the estuary suite

water for my father (click to listen)

deeper in the woods than you

deeper in the woods than you

the earth for my father

the earth for my father

Water, Earth, and Fire is a textbook that Johns Hopkins University Press published in 1985. It is a book intended for college courses (graduate and undergraduate) in land use planning and environmental studies. It’s subject and source of inspiration is the approximately one million acres of Federal Reserve land located in the heart of southern New Jersey known as the Pine Barrens. It’s a remarkable book: erudite but plainspoken, with a smoothness to the prose that belies the sprawling complexity of its subject matter. But what’s most remarkable about the book is the obvious passions the authors (Jonathan Berger and John Sinton) have for this place. The attempt to communicate the intricacies of a landscape is so obviously fueled by the love the authors feel for this subject. And it’s a real and deep love, one built on celebrating the Pine Barrens, but also on an acknowledgement of the flaws and problems that were present at the time. The authors don’t indulge in nostalgia, because while they recognize the rich history of this strange little rural pocket, they also recognize that there’s a real future for this place as well. It’s rare to find a book suffused with this kind of feeling and I can’t recall reading a textbook  that evinced the authors’ feelings in quite this way.

John Sinton, the coauthor of Water, Earth, and Fire, is my father and I was fourteen years old when this book was published. I hate Water, Earth, and Fire. It’s a talisman of my unhappy childhood.

I didn’t start out hating W, E, & F. Initially, I took it as a convenient source of extra-musical inspiration for the first suite of PB. I knew the first suite should be about the thing that has caused me the greatest amount of distress over the years: the Pine Barrens, the place where I grew up.

I’m still not sure why I feel such antipathy towards the Pine Barrens, but it’s probably best to just say that me growing up in South Jersey in the 1970’s and 80’s was a classic case of wrong person in the wrong place and time. But that preceding sentence gives no indication of the weird kind of emotional scarring that can occur because of such an experience. Suffice to say, I had been picking at these scars for far too long and with the impending birth of my child in the summer of 2009, I decided to grab the closest object at hand that was about the Pine Barrens and use it to generate the first batch of musical material. I decided to read my father’s book from cover to cover

I wasn’t up to the task. It wasn’t because of my lack of interest and background in environmental studies and it wasn’t because I wasn’t enjoying the book. It was because read W, E, & F caused me a rather peculiar kind of psychic distress. As I read it, I recalled my dad working on this book: the +1 year or so of retreating into his home office on the weekends and mornings to type it on our Apple IIe, the 2 years or so of wandering our large front yard with drafts of it in hand, reading and correcting it endlessly, the long phone and dinner conversations with his coauthor about it. And it struck me, my Dad loved working on this book, because he loved the Pine Barrens and loved communicating that passion. And I hated the Pine Barrens, and I wanted to leave that place more than anything in the world and to this day I still get restless because I’m so afraid of becoming bored with where I am and I worry that maybe I’m not where I should be, maybe there’s a better place for me to go live. That’s when I realized that one of the reasons I ended up growing up in a place I hated was because one of my parents loved that place. And there I was, inspecting the object that was a manifestation of that love.

So it all became too much for me. To this date, I’ve read about 2/3 of my father’s book, and maybe someday I’ll finish it, but that has yet to happen. But I did manage to read enough of this textbook to generate three pieces of music. The music roughly corresponds to Chapters 2, 4 and 3 of the book. Chapter 2 “Water” was transmuted into “Water for my Father,” Chapter 4 “Fire” into “Deeper in the Woods Than You” and Chapter 3 “Earth” into “The Earth for my Father.” If this particular suite seems suffused with darkness, I can only hope the preceding explanation sheds light on the reasons why.

“water for my father”

“The Pine Barrens are an undulating, sandy, gravelly cushion of water. Where a stream slowly meanders and where bogs and swamps occur, water is at the surface of the cushion. In the lowlands bordering streams and bogs, water is no deeper than a foot below the surface.” (W, E, & F, p. 27)

These are the first three sentences of Chapter 2. After I read them, I became obsessed with them. Can’t explain why, but I just kept picturing “sandy, gravelly cushion(s) of water.” It made me think about how the seeming solidity of the ground I stood on as a child was just an illusion. I wanted to find a way to depict these cushions sonically.

I heard an image of two musical objects bumping against each other, colliding slowly, but never really integrating. Co-existing just like things in nature always do. And from this I made the decision that there would be a group consisting of me (on baritone), Peter (bass) and Mike (drums) and the other group would be Jon (alto) and Jonathan (guitar). I heard the first group as a slow moving group of underground gravel and wrote a simple 3-note figure phrased in two mildly different ways to be that. The 2nd group would be if not water itself, than the oozier type of black mud I found at the bottom of the Mullica River when the tide got real low at the local beach. For this I wrote an 11-note tone row. It’s in C because C is the one note that never appears in the 11 permutations I created of the row. After writing one version of this row, I just let my ear wander around it and created ten more variations using the same pitches. For the most part, I tried to keep the pitches close together and avoided big intervallic leaps.

For the actual performance of this, I tightly restricted the parameters of improvisation for all of us. The 3-note ‘underground’ group was instructed to play their two phrases in a continuous loop. They were to start as quietly as possible and were to crescendo as the piece progressed. By the end of the piece, this group needed to be as loud as they could humanly manage. This long crescendo was meant to be a sped-up snapshot of geological movement. The ‘black mud’ duo was instructed to play through the 11 rows in any order they wished, but they had to play the row as presented. They were to start extremely LOUDLY and extremely SLOWLY. As the piece progressed, they were to get quieter and faster. By the end of the piece, they were meant to be inaudible clicks and pops. I knew setting the piece up this way meant sometimes people would not be heard at all. I was fine with that. I sometimes like the stage picture of seeing someone play but not being able to hear them. That is, I like this when it’s intentional.

For the recording I added one other tweak: as the piece goes on, I start Jon and Jonathan on opposite and extreme ends of the stereo field. As they continue playing (and speeding up and getting quieter), I panned them slowly across the field so that by the end of the piece they end up on opposite sides of the stereo-field from where they started. Again, I was just trying to musically mimic (in a very rapid-human-being-kind-of-way) the forces of motion that happen in geology. I’m not sure how successful I was but this turned out to be a pretty fun piece to play.

 “deeper in the woods than you”

Leo and Hazel Landy gather, dry, cure, pack, and sell a wide variety of Pine Barrens plants to wholesale and retail florists. When asked what kind of work he does, Leo says, ‘I’m a gatherer.’” (W, E, & F, p. 123)

As Janice Sherwood said, ‘A Piney is just a little deeper in the woods than you are.’” (W, E, & F, p. 107)

“deeper in the woods than you” is the simplest song in the Estuary Suite (probably the simplest song on PB). I guess one could chalk that up to my inability to patiently finish things (this was one of the very last things I wrote), but it might also reflect the confusion I felt when I read the fourth chapter of W, E, & F, “Fire.” I wasn’t sure what I was expecting before I started reading this chapter. I suppose a discussion of the way fire had historically shaped the look and use of the Pine Barrens. Chapter four does indeed discuss this, but I wouldn’t say that’s the central focus of the chapter. Rather, the focus is on human beings and the ways that they’ve extracted a living from the Pine Barrens and also directly manipulated the appearance of this place. From that perspective, “Man” or “Humankind” probably would’ve been a better title for this chapter, but I agree that “Water, Earth, and Humankind” doesn’t have quite the poetic resonance of the chosen title.

I was struck by the story of the Landys. I couldn’t quite imagine what their everyday life must’ve been like (writing this 27 years after the publication of W, E, & F, I suspect the Landys are no longer alive). I tried to think what that would be like, to get up early in the morning, walk out into a well-known patch of woods and begin the scan. Scanning for anything, an interesting flower, a piece of bark, a pinecone. One’s eyes never resting on any one item for too long, but at the same time one’s vision being anchored by a calm certitude. Spastic scanning was not going to get the job done, it had to be done quickly, but calmly.

I started experimenting at the piano with two augmented triads separated by a half-step. This gave me the following scale: C-Db-E-F-G#-A. I liked this scale because it was both really awkward and a bit slippery. It seemed to fit what I was looking for. After fiddling around with this scale for a couple of hours, I wrote the little scraps of melody that make up this tune. I decided to do a very straightforward ‘head-solo-head‘ arrangement. But I did tell the soloists (myself, Jon and Jonathan) to keep the solos short and try to play in short bursts. I can’t say my solo was very successful (too spastic), but I rather like Jon and Jonathan’s solos. And I like that the resultant tune is only a little over two minutes long. In the near future, I’ll be investigating how to condense all my recorded statements in a similar way.

“the earth for my father”

I can’t find an appropriate quote from E, W, & F for this section because I couldn’t find what I was looking for in Chapter Three of the book. What I wanted to find was some assurance or discussion of the solidity of the land of the Pine Barrens. Instead, I found descriptions of people scrabbling to “wrest subsistence” from a soil that’s an unforgiving combination of acidic sand, deeply submersed and near-useless gravel. There were interesting stories about families that had made their living farming cranberries or blueberries, stories of German immigrants, stories of the occasional black family. All of them mentioned in this chapter because all of them maintained gardens. So I decided to write a piece of music based on what I wanted this chapter to be, not so much what it actually was.

Like I said, I wanted “earth” to be about the reassuring solidity of the ground. Even if that is a poetic conceit, that’s what I wanted. As such, I listened for things in my mind that made me feel grounded, made me feel calm. The first sound that come to my inner ear was J.S. Bach’s sound-world. Specifically, his cantatas. It’s surprising to think that Sunday’s in our household were given over to J.S. Bach’s intensely Lutheran music. Surprising because I would be generous in describing my household as “agnostic.” But there it is, I grew up listening to god-loving music in a god-questioning household. While I wanted “earth” to partake of Bach’s world, I didn’t want to ape it.  I don’t have the ability to imitate in that way nor would that serve my purposes.

I found what I was looking for in a theory book that I was studying at the time (I’m actually still studying from it). It’s a treatise called The Harmonic Experience written by W.A. Mathieu. At the time I had started working on this piece, I was just getting halfway into Part Two where Mathieu begins to describe how you can use all twelve chromatic notes but still stay firmly in one key. I found his practical suggestions (exercises to be sung and played at a keyboard) to be revelatory. And based on reading this book, I created a long and circuitous chord-progression that while far-ranging, never stepped outside of the key of C (I will admit, these chords fluctuate pretty freely between major and minor). This chord progression somehow reminded me of the progressions I would hear in one of Bach’s pieces (mainly his cello suites), but it clearly was clunkier (and therefore more ‘me’) than one of his. This long chord-progression provided the ground I needed.

Playing this progression over and over again, I came up with a melody that would go on top of it. But I really didn’t want this to be a straightforward reading of what in essence was a pretty simple construction. I decided to reverse the normal order of things and have the saxophones (myself and Jon) play the chords like we were 80’s-era synthesizers while the rhythm section (Peter, Jonathan and Mike) would play the melody. This turned out to be much harder to execute that I anticipated.

What you hear on this track is Jon and I striving mightily to play the entire chord-sequence as freely improvised arpeggios without pausing to take a breath. I tried my best to make it sound like burbling synthesizers, but I didn’t really succeed. Mike quickly enters on drums (I asked him to listen to Tortoise’s TNT to get an idea of what I was looking for) and soon after that, Peter and Jonathan loosely drape the melody on top of the chords. The melody is played through twice while Jon and I tried to ratchet up the intensity (?!) and at the end of it Jon and I play a brief cadenza while Peter, Jonathan and Mike play the last seven chords of the piece underneath us. The whole thing came out much more raggedly than I wanted, but I think that’s because I made the piece more complicated than it needed to be. Someday I’ll get it right.

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