Geography, travel, and place are always major subjects in verbal explications of my music. I’ve titled many pieces after places, an approach that might be called “personal cartography”—an artistic endeavor to map not the places’ objective characteristics but their subjective significances and resonances. The places provide the poetic impetus, and the music represents something about the experience of being in the place. My music is centrally about the creation of atmosphere, and I borrow the atmospheric ideas and subtleties I need from the places. Cautiously I quote Emily Dickinson: “Nature is a haunted house—but Art—a house that tries to be haunted.” Places are full of ghosts. If I can catch a few of them and get them across in the music, I’ve done my job.
This mindset has accustomed me to beginning from abstract ideas and impressions, so I often find it unnerving to approach a composition whose form and content are regulated by a pre-existing text. How can I make this nascent music personal and necessary with another individual’s meticulously crafted thoughts and presence already occupying the space?
This all had me pretty anxious when I first took on the Ars Poetica project, but during the spring, before I wrote the music for The Accounts, I began to consider some alternate cartographical analogies for composition. What if there were no physical place involved, but the music itself, as we travel through it in performance, were a place? And then the score becomes a map the musicians and listeners use to explore this invented sonic landscape.
I recall telling my parents at about age six that I wanted to make maps when I grew up. So this idea appealed to me very much.
I wrote the first draft in May. I had a summer gig lined up leading wilderness expeditions in New Mexico, so just days after finishing the music I threw everything in the back of my car and plowed west across the country. By early June I found myself at the base camp of Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions in Thoreau, New Mexico, way up in the high desert. A few days in, a couple guys recruited me (and my vehicle) for a day trip to an isolated canyon full of fantastical hoodoo formations. Did I mention that it’s isolated? It’s outrageously isolated. This is one of those places you would never, never, find if you weren’t traveling with someone who knew exactly where it was. There are no signs. You’re on your own finding this place.
But of course we had a map! It was a beaut, too. I still have it. It was scrawled in Sharpie on the back of a brown paper sack. It included a drawing of base camp with figures standing outside. It was missing road numbers, distances were relative, scale was of course not at all considered. It featured vital landmarks such as “castle-shaped rock”; it sported the occasional question mark.
Oh, it was wonderful. We drove off into that lunar desert landscape and followed our map past unbelievable homestead ruins, old hogans with roofs caved in, decades-old broken down refrigerators, one mysterious windmill. We drove into the great emptiness so characteristic of the West, the space that still enflames the American imagination. The final landmark is a tire on a pole. You turn left into the chaparral a little ways past that, and Bob’s your uncle there you are.
Now, this all accorded quite tastily with the aesthetics and musical politics that were presently informing my cartographical exploits. I was and remain satisfied that The Accounts offers the explorer only a loose map to follow. The notation and the textures are sparse. The vocal line is simple, almost wandering, but always within strict registral and modal constraints. The composer Erik Satie said of his piece Socrate that he “meant it to be white”—similarly, I meant The Accounts to be totally, completely transparent. I want everyone to see straight to the base of it. It has nothing to hide.
I won’t deny that I’m occasionally skeptical of the whole text-setting modus. Composers are so often tempted to do way too much, and in the case of text setting that way-too-much happens to the poor poetry, which rarely deserves such hassling and almost never improves as a result. I suppose I shouldn’t feign the ability, or even the inclination, to improve Katie Peterson’s words. My aim was simply to amplify their atmosphere without obscuring their essential character and purity. The first thing I knew I needed to do was get out of the way. Composers rarely do this. It’s difficult. But I knew it would do no good to splash my own personality all over this sad, complex, and beautiful collection of words.
The role of the voice, of course, was and is the most important element. I didn’t want to litter the vocal line with dynamics and phrase markings and dictated inflections. I wanted naturalness, flow. I didn’t want a kaleidoscopic multiverse of emotional nuances within each line of text. I wanted an authentic, steady state. Composers look at a note or chord and see so many possibilities, but as listeners all of us are basically capable of experiencing only one at a time, and that’s what I present here: carefully honed, deliberately ambiguous emotional and atmospheric planes that stick around long enough for you to get a sense for them before they float off and the journey continues.
The band is crucial, too, because music at its most fundamental—and at its highest level of evolution—is primarily a social activity, and I wanted the performers to really and truly act as part of the collective experience. The listeners, too. I want everyone in the room going somewhere together, trying to decode this odd and fanciful little map, arguing about whether to trust it, about whether that big mesa over there is the promised “castle-shaped rock.” Everyone involving themselves in the process of living together in this space. Everyone seeing—hearing—this landscape for the first time.
Because it’s important to know where you are and where you’re going, but no one wants to go on a road trip with every detail of the route planned in advance. Everyone wants the opportunity to see a sign for the World’s Largest Cross Made Of Waffles and demand that the driver pull over. We all need some space for spontaneity, for serendipity, for the unintentional and evanescent bliss of experience.
The composer Louis Andriessen once wrote that he did not find Mahler’s music compelling because he was always being compelled by it. As the composer of The Accounts I have no particular requests or demands for the listener; I seek to compel no one. I merely, humbly, offer the traveler a place to experience. Not a physical place but an incorporeal, a cosmic one, a place I visited when I read Katie Peterson’s poetry. I hope you see things there.