Tuesday, July 29, 2008
I got home from the recording studio a little after one last night. My part of the work is done. I started this set of pieces last year, at the same time that I began work with Dr. Vibes on The Faun CD, and the recording I finished up last night is part of The Faun, heard from a different angle. I've decided to call it Nimbus, with a tag "for The Faun; ambients and alternatives."
I think Cathy's going to be pleased with at least one thing on it - I finally recorded the guitar/old timey version of Riverman.
Jody's studio is such a hermetically sealed space. There's even an antechamber, with thick doors, before entering the room where he records my singing. When we're working, and that is late at night so that there aren't as many road sounds seeping in, the room is kept dim, almost dark.
To me, the closest other activity to singing in the recording studio is diving at night. With the headphones on, and a very powerful microphone almost touching my lips, I feel as though I've stepped up to a dark mirror that reveals exactly who I am at that moment, and the moment of beginning to sing being just ahead, the only thing to do is to take a breath, say "I'm ready", and plunge.
I can always do the track over - but in art, just as in life, there's a certain limit to opportunities, a point where fresh and revealing becomes stale and concealing, a point where you're diving and hitting a rock.
My music is constructed, carefully I hope, usually over fairly long periods of time. I'm working on a song now that I started when I was 16 and it seems even more mysterious and elusive today. There may be a discrete event that sets the composing process in motion, but the songs that work best for me are not tethered to one moment in time, their meaning responds to the changes of life, and as a result of that, they aren't always available to me, and there's no way to know which one will be responsive next. So my work has been to fill a toolbox with songs that have potential ~ it is a bit like the Ifa divination I mentioned in a previous post, picking a song to sing is like picking a path. Even the most familiar path may take you somewhere unexpected on a given day. I've felt the awful thud of hitting a rabbit that ran out in front of the car, and the regret and pity that followed, but what I didn't know is whether the rabbit had just lept away from the jaws of a snake that would have slowly swallowed it alive. If I could grasp both at once, I might be able to sing the song about Empedocles leaping into the volcano that I'm working on.
Yesterday was problematic, emotionally, anyway - starting with the funeral of one of my dad's cousins, Ralph, a sweet old bachelor farmer who was born in the same week that Cebah was. So I walked that strange path, holding my mother's arm to support her as she approached the wax effigy that had been Ralph. (She wasn't impressed and admired the flowers instead.) Surely Cebah, who's sharp as a tack, extrapolated the same conclusion, as did everyone in the room, from the fact that she and Ralph were born within days of each other. And she knew that he had suffered terribly in the past 7 weeks. But what's to do ~ we step up to the mic, breathe once, and plunge.
Riverman, if not about a discrete moment in time, does have an origin story. My artist friend and fellow cosmonaut Lucy B., was visiting from her home in Mexico a couple of years ago, and we went on a hike into the big woods southeast of our hometown. I wanted to show Lucy a gorgeous waterfall I'd found, deep in one of the wilderness areas there, a part of the Boone Forest new to me. Our walk took us not only deep into the forest, but as always with Lucy, it took us deep into the mythic time that our art has in common. I wonder if anyone else would recognize the forest that Lucy and I went into.
The waterfall, shooting down from the rim of a cliff about 80 ft above, cascaded in a curtain of rushing crystalline beads onto the front edge of a huge boulder. We sat down on the back of boulder and watched it. The early afternoon sun, streaming through the thick canopy of trees on the eastern side of the deep holler we were in, was focused into shifting beams by the gaps between the leaves, which appeared and dissappeared at the whim of a luscious breeze that caused a continual whispering rustle as it flowed through the treetops. We didn't know it yet, but a summer thunderstorm with a tornado in it was on the way.
The ever-moving beams of light hit the speeding globbets of water at the exact angle to break the white light prismatically into starspiked sparkles of red, yellow, violet, orange, blue, and because the beads of water changed their shape as they plummeted down to explode like waterfireworks on the surface of the stone, the refracted colors were constantly changing, but because the relative speeds of wind and waterflow and gravity's pull were stable, there was a pattern, or something like a pattern - a rythmn - a tempo. We sat, truly mesmerized, and silently watched this for over an hour, and very soon the sense of ordinary time had slipped away from us, since neither Lucy or I bothered to keep it, and as far as I could tell it was eternity, and the water, revealing something about its nature in the pattern of rainbow sparks, spoke to me in its own language.
What it said was comforting, but in a way that cannot be translated in so many words. Water, like the other elements, can have, as they say, a dark side, and the night water appears in several of my songs. I'm drawn to it, like all those who think of lashing themselves to the mast and foregoing the wax earstoppers when they near Siren island. This time the water showed its ravishing beauty in the light, and I was beyond grateful to witness it.
Lucy got the worst case of chiggers I've ever seen that day. That was her sacrifice. I think mine was in the recording studio - not necessarily made easier by being spread over a longer period of time. Last night I completed it and passed the gift on.
Jody, who likes to remain invisible in the recording space, and who never makes aesthetic assessments when I'm working there, made a rare exception to that. When I asked him if there had been any technical problems with my first take of Riverman, he replied no - "it was lovely." I had him play it back for me once so that I could confirm that everything was in place, then I moved on.
Riverman is the only one of the songs from The Faun which is somewhat easily playable on the guitar (I composed it with a digital keyboard.) - and as a result, it's the only one that I've sung often since I finished the recording made for the dance performances. I knew that it would be a mistake to play and sing it as I have at campfires, porches and kitchens in the past year. The plunge can't be like that ~ for me it's not a matter of bringing what you know to the event of the recording, it's about preventing what you think you know from obscuring what can be. So yesterday morning, before the funeral, I made some quick experiments with capoing the guitar high up on the neck, pitching the song in a key unfamiliar to me, so that the melody would have to be altered on the fly, so that I would have to find my way over the bluff in a fresh plummet that would, hopefully, expose colors in my voice that I never knew were there. If I want to sing as I fall, the fall has to be real.
The words to Riverman are a stream of images. I had no way of knowing when I wrote it that I would find myself, some years later, sweet on a man who fits the description, and although I've been determined to keep that slowly growing emotion, which may become love in time, seperate from the crucible that I work in, (after all, no one can really step up to the dark mirror with you, or hold your hand when you make the dive) my voice, when it came time to shape the word riverman, brought this embryonic affection to the sound, and the tenderness I'm feeling for him rushed out and splintered into the sparks of love and longing - red, yellow, violet, orange, blue.
The Cherokee call rivers and streams "the long person" - Yunwi Gunahi'ta ("person who is long' - Cherokee doesn't indicate the gender, but in stories the long person is male). His head is in the mountains, his feet are in the sea.