See also: Reviews
Afterwords combines original solo piano with the spoken word. Each piece is a musical meditation on quotations from my favorite novels, short stories and poems. (I've included Solo Piano Bonus Tracks for those who would prefer the music free of talking.)
Unlike most of my solo piano works, where only a title heralds the musical story I am weaving, this project uses longer quotations. The listener has a far more detailed map of the story behind the music. The process is more like what I've done for stage and film, where the music underscores specific action or illuminates the inner thoughts of specific characters. Afterwords illustrates the power of ideas using the interplay of stories and music.
Each piece flows into the next... forming a singular arc. I hope you enjoy the aggregate meaning as you move from track to track, disc to disc. Please embrace the project as a whole, even if that may require more than one sitting. Afterwards, feel free to reorder the tracks in whatever way that feels best for you. Create your own meditative session, as this modern age of digital playlists invites us to do.
To best illustrate each quotation, I employ varying musical genres. I love projects that enable me to do this. The mix of styles creates a rich multi-cultural tapestry. On a personal level, this collection represents a soundtrack to my specific intellectual journey, from a waking pre-teen reading his first novel to an aging adult looking back on a world and life he still hopes to better understand.
In the past, I've paired music with Impressionist paintings (Impressions of Water & Light), Medieval masks (13 Masks), my own poetry (As Simple As Soap), Holidays (Midwinter Born), geographic locations (New England Suite and Morning Whispers), 19th century memoirs (Of Two Minds), Baroque histories (Flow) and modern events (The September 11 Project). I thought it was time to highlight another source of inspiration: literature.
This project comes after a period of time in which I've consciously avoided the written word. For most of my career I cared deeply about language. Fourteen scripts, five books, hundreds of poems, thousands of letters and over 260 lyrics for songs are a testament to that. But all that time I struggled with words in a way I've never had to with music, on the level of a love-hate relationship. A few years ago, after being required to avoid stress for health reasons, I decided to stop working with words altogether. I concentrated on instrumental music.
An unexpected freedom resulted. Embracing music without the weight and stress of accompanying words was a delight. I moved through the day unencumbered by the gravity of definitions, the requirements of character development, the pressure of storylines and rhyming lyrics and correct spellings. Many ambitions and boundaries fell away. I felt closer to my own inner life, less cluttered, better able to "voice" the internal diary of my thoughts. I stretched myself more as a composer, focusing as I was on one discipline instead of two.
I loved living in a creative bubble divorced from word-worry, but also began to miss my partnership with the rigors of word-articulation. The melding of literature and piano in this project is an effort to breach the moat I had dug around the written word.
The challenge of representing through music my personal response to literature's varied and nuanced insights has been a great pleasure. From classics to science fiction to children's stories to contemporary novels, the books I've chosen represent moments of my own life, frozen in time and entangled in memory. I try to honor and cherish them the best way I know how: at the piano. I hope I have created synergy not just between words and music, but between recollection and imagination, contemplation and experience, searching and mindfulness. I hope the combination of unique texts, conceptual provocations, personal reactions, multi-genre music and juxtaposed stories results in adding meaning to the adventure in which we are all entangled.
This piece is an homage to the existentialist satire of Kurt Vonnegut. It begins with a metaphor: the sound of free flying insects or, more accurately, the echo of that freedom captured in the rounded contours of polished amber. The shape of the amber is formed by a swirling cloud of sound that flows without any firm destination, much like life itself. Melodies try to escape, new moments try to invade, but the boundary of the amber remains unbroken. In keeping with the sci-fi framework of Slaughterhouse-Five, I had the quirky soundtrack from The Twilight Zone in mind before I sat down to write this piece, although little of it survived. Instead, the caught-in-the-twilight aspect of Vonnegut's main character, Billy Pilgrim, who believes himself "unstuck in time", inspired these chord progressions. "Player Piano" was Vonnegut's first published story; I'm honored to add my piano to one of his best books. One of the many eye-opening books I had the good fortune of knowing as a youth, I read this one when I was 16 years old. I thank my older rock n' roll brother Tim for making me a life-long science fiction fan and my friend Peter Verbrick for introducing me to Vonnegut.
The energetic opening brings to mind the progressive rock of Keith Emerson and the 20th Centrury experimentations of Igor Stravinsky, with just a touch of Count Basie and Bob Fosse thrown in. The second half is more Erik Satie and Stan Getz. The spoken quotation sits in the space between chaos and quietude. Jeannette Winterson is sometimes a confounding author, revealing unexpected insights with profound, well placed philosophical one-liners. These revelations stayed with me far longer than any of her plots or characters. The music is a philosophical statment, rather than an accompaniment to any specific Winterson story.
“Your name is a golden bell hung in my heart,” said the Butterfly. “I would break my
body to pieces to call you once by your name.”
― Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
Based on the fantasy novel The Last Unicorn, this piece combines jazz, tango and blues to create a sense of magic, struggle and redemption. In addition to motifs for the Last Unicorn and the oracle Butterfly, a bit of the menacing Red Bull has worked its way into the music, especially during the tango portions. For those who haven't read the book, the Last Unicorn was transformed by Schmendrick the Magician into human form in order to disguise her from the Red Bull. She is transformed back before the end of the story, but her human experience haunts her in many ways, thus her unfamiliar feelings of regret. Even though the Butterfly seems to be the star of the piece, dominating the movement of the right hand, it was Schmendrick who had the biggest influence on my writing. The bumbling, uncertain, yet crafty and occasionally brilliant magician is the character with whom I most identified – and still do 45 years later. The tension between springtime's enchantments and the mortal heartbreak of coming winter define the interplay throughout.
I used an Oscar Peterson-style style of music to speak to the hopes and dreams of the era, in contrast to the loss and struggle depicted in much of the novel's action. Each verse demonstrates a different kind of inner optimism, grit, devil-may-care delusion, shared desperation and unstoppable drive that pushed thousands of people westward during the tragedy of the dust bowl years. Steinbeck alternates between character-based narration and poetic commentary; my scenes change and change again, creating a kaleidoscope of lives, energy, hope. There is a dreamy quality to the realism Steinbeck chronicled; I hope my music mirrors that, especially the section in the beginning (under my talking) and the recapitulation at the end when expectations recede into the swirling dust, just as they do in the book.
The inventiveness of using multiple perspectives in The Unbearable Lightness of Being was a revelation to me when I first read the book as a young man. Profoundly haunting. I try to capture this essence with a simple left hand continuum overlaid by a melody that uses dissonance to highlight its beauty. Chopin influences emerge, yet there is something contemporarily cinematic about the piece which places it squarely in our modern world. Love takes patience, and these hidden phrases reveal themselves slowly. Kundera, a Czech-born French writer, was influenced by Kafka, Nietzche, Proust (and others). I've read every one of Kundera's books. I hope you can hear the Czech and French influences folded into the occasionally rushed phrasing, the the romantic melodrama and the hint of the ridiculous conviction that love is worth any amount of pain and ruination.
The Impressionist opening creates a dreamy soundscape on the edges of insanity, like the effect the sea had on the Old Man that fateful day. Along with the Debussy/Ravel influence, there is a hint of Spanish melody and Latin polyrhythm during the whole-tone blues section, an homage to Hemingway's Cuban setting. As in the book, the listener is presented with the motion of waves, floating disorientation and unmoored exhaustion. Yet the lasting impression is of an unfinished mythic journey. In this novelette, "the one that got away" goes far beyond the normal fish story. Instead of being a simple fable about loss, or stretching the truth, the greatest gift imparted to the reader is an example of noble pursuit, humbling fortitude and admiration that can only be forged in defeat.
Dignity can create the illusion that nothing will deter you from being who you are, no matter the impediment encountered or the length of time that passes. The same can be said for the playful elegance of wearing scarves. This piece flows like a slow motion scarf in the wind, never striking exactly the same pose twice. Appropriately, there is a touch of cynicism in the graceful sophistication of the musical variations. Eggers is poking fun at "dignity" in this quote, but his characters courageously struggle to find it, to create it, although rarely with respectable consistency. Looking at them from the outside, society might see nothing dignified about them. But on the inside, they are splendid and noble and confounding. Taking a page out of both Duke Ellington's and Brad Mehldau's stylings, I pay homage to them as well as Eggers. Side note: This quote and music also reminds me of Masha when she says, in Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, "I feel as if I had been in the world a thousand years, and I trail my life behind me like an endless scarf."
When I first encountered Merlin giving this advice to young Arthur, he might as well have been talking directly to me. The character of Merlin has been a Jungian archetype at the center of my identity for as long as I can remember. My father was a huge Le Morte d'Arthur fan, which I read in 5th grade. The Once and Future King catapulted me into more modern Merlin novels, from Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave to Parke Godwin's Firelord to Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon and more. Once I felt like I had exhausted the fictional aspect of the story, I turned to academic studies on the Arthurian legend; on druids and shamanism; and Medieval history in general, books that provided research for my unfinished Celtic musical/opera, Merlyn. I began Merlyn as a college student in 1980 with my friend Lyn Miller, then revived the idea in 1994, but other projects intervened. Although this piece is in a completely different musical style than Merlyn, it is buoyed by optimism, nostalgia, playfulness, curiosity and the power of learning, all hallmarks of the magical wizard. There is even a darkly stygian section where you can hear him casting spells as time runs backwards in an effort to escape the tragedy he tried so hard to avert. Indeed, the anti-intellectual forces of the coming Early Middle Ages nearly swallowed the light that was Merlin's Camelot. Nearly.
…Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song.
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.
Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic.
Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all creeds.
Divine am I inside and out.
I fly those flights of a fluid and swallowing soul,
My course runs below the soundings of plummets.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from under the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
― Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” (edited/rearranged), Leaves of Grass
I often wonder if I would have become an artist if I had never encountered the writings of Walt Whitman. More than any single author, he was responsible for me becoming a writer. It was a Whitmanesque-styled poem I wrote as a sophomore in college that proved to me I could write. But more than that, his all-encompassing love and courage inspired me to pursue honest self-expression. He is in my personal pantheon of saints – for his life choices as well as his words. For this piece I've rearranged some of his more famous phrases from "Song of Myself," the central poem of "Leaves of Grass." The music I chose is the title track from my first solo piano album, Morning Whispers. The version on that album always seemed more an anthem than a deeply personal statement and I've wanted to rerecord it for years. I've include a version without me talking as a free download bonus track at the end of Disc 2 (see Track 18 below).
These words are heavily inspired by the great piano teacher Bernstein and his outlook on life and music. The music is from my 1995 musical drama, Creature, and I cannot help but hear the original lyrics as I play: "I won't leave you; what survives lives in your heart. I won't leave you; I will always be there. What is memory but the love you have breathed within? Sing it, sing it on your lips… to mine, to mine." There is something romantic about imagining we are made of stardust, not just metaphorically but evolutionarily. I'm inspired by the poetic congruencies between celestial physics and the rigorous structures of music theory. Like gazing up into the stars, experiencing music transcends rules and theories. There is a deep magic in listening closely; an augmented magic in composing, in playing, in channeling music; an evolving through-line of genres and theory that has been passed down through the centuries. I experience a sense of magic every time I sit at the piano – a very old magic that, paradoxically, makes me feel very young. This piece is meant to represent a prologue to that kind of rebirth, an appeal to the cyclical wonders of life.
This haunting piece plays out as if I, the pianist, am searching for something, only to interrupt myself before it can be found. "I can't tell you exactly what I'm looking for..." I confide in the middle of the song, as if I'm talking about the meandering music. This is intentional. I wrote this more as a study of the kind of women Aimee Bender portrays than to illustrate the specific words I quote. "I want to be violated" is a particularly jarring phrase, yet there is nothing jarring in the music. Bender's female characters are often overcome by melancholy, yet respond with volatility, as in the jilted young woman who goes to the local library and has aggressive sex with a stranger, betraying the quiet sanctuary of the books she loves. Or, sometimes they respond with powerless calm, like the woman who watches the lover she no longer loves slowly devolve into an ape, then an amphibian, then a primordial amoeba – and she still cannot leave him. So, instead of capturing the desire to be "violated by insight," I instead reveal the person who wants so to be filled with something she cannot define. I change keys at the end in a hopeful nod to a happy surprise perhaps waiting around the next turn.
'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit.
'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.'
'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?'
'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time.
That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who
have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been
loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But
these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to
people who don't understand.'
― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and
misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other
people are as real as you.
― Ian McEwan, Atonement
Flourishes of garden faerie magic and childlike storytelling open the piece. Once the Wooden Horse explains the physical downsides of becoming Real, I switched into a more adult blues style. The bluesy middle section is a testament to the fortitude and resilience required to be Real. I fashioned a certain amount of 'rabbit hopping' into the lurching left hand in order to maintain a sense of play throughout. Devotees of The Velveteen Rabbit might be surprised by my coupling this famous passage with one from a far different kind of novel: Atonement. (Devotees of Ian McEwan might be even more surprised!) Forty years separated my reading of these two books but, for some reason, the McEwan quotation made me think of the Skin Horse. I felt like it could well be a speech she would share with the Velveteen Rabbit a little bit later down the road... [I thank my son, Carl, for giving me "Atonement" to read. It is a book I would've otherwise missed.]
These few lines encapsulate the crisis of life felt by many people as they grow older. Miéville is one of the best new voices in contemporary science fiction. The worlds he creates, unlike most of his predecessors, are based on completely alien cultures and psychologies. There are no human characters to interpret them or to rule over them. The reader must suspend all sense of ethnocentricity and historical destiny. The result is a tour de force of imagination and uncommon storytelling. Perdido Street Station is an extremely dark tale driven by characters whose moral standards and pursuits for fulfillment would fit well into a Victor Hugo novel. Magic and steampunk technology coexist alongside clashing ethical frameworks and a foreboding sense of inescapable doom. Guilt, the desire for redemption, scientific ambition and existential heroism in the face of devistation make this a fascinatingly poignant tale. I chose an unusual harmonic structure to give the piece a slightly alien musical context: Modal Blues Impressionism. Having a lullaby slowly develop within the music was my way of bringing in a sense of optimism, a hint of the better future we all hope for even as our own lives come to a close. [I thank my son, Anton, for turning me onto this book/series. The song itself is dedicated to my first grandchild, Eleanor "Nora" Chase Mueller.]
There is a different quality to longstanding "old" love, a different pace, expressed best by a slow waltz. I've tried to capture the steadiness of dearest memories without it being burdened by trite sentimentality or over-earnest passions. This style also complements William Faulkner's straightforward realism. "The Sound and The Fury" was the first Faulkner I read, in high school, followed by "As I Lay Dying." Impressed, I purchased the complete collection of his short stories; it took me ten years to finish it. Faster paced and more thrilling writers always seem to intervene. Yet I would return to him when I needed to slow down, when I was in search of a touchstone. "Beyond" is about post-mortal experience, originally titled "Beyond the Gates." I could not resist placing this quote, this question, among the others on Disc 2.
No Country For Old Men is the only book included in this collection that I read after seeing the film. Much of the film is harsh – and I wasn't sure I would have read the book until I watched the final speech by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones). That's when I realized why my daughter, Sarah, wanted me to read the book. Magnificent. The story does not end with a confrontation between the hero and villain, like most westerns. Rather, Bell is sitting with his wife at the breakfast table and relates two dreams he had the night before. In the second dream, Bell explains that his father is riding ahead to start a fire for them in “all that dark, all that cold.” Bell knows death looms in the future, but he trusts that his father, who had passed away years ago, is waiting for him somewhere out there in the great unknown. Like his father, Bell now realizes he is living in “no country for old men.” His time, marked by cleaner virtue and straightforward encounters, has passed. Although this is a moment to which I strongly related, I chose instead a passage from the book that displays a kernel of hope that had driven Bell forward throughout his life, even if he could not define that hope in words. It's an innate faith that dwells in certain people, as deeply seeded as DNA. I had considered using country & western music stylings for this track, but settled instead on Hard Bob. (It is a wonder of the passage of time that Bebop can now be considered the music of old men.) The angular phrases reminded me of the strokes of a sculptor. Each modulation felt like a chisel being reset, a new layer of stone being carved out. There is also something unsettling about the shifting jazz meters, even as certain phrases repeat specific rhythms, like Bell's life. The music makes the quotation more of a momentary musing, philosophical questions posed as random thoughts while on a walk. Sometimes these sorts of thoughts end up meaning far more to us then we might imagine. Perhaps this is why, at the very end, the motif of the Butterfly from The Last Unicorn visits, fluttering over the stone trough, considering it in a new light.
I was drawn to this quote for many reasons. The first was James' reference to "lungs of dust." My own lungs of dust have freed me from much of life's previous ambitions, enabling me to reorder both what is important and what I view as beauty. His last line is fabulously unexpected yet perfectly framed, which is why I tapped it for the title. There is so much light inside our minds, so much that will never be released, recorded, heard or understood by others; so much that can never be shared. Yet it illuminates such a wondrous space within. This piece layers major 7ths and 9ths over minor 3rds and 4ths, creating a sense of open light floating over an other-dimensional dusk. Clive James is known more for his humor and social critiques, but this honest passage written as he confronts his final years is precious and true, perfect for the end of this collection.
There's a place beyond words where experience first occurs to which I always want to return. I
suspect that whenever I articulate my thoughts or translate my impulses into words, I am betraying
the real thoughts and impulses which remain hidden.
― Jerzy Kosiński, The Painted Bird
Although I've positioned this piece as an epilogue, it is structured more like a prelude, heralding something new as opposed to distilling what has come before. But aren't all endings a kind of beginning when viewed from a different point of view?
Survivor is a satirical novel about death cults and celebrity, guilt and the desire to live innocently. Not only are the chapters and pages numbered backwards, the story has a clever cyclical quality, both aiding the satire and the profundity it contains. It is a marvelous journey that ends mid-sentence, leaving the reader wondering if the major character, Tender, lives or dies. I believe Tender lives happily ever after, which for him means he and his wife, Fertility, will finally be able to have better sex. More importantly (perhaps), it also means Tender will not be falsely viewed as a mass murderer; he will be free to live without attention or harm.
The Painted Bird was Kosiński’s first novel, yet its controversies may have led to his suicide 25 years later. The harrowing story is told from the perspective of a “stray” Jewish/Gypsy boy wandering around small Polish towns following WWII, surviving cruelties, torment and betrayals with heart-wrenching innocence. The book was banned in Poland, his homeland, by the Communists in power. He and his family suffered continual verbal and physical attacks by Eastern Europeans who considered the book slanderous to their culture. The novel was originally introduced as autobiographical. Decades later, it was discovered that the story was not only plagiarized, but Kosiński engaged in willful charade in order to corroborate biographical claims he had pretended to be true for his entire career. Regardless, The Painted Bird is a celebration of individual will and remains a magnificent work of art.
I share these two quotations without connection to either writer or story, for they stand on their own as wonderful musings. Together, they form an ideal ending to this collection. But I also find the story of Tender somehow informing the life of Kosiński, both by way of contrast and shared irony. The chord progression and tonality of the piece is inspired by Miles Davis' "Green In Blue" (the modal intonations he crafted in 1958-59 remain my favorite of all jazz styles). When the piece turns more New Age, it represents that moment when a vision of "happy ever after" becomes possible. The melody has a bird-like quality as it searches for freedom and innocence, like both Kosiński’s Gyspy boy and Palahniuk’s wronged and manipulated protagonist. It combines the open spaces of a starless night with lamplight spilling out from curtainless windows. Disc 2 began with a piece about stars; it ends with a piece beyond them. Beyond words as well. Beyond authors’ insights and poetic context. It rests within the impulses that remain hidden, beyond any attempt to consolidate and present. Within experience. Within the residue of living that can never be truly captured.
Good books were the best protection from evil that Brother Pepe had actually held in his
hands — you could not hold faith in Jesus in your hands, not in quite the same way you could hold good books.
― John Irving, Avenue of Mysteries
Words... They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the
other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when
they get their corners knocked off, they're no good anymore... I don't think writers are sacred,
but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge
the world a little...
― Tom Stoppard, The Real Thing
Richard Schletty, Sarah Mueller, Suzanne DelTufo, Jeffrey Price
Factory Underground Sound, Tom Stewart and Kenny Cash, engineers