Flying by Instruments

8/19/17

“Music for me is a great spirit that I have to protect and respect.” – Gabriel Yared

I put out a new collection this month, called ‘Wash the Dusk with Silver,’ named after a line in the poem ‘To the Evening Star’ by William Blake. It was recorded at 4th Street Recording in Santa Monica, California, from March – June 2017, mixed at home in LA, and mastered by Geoff Michael in Ann Arbor, Michigan, near where I grew up. The album keeps my nylon string (classical) guitar at the center, but adds 4th Street’s beautiful 7 foot Yamaha grand piano into the mix, employs the ravishing cello work of my colleague Mark Edward Lewis, and includes elements of electronica, found sounds, percussion, electric guitar and other sonic bits. I even howl at the moon a bit in track 10, ‘Minor Arcana.’

On this album I’ve embraced Eclecticism. I know that this risks a non-specific, hence non registering ‘mere eclecticism’ (as some post-modern musicologists would have it), or embodies ‘post-modern pastiche,’ i.e. a pan-cultural tourism with no real grounding or commitment, but I worked hard to transcend these danger zones, as I feel that I’ve earned and developed a sincere and deeply felt language using aspects of many genres. The thing is: I grew up listening to everything. I don’t have ‘roots’ per se, as there was no music (except perhaps Christmas music), that my family sang or played together, nor was there a particular sound ‘indigenous to’ the  middle-class suburban neighborhood I grew up in. There was no musical roots ‘that reflected the unique and storied culture’ of hanging around the neighborhood pool, or playing catch, or collecting baseball cards, or sledding, etc. We simply had ‘stuff we like,’ pulled in from the radio, the record stores and the library. I grew up in the golden age of AM radio, which was highly eclectic (you’d hear the psychedelia of ‘I Had Too Much To Dream,’ the country of ‘Stand By Your Man,’ the soul of ‘Try a Little Tenderness,’ the easy listening of ‘Born Free,’ the faux-classical of ‘Classical Gas,’ the hard rock of ‘Kick Out the Jams,’ the sunshine pop of ‘Good Vibrations,’ the bubblegum of ‘Dizzy,’ and the folk of ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ all in a half hour) so a kind of once-removed take on pop, rock. soul, r&b, blues, country, bluegrass, jazz, classical is really my most honest wheelhouse. Later on, the ambient music of Brian Eno and Harold Budd, as well as Will Ackerman’s contemplative compositional and playing style made an impression on me.  I’ve tried to bring that all together here. But though these are my musical referents, the tools I use, the actual inspiration for and source of my music isn’t music at all, but life, philosophy, literature, people – non-musical experience.

Though there is a ‘classical’ patina to this album, make no mistake, my only real influence is Rock. I have absolutely no knowledge of any music beyond this ubiquitous genre, and any elements of folk, or classical or jazz or what-not are in truth folk/classical/jazz/or-what-not filtered through what I heard listening to rock music. I would have to say, no matter what your ears may tell you, I’m more influenced by The 1910 Fruitgum Co. or The Lovin’ Spoonful than I am Chopin. It was in the adventurous, sometime Aquarian/Utopian and other times Existential gestures of progressive rock and jazz fusion that I first found my love of music that ventured outside of the verse-chorus-bridge-with-a-hook form of pop, and that I draw my rough, derivative sketches of classical and jazz from. My only direct experience with classical music was my early training as a guitarist. I was taught the basics by learning simplified versions of etudes arranged by Andres Segovia. I often create modal melodies; I’m not sure where they come from but probably began by the massive modal hit to the solar plexus that was George Harrison’s ‘Blue Jay Way,’ as well as countless other sources from experimental-rock and jazz-fusion players absorbed through many herbally inspired listens along the way. I also suspect my Irish, Welsh, Hungarian gypsy blood is lurking in there somewhere as well.

All of my music attempts to convey emotion. It’s most often non-specific; an amalgam of feelings that come forth in a single gesture, but some of my favorite of my pieces somehow embody a very simple feeling; wonder, grief, uncertainty, melancholy, reverie. I’m a romantic by disposition, and it’s always reflected in my music. If I’ve learned anything about myself over the years, it’s that I don’t have a cynical bone in my body, so you won’t find that here. You will find shadows, and angles, and complexities, as well as reveries (maybe too many reveries), and heroics, and urgencies, because I think they’re part of the natural world, and I suppose nature is my model to some extent; I attempt music that models it’s cycles, it’s open endedness, it’s peaks and valleys, it’s terrible beauty and it’s calm infinity. Note that I don’t succeed, but I do attempt. There is also a lot of silence; I like intimate spacious music because it feels comfortable and life-size to me, and also I think the space allows for room for the psyche of the listener to enter into the music. The key sometimes seems to be to intuitively calculate the proper distance between how much music you actually play to telegraph a feeling, and how much you leave out, or how much space you include, to allow the listener to actively travel the distance from the music heard to the feeling in their heart. You don’t want to crowd them out or put too fine a point on it, or they cannot involve themselves in their own personal engagement with it.

Ultimately I’m trying to contribute to the idea of more balance and beauty in the world as an agent for growth, evolution, and improvement. I think somewhere in the mythical Platonic ether there is a relationship between beauty, balanced elements and high morals and fine ideals. I’m a child of counterculture values, and I’ll never think that peace, and love, and mutual flourishing were ‘fads’ of the late sixties. They’re eternal values, and I believe the purpose of the people is to embody a continual striving toward moral excellence, as well as to develop more kindness, compassion, and love. Life is full of hard choices, and I wake up each day, put my feet on the ground, remind myself of my name and where I am standing, and try and keep my eye on the longview. I think that’s why I’m fond of what is called ‘the long line’ in melody; an assemblage of phrases that are distinctive and that form one unified arc together, stretching over 16 – 64 measures. I did a bit more of this ‘composed improvisation’ (i.e. edited improvisation) on my last album ‘Forging the Moonlight,’ but it’s here as well. Unity in variety, variety in unity, a cohesive tapestry of multiple elements.

There is as always a sense of memory, or poignancy, of ‘looking back’ in a number of my pieces. The trap here of course to avoid the whiff of nostalgia, because who needs to hear music that pretends that things were better back then? They weren’t. But I do think age renders us fonder of and kinder toward our early lives, and reflection helps us understand in context more of what it was about. I think it takes a lifetime simply to understand what it was that happened to you, and to with hindsight gather insight as to what in the big picture was contributing to your early life events. I do believe in being very present in the moment, but I’m not a complete advocate of the BE HERE NOW school. I believe that each of us are made of our historical past, and are directed into our respective futures by the tenor of our hopes, dreams, beliefs and aspirations. Our present self stands at the junction between the two, holding on to who we were and moving forward toward who we want to be. So I feel it’s valuable to encourage a looking back with music, as well as a being here now, and also a looking forward. I hope that that’s  audible in some way.

I think music, and art in general is not only a language for expressing the inarticulate speech of the heart, but also a product of pain; a release from pain, an expression of pain, a celebration of finally getting a reprieve from pain, an escape from pain, a consolation for pain, and on. The first tenant of Buddhism is ‘Life is Suffering,’ and I think anyone deep into adulthood knows the truth of this. My music, at it’s core. comes from pain, and attempts to identify with the various dances we do to negotiate a life that works with this essential fact  with grace, intelligence, and honesty. My hope is that by expressing it, providing escape from it, exploring it, and representing it, I can lessen some of it in a listener’s life.

It’s a hard time to be making music. The world has become bitterly divided over ideologies and disagreements over the way forward, and hate has been empowered. Late capitalism has fragmented almost every movement; people are alone and attention spans have shrunk. Very little of our evolutionary impulses gain popular traction and gather into communities and collective gestures. Rebellions are quickly commodified and de-fanged, and the the overwhelming flood that is the ‘age of information’ leaves us overwhelmed, unable to process it all, with choices and viewpoints and options constantly shifting our attention from thing to thing, often contradictory in relevance and depth and context. Context has simply been blown out of the water, and we’re having to construct new contexts within these new speeds and configuarations. I feel sometimes that if I merely offer respite from the turbulent political events of the day, I’m simply providing escapism; ‘fiddling while Rome burns.’ And while a little refuge from trouble is a useful thing, I somehow want to offer more. But how? There is no real instrumental ‘protest’ music, and getting literal with your titles and angry with your rhythm and harmony grows tiresome, but I try and make a sound that reflects the challenge, the trouble, the darkness as well as the light, and provide, in a limited model, the idea of something executed gracefully, and with balance, and inclusiveness, within the limited rules of music, and of the genre and the composition at hand. Some writers, grasping to define a sense of contribution to positive change that instrumental music might have describe it as ‘imagining a future world,’ but I think of it more as the way the tide will smooth and polish a stone through slow constant massage. I think one of the artist’s functions is to continually expose folks to objects of balance, beauty, honesty, and deep feeling, and somehow, in a kind of politics of aesthetics, the exposure to a form containing this balance and beauty will influence the larger, more complicated aspects of life – the psychology, the politics, the sociology, the philosophy; the heart.

I think the counter-culture movement of the late sixties I mentioned above was a spiritual movement, though it sometimes seemed to take the form of a political movement. I think the hippies, the young, the civil rights activists and the utopian and humane in general were feeling the encroachment of the mover toward over-materialism, and starting to feel alienated – cut off from the world. That continues through today. When Nietzsche said ‘God is dead,’ what he meant of course is that with the growing predominance of science and rationality, the grip of and belief in an anthropomorphized creator and all-powerful being was loosening – faith was being encroached upon by skepticism. And the place hardest hit by that is deep in the unconscious and the subconscious, where a place that pure faith can sooth, assure and imbue one with confidence has grown unsure, uneasy, uncentered. And that’s why, beyond it being a moment of great music, that I think the music of the ’60s became so prevalent and vital: it was acting as a spiritual language. People need some kind of representation of the mystery, and of the wider and unknowable truth of life, whether it has a basis in historical truth or not. We need spiritual languages – some way of communicating the higher, unseen feelings. I think music still functions that way today.

There is a Japanese aesthetic called ‘Wabi Sabi,’ which is generally described as: ‘using nature as a model,’ maintaining a rough, unfinished exterior, remaining open ended, and with a sense of spiritual longing and aching beauty.’ I find that I return to these rules often when trying to keep my aesthetic self grounded. But I also believe in the transportive power of the heroic structure, with its linear form, and narrative, and as many pieces of mine carry out this kind of narrative heroes journey as well, with builds, and peaks, nods to the golden mean, and other western ideas of form and beauty. I haven’t measured, but I believe I about split the difference.

The best an artist can hope for is to achieve an integrity where his or her world view is reflected in their work. I feel that eclecticism is ultimately saying that we are all in this together, and we’re going to have to figure out a way to live together, inclusively, and with room for and open hearts and acceptance toward all people, of all kinds. That the world, despite the blindness and fear of some, is multi-cultural. The world is all of ours. We all breathe the same air, and face the pain of living together, and the differences are ultimately superficial.

In William Blake’s poem ‘To the Evening Star,’ the evening star ‘washes the dusk with silver,’ to provide light during the darkness, so that one can still find one’s way. I offer my best wishes to you in finding your way and keeping a hold on your soul and your self in these undeniably dark times.

Beyond all these words and theories, philosophy and definitions and high-minded intentions, most folks that take the time to write and tell me they enjoy the new album, simply tell me they find the music ‘very relaxing.’ That’s good enough for me.

Tom