a chair in a room, a room in a house…

I spend a lot of my time thinking about composition. About how things come together, how they find form, how those forms take shape. About how bits and pieces and passages connect to create a whole that is, if I may borrow the cliché, more than just the sum of its parts. About what all this business of making things and arranging them has to teach us about who we are and why we are even here in the first place. And I’m always on the lookout for kin whose work explores the fascinating territory of compositional principles and illuminates them in a way that offers me a new window, and new way in.

Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen used to design not only buildings, but the furniture and rugs to go in them, in keeping with the philosophy of architecture and design at the turn of the century. He is known for designing the Railway Station in Helsinki, The Cranbrook Academy outside of Detroit, and advising his students to “always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

Saarinen House Dining Room, designed by Eliel Saarinen (Courtesy Balthazar Korab/Cranbrook Art Museum)

Knox Martin, a living legend of a painter from the New York School, talks about the importance of each passage in a good painting having at least seven different roles, or compositional functions. If we look at his painting, Crucifixion (below), we can see this in action. Take that small red circle in the upper right hand corner. Notice how it has an upside down twin in the opposite corner. Together they act like pins, holding up the composition as if tacked to a wall. That red dot also happens to be the same color as the candy cane striped passage that draws the eye down on a steep diagonal. It also rhymes with several other round little shapes throughout the canvas, like the beady eyes of the beast at the top, the blue buttons along the lower right edge and their white and green counterparts just up to the left, while simultaneously acting as an understated counterpoint to the splay of yellow fingers on which it rests. I’ve lost count now…how many was that? It doesn’t matter, because the eye keeps moving, finding new pathways, new connections; the painting keeps opening up. In this way, Knox asserts, the painting creates for the viewer an experience of infinity, where the subject matter is creation itself.

Crucifixion, Knox Martin (acrylic on canvas 9'X11')

My long time collaborator and fellow Architect, Lisa Gonzales, encourages students to notice the fact that they are always and already in relationship to something: the floor, the air, the sound, their mood, the architecture in the room. If you’ve ever taken her class, you may have seen her brilliant and hilarious demonstration of how plentiful are the possibilities when you tune into the many layers of relationships available for your consideration at any given moment. One instant she’s standing there talking to you, and the next she’s thrown herself across the room, in a funny physical running commentary of the myriad unfolding relationships: between her feet and the air, her heart and the floor, her voice and the ceiling fan. Before you know it, your attention, body and the room itself are enlivened and ready to engage, compose and relate to and with everything in and around you.

Lisa Gonzales (photo by Bill Frederking)

As I sift through these examples, what I love most about them is the presence of a thread, a through-line… a chair in a room, a room in a house… a link from one thing to another thing… every passage having seven roles creates a dynamic infinity… an energetic connection ...the floor, the air, the light, your heart: you’re in relationship to everything…a continuum along which our attention can move…

And there….there is the word that points to the thing that really wakes me up, really makes my heart sing: move. I love how much movement dances through these different examples of compositional research.  And how that movement, of our bodies and our attention, is the thing that allows for these compositional connections to be made.

I take these ideas into the studio with me, fascinated by how deep the research can go, especially when practiced in the context of ensemble work. As I am improvising, what happens when I perceive what I am doing as being a chair in a room, a room in a house, and so on?  How can this guide me as I warm up my attention from the inside out, from myself and my own movement impulses, out into the space, to other bodies, other movements?  Can I dig into and shape my material so that every gesture, every phrase has seven connections, seven compositional functions?  (Will I make myself crazy even trying?) How far can I widen the relational frames when I generate movement, when I make a choice?  How far can I stretch my compositional attention into the macro, without losing any of the care, concern and love for the detail in the micro?  This is what I’m after, this is the work that I came here to do.

Because what I do affects what is around me. My actions, movements, and intentions all have consequences. We are always in relationship to something, whether we are dancing, painting, planting, building, planning, living or dying. Everything we think, say or do is in some relation to everything else that happens.  I’ve spoken before about the poetic effect of the choices we make, the importance of paying attention to how what we do ripples out into the piece, the room, and the world beyond.  As I keep practicing this work, I can’t help but wonder: just how far can my attention reach?  How far can I stretch my awareness?

Iroquois traditions hold that all major decisions should be made with the Seventh Generation in mind. In other words, it’s not just about me here now, it’s about the we that will be seven generations down the road (the Seventh Generation being the one which is beyond our direct contact, more than 120 years into the future.)  Even if we can set aside the paradox of time, which is always something of a kicker for the improviser devoted to staying in the moment, that’s still quite a stretch.  120 years into the future?  I thought we were talking about chairs and rooms and dances and composition?  Right.  We are.  We’re also talking about using our attention (and intention) to build connections between ourselves and the world around us, a world that needs us to pay attention now more than ever.  Composing, friends, is choosing.  And while making choices with our attention seven generations out might seem like a leap, I think it’s the leap we all need to make.

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Transcendence at the Radio Bean

Arthur Brooks / Ensemble V at the Radio Bean (taken on my cell phone)

Every Wednesday evening at 7:30, in a dark and funky coffee house at the end of Church Street in Burlington, VT, a group of musicians gather to practice the rare and radical act of showing up. Arthur Brooks, Polly Vanderputten, Nelson Caldwell, Michael Chorney and Anthony Santor are Ensemble V (as in the number, not the letter), an improvising quintet of top drawer/low profile musicians directed by Arthur. On this particular Wednesday, they are joined by fellow improviser and esteemed music heavy, Barry Reese. And I have traveled the two hours from Littleton, NH with my friend Hilary, to be there, because I’m lonely for my people, and hungry for the real.

We’ve arrived early, to meet with Arthur and talk over summer plans of collaborations between Ensemble V and the Architects. Hilary is visiting from Portland, a spur of the moment trip inspired by an out of the blue Facebook chat a few days before. We’d been talking about the importance of finding and cultivating an art community with deep roots, about the challenges of making and supporting experimental work in rural, out of the way parts of the country. About a growing gnawing knowing that this work we do is not some out-of-touch-with-reality luxury of privilege, but a powerful tool for connection, transformation and paradigm shifting. And we’ve just spent two days immersed in a delightful mix of dialogue, writing, shared movement research and coffee-driven art plots/plans/provocations. I’ve given her only the lightest hints as to what we are about to hear, with a casual, “our ears are in for a real treat.” She has no idea what she’s in for.

The members of the ensemble greet each other, set down their coats and grab a beer. There’s not a lot of standing on ceremony here, no pretense in this group, and, once they enter the space and take up their respective instruments, virtually no eye contact either. What for the briefest moment seems like “warming up”, (the testing of a bow, the tuning of a guitar) soon clears its throat quietly and announces itself as having begun. As if simply picking up from where they left off the last time they met, the conversation is underway. Arthur, balancing on a stool, rests his back against the wall, closes his eyes, bows his head and listens. Nelson taps his bow lightly against the strings of his cello, and whispers a quiet winding solo statement. Polly and Michael take turns nodding, swaying, and sipping their beer. No one here is in a rush.

I am struck by the similar posture in each musician’s body as they play: the back is soft, and bent forward, the feet are planted wide on the ground. The head tilts to one side and slightly up, like the open cup of a flower, catching the rain.

I know I am right where I want to be when I find myself simultaneously energized, heartbroken, inspired, fired up, undone, done in and completely awake. Within moments of the Ensemble taking the space, the very air in the room starts to change. We are in the presence of Presence itself. So simple, and yet, so deeply profound, this powerful act of choosing to show up and pay attention together in this way. I can hardly stay still in my seat. Suddenly, it seems, the entire room is alive and dancing in collaboration with the sound, with the bodies and the instruments that are making the sound. Everything is part of what is happening, and nothing is irrelevant.

I let the sound surround me, and in the semi-private cocoon of closed eyes the sounds start to take on shapes. Like lines, but somehow with a spacious volume. Indulge me for a moment, as I loosen the grip on the words, in order to give you the tiniest glimpse of the sweet state that room was in. Imagine, say, watching a film of ice crystals forming on a glass surface, each tiny line, like a finger, branching off into countless others, meeting, layering, fanning out, folding over each other. Now speed that film up and expand the frame, so it’s no longer a two dimensional thing, but starts to fill the room. Imagine that glass surface beginning to bend, expand, inflate and move through the room. Now imagine that the lines are both sound, and light, and you’re not just watching this film, but feeling it in your skin, your lungs, your bones, your blood. Each note a ripple, an undulation that moves through the space, tapping awake the attention of everything in its path. Each note, simultaneously a sound, a sensation, a taste in your mouth. A flicker of light, a pang, a memory and a future shout. And all this is happening and unfolding in glorious real-time, like a Polaroid developing before your very eyes, from the inside out.

A woman enters the cafe and passes just inches from Arthur’s post near the door. Her orange beret bounces a vigorous greeting, and Arthur responds with a smile and a nod. Her entrance reminds me of the world outside, and suddenly, my perception expands and, like pulling wide-open the shutters on a follow-spot, light floods my attention, my attention floods the room, floods the street outside the room, floods the sky above the street…

What is happening here? How you answer that question depends entirely on which perceptual level of reality you’re interested in, or tuned into. What’s your fancy? What’s your fascination? How far down the rabbit hole are you interested in going?

I’ve been scribbling notes in my sketch book, thinking that later I might try to string some words together, to write about this experience. The tip of my pencil snaps, I’ve been writing so fast. I look down at what I have just written, and smile at the words that have appeared on the page:

They are beings of light!! They are beings of shining voluminous light!

They keep going. I look outside and notice it’s started to snow. The very air in the room is alive, the room itself is buzzing: The bartender washes racks of glasses, in perfect tune with the muted trumpet, in perfect time with the talking drum. Anthony’s fingers blur as they chase each other up and down the fret of his upright bass. A bell rings from the kitchen window; someone’s food is ready. Oh right, I think, someone is hungry. Of course. Of course, there would also be hunger here. Deep hunger. Every one of us, hungry for the real, even when we don’t know it.

Suddenly, an ambulance tears past the cafe. Then a fire truck. For a few moments, the punched tin ceiling of the cafe flashes red, as the sirens scream and blast in unison with the sharp cries of Arthur’s trumpet.

I used to hear the scream of an ambulance and think…oh…someone’s life just took an unexpected turn. Someone out there is not having the kind of day they thought they might have when they woke up. Maybe I got this from my mother, a devout Catholic, who used to close her eyes and make the sign of the cross whenever an ambulance passed us on the highway. It stayed with me, this kind of sudden heaviness of empathy every time I heard a siren, until one day I told a friend about it, how the sound of a siren hit my ears like, “someone’s in trouble.” She said, yeah, but if you listen, you can also hear something underneath it, something like… “don’t worry, help is on the way…” Whoa. Paradigm blaster. Tune in, tune in, by all means tune in. Don’t doubt for a second that you are inextricably connected to everything around you. But when you tune in to someone’s suffering or bad fortune, let go of the heaviness: they have more than enough of their own. Send them the lightness they need, send them help is on the way…

Like the cook ringing the pick-up bell, the ambulance reminds me that life doesn’t stop just because six people are playing music, and a handful of people are listening to them. Life goes on. Lives go on. Not separate, but alongside, and there’s always an emergency…an emergence…an emerging, a coming into being, from the formless into form, into the moment, into the right this very moment. As the red glow fades from the room and the ambulance disappears from view, I feel a shift among the musicians, I feel a shift in the room. I feel the threads of this music spilling out of the Bean, and following that ambulance down the street connecting every person in that room with the unknown person for whom that siren tolled. What is happening here? I think of a line from a favorite Rumi poem:

This is love: to fly toward a secret sky,
to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.

And they keep going. Keep playing, keep sending that sound out into the air. I look at Hilary, who sits next to me, knitting and nodding her head with the music. Her eyes are wide open and bright. We beam at each other. I say, just loud enough for her to hear over the music, which, as it turns out means practically shouting, “This… (motioning towards the huddle of magic bubbling up from the corner of the room) THIS is how you change the world!”