Monday, July 7, 2008

I feel a song coming on...

Yesterday afternoon we hung out around the hot house, drinking beer, eating popcorn and hotdogs. It was very laid back and relaxing. So much so that mid-afternoon I decided to get my guitar and sing some of the songs I'm currently working on. One of those, The Bear, was composed back in the early 90s. It's a tricky little song (I put everything I'd picked up from African kora players into it.) and one of the few that other singers besides myself have recorded. I'm not entirely happy with any recording of it though, so I decided to try it myself, again. It so happened that yesterday The Bear surprized me by coming out perfectly ~ every note and meaning resonate and clear, the peculiar mix of longing and innocence intact. We enjoyed it and then it was gone.

Why is it that songs can work perfectly at one moment and be impossible to perform at another? Of course I can sing The Bear anytime, but for some reason not any time works. Yesterday it was gorgeous and made perfect sense ~ today singing it could be an exercise in futility. I've decided that it is because I prefer the quirky to the general. Occasions do come round for these songs, when the time is right to hear them, but those occasions are rare. I admire singers who can speak to a broad audience, and I'm not deliberately trying to be oblique.

On my first trek into the Utah canyon country I was so thrilled to be in the desert, and musically excited too, because I was composing The Road, an opera in which life is imagined as a journey, and I had decided to write it as a travel journal on the road, on a journey, to a place I'd never been but always wanted to go to. I figured that the mythic themes of the journey must be somewhat present in any trip you take, and since I had a notebook and was paying particular attention to them, the structure of the opera composition would emerge while I experienced it. It did indeed. I had neglected to consider how overwhelming epic experiences can be.

Anyway, I bring this up because on this trip, a week's journey up a remote canyon, I had decided that I would greet the dawn each morning singing, & that is where I would come up with the musical themes for the opera. The first morning, I got myself up in the cold star spangled blackness and climbed to the top of the nearest mesa, which scared the beejesus out of me. I'm a little afraid of heights, especially in strange landscapes in the dark. Once on the top, dawn took it's time arriving, and even though I had on very insulated clothes, it was cold. April nights in the desert are freezing. I waited and waited, watching the eastern horizon for a change in the light, shivering and rubbing my hands together, listening carefully for the approach of wolf packs, or aliens, or whatever comes to get you on dark mesa tops in southern Utah.

The Hopi say that there are three colors of light in the pre-dawn. First a purple light that reveals the silhouettes of things against the sky, then yellow light that reveals the surfaces of objects, then, at last and finally, the red light of the sun's emergence over the edge of the horizon. I started singing, a simple chant of a few notes that just came to me, when the purple light appeared, and kept going until the glorious red sun beams shot across the mesa tops, halo-ing the sagebrush, junipers and pinon pines with glowing nimbus and instantly and miraculously warming the entire desert - the real answer to my prayers. It was thrilling and exhilerating to dance (another gambit to keep from freezing) and sing to such a glorious conclusion. And I was so delighted with the little tune I'd been chanting. It was perfect, and beautiful, and I planned to use it in my opera. By the time I had climbed down from the mesa it had vanished with the auras on the sage.

I couldn't understand it. If there's one musical skill that I have, developed by ballad singing, it's the ability to remember melodies and lyrics. This was a simple tune, just a few notes, and the words were vocables - just hey-ya sort of things.

Confounding the first morning, even more so the second. After a week of perfect forgetting and zero tune collection I was a little freaked out as to why I could not retain even a note of what I sang for over an hour every morning. Each morning was a new mesa top, and each tune a new one; all were lovely - I struggled, but could not remember a note once I descended back to camp.

The last morning I picked up the trail of a coyote and followed it to the base of the mesa I had decided to climb. It was pretty far from camp, and the reddest spire of rock I'd ever seen. Halfway up the coyote trail dissappeared, at the base of an unscaleable cliff, and since it was facing east, I decided to sing await the dawn and my last desert song there. With the purple light, a beautiful song came out, and I sang it over and over again, exhilerated and deeply moved, looking to the east where my home, so far away, awaited me. When the sun finally peaked over the horizon and I stopped to gaze in wonder at the beauty of the desert below me, I had a plan. I would continue singing the song all the way back to camp, where I had a charango, a little Peruvian guitar of sorts, and I would not stop singing it until I had picked out all the notes on it, and write them down in my notebook.

And so I did. Even though the notes seemed to shift around like captured bees in an elastic bag, finally I pinned it down, or something that was a reminder of it. But I felt like a thief. Or at least, like a coyote.

The conclusion I came to is that certain places and times have songs of their own - just for then, just for there. Like certain kinds of tickets they are non-transferable.

It occured to me yesterday, when The Bear miraculously worked for no reason that I could fathom, how much of contemporary culture is based on the idea of complete availability - the conceit that if you have the cash, you can get anything you want whenever you want it. And that things are desirable because getting them demonstrates the power of acquisition - and that staying busy acquiring things fosters an illusion of continuity which we take as a comfort, living in time which is borrowed, if not stolen. However, it seems to me that although artifacts may be purchased, the experience of art depends on a receptivity that cannot be bargained for - we await it in the dark- hoping that the miracle will be repeated; amazed when it does.


Cathy said...

I love the Hopi take on the three colors of dawn!

Dan Dutton said...

It's true too. Maybe purple, gold, pink... uh oh, that makes me want to paint it again! And see it again.