April: Texas, New York, and the Oppositions

In the early evening of April 22 I sat depleted outside an apartment house in Red Hook, Brooklyn. From that stoop I could see the choices and oppositions of my life laid out like they were chalked on the sidewalk. Sometimes it feels like life is a tug of war—between east and west, life and career, social and personal, work and play, urban and rural, composer and singer-songwriter, professional and academic, serious and jocular, art and business, collaboration and solitude—and I can’t seem to choose my side.

April had been a rapid-fire reunion, a gonzo retrospective. It was like one of those broadly staged final scenes in Wes Anderson’s films where all the characters are seen together at once, their relationships’ dynamics laid bare. In just three weeks, I had visited most of my important places and seen many of my important people. I set foot in New Mexico, Colorado, and Iowa; I played shows in Chicago, Austin, New York City, and at my alma mater Illinois Wesleyan University. After April 26, I had no further gigs on my calendar. Plans, but no dates.

This happens to freelancers. We build a run of work, and then the run ends. It can be a difficult transition. I think of my days in theater, when the closing of a show would effectively disband a group of friends. At the end of each season, we were sent back to the drawing board; professionally, creatively, and socially, we had to reconstitute ourselves.

One time, during one of these reconstitution phases, a friend encouraged me with the words of his teacher: “Growing into yourself as an artist requires lots of time feeling lost.”

Here is Rebecca Solnit, the poet laureate of being lost:

That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost. The word “lost” comes from the old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army…I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.

We disband our armies, we find ourselves alone. We find ourselves.

Many creative people experience their first disbandment, their first dramatic, forced reconstitution, when they leave school. Such was the case for me when I left Austin in 2009, after completing my master’s degree. I’ll borrow the idiom again, abused as it is, because it is so terribly precise: my two years in Texas were when I found myself. I left town as soon as I finished the degree because I felt I had to keep moving forward, but when I landed in Chicago that fall, I immediately missed Austin’s atmosphere. I have heard Austin called “the world’s largest retirement community for young people”; no similar description applies to Chicago. There are swarms of creative twenty-somethings there; most of them work from nine to five at Groupon. There is bohemian culture, but it doesn’t feel endemic. Office jobs feel endemic. Commuting feels endemic. Sleet feels endemic.

I eventually found collegiality and inspiration in Chicago’s new music community, but in late 2009 I felt a bit like the narrator of Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues,” the best song ever written about wishing one was in Austin. I walked the neighborhoods, kicked the pavement under granite skies with cold winds slipping between me and my jacket. Chicago didn’t need me. The city is a vast, fascinating patchwork of deep, disparate stories, but it’s stretched over a reservoir of such infinite sadness. It hides it well; the patchwork holds. But Austin was warmer. It felt like it had some holes, and I could find my way in.

My favorite composer these days is Morton Feldman, whose late music I find unimaginably brave. This spring, after the April fury wound down, I discovered that WQXR had posted a complete recording of the FLUX Quartet performing his String Quartet no. 2 (1983)—that’s the one that’s six hours long. As mentioned, I had no further gigs on the books, so it was time to conduct some business, and one day I dialed up the Feldman as I set to an afternoon of emails and tasks. The piece susurrated in the background, but every once in a while it leapt out and grabbed me by the spleen. It sounds like a field René Magritte might have painted, the grass glowing midafternoon green, the sky above black and starry. It’s like you’re walking a wide meadow of rolling hills, of night flowers, and occasionally you find an old wooden trap door set into the hillside. It could go anywhere. But actually you don’t open it. You keep walking the meadow instead, for hours and beautiful hours.

Feldman’s quartet lay over my emailing like so much diaphanous cloth, and in it I heard the magic of the everyday. I used to be terrified of routines, always coveting more adventure, but I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of assembling a life durable enough to make sense multiple days in a row. We don’t always see the magic in this, but as artists we simply have to trust in its presence, beneath our daily rituals, in all of our work, in the revision, the tedium, and the suspicions of futility.

I hadn’t seen much routine during April. A few weeks previous, on April 9, my bandmates and I landed in Austin a few days in advance of the Fast Forward Austin new music festival. We had a lot of rehearsing to do. We had been separated for most of the previous four months, and we were preparing two separate sets for the weekend: one with piano for Fast Forward Austin, another without piano for a bar show the previous night. A number of friends and collaborators were in town for the festival, and there were meetings and reunions to balance with our work.

Grant Wallace Band in Austin

Grant Wallace Band performing in Austin, TX.

Our subsequent New York trip, the very next weekend, was a wilder whirlwind. Ben and I landed on Friday and caught the new Anthony Braxton opera. On Saturday, Elliot Cole and I split a show at Spectrum. On Sunday Ben and I spent some time with Elliot in the studio, contributing some singing to an emergent track. On Monday we heard Bearthoven rehearse our pieces at New Amsterdam Records’ warehouse space in Red Hook, then walked to the Fairway by the water and ate grocery store sushi in the sun.

Rehearsing with Bearthoven

Rehearsing with Bearthoven at New Amsterdam Records.

That night, Ben and I heard TIGUE and So Percussion at Le Poisson Rouge. I was electrified by this show. Chris arrived from Chicago that night, and the three of us walked the streets of midtown until late, talking band talk, scheming schemes.

TIGUE performing at LPR

TIGUE performing at LPR.

Our show was the next day, at the New Amsterdam space. We found our way back to Red Hook and the apartment of Chris’s brother, Danny Fisher-Lochhead. Danny is a saxophonist and composer, and his place is just around the corner from New Amsterdam. We rehearsed, sound-checked, and returned to Danny’s place for burritos. I was so spent, I could barely socialize. This was the point when I removed myself to the stoop and admitted aloud that I felt totally empty. I was looking another reconstitution phase in the eyes. I had no home, no plan, and no way to unify the oppositions.

It hit me hard, that evening, that my work is in one place (the city) and my soul is someplace else (the west), and I don’t know what to do about it. The music in New York is so powerful, but I just don’t think I’m personally constituted to live there. In May I fled back west. Over the summer I’ll spend some time in Chicago with the band, play a few shows, and finish our album. We’ll be back in New York in early September, to play on the Resonant Bodies Festival. By then Ben will have moved to North Carolina; he recently accepted a teaching position at Appalachian State University. Chris is still working on his doctorate at Northwestern.

I used to feel, if one was very rural and ten was very urban, that I might someday be happy in some sort of three and a half. But I’ve lived one and ten in recent years, and it’s made me doubt that the middle, in America at least, can really share the benefits of either extreme. I grew up in a five-sized town and I didn’t hike mountains on my off days, nor did I have regular access to a standing, working community of world-class musicians. Subsequently I lived in Rocky Mountain National Park for four summers, then embedded in Chicago’s new music community for two years. I suspect that deepest life will always be in the ones and the tens. But I wish there were some way to live moderately.

I think again about Edward Abbey and our culture’s opposition of wilderness and civilization. The American environmental ethic has always been about extremes, about subjugating nature (see: Iowa, industrial agriculture) whenever we are not enshrining it (see: Colorado, national park system). Is there a model in which civilization and wilderness can coexist more fluidly?

The presently dominant code of wilderness travel is Leave No Trace: when passing through a wild area, one is instructed to “impact” it as little as possible. (Yes, you bury your excrement, and you also eat the nasty little food scraps from your dirty dishes rather than dispersing them on the ground or in a stream, and you find a spot for your tent where there isn’t any vegetation.) Isn’t “impact” a funny word? In environmentalism we are supposed to minimize it, in art we are supposed to maximize it. Isn’t there some way to live moderately?

A similar opposition plays between life and music. In America we have excised art from the daily flow of our lives, sequestered it to safe, respectful shrines built for its enjoyment and study (museums, concert halls, universities). We don’t play music with our kids as part of our social existence; rather, we buy them music lessons. And we are perpetually surprised to learn, to paraphrase the critic Dave Hickey, that in the special, clean spaces we set aside for culture, culture doesn’t work. Can’t life and art be hopelessly intertwined, every single day?

One and ten, life and art, work and play. Austin was all lifestyle to me, Chicago all career. The space is in New Mexico, the music is in New York. Do I have to pull myself back and forth so rapidly? It has become so exhausting. It is, to brandish the word of our era, unsustainable. Isn’t there some way to live moderately?

I think about Eric Holthaus. I don’t know if I can do this without flying, but I can try. I can try to slow down, travel with intention, stay for a while when I go, take trains instead of airplanes. Have you taken a train across the country? It’s so civil. You get treated like a human being, and no one is in a hurry: delays of multiple hours are not uncommon on long routes, and without our usual sense of entitlement toward punctuality, time takes on a different tint, and you sit and look out the window for hours as the land steadily changes and the light moves from east to west, from a glow to a blaze to a glow again before it disappears over the horizon, leaving you in limpid flowing darkness.

It’s like listening to Feldman’s second quartet. It rolls on and on.

Last August, a New Mexico friend came to visit me in Chicago. We used to work together as wilderness guides, and it was pleasantly incongruous to see him in the city. I even took him to his first new music concert. One day we went to the beach, sat and watched the waves of Lake Michigan.

“We talk about time like it’s money,” he said, his feet speckled with wet sand. “We ‘spend’ it, we ‘waste’ it. I wish we didn’t think of time as something we can gain or lose. We should just think of it as a shifting of light.”

Beach ending

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