from Sunday, May24th of the year2009.
I just finished a set of two performances in Minneapolis at the Southern Theater, with Son Lux. Minneapolis is so wholesome! Everybody was painfully kind to me and to Nadia, my travel and concert companion. Minneapolis seems to me like a city that is trying very, very hard to do a lot of things and is actually succeeding at most of them. There are people walking around downtown, there is an active young community inside the city borders (unlike, say, Detroit, where it seemed like nobody under 30 was going to ever show their face downtown). The theater we were playing in is one of those 200-seat gems, which, if it existed in the Lower East Side or something, I would try to buy it so fast. It’s a perfect size, the sound is great, and it features a dilapidated arch! It’s like the Angel Orensanz Center but with a proper theatrical seating scheme and a light grid.
This is my second pair of concerts this month, the previous being in England a few weeks ago. One thing I’ve noticed and been thinking about a lot is a specific type of question I get from press before concerts. “What can we expect on Thursday night?” I’m not sure why, but this question really makes me uncomfortable. It’s one thing to ask, “what are you playing,” but an entirely different thing to ask, “what can we expect.” Imagine if your friend invites you over to her house for dinner. “What are you making” is easy enough: salmon. “What can we expect” is a whole other thing, to which there really is no good answer, unless your friend has recently bought some kind of device or special potion that will render the salmon Unlike Any Other Salmon.
With a concert, though, what can we expect? I tend to expect very little, relatively speaking, from a concert. I want a well-programmed series of good pieces, played well, in a comfortable or otherwise engaging environment. Anything above and beyond that is extra. Anything less than that is disappointing. When putting together live shows, those are sort of the same criteria I apply. I will put together a thoughtful sequence of good music, and my friends and I will proceed to play it well, at that time.
One of the other difficulties about “expectation” as we use it here is that it implies a sort of horizontal line that can be reached, surpassed, or missed. My instincts as a musician embrace this line (because it relates to standards, which should never move around), but my instincts as a composer fully resist it. As a composer, there is a built-in but secret expectation if somebody commissions you and says that they loved a piece from 2005 ““ the implication is that that work, in their head, delineates their expectation level. Whenever I see that horizon line, I always try to restructure the conversation, at least in my own mind. I think historically the model for this is Stravinsky. To listen to his first three ballets (Firebird, Pétrouchka, Le Sacre du Printemps) is, in a sense, to be able to draw a single narrative line of musical development through it ““ it’s like those old games where you say January, February March, what’s next? There are a lot of natural developments through those three ballets: they get increasingly less centered in terms of tonality, but also increasingly fetishistic about the tonal centers they do employ. It would be easy to expect that the next gesture in Stravinsky’s life would be a continuation of this pattern, but instead, he fully resists it with a bright neoclassicism in the next projects like Le Chant du Rossignol & Pulcinella. Does P’nella “exceed,” “meet,” or “fall short of” expectations? Who knows; Igor has changed the question up.
I am guilty of the same unfair expectations in the case of John Adams’s music, for instance, which took me a while to overcome. I used to “expect” of his music essentially that it would always contain the force, breadth, and rapturous power of Harmonium. When I was a teenager, listening to his music more and more, I’d put on something like The Death of Klinghoffer and be, like, disappointed. Expectations not exceeded! The shapes are too small! The chords are too weird! Is that a synth tom-tom? Why are there Arabs everywhere? I want Emily Dickensdóttir or bust! That having been said, I got over it; Klinghoffer is one of my favorite things ever, and the first chorus has some Harmonium juice in it if you’re paying enough attention. Now, for me, to go to a new Adams piece is exciting, because I neither know what to expect nor do I expect anything aside from that the music will challenge, engage, & delight. This is a good position for a composer to be in; it’s terrifying to think that a meshwork of people’s expectations would influence a composer’s output such that he would write the same piece for the rest of his life.
(The other side-thought here is that church music has a wonderful built-in resistance to the horizontal expectation line because the music itself is pointing elsewhere. Church music isn’t saying, here here, listen to my wonderful five-part mass; instead, it’s saying, turn your thoughts to those around you, and upwards, while this wonderful music unfurls. Unless the music is distracting or terribly performed, it’s hard to run afoul of the basic contemplative program.)
In the case of live shows, however, I wonder if the expectation question is code for something else: perhaps it’s code for some kind of magic trick or gimmick? I could have put Nadia in Cherokee warpaint or recited from the Bhagavad Gita or had an actual piece of codfish on stage for Helgi Hrafn to gnaw on…?
Part of the difficulty, too, is that press can create a lot of false expectations. The thing to remember about press ““ and this is true for everybody everywhere ““ is that the artist is the only person in the world for whom the article has not been written. It’s for everybody else, but the artist has no agency or control over what appears. Press is for strangers (and proud grandparents, for whom the printed word bears An Enormous Weight Even Still). I’m anxious to get to the place where people are excited to hear my music regardless of what has or has not been promised by me or by others in the press; I think I’m getting there ““ Minnesota was a really good example of this. People seemed genuinely interested to hear me and Nadia play together even though I did not promise them 4,000 pounds of human hair and a fibreglass pony and a pile of skulls.
Another funny expectation development is what people expect of this blog. For the most part, I think this is a space where I record things that are interesting to me, mostly relating to music, language, or food, and sometimes to my limited engagement with The Political, or whatever. I assume that people come here with the expectation of good sentences about interesting things, and if the things aren’t interesting, maybe the sentences will be, and if the sentences aren’t interesting, maybe the things will be. However. There is some kind of poisonous troll up on this space who seems to expect More. Let me break it down for you. A few days ago, I wrote a post about diacritical marks in the New York Times. I think this is supremely, insanely interesting, because English has so few diacritical marks and other languages have so many. Even visually, a paragraph of Vietnamese looks and feels totally different than a paragraph of English, or French, or Icelandic. I took especial notice of an article about Icelandic musicians in which my homegirl Ã“lÃ¶f’s name was rendered Olof. It’s funny, but it looks Crazy Different to me. It’s like a picture of somebody without their eyebrows or something:
The grain of this language is informed by the diacritical marks. The American eye is drawn to (and made anxious by) the briar patch surrounding the original letters. Think about the movie Koyaanisqatsi. The eye is intrigued by the inscrutability of those a’s, that q without its u! If that movie had been called “Life Out Of Balance,” you had better believe it would not have done nearly as well. Also think about how there is a developing internet ebonic (?) which misspells swear words: azz, shyte, pu**y. Also, isn’t anybody else obsessed with how different newspapers render Al-Qa’eda? The moral of the story is that I find this stuff really interesting. I got a comment on my (I pause here to let the implicationz of the my sink in) blog reading, simply:
Oh God please write about something meaningful.
Now, I read that comment, and thought, well, sorry! I thought I had been! Have I not met expectations? I went back and re-read the post and I thought it was pretty meaningful (watch at least 35 seconds of it); I checked the IP address of the commenter to make sure it wasn’t a drunk family member or whatever, discovered that it was the same person who a few months ago made a series of funny attacks about me on my (pause) blog and I let it be. But then! A valiant person came to my rescue, writing:
I like how you write.
David can go autofellate.
To which our mean friend responded:
“David can go autofellate.” Charming. Nico, evidently this is your audience. Knock yourself out. Enjoy it; be grateful you have enough famous friends to get you noticed.
And then I thought, you know what? Fuck it. This is out of control. I’m not on some Maoist radio in this guy’s house, blathering on about dear leader and satellites and transliteration and the Qatsi trilogy. So I decided to write to him directly, and this is what I wrote:
Why on earth are you using the comments space on my blog to be so mean to me!? Are you the same person as “Dana” from a few months ago? I’m happy to keep the whole exchange up there in the interests of not censoring anybody, but keep in mind that I didn’t respond to your last comment: other strangers did. I’m sorry if you don’t think I’m writing anything interesting ““ I am in Seattle at my grandmother’s funeral, which as far as things go is pretty uninteresting. But if I write about the food that we eat ““ which I undoubtedly will, please don’t take it upon yourself to attack me on my homepage. Instead, take the five minutes out of your life you would have used to be inappropriately rude and donate to the Parkinson Foundation here.
I think that’s pretty good, right? I mean, I know I’m not meant to engage but sometimes I feel like people cross an invisible line. When Pitchfork sent random straight people to be mean to me, I thought it was inappropriate and responded, against the advice of many. I ended up feeling a lot better about the whole thing afterwards.
For what it’s worth, my grandmother’s memorial featured a really delicious copper river salmon with a smushy ramp gnocchi. On the plane from Minnesota to Seattle I listened obsessively to this new recording I just got of Blow‘s Salvator Mundi
Blow Salvator Mundi
The Choir of Norwich Cathedral
I just can’t get enough of this piece. There is so much to love, but first and foremost, I love how Blow has divided the text up:
Salvator mundi, salva nos,
qui per crucem et sanguinem redemisti nos,
auxiliare nobis, te deprecamur, Deus noster.
It seems like the obvious thing to do is to have a three-part structure where the first line dealing with salvation is straightforward, the second, at the mention of the cross, becomes twisted, and the third part references the first. However, Blow has divided in such a way that the setting of the first two lines deal with the gnarled wood of the cross: keening, extremely high chromatic figures in the trebles answered by low altos descending a scale ““ very successful. In this recording, check out at 1:09 and thereabouts: the trebles are just whimpering right down a chromatic scale, and suddenly the basses are doing it too. A sudden key shift from D-major to B-major slaps the choir into a unison chorale, followed by an outrageously beautiful inverted pedal point (which is to say, a held note in the sky) on the words auxiliare nobis. I don’t know why this sounds so modern to me, but it always has. We proceed in this glorious D-major garden until in the last fifteen seconds of the piece we look back and see the looming cross. It’s an outrageous coup and it always takes me by surprise.