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Home Sweet Beat

A good piece in today’s paper (I’m pretty sure it does not require the TimesSelect subscription) about the glory days and subsequent gentrification of my East Village neighborhood, brings up everything I’ve been thinking about and working on for the last few months. The multimedia attached to the article includes a fascinating mp3 walking tour with amazing facts I never knew about points of interest I walk past every day, as well as a wonderful 10 minute video tour, which pretty much crystallizes why I wanted to write this piece I’ve been working on.

Walking around the tattered remnants of Beat Culture every day in the ‘hood, I think of these guys and their art and poetry and music constantly. A piece had to come at some point. And fortunately it’s a big one. 16 ensembles, in a consortium organized and cajoled by Jeff Gershman at Texas A&M-Commerce have commissioned a large movement I’m tentatively calling My Hands Are A City, titled after a Gregory Corso poem. This will eventually be a separately-performable movement in a large-scale work, probably 3 movements – all of it an expansion on the themes (both poetic and musical) I touch on in the overture The Rivers of Bowery.

In addition to the daily reminders of the now-gone-forever culture you can see in the above NYTimes video, I’ve been inundating myself with fun primary source research as I write the piece, which of course has been a genuine pleasure. So far I’ve read John Clellon Holmes’s seminal Beat novel Go, Holmes’s 1950′s essays and newspaper articles about his friends, a pile of Corso and Ginsberg and Kerouac poetry, a very fun biographical overview of the time by Leslie MacAdams called The Birth of The Cool, as well as re-reading the glorious On the Road. I’ve inundated my ears with hours of Charlie Parker (his apartment was 4 blocks away from mine) and Miles Davis and Lester Young, as well as studied transcriptions of their solos. I unearthed the fabulous Beat-filled and Amram-scored short by Robert Frank, Pull My Daisy, and stared for hours at the glorious photos in Frank’s 1958 book The Americans.

I really can’t get enough, and so whenever I sit down to compose, I wonder how this stuff actually translates into the notes I’m writing. I honestly have no idea. I’m pretty sure none of it will come out specifically in the music, but it all swims in my brain nonetheless as I write. And yet I’m still clueless as to what the aural effect of this barrage of sensory information will actually be. I am not Charlie Parker (that is both very sad, and a good thing), so the piece ultimately wants to sound like Newman — and those two things are so dissimilar it’s been very interesting to reconcile them. Still, if enough bee-bop genius soaks in my head, maybe something half-decent will come out the other side.

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