Took a very long train ride a couple days ago. It ended up being 9.5 hours on the train instead of 6.5. A crane had fallen across the tracks outside Chicago.
Finding things to do on long trips is always a pain. At least on Amtrak, there are outlets. Electrical ones, I mean, not just outlets to relieve tedium. Two things happened on this trip that reminded me of the wonders of simplicity.
First was meeting a man named Chris. He was now retired, taking a train trip to visit his kids in California. He was meeting some in Albuquerque and camping in New Mexico before heading to SoCal and camping there. We discussed many things- he was one of those types that had a million jobs: a part-time luthier in NYC living with 2 flamenco guitarists and another luthier; a youth counselor heading several small town organizations outside San Fran; making posters and doing advertising for theaters. We talked about throwing TVs off buildings, lighting pianos on fire, and coming up with a class called "Music and Pyrotechnics."
We sat staring at the still scenery in the observation car having this conversation. I had a beer, he had what i assumed was a jack and coke, since it was in a glass and no can in sight. They called his dinner reservation, and he thanked me for the conversation. Chris said he felt reinvigorated- he was retired, but still spry and wily, and needed something to pass the time. He was thinking of going back to some of his old posters, ideas from the 60s for bands like the Santana Blues Band (before it was just Santana) and sprucing them up, making them animated gifs or short films. Chris thanked me for being creative, and passing that spirit onto someone that needed reminded of how you can turn anything into art, be creative with anything, even a train sitting still thanks to a fallen crane.
It made me appreciate a simple conversation with a stranger, an activity I often avoid.
The second experience happened later, sitting in my seat as the sun started to set. I was tired of reading- had already gone through 200 pages or so that day in a novel by C.J. Cherryh. Good trilogy, but after reading 700 pages in the last 4 days, i was shot.
So i turned on compy and flipped to the scores I had loaded on my computer. Ligeti String Quartet 2, Ferneyhough String Quartets 2, 3, and 4. I decided to start with the Ligeti- might as well go in chronological order.
It starts with a grand pause. I've always disliked pieces starting with grand pauses. From there, i started taking it apart. Pitch, rhythm, timbre/orchestration, energy. What i found all at once surprised me and didn't surprise me.
Ligeti SQ 2, Mvt 1- Allegro Nervoso. Man, does Ligeti nail nervous. and it's simple, dastardly simple. Ligeti moves from a range of a major second to a perfect fifth, each part moves from playing one note to playing three or four. the rhythm speeds up, the dynamic ebbs and flows, but never above quiet.
The energy sits, there, but not there. You feel a pull, like toward the center of a turn, but something moves opposite. The only comparison i came up with is centrifugal force, in one way reactive, and in another false. There is motion, a sort of swirling type, moving thanks to the tremolo always applied and the speeding of rhythm and expansion of pitch. Then, suddenly, after only a minute or so of music, it bursts out, hitting a moment where all 12 equal tempered pitches are present (13 notes in vln 1, 11 in vln2...the missing note from vln 2 played twice in vln 1. no coincidence, too contrived). It's the water flying from the bucket...only to be caught by the next nervous energy moment.
Back and forth, building energy that goes nowhere, suddenly releasing it. Tension, release, but not release into a nice major chord, but a bursting forth f the built up energy.
It's simple, really. 3 pitches, to 5, to 12, and shrink it back down to the 3. Pitch contour is static, then back and forth in a small area, then large sweeps. Rhythm starts slow, speeds up, burst forth. register and spectral content change from harmonics, high, whispy, sine wave like to mid register, full tone, strong. and then all back again.
So simple, so straight forward...so wonderfully executed.
Simplicity- a straight forward idea executed perfectly.
Simplicity- a talk with a stranger that is invigorating.
Not a bad trip, considering the long delay.