I haven't been blogging lately, not so much due to not having anything to say, but rather owing more to the tendency of the holidays to lessen the burning need to say anything. I was also trying to clean up a lot of unfinished business before leaving Finland for the month of January. I'll be spending the next four weeks as an artist-in-residence at The Seaside Institute in Seaside, Florida, the New Urbanist community on the Gulf coast where The Truman Show was filmed. (I had to suppress the urge to check my bathroom for cameras when I moved into my cottage.)
I'll be giving a couple of lectures while here and doing some work in the community, but the main purpose of my visit is to complete (after starting) work on my new choral piece, which just hasn't been getting anywhere at home. It's a long way to come to do it, but the removal from my daily life seems to already be having an effect on my mindset. All I hear are the waves, and the quiet in my normally overactive mind. This is a new experience for me. Much like Jerry Seinfeld's protestations of not being an "orgy guy", I've never thought of myself as an "artist colony guy" (not that there's anything wrong with that). As mentioned in the past, I'm the worst kind of homebody, shutting myself up in my house for days at a time. I love my studio space, with all its clutter, piles of books and twenty different open scores. For lack of a better word, the room has my aura in it, and that familiarity with my space helps me write, and I've never felt the need to go away from home and isolate myself in order to work. I tend to get stuck in my various compositional neuroses easily, and not having my wife and colleagues around to talk me down when I freak out about the piece I'm writing isn't usually an appealing prospect. For whatever reason, though, I've been unable to really focus for the past few months, so when this incredible opportunity came up, I jumped at the chance and packed my bags happily, hoping to get the entire 15-minute piece in one month so the choir can cut a practice tape for the choreographer.
The irony is that I've come to this little corner of paradise, with its blissful weather and warm, kind people, to write something stark, ascetic, ritualistic and meditative. And it forces me to think about what fires my imagination. I've written some about Nordic landscapes, and what it is about life at the top of the world that I find so appealing. I'd thought that landscape in general was the prime source of my work, and that any beautiful corner of the world would translate musically. But in a recent experience with a new environment, I was confronted with the possibility that I'm northern by more than just birth and residence.
After a tough year of work, my wife and I took a long-delayed honeymoon to Crete early last summer. It was something of a homecoming for me, as my dad was born and grew up on the Mediterranean, and used to tell me all kinds of stories from his youth, rhapsodizing about the light, the warmth, the taste of fresh figs, and above all, the "wine-dark sea" (great title for a piece!) that looms so large in the literature and culture of the region. When I got there, I was indeed impressed by it. I was reminded of the music of William Walton more than anything else, those beautiful, shimmering textures from after his move to to Ischia, like the Violin Concerto and Troilus and Cressida. It was gorgeous, by any standard.
But it wasn't inspiring. At least not to me. I found the folk music of Crete, with its wailing voices and virtuosic use of a fiddle-like instrument called a lira, extremely appealing, and bought several CDs for the trip home. But the landscape, as beautiful, varied and extreme as it was, from desert to wine-growing valleys, didn't make music for me, I think because it just wasn't mine, part of my consciousness, the landscape I immediately conjure when I think of nature. For me, it's birch trees, crystal clear skies, and that dark, silvery Nordic sunlight that become music. Finding myself in this place presents a challenge, to not succumb to the gentleness of the climate, and let the piece become too sunny, too comforting, when what I'm really after is something burning, purifying, detached, and ego-less.
Or perhaps coming here will turn in the piece into what it's really supposed to be. After years of trying to fight my material, I fairly recently came to the realization that most of the time, it's best to just let the piece be what it wants to be. Material takes on a life of its own after a while, and resistance to it just creates misery. And who needs misery in weather like this? I prefer margaritas.