Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Story (part II)

The scars from love affairs that fail to take flight are similar to the ones from childhood piano lessons: they run pretty deep, no one else can see them, and they never fade. Such scars are not at all like the stripe running down my left ring finger which, after two decades, is now barely visible. But those other scars, the internal ones...ah, I am sympathetic to both examples. I meet many adults who speak of "the trauma" of piano lessons. These are usually people with an amazing appreciation for art or music; who aspired to pianistic greatness but perhaps lacked coordination or innate musicality; and whose memories include the spectre of Dixon Ticonderoga. (The pencil is every mean piano teacher's weapon, you know, so useful for rapping knuckles or keeping time in metronomic jolts against the music rack.) Adults who carry around this trauma often speak wistfully of studying piano again, but then they look at me warily, as if trying to determine what scare tactics I might use if a student fails to play scales "hands together."

Scars, whether from lost love, broken bones, or studying piano, do make good stories. Piano lessons (until I turned nineteen) were never a source of psychological drama, but I do have a musical scar. Oddly, it is actually because of story, because of my constant love for and pursuit of it...in music as well as life, and because of my passionate desire to create myths and tales and abstractly designed narratives out of anything audio/visual that I compose and/or perform.

I have always created stories when I play music. Haydn or Mozart? I invent stories set in clock shops or architectural design firms, where automata become animated, where all the gears and wheels and precise wooden technologies and AutoCAD files suddenly develop a consciousness of their own. Brahms or Schumann? That is too easy. Alone in the collegiate practice room (or, even growing up, practicing in the dining room where I still managed to feel quite the solitary spirit) I place myself in the starring role: the lost, confused, but heart-in-the-right-pace hero. Ruinous in love affairs, but only because I pursue my art with such intensity. Ruinous in art, but only because I can not let go of the thought of the love affairs I've left behind. I am a perfect Romantic (this was resoundly confirmed even as recently as September the 3rd, although the genre is not the music I play best). Schoenberg or Fred Frith? Oo, more complicated. Now the stories tend to revolve around pitch (the pitch as character) or "episodes of pitches" or a certain chord (a chord!?). A particular "episode of pitches" might return, then return varied, then return...in what I can only call an "it's the same because it's the polar opposite" form, and finally return again, and I turn that activity--departures and flights of fancy and returns home--into its own little story. The story may differ for every listener, but I have a story. I do. I commit to a story. And I'm the performer, so there.

When I went to Mills College for graduate studies, I very quickly realized that talking about stories was a very, very, very bad thing. People were not into narrative. They were not into semiotics. They did not consider music a language. They did not wish to communicate anything about themselves, about outside imaginings, about time, place, circumstance, or desire. These were people--astonishing and engaging performers--who very much wanted to talk about music for its own sake. John Cage reigned as a hero (in fact, he is one of mine) and yet I thought the influence was taken too literally. Even Cage had a story to tell. He was a masterful, masterful storyteller. You just go read.

Sidecar was a product of my years as a graduate student, and at first it felt somewhat illicit. We were concerned with creating an over-arching "story" for the listener. Although we did not actually want to tell the story, to bash you over the head with who the characters were, or what the setting was, we did at least want to suggest, in our through-composed performance, that our settings of various songs had a complete and "storied" intent. At one point, I described Sidecar's work as a "suggested narrative." I give you scissors, butterflies, and the fleeting reference to a nursery rhyme...and you--viewer, listener--put something together in your head that resembles or approaches a story, for you, in 2007. There have been moments when this works gloriously. The highest compliment I received this summer was from someone who viewed one of Sidecar's performances and remarked, "I felt that there was a story...I can't quite tell you what it was...but I didn't really care either." That was exactly my intent!

After two years at Mills, I shied away from talking about story for a very long time, in the way that those of us who have loved openly and wildly are afraid to love again, in the way that adults who had bad experiences studying piano as children are afraid to take it up again. This summer, however, between Sidecar and The Children's Hour and a secret inspiration, I returned to story with unashamed commitment. The old scar runs deep, much deeper than that one on my finger, but the story is worth it, worth every reminder.


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