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New Year’s Tale

This week I had to write a program note for The Rivers of Bowery, the short concert opener I’m writing for Bill Berz and the Rutgers Wind Ensemble, which will be premiered next month at the CBDNA National Convention in New York. I’m pleased with how it turned out, and it contains a story I’ve been meaning to post on these pages anyway, so here it is in its entirety:

THE RIVERS OF BOWERY is an overture with a triumphant vision of the City as complex machine, capable of incubating the lowest in human nature as well as harnessing the best of Man’s intentions. The title comes directly from Allen Ginsberg’s glorious chronicle of Beat counterculture, Howl. Written in 1956, in a tenement about 2 blocks from where I live on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Howl celebrates the Beat counterculture by breathlessly rejoicing in the underdog grit of Ginsberg’s beloved bohemia. The image is extracted from the line:

…who ate the lamb stew of the imagination or digested the crab at the muddy bottom of the rivers of Bowery.

Ginsberg’s river is a rush of people, and not the usual sunny city dwellers of an E.B. White essay or an O’Henry story, but his specific anti-community of the lost, the drugged, and the outcast. Ginsberg presents his city as possessing a triumphant spirit, neighbors piled on top of each other, never letting each other down despite being torn apart by society and by themselves.

No one is more convinced of this dichotomy than me: Upon returning home after a weekend away in December, I found that my apartment had been broken into. Someone who most likely knows me, perhaps a teen in the building, or a relative of a neighbor down on his luck, had entered my apartment, and in a spirit of criminal benevolence, had taken only a portable piece of electronics (easily replaceable by me, and yet very saleable on the street). But our thief also grabbed my backpack, probably in order to transport the hot goods. As this occurred while I was writing this very piece, the bag contained piles of manuscript paper—all the sketches and drafts for this commission and for others, as well as a music sketchbook containing most of the sketches of every piece I’ve written for years. In taking the bag along with the intended stolen item, he inadvertently defeated his (in a way, thoughtful) purpose and actually took what was in fact most valuable to me.

I knew there had to be a way where I and my (Ginsberg’s!) community could work together to correct his mistake. The contents of the bag (not seeming valuable) were most likely in a dumpster, somewhere in the neighborhood. I posted notices, whispered of a reward. I talked to neighbors, suspects, and relatives of suspects. I made it known that I did not want the stolen electronics back, but needed only the papers in that backpack. Just as I was starting to think that the manuscripts were lost forever and begin the process of frantically re-writing this piece, a homeless man came to the building, and reported that he “found” the papers in the garbage while looking for cans…

Most likely he split the reward with the thief, but the details don’t matter. What is important is that despite our own machinations, we all keep each other afloat on Ginsberg’s river, and my (now appropriately fetid, stinking) manuscripts can make this positive vision manifest in sound and concert.


It was a Playstation. That’s the hot “electronics” mentioned above. My PS2, along with all of my games and controllers, took one for the team. All replaceable*, but since the drafts of Avenue X and The Rivers of Bowery were on the line, I think the Gaming Gods will understand. And as far as what was in the backpack, this will be the first time the commissioners of Avenue X have ever heard this important tidbit. And you read correctly, Sports Fans, every sketch and draft of both pieces were in that bag. Last week, it was a crisis … this week, a great story. If you are a commissioner of Avenue X and you are reading this, aren’t you glad you read to the end of the note now?

Other contents of the bag included:
1) a CD of The Brazilian Wind Symphony (not yet opened)
2) a pair of noise-cancelling headphones
3) a half-read Jhumpa Lahiri novel
All probably still in that dumpster. Such is life in the Naked City. But man, the program note wrote itself…

*Not so much the memory card, though, with about 120 hours of gaming progress on it…Oy.)

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