02 March 2011

Still writing

I'm keeping the blog going at my primary website; but the link has changed slightly, to http://www.lukegullickson.com/blog.html.

03 June 2010


I'm trying out a new system wherein my blog will be part of my personal website. No guarantees it'll stick, but I'm going to give it a shot! So thanks for reading, and please continue to follow me at http://www.lukegullickson.com/blog. Cheers.

02 June 2010


Frank Oteri has a beautiful article at NMBx about the printed word and real books vs. digital forms and the advantages real libraries still have. I'm so with him on this one. I am personally strongly anti-Kindle because--for me, for me--there is just something powerful about a book in your hands. A screen is still a screen. With a book there is no curtain between you and the content. It is all there in your hands, physically, undeniably. The prevalence of information in our society has made us take libraries for granted, but I become increasingly impressed by the power of walking into a library, of seeing stacks of books or scores there just waiting for you to discover them. A friend recently shared a nugget from his father, walking into a library: "I always know there is a great book in here that I'll never find." This just isn't the same on the internet; while it's always possible to discover new things on here, it's not the same as truly serendipitously, with no external influence, bumping into a new book or CD, something unpredictable, something you know nothing about. The same goes for used bookstores. That "great book in there that I'll never find" is waiting, and no one is going to find it but you. I love the initiative this demands. It asks you to take responsibility for your own edification, to seek it out. On the internet there is always someone feeding it to you. It has a different impact when you truly discover it yourself and feel the pages under your fingers.

17 May 2010

Ghost towns

Anyone in Chicago had better be at the Fine Arts Building downtown Thursday night for the Ghost Towns concert by the newly-websited Sissy-Eared Mollycoddles. They're doing an arrangement of my wanderlusty Terlingua Meditations -- Terlingua being the only ghost town on the program, I believe, which is currently occupied. There are two premieres: Eric Malmquist's The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Brian Baxter's epic Lulu City for 2 violins, guitar, double bass, drumset, and river.

I feel a special attachment to Lulu City, since I hiked there with Brian the day he recorded the river sounds. Lulu City is in Rocky Mountain National Park, at around 10,000 feet, way up the Colorado River. It's a beautiful spot. I sat by the river and read a book while Brian poked around, drew a map and looked for artifacts. (Full disclosure: almost nothing is left of Lulu City. We found an old pail, and there are a few foundations still visible. But really. Not much.)

I think the wild cross-rhythms of Terlingua Meditations will sound more satisfying with the addition of the drumset holding the meter. I'm glad they're playing it in the springtime, too: May is such a special time of year for me, this being about the sixth year in a row that I've headed west right about now. The two trips that inspired the piece were both in the spring of 2008.

I'll once again provide the Peter Garland quotation that serves as the piece's epigraph. I had actually named my movements (Stasis and Action) a month and a half before I read this passage, but when I saw Garland's words, it was a stunner. It's as though he was on the same trip to the west Texas desert and had heard the piece already. The whole thing is right here:

"The lure of traveling: its greatest magic is in the chance encounter, the road taken, strangers met, views...The surrealist writers in the 1920's walked at random in Paris and its environs in search of the marvelous encounter. And this kind of traveling is certainly similar--the call to throw away the maps and lose oneself...In the quiet hours of driving, in hiking silently through deserts, one's mind works--absorbing views, landmarks, memories, charting past correlations. Traveling as meditation/action combined--the endless unraveling of pavement, the limitless visual scroll of scenery, and an unremitting waking dialogue and waking dream..." (PG, Americas)

* P.S. There is now a beautiful recording out of Garland's String Quartets no. 1 and 2 played by Apartment House.

No more outsiders

I'm just going to dive in head-first with this recent obsession with outsider art. Ok? Ok.

Chicago has a small museum dedicated to this stuff-- Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. I'm not sure I like the moniker "intuitive art" since, well, all art is intuitive and most of life is intuitive. But I don't mind "outsider art." This phrase tells it like it is. No euphemisms here. We are interested in these people because they exist outside the normal artistic social strata, because they don't expect to make money from their art, because their training was unusual or non-existent, because they didn't have to do this art, they just DID.

(( Clarification: no one really has to do anything, but career artists feel compelled to create by forces external to themselves, get into habits that they sometimes feel they must sustain in order to keep making a living, and so on -- an outsider, generally speaking, could just stop, and to most observers the daily fabric of their lives would continue unchanged. They would keep right on working in the insurance office or mopping floors at MIT--oh wait, that's a different movie. ))

Also, Intuit somehow managed to get hold of "art.org"--so there's another reason to listen to them.

Anyway. When I visited Intuit the major exhibition was on Savannah, GA sculptor/barber Ulysses Davis. His work is extremely broad and multifaceted and, quite unexpectedly, I was most intrigued by the patriotic pieces. This is a guy who did a complete set of busts of the presidents of the United States. Each one projects an individual personality filtered through a unifying--quirky--artistic sensibility. Also, I can't resist mentioning the racial ambiguity of the faces. I mean, look at Lincoln here! Fascinating.

Then I was lucky enough to visit the Art Chicago festival and spot not only a few works by my boy James Castle, but also one or two by the totally awesome Joseph Yoakum, who literally ran away to join the circus, saw the world, settled back in Chicago with his family, and started prodigiously drawing--when he was in his fifties or sixties, depending on who you ask. He eventually produced tons of unmistakable landscapes based on his travels.

Check out Mt. Swan of Darling Mountain Range near Perth of Western Australia, 1968:

And now for The Hills of Old Wyoming in the Valley of the Moon near Casper, Wyoming
(gotta love the run-on titles):


Things that renew my faith in humanity, vols. 192-3

192. The Great Stalacpipe Organ, included primarily for its inventor, a mathematician named--wait for it--Leland Sprinkle.

Leland Sprinkle.

193. Kcymaerxthaere and the KymaericaBlog, which detail a "global work of three-dimensional storytelling" and the exploits of Geographer-at-Large Eames Demetrios. He erects plaques around the world to commemorate important places and events in an alternate universe.

Many thanks to Atlas Obscura for these and other wonderful discoveries. AO is where most of my extra time is currently funneled.

If you'll excuse me, I need to get off the internet before I accidentally run across spoilers of the Lost finale.

23 April 2010

Aww but hell I'm just a blind man on the plains, I drink my water when it rains

My favorite Swedish troubadour of the American folk guitar, the Tallest Man on Earth, is back with a new LP The Wild Hunt. I'm not sure which is better: a new TMoE record, or watching the critics once more go through the obvious rhetorical contortion of underhandedly labeling a musician "Dylan-esque" by declaiming on the overuse of the word "Dylan-esque" by other critics.

They've both got me grinning.

22 April 2010


Now I'm hardly crazy about San Jose Costa Rica, but it sure beats other Central American capital cities, and the fact that it has a contemporary art museum at all goes a ways toward explaining why.

During one of my short stop-offs in San Jose I took in an exhibit at the Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo, comprised mostly of video works. I freely admit to a bias against this medium. I'm not sure why, but I can't think of any particularly appealing video pieces I've seen in the context of a museum. A few possible reasons:

• Lack of tactility; I have screens everywhere in my life. As a matter of fact, I'm looking at one right now. I go to the museum to see a room that has physical objects in it. Paintings, with their much more physical presence, count in spite of being "flat" images. They respond more to perception, and besides, they get bonus points for not being screens.

• Impersonality? This is a major generalization, but it seems that video works tend to be a bit more standoffish. I suppose some would say that nothing could be more standoffish than contemporary painting, but I don't find it that way viscerally. I respond to a painting that is physically there much more than to anything on a screen.

• Preconceptions about museums-- I think I'd be much more disposed to get into a video work or any sort of art film if I saw it at home or in a theater, just because of how I'm used to having these spaces utilized. (I realize this is unfair, I'm just musing.)

I found myself asking these questions because, happily, there was one piece that did seem immediately vital and made a strong impression. This was sobremesa, by Kaoru Katayama, an artist of Japanese origin who lives in Spain. ("sobre mesa" = "on table") The video features Julio and Salud, a couple who have actually been married 38 years, sitting at a table in their living room, looking casually at one another while knocking/snapping out a flamenco rhythm together with one hand each. It's only a three-minute video and I watched it several times, taken in by the atmosphere. The kinetic energy of the rhythm was foiled by the gaze of the couple, which is initially almost bored before it yields to slight, knowing smiles. The implications of this small, focused interaction are enormous, and teasing them out verbally does no justice to seeing the video.

21 April 2010

A word about dynamics

Rant-free, I'd like to clarify a few thoughts about the use of dynamics in my musical notation.

This came up back in December when one of the SEMC players asked about Down, which didn't really have dynamics in the score. "Oh, it doesn't have dynamics," I said. Because it's rock and roll music, basically. You just play it. Classically trained musicians expect to be micromanaged. Rock/jazz musicians are more comfortable with their own instincts in this regard. (OK, a lot of rock musicians are overamplified and don't really have dynamics, but you know what I mean.)

Composers of my generation, on the other hand, have had to learn this kind of thing. A lot of our lessons have been dedicated to proper use of dynamics. It has always felt disproportionately emphasized to me, partially because as a performer I feel like it's often obvious what is supposed to be loud and what isn't. But there are some larger issues at play here that, I think, are relevant beyond my personal case.

So, two influences on young American composers that could be muddling things up.

1) rock music and the age of compression.
2) training in electroacoustic music and the complexities possible here w/r/t ADSR.

In the face of #1, two dynamic levels loud/soft become standard, and the different gradations in the ppp-pp-p-mp-mf-f-ff-fff system seem unnecessary.

Whereas #2 makes the above eight notateable levels seem naively silly and insufficient to express any real dynamic nuance.

See, opposite influences. I propose, again, that this might be muddling things up. We're simultaneously used to a flatter dynamic plane (which is not necessarily a loss -- it just leads us to perceive intensity changes elsewhere) and to a landscape of infinite dynamic complexity. In view of both perspectives, quibbling over the difference between [ mp cresc. f ] and [ p cresc. f ] or just [ cresc. f ] seem ridiculous indeed.

And in both cases, the relationship of the notation to the actual sounds seems tangential at best, a case of micromanaging that is virtually guaranteed to be unsuccessful. And what about the musicians performing it, again? What is their role supposed to be? I prefer not to view them as machines and myself as a deity; they have instincts and opinions and interpretive muscles that need space to enter the process.

I also feel compelled to address the proverbial "group in Europe" who supposedly wants to play my piece, but is incapable with communicating with me for some reason, and thus requires an infallible score with precise markings such that absolutely nothing will be left to chance and they can produce for me, with no verbal exchange, a perfect recording:

• Who are these people? Why don't they have email?

• Seriously, does this group exist? I'd love a European premiere on my CV.

• If they really don't like email, can we use Facebook? Myspace? Telegraph? Smoke signals? Umm, the phone? I'll fly there? I like traveling. Why can't we communicate?

• Even if it were difficult to communicate, or for some mysterious reason ideal not to, aren't they going to have some questions about the score? Regardless of how carefully I notate it? Has there ever been a performance in which no questions emerged for which the opinion of the composer would be helpful?

• Aren't there some of those situations in which the composer, despite his/her best intentions and orchestration-manual-reading and beard-stroking and care, was wrong, and the performers' interpretive solutions better or at least more workable?

• Has this whole situation ever occurred in real life?

Finally, w/r/t the argument that someday I'm going to die and everyone will be so distraught and need to play all of my music right away and need precise documents for how to reproduce it perfectly such that my composerly luminescence can continue to live on in this bleak world:

1) That is not going to happen.

2) Even if it did, the sans-me world can get all the information it needs from the recordings I'm going to make with musicians who are not, not, hiding on another continent, refusing to communicate with me.

3) The old recordings would be better anyway. You know they would.


See, maybe as composers we want to be real people in the world, real musicians who are humans, interacting with other musicians who are also humans. We don't live on Neptune. You know how everyone always complains about the problems with Facebook and people using it too much and posting boring minutiae all the time? This is the GOOD thing about living in the Facebook era: this is what the internet is for: so that group in Europe and I can find each other and send notes about musical minutiae if we want to. And just be humans together, interacting.

I have discovered that the connections I make personally and musically working in a room with other musicians, as either a composer or performer or as both, immediately transcend and dwarf any infinitesimal considerations like [mp cresc. f ] versus [ cresc. f ].

19 April 2010

Save the Junk

Austin's Cathedral of Junk is in trouble: following a citizen complaint, city officials asked ol' Vince to either bring it up to code (not sure how a three-story backyard building/sculpture made of trash could possibly fit into said code, but anyway) or remove it. I've found articles from the Chronicle and PBS, the latter with an intriguing comments thread. A movement immediately sprung up to help: Save the Junk, which organized a massive clean-up (?) event in advance of Vince's deadline. Now he's apparently been given until the 26th to meet further requirements. The Cathedral is emblematic of a lot of things I love about Austin--the proverbial "weirdness"; the unassuming affect of its creator, who just seems surprised that anyone is interested in his bizarre hobby; and the whole grass-roots word-of-mouth quality of the whole thing, the principle of someone creating something unique for their own amusement and then letting it grow. That said, the arguments against it are not incomprehensible. I suppose.

02 April 2010

Perfect from now on

A friend who is working on a DMA in Composition recently mentioned an exam question he has received that involves essentially becoming an expert on 20 composers -- analyzing several major works by each, completing a biographical sketch, becoming conversant in the details of their lives and styles. It seems legitimate to me that a composer getting a doctorate would be responsible for understanding the work of active or recently active composers his faculty considers important. At the same time, it´s a bit interesting that musicologists aren´t required to do something like this. Not to rip on musicologists or their field -- I know most of them are keeping respectably busy, in spite of the few who are still, for example, analyzing details of Schubert´s music in search of conclusive proof that he was gay -- but only to observe that the current academic system is not requiring them to master 20 recent or current composers in the way my composer friend must. Of course, they have your own fields/eras that they´re required to master, and which they choose based on their research. The point here is,

Gist: composers these days are expected to be our own musicologists.

This is okay. We can and should speak for ourselves, our friends, and our colleagues. If others want to join in that´s fine, but we can´t be afraid to start.


Note re. Costa Rican keyboards and apostrophes: this [´] is the best I can do for right now, apologies for any aesthetic disturbance.


Explanation of title.

I don´t know why I´m thinking about Built to Spill again all of a sudden. During a hike the other day "Randy Described Eternity" popped into my head and I thought about those first lyrics (every thousand years this metal sphere ten times the size of Jupiter floats just a few yards past the earth. you climb on your roof and take a swipe at it with a single feather; hit it once every thousand years ´til you´ve worn it down to the size of a pea). Then I met a guy from Idaho today. Maybe that´s it.

17 March 2010

More weird links

I might have a healthier life if I didn't harbor fascinations with bizarre cult and outsider musicians. But on the other hand,

1) the fascinations usually don't last much longer than it takes to write about them on here

2) Supposedly composer Paul Rudy once proposed that art = entertainment + ambiguity, and if he was correct, then this shit is art, period


3) The old song goes that jazz is the only truly American art form. This is not true. Cult figures collectively constitute another one. No other culture has created such an apparently inexhaustible supply of wacky personalities, each with one crazy idea that is at least worth watching for a few minutes. It helps that this occurred in a time when they were all capable of videotaping themselves enacting said crazy ideas.

All of this being a run-up to introducing the entertainment and ambiguity of The Great Daryl Nathan, a Grand Rapids, MI musician famous for his omnipresence on public access TV in the mid-1990s. Be sure to enjoy his pre- and post-performance talks as well.

14 March 2010

Corey Dargel and ICE at the Velvet Lounge last night,
Midwestern premiere of Dargel's Thirteen Near-Death Experiences,
an "art-pop song cycle"
or just a pop album played live,
with a theatrical performer/composer/songwriter at the mic,
with a backing band of righteous new music players for whom these rhythms are easy, easy, easy.

Talking Heads / old-school Paul Dresher alienation,
some 80s/90s NYC performance art inflections,
chamber pop in the same manner of Final Fantasy, say,
but with cooler rhythms.

And man, the playing, the playing. Clean. Nuanced. Smooth.

Brian put it best: new music can be so dense, so heavy.
This was light.
You can move across it without moving through it,
Without knocking down any doors.
The doors are already open.

Is that because of the style, or the skill of the delivery, or the venue/medium...?

Another triumph for Oberlin music grads and New Amsterdam artists.

11 March 2010

Two strange things about 2010

• 1 •

I'm at a coffee shop right now. I was at another one a month or so ago when my friend across table looked up from her computer, and I looked up from mine, and she said "we're really just hanging out in a house with a bunch of strangers." Which was right. "And not talking to them," I added, which was also true and strange.

It made me think about Elliot's post defending social media sites (or at least rationalizing them) as responding to a broad cultural dearth of public space. Only, in the coffee shops we don't usually talk to people -- or we do, on our computers, talk to very distant people, rather than the people in the room there with us. Strange indeed.

• 2 •

I had to go to this hostel, in Downhill, Northern Ireland, to hear about this terrific band from Austin, where I lived for two years. Admittedly, I'm so paranoid about my ears that I'm often scared to even use headphones, let alone go to rock shows. And admittedly, Austin is home to an absolutely batty number of bands. But still. Rather than hearing about Shearwater and physically attending a show, rather than ever seeing this Jonathan Meiburg character in person (despite the fact that we were probably at the Spider House at the same time at some point since August 2007), he went to Downhill Hostel and became friends with the owners, and then I went to Downhill Hostel and got to hear his LP (on vinyl, which was cool) over a dram of Coleraine Irish whiskey.

It's probably not a 2010 thing; I suppose the world has always abounded in bizarre and unexpected connections, hence the seven-degrees game and the novels of Dickens. But still.

10 March 2010

the Real in the Unreal ; the Unreal in the Real

The universe has been conspiring for a while now to get me to read Haruki Murakami, who seemed to be just crazy up my alley. After checking out Kafka on the Shore I can confirm that premonition. This sort of thing is for me as chick flicks are to most American women. It's almost too easy with this sort of postmodern surrealistic culture-referencing, messy-narrative, time-and-space-bending, mysterious-character-dressed-up-as-Colonel-Sanders shit.

Anyway, I was talking about "surrealism," which is a term I apply very broadly, and the question was posed to me to differentiate surrealism and fantasy. It was a good question for me especially, since I loved fantasy books as a kid and gradually, during adolescence, transitioned to the Lynchy stuff that I now call surrealistic art.

There are plenty of superficial differences, primarily in the realm of what these genres use as their foundations. Fantasy's foundation is in the unreal: the setting is distant and almost always fictional, the characters belong to classes like wizards and knights and other things that don't exist in our lives. Surrealism, by contrast, starts with the real. It usually takes a person whose life is normal, by our standards, and then throws the weird shit their way.

For this reason fantasy, to me, is actually kind of negative. It always reminds us of what is not in our lives, what we can't be and can't do. Surrealism, by contrasts, suggests things that might be, things not necessarily good, usually scary, but at least always interesting. Things that aren't likely or logically explicable, but nonetheless could exist around us, under the veneer of our normal lives.

The surreal may not be REAL, but I think more so than fantasy it does contain an element or two of POSSIBILITY. Maybe.

Opening invisible ozone holes into pockets of experience, suggesting previously unnoticed dimensions of our own lives that are not immediately clear, that we can't see, that we only feel. Maybe.