and Eric Malmquist’s Piano Sonata, in the warm swirls of Chris Cerrone’s Memory Palaceand of The Sea and Cake’s Oui, in Elliott Smith’s chord changes, in Captain Beefheart’s growls, in the crisp two-part harmonies of the Murphy Beds.
Douglas Preston’s book Cities of Gold recounts the author’s 1989 journey on horseback to trace the conquistador Coronado’s 1540 path across what is now Arizona and New Mexico. His companion was a painter named Walter Nelson. One night, Nelson explained how a tragedy in his life propelled him toward that which I so non-rigorously label Objectivity:
I realized at that point I wasn’t the only hurt person in the world…I’ll tell you, Doug, this is a hard thing for us to realize, being creative people…To ourselves, we are the greatest, most unbelievable person. To us. But actually we’re just one thing in billions of trillions of other little things out there. That’s what we really are. You have to realize that, and when you realize that, your creative work will start having a lot more validity…When you start realizing that you’re just one person among billions, the work that you do start producing, it can end up being unbelievable. It can actually deal with the unknown.
Objectivity: am I referring to the sensation of hearing music being made from outside one’s self?
When we leave ourselves behind in this way, our selfish doubts dissolve. In the period just after I finished my master’s degree, I would often lie in bed at the end of the day and wonder what the fuck I was doing, how I would ever survive, whether I was doing the right things to capitalize on my talents. Now I know the end of the day doesn’t matter: it’s the beginning that counts. At the beginning of the day, all of them, I am a musician. I just attend to music first. This way there can be no question. The artist residencies of my twenties taught me this discipline, taught me to play the long game, and in a way, these lessons saved my life.
My first formal residency was a ten-week stint at the Banff Centre in 2010. After three weeks it snowed and the temperature dropped to about twenty below, and for the remainder, I experienced a heavy bit of loneliness. I had left, in Chicago, a nascent professional network and a precarious girlfriend. To go to Banff and sit alone at the piano all day, I jeopardized my relevance in the former and irreparably kiboshed my relationship with the latter. That winter I read Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in which several pivotal scenes take place at the bottom of a well. We all visit such wells, the moments in our lives when we feel our efforts don’t matter and no one is paying attention. In Banff I sat in the well for two months, and I found, left to my own devices down there, that I was still a musician. In my lowest moments, I still wanted to write and play music. I don’t lie awake worrying anymore, because I know that when I wake up in the morning I’ll still be a musician. And that I’ll be fine.
I left the VCCA on March 30, caught a ride to Charlottesville with a poet named Richard Foerster. Richard grew up in New York, went to grad school at UVA, and has held numerous residencies at the VCCA. He now lives in Maine. His poems are dense, viscous, ruminative. When he read them aloud to the group it was hard to follow the semantic thread, but easy and rewarding to slip into the sonic flow of his complex diction. A few days later I found a book of his poems in the VCCA library and paged through it, giving each idea the time it deserved. One expects a Maine poet to write about nature, and Richard does write nature poems, but they seem to really be about people and our caprices. Actually I suppose they are emphatically about nature, inasmuch as they beautifully recognize that people are nature.
Richard and I drove in the chill and rain and he told me about the loves of his life, the joys and the tragedies, the unexpected turns of fortune, the slow developments and the sudden transformations. He remarked a number of times on how much Charlottesville had changed. “There was nothing here before,” he said, once on entering a residential neighborhood on the south end of town and again passing through a faceless landscape of big-box stores on the way to the airport, from which I was scheduled to fly back to Albuquerque.
First, though, we grabbed a quick sandwich and a matinee of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is really about the same challenge I discussed in the previous essay, about maintaining a sense of art, a sense of decorum, and a belief in details, and the importance of all of this to civilization, even–especially–in the face of war. It’s a bit like Peter Garland’s first string quartet, isn’t it?
The Grand Budapest Hotel drops the viewer into the forest of a nested structure, beginning in the present day before jumping back to the 1960s and then settling down for most of the narrative in the 1930s. One of the narrators is an author who writes the story of the titular hotel. In the first and final scenes, a contemporary student holds the book at his grave. A monument is printed with his name: AUTHOR.
Just Author. Because he’s all of us who write something.