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Believe It Or Not, I’m Walking on Air

Last week, I polled my friends about what their flying dreams were like. I got a range of different answers including:

The thing is…. I do fly

In my flying dreams, I always fly well in the beginning, and then I loose the ability

my flying dreams are more that my legs can, if i want, be held above the ground indefinitely.

If I try to abandon the rivers or train tracks I am no longer able to fly at all.

I did some research and came up with this description of flying from a letter that Wilbur Wright sent to the Smithsonian Institute in 1899 as he began his research on flight with his brother, Orville (it should be no wonder that these two men met with success in their lives–their names are exquisite!)

Birds are the most perfectly trained gymnasts in the world and are specially well fitted for their work, and it may be that man will never equal them, but no one who has watched a bird chasing an insect or another bird can doubt that feats are preformed which require three or four times the effort required in ordinary flight.

I am struck by the sheer audacity of Wilbur’s tone as he belittles the people who idolize “ordinary flight.” There is something kind of disturbing about someone who writes to a scientific agency (the Smithsonian) to request literature on aeronautics and then precedes to infer his own intellectual superiority.

Gets me thinking about human flight and the connections to attitude that generally characterize the quest to “take off.” There is the age-old story of Icarus whose hubris seals his fate. And there is a new movie out about Amelia Earhart and her dynamic aviatrix persona (spoiler alert: she gets lost, see Icarus). But there are also more fantastic stories like those associated with superheroes-Superman’s ability to fly comes at the cost of loneliness.

My personal preference, or at least the scenario that regularly appears in my dreams, is that flight is unexpected. Just when I need to outrun the home invaders who are chasing me with rubber belts (!), I gently levitate off the ground, rounding my back and dangling my limbs in uncertain attempts to balance myself. This may be due to some Freudian-inspired insecurities, or maybe a remembrance of a time when flight (or any desire to reach great heights) was not bold and haughty, but clumsy and awkward. This image of “The Greatest American Hero” a campy, Pink Panther-inspired romp from the 80’s might capture best of all this childlike attitude of wonder. Which leads me to question “Is solving problems good for the imagination?”

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Virtual Madeleines

In the wake of my son’s birth almost 17 months ago, I found myself gladly homebound amidst the dizzying adventures of parenthood. I also found myself making much more use of my skype and my facebook accounts, seeing as how they allowed me stay in touch with all my friends and family even with a sleeping infant on my lap. This got me to thinking about the common knowledge that technology is a grand thing. After all, without my web camera, my parents would have been in Brooklyn more frequently than we could have stood for.

Despite this appreciation, though, I also am old enough to remember when email first emerged as a means of communication, and a time when google wasn’t the defacto search engine (whatever happened to excite?). This means that I have also been privvy to the skepticism about all things internet: Instant messaging will kill conversation; email will kill snail mail; mp3 trading will kill high fidelity audio. The gist of this perspective has always been that technology is some kind of mass murderer, stalking the territory of the traditional arts with a bloodied kitchen knife.

Of course, this has turned out to be untrue, but for different reasons than I would have thought.

Take for instance the discovery I made recently when I mistakenly entered my childhood address into google maps. I haven’t lived in my childhood house for 15 years, and my father moved out 12 years ago, but there I was staring at a satellite image of the japanese maple that my dad, brother and I transplanted from the backyard to the front on a long and hot Sunday afternoon….

I was deeply affected by the site of my old house from above. I suddenly wanted to explore my backyard again and squeeze through the fence to the alleyway, school and field behind it.

And then I noticed the creek where my brother and I used to look for crayfish under algae-slickened rocks. We would take turns leaping from rock to rock in the shallower areas, so that when we invariably fell in, we got only our pant cuffs wet.

I was so moved by the memories of these places that I felt compelled to visit this area on a recent trip home and take some photos. I didn’t see my house so much as I visited the dark and decrepit alleyway behind it (It was clear that the original wood is still holding up the alley wall because someone had erected a fence to prevent the walls from caving in). I also when to the creek, where a pvc pipe now links one bank to the other, probably as a means to drain the still swampy field.

So, as I track the serial killer instincts of the internet, I am also keeping my eye on its Proustian cousin, dangling collections of memories and unsuspecting views in front of my eyes at every turn. If I am urged to action in the physical world because of a chance encounter online, I count my computer not as a taker of life, but as a giver of one.

Book of Notions Concert – Saturday October 17

If you are free, come check out this concert featuring selections from “Book of Notions” which I will be performing with pianist, Emily Manzo. Click here for a preview of some of the music from a concert last spring.

Lost Ideas – Walking and Sounding

Grand Central Grid

When I sifted through my composition journal over the weekend, I came upon this loose thread of an idea that still resonates with me. As is often the case, this piece began with an image that I translated into the above collage:

Just as the rush hour crowds have safely made their trains, and the terminal creaks towards the evening, schools of people walk together and then away, gently sensing their proximity to each other. They shift with the shuffling stragglers, altering their paths as they hear the possibility of a unity, each one of them sounding …

The idea I had was to have individuals walking around Grand Central terminal with handheld devices that sensed their proximity to other people with similar devices and reacted sonically to the degree of proximity. (In consultation with some engineers, I figured this could be done with iPhones, though I am still not thrilled with the idea that participation would be solely based on ones entry into the trendy tech world.)

As I continue to think about this piece I have rediscovered a piece called Vespers by Alvin Lucier that has performers moving around a dark room with echo-locators, modeled after the behavior of bats. I also have given some thoughts to something Anthony Braxton calls the friendly experiencer, where the listener actually controls his/her own experience of the music by adjusting their own position in a listening environment.

These are both fluid and interesting approaches to the possibilities of walking and sounding, and I know from my interactions with these two artists that they are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential impact.

I would like to contribute the possibility that walking and sounding also be considered from the vantage point of choreography. The above image of Grand Central raises the question of whether movement of people in a given space might be dictated by their sound, both in isolation (with headphones) and as a group in relation to one another. I am not necessarily thinking of something like the soundwalks of Janet Cardiff , nor of the derive of the Situationalists. No, the urge to organize movement through sound comes from a more base desire to create group formations, not unlike those of the brilliant Hollywood choregrapher, Busby Berkeley.

Busby Berkeley

Having now gone down this road, perhaps this approach seems slightly manipulative, but I am hoping this is a necessary step on the way to something more subtle. Stay tuned…

Sol Lewitt and the Gentle Serialism

Wall Drawing 146A

All two-part combinations of arcs from corners and sides, and straight, not straight, and broken lines within a 36-inch (90 cm) grid.
June 2000
White crayon on blue wall

These are the extent of Sol Lewitt’s instructions for this stunning piece, which I saw up at Mass Moca two weeks ago. People talk about Sol Lewitt’s conceptualism, and I even bought a button emblazoned with the Lewittian mantra “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” But Wall Drawing 146A strikes me as a dose of good old fashioned serialism. I suppose serialism, on some level, was as much a concept as anything Lewitt imagined, but it has the reputation of being a rigid and prickly concept, quite the opposite of Lewitt’s gregarious, primary-colored inventions. Since I have never really had an interest in serialism in music, it was with some hesitation that I explored the serial aspects of this artwork. And it turned out what I found was in fact a serial process, but also one with a gentler and more intuitive touch.

Here is the key that the installers drew for the larger work on an outside wall, presumably to grant a behind-the-scenes look:

Wall Drawing 146A Key

Wall Drawing 146A Key

Broken down to this straightforward list of materials, the extended piece around the corner starts to seem much more elemental. Instead of the complex tangle of lines, I saw the finite range of combinations. Instead of something without beginning or end, I saw the slow drift from solid lines through curves to dotted lines. The series of combinations ends up being less a dramatic display of wit and ingenuity and more a straightforward list of possibilities.

The neat thing that got me was the fact that the combinations exhaust themselves before they use up all of the wall space. So there are two blank squares at the end of the horizontal plane. I thought the fact that the math didn’t quite work out exactly was a mysterious and lovely part of the piece. And it was further evidence in my mind of a less obsessive serial approach. What a relief to know that all ideas aren’t quite as perfect as they first seem.