If I spend enough time with the empty blue sky in front of me, will I stop dwelling in the darkest corners of my dreams?
January 15, 2015. 2 PM. I found myself staring at the Ohio River from the balcony of a room in the Lafayette Hotel in Marietta, Ohio. The Lafayette, as the writer Jim Harrison would have it, is one of my “panic holes,” a place to hide for a good head clearing, purging, to hell with it all day or two. Since I’ve already revealed one of my secret hiding spots, I might as well mention that there are two rooms with covered balconies and panoramic views of the river. It has free parking, decent restaurants nearby-basically, all the anti-social comfort of deep woods off the grid anonymity, but with the trappings of an historic hotel with a friendly staff. As long as you don’t let the idea that you are sitting in the gateway to European expansion across the west and the ensuing genocide bother you, Marietta is a nice quiet spot.
I had a bottle of scotch on hand, an empty legal pad in case a coherent thought or two should drift into my head, and one goal. I wanted to watch barges go by.
How did I end up in such a place on a Thursday afternoon? The day before, Schall (the badass engineer) sent me the huge file of recording session raw material from the previous week. After I helped get the kids in bed, I opened it and had a listen.
I did not make it past the first ten seconds of the first take. The first note of the Gaubert Sonata was slightly flat. Tight. The vibrato lacked the exact color I wanted. The rest of the phrase lacked warmth, shape, and direction. I completely flipped out, convinced that I had torpedoed months of preparation, wasted thousands of dollars, and potentially ruined a defining moment in my artistic career.
So I ran away to go watch barges.
Now it is ten months later, and you know the obvious punchline. I came home from the panic hole, listened to more, and found plenty of much better material for the record. We released it in August, a handful of people have purchased it, and quite a few of those tell me they like it.
But the January jaunt to the river still haunts me. On the surface, of course, it is nothing more than the behavior of a self-centered asshole with disposable income and a propensity for taking himself far too seriously. Like most moments in my life where I lose control, I look on it now with a deep sense of embarrassment. Yes- I over-reacted, high standards and high strung don’t mix, it all worked out in the end, that sort of thing.
What lingers is simple: doubt. Not the concern that I could do better-of course that will always be true, and I have made my peace with that. As I tell my students, to be an artist you have to strive for perfection, but you have to acknowledge that you will never be perfect. Reconciling that koan-like riddle is your life long struggle. It is a different kind of doubt- a nagging thought that despite all the hard work, despite the deep sense of pride when seeing the completed project, despite the warm reception, there is something missing.
When I listen to it now- never complete, just a track here and there- I still have little moments of cringing, but many moments of satisfaction. I wonder, however, if my initial reaction was about more than a flat note. We make music with our entire being. Maybe I wanted to hear an idealized vision of myself as an artist, not the one I really am. I am at my best when I crawl into the music itself and inhabit different places- e.g. the opening phrases of Rorem take me to a painfully lonely young version of myself walking alone on a snowy day in Northern Michigan. Gaubert makes me embrace the joyful part of me, the one that cried when eating a simple lavender sorbet in a restaurant in Metz, France as I realized that there are moments of profound beauty in this world. And so on.
I am still trying to decide if that artist is the one you hear on Four Prayers, or if I fell short. Incidentally, I only saw one barge in Marietta. It did not have the calming effect I was seeking. The empty blue sky on my walk today did not either.
Nothing erases doubt. Maybe it is time for a new koan- “Your Doubts and your Light are the same.” Or something. Suggestions welcome…