Letter to My Grandnephew (American Gothic)

I wrote a quarter of an opera called American Gothic, in which four composers set scenes of Americans at the margins.  It was a thrill to work with the astonishing power and loveliness that is bass-baritone(-tenor .. ! ) Davone Tines.

I found my text, "Letter to my Grandnephew," through the PEN Foundation Prison Writing Contest.  Here's a little thing I wrote about it:


A man in prison has written 721 pages of letters to his grandnephew.  A few of those pages reach us — via a PEN Foundation prison writing contest — and we encounter what at first seems not so much a letter as a list. 

The list includes events from his immediate life: “My spoon broke.  My roommate moved out… I ate a big hot dog today.”  What’s on TV: “The Olympics are starting… the Indians are in third place."  Likes and dislikes (no to blue and the size of prison paper, yes to “Cake Boss”).  Possessions scrupulously kept and counted: “three ballpoint pens… an Arabic language CD but no CD player… 26 artificial sweetener packets...”  Facts about the world, just as scrupulously kept: “The greatest clarinet player of all time was Henry Cuesta… you can chew a piece of celery forever because cellulose does not break down… lightning starts on the earth and strikes upward to the sky.”

Some details start to give a picture of the man.  He is creative and ambitious: he studies math, he writes poems and computer programs (with no computer: “I’m writing it in my head").  We glimpse curiosity and openness — he teaches yoga on Mondays and folds paper cranes.  He would wear a kilt if he had one.  We see moments of vulnerability and reflection: “I get very nervous sometimes… I look in the mirror more than I used to… I wish my sister Alyssa didn’t have cancer…”  And he wrestles with big questions.  “I don’t believe that our eternal destiny is determined by what we do in this lifetime."

I’m sorting this list because he hasn’t.  The list is unordered.  I imagine him writing one sentence at a time without reading the one that comes before.  The style is forthright, with none of the oily operations of ‘writerliness’ — no conjunctions, no transitions, no framing, no couching, no passive constructions, no subordinate clauses, no parallelisms, no rhetoric.  Deep feelings rub directly against the banal, and we get heat.

But it's not a list.  It’s a letter to his grandnephew, Jack.  What do we learn about their relationship, the granduncle in prison and the grandnephew?  Very little.  There is no “How is school going?”  No “Go easy on your mother.”  No suggestion that the author has ever received a letter back.  Why not?  Jack, we learn, is not yet six years old.  This is a letter, but it is not a correspondence.

What propels a man to write 721 pages of letters to a boy who likely cannot read or understand them?



Once I ate a meal in perfect darkness at a ‘experience restaurant’ staffed by the blind.  My friends and I laughed as we explored our mystery dishes with our hands, we overfilled wine glasses, we lost the butter.  But after a while we fell silent.  The buzz of the restaurant felt far away.  I started to feel like I was not a body but a vague cloud, a glow underwater, a ghost.  Longer and longer grew the distance from myself to the surface.  I ceased to be a presence at the table.

Across the restaurant, a table began to sing Happy Birthday for someone.  I joined in.  Singing felt good.  My ghost got a little flesh and blood.  I was sad when it was over.  But the idea was out, and the freedom of our invisibility dawned on us, like a lucid dream.  We faked a birthday of our own and sang again.  More people around the restaurant joined in, with unusual zest.  More flesh on the ghost.  Another table began the song again — maybe they felt like ghosts too.  No fewer than eight birthdays were celebrated that night in full-throated, un-self-conscious song.  Eight birthdays — what a coincidence!  It was absurd, joyful, and a big relief.

We’re like bats.  Echolocation is the sense of the self.  We sound, and what we hear back confirms our position, our qualities of existence.  We want toreverberate.  We want to sing and hear our song in other voices.  We need an echo.



The letter ends:  “The world is astonishingly beautiful.  Happiness is easy.  I love you.”  The mind reels.



For a singer, nothing is more terrifying than to sing and not hear yourself doing it (the band is too loud, the speakers are too far away…).  A singer develops their skill not so much by singing but by hearing themselves sing.  Focused on that feedback, they learn to move dozens of nearly involuntary muscles — the basic mechanics of which we cannot picture — nearly imperceptible distances, nearly unconsciously.  Amazing!  The praise of a parent and a teacher, the applause of an audience; these too are reflections, reverberations of oneself that, coming back, help us grow.

What kind of growth doesn’t work this way?  I can’t think of anything.

In this sense I imagine prison as a ‘dead spot’ — like a loose spot on a drumhead that just doesn’t ring.  A song there finds few sympathetic vibrations.  There are fewer surfaces to reflect back a man’s curiosity, creativity, ambition, so how can these capacities grow?

Our author looks in the mirror more than he used to, and he writes this endless letter.


How to escape from prison #721: write yourself down onto a piece of paper, mail yourself out.

SoSI 2015

I just finished up one of my favorite weeks in the year, when I get to work on new music with a killer group of young percussionists at the So Percussion Summer Institute.  Adam Lion, Cameron Weichman, Thea Rossen, and Justin Greene played the hell out of my new percussion quartet, Paths/Bells/Beehive/Bellwether.  I was so impressed by their skill and tenacity as they wrestled with this difficult music.


MAPP: Kindred Talks

MAPP hosted me on a panel of artists involved in mass incarceration.  I'm no expert on the topic, but I did appreciate an opportunity to spread the word: my students at Sing Sing are amazing, inspiring, and teaching there wakes me up to the enormous missed opportunity of our 'corrections' system.

I was especially inspired by Jennifer McShane's amazing documentary film work about motherhood in prison -- her movie: The Mothers of Bedford

Two Seductions // Casanova // New Vintage Baroque

New Vintage Baroque are one of my favorite early-music groups.  They produce tightly themed concerts of old music and new music for old instruments, tied together with storytelling to make the music matter.  I went to see them as much as I could last year, and their shows are always gorgeous and fun.  This season they are exploring Vice, and I've written two songs for their first concert, CASANOVA.  Two Seductions are drawn from his autobiography: the first, Fiordespina, is a story from Ariosto that he knew by heart, and the other, Lucie, is an episode of his own.  I'm a little weak in the knees at the singers: Davone Tines and Owen McIntosh.  It will be a fun show, with lots of juicy stories told by my friend Doug, who actually read Casanova's entire giant autobiography.

Come join us at Greenwich House (46 Barrow NYC) on Sunday, October 12 @ 6:30pm.  Tickets / more info.



Facets at So Percussion Summer Institute

It's the second summer that I've worked with SoSI students on new percussion music, and it's become a highlight of my year.  The whole festival is everything I like about percussionists: ambitious, open-minded, enthusiastic, great musicianship, and always hungry for new music!

This year I brought Facets, a piece I've been developing in different forms for almost a year now.    I got to work out the kinks with this quartet – Sean Perham, Jess Tsang, Tyler Mashek and Mike Deering – and then they gave a killer performance.  Video coming soon.

Thanks to David Newton for letting me use his great photos.

Blow Up Roma in Tuscania

I'm so happy to see these pictures from Tuscania.  It's a small hill-town outside Rome with an ancient amphitheater, where my friends of Blow Up Roma perform each summer.  I was there last year, on the last weekend of my honeymoon, and we sat under the night sky, with a view that went miles in every direction (with NO visible advertising!), listening to this awesome quartet rock Reich and David Lang and JLA and my Postludes while the town kids played tag on the grass.  I wish I could have been there again this year.

They've had a busy summer!  Here they are in Campania:

Hanuman at Nief Norf

I went down to Greenville, South Carolina to sing Hanuman.  Andy Bliss runs a festival there called Nief Norf, and the percussion faculty wanted to play a big fun piece together.  Cool record store, Horizon Records – awesome band (Andy Bliss, Omar Carmenates, Mike Truesdell, Kerry O'Brien, Alexv Rolfe) – great audience – it was a total blast.

Thanks so much to Warren LaFever (LiveWellPhoto.com) for letting me share these terrific pictures.

Notes on Well of Whales / Facets

(my friend Dave has been hosting Q&As around concerts at the PSK; this is from 12 May 2014)


EC: Well of Whales started as a physical gesture I imagined and wanted to see: two hands at the piano passing over and under each other. I imagined the music they they might make: two similar patterns on separate planes, one in the foreground and one in the background, the separation of planes softening the clash of two harmonies, something pungent and bittersweet. I modeled it in Blooms, a composing environment that I am, slowly, developing for myself in the computer language Supercollider. I decided the two planes, a sort of figure and shadow, would have a strict pitch relationship — what Quinn calls ‘the chord trick’ (a kind of harmonic modulation via shared interval vector), but would be articulated at different rates and orders, by a kind of arpeggiator. Then I turned to the keyboard, improvising chords and listening to their shadows. Especially beautiful pairs, I saved, ordered, linked. In this way I wrote a kind of quilt of superimposed patterns, always ear-chosen but algorithmically animated, connected by a kind of pivot, where the foreground and background take turns shifting to new chords for smooth transitions. 

That became a piano etude (#6), which I later arranged for clarinet, cello and guitar (Marcel, at the next PSK!) and added Charlotte, singing a nursery rhyme I wrote, Well of Whales

It’s exactly the balance between beautiful and dispassionate that I look for, but usually don’t have the restraint to write (my vice is to phrase everything, at every level — expressionism). I let the computer maintain the discipline, and explored. 

Sometimes a piece just feels like a good well — a place to stay, set up camp, see how much water there is — and this is one of them. I feel like it’s a miracle that I wrote it, and so I want to live with it and learn from it as long as it will teach me. The best way to learn from music is to rewrite it, so I imagined it for a larger ensemble. That’s the the third movement of Three Wells

The other two were written to complement it, to find an equilibrium for the whole.

Hanuman Winter Tour (January 2014)

I took Hanuman on the road in January, playing it with a bunch of great percussion groups in the midwest.  I hit:

  • Athens, OH and Cincinnati with nobrow.music.collective
  • Bloomington, IN with Square Peg Round Hole
  • Chicago @ Constellation with Ryan Packard, Owen Davis and Peter Ferry
  • Ann Arbor and Detroit with Willo Collective

It was tons of fun to get to work with all of these guys, and I'm so grateful to them for putting together shows in their town.  I didn't take enough pictures, but here are some:

Live in Ann Arbor

Notes on Hanuman

(first published in The Collagist)

Last summer I saw, in a documentary about central Asian folk music, a manaschi–a Kyrgyz bard devoted to performing his national epic, Manas. He was inwardly transfixed but also dramatic and expressive, his body moved in a softly fluid gestural dance, his lines falling now patiently, now urgently, both hot and cool, poised and passionate, and endless. Though I didn't understand the language, there was much to enjoy–a guttural intensity to the voice, dramatic shifts in register and tempo, end and inner rhyme play, an all-possessing groove. I was also moved by his depth and singularity of purpose. He was the humble vessel of a vital myth of his people. His years of study, practice and performance had changed him, physically and spiritually. He doesn't so much perform the story as surrender to it, for days at a time.

I reflected sadly that, as the likelihood of my learning Kyrgyz (or Serbian, Finnish, Tagalog, Korean or any of the other languages in which traditional epic performances have survived the 20th century) I will never hear a traditional epic performed that I can understand. And, though I think of myself as having made a deep life-long commitment to music, the relationships I have with my repertoire are thin, skim–literate–compared to his deeply internalized surrender.

To explore this kind of storytelling, I would need to feel it from the inside out. I was reading rapturously the Ramayana (in the luminous prose translation of Ramesh Menon). I chose a scene from it to rewrite and sing, a kind of warm up, in hopes of finding the first threads of a personal epic style.

It's now a year later, and I am still in the clutches of this single scene, with a mountain of work behind me and still a thrillingly unknown gulf ahead.

I have been deeply nourished by the work because it integrates what my world of professionalized composition has torn apart. Centuries of specialization have divorced The Composer from so much of music. We, by and large, do not face audiences directly–we have professional performers for that. We don't write our own texts–much safer to find a famous Poet in the public domain. We rarely memorize anything. We routinely write things we cannot play, and with notation software and MIDI playback (or, more broadly, literacy), we need not even feel our lines and rhythms in our bodies as we write them.

I reclaimed all of these roles in this work, and each vitalized the others. The rhythmic pulse propels the writing of the words; the content of the words suggests an affect and intonation; an affect and intonation suggests melodic line; a melodic line makes demands on rhythm; rhythmic logic is calculated bodily, seeds of dance, propelling new words. Grounding each of these translations immediately in the whole-body athletic of singing – constantly, hours on end – shaped it further: the placement of vowels, the possibility of diction, the flow of breath, the length of line, the micro-adjustments of rhythm demanded by articulation, are all differently possible in the various corners of my particular and imperfect voice. Polyphony (my greatest stylistic break from traditional performance) multiplies these considerations, and, by continually demanding solutions to polytextual and polymeric puzzles, connects language to that great musical source of generative energy, counterpoint.

Epic song was, after all, an Ur-art. Poetry was music, music was dance, all the sediment of a numinous wash of magic, trance, and prophecy. For me to do this work is not only to integrate my own personal amateurisms, a deep pleasure alone, but to explore their source, their original purpose and power. Our own enthusiasm for collaboration in the arts suggests, in part I think, a hunger for this kind of exploration. But after a year of this work, experiencing firsthand the co-creative vigor of these disciplines being practiced together, I now believe that the artist who integrates them in their own practice has access to something important that a collaborative team of specialized experts cannot.

This requires an embrace of amateurism. My own skills as writer, singer, composer, performer (and, recently, recording engineer) are all too uneven. My betters surround me.

But aren't we all, in those few but exhilarating moments of creative contact, when the next step is not taken but revealed, when we are no longer pushing but are pulled, when we stop performing and surrender to our song, essentially naive?