For example: do you believe in cowboys?

Jarry said that “if we haven’t destroyed the ruins, we haven’t destroyed anything,” earning some kind of status as the forefather of dada or even punk, with a Wildean punch. The phrase also crystalizes a new meaning for his absurdist play Ubu Roi, by suggesting that traces of the past, cherished with an archeological precision by our official “cultures” and authoritative “histories”, are not as likely as we would hope to bless us with a sense of continuity and rootedness. Just as often, they are positioned there to recreate the future, in the mold of a present ideology always on the verge of extinction. The ruins are not “from the past” except in the narrowest sense. The first task of a revolutionary is to destroy the reinvented altars of a mythic old order, free them from their appointed significance.

For example: do you believe in cowboys? You are aware, of course, that no one in the 19th century actually did the things that Gene Autry did in the 20th. Just as clearly, no one in the 19th-century longed for tradition in precisely that beautiful way; Autry got more stars on Hollywood Boulevard than anyone, but what they don’t tell you is that he was among the first people to resemble what we now know to be a “cowboy”.

Shouldn’t we likewise suspect that no one was ever connected personally or passionately to “nature”, or “the harvest”, or even to religion, until modernity taught us to feel alienated from those mythical, fictional things? Go into the country and see for yourself. For the sake of argument, go there in 1910. See there, a boy on an onion farm with a horse and a wood stove. He may or may not say that he does not care for modern things, and may say that he spends hours before dawn at a fishing hole, thinking that his love for the fishing hole is a love from across the ages, not a modern invention. That much is to be expected. But his romance for the eternal past is a powerfully modern reason to live, and we have little evidence that such a thing was felt very much before our time.

Think of cowboys now in their heyday: the American 1930s and 1940s. We always knew, even when cowboys were at their most exciting, that it was the cavalry, not the hired help at ranches, who fought the Indians. It’s not clear that stetson hats were often worn. Or whether six-guns were even a common sight … how could they be? They were so expensive, so hard to care for, so prone to misfires. But at a certain time long after the rise of automobiles, you went to a ranch, and you saw that cowboys DO exist, because they had finally arrived. Rodeos were like musical reviews, with ponies… television clarified everything for us in costume, riding technique, and marksmanship … but the cowboys arrived for more than just performances, more than just the symbols of American exceptionalism and rugged individualism, that we always make them out to be.  They arrived then to BE that new individual, that new American, in which we could aspire to stand, and from which we could stand magically apart.


Faced with the startling instances of our idealized rural villager, or...

Faced with the startling instances of our idealized rural villager, or faced with the perfection of some philosophe in 18th-century Vienna, the problem for the contemporary scholar is not bridging a debilitating distance of time and cultural difference, between us and them. For the musicians who have become something worth discovering, there is no end to the distance we have come, in order to hear them, nor any end to the distance they have come to play for us. Instead, the problem is to see the distance itself as what defines their value to us.

There they are, maintaining their connections to some imagined-and-lost authenticity. But music departments seem to need reminding that their connection to modernity, no matter their own point of reference, will still be stronger. We may not focus our gaze on that particular aspect of them…and in fact we turn our gaze away from it, as a matter of discipline, but this is our process, so this is how our value system comes into being.

She sings in front of the band.  On a stage lit by oil-fires, before the court. In the ritual of the elders. All of her authentic masks are sculpted by the role she plays for us, her labor in the production of the distinction of the (past from the) present. The distinction of the present. Except in our presence, she is not a message through the ages.


How to remember music

This is the beginning of a cultural-resistance: to remember music, and remember also the invention of those memories, the purposes of the memories — how they served us in our vacancy, or self-absence, our relentless pursuit of a place or a position in our precious timelines.

So much about the last 100 years is radically different from the human experience of the previous 10,000 years, that it’s difficult for us to remember or imagine what role music of any kind may once have played. Who were the musicians that the Carter family tried to represent? No one lived those precious revolutions, that we imagine turning so far in advance of our stories, no one sang those rhythms we believe we have forgotten. No one can dismantle the pillowed ruins that stand in place of something built on purpose. Jarry wrote “if we haven’t destroyed the ruins, we haven’t destroyed anything.”


How to remember music

That one — the one just past! — was the century of the Eifel Tower, 

And the tall buildings that followed it.

         An abundance of hot-air balloons, or images of them

         (The airplane was later, and less important.)


The first software: tires and axels upon

The first operating system: asphalt pavement. 

                Text by telegraph, followed irrationally by

                Lighter-weight make-up kits, finally available

More freely, to a robust middle class.


The hoot-like beeps on miniature tapes, and before them: a request,

And after which: the messages. “Were you there? I may have been late.”

Softer bread, and safer stairways.


That we should remember anything before

These things … is a joke so thrilling,

In its sheer implausibility,

Mixed somehow, with a myth

That we were ever, anything,

Anything at all but modern.


Now back again, to the ices and clod-diggers

And the sci-fi rainbows of the tudor crowns:

Are we expected to be able to remember a cart,

And a horse before it?

The cart that does not,

In some way, precede us?

Or a Prius?


Can we remember

A map of Africa, contorted and arbitrary,

Nearly useless in its shape, taken down

From sailors’ hopes and recollections?

Remember it as a kind of future, unfinished?

Remember what a year is, orbiting us awkwardly,

Without the built-up space containing an airplane

And a helicopter, even?


Such a mental accomplishment,

Sublime to the mind, as a pear

And a spoon, to the eye? 


It may be that it is much more important, and also more hopeless, to remember music than to invent it.

It may be that it is much more important, and also more hopeless, to remember music than to invent it.



Cultural resistance?

As with other experimental music, a kind of cultural resistance provides an important underlying motivation. Did people used to use that term? Cultural resistance? Did it mean something that requires us to remember an older definition for the word culture?

What kind of cultural resistance?

I spend time thinking about what might be possible in music, that hasn’t normally been actual in the music of our cultures, popular, modern cultures. (The cultures I mean to suggest we might resist are the cultures in which we cannot remember anything other than our own time, or produce anything other than the domination of the modern.)

I am resisting a musical culture — it’s difficult to define what that culture is. I certainly don’t dislike the music of my culture, or any culture, in particular, but there is a way of understanding music, maybe even a language for the comprehension of what music is, that I feel the presence of, in every note that I write, and I am an outsider to the language, constantly in a process of translating it, just to show that it is a language, and that it is a language that not everyone thinks fluently within.

Some cultural resistence, in “contemporary music”, is the old resistence of the moderns against the romantics…replaying itself decades later, even a century later. Resisting tonality…resisting the Romantic notion of the musical idea, the Romantic narrative of musical emotion.

These works — my works — are attempts to escape some other kind of entanglement. Truisms that affect both Romanticism and the avant-garde equally, I think: ”organicism”, “generativity”, and “complementarity,” (Or, if those words don’t resonate, then think of words used in their places, by like-minded artists.)

Instead of organicism (e.g. large objects “growing from,” and reflecting, the small ones, the notion of the singular beginning…): I hope you will find, in this music, something like an intertwined machinery, or ecology, of gestural difference.

In place of generative processes (e.g. imitation, and the syntax-constrained repetition of building-blocks): I try to acheive a kind of energetic sense of change, and purposeful incongruity.

In place of complementarity (the idea that one thing “goes with” and “completes”, another): I try to suggest a calculated negotiation between strangers, a heterarchy of ideas crossing between reluctant conversationalists.

But what does that mean, to try to make something incongruous, incomplete, or ambiguous, if that is precisely the state we find things in before we bother to make anything of them?

It means to me that unity is more delicate, and has a function to be cherished in a different way. If there is any unity in these pieces, it is not merely consistency or balance, but a process of becoming and belonging. I have tried to make every event suggest a parsing of things that contradicts some organization that preceded it, until a string of contradictions has invited listeners 1000 times to enter the world of the music through its abundant little ruptures. If I am successful, then we will have nothing but abundance, and every moment will be an opportunity for release from illusion, for a return to the surface. More than anything, these pieces are about a technique, about a surface: sotto voce, floating rhythm, and perpetuality of inimitable and inchoate differences, which (for all their differences) are, in the end, the same.



What I am trying to do, really

Or maybe I’m trying to write music that heightens (your/my) attention to the immediate textures and surfaces of sounds and rhythms, not by concentrating on the surfaces themselves, but by playing ambivalently with the ways that you might otherwise organize your perception of them.

I emphasize the idea of surface, and technique, because the music that I love the most lingers there, too.

I emphasize “floating rhythm” because I want your sense of time to be first one thing, and then another. First organized, then disorganized … or at least, contra-organized … then contradicted, and then reorganized. This is, for me, just an object floating on the multidimensional waves of converging currents. Your lines of flight across the musical surface are diagonals and spirals, each one balanced against its detractor, nothing allowing a permanent attachment.

I  e m p h a s i z e   ” s o t t o   v o c e ”   b e c a u s e   i t   i s   t h e   c o n v e n t i o n a l   m u s i c a l   t e r m   f o r   q u a l i t i e s   o f   t o n e   q u i t e   b e l o w   t h e   l e v e l   e x p e c t e d   f o r   a   d e c l a m a t i o n   o r   a n   o r a t i o n.   A   t o n e   o f   v o i c e ,   a   w a y   o f   s p e a k i n g ,   t h a t   s o m e t i m e s   l e a v e s   y o u   w o n d e r i n g   a b o u t   t h e   d i f f e r e n c e   b e t w e e n   i n t e n t i o n a l   p e r f o r m a n c e   a n d   t h e   e v e r y d a y   e n v i r o n m e n t   i n   w h i c h   w e   m a k e   o u r   n o i s e s.  

The combination of these three ideas, in my ears, can work in a kind of counterpoint, to produce what I think is an extraordinary, unusual, and rewarding kind of listening.



Surfacial, Floating, Ambivalent, Sotto Voce

The musical works discussed and displayed here — in the links on the left side of this page — are surfacial and technical explorations of floating rhythmambivalent counterpoint, and submissive sotto voce.

I wrote that a long time ago. A year later, I was no longer thinking in the same way. But I wrote a glossary, to try to understand what I meant when I wrote that. Suddenly, I was thinking in the same way again.

Surfacial: If they carry any meaning beyond the sounds themselves, it will be because of a choice you made to “enter” something…an opening in the surface, between coherences. This is an aesthetic of abundance, an abundance of coherences, and thus an abundance of imagined entryways for meaning.

Floating Rhythm: Time, even metered time, can be heard more freely and openly, I find, when its timespans are combined in ways that transfer energy from one place to another without creating the feeling of a straight line. I have a lengthy discussion of what kind of hearing I mean to explore here, in a paper titled “Hearing Time Freely.”

Ambivalent Counterpoint: It’s my hope that some of these “floating” rhythms will offer you a kind of pluralistic entryway; your attention to detail turns one way instead of another, and then turns back again; this “ambivalence” might be an opportunity for a private simulation of some other experience. The ‘ambivalence’ in this music should not be mistaken for ‘ambiguity’: the wandering structures are wandering in precise ways, composed to amplify and multiply possibilities; hopefully more than once you will find yourself wandering between paradoxical or contradictory assessments of what coheres with what.

Sotto voce: This is a music which is not, in the traditional sense, declarative, or fully “voiced”; I certainly do not intend for anyone to find “the composer’s voice” at some core position. But this is personal, and I am speaking, half-way. It could be said that music differs from sound in that it is not ecological; it does not signal a way of negotiating the everyday environment. If that’s true, then speaking quietly (even when the music is sometimes sounding loudly), or not-quite fully, might be a way of inviting a non-ecological kind of listening; a listening in which no identity needs to be negotiated.