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Lots of Things

from Sunday, April15th of the year2012.

So I have been out of New York for a few weeks now, on a multi-purpose trip. First, to Cincinnati, for the MusicNOW! festival, which Bryce Dessner curated, at which several of my works were played by other people (including a premiere with eighth blackbird, hurray), and Sufjan, Bryce & I presented a sort of workshop performance of our new giant piece Planetarium on the closing night. I’ve been to CIncinnati a few times now; I like these abandoned midwestern downtowns like Detroit — part of me feels an acute desire to pack up all my things and buy a huge space there and start again with the luxury of room and more money not spent on rent.

Then, off to Eindhoven to put together the proper premiere of Planetarium. The physical structure of the piece is this. At the front of the stage is Sufjan, center, with two keyboards, a drum machine, four thousand pedals, and some vocal microphones. To his left is Bryce, with some guitars, five thousand pedals. Then I’m on the other side with a piano, a celeste, two keyboards, and no pedals aside from those attached to the instruments. Then, behind Sufjan, a drummer, James (whom everybody told me was raw vegan just to mess with my head) playing a standard kit augmented with MIDI-controlled pads. To his right, a string quartet, and on the other side, seven trombones. Hovering over the drums is a sixteen-foot inflatable orb covered in a sort of skin onto which various images are projected. There are also what look like prison lights surrounding the musicians. If you want to see videos of this, they’re all over YouTube; the ones I’ve seen are, I think, the handiwork of Sufjan Superfjans and therefore tend to be very close-up footage of his eyeball but you can hear relatively well.

One of the challenges we faced putting this together was imposing the “vision” for the piece onto pre-existing ensembles. Ensembles who are used to playing with one another are their own ecosystems: delicate, specific, and temperamental. To have three strangers, essentially, come in with a giant puzzle always feels, at first, abstract, and the whole piece doesn’t really ever gel until the adrenaline of performance emulsifies all the issues into submission. In that regard, we almost had too much rehearsal time! The Navarra String Quartet & the New Trombone Collective were great. One wonders what happened to the Old Trombone Collective; I had a mystic vision on stage of the Old Collective dragging their natural horns and shawms and sackbutts, serpents and bombards through a rainy Dutch town, on their way to terrify some children as part of a Flemish Mystery Play while these seven young handsome men adjusted the levels of the drum machine in their ears onstage at the Barbican.

I don’t know if anybody else has had this experience with musicians. Do any string quartets play from memory? I have this weird sense that music — especially standard rep — should be either sight-read or memorized. Like, if I were to play Bach in public I feel like I should either have it so internalized and have the interpretation be sort of the performance, or, I’d rather practice just some technical things and then have the performance be a public reading, in a sense, to see how quickly the brain reacts under pressure. Sometimes those decisions are the best ones. There is some music that I only want to hear memorized — a Beethoven piano sonata, for instance — but then other music where I feel the real thrill is hearing it navigated. Much choral music is this way, especially when done in its proper liturgical context. You have a few short hours to rehearse the week’s music, and during festive or solemn seasons, this can be a lot of music. I don’t think one ever hears, for instance, over-rehearsed music in Holy Week; on the contrary, the thrill of passiontide is heightened by a vertiginous Allegri, to say nothing of a Crux Fidelis that could fall apart at any second. In that kind of music making, one combines the skills of “knowing” a piece through what essentially is cultural context and sight-reading, bringing to bear all of one’s experience and education in a very quick, almost athletic event. It’s a quick run over sharp stones, and it’s heaven to watch.

I was chatting with a dancer friend (Australian, but living in the Netherlands) about what he thinks is a specifically Dutch rehearsal technique in which there is a lot of discussion about what everybody is doing. The gestures are planned in advance and there is the luxury, I think, of the time for everybody to chime in and have some subtle variation on the plan. I’ve found this to be very true; I put together a project with Teitur and the Holland Baroque Society a few years ago, and I sat in on them rehearsing a piece of renaissance music and it was maybe 50/50 talking/playing. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if they had to just go right out on stage and play immediately after maybe twenty minutes’ rehearsal; with musicians as good as they are, it would probably be really fun and interesting! ?

Anyway, that’s just a strange musicianship aside. I have the pleasure of having as much time — within reason — as I want to have an internal dialogue (or a collaborative one) about how a piece is going to go, but then when it comes time to write it, the writing itself is very fast. Then the editing takes forever. So I don’t know what I’m talking about, really.

On travel. One of the great pleasures about traveling with Bryce — who tours and flies about maybe twelve times as much as I do — is seeing him navigate the sometimes-at-cross-purposes itineraries of group travel and personal soothing. It’s a trick involving immediate location of the gym/sauna, and barring that, taking a wholesome trot around the town no matter how doomed. For instance, it never occurred to me that taking a run in Eindhoven in the rain would be a good call, but it was, indeed, the best call. I love watching expert travelers. Airports are, for me, still charged with a romance and melancholy that is hard to pinpoint. I love the fact that some people are there as business commuters and other people are in the middle of long, life-changing decisions. I love looking at all the places you can fly nearly simultaneously: Agadir, Taipei, Durham, Ashgabat. For some people, the airport is an extension of the office and for other people, it’s the gateway to an entirely new chapter in their lives; transferring planes in Minneapolis last month, I saw a group of four bubbling, excited girls who were about to go do missionary work in West Africa for three years, and there I was, popping back from a quick trip to Winnipeg.

B & S and I were totally those people in the airport with nine extra bags, all of which weighed as much as bodies, too many carry-ons, instruments, etc. I’ve been saying this for years, but the airport (and really most nodes of transit) need to have a “bullshit” line and a “not bullshit” line. We have all been in both situations. Sometimes when I fly to London I’m flying to London for five days and I have printed my ticket out and I did everything right and I have no bags to check and I just wanna go. Other times? I’m going there for four months, I have essentially a steamer trunk filled with suspicious-on-xray electronics, two computers, a one-way business class ticket requiring miles to upgrade, a boston terrier, a box of 150 cd’s, a series of medicines suspended in liquid, and an arabic dictionary. That’s the definition of a bullshit line. And when I’m that lady, nothing makes me more anxious than the hateful glares of the people behind me in line as they check their watches and sigh exasperatedly and mutter about my clothing in German. To maintain the dignity of everybody involved, it would be nice to have a somewhat private place in which to be a mess.

This morning I saw something extraordinary in the train station. It’s three little mini supermarkets in the Amsterdam Centraal station. The entire structure of the thing is basically grab-and-go: a sandwich, a little dish of hummus, sparkling water, coffee, the newspaper. This woman, this morning? I think decided that she was going to take this opportunity to do her grocery shopping for the week, the opportunity being morning rush hour in the busiest railway station in the Netherlands. When I say that she bought ten cucumbers, I am not exaggerating. She bought what must have been the equivalent of a half-kilo of gouda, but she attained this amount by buying twenty-five small plastic-wrapped packages of pre-sliced cheese. Numerous large-format sparkling waters, several loaves of bread. I was actually so transfixed by her decision that I stuck around and drank my coffee and watched how she was going to make this happen. Obviously, she wanted to pay in coins, and obviously, she didn’t have quite enough (and were those Swiss francs I saw in there?), and naturally, her debit card magnetic stripe wasn’t quite happening — she made a strange gesture indicating that perhaps the checkout woman should wipe the stripe with the bottom of her hijab! — and the whole procedure was the sort of epitome of ordering against the menu of a specific place and situation. Did I mention that she then tried to pack all of these things right there on the floor into her rolling luggage which required the displacement of some of her ointments and shampoos onto the floor? And that she was on the phone during this entire transaction, which, in total, took the better part of a quarter of an hour?

[An aside: in a silent train car, what must one’s psychological makeup be to think that it would be totally fine to noisily eat two entire apples? I mean I suppose it is fine; the train is still going to get there, but like…?]

This year, I’ve been amping up, as sort of an experiment, my media intake and restrictions simultaneously. I’m reading a lot more newspapers, but I’m reading less and less about the arts. A few years ago, after a particularly nasty round of press in the UK, I decided that I would be a happier person if I didn’t ever read reviews or, for that matter, previews, of my own work. And believe it or not, I’ve stuck to it. I insist on having all press archived on this site — especially the bad press! — so that in, like, 10 years, I can print it out and Jamie and I can sit around the table at the St John and laugh about everything. The thing is that if you get a great preview, the review ends up being a review of the preview, do you see what I mean? (I imagine that the other side of things is that if you get no preview, then they call you underrated and under-the-radar until you become so on the radar that the first cycle can work; being nice is really just a pre-rinse cycle). So if you roll up into London and they’re like “oh yay, Nico, he’s great!” then the review would be like, “This fat faggot from America think he allllll that and we are going to show him what time it is right here in ink!” And this can happen in the pages of the same newspaper, and will very rarely have anything to do with “were the notes and rhythms good” and will instead be like “we don’t like being told what to like.” Which is understandable. So, if we can all acknowledge that the entire arts section is essentially a review of its own self, and, to a certain extent, of the PR people/strategies at various arts organizations, why do any of us read it? How much time do we spend agonizing over (or railing against) this perpetual motion machine? This year, I made a little experiment to just not even read it at all, about art, music, dance, or really anything I care about. I haven’t given up restaurant reviews but I did try, along with various other solemnities, for Lent. And I have found that I am happier, healthier, and much more eager to be writing music and listening to music by others. I highly recommend this trick. Don’t read the good ones because they become fuel for the bad ones which you shouldn’t read either. Not reading your friends’ reviews will save you the chore of feeling like you have to write a letter to the editor, or…that tiny, tiny feeling of relief that it is not towards your own ass that such ill-will is being printed.

That having been said, I am having a harder time weaning myself off of music blogging. I am weirdly, actually, judging a music blogging contest right now!? But Lord, have mercy. I always forget about how crazy everybody is. We should all be ashamed of ourselves for participating in any of these online comments threads. I’m ashamed of myself for reading them and even more ashamed that I’m blogging about it. I remember I lost my mind a few years ago when Sequenza21 had an entire Uptown-Downtown argument in the comments thread (if you don’t know what that is, count your blessings; it’s essentially #shitoldpeoplesay). I lost my mind a few months ago when that Justin Davidsdóttir wrote some dumb thing about Philip Glass and then all of a sudden everybody and their mom (in one case, literally) got on Facebook and mouthed off, circularly and ad infinitum. Why did I read that!? I may never know, but it’s hours of my life I will never get back. I want to invoice somebody. I could have written several bagatelles in that time! And now there is this new hellery, and its attendant comments insanity. Who wins in a situation like this? Nobody. Even people who are not involved end up implicated in battles they never wanted to fight. Then you get the comments akin to those left on Toni Tony Toné Tomassini’s like, desert-island hit-generating non-contest: “Astonishing in their absence from this discussion– and evidently banished from any reckoned aesthetic importance in so-called 21st century music” — see! It’s astonishing! Banishment! Astonishment! Importance! Banishment! Astonishing! Je sues é, tone, NAY, girl. I can’t even. We all need to humble ourselves before each other and listen to the Tallis Scholars and prepare for Whitsuntide and read more about North Korea and the Navajo Nation and the history of Singapore and Saint Ambrose and pickling techniques and call our grandfathers and write thank-you notes and buy stamps for the same notes and compliment our friends’ babies and go to Evensong. Composers! Next time you find yourself tempted to get involved in some online tautological wormhole, grab some manuscript paper, and quickly set the following text for SATB voices, and send it to me. Let’s release a disc.

Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?
He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. -Psalm 24, 3-5, KJV version, obvz

It’ll be the Back 2 Tha Tabernacle: Online Displacement Psalm Setting Double CD Set. And we’ll donate all the money to something awesome and have a campari about it.

[One final thing, though, and I hope that some people will join me in this; can we stop saying Indie-Classical? At least about me, for starters? The next person who says that has to come over and sight-sing through my complete unrecorded liturgical music from high school which consists of multiple Te Deums and Jubies-late, sets of responses, to say nothing of a fifty minute long Reproaches and then we’re going to solfège Ockeghem together, transposed with clefs, followed by luncheon, and then at the end of all that we can talk about “Indie.”]


  • You know, I’m about to start referring to you as Indie-Classical just so that can happen.

  • this was super fun to read! and good points made explicit. thanks, Nico!

  • I’ve been in line behind that woman in the store.

  • Hi Nico. I was wondering if you could break down Planetarium a little bit.. as in, who did what? I know the words are Sufjan’s but did you do most of the string/trombone arranging? Also, since I know Pluto is an old song of Sufjan’s, are there any other songs that were dredged up from the past and just dressed up a bit differently for these shows? Wonderful stuff all around. If only y’all were bringing this to NYC!

    [No thanks, that doesn’t sound fun at all, a diagram? A credits list or something? Also “dressed up a bit differently” is kind of mean, isn’t it? Also what does it matter who did what? All that matters is that you have a NICE TIME LISTENING. And thank you for listening!!!]

  • Generally speaking. The thing is, as with most things Sufjan has a big hand in, that many of his fans credit him with all of it which I don’t think is fair. I think it’s a shame that having his name on a project often overshadows everyone else involved. But ah well.

    And no, no meanness implied! I just know Pluto is old and used to sound differently so I wondered if that was the case for some of the other songs.

  • Would anybody care to fight over music reviews and “indie-classical”?

  • Now that I have both written the choir and huddled some notes onto psalm 24; I ask you. what to do next?

  • You indie classy and high hilaritie.

  • What Liam Said.
    Your last paragraph is a thing of total beauty, yea, Astonishment. Will take it to <3, go choreograph those bagatelles, and make Louis Horst proud.

  • Yes, hell is other people “mouthing off.”

  • Challange accepted. It’ll be called “This fat faggot from America think he allllll that”. Also come to Oberlin. I’ve had too much New Complexity and spectralism for one year. K thx

  • Eating apples in the silent train car–is it, as long as he’s not open-mouthed and truly seriously outrageously loud, really that bad?

  • Surely that’s Jujubes-latte?

  • Luv Nico’s indie-classical stuff xoxo

  • Please don’t wait so long between bloggings, it’s nice to read what colleagues (well met, poorly met, or in this case, never met) are up to, and the secret pleasure of reading the thoughts of an artist are, like reading a poorly bound Dover edition of somebody’s letters, just while it’s happening, so with *NEW* *Fresh* *Added Relevance!*

  • That was a great read. Love the part about the airport. I’m the same way.