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Back Out

from Saturday, June8th of the year2013.

I’m back out on the road, against, I think, my better instincts, but I’m excited. I was in London for a week and change curating, in some loose sense, a festival called A Scream & An Outrage at the Barbican; it was six concerts over three days and a million interstitial performances in between those shows; a lot of the most complicated sheep-wolf-cabbage work was done by the wonderful people at the Barbican, but I remained the literal face (there were posters of my head all over East London; I was mortified) of this thing and had to sustain a very high level of energy for a much longer time than I’m used to doing. As a result, I found myself losing patience with small things — the pitch of somebody’s voice in the supermarket, the time it took to make a cup of coffee, the peculiar smell in the hallway of the hotel, the choreography of bodies in the train. I felt, quite actively, the relationship between attempting to hold things together on a sort of fundamental level with a loss of control over smaller, normally trivial and ignorable things. Somebody did a slipshod job of planning an orchestra break and I shouted at her; I saw that two people’s names were misspelled on their dressing-room doors and I gave a (I think uninvolved?) person a side-eye & curt word for the ages. I feel terrible about it.

I’m trying to learn how to rationalize my own neurotic perfectionism with the realities of the world of getting things done. I wake up most days with a jolt — not unlike the jolt of having a just-pre-sleep falling sensation, or hearing a strange sound in the home — of pounding anxiety: have I done everything I can do, just on an artistic level, to make this music as good as possible? Have I checked everything? Have I made sure that things are, to the best of my ability, in good working order? I physicalize this anxiety, and it’s inescapable: even if everything’s in order, there are still blows to the solarplexus of deep, throbbing worry that something isn’t good enough, that I’ve been paid too much for a horrible piece, that the parts will turn up with gibberish on them, that I’ll have misunderstood the assignment. It’s not something I would necessarily wish on anybody else, but it’s definitely something I don’t understand when it’s missing. I think also I have an erotic fixation on Things – literally any Things – being done well. When I walk past, for instance, the store Russ & Dóttirs on Houston street as I just did and saw a man cutting a side of salmon so evenly, so thinly… it gave me a little shiver. Watching somebody make ravioli expertly, watching an oboist navigate a passage over the break expertly, watching somebody fold a fitted sheet…

I will say that one of the highlights of the London experience was realizing the Drones &… sequences in the way we did. Basically, as the audience entered the hall, six or seven of us were already on the floor droning. This meant that the piece just sort of started inside its own environment. David Lang came and droned with us:

These amazing looking men (one known to me and one not) came to one of the morning shows:

Does anybody who reads this blog understand the specifics of international banking? I want to know specifically about Chip & Pin versus Chip & Signature and why we haven’t adopted this in America. I keep on running into it as an active problem, particularly in the Netherlands. In a country obsessed by efficiency, it seems strange that they have set up train ticket kiosks that won’t take a credit card. If you look closely up in the +31, you see that oftentimes the credit card machines have had their swiping slot taped closed, often in a somewhat ramshackle way. B– and I convinced a woman at a monkeys-only zoo to literally peel back the tape such that she might take my €39; otherwise, there was no way for her to get those euros. Amazingly, she was perfectly happy to let us leave rather than to peel back the dirt- (and presumably monkey faeces-) befouled piece of cardboard to take fifty bucks. And surely the point of commerce, on every level, is to part me with my € in exchange for goods and possibly services? The thing with the trains is extra irritating because if you don’t have a Chip ‘n’ Pin thing you have to actually literally get cash out from a machine that’s over there. The main train station in Amsterdam — again, a really efficient hub for what is one of the most efficient train systems in, one is told, the world — has little pieces of tape over their credit card slots in the “wait in line behind every German backpacker” area. I know precisely what I want: A round trip ticket in 2nd class to Brussels. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just take my money, rather than making me wait in the Sad Line? I don’t have any questions; I looked up which track it leaves from already. I’d even pay a few extra euros for the privilege of using my spooky and foreign American Express card. (Also I’ve been told that the trick is to buy one of these Travelex chip and pin travel cards in the airport in the Netherlands. Would you believe me when I told you that I went to the same kiosk and they were unable to transfer money from my American Express? Grandma was vexèd). However, I was, today, sad to leave Eindhoven; I’d been composer in residence there for the last few seasons, and they’ve quite generously commissioned several major works as well as a bunch of smaller ones. It’s a funny little town with strange proportions but it’s been a great way to build a lot of rep and work with wonderful musicians in ensembles of every imaginable configuration.

I’ve been working with a lot of orchestras recently: some known to me and others not. I’ve done a few shows in the last month with non-classical singers/songwriters and orchestras, and have been able, in my role as sort of interpreter/arranger, to see orchestras through the eyes of these new collaborators. I have to say: the first orchestral rehearsal of something is t.u.r.r.i.f.y.i.n.g. I did a show with Glen Hansard, who is, I think, one of the most natural performers ever — pure charisma. And it was scary for him for a minute! An orchestra, individual-by-individual, is made up of totally pleasant people, but as a collective organism it is wildly intimidating. There is a hard-to-find balance between asking for what you want, demanding it, begging for it, being nice, being tart, being polite and being obsequious. All of these negotiations are done through a conductor, of course, with whom one has a whole other complicated arranged marriage. I feel like after many missteps, I’ve gotten there, but of all the various anxieties that make up my days, turning up at an orchestra rehearsal is still a rather three-dimensional one. I feel like I spend lots of time trying to mind-read to look for sympathetic faces; I know it’s a kind of phrenological junk science but I find myself doing it everywhere. A kindly sideways smile from a clarinet player will make my week; similarly, an unreturned smile from a low brass player can send me into a fugue state of self-doubt and adrenaline-addled worry. I caught myself doing it at the Apple Store in Amsterdam; somebody made off with my UK to EUR power lead, and instead of MacGyvering the plug comme d’habitude I decided to treat myself to a proper cable. I walked in the store and immediately was like, okay, smiling dude with bad facial hair, definitely no, unsmiling dude with better facial hair no, very short indonesian woman with a nose piercing maaaaaybe, really tall blond woman with a pony tail maybe for a bigger purchase but not for this, guy with gamer pot-belly would be good for a harddrive purchase because he looks like somebody who once lost a lot of data in a backup fiasco (or in a breakup?) but not for this cable…ah! skinny shortish hipster boy with a nervous twitch and greying fingers; the transaction will happen quickly and he’ll want to get it over with to go smoke in the alley off to the side.

I’m finally at a little check-in point in my life and work where I’ve finished a huge pile of writing and just done a slightly inappropriate amount of performing. I’d quite wisely planned to have a lot of spare time this summer for mental rejuvenation; writing and performing and fussing with operas is exhausting in an unforseeable way; you think to yourself, ok, this morning I have two hours in which perhaps I might have an idea or, at least, the energy to realize an idea that’s already somewhat down on paper — and then the morning arrives and that energy just isn’t there. I just did what should have been an energizing sequence of concerts in Eindhoven, but the combination of fussing with older works and conducting and preparing two different ensembles at the same time occupied all my remaining headspace and I didn’t write half of what I’d hoped to. I did, however, hear some great music. The wonderful viol consort Fretwork came and played with the Gesualdo Consort, a five-voice vocal ensemble (featuring a countertenor called Marnix de Cat which is surely the best name in the industry):

I had forgotten in all of this how much I love the combination of viols and voices. Functionally, the music they play is “the same” — vocal lines and gamba lines being, at a certain time, interchangeable. You end up with a delicious and natural sense of phrasing that takes much longer to achieve with modern instruments.

One thing that I’ve found to be enormously useful in these scenarios — multiple gigs in a row in a million places — is to say yes to every press request but never read anything; this includes, obviously, reviews, but less obviously, advance press and press about one’s friends and collaborators. The idea is that you operate in an atmosphere where the things that bear your fingerprints are more scores than newspapers, and more instruments than computer keyboards. It’s wildly liberating, actually, and it was difficult for about a year and now it’s a really good habit. Occasionally something funny happens; I walked into rehearsal one day in London and an interview with me had been lovingly clipped out of the paper and left on my celeste! And because ça faisait longtime since I’d done the interview self, I caught myself reading it quickly and discovered a bunch of weird syntactical stuff I’m sure I never said, some mischaracterisations and simplifications of what I had actually said — all neutral and, I think, net positive — but it strengthened my resolve to just Not Worry About It Anymore. When even a silly fluffy preview piece gives me a dart of anxiety to the neck, why put myself through it?

I have a new theory which is that Europe People will never ever ever under any circumstances make jeans look alright on their rumps. Like once every fifty people in England you’ll see it and it’ll make sense almost but the rest of the time there is just a fundamental misunderstanding between fabric, donk, and pocket placement. Just give it up! Or maybe I should just give up trying to help them find better options. Just when I thought I had seen it all, B– and I saw this amazing man at the zoo:

Now, what I think we’re dealing with here is a denim diaper. That’s the closest thing I can think to describe what this garment was.

We met a curious juvenile jay in Zwolle:

We had a meal in which a course was composed on our hands:

And in conclusion, to paraphrase Sondheim:

1 Comment

  • I am serious: save these blogs (of course they are ‘saved’ in the interwebs) for some kind of FABULOUS, Rilkean, letters-to-a-young-artist kind of book that would be required reading for all aspirants entering the field(s). You write/think/compose like a dream!