from Saturday, October13th of the year2012.

I’ve spent the last week in Cincinnati doing a combination of concerts and educational things, if that’s what they’re called. One of the scariest things in the world, I think, is talking to other composers, and I just did it four times, twice at a high school, once at Northern Kentucky university (which is functionally in Cincinnati) and then again at Cincinnati College of Music, at the University. This came directly on the heels of doing it twice at Brown University, in Providence. The general procedure is that you turn up, play, perhaps, a piece of your own music, and then look at music the students have written, and make vaguely helpful &/or encouraging comments. The stressful thing for me is being “on” for that long — the first half, when talking about my own work is okay, I guess, but then to make what are essentially observed comments about somebody else’s music is a tricky business. I remember those moments in my own education where a visiting composer came and said something we all remembered for ages for better or for worse. I remember George Crumb being so awesome and Southern and endearing and I remember Charles Wuorinen being the opposite of those things. It’s a hard note to strike, and doing it four times in two days is intense. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more exhausted. The fear is saying something inadvertently mean, but also not just giving compliments, because otherwise what’s the point? Also in a few of these cases I’m only a few years older than the people presenting, so it seems somewhat perverse for me to be in a position to give anything other than collegial advice.

You guys! Northern Kentucky Univeristy is no joke. It’s a beautiful brutalist series of structures with very little ornamentation: a little grass here, a little potted plant there. It’s very very satsfying, especially at dusk, and they have all this random Donald Judd kicking around including Box and I was so happy.

I visited an incredible public school: the School for Creative and Performing Arts. They have an outrageously nice new facility with three theaters and a composition studio that should be the envy of any institution: rows upon rows of iMacs with MIDI keyboards and everything networked to be able to see things on a giant screen. And this is a public K-12 school!

Does everybody remember this genius article about Richard Stallman’s tour rider? I saw it before and was like, that dude’s crazy, but I realize that he and I share one essential requirement which is:

“I do not eat breakfast. Please do not ask me any questions about what I will do for breakfast. Please just do not bring it up.”

I couldn’t agree more. I find that one of the main reasons to avoid staying in people’s homes is this moment surrounding breakfast; it’s particularly vexing in my own parents’ homes because obviously I stay there and not in some hotel, and they are people with overstocked fridges. I think breakfast is a time when I need to reëstablish autonomy over the day, which usually, in my case, is a litany of stressful things over which I enjoy little control: mean emails, needy emails, staring in your face emails, shoes be talking emails, dry skin, iCloud synchronization issues, people late for appointments in their own hometown, loud noises, spatial chaos and generalized anxiety. If I can start the day on my own terms — which usually just means being able to make my own cup of coffee and sit quietly and read the newspaper – it makes a huge difference in being able to face down the rest of the day which is lived on the needy-ass terms of others. Anyway, there you go. Please just do not bring it up. He might well have added, “please do not bring up not bringing it up as I will then turn into an homicidal beast and lurch across the breakfast nook,” but I like his wording for now. And it’s less, I suppose, about the actual eating of the breakfast — there is nothing better than a spicy bowl of noodles just after arising! — than it is about starting the day feeling the indolent caprice of choosing one thing over another in whatever order one chooses.

I went, when I was in Providence with my parents, to visit The John Stevens shop, which is apparently one of the oldest continuously-run businesses in America (although I would love for there to be a Great Culling of all the superlatives; I feel like I’ve had a beer in four Oldests Pubs in Britain), which is a stone-carving shop in Newport, RI. It was a fabulous thing: a level of obsessive and specific detail unique to a particular craft, but with resonances with what musicians do, too. Look at this beautiful carving reading “Proportion is Difficult” (true story):

So satisfying. They shewed me an example of carved letters versus sandblasted (which is the cheaper and I imagine much faster option) and wow. Carving a letter is extraordinarily more beautiful. Check out this documentary my dad made about them in the distant past and a slightly more recent New Yorker article.

Total aside: I’m flying today on Alaska Airlines and it was one of those situations at the airport where one has to get a bag tag in location A and then “leave” the bag at location B down the way, and there was a lot of confusion with some giant family with way too many bags and a shouty dad and a mortified daughter and it ended with a helpful airport employee explaining that the bag drop for “Alaxka” airlines was actually at location C, anyway, I had never heard that particular s-cluster metathesis done in that way inside a word so elegantly with the exception of perhaps “excalator” but this is, in a way, more delicious, as it seems quite complicated to say; try it out…I suppose it might be better rendered Alakska.

Have y’all ever stayed in an hotel in which there was a convention? It is really really weird; a few years ago I was in LA and the convention there was Christian children’s book illustrators! At the (historic!) Hilton in Cincinnati, I shared the space with a rubber convention, whatever that means. Has anybody done an anthropological study about these guys who see one another only once a year, and the linguistic registers they access? It’s an artificial, drunken familiarity, with various nuances — the snapping while trying to remember somebody’s wife’s name (“…Right, Karen! How is Karen?); the man who vaguely disgraced himself last year and is drinking only seltzer but trying, perhaps too hard, to have not only a good time but a boisterously good time; the various tactics to dispel conversational silence including nodding so vigorously it looks like davening; the various ways in which a final drink is acceded to, and the stagey grimaces of the final standing-up, as if to imply an indulgence greater than having had three glasses of chardonnay in a hotel lobby in Ohio.

I want to recommend that everybody read A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven. Readers of this space will know that I have a serious love for her writing, which is always disturbing and urgent and just on the edge of pressing the knife uncomfortably close. This new novel does all that, but with a wickedly funny grin; it’s a winning, if exhausting, combination. Go get involved!

Does anybody else ever have that romantic tingle when you see where you can fly to from places that aren’t where you live? The idea that there is a direct flight from Alaska to Hawai’i is unspeakably touching to me.


  • Re: the John Stevens Shop: To the “oldest continuously-run business…”.etc. claim should be added, I think, “…in the same building..”
    Devotees might enjoy examples of the work of the John Stevens Shop at their elegant website:;
    And a final cautionary inscription from the shop wall:

  • Speaking of “brutal,” I was wondering if there is ever going to be a chance to download/purchase the soundtrack you composed for that wonderful film, “Margaret.” The same goes for the pieces composed with Misters Stevens and Dessner, and for really any of the many compositions you write about on this website.

  • Oh yes!

  • sigh. will get my hands on Homes immediately. your writing is sublime. like your music. thank you.

  • The paragraph about breakfast slayed me. There IS something like a straitjacket when your host asks you what you want. And I hope you’re serious about the bowl of noodles cause no joke, that’s the best! Thanks always for writing!

  • I met, and sometimes slept, with more Alaskans in Hawaii than anywhere else in the world. I believe every Alaskan citizen is given a travel subsidy, though this may be apocryphal, and of course they go to balmy Hawaii, another strange outlier in the American Empire.

    The only time my eyes have truly widened with possible WanderLust Wonder at a public schedule was at Mussolini’s beautiful marble train station in Milan where you can seemingly take a train to Anywhere. This Way to Budapest, young man.