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The Principles of Uncertainty (2007)

Solo Counter-tenor, Violin, Cello, Piano, Banjo, 21'

I have no idea how to describe the strangeness of this song cycle; in true modern fashion, it started as a blog on the New York Times, consisting of paintings and text by Maira Kalman. Maira, a longtime friend and hero of mine, asked me to set all of the questions she asked on the blog over the course of a year. I set all the questions, as well as her entire melancholic entry for the month of February. The ensemble that made the most sense at the time was solo counter-tenor, violin, cello, piano, and banjo.


The Principles of Uncertainty

1. What is this book? What is anything? Who am I? Who are you? What is happiness? I ask you, what is happiness? What is happiness? How could young Nabokov tolerate such displacement, such loss? How could my mother tolerate such displacement, such loss? Could my mother have married Nabokov? Would Nabokov have been good to my mother? What is the most important thing? I walk behind people who are old. How can they function? How can I help? Step. Step. Step. How are we all so brave as to take step after step day after day? How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip and yet do trip then get up and say O. K.

I want to grow old gracefully, naturally: is such a thing possible? The sun will explode five billion years from now: Set your watches. The man dances on salt. Why? The man is disgusted. Why can’t people tell the truth? the woman stands under a tree. How do you go mad? How do you go not mad? The truth is everybody gets on everybody’s nerves. Everybody gets on everybody’s nerves. Right? Right. Right? Right. And the cake, and the cake: It was a mocha cream cake. And the inner peace? there was zero inner peace.

2. What is this fragment? This hard wisp? of what? Of darkness of thought, or immensity of the universe? A dream? A foreboding? Was Freud right? or Wittgenstein right? Can we speak? May I say something? No? Wittgenstein designed a house for his sister. Here is the radiator. To say that he found God in the details would be an understatement But how would he define “God?” Pushkin Pushkin Pushkin “” did he die in a duel? Yes. He died in a duel. What does all this have to do with that young woman with the crazy great hairdo with four bobby pins and two rubber bands? What does this have to do with bobby pins and radiators and Kokoshniks? One thing leads to another. Spring is in the air, don’t you think?

3. The man dances on salt. A package arrives wrapped in newspaper and tied with strips of fabric. The newspaper has a phto of a man. The man is lying in the snow, dead. Here is the man. His hat flew off his head. I hope he is not really dead, just enjoying a refreshing lie-down in the snow. The woman leans over in anguish: not about that man but about all sad things; it happens quite often in February. She sings a lullaby about angels watching over the girl. You cannot help but notice that that is an awful lot of hair to wash and comb every day. The man stands behind the man. The seated man thinks, “For heaven’s sake, stop standing behind me. You are driving me mad. It’s freezing here. It’s February, and it’s impossible.” The woman stood in front of the tree before she went mad. She wrote a book, and then she went mad The woman is very ill. Her little dog never leaves her side. These twin sisters walking down the street in Budapest are cousins. There are black stripes on their sleeves. The sisters will never meet this man, but I have, and he has black stripes on the sleeves of his magnificent handstitched robe. He is a monk. On his card it says Inner Peace Center. My parents had a tea party in 1963. There was zero inner peace at this party. My parents were barely speaking. The heart breaks. Someone does or does not go mad. It is February, and all is forgiven.

4. The man asked the woman a dangerous question: “You don’t want me to kill her, do you?” I can’t ask any more questions. Was everything not said? Was everything not understood? Keep calm and carry on! Keep Was everything wrong? Will everything be wrong? Will we celebrate? Will we be kind? Will the world blow up? Will we eat egg salad sandwiches? Will we tell lies? The man asked the child, “what’s wrong?” The man asked the woman, “what’s wrong?” The child asked the parent, “What’s wrong?” The woman asked the child, “what kind of cake shall I bake for you?” What kind of cake should I bake for you? What kind of cake shall I bake for you?

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