Thursday, December 14, 2006

Year's End Path

On a gray Sunday morning in November, I found myself reading in Halsey Stevens' THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF BELA BARTOK. Bartok spent a summer in a house in Berlin, Vermont, a few miles from where I live, and many times I've run along the same road he walked.
On this particular gloomy morning I felt suddenly inspired to make a piece of music; I kept coming back to the image of Bartok walking along a wooded country road in Vermont. I quickly assembled a signal path, patching together delay devices, mixer, EQ, and gated reverb: building a sonic space for the music to happen within.
I've long been taken with Bartok's unfinished deathbed piece, the VIOLA CONCERTO, commissioned and first performed by William Primrose, completed and orchestrated by Tibor Serly. (In particular, the transparent elegance of the "Adagio Religioso" section has haunted me.) At first it disturbed me to read Stevens' statement that Bartok left of the piece only its "torso"; but then I reminded myself: that is, after all, where the heart is.
I began with a technique I seldom use, that of using samples from recordings-- in this case a scratchy old record of Primrose playing the VIOLA CONCERTO. As I placed the short sections within the sonic landscape made by the signal path, I manipulated them, organizing the loops and the spaces between them, until they offered what seemed a strange and dreamlike perspective on Bartok's work, evoking in me the feeling of a wordless pilgrimage along a path: with Bartok himself; with the Viola master Primrose; with my friend composer Dennis Darrah (who has used this technique of collaging loops to great effect in his own work, RECOMBINANT THEORY.)
As the piece unfolded and played back, I pulled out my John Goss-modified Silvertone lap steel guitar, and added an improvisation, the whole thing going in real-time to my hard drive as a take. Listening back later that day, I named the piece NOVEMBER PATH-FOR DENNIS DARRAH.
Here it is:

Now, in mid-December, I've been listening in the dark mornings to two profound works of music. The first is another late Bartok work, the SONATA FOR SOLO VIOLIN. It's a stark and thorny piece, but one rich with twists and turns, with deep resonances that are awe-inspiring, coming as they do from a small instrument that can produce only limited harmonic material. Bartok begins with JS Bach's great solo violin partitas and sonatas as a springboard, and also works with his own deep understanding of Hungarian music; but, as in all of Bartok's late works,there is something complex and entirely personal to be found in the structures and developments of the material.
The other piece, Olivier Messiaen's VINGT REGARDS SUR L'ENFANT JESUS, for solo piano, might seem at first glance-- and listening-- to be of an entirely different species. Lush with Messaien's post-Debussy harmonic coloration, and with themes and ideas of Christian iconography-- the Star, the Cross, The Virgin, The Infant Christ-- woven from birdsong and modal/rhythmic motifs, it builds an entire world, where Bartok's SONATA seeks only to build deep forms within sound.
But the similarities between these pieces lie in their elemental starkness. Both were composed in 1944, within the darkness of a world war that would soon end. And both seem to offer the experience of music as light in that darkness. Messiaen crafts his light from deep faith, and the assembly and juxtaposition of forms, building a cathedral or tabernacle with tones. Bartok's light, carried by the spareness of a solo violin, is a different kind of miracle in sound: the unfolding of forms, organic and ever-changing; like something alive that sprouts in sun-warmed earth.

And now I put away this weblog for the year 2006. I hope to return in mid-January. Thank you for reading.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Ending August

Contrary to appearances, I have not abandoned this journal. Back in July, however, the thing on the horizon arrived: I began work on a new novel. That's where most of my writing time has gone. I've been working in the mornings, outside at a picnic table beneath maple-leaf dappled sun, scrawling in pen in a spiral notebook. (I'm not really looking forward to having to transcribe my scratches into a type-script!)
At some later time I will likely post parts of my writing journal here; for now, though, the process of writing is a bit too fresh and raw to be exposed to scrutiny, I think.

I had begun, back in June, a trio of short essays about revisiting works that were important to my creative development. I got as far as Messiaen and Ives. Next up, I had planned a piece about revisiting Charles Olson's first few MAXIMUS POEMS. But the arrival of the novel that had been stewing for nearly a year inside me took precedence, so I surrendered and changed my plan.
As for music, It's been a busy summer of gigs with Rusty Romance, and some guest spots with Mark Legrand's Lovesick Bandits. I've managed to record a few short solo pieces, too-- some new songs here and there. The cover art for my solo projects HORIZON IS A SONG and BETWEEN WATERS is just about finished, and I expect to have both CDs available by mid-September. It crosses my mind that finishing these two projects will bring to a completion the original intent behind this journal.
What comes next for this blog? I don't quite know yet. But I hope you'll come back and see.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Summer Report

Today, hazy blue skies, after, of course, some rain. It's summer for sure now, and both projects --HORIZON IS A SONG and BETWEEN WATERS-- are finished; sequenced, edited, mastered ( the latter as well as possible,anyway, within available resources) and ready to be heard. I've even begun work on the cover art. I do feel a certain emptiness upon finishing these projects. But it's a welcome emptiness, one that brings with it a sense of space, of new possibilities.
Finishing BETWEEN WATERS entailed some new composition, along with some editing of sections, mostly to fine-tune the proportions of each within the whole. I also made radical EQ changes to a few pieces/movements, especially "Lone Rock Point" and "Searching For Ferris Rock ", seeking to cast just a bit more light and clarity on the decidedly dark and murky original mixes.
Listening back to the finished work, It dawned on me that I had composed my own strange version of a symphony: A single work in sections--movements-- for orchestra (in this case an orchestra created mostly from sound-smeared steel guitar improvs) , the whole structure built by the exploration and recasting of a fairly limited amount of generative thematic material.
BETWEEN WATERS is a sonic object now, and I am confident that it contains and transfers the energies-- of water and rock; of geomorphic and human history and my own perceptions of those things-- that originally inspired it.

As far the song collection HORIZON IS A SONG, well, I had figured it was finished more than a month ago.
But one morning in late May ,I woke up with a melody and lyrics playing in my head, straight into the world from a dream I'd been having:
"Black-eyed Susan's on the highway..."
I got up, made coffee, wrote the song over the course of the day, fine-tuning it in my head during a long, sun-baked run beside Berlin Pond and up into the trails on Irish Hill.
It was only after two weeks of living with the song-- making subtle structural changes, etc.-- that I at last recorded it. In the morning I got a good version in two takes (voice and two acoustic guitars, lap steel solo section, harmony vocal.)
I then spent some time on a weird, spasmodic kick-and-snare drum part for the bridge. (I'd been reading Merton again--I was thinking of this part as my "Zen wake-up call.") All went well, though it took maybe ten tries to catch the drum thing just right.
Then the recording program crashed. Too much heat and humidity. Try as I might, I could not bring the tracks back up. I was angry. But I was also inspired and determined. I started all over again, recording, track by track, another good version of the song. The new version had a very different feel, but I mixed it down, kept it.
After a break, shut down, and reboot, lo and behold, the original version of the song returned! I listened. Definitely the one I wanted. Working into the evening, I added some church yard sale harmonium, made a few mixes. Feeling energized, I remixed the second version, too, this time going crazy with slap-back echo and compression. (I named this the Salty Delta Mix, since it sounded swampy and weird to me, the opposite of the warm and intimate 'master' take and mixes.)
A few weeks later, after I'd picked my favorite mix of the original, I added some tremoloed baritone guitar for texture. By then the song had found its place in the running order of HORIZON IS A SONG.
So that's it for now. I'm going to take a little vacation, maybe get out on the waters. Rest. Relax. Re-charge. Chip away at some small ideas and projects; keep my eyes on that big one way, way, off on the horizon--one I suspect I'll be writing about here later.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Sources and Re-explorations, Part Two: Olivier Messiaen

Of all Olivier Messian's works, CHRONOCHROMIE (1959-1960 ) is the one I seem to return to over and over. It might be that its scale-- just under a half-hour long-- suits me perfectly; Certainly, the piece appeals because of the way it addresses and illustrates, in one place, most of its composers concerns: bird song, rhythmic transformation, orchestral texture as color and vision.
I listened to CHRONOCHROMIE again a few weeks ago, on a rainy morning when I'd risen to strong coffee and the sounds of a very lush dawn chorus. Concepts of time and color--Chrono and Chromie-- are at the heart of the work, and Messiaen uses complex rhythmic transformation of melodic materials-- bird song, mostly-- to build a majestic sonic analogue to a pre-human world: a mountain, a stream falling through rock and stone.
The rhythmic transformations are, of course, the time-field of the work. The color-field arises when melodic materials are voiced and stacked vertically in strata: gliding strings, breathing woodwinds , chattering melodic percussion, dark-toned low horns. The piece is structured in what Messiaen called strophes: cells of musical events that at first seem to push and pull against each other. But as one listens to the unfolding music, the events begin to take on a sense of flow, that sense increasing until Messiaen has created for the listener the sight and presence of a massive mountain, of rippling, tumbling waters down that mountain's steep sides. It's nothing less than a monolithic construction in sound.
All falls away, though, for the infamous Epode: a thicket of transcribed bird song played only by the strings. Having just heard a real early- summer dawn chorus, I was prepared to be disappointed by Messiaen's transcription of nature. But I was surprised at how powerfully the composer captured-- even using only the relatively dry timbres of the strings-- the liquid chaos of the real thing.
The power of CHRONOCHROMIE lies for me in its sense of transformations, even trans-substantiations: bird song as light and color, vibration as stone and water. And above all there's the mystery of music vibrating its way into all the senses and tools of perceptions, becoming something of substance and mass in the world.

(A note: Messiaen's book, MUSIC AND COLOR (Conversations with Claude Samuel) is an invaluable guide to the composer's fascinating methods and ideas. )

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Sources and Re-explorations, Part One: Charles Ives

This week I've decided to go back and revisit some works of music and writing that have been crucial to my perceptions, and thus my own expression. I've chosen three to re-explore and write about. I'll begin with the American composer Charles Ives's orchestral work, THREE PLACES IN NEW ENGLAND(composed between 1903-1914.)

I first heard THREE PLACES IN NEW ENGLAND on an LP my dad brought home sometime in the late 60s. He'd bought it for Copland's LINCOLN PORTRAIT, but it was the Ives piece that captured me. I have strong memories of listening to it with one ear to our old Magnavox mono rig; the smell of hot tubes is somehow tied forever in my sensory memory to Ives's orchestral triptych. It's probably been ten years now since I've last heard it, so this morning-- a hazy, humid, summer-like one, as befits the first of June-- I sat down with coffee and listened closely.
The first section honors the famous St. Gaudens Bas-relief sculpture dedicated to Colonel Shaw's black Civil War regiment in the Boston Common. Like most of Ives's music, this composition is spacious and feels "outdoors" to me; there is light and sound and silence, and the sections and voices of the orchestra are arrayed to magnify that sense of spaciousness. The dominant harmonic colors, applied to snatches of hymns and ghostly song fragments, are like a more tart and polytonal take on the chromatic exoticism of Wagner and Debussy; but the overall effect is less heroic and monolithic than Wagner, less nocturnal and dreamlike than Debussy. This is, instead, music for bright light and clean, open air.
Like St. Gauden's fluid and classical approach to representational sculpture, Ives's music here evinces a sense of heroism tempered with compassionate humanity; there's all that open space and landscape, and the hymns provide a sense of history, community, and human continuity. Especially powerful is the way the constantly shifting textures-- the piano and contra-bass provide a particularly questing restlessness-- seem to find occasional fleeting resolution in one repeated, haunting hymnal motif.
The second place Ives visits is another war memorial. In "Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut", the composer returns to childhood memories of outdoor picnics on the site of a Revolutionary War battle. It's a wild and raucous piece, with Ives's usual weave of hymns and marches. But there are quiet moments here and there, too, and these shifts in mood bring, to my ears, a morphing between Ives's childhood memories and the more ancient time-frame of the Revolutionary battle itself; thus this music becomes evocative of time and history in layers, of both history and personal memory. This layering could not be better sonically manifested than it is near the end of the piece, when a martial, elegiac, bugle-like horn melody on the far right horizon is subsumed by the same note played, on the left horizon, by a hollow, ethereal, thrush-like flute-- suggesting, perhaps, the ultimate merging of human history with the natural world.
Personal history and the natural landscape of New England are at the heart of the final movement, "The Housatonic at Stockbridge." Here Ives revisits a memory of a walk with his wife along the river. This is water music at its most evocative; music that flows and eddies and pulses and moves with a lush combination of impressionist harmony and tight, poly-chromatic dissonance. Ives brings the memory of moving river waters to life here, ending the piece abruptly --and emotionally-- with one of his yearning, questing, hymn motifs.
(I should add that the CD I listened to this morning-- Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1970 (DG 463 633) --offers an interpretation and recording that is very satisfying in its spaciousness, clean sonics, and dynamic range.)

I heard in Ives's THREE PLACES IN NEW ENGLAND this morning the same things I heard-- and loved -- when I was ten years old: evocation of place and history, of landscape and nature, of the unique clear and spacious light that suffuses the New England latitudes. And, certainly, I can hear how those things have stayed deep inside me to inspire my own writing and musical composition.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Spring Report

The last two weeks have seen an explosion of green leaves on the trees, and the subsequent disappearance of long views and open woods. For me, this means a subtle change in thought patterns-- and a return to yearning for big waters: lake and ocean shorelines.
Last week, on a rainy- day trip to Boston, I played Robin my new song album HORIZON IS A SONG all the way through. Her comments afterward helped me realize that it is, indeed, finished. She got completely the radio conceit-- the sense of sonic variety, as she said, "just pulled from the air." So now it sits on the shelf while I let my brain churn away at ideas for the cover art.
As for the abstract sound-art project BETWEEN WATERS, its energy has subsided for a while-- you might say the lake level is down. There is one final movement/piece that needs to be composed and realized, but I'm just not hearing it right now, and attempts to force it have not worked. Perhaps some time on the water is in order?

Plenty of gigging with Rusty Romance. A couple of weeks ago we played a Birthday party at the Waterbury Center Grange Hall that has to rank as one of the greatest gigs I've ever been part of. A wonderful, fun-loving-- and discriminating!-- audience drew deep and engaged performances from us all. And the Grange was such a great setting, with its big stage, weird ritual thrones, and walls full of yellowed clippings. (Including the Times-Argus obituary of the great Vermont country-swing fiddler Don Fields of Pony Boys fame.)

I've also sat in a few times recently on steel guitar with Mark Legrand's new rockabilly-honky tonk trio, the Lovesick Bandits , in residency Friday evenings at Langdon Street Cafe in Montpelier. A great trio-- with my Rusty bandmate the majestic Dan Haley on guitar, rock-steady Mr. Noah Hahn on stand-up bass, and Mr. LeGrand himself on acoustic guitar and heartsick lead vocals. Lots of fun!

That's music. As for words, well, a few days ago I was out on a trail run when something happened: There arrived in my consciousness the first sentence of my next novel. I've been carrying around a little bundle of index cards scrawled with snippets of character studies and plot ideas for this book since last September. Now I've a place to begin. But that is, of course, literally another story.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Revisting and Revising

A few days break, followed by another few days of listening to the BETWEEN WATERS project. Overall, I feel that the pieces summon up the energies and emotions I intended them to.
But one piece-- "7 Islands/Odzihozo"-- does not feel quite right. The piece is built upon a repeated seven note motif that is moved in sonic space, inter-woven with treated speech fragments and "distant" guitar arpeggios. But the balance feels wrong; and the piece is too repetitive, too trance-like. I want it to suggest rock and water and depth of time, a tension and acceptance between flow and permanence. (Touchstones and inspirations for this piece are the Abenaki creator deity Odzihozo, who rests now as a huge rock in/on Lake Champlain, and the Abenaki Seven Thunders, whose energies effect change in winds and weathers.)
I try a denser weave and mix-- I call it the "monolithic mix". Listening back over the course of a day, I discover that this has moved the piece even further from where it should be. I try the opposite tack: a more spacious mix, with a wider stereo spectrum--the "panoramic mix". But now the piece seems to have lost its body, its mass, completely.
So I return to the original mix. This time, though, I weave in a new "event": a short chord motif culled, then treated, from the end of my recent steel guitar improv; it's a blooming of harmonics that I've come to call "the arrival." This, too, I repeat at intervals through both space and time throughout the piece, using the number 7 as a guide to structure and spacing.
Now I begin to hear what I've been seeking: something like those moments of surprise and human perception that meet with nature and spirit at the intersections of energy exchange.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Listening: Solyaris

With a break from composing and recording comes more time to listen.
Among the more fascinating packages to come my way of late is one from Italy
containing CD-Rs by composer-recordist Giorgio Robino, who releases his work under the name Solyaris (a tribute to great visionary film maker Andrei Tarkovsky.)
I've been listening for a few days now to MELLOW STASIS (REDUCED EDITION) and CELLAR DOOR. On these recordings, Robino uses the ringing, crystalline tones of lap steel and standard guitars as the starting point for long, emotionally evocative electronically-processed compositions (in particular, Robino utilizes long echos, delays, and looping) that manifest a highly-developed sense of tonality and resonant spaciousness. The music of Solyaris is engaging and engulfing, with a slow-motion drift; its subtle underlying structure might suggest the majesty of massive wind-swept sands or the infinite shimmer of stars at night.
On the surface of these works one might at first detect an undeniable sonic debt to ambient pioneers like Robert Rich and Steve Roach. But to my ears, Robino's work sounds wilder; more free and open to surprise than that of his musical forebears. I've really enjoyed falling into these adventurous and panoramic fields of sound.
For more about Solyaris, check out Robino's website here:

Between Waters

Alternating with days of work on my song collection have been days of work on abstract sound- art pieces about the shores and waters of Lake Champlain. That project has a new name now, too: BETWEEN WATERS, from the translation of the Abenaki name for the lake, Bitawbagw-- and, though the project is far from finished, I've reached a new perception of exactly what my efforts have arrived it.
Days of what I've come to call audio painting and sound-smearing have produced sounds that reflect back to me my true intent in this project. Yes, I want to express the allure and beauty of this powerful place; but I'm also haunted by the history of war and violence, of storm and shipwreck, that hides beneath the lake's now-placid surface. And this music, rather than seeking a transcendence of those things, is my way of going deeper, beneath layers and layers of rock and water and time, to find some kind of truth and resonance; actually a sense of healing.
This was made abundantly clear to me last week, when, after days of work on dark, rumbling pieces, I set up my cheap-o Artisan lap steel guitar-- in classic C6th tuning, of all things--with a set of delays, and recorded, in one take, a bittersweet improvisation that felt like an arrival at understanding. I named the piece "Searching for Ferris Rock (September Fog)" in honor of a glim-hazed day last summer, when I first spotted the buoy that, along with a line of dark cormorants, marked that massive, sub-aqueous slab of maritime hazard.
So now, feeling this sense of arrival, I'll take a break from this project. Spring weather has, at least temporarily, arrived. The band --Rusty Romance-- is starting to get busy again, so I'll be playing out again, away from the insular world of my home studio.
But I have ideas and sketches for more pieces in the BETWEEN WATERS project ; I want to give them some time to flow and percolate. They will arrive on my shoreline eventually.

An Ending, A Beginning

For the past two weeks I've been so deeply involved in my recording projects that I've not stopped to post my notes on the process here. But now, on the cusp of April, I've reached a state of completion and arrival, so I'll step back for a bit and try to describe what I' ve been up to.
First of all, my Americana song project is finished. And it's been renamed HORIZON IS A SONG-- from a line in my song "Ridin' Ahead of the Storm."
I had a surge of activity during March. It started with recording a short voice and Dobro version of the old gospel tune "Farther Along." I wanted to capture the sense of a gospel radio broadcast coming from far away in distance, and maybe even time. So I EQd and treated the recording for an old radio sound. I also dipped into a stash of radio static and dial-turning sounds I recorded a while ago, and placed them in the mix. The result is a sort of aural bridge between songs and feelings on the record.
Next up, the same day, was a simple voice and guitar version of a song I wrote when I was in my twenties. "Passport Photo" is, again, a late-night/early morning song, this time from a sort of jazz-bossa perspective. (It's actually a tribute to Lester Young, who was my absolute musical hero for a long time, a long time ago.) I did it in two takes, sitting in a carpeted hallway for that soft, intimate, close-up, dead-room sound.
I added a second voice and sparse second guitar, with bleed from the monitors in the other--much harder-surfaced-- room adding a cool sense of space with a strange, tight reverb. A couple of quick mixes, a touch of EQ and compression and voila: A jazzbo hipster vignette from my distant past!!!
A few days later came the piece that made the record finished. I'd been fooling around for a couple of days with my daughter's mandolin when, one morning, a song formed. I set up mics and tracked it in 3 takes. I spent the rest of the day adding more vocals, bass, and steel, then made a few mixes.
Later, a comment from Robin about the lead vocal sounding odd inspired me to again pull out that magic Radio Shack dynamic mic. With the mic handheld, I triple-tracked the lead vocal part. Panned together, those voices made for an instant, subtle Simon and Garfunkel sheen. Cool!
Eight hours spent on less than two minutes of music. But the next day I realized that this song-- called "That Sound"-- captured the theme of the album. One line in particular: "And I wonder if she'll hear it in the darkness when they broadcast this song.." nailed the essence of what the whole project was reaching for.
So now, the last song written would be the first on the album.

After a week or so of tweaking, remixing-- and fades, edits, etc.-- I realized that the album was finished. It had gone from hope and desire to actual entity.
Next time out, I'll get back to THE LAKE EFFECT, which, by the way, seems to have acquired a new name too....

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Lake Effect, Part 3: Thrust Fault

There is something about Lone Rock Point seen from the water that captures my imagination. Lone Rock Point, on Lake Champlain, is an example of what geologists call a thrust fault: a site where one can actually see an older stratum of rock that has, through the shifting of layers, ridden up above the newer, younger stratum. It's an ancient cataclysm frozen in time. Paddling close to this point in a kayak, I've been struck with awe-- even as I turned to look the other way across Burlington Bay to Shelburne point, where the Abenaki creator deity Odzihozo sits as a huge, silent rock on the water.
There's no doubt in my mind that this place is sacred. The Abenaki called Lake Champlain BITABAGW, which the great linguist of the Western Abenaki, Gordon M. Day, translated as : "between waters; alternating land and water."
That sense of threshold and layering between land and water is part of what calls to me to meditate on this place, to try and capture it in sound, in liminal music.
And then there's that dimension of ancient stone-- of frozen time; of history, memory, and topography in layers. Recently, I came across an entry in Thomas Merton's journals that caused in me a flash of recognition:

Time is valuable only for the moments that cut across and through it vertically...

This is exactly the energy that drives my passion to make art-- sound, words-- about the PLACES I find sacred.

So turning toward a piece to be called "Thrust Fault/Lone Rock Point", I begin with the music I've created to capture the energy and essence of crossing water. Now I slow it down, reharmonize it with the audio program ACID. I change EQ settings, treating timbre as both shape and color, as shadow and texture. Over the course of two day's work, I arrive at a piece with a slow rumbling energy, a dark sub-aqueous mystery.
But something is missing: something to cut through to a human scale of time-- something like Merton's moment.
A day later I find the missing sound. It's the harsh rattle of a kingfisher, that bird that strikes through surface tension to fish, then rises again into the air, with its goal, its quarry, held in beak. I treat and shape the recorded bird sound, layer it into the piece-- to represent the ancient eternal moment, frozen for our senses to apprehend and honor.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Chas Smith CD Review

I wrote a while back that I'd post a link to my review of composer/steel guitarist/instrument builder Chas Smith's new CD, DESCENT. Here it is:

And for readers who would like to read more about Chas Smith (and about two other pedal steel composer-experimenters, Susan Alcorn and Bruce Kaphan) here's an interview piece I did for DUSTED a while back:
All three are fascinating and original artists whose music is well worth exploring.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Lake Effect, Part 2

For the past few days I've been deep into work on my sound-art/liminal /ambient project inspired by my explorations of-- and meditations about-- Lake Champlain. So now might be a good time to share some of the original impetus behind these pieces, in the form of a few entries from my tiny blue travel notebook-- from days last summer spent on the lake.
(The poet Charles Olson has been a huge influence on my work, both in music and writing. In his essay on projective verse he writes about poetry as being "energy transferred from where the poet got it." That simple and eloquent idea has been crucial to almost all of my creative efforts at capturing the moods and textures of my relationship with place and history; with landscape, shorelines, mountains... )
Here then, are some raw thoughts transferred from my lake journal:

9:10 am

Approaching the water, bands of soft green, dark blue ( warm and cold , deep and shoal juxtaposed visibly). The ferry - EVANS WADHAM WOLCOTT- pulls out silently, with barely perceptible motion, out past sparkling boats inside the stone breakwater. August sun is low and mellow. Across the green Mountains a line of clouds, like smoking volcanos beneath clear blue sky.

Sipping a brash Speeder and Earl's coffee, I feel something run from soul to synapse-- An idea that's been brewing long inside me rises, whole.
It's about the deep need, to feel and learn and KNOW the wholeness of a place; the levels of truth and story and history and geology and war and peace and land-form and bird migrations that, once sensed and held in the heart, bring that deep and profound wholeness.. .
So by way of all this ---like shapes of mountains and forests, a structure for a narrative begins to be revealed, in sections (core?) (skeleton?) ( island and Bay?).
Find the deep balm that heals the death and violence of blood and battles on these waters (1776, 1814, earlier)... The truth --of form, of shape, of feel-- that land and waters reveal, endlessly, again and again.

Then something happens: a shape and structure forms. Sitting in the sun on the pulsing deck of the moving ferry, I write:

describe birds, the seaplane landing on surface tension's glitter, boats...sense of iron ore beaches on NY side I run on

Formation, settlement, abandonment...
Odzihozo ( The Abenaki Maker deity)

1776,1813, Indian battles before written history,
the skeletons dug up this year in old North End--(soldiers of 1812 war)

Lone Rock Point...force of Geology, time, and yearning.

CROSSING II (Return across same waters...)

Now, in late winter, I begin to hear the sounds; capture them, shape them, using the words from my journal as guideposts to memory, to form: Each section heading will be the central idea for a composition.
I begin with the piece described here in a previous entry. I work it further, until it captures for me the essence of crossing waters... not just the sights, sounds, smells of the lake, but the deeper waters flowing inside me; waters that flow in a mysterious sympathy with the waters I remember from my journey. This takes a few hours of working, listening, mixing, changing. When I find the resonance, I make myself stop.
The next day I set out to capture in sound the strange, eerie beauty of Lone Rock Point, and the thrust fault that reveals visibly, in frozen rock, a seemingly stilled event in the massive transformational processes of Geological time...

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Interlude: Reading and Listening

I've just finished reading a fine book called THE PRODUCER AS COMPOSER by Virgil Moorefield (MIT Press). It's a scholarly treatise on the idea that the recording process itself has become inseparable from the act of composition, that a recording is not a "record" of the composition, but is actually the composition itself. Of course, it's not a new idea. But Moorefield is detailed in his observations and analysis; best of all, as a producer/composer himself, he brings plenty of inside knowledge and understanding, which makes the book refreshingly solid and useful.
I've also been delving back into a book called TEMPLES OF SOUND: INSIDE THE GREAT RECORDING STUDIOS(Chronicle Books) by William Clark and Jim Cogan. This one is pure pleasure; not a technical work, but one rich in first-hand stories and insights.( A few nights ago, wired from band rehearsal, I stayed up late and re-read the chapter on Stax-Volt in Memphis. What could be more inspiring and moving than Steve Cropper talking about mixing "Dock of The Bay" right after Otis Redding's death ?)
I've also been reading--mostly in the mornings--Carl O. Sauer's 16th CENTURY NORTH AMERICA. (Univ. Cal. Press ) Sauer writes here with succint focus and elegant, energetic prose about the the European discovery and mapping of the New World. Reading about the finding of new worlds inspires and energizes me.

As for listening, obviously I've been lost in my own music lately. But I have been relaxing with BOOT HEEL DRAG: THE MGM YEARS by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. This is late 40s and early 50s stuff, with plenty of swing and old-style Texas fiddling, but also infusions of the country boogie, jump, and rhythm and blues that were in the air during that era. Best of all, it's loaded with great old-style western swing steel guitar. Guys like Herb Remington, Billy Bowman, and Bobby Koeffer packed a lot of energy and musical action into their single -chorus breaks on these tunes. And that lovely sound: a Fender amp breaking up just right as that warm-toned non-pedal steel cuts through with enough edge on the high-end to pack a punch.
I've also been enjoying M. Ward's TRANSISTOR RADIO (Merge Records). His quirky --but very melodic and poetic-- take on Americana and 60s-70s pop is quite engaging. I Get the sense that I might share some musical obsessions with this guy.
Recently I got a package of great stuff to review for DUSTED MAGAZINE. Especially exciting to me is the new one by Chas Smith, DESCENT (Cold Blue Records). Chas is a truly unique and inventive artist who uses steel guitars and an array of astonishing self-built instruments to
realize his singular sonic vision. This record has already grabbed me. I'll post a link to the review when I get it done.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Lake Effect, Part 1

With a good start to the song collection BOOK OF JOURNEYS II, I leave the ingredients to simmer for a while. Now I feel the urge to begin the projected sound art exploration of my relationship with New England's inland sea, Lake Champlain.
Composing music about place--"land and life," to echo once again the brilliant and original
20th Century geographer Carl Ortwin Sauer-- has been important to me for years. It has been the impetus for my SOUND MAP and LIMINAL MUSIC projects. In recent years I've been exploring the shores and waters of Lake Champlain-- on foot, in boats, and in library research.
I've written about these explorations and investigations in novels and magazine articles. But now I want to go deeper, and music runs deep for me.
Something about my recently recorded steel guitar improvisation,"Hazy Blue View", has struck a resonant place inside me. Maybe it's the proportions, the twists and turns of cadence; I hear in it a shape I've been trying to express for a long time.
I begin by slowing it down; like tape, but in the computer. Slowing recordings down changes timbre and texture and length, yet the proportions are maintained. Next, I copy the slowed-down piece a few times and work with panning and EQ changes in each copy. I move the copies in space via the panning. I also move them in time by staggering them in the multitrack recorder. I work this way until the musical view opens up, sounding less like song and more like an abstract shadow of land and water forms. This is like painting: I move the shapes, colors, and relationships until they sound and feel right to me. After a few days of working on this, I'm satisfied that I have a good start to my project. For now I give the project a working title: THE LAKE EFFECT.
One afternoon, sitting with my face to the February sun, I suddenly perceive something I've been trying to grasp for years. The perception is this: slowing down music can give a new view of its topographical shape, in much the same way that climbing a mountain offers a new perspective of the land below. And staggering layers of the same material with slight changes in time, tone, and timbre might be analogue to the elevation contours and depth readings in, respectively, terrestrial maps and navigation charts. There dances before my mind's eye-- just out of my true reach and apprehension-- an elegant algebraic formula by which sound, space, time, and tone might be expressed as true, scientific, maps in sound. For now though, I'll continue to approach this quest with the hazy, indeterminate methods and tools of art.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Changing Sky

February 12 : It's a gray Vermont Sunday. My plan is to get up and out for a morning run ahead of the looming nor'easter on the horizon. But after morning reading --and probably a little too much coffee (amazing Peet's JR Reserve blend that Robin brought back from a trip to San Francisco)-- I'm wired up and ready to work on BOOK OF JOURNEYS II. So I postpone the running, and start recording.
I begin with the piece that I've chosen as the first in the sequence. It's an instrumental piece that I recorded back in the fall, an odd, yearning little duet-- for a table organ I got for free at the end of a Bethany Church yard sale and an old Silvertone acoustic guitar that my friend John Goss converted into an electric lap steel and gave to me. I'd recorded the instruments with distant mics and with my windows open: the Silvertone was plugged into an amp, but the mic picked up as much acoustic sound as electric; there's the sound of trucks rumbling outside, and the motor of the little organ on the track, too. This morning I add deep, resonant chords played on tremoloed electric baritone guitar. Upon playback I find that the bari fits in the mix perfectly. But there's too much of it. I keep editing the part until it's only a few chords at the end of the piece. Just right: a duet resolves into a trio.
More coffee(!!!) and next up is the country ballad "Ghosts In This Dancehall." Though I'd been leaning toward adding a Dobro part to the almost-finished mix, I make a last minute decision to go with lap steel. I dial in a bright and glassy Bakersfield sort of sound, and track a pedal-steely part with lots of bends, bar slants, and a few behind-the-bar suspended 4th pulls. It fits the song just right.
But somehow, in the second half of the song, I lose the flow. Maybe I'm trying too hard. Maybe the coffee is reaching critical mass. Whatever it is, I've lost the feel. And then the computer locks up.
Like that impending nor'easter, clouds have formed inside me. A rush of negativity , previously hidden, rushes to the surface. Why do I waste my time with this stuff? Will anybody even ever really want to hear it? I could be reading a book, running, taking a nap...
Here's where it helps to have a partner in life who is a healer. I find Robin, who is reading peacefully, and I begin to vent. She puts down her book and brings out one of the many techniques she's trained in to help get people back in balance.
After a few minutes of this-- EFT is the particular method she uses today-- I'm clear and energized. I get back to work-- luckily, the program I record with-- Cool Edit Pro-- is almost always flawless in recovering from crashes and lock-ups-- and finish the steel guitar track. My playing is definitely wilder and more passionate on the second half of the track.
After making a couple of mixes, I take a break, just in time to catch a strange golden flash of light on the windows of the Vermont College twin towers across the river, on the skyline to the northeast. The sky behind the towers is dark slate gray, but the clouds to west must be broken, letting that illumination take place. And near dusk, when at last I get out for a run, the clouds in the northwestern sky are limned in filtered purples, violets, and reds. I run, watch the changing sky, and listen on my discperson to the day's work. The nor'easter never arrives.
Later I realize just what it is that today has shown me. When the flow is blocked and frustration knocks creativity aside, It's not the circumstances or the world outside that are to blame. No, it's more likely just me, getting in my own way.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Sweeping the Floor for Songs and Ghosts

In Zen there is a saying:
If you would seek enlightenment, begin by sweeping the floor. Or something like that. In my own--probably un-Zen-like-- way, I've long interpreted it to mean: clean out the cobwebs; make space for possibility.
So, with the ideas and inspirations for a CD project to be called BOOK OFJOURNEYS II in place, I do just that. The technique is simple, involving writing in my hard-copy journal. I list the pieces-- unfinished demos and musical sketches-- and let myself imagine what elements-- mixing, eq, added instruments, etc.-- might bring them to their full realization. This proves to be not very difficult, as my subconscious has, it seems, been at work on this for a while. Now these pieces are a step closer to existing as entities outside myself; the busy cutting-room floor of my brain has been swept clean.
Now it's a matter of actually doing.
For example, there's a ghostly country story-song I wrote and recorded back in December called "Ghosts In the Dance Hall." The basic tracks are twangy Telecaster guitars, drum machine, and three vocal parts. Each part is a different character in the song; I intended the demo for the singers in Rusty Romance, with myself as narrator, Rusty (in full slap-back echoed glory) as the ghostly truckdriver from the past, Michelle as the dance hall goddess with whom he dallied on a fateful night. (On the demo I sang all three parts, which was really, really fun, using the great, funky, vibey Radio Shack mic. that Robin bought me for our first Christmas together, way back in the 80s.)
So over the course of a few days I try the steps outlined in my journal. I spend a long time adding snare-drum accents to the cheesy drum machine beats, adding some air and room and human error. I'm not the world's best drummer, but eventually I get it right. I make a number of mixes, with panning and EQ changes, a touch of compression. After a while it starts to take on the 1969 AM radio sound I'm hearing in my head. It still needs something: some Dobro or steel guitar or mandolin. But I'm not ready to jump into that quite yet.
It's a few days later that it comes to my conscious mind where I got the original inspiration for the song. Strangely enough, it's from the journals of monk and writer Thomas Merton. In a mid-sixties journal, he describes the experience of coming upon the decayed remains of an old dance hall in a Kentucky hollow. He feels the presence of the people who had once been there.
It's a feeling I know well: the sense of land and life (I take that phrase from the geographer Carl O. Sauer, who will very likely come up again in this journal .) Anyway, to find in the writings of a Christian mystic solitary the inspiration for a slightly corny country ghost story... well, it just makes very clear to me how strange and mysterious the creative process can be.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Scatterings and Gatherings

Early in February the idea arrives, like so many others have, while I'm running. The soft spring-like light on the snowy Worcester Mountains and the grounded feeling that running brings me work together to help me see that the scatter of recorded songs and musical sketches I have sitting on my hard drive now are ready to come together. (The songs are demos I've made to bring to my band, Rusty Romance. Two of them, in fact, are on our album in band versions. But there are qualities to the original versions that make them worthwhile; a sense of immediacy and intimacy. )
To my mind, this project will fulfill my longtime obsession with exploring my roots in American country music, and my fascination with the sounds and feelings of late night AM Radio as a soundtrack to outer geography and inner journey.
Back from my run, I wash up and dress, then move immediately to my bedroom studio. Quickly, I set up a Fender tube amp and place a condenser microphone --close to the speaker, but far enough away to pick up some room sound. With my trusty Melobar lap steel guitar in a bright C major tuning, and lots of reverb dialed in on the amp, I press the record button and begin an improv. I slide through chords and cadences and slices of melody, just letting the music bloom. After a while I crank up the gain and let things rip: I explore the same cadences, but this time with a darker, more powerful energy. I finish with howling distortion, feedback, and crashes of the steel bar against the strings.
A few hours later-- after house-cleaning, cooking, and puttering: regular domestic life- I listen to what I've recorded. At the computer, I begin to cut and re-arrange: removing dull or repetitive sections; making the distorted ending the beginning, making the sweeter, more yearning beginning into the end. After a while the piece seems to say what I intended it to.
Next, I burn a CD with the scattered songs and pieces-- including the new one, which is entitled, for now "Hazy Blue View", in various running orders. I listen as I make dinner, feed the cat, etc., until the right order of songs becomes clear to me.
What was scattered has begun now to gather.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Welcome to Liminal Words and Music

Welcome to my ongoing journal of creative process. For the time at hand, I plan to document the creation , recording, and mixing of two musical projects: the first is a collection of Americana- rooted songs and textures with the working title of BOOK OF JOURNEYS II.
The second is a projected--and as of yet untitled-- ambient/liminal/abstract collection of sound art pieces that documents my relationship with the geography and history of Lake Champlain-- a musical morphology, perhaps.
Along the way, I expect that this journal will touch on memory, spirit, sense of place , the art of recording, and a plethora of influences and inspirations.
I hope you'll share the journey.