Jumpin’ In

a column by
Greg Buium

©Nica Horvitz

“I really believe that most people’s musical language – to some pretty profound degree – is pretty much determined by the time they’re 22. And everything comes from that. For most people, their favorite music is music they heard before they were 22, their go-to records.”


Wayne Horvitz was spiraling back, mid-thought, tying one digression to the next, nearly two hours into our afternoon together at a lively Neapolitan pizzeria in southeast Seattle. We’d been talking about many things – about music, but also in some depth (and in no particular order) about books and teaching and the wonders of this particular establishment’s coffee (“here, if you ask for a ristretto you’ll get it”).


But, mostly, we’d been talking about Horvitz’s nearly two-year professional preoccupation: the poetry of Richard Hugo, and the musical projects he’s harvested from the late writer’s work.


Hugo, a Seattle-area poet, who spent the last two decades of his life in Missoula, Montana, roamed the small towns and vast landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. This was his writerly fuel. When asked about his own fascination with place, Horvitz took our conversation into this winding series of asides. He didn’t want to appear disingenuous; he didn’t want to dissemble. But ever since his 1988 move from New York to Seattle, observers have often seen geography as a tipping point – the primary force in the evolution of his work.


“For Hugo, the place was just the trigger,” he explained, pulling the conversation back to my original question. “But then the place he wrote about was in his head. It wasn’t anyplace. The whole question, which you were at least alluding to, where people say, ‘Well, how did moving to Seattle affect your music?’ And I say, ‘Really, not at all.’ I don’t think it did.”


His work, he explained, has been shaped by the people he’s met here – he singled out clarinetist Beth Fleenor (who wandered into the restaurant during our interview), saxophonist Skerik, and guitarist Timothy Young among many others. “It affected my music that way. It affected me because I’ve done some big projects that people in Berlin probably would have heard of if I’d done them in New York, but they never heard of them because I did them in Seattle.”


Horvitz’s voice rose, and he began to laugh. He turned 60 in September, and we talked about that, too. “I feel better than I did at 30. But I didn’t feel very good when I was 30. ... In some ways my energy now feels the best it ever has.”


We met on a glorious, early November afternoon in Columbia City, a small, increasingly fashionable neighborhood, where he seemed to know everyone, and where he co-owns the Royal Room, a bar that has been his axis point in town since 2011. He’s still buried in the workaday worries, and far-flung impulses, that have long fed him: musician (piano, organ, keyboards, electronics), composer, producer, teacher, impresario. It was the middle of Earshot Jazz, the city’s annual festival, and he was being celebrated. At the Royal Room the following night he was on a triple bill, Wayne Horvitz @ 60: solo piano (with electronics), trio, and sextet.


The Hugo project, however, has been at the hub of his 60th year. A septet record came out in July, Some Places Are Forever Afternoon: 11 Places for Richard Hugo (Songlines), bringing together his two primary groups since the turn of the century, Sweeter Than the Day and the Gravitas Quartet. Then came a nine-date autumn tour, a Seattle Symphony commission, his first (featuring soloist Bill Frisell), and a two-night engagement at the Roulette in Brooklyn. In an estimable career stretching back to the middle of the 1970s, this has been among his most ambitious, and fully realized, projects.


In some circles, Horvitz is still identified, first and foremost, for his central role in the downtown scene – with Frisell, John Zorn, Marty Ehrlich, Bobby Previte, Butch Morris, and his wife Robin Holcomb (among others) and bands such as Naked City, the President and the New York Composers Orchestra. But this impression is narrow – and now, after nearly three decades, actually misleading.


The Hugo project has in it a powerful gravitational pull. It captures the longtime musical relationships he’s made since moving out west. It captures his own writerly fuel – that balance between the through composed and the improvised, the excitement of source material, and the limitations of it as well. In its conception, this project struck a perfect balance between the artist and the musical entrepreneur. And Some Places Are Forever Afternoon reckons with the notion of place with greater clarity, and complexity, than Horvitz has ever done before.

©Nica Horvitz

Horvitz has a keen eye for large-scale musical events. From a 2004 oratorio on the life and times of labor activist Joe Hill to a recent site-specific work, 55: Music and Dance in Concrete – where he designed an electronic score for the tunnels and chambers in a 100-year-old fort – Horvitz has sought out extramusical sources. In 2013, a friend suggested Richard Hugo’s work. Hugo, born in 1923 in White Center, Washington, graduated from the University of Washington, then worked for more than a decade at Boeing. After 1964 he taught creative writing at the University of Montana and lived in Missoula until his death in 1982. Horvitz wasn’t familiar with Hugo’s work – but he was immediately interested. He’d been to the Hugo House, a literary arts center in Seattle. Horvitz’s wife and daughter had long admired his poetry.


At the end of 2013, Horvitz was approached by San Francisco-based Shifting Foundation. They wanted to commission the project. It would include a recording, and it would also include a two-week research trip, through Washington, Idaho, and Montana, to get a sense of the world captured in Hugo’s poetry. The Seattle Symphony commission came later. From the start, Horvitz knew he wanted to tour as well – to bring this music back to White Center, but also to Montana, to places like Bozeman and Helena and Billings.


“Hugo wasn’t wanting to write about Paris and Johannesburg. He wanted to write about small towns,” Horvitz explained. It wasn’t poetry about the culture of cities, he continued, but rather about communities where you wondered, “What’s it like to have been in the same place forever? I’ve always been attracted to that; I’ve been attracted to that since I was a kid. And I like to travel. I loved hitchhiking around the West. I loved hiking in the West. I think I got that from my mom.”


The West, in all its figurative and literal ways: this has long been at the core of Horvitz’s art. He is the child of New Yorkers, and he himself was born there in 1955. But when he was two, his parents moved first to Arizona, then to California – elementary school in Los Altos (in the heart of today’s Silicon Valley), college in Santa Cruz. (High school was spent in Washington, D.C.)


“My mother took me to do a lot of hiking and traveling, in and around the Bay Area,” he remembered. “But also down to Arizona to visit the Indian reservations and the Gold Country into the Sierras up north. I went to camp in the Trinity Alps, which is almost at Oregon. My mother couldn’t pass a historical marker without stopping and reading it. We would go into a gold town and we would find out about what the Chinese experience there was.”


He spoke of his longtime admiration for Wallace Stegner’s writing, especially his book of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs (1992). Robin Holcomb introduced Horvitz to Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America (1977), which he called “one of the great political-cultural essays of all time.”


“He talks about the myth of agriculture and the West and how that relates to water – that even a place like Seattle, even with the rain we get, it comes during the wrong part of the year. In the Ohio Valley you get the water when the crops are in; here it’s dry all summer.”


He and Holcomb have shared this fascination with the West since they met in college at the University of California. “It’s a sort of a cliché, but partly it’s about space and openness in a way. And I feel like that’s really important in my music.”

©Nica Horvitz

After he received the commission at the end of 2013, Horvitz took stock.


“I definitely didn’t start writing,” he said. “I didn’t do anything except get organized. And pick poems.”


All winter and spring Horvitz looked through Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo. It wasn’t an exhaustive search; he’d dip in and out, for months, just reading. He arranged to spend August at an artists’ retreat – composing. His immediate concern, however, was the upcoming trip. He wanted to have a good sense of Hugo’s story – and to have already chosen the poems – before he drove out to Montana.


“I was often attracted to a line,” Horvitz explained, punching out those last two words. “I always underlined a line in the poem that I knew would be the title of the piece before I wrote the piece. Sometimes the music that I did write reflects that line more than the whole poem.”


These words would now become the spur. “I just had them in the book and I’d look at it and think about it. I think, for example, ‘in some other home’ is a classic example,” he said, referring to a piece on the septet disc. “It’s a waltz and it’s the most, for lack of a better term, Americana sounding piece. It’s kind of the prettiest piece on the record. I think if you say the words ‘in some other home’ and you listen to that piece of music there’s just an immediate resonance. And if you read the poem [‘The Only Bar in Dixon’], not as much so. The poem is darker than that line is. In fact, the last line if I recall is ‘eight bourbons and I’m in some other home’ or six or whatever it is ... maybe it’s five bourbons!”


And so from here, Horvitz sketched out a journey: from Missoula to Philipsburg to the Cataldo Mission in Idaho. Novelist James Welch’s widow, Lois, a friend, arranged a two-night stay at the Hugo family cabin, 25 miles into the bush from Browning, Montana, part of the Blackfeet Indian reservation, near the Canadian border. It was a typical pre-war hunting cabin. There was electricity, but no plumbing – just an overgrown stream, straight off the glacier, nearby.


So Horvitz planned the two-week trip in early June with his then 28-year-old daughter, Nica. He wanted to blog; Nica is a writer. He also wanted someone to join him on the trails and in the bars and restaurants, “just to be another energy,” he said, as they were meeting people. Nica knew Hugo’s work, and she was also a fan of Frances McCue, a Seattle poet and essayist who wrote The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs, a book revisiting the world captured in Hugo’s poetry. “We did a kind of truncated version of Frances’s book,” Horvitz said. “We had it in the car. We had the book of poems in the car as well, and we’d go and check it out.”


Nica Horvitz is also a photographer – even though, as her father noted, she doesn’t actually identify as one. She shoots digitally and with film and her work is captured magnificently on the CD: on the cover and in the 28-page booklet accompanying the poems.


The Horvitzs returned to Seattle. Then in August, he finally started to write. He took up residency at Montalvo Arts Center, a retreat in Saratoga, Calif. He worked every day, composing on a piano in a small artist’s studio. At the end of the month he had the music for 11 poems.

©Nica Horvitz

In the jazz and creative-music tradition, the relationship between poetry and music isn’t enormously common. Setting words to music, sure: there have always been lyrics sung, words recited. But for more programmatic purposes, or even just as a conceptual starting point – pure, instrumental inspiration – less so. Still, there are wonderfully realized landmarks. Duke Ellington’s series of pieces inspired by Shakespeare, Such Sweet Thunder (1957), is one. Charlie Haden and Carla Bley’s treatment of Langston Hughes, “Dream Keeper” (1991), is another. More recently, clarinetist and saxophonist Michael Moore, pianist Fred Hersch, and drummer Gerry Hemingway’s cooperative, Thirteen Ways, took its name – and its initial compositional spark – from Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”


That piece, “Thirteen Ways,” had its own working method. As Hersch told Kevin Whitehead nearly 20 years ago: “The piece is made up of loosely structured open improvisations on each of the thirteen poems, some short enough to be haikus. I printed the poems on the score so we could use them as inspiration while we improvised. They suggest motive, harmony, rhythm, texture, and the three of us play in all the possible permutations of our instruments.”


For the better part of four decades, Steve Lacy was obsessed with the relationship between words and music – with a musician’s responsibility to a poem. He spoke about it while making Futurities (Hat Hut), his 1984 multidisciplinary project based on the work of Robert Creeley. Creeley’s poetry was ideal, he said, because it was all about “the line ... it was so clear and simple and deep, and could be said over and over again.”


Lacy continued. “A poem is said again and again and if it is said enough times it becomes a song. That’s the way I find the music, by saying the words over and over again until it becomes sing-song ... until it begins to take on musical appearances ... the Creeley poems were so great to work with, they were so chiseled, so expertly done.”


Lacy then provided very little instruction. “I boiled down each lyric to a phrase I then gave the dancers,” he explained. “ ‘Make love,’ ‘Fool around,’ ‘Keep it alive,’ ‘Who gets into trouble?’ ‘It must mean something,’ ‘Grow old together.’ The dancers swallowed that, and then threw it away. It was kind of a snapshot, and I hoped that it helped them. But then they did whatever they wanted to do.”


Lacy was working with lyrics; often, he wasn’t creating purely instrumental forms. But his conception resonates – the way he thought through language, the way he chose literature, the kinds of questions he asked when rendering poetry into music.


Early on, Horvitz was daunted by the task. He’d put text to music before. At first, knowing he wasn’t going to do this with Hugo’s work, he was relieved. But then, as he wrote in the album’s notes, he realized “the task was more difficult not less.”


“When I finally began composing,” he wrote, “I felt despondent. I was less and less sure the music had anything at all to do with the poems.”


He talked more about this when we met. He would play through a piece, he remembered, and then ask: does this really resonate with the poem? “I just didn’t want to feel like a charlatan. I was insecure about it up to the point where we were still mastering the record. And it really was driving in the car and listening to it. Do these pieces resonate with the poem? It really was driving back through Montana. At that point, I’d been in Wyoming for a month writing the orchestra piece.”


Expectations from the arts community haunted him as well. “I’m going to admit to a more petty concern – which is that I knew that Lois Welch was going to hear it and Frances McCue was going to hear it, and I knew that Annick Smith, who made the film about Hugo [Kicking the Loose Gravel Home, 1976], was going to hear it. I now have gotten to know all these people,” he said, then adding writer William Kittredge as well. This was Montana literary royalty. “These people are opinionated,” he said and began to laugh. “I will admit to having that in the back of my mind some of the time.”


Horvitz didn’t look for answers in musical precedent. In fact, he found his elixir in Hugo’s work – in his prose, rather than in his poetry. When he discovered Triggering Town, Hugo’s 1979 book of essays, Horvitz found the key. “I’ve only read that book once but I’ve read the first three pages 5,000 times.”


Place, Hugo wrote, was only a “trigger,” a jumping-off point. From the opening piece, “Writing Off Subject”: “Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poet puts down the title: ‘Autumn Rain.’ He finds two or three good lines about autumn rain. Then things begin to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about autumn rain so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obligated to go on talking about autumn rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn’t the subject. You don’t know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about autumn rain start talking about something else. In fact, it’s a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about autumn rain.”


Despite the hundreds of miles of driving, and the hours and hours of research – all the minute matter he compiled – Horvitz found his answers somewhere inside himself. The scenes he saw – the landscapes, the people – were simply a trigger. Horvitz explained how Hugo used this process to write “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” which became the song “The car that brought you here still runs,” and one of two movements in the symphony commission, Those Who Remain.


“It isn’t based on anything he really knew about Philipsburg,” Horvitz said. “Instead, he said he was there for four hours and the next morning he woke up and he had a whole narrative that just came out of his head about a life, or lives, in Philipsburg.


“Well, I liked that because I feel that’s exactly what I did here. I didn’t feel beholden to the poem. I felt beholden to whatever initial idea the poem gave me. I then wrote a piece of music and the poem be damned, in a way.”


Sometimes, he admitted, the cadences may have seeped in. “I did feel like some poems were action poems and some poems were reflective and some poems were landscapes. That’s why that one poem [‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’] became a suite, because I felt that there were three or four parts of the poem I wanted to represent. None of the pieces are programmatic, but it was probably closer to programmatic than anything else in there.


“Sure, I went to all those places. All of that. But that’s subconscious. Once you get a riff ... once you get something going, you’re a composer, and you’re working off your musical language. Which would have been different if I’d put the text to music. Then you really have to serve the text. You have to be responsible to the text in a different kind of way.”

©Nica Horvitz

If Richard Hugo was the spark, Some Places Are Forever Afternoon became a signal Wayne Horvitz record. The septet combines two groups who have, perhaps more than any others, crystallized his musical language over the past two decades. Gravitas pulled its members from further afield – trumpeter Ron Miles (Denver), bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck (Brooklyn), and cellist Peggy Lee (Vancouver). Sweeter Than the Day found them in Seattle – bassist Keith Lowe, drummer Eric Eagle, and guitarist Timothy Young (who is now in Los Angeles).


Horvitz characterized the bands in this way: “Gravitas was my attempt to put together a new contemporary music, chamber music group that involved improvisation. Sweeter than the Day was always a place where I write what you might call instrumental songs. ... In many ways, the Hugo record is more like an augmented Sweeter than the Day, than an augmented Gravitas Quartet, with a few exceptions. ... The preponderance of pieces here are more like something I would have written for Sweeter than the Day and now I have a wider palette.”


And what kinds of pieces are they? When you ask him about his language, Horvitz tends to go back – to Otis Spann, and the polytonality in the blues, which he seemed to suggest, might have unconsciously led him to Bartok; the Band (“two keyboards and guitar! I think piano and guitar is a marriage made in heaven”) and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.


“I love ensemble; ensemble is what I live for. It’s why I love early jazz. And it’s why I love jazz from the ‘60s. The Art Ensemble of Chicago were a model for me: a group that was so much greater for me than the sum of its parts. So was the Band. So was the Beatles for that matter. Electric Miles.”


On Some Places Are Forever Afternoon, you recognize Horvitz’s affinity for incremental variation. The harmony and movement he often employed, his understanding of space and shade – “that’s that American thing,” he said, alluding, perhaps, to how critics have characterized his sound over the years.


“What I like to say is I’ve been recycling the same six licks my whole life,” he observed, tongue partially in cheek. “They’ve grown, they’ve expanded ... It’s funny because I think it’s much easier for me to talk about that now than it would have been 20 or 30 years ago. I recognize rhythmic and harmonic devices that have felt more intuitive to me.”


Then he veered into a larger discussion about his process. “I played through the Bartok Mikrokosmos much too late in life. I should have been playing them when I was four, but because I started so late I was playing them when I was 17. But because I was 17 I was analytical enough to go, ‘Oh, he’s doing that here.’ Music theory is the only part of music I’m naturally adept at. The physical side of it is something I always had to work my ass off to get.”


That kind of reasoning, however, has served him well. “I think people who say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about music because it’s going to take it away from my heart’ are fools. And I think the people who only use math to make music are fools. There’s a beautiful spot in between there. I often talk to my composition students about: you have inspiration and it leads you to x amount of music and then you’re stuck, it’s fine to think of some systemic thing – ‘Oh, I’ll take that motif here and I’ll displace it rhythmically, I’ll displace it in terms of pitch, I’ll displace it harmonically.’ If you don’t like it, though, don’t use it because you thought the technique was a good idea. So you’re always playing back and forth with that.”


From this anecdote, he landed back on Richard Hugo. “I got a sense from Hugo that he had a lot of that same kind of sense of wanting to have some technical chops and also wanting to have things that came from his soul – and I found that compelling. So in a way, I was more concerned that my music represented that, than a particular image in the poem.”




It is fitting that the record’s subtitle, 11 Places for Richard Hugo, is really just a writerly conceit – just “a fun way to play with the idea,” he explained. The entire string of 60th birthday events he called “part serendipity, part plan.” (He told a story about once hiring a publicist who said, “‘Wayne, people love birthdays.’ It’s silly. It’s hard not to just say, ‘Oh, I’m making – yet again – more music.’ You sort of need something.”) This is part of Horvitz’s gift: he knows how to get the music out there, his own or his peers’.


But Some Places Are Forever Afternoon is a bracing, and permanent, marker of Wayne Horvitz’s art: this American composer, rooted in the West, with a language that is resolutely, unapologetically his own. It is a world where new music, jazz, and open improvisation live together comfortably. And much of the popular music that fed him from the beginning – that’s here, too.


“It’s funny when we were first living in New York we went to this huge movie theater midtown – our whole band went, we’d all come out from Santa Cruz together,” he remembered. “We went to see The Last Waltz. It had just come out. And there was no one in the theater. It was empty. There were maybe 40 people in this huge movie theater that could hold a thousand people. And I just remember thinking, why did I stop listening to this music?”

©2015 Greg Buium

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