Saturday, August 7, 2010

How now? Moody?

For those of you playing along at home, this post's title is a quote from The Tempest. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I indulge in a breathtaking non sequitur when I tell you that my earliest encounter with said Tempest was copying parts, by hand, in the early '80s, for a concert rendition of an excerpt from Peter Westergaard's opera on said play; I recall that there was a two-note ostinato in the clarinet part that went on forever and ever, and it seemed unlikely that I would find a place where the player could turn the page. Luckily, one of my college roommates, shortly to be known as Beff, could inform that the two notes in the ostinato were fingered in the left hand only, thus making the right hand available to turn the page. Copyists are supposed to know this stuff. Peter was one of my composition teachers at Princeton, and he turns out to be far better as a composition teacher than as an employer.

It is probably already known by the casual reader that when I copied said parts, I used the sock.

And my other college roommate, at the time, was Martler. Yes, Martler.

I write, though, in praise of the other Moody, known in small circles as Writer Guy. When I say small, I mean eentsy-weentsy. Beentsy. I come to praise Moody, not to bury him.

I'm second to bat here. Moody, this Rick Moody guy, has a fascinating music blog, and I've been the subject of one long, luxuriant post. Would that I could say so much in such a short span, but I'm not writer guy. My dissertation reader at Princeton was fond of saying so much. When I say "fond of" I mean something else.

At the moment, Rick is on a book tour promoting his latest novel, a big sci-fi tome that I'm going to start reading soon. Really, I will. As soon as I recover from the embarrassment of having used the word "tome".

Apparently the first time I met Rick — according to the long, luxuriant post — was at the MacDowell Colony in March, 1995. Frankly, I don't remember him, although the incident to which he refers most certainly happened. It happens to be a fact that anyone what can clap with one hand flaunts it. Especially when you tend toward the socially awkward, and you won't settle for the usual conversation starters. And especially when you are at a big, big life-changing crossroads (at the time I was weighing an offer to teach at Brandeis, necessitating I leave Columbia, and gulp!, finally finish my dissertation). Plus, I was trying to embark on a cello concerto that turned out to suck, and was having my posterior kicked by the third iteration of my dissertation, with a different reader.

Several times in the next five or so years, while flipping through the cable channels, I regularly encountered exactly the same movie scene: the young Christina Ricci saying "I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours."

I took an unpaid leave in the spring of 2000, and accompanied it with the regular colony hop: VCCA, MacDowell, and Yaddo. I was writing Ten of a Kind, and it seemed to suck a little less than I had expected. I got to Yaddo in early May, just when they open the mansion to Fellæ, at which time the cohort explodes from 12 to 35 residents — the vast majority of them writers. Dinners happen in a large formal dining room from the 1890s, with a central long table, and various smaller tables by the windows. People at the long table more or less have to shout to be heard across the table.

And perhaps a week into this residency, I was at the long table. At the head of the table was the writer Rick Moody, holding forth as if in court. I was on his left, four or five places down. After the main course, the writer Rick Moody stood up and proclaimed, "I have no use for an aesthetic that ..." and he went into a discourse about writing and writers. Here's a guy I'll never get to know, thought I. Pompous.

I was wrong.

Perhaps a week later, a cohort was going to the local mall to screen Shanghai Noon, a silly movie if ever there was one. It's the sort of movie you wait for the video to see — but field trips at colonies kind of become a necessity. On the way to and back from the movie, I shared the back seat of a 2-door with the writer Rick Moody. He was what you would have to call sweet in the car, and on the way back, he said to me, "do you remember being at MacDowell and clapping with one hand?"

That doesn't narrow it down much. I clap with one hand a lot.

"It was like five years ago". Oh, then. "Yeah, I was kind of miserable."

We hit it off. Off is what we hit it.

One of the most interesting — at least for me — parts of artist colony residencies is the presentations. So-and-so who can't stand potatoes and laughs at everything is put in stark relief when you see or hear the work. Dealing with the cognitive dissonances and consonances between the person and the work is always pretty cool — plus, without exception the work is extremely fine; and I usually get some radiated creative energy from the experience. I gave such a presentation one evening. As usual, it was where the playback equipment was, in the living room of West House, with plush chairs abounding, and a nice soft carpet. Very soft.

I had sensed that the writer Rick Moody was profoundly skeptical about atonal mod music, which would have been a fair description of my own music. In an earlier conversation, he used the term "that atonal shit" in an unironic way. Perhaps subconsciously in a subtle effort to show that atonal can be more than just my ears hurt why isn't this over yet, I played my hand-crossing étude, noting in advance that there was a humorous musical quote in it. The writer Rick Moody set up flat on his back behind the plush chairs, and when the quote happened, he up-straightened and loudly proclaimed, "I heard it!" (uh, Rick, the piece is still going on).

And harps — they're always going up or down.

In later conversations, I revealed that the only pop music I listened to in high school were the albums my sister got tired of playing in college and left at the house. That was Chicago's second album, and Jesus Christ Superstar. I noted that I could perform the entire score of the latter (which I had once done on a two-hour car ride with Hayes Biggs), and proceeded to show it.

While in residence at Yaddo, I turned exactly forty-two. To commemorate that, Rick up and got me a gift — Chicago's Greatest Hits. Since it wasn't Rick's birthday, I gave him burned CDs of my music. Including the latest recorded version of the "I heard it!" piece.

I was about to leave Yaddo, so I held a dance party in my studio. It was a pretty raucous affair, with some pretty good music, and what I remember most about that party was Rick, several times, attempting to run up the wall. I must say, he got pretty far. But not far enough.

Party animal, thy name is Writer Guy.

Coming down after the Colony experience is sometimes like withdrawal from an addiction, and it's cold turkey. One night, intense conversation about art, the work, sharing of work and opinions, unlimited working time, running up the walls at dance parties — the next night, Lean Cuisine in the microwave and flipping through the cable channels. I'll show you mine if you show me yours.

The next contact with The Rickster after Yaddo was the following fall, when I e-mailed him for, of all things, someone else's e-mail address. His response: "Davy! Here's his e-mail! Can you send me more recordings? -R" I did, and suggested he could reciprocate. He did. Whoa, an autographed Purple America, various other books, and even a journal he edited. Cool. I recall taking Purple America out to our side porch on an uncharacteristically warm late fall day, and diving right in to the (I was later to find out) famous first-chapter-is-one-sentence beginning. It knocked me out, almost literally. I zoomed into the kitchen to procure a malt beverage, and read the chapter again. And again. I'm not sure if I was wowed by the action being described (it was very, very sad) or by the fabulous writing chops — probably both.

I'm not the reading type. My nightstand has only bite-size readings on it, and it's rare for me to read full-length tomes. Aaargh! Used "tome" again! BAD Davy. BAD Davy. But Purple America — read it in two all-day sittings, if I recall correctly. When I finished the book, I reread the first chapter for the fourth time. At the risk of exuding pomposity (already accomplished by the word choice), I sensed that he and I may be after something similar — a detail-oriented sense of time whose details accumulate to something significant, rather than call attention to themselves.

Wow, that was pompous.

We got into the habit of sending stuff to each other, and he got one of the first available performance recordings of Ten of a Kind, which I worked on at Yaddo. While musicians noted its attention to detail, instrumental writing, inventiveness, unusual conception for the wind ensemble, blahdy blahdy, Rick got right to the core: "I love the Ellingtonian swing." Which sounds positively Moodian.

Once I had met Amy Briggs and was gearing up for étude recordings and making movies of them, Rick got said movies on CD-R, and he said he admired the "gritty and grainy" quality of the movies, and especially the great performances. So after the first volume of 'toods got recorded, we three met for dinner. Rick hates this picture.

This casual meeting turned into a significant collaboration between Rick and Amy — a set of text pieces in which Rick did readings and Amy improvised, on and off the keys. The recordings are fantabulismo, and I wish they were available somewhere. I ask Rick about them occasionally, and every time they seem closer to being available. Somewhere.

During my next leave — this one a paid leave — Rick and I started a tradition of gauntlet-throwing. Now I never in my life had had an actual gauntlet in my hand, although I was more gaunt in my youth (rim shot). And continuing with our non sequitur theme, imagine the composition of the album Gauntlet It Be. Okay, that's long enough.

During one e-mail exchange, Rick noted that triads seemed to be lacking (he put it less politely) in the music of us Modernists, and he bet I couldn't write a whole piece using just major triads. Stepping back a moment — we theory teachers are fond of letting our charges know that tonal music uses four kinds of triads: minor, diminished and augmented, in addition to major triads, and that tension and release — and variety — in tonal music is achieved, in part, by the different kinds of available consonant and dissonant triadic sonorities. A piece using just one of those kinds of triads? Whoa, doggies, that'd be weird. I accept your challenge. I have a challenge for you. You Modernist poets don't write poems that rhyme. Write a poem that rhymes. Bye.

That makes two gauntlets.

My response took two days. Rick's, probably similar. My little throwaway gauntlet-morceau was named Rick's Mood. Rick, meanwhile, forwarded a delightful gauntlet-morceau of his own, which reads, in part:

Bennet Aloysius Spooner--
Inventer of the electric guitar tuner,
Rhymster, moon-in-Juner,
            walks down the orderly streets
            of the city he refers to as
Imagining cars with pontoons or
Luner modules,
            favoring ideas neither new nor
                        out of date,
                                    ideas neither glimpsed too soon, nor
Made out of state.

His derivation: Pashtun, mixed with a little seventies Pat Boone,
            though a little cooler, a little more rough-hewn. His favorite Scorsese,
                        e.g., is KUNDUN,and if he's a little fat, he's still kind,
                                    way past where it's at, tied for last,
                                                Still sings G&S tunes,
                                                            HMS PINAFORE and BRIGADOON.

And, I might add, he plays the contrabassoon.

And that's just the opening. Brilliance, thy name is Moody. How now?

My gauntlet-morceau took up just two pages. Rick asked why it didn't join my ever-expanding collection of piano études — since, like, it had an étudy premise. My sputtering response was that it was too short, and, uh, it didn't do enough with the premise, and, uh, maybe it was just too pretty, and, uh, I'll be right back I have to go to the bathroom.

Long story short (too late), I returned to Rick's Mood twice to try and lengthen it to étude status. Finally I was satisfied, and it became étude #65 (rather than #44, which it would have been at the time). Since only four working days were spent on the piece, it hewed within the normal time span for étude-writing. It is the only 'tood, however, that was finished three years after it was begun. It's also the only one whose title is nine letters plus an apostrophe. Non ti merdo. It's also the only title with the letter sequence c-k-apostrophe-s-space.

At this same time, I was becoming aware that Rick has a very musical mind. He sheepishly sent some of his pieces that he'd constructed using various sound sources — many of which are now on UbuWeb — including one built from sounds in some étude movies I'd sent. I played Rick's pieces for Beff, and we both agreed that any one of the pieces would fit right in — would even stand out — at any conference of electroacoustic music. Beff has a few toes in the electroacoustic world (I don't), so she had the stature to make that observation. I suggested to Rick that he apply for academic jobs in electroacoustic music under a pseudonym, just for the fun of it. I'm pretty sure he ignored that e-mail.

Soon after Rick got his Mood on, I started leaning on him for ideas for piano études (such as is documented in this other post). In retrospect, I realize that we both think pretty visually about music — or at least in my case, when writing 'toods — and it is perhaps this simpatico thinking that made his ideas so interesting for my own nefarious purposes. He had no problem coming up with simple-to-bizarre suggestions, and plenty of them. Some of them were, as they say, solid gold. Now that the 'toods are done, I can indulge in a Moodian list-making, just to see how many toes he's got in the collection.

  • #48 What Half Diminishes One (Half-Diminishes All) — Moody-approved
  • #51 Zipper Tango — Moody title ("the grace notes in the midi sound like zippers")
  • #52 Moody’s Blues — solicited Moody idea
  • #54 Pedal to the Metal gauntlet-throwing by Moody
  • #55 Eight Misbehavin’ wedding gift
  • #61 Ménage à droit Moody title
  • #65 Rick’s Mood gauntlet-throwing by Moody
  • #66 Less Is gauntlet-throwing by Moody
  • #68 Absofunkinlutely solicited Moody idea
  • #74 Not talking pianist étude, poem by Moody
  • #86 Prog Springs Eternal prog rock étude, solicited Moody idea
  • #87 Berceuse gift étude for impending parenthood
What writes books, short stories and poetry, plays guitar and piano and violin, and has twelve toes?

Looking at this list, I come back to remember something of what is great about true collaboration: that which takes you out of your comfort zone, and, I guess, makes your brain bigger. To wit, when Adam Marks had suggested a talking pianist étude — oh, those are all the rage nowadays, and I got on that horse way after everyone else — I was stymied in my search for an appropriate text. Finally, I discovered on my computer a file that Rick had sent years earlier, entitled simply, Not. The first paragraph went like this:
Not not not not happy. Not not not not happy. Not happy. Not happy. Unhappy. Not happy. Not happy. Unhappy. Not not—not not not. Happy. Not not—not not not happy. Not happy. Not happy. Unhappy. Not happy. Not happy. Unhappy. Not not not not not. Not not not not not. Happy. Not not not not not. Happy. Not happy. Not happy. Unhappy. Unhappy. Happy. Unhappy, happy, happy.
And it went on for two and a half pages. I had no freakin' idea what to do with this text. The repetition and minute variation of minimal materials as a mode of development — to this degree — was completely foreign to my music. So naturally I started writing right away. And I wrote a piece completely unlike anything else I've ever done. Rick was enthusiastic, and shortly when Adam came to Brandeis to play it for me, I FlipVideoed it and sent a copy to Rick — who had a lot of excellent suggestions for Adam. And he seemed to dig the piece, too.

The letter from Rick granting the rights to the text is a literary masterpiece. It also has a red star made by a rubber stamp.

And an added plus (isn't that a redundant phrase?). Using the title Not in casual conversation leads to lots of silly turns of phrase of the sort that delight the likes of moi. Is not Not knotty? Is Not's knottiness for naught? Is not Not's knottiness naughty? Is Not knotty or naughty?

It turns out there's a reason, or at least part of the reason, that Rick's mind is this musical. He knows a lot of music. A buttload. A merdeload. His taste is small-c catholic, and his knowledge is, in some ways, encyclopedic. You sense that in his music writing ("sense" is too weak a word), and in my case, I have personal experience, which will, alas, involve another anecdote. But not a synecdoche. Or maybe it will.

I had a gig at the Chelsea Art Museum in June, 2005 — St. Luke's Second Helpings series was doing Take Jazz Chords Make Strange. Beff and I were in town staying in Chelsea with Hayes, and I made an appointment to see Michael Lipsey at Hayes's place after the gig to learn about how to write for his collection of hand drums. Michael had gotten funds from his employer to commission me and a bunch of other composers, and he wanted to make sure that every composer got to touch and feel his drums (sorry about that turn of phrase, which I have decided I like nonetheless). Some of the resulting music can be viewed and heard here and here.

Rick came to the Chelsea Art Museum gig (our mutual friend Ingram Marshall — who was also at Yaddo in 2000 — also had a piece), and when I mentioned that a hand drum guy would be showing me his instruments afterwards, he asked if he could come along. I was there just to find out about the drums, and that I did. Rick, on the other hand, had an extended — I mean, really extended — conversation with Michael about drums and drummers, and lots of them, in every conceivable style. Imagine that: me watching a conversation about music that went way, way over my head.

I made movies of Michael's drums with my digital camera for reference. I also got evidence that Rick, too, got to touch and feel the drums. Here's his first attempt with the talking drum.

I think it's also Rick's last attempt with the talking drum.

Meanwhile. The gravy train of free Rick Moody books ended, as well it should. I've got 'em all, and I read 'em all. Most memorable for me were the digression into an Elton John review in The Black Veil, the chicken mask story, most of the chapters, and the surprising ending of The Diviners, the near-perfectly constructed science fiction story in Right Livelihoods. In the last case, the descriptions were so perfect that you could see everything vividly.

The first story in Right Livelihoods, about the old guy with a zest for music and an active fantasy life — too real-life for words.

So just before The Diviners came out, Rick did a reading in my area of the country — a bookstore in Newton that was attached to a restaurant of some sort. I only recall this detail because I remember that I had Buffalo wings, and the taste of Buffalo wings tarried as I listened to the reading. I also had a big pile of grading with me, for Music Fundamentals. A cowboy's work is never done. Rick read the "head injury" chapter from Diviners, after which, on his way to the assigned book-signing station, he tarried at my table to say hi. I had nothing for him to sign, so I asked if he'd autograph the homework I was currently grading, that of Becca Schwartz. He wrote, "Hi Becca! Best wishes! Rick Moody" In class, Becca raised her hand to ask, "what's this grading mark?" "You got a Rick Moody autograph!!!" "Who?" "Take a literature course and I'll get back to you."

Next month Rick does another reading in Newton. I'm going to get a real autograph, dagnabbit. One without the word "Becca" in it.

Rick was intrigued by the homework I was grading, so I e-mailed him some of the PDFs. He said he could do some of it, but most of it was beyond him. Which I doubt.

Though the Rick Moody Book gravy train is over, the Rick Moody Wingdales gravy train is in full swing. He has regularly sent me CDs, tracks being worked on, even a vinyl Wingdales single, which I have enjoyed immensely. I had a lot to say about this video, of which, thanks to Rick's heads up, I was viewer #4. Note the word "firefight" at 2:20 and the perfect blend — Rick was happy to take credit for that. Not the blend, but the word.

Note to self, though, and to the reader. I bring a strangely analytical ear to any music that I listen to, and I feel the need to mention anything that I think crosscuts the style or the genre and/or is unusual and wonderful. So maybe when I respond to the Wingdales tunes, I do it in what seems to be a bookish way. What can I say — if I like it, I can't help but say why — if I have some idea why.

So very recently Rick sent me a demo runthrough of a tune he'd written — a Walt Whitman setting, no less. Walt Whitman! Just two singers and a guitar. The tune reminded me a bit of George Harrison — but there was more.

The tune itself is simple, but also a compound line, as seen by the stem direction — a lower line, stems down, and an upper line, stems up, both folded into a single line. Compound lines aren't uncommon — and this is a nice one. In the first phrase the lower line hangs around A while the upper  line descends methodically. In the second phrase, the lower line seems to take over, until the surprising tritone leap to the F-natural, which rhymes with the F#-E of the first measure, etc. But more surprisingly, and what I would call the mark of a composer is an interesting recontextualization that happens shortly after the excerpt in question. It's weird enough that the dominant seventh E7 is followed immediately by deceptive motion into the parallel minor (F, the flat-6 of A major, or the VI of a minor). In the repeat of the melody of the second line, the cadence is instead on C major — a common-chord modulation (flat-6 of A recontextualized as the IV of C) and a surprising phrase ending.

How could a composer supposedly not up to doing Music Fundamentals homework do sophisticated common-chord modulations involving parallel minor mode shifts and melodic recontextualizations? And compound lines? And shit? Answer(I peeked in the back of the book): excellent ears. And a pretty fierce knowledge of a lot of music. The tune has several other modulations, too, by the way.

More importantly, though. The tune was stuck in my head for days.

I've sent Rick recordings of my stuff at pretty regular intervals for his feedback. Regular enough that after a several-month hiatus he e-mailed to check that I was okay. I like his feedback and the questions he's got about what he's heard. He was extremely enthusiastic about one of my most extreme études (as was I, since it turned out not to be about some complicated things with tempo, but about how the ear starts to process the timbre shifts after a while. D'oh!).

And most recently I got this one in. I had posted it and a companion 'tude on my Facebook wall. Comments from musicians there and elsewhere included "great chords" and "soothing!" and "lovely. It could go on much longer." Thus, I think it's typical, perhaps emblematic (even though I don't even know what that means) that Rick's reaction was, "I can't believe ANYONE can play that thing. It's really INTRICATE." And later, "How many different time signatures is it in? Can I see the score?" And so began a discussion about polyrhythm and polymeter.

So it turns out Rick is a star. Which I only bring up because now I've seen people asking him what he had to do with these Rakowski YouTube toods. This blog post is a partial response for Rick's fans (including the 12-20 new Facebook friends he accumulates daily). What is Rick doing out there? Making me a better composer. How? By nudging me, ever so gently, out of my comfort zone.

In a recent e-mail exchange, Rick asked me what my next big, big challenge would be. I said I was writing a 40-minute concerto (40 minutes! Insane!) for Amy, with the form to be collaborational. His response: not hard enough. You have to write an hour-long piece for nothing but non-Western instruments. The "mwa-ha-ha!" that followed was understood.

And I daresay this may be the longest post ever about Rick Moody that makes no mention of the source of I'll show you mine if you show me yours.