One of the qualities I most value in the radical music tradition is its loss of certainty (even ambiguity) about a surface and depth distinction. ... what, precisely, is the surface in The Well-Tuned Piano or Drumming or Navigations for Strings? Is it the notes on the page or those physically struck on the instruments, or is it the the sounds produced directly by those actions, or is it the cloud of combination and resultant tones and interference patterns and acoustical beating? In many cases, this uncertainty or ambiguity goes even further, with distinctions between musical, psychoacoustical, and physical parameters constantly in play...In response, here are my Variations for brass, percussion, or piano (or organ), composed I don't remember when, based on a star atlas, and premiered by solo harp. (It found its way into the second movement of Tongues, where it established a mood of rural nocturne.)
This is, I see, a pretty bad photograph. The score's in ink on translucent paper, twenty inches square or so, and wrinkled. In the photo it's more an aerial view of a curious desert than an earthbound view of the stars, but maybe that's what happens in time.
Last night's lunar eclipse brings all this to mind; perhaps that's what Wolf was thinking of, too, though one doesn't know if he saw it, a third the world away. It was a night of interrupted sleep and half-waking thoughts:
Bad luck, they say, to count remaining teeth—
you're sure to lose another—let alone
the years you've lived. But there it was, last week,
another birthday: now six dozen years.
It's Sunday morning, if dozens are days,
or Saturday, depends on where you start,
in either case an easy-starting day,
nothing to do but what I will. It may
turn out gentle, productive, lazy, fast,
painful or comfortable. Won't know 'til it's done.
I think of George, big George, a man as big
a his American refrigerator.
Maddeningly slow but stately as he steps
into the bar to buy his cigarettes
or walks the aisles of his supermarket
filling his cart with oysters by the kilo,
butter, a little milk, to make the stew
he liked at breakfast. Or when he arrived
exhausted by the flights from Jakarta,
Nice, Paris, to spend Thanksgiving
with us here in Healdsburg, and already
though we didn't know it on his way
to an accelerating death from too much life
his prostate cancer adding its slow work.
I listen to the gentle steady breath
of the strange woman lying next to me,
strange because, after these fifty years
unknowable though comfortably known.
she asks if I was carrying flowers
or if she dreamed it, and I remember
thinking to take some roses to the office
when we went to see the doctor. As
somebody did twelve years ago in Oakland.
Now I think of it I think that it
was I, roses from our Berkeley garden
flowers for the receptionist, the nurses,
especially Stephanie, slender, light-skinned,
regal chiseled beauty, grave, serious,
the bones i think of as Somalian,
Stephanie who said to trust my wife,
and yes it's good to read Epicurus,
especialy the letter to Menoeceus.
She stirs. I dreamed you took some flowers, and said
something was happening at five o'clock.
I was thinking of George, I told her,
and I set the clock for five o'clock
our brains are going crazy; all our thoughts
are getting ready to leave our bodies
and bump among the stars.
The moon is coming back. Perhaps I'll sleep.