i came to St. Barths this year with the explicit intention of refocusing the heaviness of my mental regard (it is equal fault of muscled brain, thick skull, and prominent brow ridges — my “heavy regard” that is). on what — for it has certainly been thoroughly music this past year. well, upon composition. and explicitly, my own composition. but that entails many things. for one, i have neglected practice for sometime (been to busy actually playing, but that is a poor excuse) and to play the sounds in my head well I will have to step up my technical and creative prowess several echelons — or else, at the very least, start hiring someone else to play piano.* along those lines, some ear-training and harmonic research is required. i’ve picked a few pieces to either transcribe bits of or find the written music and (painfully, as i can’t really read music) stumble through. also, something i’ve found very lacking when i listen back to the renditions of pieces i’ve written — my facility with counterpoint. considering how much my ears appreciate it, I should more thoroughly understand the basic tenets of it.
all those things are the raw ingredients for what music, i hope, is to follow.
and then, there is the matter of composition itself. i write songs fairly well and, though i haven’t written many, I have little doubt to my abilities there. but, no matter how much i am in envious awe of my peers and the beautiful songs they write, my own music (that is what I wish to have exclusively under my name and what, in all likelihood, only i will ever play and sing for audiences) never wants for such elegant simplicity.
i have found the old journal — from when I was 22 and graduating college — where I chide and console myself for the “little, ugly ideas” that seem to be my only means of high-level musical expression. i meant it not simply to say i was terrible but that I did not have the necessary bent to create long, sweeping concepts. to instantly contrive epic, romantic gestures. that my ideas — while possibly very good, if you ask the right person — are small, compact, ungainly little things. six bars here, 12 bars there. a piece.
but, at the same time, i didn’t want to simply write a collection of ugly, frumpy 30 second nocturnes. nor did i want to turn my way to something serial or minimalist and have those bitsy, ugly darlings become cells of some grandiose repetitive thing.** but, i this journal entry (written on a late MetroNorth train from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central) I ask myself if i can find some new avenue for exposition. something where the little ideas can become sweeping, grandiose, epic, and all that shit. without losing their natural bitter diminuitivity.
and thus, have I contemplated and tinkered these past eight years. learned while on the job. sketched down notes and melody scraps. try out things as improvisational sketches, or as basis for digital sampling, or as stuffy orchestral music. and none have worked, over all, because i came too late to music. learned to late about harmony. and thus my twenties were spent almost completely in a cycle of tepid ignorance followed by shy acceptance followed by deep contemplation followed by assured acceptance followed by prideful ignorance followed by sudden embarrassment, followed by deep acceptance, followed by reasonable understanding.
this: over and over and over again. and, possibly, it will continue still into my 30s. but the string quartets I wrote, and the jazz tunes for quartet, and the solo piano “meditations”, and the weird form of hiphop i wanted to call “New Rap Resources” — all were wanting. but the wanting showed me where the holes in my craft were and so, finding them at last. i would put my head down and attempt to fill them.
and then, again, i find myself 30 years old. having had a year so incredibly busy as to boggle even my own mind. i get calls for works. i get praise. yea, even unto accolades. and yet, in my heart, i know that what they claim of me is ultimately false. for it is too early and too unproven and to slight to really be worth the excitement people show. and so i wonder if it isn’t, perhaps, false excitement. or weak enthusiasm. or, like the euphoria one feels after sex — a fleeting belief that what you have been a part of is, indeed, the best and most important thing in all the world (a moment which, for me, is always colored by the unignorable under-thought that is most certainly is not).
but Akie at 30 has something that 20-something Akie never had: his twenties to reflect upon.
if what i have done up until now is a pale shadow of what I would do then I know, at least, that I would do it if i could. and now i can couple that with something like acceptance that is shan’t be some masterwork of a 26 year old boy. so: no shortcuts. no furious gambles. no almosts. to do what i will, i must will myself to do the prerequisite work on its behalf.
to that end, I was maybe 20 when I first thought about the #alienLoveSongs. a song i was co-writing with the guitarist in my college band at the time (a song we called G-fudge for a host of juvenile reasons) which having been forced to come up with lyrics to a music constraint, I pulled from a bit of rhyming poetry I’d been writing:
…bump the wizards and the magic
you should roll with me.
we’ll sparkle like neutrinos
like your eyes…
and, several years later (at 24 or so) i began to harken back to this project. something told me this should be the first thing. a song-cycle with a broad fantastical, scifi boned totem at its center. but also an incorporation of the idea of music as part of story-telling. explicit story telling. and the song-cycle idea was a way I thought might be good to string together those little ugly sounds into something greater than the simple sum of its parts.
and it was that strange verse which i could remember — though, for the life me, i cannot find the old poetry book from that Junior year where I wrote a pages long continuation of the story in that second-person format.
the first song — which, even then, i know was Alien Love Song #3 — came very quickly. perhaps in a night — as these ugly little things are wont to do! and it was all i could do to not play it all the time. any time i saw a piano — look at me! i’ve “written” a thing. and, as luck would have it, i found myself in the company of great musicians*** who somehow saw the value in my goofy idea and helped it along at various stages. anywhere from simple encouragement — finish it, bermiss! — to playing my one completed song with me at the sporadic solo shows i did from time to time and place to place.
writing the second song was the beast. i am 24 in 2007 when i decide I can make my first stand with these #alienLovesongs — and life is generally very nominally life at that point. but by the end of 2007 my mother becomes very ill and dies (even as, in the process of leaving us over several months she gives us innumerable gifts which cannot even really be appreciated yet) early in 2008. the same year Barack Obama wins the Iowa caucuses, the same year i turn 25, and my younger sister graduates from college and we all go as a family to witness what Mom could not. ah yes, 25 was a fraught year and I made little progress on anything other than to continue in my hapless luck of meeting great musicians and getting to play with them. i believe I was working some five or six different parttime jobs at that time. upstate New York, New Jersey, and in Brooklyn.
recovery took a while — and continues still, for somedays I think all life is a recovery from even the very traumatic instance of birth. but in March of 2009, my grandfather (my mother’s father and the man from whom I get my middle name) passed away. and it was another grand upheaval of things on all sides.
it is strange to recall for the morning of his passing, was after a night of unexpected snowfall in New York City. i had gone to bed the night before after a strange day of work, play, and late, late, late driving. my father — who also lives in Brooklyn — was away for some thing or another and so it was i who got the call from a home health attendant early in the morning****. I was closest so I had to get up — after maybe sleeping two hours — and frantically dig my car out of the snow (what is it about death that makes us so frantic? here, at last, is the time when one can take as much time as one desires and it will all fit and yet we rush to arrange for funerals and memorials. it is still strange to me) without a shovel or, really, anything. i probably used CD cases (i still carried CDs in those days).
and, because of the snow, when I got to the house. it was still a while before the paramedics showed up. since we knew which funeral home we’d want to use (i was spending the time calling to siblings and coordinating and such — again, that strange sense of urgency) we opted not to have the paramedics take him away. instead, the funeral home was called. so i filled out the police report in the living room — which i think you need to do in order for the paramedics not to take a person who is dead (ensuring, if provisionally, no foul play or the like) — and when the funeral home came it was just one guy.
so, also, it was I who accompanied that gentleman up to my grandfather room, helped him cover the body, place it on the travois-type conveyance he’d brought, and carry my grandfather’s body down the stairs of my childhood home and out to the fan — grim reminder of when my brother and i had, just more than a year earlier, carried my mother down the stairs in her wheelchair to take her to the hospital — a stay from which she did not return.
so, heavy times indeed (and my heavy regard has grown no lighter, certainly). and what is strange about it is that is couldn’t have been more than a few days later that i first got the call from Ari Folman-Cohen about a gig he was supposed to do with someone else opening up in St. Barths and would I like to go.
that was the first venture down to this place. like a bastion of respite from the unmitigated horror of life and life’s ends. we came, suddenly, unwittingly, to paradise. and it was here that I finally wrote a second alien love song. i did not think of the connection at the time and yet first lines of that song:
i hear my momma singin’ low
wonder what she’s singing for
at any rate, this will mark our fifth time down here. each time we come, I have felt the resonance of that escape from reality. the first time, adventure on the island reigned all my thoughts. but even so, i wrote without knowing i would. the times since, i have prepared to be here. brought reading and research materials and i have striven to be productive.
and this time it comes at the end of this mad year — as I said above. and when I feel, at last, that this thing is about to become ripe in my very hands if i do not pluck it from my soul now and share its meat.
why did i call this post Milestone — damn me, in all the remembrance and pondering I nearly forgot what I meant to state in few sedate but portentous paragraphs. that yesterday, here. on the cranky upright piano in the living room (which i used to write the beginning of You Don’t Know My Name some four and half year ago):
i have at last composed the final moments of music to the Alien Love Songs. a denouement to the struggling attempts of thar 20, 24, 25, 27, and 29 year old man-child to create something that, whether the world ever knows it or not, is a complete statement of a matured (if young) artist and is true to his own self.
now, then, I must work to fill in all the blanks between. but the end is in sight, for the end has been cited.
and, if anything, i must work harder and with deeper and more unassailable intent to complete this piece in truth. to the cosmos, we humans are all small and ugly things, i’m sure. nonetheless, we trouble on. death be damned.
[december 13th. Gustavia Harbor, St. Barths. 11:30am]
*and that seems like it would be way less fun!
**that is not to say, i hope, that i dislike serialist or minimalist music. indeed, i think that some of the most compelling contemporary classical music I’ve heard belongs to that school, wittingly or otherwise. and i enjoy it immensely.
***if indeed my luck’s largely ambivalent relationship with me has one exception it has been that, no matter how terrible or weak my music is, i have always been able to engender the companionship and proximity of monstrously good musicians.
****maybe not so early. but i don’t recall the time. it had been the kind of night that ended at dawn. so whenever she called, it was to suddenly soon