Last week I was fortunate enough to travel down to LA for some musical tourism based around Bang on a Can and Red Fish Blue Fish playing Steve Reich’s seminal minimalist masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians. This piece of music is embedded and intertwined with numerous memories both visceral and literal, so being able to hear this work in a live setting had a powerful effect on me that was filled with sometimes unexpected reactions and new realizations about the structure and forms explored in the work, and how pieces of music such as this can be reproduced in a live setting. Some of the memories are so caliginous that I don’t even know when they actually occurred or whether my mind merely associates the memorable motives from the piece with particular feelings, types of weather, or shades of light. For example, I get memories of shimmering tree-mottled late-afternoon sunlight rolling through my mind when I hear some sections, but on the other hand on days of the aforementioned variety when I’m out and about I’ll suddenly realize that the long slow shifting lines that help create and shift the sense of time for the listener have arisen in my mind as I’m spacing out looking at a column of trees moving slowly in the breeze. Then there are moments like driving across the desert in Utah when I listened to the work and those are mixed into the collective memory and association as well.
     When I finally was able to hear Music for 18 Musicians on January 18th, the concomitant memories streamed back through my mind concurrently with the changing sections and, combined with the compelling performances on stage, I experienced intense and almost hallucinatory physical reactions that ranged from frequent tears to a general sense of warmth wrapping around me to pressure in my chest. Other times the music seemed to be passing over me in waves as I was frozen in place, arrested with sensation. The combination of ten or fifteen years’ worth of memories with this piece, feeling a bit vulnerable in the friendly but foreign city of Los Angeles, and the extraordinary performance happening before me were what brought on this specific reaction (while simultaneously adding to the collection as well), and yet the experience itself seemed entirely singular at the time - not just another in a long line of vastly interconnected moments.
     Memory, as tangible as it seems sometimes, is, of course, in constant flux - often shaped in our own minds by creating and re-contextualizing for new circumstances we encounter as our lives change or to create a sort of mythology surrounding our experiences as we share them publicly. These self-mythologies have the possibility to shape how others perceive us, and how we interact with the world. Such mythologies abound in the music world. La Monte Young is surely bound up so intricately with creating his own mythology that at some point he became his own mythology, and continued to make work from this new self-created figurehead position that in turn perpetuates his own ever-unfolding self-mythologizing. “A consistent autobiographical trope emerges as one examines La Monte Young’s life and his music,” writes Jeremy Grimshaw in his book on Young, Draw a Straight Line and Follow It, “over and over again, he connects his profoundest musical inspirations as an adult with seemingly banal sonic memories from his childhood: wind, machine, crickets, power poles.” And, on the other end of the musical spectrum, groups like the Wu-Tang Clan have from the start been involved in creating while continuously being involved and interacting with their own self-mythology initially through lyrics, but quickly thereafter clothing lines, Wu-Tang headphones and other goods, as well as a record label spawning dozens of other artists who uphold or at least reinforce the notion of the ever-unfolding new ‘chapters’ in Wu-Tang history - fictional or otherwise. By drawing endless inspiration from Chinese Zen and martial arts history, they draw connecting lines that they use as metaphors for their own struggle leaving the difficult circumstances growing up in Staten Island (Shaolin) to drawing together and exiting to become a force of change (Wu-Tang), and thus the self-perpetuating mythology and collective memory are wrapped up in each other with both sides gaining legitimate credo by employing the historical precedent already set by the story of Kung-Fu.
     When considering these concepts of memory, perception and change, we must consider that the senses are always at work as well, and the way our senses form our concepts of memory and effect every one's interactions are ever-present and culture-specific. And, the interpretations of what those memories mean no matter what the sense are specific to one’s own experiences as well. For instance, while in LA for the aforementioned performance I was having a meeting with Christopher Rountree and Chris Kallmyer of wild Up when for whatever reason I was struck by this memory of eating a rack of ribs at a small (but touristy and famous) BBQ joint in Kansas City which I’ve carried with me for going on three years now. Every so often I’ll sit back and get lost in thinking about eating that rack of ribs. The memory is so incredibly and embarrassingly carnal and stereotypically American that I can hardly bare it, but Chris (Kallmyer) immediately chimed in that he felt that if an animal had been treated right in its life and that in preparation the meat was treated with respect that the taste, experience and subsequent enduring memory could be profound. This idea makes perfect sense, and yet I never would’ve perceived this recurring memory like that, card-carrying-conscious-NW-eater that I am. Still, my own experiences had taken me in a different direction. And, even our own sense of vision which seems so incredibly straightforward has great impact on our world view, collective understanding, and memory creation. Robert Desjarlais, author of Sensory Biographies, notes that for the Yolma wa of Nepal (a small ethnic minority), seeing is perceived in as many as 27 different ways. Complexity and diversity are the norm concerning these matters no matter your cultural circumstance.
     And yet, where does all this lead within the context of composing for me personally? We are all influenced collectively by all the music we’ve ever heard or encounter and choose to emulate, and beyond that our own experiences dictate what some of us consider to be music worthy of influence, music at all, and what should be incorporated into our collective oeuvre and micro-movement incestuous cannon that we inhabit. As of late I’ve realized that the longer I live two blocks from some ship yards here in Seattle, the more I can readily distinguish the various boats and what it is they may be up to, that there are daily, weekly and even seasonal patterns to the different ships horns being sounded, trains wailing in the distance, and trees being whipped around by the wind so close to the water. These sounds seem to have increasingly made their way into my pieces whether by way of field recording or, more frequently, by abstraction. The boats sounding their horns in the distance has transferred readily to Conch shells being played in parking garages and being written into pieces for winds, but bamboo groves rustling have been written very literally into percussion ensemble works. All of these sounds and memories intermingle, while my collective experience filters how I hear sounds and decide to use them. Sometimes it feels as though I’m in charge of what I’m deciding to write, and other times Indra’s net seems too vast to think that I’m actually doing anything at all besides just being; existing as merely a collection of experiences.
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