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Two Weeks at Music Camp

AN INTERNATIONAL MUSICIANS’ RESIDENCY PROGRAM IN UPSTATE NEW YORK RECRUITS JAZZ MUSICIANS “AS WIDELY DEFINED AS POSSIBLE”—SO WIDELY, IN FACT, THAT THESE DAYS EVEN A GUITAR-PLAYING FICTION WRITER QUALIFIES.
DISCUSSED
The Worst Musician, Guitar as a Constant Companion, The Wingdale Community Singers, Resonant Grain Silos, Just Intonation, Professional Minglers, Banging on Sculptures, Folk on the Way to a Funeral, Johnny Cash, Jazz Anxiety, Flamenco Genius, Dental Diseases, Mutual Assured Ridicule
by Rick Moody
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Two Weeks at Music Camp

Rick Moody
11 Snaps

August 2, 2007

It’s about two in the afternoon on the day that I’m due at Music Omi, but instead of pulling into the driveway, I’m thirty miles away at the Blandford Plaza rest area. Killing time. It’s ninety-four degrees according to the car thermometer, and I’m watching the travelers of the interstate come and go in search of donuts. I’m doing this for the simple reason that I’m -anxious about music camp. I’m more than anxious. It’s like the first day of school. I’m going to be forty-six soon, and I have a mortgage to pay and a novel to write, but instead of attending to these responsibilities I’m going to music camp. Back when I was a kid, I went to the sort of camp where you played soccer and tennis. I sang a little bit on the side. Probably I always wanted to go to music camp, but I just wasn’t musical enough.

I’m still not. My assumption is that at Music Omi I will be by far the worst musician. I have put no shortage of effort into being a musician—it’s my fervent hobby. But this has been an inconsistent effort, amounting to three years of piano lessons, a couple of years of voice (in my teens), and a couple of years of violin lessons after I turned forty. Despite the modesty of my musical education, I have played furiously, devotedly, especially on the guitar (at which I’ve had no lessons at all). Guitar has been my constant companion for a good eighteen or twenty years. In the last four or five, the locus of this guitar playing has been my band, an obscure, rarely performing, and chronically under-earning postmodern folk outfit cal-led the Wingdale Community Singers.

The other musicians coming to Music Omi, however, have impressive résumés. They compose for orchestras, or they play jazz in combos (just the word jazz makes me uncomfortable, as does combo), or they are expert on Central Asian instruments that I don’t know anything about. What can I bring to this group, besides being a guy who ob-serves—like George Plimpton sitting in with the orchestra and plinking a triangle—I have no idea. That’s why I’m in the Blandford Plaza rest area. A group of girls wearing athletic medals amble past. They are fresh-faced, pretty, somewhat feral looking. They would mow down any and all competition. Is this what the musicians will be like?

 

August 3

My room is a duplex! Even though I’m not doing anything with the loft-bed part of it beside stowing my guitar cases, there is something gratifying about being able to say I inhabit a duplex. Otherwise, save for the absence of air–conditioning, my room at Omi is pretty great. Nice desk, bed, WiFi, phone. There’s even cell coverage, despite the fact that I am surrounded by the rolling farmlands of the Hudson Valley. The Omi complex also features a pool, which, upon unpacking, came in handy.

I spent the afternoon unloading and waiting around for the -others, many of them coming by train from New York City. I met a couple of drummers, a bass player, a keyboardist/composer (there are a couple of these in residence), as well as a woman from South Africa, Cobi, who maintains that her instrument is “the world.” This seemed to me a refreshingly evasive answer to the getting-to-know-you questions. I waved at Jeffrey Lependorf, the director of the program (as well as an alumnus), as he hustled past, and chatted with Adam Simmons, our resident player/manager (official title: “guest mentor”), both of whom are virtuosi on the shakuhachi, the very difficult Japanese bamboo flute. The aforementioned German double bass player is called Sebastian, and he lives beneath me in the dorm. Upon settling in, he began tuning up and bowing in a way that was, even overheard, luminously beautiful. Soon there were drums coming from somewhere too.

Just before dinner, my friend and Wingdales bandmate Nina Katchadourian turned up. She’s here with her Balinese gender wayang as well as various other instruments. The two of us made our way down to one of the silos on the Art Omi property. Grain silos are resonant, as you can imagine, and so they are exciting places to sing. They’re also full of pigeon droppings, pigeons, bats, assorted other wildlife, and so the music is punctuated occasionally by a mad flapping of wings. You have to get your entrances and exits exactly right or the reverb muddles the whole experience, but it’s still incredibly fun. (For some reason, right from the beginning, we sang a lot of rounds in the silos.) Meanwhile, it’s good to have a close friend here. Will it inhibit my ability to get to know other people? I always avoid getting to know -people—the legacy of having been a shy kid. I hope I will do better.

There were two tables at the first dinner. At the other table, Chris Chalfant, one of the pianist/composers, discoursed on La Monte Young, Pandit Pran Nath, and the tuning standard known as just intonation. These are subjects about which I have passionate feelings. At my table, Jeffrey Lependorf recounted the specifics of his former career as a professional mingler in Tokyo. In Tokyo, perhaps this profession is not so far-fetched. Among us was a Japanese composer, Sumiko, who sat patiently through the story, without defending the cultural necessity of minglers. Was she just being generous?

In the dwindling light after dessert, Nina and I went to look at the sculpture park. Omi is well known for its sculpture park, the Fields, which amounts to a generous several hundred acres. Some of the pieces are owned, and the rest are on consignment. They stay here for a while, they move on to some other collection. A number of the big minimalist pieces on display are stunningly good. Jeffrey, and others, however, have expressed grave reservations about the giant heads that abut the county road, and Nina and I wanted to formulate an opinion. It was coming on night, though. I was banging on all the sculptures, which I was later told not to do. But I was trying to see how they sounded.

 

August 4

What I did yesterday—instead of getting to know people—was go to a memorial service. My stepmother’s mother died some weeks ago. A woman of dry wit and solidity, a woman who’d been frank about the fact that she’d lived longer than she needed to. There was lots of sorrow at the funeral, naturally. But not much of it was of the openly weeping sort.

On the way down, I listened to a brace of folk music CDs. Traditional Irish stuff. Woody Guthrie. Johnny Cash’s recording of hymns from his mother’s hymnbook. The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I ended up playing the Byrds’ cover of the Louvin -Brothers’ song, “The Christian Life,” about fifteen times. Because I am a negligent and skeptical Christian? Well, it’s an incredibly uncool song, notwithstanding having been sung by Gram Parsons (on the record in question), but it’s a beautiful song anyhow, with great potential for harmonies, and I am bent on teaching it to some fellow musicians at Music Omi, despite its limpid folkiness.

When I got back, it was time for people to begin presenting their work. A name was picked from a hat, and that musician played two or three compositions, after which there was discussion. A timer went off at the twenty-minute mark to indicate that this presentation was now complete. The featured musician then picked the next name out of the hat. And so forth. We did five of these presentations last night. My friend Nina went first, followed by Jeffrey Lependorf, David Freeman, Nuala Kennedy, and Nadje Noordhuis. What was fascinating was the range of the styles and interests. Nina comes out of visual and sound art. She played pieces from some of her sound installations, and one song (she’s a gifted songwriter). David, who is a jazz drummer and student of the tabla and all-around nice guy, played some lovely improvised “orchestral” pieces for strings, sitar, piano, and percussion. Nua-la is a virtuoso of tin whistle and flute, and operates mainly in a traditionally Irish idiom. And Nadje is, on the basis of what she played last night, a jazz trumpeter (and flugelhorn player) who is possessed of spectacular tone. Her compositions varied from some ECM-style pieces to something that sounded more like New Orleans.

 

August 5

guess I have deep insecurity around jazz players. Jazz really is the new classical, in that its practitioners (of whom there are four or five here) are technically superlative and not unaware of this. It’s intimidating. I find myself comfortable enough and consonant with the people who are working out of the traditions of minimalism and experimental new music, but I guess because I can’t play jazz, am simply not good enough, jazz players are a tough crowd. Jeffrey, when charging us with our mission last night, said something about how important it was for everyone to work outside of the styles to which they are accustomed. But the jazz players seem happiest with each other.

This jazz anxiety persisted as we sat through some more presentations. A number of them were particularly impressive, like Sebastian Gramss’s meta-jazz compositions that, e.g., mimicked the sound of a jazz CD skipping. Christian Pincock showed a video of something called Soundpainting, a very gestural conducting style that involves visual cuing of improvisation. It was as much dance and theater as music, and as such it was very entertaining. I was also really taken with Jacek Kochan’s electronic music/jazz hybrid, at the forefront of which was his incredibly beautiful and skittery drumming. He’s like Keith Moon if Moon had done some time in the loft-music movement. In fact, there was little that I didn’t like from the presentations. Everybody had some quirky, creative aspect to what he or she was doing.

I had a stubborn sense, though, that I was still somehow illegitimate. This illegitimacy persisted into the moment when I had to do my own presentation, which involved excerpts from spoken word things I have made over the years, and then one new recording by my band.
I had assumed that the serious players would look down on the homely folk musician origins of what I do as a songwriter. But they were reasonably supportive. In fact, I was a little surprised at how supportive they were.

Meanwhile, let me point out that there are deer on the grounds. A lot of them.

 

August 7

Yesterday we served as an orchestra for Christian Pincock’s Soundpainting demo. We labored in this capacity for more than three hours, going through some of the elemental gestures—about forty of the eight hundred possible signs. What the other seven hundred and sixty do, I can’t imagine. As to instrumentation: percussion, some winds, and a string section consisting of myself (on guitar) and Sebastian on stand-up bass. Then there were a whole lot of vocalists, including Philippe Guidat, the awesome flamenco guitarist, who, for some reason, didn’t want to play his instrument. It was a genuine honor to work in the rhythm section next to Sebastian. He’s such a beautiful player—so versatile, with such remarkable melodic sense. He makes everyone else sound good. I was also really interested in Christian’s choices in directing the players. The bench is deep, as they say. Adam, Nadje, Philippe, Jeffrey, Sumiko, Nuala, they’re all great improvisers. Christian can use one player for a wild solo—Adam on sax, e.g.—and move on to another soloist who is just as inventive.

We were all really tired out by Soundpainting, though. It requires a huge amount of attention. There was some resistance to the discipline, some grumbling, and I understand the feeling. People want to play. They don’t want instructions. It’s worth pointing out, though, that Soundpainting was optional. No one was required to sit in. I expect attendance will be less universal going forward. And I may have to move from the guitar seat and work as a vocalist. I’ve been resisting that, notwithstanding the presence of a flamenco genius, because I’m trying to stretch, as per our instructions.

After dinner, we all went for a walk on the roads around the property, in the darkest dark. There was an immensity of stars. And grandly singing bullfrogs.

 

August 8

Yoga class at eleven. There are studies on the efficacy of yoga and meditation for composers. I can also recommend yoga for shutting down the music-on-the-brain phenomenon that afflicts here. Songs and fragments of music are caroming in my brain all the time now, to the point that this inhibits my sleep. I have also experienced something like piano satiation, an illness characterized by a total aversion to hearing a piano in the distance after playing music for six or eight hours a day. Sometimes, you know, no sound is its own kind of music. Others are reporting similar phenomena. Yoga seems to help.

After lunch Jacek, the drummer; Nina; Sumiko, the pianist; Sebastian, the bass player, and I all went into the nearby town of Chatham to pick up Sebastian’s repaired bass. I needed guitar supplies as well. (Soundpainting is destroying all my picks.) Chatham is the next town over, and there’s not much there there. A few bars and a couple of antique stores of the variety that seem endemic to the Hudson Valley. The music store owners were friendly and let us play expensive guitars and mandolins. Sebastian, it seems, is playing a very substandard rented bass, and despite the fact that it sounds great through the floorboards, he has already been twice to have it repaired. That he can make anything good come out of it is a testament to his skills.

In general, smaller ensembles have broken out in the larger pool of Omi musicians. I am not in any of the more virtuosic groups. This is perhaps a feeling that many of the others are dealing with as well. Nina and I have been working on songs every day and have amassed a generous helping very quickly. We also worked out an easy one that is simply a list of dental diseases. It is not full of pathos, but it amuses. And last night after dinner the two of us finally managed to lure the Irish music maven, Nuala Kennedy, into playing with us for a bit. We worked out “Death Is Only a Dream,” a Carter Family song that the Wingdales cover. “The Christian Life” did, as I hoped, successfully make the journey back with me from the funeral in Connec-ticut. And then Nuala taught us “The Parting Glass,” a devastating lost-love ballad that the Clancy Brothers once recorded (among many others), and which has the totally inconsolable quality that I associate with Irish music. We got a nice three-part arrangement down. Then Philippe sat in and contributed some guitar parts.

Earlier, we also had an ear–training workshop offered by a -German jazz vibraphonist, Karl Berger. Karl and his partner, Ingrid Sertso, had us clapping in sevens and singing -African-inflected melodies over the top, that we might better explore some of the elements common to all styles of music. That was the concept. They were earthy, parental figures, unworried about contemporary trends or musical idioms, and this was winning. Karl and Ingrid used to run a music conference, Creative Music Studio, in nearby Woodstock, which involved residences by jazz composers like Anthony Braxton, Don Cherry, and Ornette Coleman. Their musical exercises evolved from that experience. Among Karl’s choice bits of wisdom: “If you find yourself, while improvising, believing you know what you’re going to do next, don’t play that. I’m a captive audience for anyone who insists that the ’60s were especially creative, so I enjoyed Karl’s easygoing countercultural spiel. And playing in sevens is good for any musician. Even the drummers in the room fucked up once or twice.

 

August 9

It’s coming on a week since we got here, and maybe the bloom is being sundered from the rose. We’re nearly halfway to our public concerts and we’re therefore trying to organize ourselves into legitimate performing entities. With limited success, in some cases. Maybe we’ve just grown tired of each other. I had a day of just total poverty of imagination about music. I helped Nina work on a good new song, and I sang a bit more Irish folk music with Nuala Kennedy in the evening, but other than that I sulked.

In the morning we worked in another conducting style, as articulated by Adam Simmons. This technique is called Conduction, and it’s quite a bit less gestural than Soundpainting. I think the composer Butch Morris is the avatar of the style. Unlike Soundpainting, Conduction makes use of an actual -baton. Players are told simply to play, and others are told to attempt to follow them and that’s pretty much it. This performance was far looser, which felt nice. And there’s an interesting gesture in Conduction: the conductor makes a sort of squiggly sine wave with the baton. You’re meant just to try to follow, instrumentally, the twists and turns, the particularities of his gesture. This seemed emblematic of the whole. Some colleagues dropped out of this particular exercise—tired of direction, I suppose, or because they had other pieces to work on. Those who remained were -really into attempting to make something of the group sound. Adam directed me to attempt a guitar solo over some beautiful bass playing by Sebastian Gramss. This felt challenging, to say the least. And yet perhaps I did not totally humiliate myself. Later, there was a satisfying portion of things wherein Sebastian came up with a sort of death-metal bass line, and various instrumental voices were cued to attempt to follow. There’s a memory function in Conduction (as with Soundpainting), so Adam kept leading us out of death metal, giving us a few bars of something else, and then starting anew with Morbid Angel. What could be better?

 

August 10

I woke with a genuine musical idea. Or this is how it seemed to me. The back story is: Sebastian, in his role as composer, had asked if I had an Ebow with me here. An Ebow, for the non-specialists, is a sort of electronic magnet that you can use on your guitar to enable it to play long tones, such as a violin or a cello might. Most acoustic players are not terribly cozy with the Ebow. I don’t have one with me and rarely do. However, I am in possession, here at Omi, of a genuine violin, the one that I have been attempting to learn for five years. The idea that I woke up with was that it would be fun to try to bow my acoustic guitar, Jimmy Page style. Thus, before breakfast, I got the guitar out of the case, likewise the bow, and I started trying to make the two work together. My violin lessons have given me enough bow dexterity to come up with something. I was excited to tell Sebastian about the discovery.

This I did at lunch. Sebastian was reasonably enthusiastic about the possibility of bowed acoustic guitar at his rehearsal. And that night I also had a promising conversation with Adam Simmons about what to do for the upcoming Music Omi concert. As of this day, it seemed, we had all stopped jamming and had begun worrying about playing live before audiences, which we are to do very soon. I’d been thinking I wanted to use the entire ensemble for some kind of spoken word extravaganza. I even imagined music cued to certain words, so that people would have to freak out, or engage in pointillism, as Christian Pincock says (when Soundpainting). Adam and Jacek Kochan had some good ideas about how this might be carried out, and Christian was there, too, trying to encourage live electronic sampling of vocals. I was inspired by the conversation, even though there were more ideas contained in it than I could likely fit into my allotted six minutes of concert time. At the end of the conversation, Jacek invited me to try to do a duet piece with him: voice/drums/electronics.

Then: some more singing with Nuala Kennedy and a ringer, a former Music Omi resident who’d come back for a visit. With this ensemble, we achieved some fine harmonies. After which I went down to Christian’s music studio, where he and the other digital music aficionado, Cobi van Tonder, have made a sort of electronic music lair in the big barn at the edge of the Omi property. Bats and mildew! Cables everywhere! Alas, Christian’s computer had crashed.

 

August 11

It poured rain. A heaviness to everyone’s energy levels. Still, we had a really great morning rehearsal with Sebastian for his concert piece. With eyes closed, we were directed to play so slowly and in such a spare way as to be able to hear every other player. Since we number fourteen when we’re all here, this is a lot to listen to, but eventually I felt like we were getting there. Even sounds that were being played very subtly, like my acoustic guitar and Cobi’s gentle washes of electronics, eventually became audible. Of special in-terest to me, though, was Sebastian’s comment that there’s a moment in a construction like this when the ear suddenly wants more. That’s the point that you have to start playing with the other musicians. After we pursued this meditative approach, we attempted a further exercise, in a circle, in which each musician was meant to play an unpitched note as quickly as feasible after the person to his or her left. It was great how this fell into a time signature (in fourteens). There were spots that were faster and spots that were slower, almost predictably so. And surges in dynamics. You really had to listen.

After Sebastian’s rehearsal (and some bowed acoustic guitar playing), I went to write some words for the collaboration with Jacek. He is a very gracious man from Krakow, who has flawless English, and who has spent time in the jazz and funk demimondes of nearly every Western city where there is such a thing. He’s a very placid, cool guy, but is also supportive and funny. It’s thrilling to see him get excited, which he does occasionally, like when we sang Beatles songs around the piano last night. What he and I did today was sit in his little pigeon coop down by the barn and work on this instantaneous lyric of mine, a bunch of sentences completely organized around how they sound. The grim, rainy day was perfectly calibrated for Jacek’s accompaniment, as it was evolving, which featured a lot of dark, enveloping electronic noise.

The rain was also good for a trip to the Rodgers Book Barn of Hillsdale, which is just what you’d expect: a two-story upstate barn filled to the rafters with used books, some of them quite good. On the way, I’m pretty sure I went past the farm where my father used to go hunting when I was a kid. It was in the midst of one of those trips that, on Route 22, I first gazed upon the sinister exterior of the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center, a.k.a. Wingdale. Thus, the name of my band.

 

August 12

After yoga, we ambled down to the barn to be conducted by Chris Chalfant, who is from Akron, Ohio, but who wafts with a counterculture–inspired perfume. She might have stepped freshly out of the ashram. I think she was trying to counterpose her meditation-inspired ap-proach to group playing with the more demanding structure of Christian’s Soundpainting. So we played long, open notes for some twenty minutes before she introduced a melodic ele-ment. It was so meditative, in fact, that a couple of the jazz guys fell asleep. Chris remarked that napping was now part of the piece. After we droned on at length, she at last introduced a couple of chords—among which was a B-flat, not the most natural chord for a folk player. We did this two-chord vamp for easily half an hour, and I’m not sure everyone saw the virtue in it. I’m not sure I saw the virtue in it. And yet it was good to get a different perspective, and, for me, to play guitar in the band while keeping my mouth shut.

Later, Nina and I worked on songs out by the pond. Sebastian sat in. It’s true: compositions are improved when played by someone who is faultless on his instrument. Admittedly, Nina has written a very beautiful new song (“Sore Loser”), which sounds a -little like Simon and Garfunkel. The raw material was great. But the addition of the bass improved it substantially. Our harmonies are strong at the moment—from singing together so much. Then, after working with Nina, I headed to Vermont for a party where I would get to see my wife for the first time in a week. I was looking forward to seeing her, as well as our friends up there. I was feeling like I was -really getting something out of Music Omi, something that I was eager to share with my friends at the party. I guess what I was wanting to share was confidence. I was also feeling that my sense of direction, normally very serviceable, was enough that I didn’t actually need the directions to the party. Big mistake.

 

August 13

I got back the next morning just in time for Soundpainting. The Soundpainting ensemble has now dwindled down to six (two guitars, percussion, accordion, saxophone, and trumpet). But as a result we have become ridiculously splashy. Christian seems to take great pleasure in the versatility, the turn-on-a-dime capabilities of the ensemble. Nina, who is playing accordion, had the idea that everyone would bring to rehearsal (without disclosing) a degraded popular song, which he or she could be cued to perform by Christian. I was singing “What a Fool Believes,” e.g., and Jacek, the drummer, was playing, or so he said, “Smoke on the Water.” This exercise introduced a goofy, tonal aspect into the largely noisy, free-jazz feel of Soundpainting (and it eventually resulted in a group obsession with a truly dreadful Japanese pop song called “Gandhara”).

Later, I worked on singing harmonies on Chris Chalfant’s songs. I don’t have any interest in her lyrics, but there’s a sort of folk/gospel/spiritual simplicity to the melodies that is undeniable. I begin to see how being a session musician might be fun. Nina and I applied the same principles by inviting the trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis to play on some of the rough Wingdales recordings we’d been working on. Nadje is such an inventive and tasteful player that she makes it look easy. You say: “Play something big and moving here.” And then she does. That’s what sheer talent sounds like. In two takes, she recorded some lines that made our song exciting all over again. Emboldened, we’ve decided to get Jacek to record some percussion as well.

The afternoon featured a pool party. It’s a shallow pool. So shallow you can’t dive. More like a wading pool. People were wearing plastic visors and other dollar-store items that had been procured for the express purposes of mutual assured ridicule.

In the evening, Jeffrey Lependorf, fearless leader, performed for us the world premiere of  his one-person chamber opera. It’s the musical setting of a podcast about the television program Project Runway. The piece was about an hour long and was very, very witty. I loved it. The singer John Schenkel was great despite the fact that he’d only rehearsed the composition once.

 

August 14

It would be unsympathetic and moralistic of me to chide the couple who are rather publicly romancing, but let me try to talk about it without being unjust. In this case, one of the two, the fellow, is an ebullient and hilarious class clown of a guy. It seems obvious, at least in retrospect, that he would have found a kindred spirit in one of the most effervescent of the women among us. During the period when they were getting to know each other we were all their beneficiaries. People who are falling in love have so much energy to give away, as if it’s a requirement of falling in love that it be witnessed. However, after a particular moment, and I guess which moment this is is obvious, the observable part of the romance is withdrawn. There are fewer and fewer hours in the day for any orbiting bystanders, because the lovers are busy refining and eliminating extraneous interests.

When there are only the fourteen of us here, when the experience of being here is about collaboration, a full-on affair, despite magnanimous intentions, is to the detriment of the whole. People start not showing up for things, or they show up sleepless or badly hungover, etc. In fact, there are a number of musicians here who are not infrequently hungover. I have sympathy with hangovers, with the excess merriment that engenders them, but I resist the celebration of the hangover. As I resist allowing romance to get in the way of work.

That said, we did more Soundpainting stuff today, and then I spent more time trying to count impossible rests in Jacek’s group piece, which sounds like “Fanfare for the Common Man” on ecstasy. Nina and I then went and got ingredients for s’mores (which were not made until our last night upstate), as well as the ingredients for the rocketry experiments that can be undertaken with Mentos and Diet Coke. After dinner, there was more singing, this time Australian folk songs, led by Adam. (And maybe this is the point to note that in contrast to the intensity of the playing during the day, which is often about chops and talent, the playing we did in the evening was canted in the direction of Nina and me, toward, that is, informality and traditional music. The Australian songs were a good example. All of them seemed to be about sheep shearing or drinking. Or they were popularized by this Australian country singer whom Adam loves, a guy with—in the photographs—the worst teeth I have ever seen. Everyone sang with gusto, as they did every night. When it wasn’t Adam teaching us songs, it was Sumiko, or Chris, or Nina, or Nuala. We learned songs in Japanese, Finnish, Afrikaans, and Irish in the course of our evenings, as well as the proper fingering for a tin whistle. In the evening we were all the same kind of musician, we were generalists, and I think it really helped the group cohere better during its more official daylight mission.)

 

August 15

Sebastian Gramss has been attempting for much of Music Omi to get me to speak German, a language of which I know not one word. This seems to date from the moment when I failed, at dinner, to pronounce correctly the words Einstürzende Neubauten. To further the cause, he suggested trying to play along as I read aloud from a book in German—about diet and health. Despite the great potential for humiliation, I gave it a shot. Sebastian always has something beautiful to say with his double bass, no matter the environment. We played in the library, which was lovely. I hadn’t been in the room before, and it’s lined with some fine books. When I was done fumbling in German, we instead set one of these oblique lyrical constructions I’ve been making in the last year or so, entitled “Whatever.”

After that, more Soundpainting. Today I spontaneously broke out a Britney Spears song, in an attempt to try to disarm my peers. And in the afternoon Nina and I went back to working on a long-dormant -project, a cycle of extended vocal technique compositions in which multiple singers attempt to imitate the electronic loops from a little plastic device known as the Buddha Machine. We drafted just about everyone we could get into this project, whether they were singers or not, pressing them into service with headphones and microphone. There was something really intimate about seeing David Freeman, the tabla virtuoso, eyes squeezed shut, attempting to mimic the burblings of the Buddha Machine with nothing but his voice.

 

August 16

We got schedules for the concerts today. And schedules for rehearsals. The next few days look very busy, especially for Adam and Nadje and Sebastian, who are playing on virtually every piece. Now that I’m faced with the end of my time here, I am feeling horror and apprehension about going back to my normal life. Sitting around talking about music and being fed by someone else for two weeks is excellent, and though I have missed my family and my garden and my cats, I am having a very good time. For example, I am having a good time, even when in a rehearsal of Cobi Von Tander’s song “Blow,” Philippe, flamenco genius, gets up during the song and walks over to tell me how to play the barre chords better. I guess I can feel inept and happy at the same time.

Sebastian’s group composition is a bitch, and he has now persuaded me to open and close the composition with little sections of this lyric, “Whatever,” that I used with him yesterday. I’m not doing that well at it yet, because I am having trouble integrating myself into our duet passage while all these amazing musicians are sitting around waiting for their entrances. I trust I will get better. The piece is enormously complicated after our duet, featuring all kinds of electronic interventions and two drummers and a big groove. Sort of like Miles Davis in the Live-Evil period. I don’t want to fuck it up.

 

August 17

At Cobi’s rehearsal in the afternoon, I felt I could have accepted being demoted from guitar if I didn’t think the words of the composition less pungent than they might have been. It’s a Brit pop song, a Cure song, a New Order song, which should have been easy to play and is for me. Not so much for some of the others. The lyrics go: “Blow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow me a kiss, blow me a kiss, before you go,” and so forth. Though there was the risk of hurting her feelings, of seeming impertinent, I offered to make some lyrical suggestions, something I felt too distracted to do, really.

Cobi was followed by a very good Soundpainting rehearsal, and then by another rehearsal of Sebastian’s piece, which I’m still fretting about. Over dinner, Nina and I banged out a new set of lyrics for Cobi’s song. About Lyme disease. Of the old lyrics, Cobi said, in her enthusiastic and hilarious way, “Once I translated them out of Afrikaans, I realized they were really dumb!” I hope we managed to help a little bit.

 

August 18

I earned considerable enmity from Nuala by impugning her ability to count rests during Jacek’s rehearsal. The melody line on this bright, stirring piece is just very difficult to play, and everyone was having trouble counting it, myself most of all. But Nuala was playing the melody first, in tandem with Sebastian on bass. I made the mistake of suggesting to Jacek that maybe he wanted to think of having one of the stronger soloists—like Christian or Adam, both faultless sight readers—do the first iteration of the melody. Nuala looked at me like she wanted to run me through with her flute. I apologized vigorously. But I still feel like an asshole. What the hell do I know? I’ve played gigs in public maybe thirty times in my entire life, and Nuala, in particular, may have played music in public three hundred times. Or three thousand. She opened for the Pogues once.

It’s not that I’m feeling so nervous about the performances. I used to feel very nervous about any Public Display of Music. The night I performed with Syd Straw at Fez, almost ten years ago, the night that inaugurated my adult attempts to play seriously, now that was terrifying. But if I have learned anything here at Music Omi—besides where to chop a wave form on ProTools, or how to count sevens and nines—it’s that I shouldn’t be quite so self-conscious about singing. I will never be Otis Redding, but if I sing with confidence I don’t have to be ashamed. You only get one singing voice, and one span of decades in which to use it. I don’t want to wake up years from now regretting that I couldn’t bring myself to sing.

 

August 19

Slept like shit, and I was therefore up early enough to help lift and carry equipment to the tent where we were going to perform. I hate carry-ing equipment. This is one of the reasons I play in a band without a rhythm section. But laziness is tedious. So we carried equipment for a while, and then when the piano tuner showed up we all scattered until lunch.

This was a brief interval of inactivity, lunch, and yet in the available moments I managed to find another opportunity for despair. The upper layer of my misery adhered to the fact that everyone likes Nina Katchadourian so much and recognizes what a true musical talent she is. More than once in the last couple of days, people have leaned across me at meals to ask her to sing on gigs in New York. Well, here’s another problem: my piece with Jacek always gets short shrift at sound check and at rehearsals, because Jacek and I don’t complain. The result is that we just haven’t -really worked the piece out. These were both selfish issues, but somehow they were enough for me to chew on. I felt a bit better by showtime.

And then the audience arriv-ed, congregating under a hastily erected tent. And so we began, and I was swept into the spectacle of performance. In this way, I finally got to hear everyone’s pieces, some of which had been rehearsed apart from the larger group. There were a few noodly, solo-heavy numbers that didn’t mean that much to me. On the other hand, even with warts, a couple of the ensemble pieces were quite magnificent, for example Jacek’s “Arukoo.” And Cobi’s big finale of the first half, the song now called “Broad,” came out fine. Nina sang two of her own songs. (I sang harmony on one.) The first, especially, a duet for voice and double bass, was incredibly lovely. And my later appearances, on the spoken intro on Sebastian’s ensemble piece, and then during my piece with Jacek, were a lot of fun. Sebastian’s piece was especially great. Splendid, I thought, full of menace and virtuosity. I hope it goes as well on Monday for the second show.

After dinner, which followed the gig, everyone got very sentimental. Nuala performed her “Parting Glass” song again, the old Irish standard that Nina and I sang with her a week or so ago, which, at the advent of parting was, indeed, incredibly sad. Philippe was nearly weeping during it, and he then gave a very moving speech, in French, about how this has been one of the great experiences of his life. I said a few words later myself. What I tried to say was this: When I came to -Music Omi, I had a very particular idea about musicality, and that idea was that if you could play your instrument very quickly and did a lot of practicing of scales then you were a legitimate musician. Of course, I didn’t measure up to that standard myself. But what I found, through the gracious acceptance by the musicians at Music Omi, the acceptance of traditional music idioms, the acceptance of spoken word as a practice, was that there are many ways of being musical, and that commitment is the main quality that is required for music making. Adam Simmons, an incredibly gentle and smart guy, replied that in fact Nina and I had done something to help break the ice at Music Omi, by keeping everyone rooted in old forms. I was moved by this. Adam and I were followed by nearly everyone else in the ensemble speechifying in some form. Sebastian hated the whole thing and kept telling people to shut up. I think in Germany this gesture passes for sentimentality.

Then we went outside to prove that Mentos and Diet Coke really can create spontaneous explosions.

 

August 20

Breakfast with Nina and the curators of the Fields, the Omi sculpture park. As with many such things, the more I knew about how the Fields were curated the less I wanted to know. There’s something about a -naïve apprehension of visual art that makes it that much nobler to me. I don’t really want to know what Donald Judd was like, or that Dan Flavin did nothing but watch television in his later years. I only care about the work. And there really was some great work out there, like Jeff Talman’s sound piece, in which -speakers broadcast an ambient sound–scape in and around a chort-ling stream that runs through the Omi acreage, as well as the piece that involves live sheep.

Or maybe I was sad about leaving. But before I had time to feel sad about it I was gone. I made it home to Fishers Island in just over two and a half hours. And not long after pulling into the driveway I was playing tennis with my dad. Which is a good thing to do when your heart is a little heavy. It wasn’t until nightfall that I felt the ache of music camp past, the ache of knowing that I had a lot of other things to do in the fall, a novel to finish, a bunch of writing assignments, anxieties of every kind.

It was the first day in almost three weeks that I didn’t play my guitar.

 

August 21

During my sentimental drive into New York City for the final Omi show I liked everyone from Omi, and all the recollections were good. Then
I tried to find somewhere to park off Canal Street and had one of those unpleasant transactions with a Russian parking-lot guy.

At sound check, people mumbled Hello as if they’d already seen enough of me. Everyone treated every-one this way. Like it was just another gig. Play and go. Maybe this is how you get after a while. Roulette, where we were to perform, is a small space, and we probably didn’t need many microphones, but even so there weren’t enough to go around. What mics there were kept feeding back. And the electronics were way too loud. And the drums were too loud. The whole atmosphere was petulant and grim. One piece got the lion’s share of rehearsal time, though its conductor seemed a little more interested in how -people looked as they were playing than in the fact that the players were missing their entrances and exits.

On the other hand, sound checks are always awful. Sound check is no predictor of the show. This was the point Jacek made, and he has played a lot of shows. He idles low through it all. At times, I have wanted to shake him and say, but isn’t this nice? But during a bad sound check he is really graceful. What matters, he argues, is what happens the moment after the first piece gets counted in.

Jacek, Nadje, Nina, and I all went to Gourmet Garage for dinner before the show and sat outside watching the models of Soho coming and going. Soho is a neighborhood whose affluence I find unsettling. I remember its art-ghetto days. While we were finishing dinner on a bench, Nina ran across the street into some shop and tried on an overcoat in the doorway, modeling it for us. Price tag: $800. She was going to wait for the sale.

The crowd was good at Roulette. I thought the first couple of pieces were not bad, the jazz–fusion monster from Christian, and Philippe’s world-music suite. We did better on Jacek’s “Arukoo” than we’d done upstate. Nina sang her songs without difficulty, and they were quite beautiful. Then we finished the first half on a bum note, with the somewhat sloppy pop song by Cobi van Tonder. Well, it felt sloppy, but when I listened to the recording of the gig, “Broad” didn’t sound bad at all—in fact, it had a loose-limbed enthusiasm that I enjoyed.

My wife turned up for the show, having missed the first few pieces, and her remark at the intermission was that we really did sound like band camp. She’d had a number of creative metaphors for what I’d been doing these two weeks; band camp was one. The other was Harry Potter. To her, Music Omi sounded like the Harry Potter’s school of wizardry. But without the British class system.

Then the second half of the show went very well. Sebastian’s piece, in which I was featured, was strong, and Jacek and I took the time to let our duet really happen, without feeling rushed. It began to reveal the requisite spookiness. Chris Chalfant operated at something close to the six minutes that she had available to her, making her piece sound much stronger than it had upstate, and Nadje was predictably understated but moving in her elegant quartet. The finale, the Soundpainting demo, was hilarious and spirited, including repeated excerpts from the Japanese pop song “Gandhara.” We finished the show almost half an hour shorter than on Saturday, and we were better for it.

Then we broke down the set. People hustled things into the vans, folded up music stands and mic booms, stowed their guitars or their horns. All at once, Music Omi was genuinely over. We were out on the streets of Soho, heading for Fanelli’s. I forgot, for a moment, that I can’t stand bars, and that I particularly hate that bar, in which I drank back when. I turned back before joining the after party, therefore, and missed the farewells. 

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