The Drug of Exercise

“Exercise is for those who can’t handle drugs and alcohol.”
-Lily Tomlin

Tomlin was right on with that one. As an artist who specializes in experimental music, I’ve seen my share of drugs. They are endemic to my profession, and people have been offering drugs to me since I was in high school. Still, though, I’ve kept them at arm’s length. I tried marijuana during my undergraduate years and I still drink a beer on occasion, but that’s it. Narcotics never interested me and although I’m fascinated by hallucinogenics I’ve never really tried them as I’m not sure how I would react and am not interested in a bad trip.

But I understand why artists use them, especially pot and hallucinogenics. It’s for the Sense of Wonder. Sci fi writers first coined that phrase and it describes that incredible feeling when your entire worldview shifts and you see and feel and think things that are entirely new. For creative people it’s a magical feeling, a drug in its own right, powerfully addictive and alluring.

Of course the main sources of my daily dose of the Sense of Wonder come from composing, practicing, listening to great music, and reading great literature, but in the past four years I’ve gradually come to realize that equally powerful for me is exercise, especially endurance sports.

Four years ago I completed my first sprint triathlon. I didn’t know what I was doing and entered it on a lark and finished third to last, but I had a lot of fun and it was more productive than my usual puttering around the gym. One thing led to another and now four years later I’m averaging about seven races a year, consistently placing in the top third or quarter, training up to 12 hours a week, and working with a team. This passion of mine has become a major lifestyle shift. Now that my body has adapted to the training and the shorter races, I’m seeking bigger and more difficult events. This coming year I’m planning to complete my first 50K trail race, as well as my first 70.3 (half Ironman) triathlon (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run). I also have my sites set on finishing a 50-mile trail race in 2012 and then a 100-mile trail race.

2012? But isn’t it only 2010? Yes, but endurance sports take a lot of careful training to avoid injury and maximize race potential. Indeed, one of the things I like most about this is its cerebral nature. One simply can’t do enough research about training and diet and about the human body. The more one knows, the better one can train and eat and push through physical and mental walls to reach greater heights of human experience.

And that’s where things get interesting. Even as I’ve progressed beyond the beginner stages as an endurance athlete and have become more seasoned, that Sense of Wonder still kicks in, and usually when things have become difficult. When my heart is pounding, and every cell in my body is screaming at me to stop, and every other rational being in the universe would be kicking back on the couch, I’m still going, pushing through walls of pain and exhaustion. Bursting through those walls is an indescribable euphoria. Finishing a tough training day or race produces feelings of incredible power. The world literally looks different. You see your potential. You feel it. And you learn that humans are capable incredible things, way beyond what you might have imagined before you started that race several hours ago.

That is the most powerful drug I’ve found so far, much stronger than regular drugs. And at this point I’m a full on junkie. I build my days around the training–still meeting my obligations as a father, husband, and professional–but if I have to get up at 4:00 a.m. to train I do it. If I have to get my run in after the kids are asleep then I do that. Whatever it takes to get that Sense of Wonder. I think this is why my in the last few years my creative powers have opened up and my percussion playing has gotten better. As I’ve trained my body to withstand longer, more punishing events, I’m more in touch with the Sense of Wonder and my own potential. The Romantic notion of the drug-addled creative genius is false. My creative powers are within me, and I can push them out only with intense, sustained effort. No pill, plant, or drink can do that for me.

Complex Music

A few weeks ago I was sitting next to a friend for a performance of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Capriccio Espagnol. I love that piece. It is a successful piece on many levels and I find a lot of subtlety and nuance in the work. It is a public piece, not the same as, say, Elliott Carter’s music, but that doesn’t make it a less valuable work to me.

My friend clearly felt differently. He was visibly agitated, writhing around in his chair and muttering under his breath something about “this lousy music. . . ” I was a little annoyed at this, but willing to forgive him as he’s one of the most brilliant people I know. I know his tastes and I suspected that the public nature of the piece bothered him. Still, I couldn’t help but be taken back to my negative experience at June in Buffalo 12 years ago, in 1998.

June in Buffalo is a summer music festival that always features at least five “well-known” composers. Each of them gives a two-hour presentation throughout the five days, talking about their music. They all played some recordings, but only two of them really talked about their work. The other three spent the rest of their time complaining about Steve Reich and Philip Glass and what a horrible state classical music was in. It is etched in my mind for all time the moment one of them said that ” . . . Steve Reich and Philip Glass are ruining classical music the way Aaron Copland ruined it a generation before.” There were clearly issues of professional jealousy involved, but mostly the composers seemed bothered by the apparent lack of musical complexity in the music of Glass and Reich and others.

The problem with “musical complexity” is that it usually means various sorts of games and hidden architecture buried in the construction of a piece of music, a Glass Bead Game, if you will, played with notes and rhythms and notational devices. This approach to composing is certainly alluring for bookish intellectuals, and especially for graduate students with a lot of time on their hands, but it rarely reaches a broader audience.

And for good reason. I will shout this from the rooftops until the day I die: the most important elements of any musical composition are STORY and/or FUNCTION and/or RITUAL. Is there a story? If it doesn’t tell a story does it serve a function (e.g. dance music)? Or does it create a ritual experience? Sometimes it can be both a story and a game, as in the music of J.S. Bach, but that’s a happy coincidence of grammar and intent and genius that only happens every few hundred years. But the nature of storytelling is so hardwired into the human psyche that without it people literally can not comprehend what they’re hearing. Ritual is just as important. Rituals define us by marking off the major points in our life, moving us through liminal states to places of stability. This is why early minimalism, though so bare and uncompromising (and actually intensely modernist), gained such a big audience. Those concerts were ritual experiences, putting listeners on a journey through their psyche into new realms of being. And in that sense, the music was quite complex.

The notion of complexity goes far beyond the notes and rhythms. Music is a social activity, and one in which the production of the sounds is as important as the notes on the page. When one considers the interplay of all of those dynamics, a work like Capriccio Espagnol becomes quite complex indeed.

As my friend Caleb Burhans once so perfectly put it: “There’s a big difference between a piece of music theory, and a piece of music.” (Those two areas aren’t mutually exclusive, but that’s yet another conversation.) I’ve seen some composers labor and sweat over their composing for years and hardly write anything at all because they’re working so hard to build an elaborate piece of musical architecture, hoping it will cement their fame in the annals of music history. I imagine them sitting at their desks with a huge poster of Beethoven looming in the background. Sweat pouring down their faces, pencil in a death grip. “Must write masterpiece . . . must write masterpiece . . .” That must be a frustrating way to write music.

For the life of a composer the process is everything. You wake up, you write. If there’s a commission, you fulfill it. If not, then you design your own projects. Some pieces turn out amazing, some don’t, but you just keep writing. Sometimes you get paid, sometimes you don’t. And there are other ways to be creative, too. Maybe you curate events or teach students or play concerts, but one way or another you are actively involved in a life of creating music, not passively playing games with notes and rhythms and notation devices, hoping someone will write an article about you for a music theory journal.

The underground institution of marriage

I was hanging with Chris Norton and Blake Tyson today at PASIC before Blake and I went out in front of 800 percussionists and played Wuorinen (me) and El-Dabh (Blake) and we got talking about our marriages. Blake and Lianna have been married for 15 years. Chris and his wife have been married for 27 years. And Jessica and I for 13 years. For all of us those have all been good years, faithful and committed.

I pointed out that a successful marriage is essentially a counterculture activity nowadays, not so different from the avant garde music that I champion. Hardly anyone does it, and if you’re going to do it you need to really ignore the constant barrage of media and social messaging that encourages you otherwise. Being in a successful marriage in the U.S. in 2010 is like being a hippie was in the early 60s. You are defying the social norms that dominate the culture and seeking an alternate reality. Just as I’ve devoted my life to music that expands the frontiers of human potential, so have I devoted my life to my marriage and my family. To hell with modern culture that tells me otherwise! Indeed, the more the masses tell me to get divorced and “free” myself from the “shackles” of marriage, the more I want to stay married.

The statistics for marriage are pretty bad in the U.S. Over 50% end in divorce. Of the other 50% of the couples, over half of them are cheating on each other. In other words, only about 25% of marriages actually work.

Given those statistics it’s not uncommon to hear people in long-term relationships discount marriage as an anachronism, rightfully pointing out the hypocrisy that happens when people stay married but are unhappy or publically proclaim to stay together only to fall apart soon after. And yet the institution of marriage persists. Why?

Because when it works, like it does for Jessica and me, it is incredibly powerful. As we’ve matured beyond the initial (and relatively easy) stages of a relationship, every aspect of our union has become more profound and sophisticated. From conversation to managing the household to love making, we’ve grown together and strengthened and informed one another in ways that make us each stronger individuals, but also a unique duo. And we’re providing a stable environment for our two children that gives them the base from which to grow into creative, thoughtful, productive adults.

A lot of things have to come together to make a marriage work. Most importantly the people have to be compatible. This can take a lot of different forms, but it’s essential. And secondly, the two people have to want to be married. Jessica and I both want a successful marriage. We’ve hit rough spots and hard times, but we’ve always come through because we really want to make it work. This sounds simple–almost trite–but it surprises me how many people get married without actually wanting a marriage lifestyle.

Of course, people change and grow and sometimes marriages work well for a while and then fall apart. There’s nothing you can do about that and I’m not so foolish as to think that would never happen to us. I can’t imagine letting Jessica go. After all, she’s smart, beautiful, competent, and a hell of a mother. But who knows, she might get tired of me at some point. Not many women would put up with a tall, dorky looking guy who plays weird music for little money, trains like a demon for endurance sports, and collects exotic pets. I’m lucky indeed!

I’ve had several friends who have already been divorced once or twice. I don’t judge them, not one little bit. In all cases it was the best thing for everyone. But if I can avoid that I will. At this point I’m committed to the marriage as much because I love Jessica and my kids as because I love giving a big giant middle finger to The Man and his failed marriages, his lousy pop music, his TV culture, and his senseless wars and stupid laws.

Fall 2010

Busy times. I’m finally getting going on my book project that I’ve been thinking about for several years. This will be about the influence of Hindustani music on American Experimental music. I’ll be looking at La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Michael Harrison, Robert Morris, Shirish Korde, and other composers. I’m primarily interested in folks who have actually played this music, though in the case of Morris a thorough knowledge can work too. There are a few dissertations here and there and a few articles, but nothing has been collected into book form. I’m the guy to do it and for selfish reasons as well it will play into my creative work.

I’m also busy composing. I just finished a short fanfare for WPU. Sort of Drum and Bass and has a little bit of fuck you in there too. Not sure why, but it just ended up that way. But it’s intense and I think folks will enjoy it. I’m also in the middle of a piece for the NYU Steelband. I’m tentatively calling it “Kids”. It’s joyful and noisy. You get the idea . . . I’ve stolen some of Michael Gordon’s rhythmic ideas. Again. I feel mildly guilty about it except that in all other respects it’s my own work.

And then Wuorinen. I haven’t gone this deep into learning a solo marimba piece since last year when I played the Robert Morris piece I also commissioned. Charles’s solo is a masterpiece. And of course I’ve got the showcase concert at PASIC looming over my head. With a projected 3,000 percussionists in the audience that has been a motivator. I’ve been putting in several hours a day on it, both on and off the marimba. At this point I’m starting to get bored with it, which is a good sign. It’s as hard as they come, but worth the effort. There’s more music in one bar of that piece than in everything you hear on the radio in a given day. It’s pushed my marimba playing to higher levels and I feel better about my powers behind the instrument than I have for a while.

All in all, I’m in full throttle as a musician. At 35 my powers as a composer, improviser, and interpreter are stronger than they’ve ever been. My composing is more fluid than ever, though I have the nagging feeling that the pieces I’m putting out aren’t as fundamentally creative as some of my other pieces, but I’m trying not to think about it too much. Too much thinking is death to a creative person.

And of course I’m still finding (or stealing) time to train for triathlon. It’s off season, so I’ve been hitting the weights more and working on my swim technique. I’m also slowly cranking up my running, setting myself up for some major growth in that area next spring.

Onwards and upwards.