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Rear Window

from Monday, May24th of the year2010.

As I write this, I am flying from Reykjavík to New York, reclining in my seat, eating a completely serviceable tandoori chicken breast with a bean salad so undercooked it defies the imagination, drinking a glass of Chilean wine, and watching Rear Window on the computer. Hitchcock really had it all figured out, didn’t he? Every one of these shots is heaven, both in frame, content, and narrative placement. My god, this jewelry! This hair! It’s all I can think about. The sound design is unspeakably perfect; the use of the music, weird exposèd midsections…I’m in rapture.

I’ve had a very productive two weeks in Iceland: I worked with Valgeir making an album for our friend Terry, whose stage name is Puzzle Muteson (I don’t know what it means either). I discovered Puzzle’s music on MySpace by accident “” I was in a rented apartment in Paris with glacially slow internet, and had been chatting with my friend Caroline online, who said that she wanted to get a basset hound and name him Puzzle, and somehow, some frantic mid-afternoon googling led me to Puzzle’s MySpace and a song of his called Tightrope Dance, which I immediately fell in love with. Fast forward three years and he is, after a variety of complicated maneuvers (he’s from the Isle of Wight), in Reykjavík, recording with Valgeir! As an added bonus, Dan Bora, who has worked with me for about seven years, is onboard as Valgeir’s engineer for the summer; there is no greater pleasure than when friends work together. Puzzle’s record will be, with any luck, the tenth release on Bedroom Community, the label whose first release was my own Speaks Volumes in 2007.

Bedroom Community presented a show in Iceland at the National Theater as part of Listahátið Reykjavíkur (Reykjavík Arts Festival), and we managed to include all four artists on the label on the shô. Daníel Bjarnason presented three pieces for mixed ensemble, and then Sam, Ben, Valgeir and I performed an expanded version of the show we’ve been doing on the road for the past month. It was great to play for what felt like a hometown crowd “” when you play in a venue and hear a recognizable laugh (what’s up, Ingveldur!?) and a distinctive cackle (what it do, Hrafnhildur!?), it’s an especial joy. This is one thing I love about playing in non-classical situations: you can directly interact with the audience. Sam did a flawless Only Tune, Una completely owned Honest Music, Helgi was a superstar, Nadia played one of the best Keeps in Touch I’ve heard her do; I played a brand-new piano piece, Valgeir was in octopus-like control of his electronics, and Ben made the bones of the house shudder with his ever-satisfying low d.

Daníel is, first of all, so impossibly handsome, it drives me crazy; have you seen this man? But the other thing that I love about playing with him and working with him is that he is slowly figuring out the complicated but ultimately satisfying process of turning what starts as concert music into music that works in more flexible, informal settings. He wrote a piano concerto whose third movement, Red-Handed, is, in its original setting, a complete triumph of orchestration for large ensemble: it’s scored for maybe seventy players, with a lot of ingenious doublings and fabulous harmonics and col legno and alternate fingerings and so on; Daníel has been working on ways to make it happen for eight players, and you know what? It totally works. We played it as the first piece in the show with: violin, viola, contrabass, two percussionists, me hitting a rasp against a piece of wood, Daníel playing Rhodes, and Víkingur Ólafsson playing the solo piano part written for him. This reductive process is one that I’ve been struggling with: if you write a piece that makes sense in Carnegie Hall, how do you make sure that it works if you find yourself playing a show in a smoke-filled boîte in Switzerland? The answer, as it turns out, is to take very little, but very controlled, action. If the notes and rhythms are poppin’, and your sense of orchestration is flexible, you can easily swap out the clever gongs with a prepared piano, the complicated string divisi with some judiciously placed double-stops. It’s like cooking; the other day, in Reykjavík, I craved so desperately a carbonara. It wasn’t as much about having some kind of authentic Roman experience, but more about the idea of the egg with the bacon and the cracked pepper and the cheese. In Iceland, you can’t really get guanciale or any other cured pig product besides just “beicon“, (they have yet to receive the hipster charcuterie DIY revolution) and lord knows it’s no peccorino (although Dan Bora brought some excellent Parmesan). But it’s about taking the knowledge of the quote-unquote original, and shamelessly applying it to the situation at hand: a suburban fridge in Breiðholt and thirty minutes’ time. The result, barring a slight mishap with the cooking liquid, was exactly what I craved: that sense of egg yolk sticking to esophagus, the umami of the parmesan, the outrageous salt content and stupid amount of pepper, the smoky Icelandic bacon. In any event, I have great respect for Daníel’s ability to MacGyver his giant concerto into something easily rendered by an octet.

The other thing I managed to do in Iceland was to finish a large batch of revisions on my opera, Two Boys, which is opening in just over a year at the English National Opera. I’m so excited about it that I’ve assumed a certain catatonia about the whole affair; there is so much to do, and so little time, and so many ð-factors, and so much culling, discarding, revising, adding. It’s funny how there are some issues that are so tiny (“does the word how sit better in this range or this range,” or “exactly how many syllables are in the word extraordinary“) and others are so large (“does the beginning work at all as theater? is the plot clear at the end? is the tessitura completely wrong for the random surgeon we introduce at the beginning? would a surgeon even be a baritone, or what?”). I also have a vaguely crippling fear that the piano reduction that I’m workshopping (I hate that verb, I know, I hate it, shh) with is going to be so stupid compared to the orchestration that everybody is going to think I’m stupid and the project is stupid; I have this urge to write little notes all over the piano part saying things like, “this will eventually be really cool strings doing this plainchant thing, sul tasto, and one solo viola doing this trilling thing but in the back of the section, see, so it’ll be there but not there, and then the oboe will be a halo behind ur voice, right, so it’s really not just like this dumb f-natural sitting there” but I’m resisting the urge.

In between now and when the workshops for the opera start, I have two other matters to attend to: a concert in Washington, D.C., and a new piece for Signal ensemble: a Stabat Mater re-transliterated from the Latin by Craig Lucas, who, by no coincidence, is also the librettist for Two Boys. This is being performed alongside a US premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s; I love his music so much; I turned pages for a Juilliard pianist who was playing Harrison’s Clocks and was entranced from that moment on. I went to see his opera Minotaur and am so delighted to share a program with him. I also have no greater pleasure in life than writing liturgical music. I have always dreamed of being able to focus maybe half the year on writing sacred music, but specifically sacred music for use in sacred contexts. My sense of what a composer should be is rather more like a fonctionnaire than an artist; almost all of my favorite music was written by church composers or state employees. My happiest moment as a composer, literally, was when I walked into St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to have some ashes imposed, only to hear my music being played as an Ash Wednesday prelude. I had no idea it was going to be happening, nobody knew I was there, the organist played it as if I were dead, which is exactly as it should be. It’s no rating, it’s no over-exposure, it’s no comment thread. It’s the smell of candles, a handful of reverent Japanese tourists, a curate quickly walking through a metal gate. In any event, it’s all very exciting and I’m looking forward to the summer in a major way; I’ve moved house in New York, and the new space has in-wall air conditioning!

As always, my ability to speak Icelandic peaked the day before I left; there must be a name for this syndrome. Just this morning, I woke up, and finally managed to figure out what’s up with the declensions for numbers one, two, three & four, which has been a seriously emotionally crippling hang-up for years; I’m perpetually rolling into the club either solo or five deep, to avoid having to decline the number of people in my party. It’s one of those vibes where you have to get involved with the neutral if there’s so much as one girl anywhere in sight, or babies, or who even knows what, and it’s much easier to just travel with the undeclinables.

One totally weird thing about touring “” and working in the studio, to a lesser extent “” is the Mount Fujiesque access to news. I’m so used to my normal routine of waking up, making coffee, clicking three tabs on my computer, and having about forty news websites pop up, which I can slowly read while refilling the mug. On tour, you wake up in…Winterthur? Leipzig? and groggily wander out of the bus to find the nearest place to brush the teeth. On the way, a glimpse of a German headline: North Korea sunk a South Korean submarine? Bristol Palin has a…outspeaking…engagement…oh! a public speaking deal…okay, something about an Austrian political scandal, okay, something here about shanty towns in Australia? And then by the time you get to the internet, the connection is so slow and sound check is in ten minutes and really a shower and shave is more pertinent, so you just read some completely random article in the New York Times about fructose and learn nothing about the Koreas, the Palins, and Antipodean housing crises.

Maybe I’ve just been gone for too long, but I think that the New York Times has some of the best writing these days. I’m thinking in particular of the new restaurant critic, Sam Sifton, and Cintra Wilson, who has been writing Critical Shopper articles for a few years. In particular, though, she wrote an article last week whose last two paragraphs I found to be heart-meltingly beautifully written, as well as containing a fabulous meditation on the point of fashion and style. She’s approaching a sort of cargo panted Diana Vreeland level of maxims and bons mots; look at this conclusion:

But even in a potentially meaningless universe where civilizations crumble, institutions collapse and creatures fade into extinction, there are still a few mathematical certainties: things of genuine quality tend to eternally recur, especially if they’re made of heavy cotton duck or decent leather. Nobody ever looks like an idiot in a good peacoat, and (a trick I learned from movie wardrobe girls) people tend to notice how comfortably you rock your silhouette far more than they notice the safety pin holding your hem together or the fact that your buttons don’t quite match. (In fact, these charming delicacies of distress are mimicked by top designers, to create the illusion of character and provenance.)

“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” said William Blake. On Church Street I stood underneath a tree that was having a riotous outburst of pink flowers, and I may be far from wise, but eventually I noticed that no matter how much money I threw at it, it didn’t get any prettier. It wouldn’t have been prettier if I had replanted it on 86th and Madison, either. The point is to recognize a meritocracy in things of value, regardless of their low points of origin, current trendiness or future invisibility. Quality is quality, period. All else is corporate fear, hype, vanity and vexation of the spirit. Foolish is as foolish does.

Also, Sam Sifton is one of these writers where I wonder if anybody is actually editing his column. Look at this paragraph:

An immodest little pizza of black truffles and fontina is an elegant and delicious take on the sort of puff-crusted pies Mathieu Palombino makes at Motorino, and worth a run through the excellent and deep wine list to find a pinot noir from Au Bon Climat to drink with it. Pizza at a Vongerichten restaurant? This one is exactly the sort to thrill a couple who hasn’t had a pizza since that time they needed to get takeout because there was a wreck on the Saw Mill up near where Hawthorne Circle used to be, and they didn’t get home from Tanglewood until nearly 9.

It’s amazing, right? It’s such a specific reference, and his subject position is so deliciously compromised by the mockery of it, because of course, he has to have been in that situation his own self in order to understand what it’s like! It’s great to have one’s hometown paper be an awesome paper. “¨


  • Ex-tra-or-dinary:

  • The name has something to do with synchronicity so i hear..

  • Hitchcock remains the most musical film director in history. His use of the pacing dimension is unmatched. He manages to make everyone so claustrophobic for 90 minutes, then delivers the denouement. It’s like a really filthy Pat Metheny solo. Thanks Nico.

  • As usual, so many gems in this post, but I swear this one is t-shirt/bumpersticker material for my entire tribe: “it’s much easier to just travel with the undeclinables.” Bless you for all of your brilliant insights. I gladly travel (from my garret in NC) the paths you point out–Birtwistle is now on my shuffle. many thanks!

  • Cintra is becoming our generation’s Didion. There I said it.

  • yeah i'd like to go there....
    May 31st, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Yeah, the NYTimes is just amazing. Check out its leader on the Israeli pirate attack:

    “The criticism offered a propaganda coup to Israel’s foes, particularly Hamas, the militant group that holds sway in Gaza, and damaged Israel’s ties to Turkey, one of its most important Muslim partners and the unofficial sponsor of the convoy.”

    The criticism (not the events) offered a PROPAGANDA COUP (funny, the terms in which the NYT views world events) to Israel’s FOES (you know, the ones sitting in fields making daisy chains….). Thank God Cintra is there to distract us with her witty drivel and utterly weightless reflections on the $ublime.

  • Writing liturgical music has always felt like the most honest work I’ve ever done.

  • I completely agree about Cintra Wilson.

    I love your blog; it’s making me think about the relationship between good prose and music.

  • Speaking of the relationship between good prose and good music, where ARE you? Are you ok? Those of us struggling in the boondocks to make are are missin’ that inspiration you always provide…