Category Archives: Journal

some links

BRIM and the Guidonian Hand recently presented Songs from the River Project out in California, at the Cal State Fullerton New Music Festival. We premiered two new pieces, and got a nice review from Mark Swed in the LA Times.

BRIM, loadbang, the Guidonian Hand, and James Johnston are heading into the studio to record the next set of River Project pieces for EP#3. EP#1 is now sold-out, but EP#2 is still available, so if you haven’t yet snagged a copy, here’s your chance!

Along with working on recording the next EP, we are currently booking shows for next season, and of course I’ve got more pieces on the way! I keep finding more areas I want to delve into, which are taking shape into pieces and projects I would never have predicted. More about the new projects soon!

But it occurs to me that new visitors might want a quick link to the beginning of this whole journey, which you can find right here.

it’s all about the river

We’re hard at work getting ready for three concerts of River Project music at Abrons Arts Center in late January: wrangling rehearsal schedules for more than 25 people, making special arrangements and generating parts for River Project music for three different rosters of players, organizing tech riders, instrument movers, press releases, all that endless stuff that goes into doing shows, even before a single sound gets made. In a way I feel very far away from the river, and from the urges and pleasures that got me out there two years ago. but then I realize it’s all about the river, and the anxiety recedes and I can just keep paddling.


blue grass

Monday morning, we left Pittsburgh early in order to get to Hyden, Kentucky, where Mary had set up a school presentation for BRIM at the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music. Mary had been there with ETHEL before, and has worked with Dean Osborne, who’s the director of this very cool school nestled in a hollow in the Appalachians.

I was fascinated to learn that there’s a rigidity and extreme traditionalism in the bluegrass world that rivals the classical music world. Doing anything different from the established norms is frowned upon, and yet all the greats of bluegrass were of course tremendous innovators who broke all the rules, from Bill Monroe to the Osborne Brothers themselves. So the school is devoted to finding that line of respect and devotion to the excellence of the tradition, while at the same time opening up to new ideas and approaches that will keep the art form alive.

It was a really meaningful experience to perform my music for these fellow travelers, I felt like we arrived from different places to a shared path, and I’m honored to have their company. They had lots of questions about how I put my music together technically, which was a bit of a surprise to me. When I do these kinds of presentations at conservatories, I don’t generally get asked detailed compositional questions. I found the whole experience refreshing and fascinating. I think there may be something really interesting to explore at the nexus of traditional bluegrass and new music…. Hmmmm….

Dean Osborne generously arranged to put us up at Mary Breckinridge’s house, Wendover, which was the site of the Frontier Nursing Service she founded in the late 20s, and which is still operating today. (I had only learned about this program a few weeks earlier, when I met Mary’s cousin Kristin, a cheese-maker, at the Craftsbury Farmer’s Market up in Vermont, who had participated in the program in the late 80s.) Mary Breckinridge was this amazing person. A privileged woman, she lost both her own children at an early age, so she decided to come to deeply impoverished Leslie County and start a nursing service for mothers and children. In the years that she ran this service, both maternal and infant health improved from perhaps the worst in the nation to better than the country as a whole, and all this work was done by a combination of professional nurses on horseback traveling up and around the hollows, and by young women volunteers, who came out to join the adventure. It’s a case of those much-maligned “ladies bountiful”  doing something really meaningful and transformative with their time and talent and energy. Dean estimates that something like a hundred thousand people today owe their existence to Mary Breckinridge and the Frontier Nursing Service.


bridge in the hollow

a day to Pittsburgh

Saturday, we headed out in the rain and cold towards Pittsburgh, stopping at Shanksville at the newly unveiled Flight 93 memorial, which is quite well-done: tasteful and thoughtful in that National Park-ish way. It might be strange to say this, but I found the absence of any information or images of the four hijackers to be a lost opportunity, somehow. I guess I really believe that seeing the bad guys, engaging with their craziness, is a way to guard against craziness in oneself or one’s culture. I mean, isn’t that at least part of why we read and watch movies about Hitler or mass murderers or whatever? I’m not sure how that could or should be done at this memorial, but in my opinion, erasing them completely from the picture is a sanitizing that minimizes the actual authentic heroism of the forty folks who brought down the plane in this lonely field.

We arrived at my friends’ Rick and Kate’s place in time for dinner, and I could help marveling at how different our pace was from that 20 to 40 miles per day I did going down the Mississippi in 2009. No wonder I got so interested in 19th century (and earlier) history, I was traveling at a pre-20th century pace! That’s super-obvious the moment I think of it, but I only realized it fully doing that quick drive on Saturday: nothing to it to drive from New York City to Pittsburgh, it’s only a few hundred miles!

It was great to catch up with Rick and Kate. Rick is a wonderful poet, you can check out his work here and here, and Kate is a passionate birder, and I was really gratified that she liked the movie of In and Out of the Game, that really means a lot to me.

hudson paddle

The night before heading out on our little mini-tour back to the Mississippi, I took Mary out for a sunset paddle on the Hudson River. I figured since we won’t be kayaking or biking on tour, we could at least start out with a paddle just to get off on the right foot or something.

Here are a few pictures from the paddle, which was just great. If you’re in NYC and are into paddling at all, this is an excellent little excursion, highly recommended!




mountains and mounds


After the Easter trip to Mississippi, I ended up first in Sarasota, FL, at the Hermitage, then home to NYC for a minute, then back to Montalvo to retrieve my car and kayak and bike, and then I drove to northeastern Wyoming, where I am spending May at an artist’s colony at Ucross. I was here once a long time ago, and since then, they have built the most perfect composer’s studio ever. I really really love it here. Wow.

On Saturday I took a hike up to some teepee circles that are on a hill overlooking the tiny intersection that forms the town of Ucross (population 25.) It turns out that the name teepee circle is misleading: archaeologists do not find evidence of encampments or any domestic life at these sites, and seem to think the circles have something to do with religion or vision quests. And they are very old, at least 1000 – 2000 years old, maybe more.

What I found deeply striking, and the reason I am writing about it on this RiverBlog, was that the location of this teepee circle, on a plateau/promontory beneath the crest of an even higher hill, overlooking the river valley from a good height — removed, but not so high above as to be inaccessible or feel terribly remote — is that it seems like the natural analogue of the man-made mounds I encountered from Cahokia near St. Louis all the way down to Natchez. It almost feels like the Native Americans along the Mississippi river decided they needed to build artificial versions of this mountainous landscape along the river where no landscapes like this would ever naturally be found.

And because the migration of Native Americans I’ve been mostly thinking about is the 19th century exile from the East to the West, it’s really strange to imagine that perhaps Native Americans who had lived here in Wyoming and Montana moved east to the Mississippi river valley and decided to replicate an important Western geological/spiritual structure by hand. (I’m totally making this up of course, I have no actual knowledge of the migration patterns of Native Americans a thousand or more years ago.)

These teepee circles and mounds are ghost towns in some special sense — not abandoned villages, but evidence of a lost or abandoned spiritual life — more like Stonehenge than Derwent. I’m thinking that in the Middle East and Greece and Italy, (to name my own preoccupations,) certain places have always had mystical or spiritual significance, and those places often get re-purposed, re-visioned, as different religions and religious rituals develop. Are there churches in the UK that were purposely built on prehistoric religious/ritual sites? I’m not thinking of an example of that kind of re-purposing in the US: the National Cathedral is not on a Native American religious site as far as I know, and I think there’s not enough respect for the Native American spiritual tradition to even think in terms of wanting to borrow or re-imagine the spiritual power Native Americans found in a particular place.


more pictures here

the mystery of how much

“The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much,” wrote Eudora in The Optimist’s Daughter. Perhaps the implication is that the same mystery applies to places as well as people.

My visits to Rodney with Chris and Mary in the last six months are as far distant from Eudora’s visits to Rodney in the 30s and 40s as hers are from the Civil War.

I’ve just gone through and added some excerpts from the Welty story At the Landing to a small set of selected images.

To explore more photos of Rodney and the surrounding river country, please go here.

remembering betrays nature?

Somehow I thought of this poem in connection with the Archives of Exile project and Richard’s comment on my post yesterday. I don’t really know the poetry of Pessoa, and a quick bit of research turns up the fact that he wrote under a series of names — heteronyms, he called them — each of which had his own way of seeing the word and writing poetry. This is how Pessoa describes Caeiro, the writer of the poem below:

He sees things with the eyes only, not with the mind. He does not let any thoughts arise when he looks at a flower… the only thing a stone tells him is that it has nothing at all to tell him… this way of looking at a stone may be described as the totally unpoetic way of looking at it. The stupendous fact about Caeiro is that out of this sentiment, or rather, absence of sentiment, he makes poetry. (quoted in Wikipedia)


Rather the flight of the bird passing and leaving no trace
Than creatures passing, leaving tracks on the ground.
The bird goes by and forgets, which is as it should be.
The creature, no longer there, and so, perfectly useless,
Shows it was there — also perfectly useless.

Remembering betrays Nature,
Because yesterday’s Nature is not nature.
What’s past is nothing and remembering is not seeing.
Fly, bird, fly away; teach me to disappear.

Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa) Portugal
in Poems of Fernando Pessoa


I guess the point we are circling around is the way in which yesterday’s nature can’t be nature, or shall we say “natural”, but is culture. The wisteria in Rodney is historical, not natural, even though it is quite obviously a flowering vine blooming out of the ground in the spring. Does recognizing the wisteria as a human trace prevent me from fully seeing it, as I think I’m understanding Caeiro’s poem to say? Do Welty’s passionate things really endure in ways we can feel even when we are ignorant of the details? Or does everything simultaneously disappear and endure in some almost mystical way that is what we are feeling when we visit a ghost town or walk through ruins? And how much of this is sentimentality or nostalgia, and what of it is the essential, authentic, and totally real bond that ties humans together across life and death and time and distance?

Wisteria in Exile


On this spring visit to Rodney, the blooming wisteria was a constant presence, the vines tangling in profusion everywhere.

It turns out that wisteria is actually an invasive species in the United States. Originally from China, it is a trace of the domesticating urges of the French settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I picture a slim, elegant, brave woman (she is French, after all!) making the long trip across the ocean to New Orleans and up the river to Rodney, holding her wisteria cuttings tidily on her lap, stroking them now and again. I picture her planting them by the side of her newly-erected house in a lumpy clearing — not backhoe-raw as the clearings new houses stand in nowadays — but still, a scarred open place carved out of the deep woods of Mississippi.

She can not quite imagine that her delicate and beautiful wisteria will survive in this remote place.

She can not imagine that her lovely wisteria will thrive to grow into wild vines that pull down walls and strangle large trees.

She can not imagine that one day the wisteria will be the last remaining trace of human settlement in the town of Rodney.


One, Two, Three, Brim

Jerry fishing for brim

Mary Rowell and I have been talking about putting together a band for a while now, and we spent a few days together at Montalvo in late March developing more rep for that project. Along with new work that’s still in progress, we made new versions of It Happens Like This, which you can listen to here, and Landscaping for Privacy, which I will post soon as well.

On Good Friday, when H. C. Porter and I were wandering around the almost-ghost-town of Rodney, we came upon a man named Jerry, who was fishing in the swamp on the edge of town. The water in Rodney is even higher than it was around Thanksgiving, when Mary and I visited there the first time. The river has moved about three miles west of where it was during the Civil War, orphaning the town in the woods. You can’t actually get to the river without a boat, because the intervening land is flooded most of the year.

Jerry is one of very few residents of Rodney — there are perhaps three families actually living here — and he lives off the land. While we watched, he was catching brim at the rate of about one a minute: hooking a worm, throwing in his line, pausing a moment, pulling the next fish in, taking it off the hook, and beginning the cycle again. Some guys we met later in the day told us that they had asked Jerry how many fish he caught and the answer was “Brim.” Jerry is a man of very few words, and it is possible he was answering a different question — what kind? rather than how many? — but of course the bucket was indeed full. Jerry was on his way to Lorman, walking the ten miles of back roads as he does several times a week to sell his fish at the market in town.

Mary and I have agreed that the name of our new band is Brim.

Jerry on his way