Compositions and Rooms

Yawning blankness (Wikimedia Commons)
A few days ago I visited a friend I hadn't seen in nearly a year at his studio apartment in Manhattan. I mentioned to him how I'd like to furnish a place of my own in the future like his: stacks of books, some CDs, a stereo, a desk, and a bed. He replied, "Yeah, most of this furniture is my mom's," which was when I realized we were talking about two different things: the functional, essential trappings of a place, and the contents of a place that you bring to it to define a space.

In college, I remember having my mind mildly blown—puffed?—when a graduate English student shared this factoid, which I haven't verified but like to believe is true: that stanza in the Italian means "room." It's one of those nice, evocative factoids that resonates on its own: that moving through a poem is like moving through a series of distinct but connected spaces. There are single-unit poems, like studio apartments, and then there are poems like The Wasteland: warrens, labyrinths, even dungeons. 

Thinking of musical compositions with space for improvisation as architectures is a popular analogy. Like providing walls and a roof overhead, compositions provide spaces for interaction, for meeting, and for great or terrible or boring things to happen. When I thought about my friend's studio, I was thinking about how the basic, utilitarian layout of his place designated his priorities, which contrasted with how cluttered my room was in college. By having books and music as the main contents of the space, my friend helped streamline the hangout, just like the contents of a composition can guide the directions of improvisations. My room at school, which was more chaotic and occupied, would be more like a tune with a bit too much going on: not only was there too much disjointed stuff to work with, but there wasn't really enough space to move around and do something unintended with it.

Now that I think of it, writing about analogies (and reading about them) can be pretty tiresome. They're useful because they can stimulate new perspectives on thinking about old topics, but they can also unintentionally reinforce truisms and uninterrogated assumptions. As a professor in college reminded me, analogies are most interesting where they don't work or where they only partially work. Those differences are usually good points of exploration: why does this thing differ from its analog, and what can I do with that? 

An obvious point of departure for rooms and compositions is that compositions tend to be diachronic and cyclical: you go through a series of harmonic or thematic spaces in time in a certain order, then repeat. In a studio apartment, you're free to go from the kitchen to the bathroom, or the bed to the kitchen, or the bathroom to the kitchen to the bathroom again if there's something awry in the food. But modular compositions—a format that the band Kneebody has popularized—might be closer to the analogy of free-roaming in a room, so there are ways to bend analogies after the fact.

All of the above might be a way of my procrastinating working on new compositions, but I wanted to trap this little inspiration, as DFW might say, before it got away.

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In other news, Great on Paper has just released some videos of our April 1st show in Boston, which you can view via the NEC YouTube channel. A bit about each:
  • "Straight Face" is a somewhat modular attempt of mine from last summer, which evolved from a composed four-note figure displaced here and there for some rhythmic interest. Also, my beginning attempts to play some soprano.
  • "Her Mom is Here" is a cryptically-titled composition by our bassist, Simón Willson, and is wide open with some loose harmonic schema: sort of like driving through a desert with roads and paths loosely designated in the sand.
  • "Sincere" is a steady, purposefully-phrased melody by our pianist, Isaac Wilson (not related to Simón, to keep the record straight).
I've finally started an email newsletter to keep in touch with friends and elders, having felt the post-collegiate nostalgia pretty acutely in recent weeks. There will allegedly be exclusive, non-AHS content available on this newsletter, plus the de riguer listing of shows, exciting news if it's available, etc., so consider joining even if you're a regular/semi-regular reader here. 

Recent reading has included Stanley Crouch's Kansas City Lightning, a narrative biography of Charlie Parker that highlights Crouch's propensity for showcasing his own voice while setting Bird's life in a culturally rich web of digressions and asides. Worth reading, but I may write more of my own thoughts on this later.

I also recently contributed a bit to Don Cheadle's crowdsourcing campaign for Miles Ahead, the long-awaited biopic of our favorite prince of darkness. As I told friends, even if it ends up not being a great movie, I can't wait to see this actor in the role (this will also be his directorial début).