This installment of InDialogue features a discussion between author and editor J.A. Tyler and musician and composer Judd Greenstein. J.A. Tyler is the author of the novel(la) Inconceivable Wilson as well as a number of chapbooks. He is also the founding editor of Mud Luscious Press and their new imprint Nephew. Greenstein, in addition to being a composer/performer, runs New Amsterdam Records and is the curator of the new NYC-based Ecstatic Music Festival. This conversation took place online in late 2010.
Judd Greenstein: Hey J.A.
J. A. Tyler: Hello Judd, how are you?
JG: I’m well, thanks! How are you doing?
JAT: Not bad, not bad. A Christmas clock just chimed behind me. That time of year.
JG: That’s the one chime it will chime all year? I am not familiar with such things.
JAT: It plays a clip of a holiday song every hour. My daughter loves it. She is ten months old.
JAT: Yes, pleasant indeed. My son is five now so he is all about presents and Santa, which is a blast to watch. How about you? Kids, family, etc. for the holidays?
JG: Nice. I have no family of my own, no, but I’m in a different kind of picture-perfect holiday scenario, up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, at my friend’s house. It’s snowed every day and there are three colors — white, brown, and dark green. That’s it. I’m on this self-imposed writing retreat. Like The Shining, minus the violence.
JAT: Beautiful. That sounds lovely (and very writing-sparking). Why the self-imposition? And what are you writing?
JG: Self-imposition because my curatorial/production work overtook my composition work at some point this Fall, and I have a major new work due in January — the first half of an evening-length piece about King Solomon. Where are you? Where do you live?
JAT: Interesting…I’m in Fort Collins, Colorado (about an hour north of Denver, or near the middle of the state). It is a quaint medium-sized town. I teach high school language arts / film / theater here and my wife and I are raising the two kids I mentioned before. It is a great city though we have no snow to speak of this year, just cold temps, which makes everything mostly yellow and gray and brown.
JG: One of my best friends lives in Fort Collins! I’ve been meaning to visit.
JAT: Nice. An artist / writer / musician?
JG: He’s a stream ecologist/biologist. But one of the most wide-ranging thinkers I know. Mostly an environmental activist.
JAT: This is the place for that. Many environmental activists here.
JG: I doubt he’s like most of them. About as far from a classic tree-hugger as you can get. I think his ideal state would be for us to revert to hunter-gatherer conditions. But he’s also mellowed a bit. We’re trying to get him out East so we can start a farm together, somewhere up here.
JAT: [You’re in] New York, right?
JAT: I’ve never been there but will sometime in the future. How is it in Brooklyn?
JG: Brooklyn is great. I’d definitely be interested in covering “place” as a topic [in this discussion], especially since we both described where we are in terms of color triptychs!
JAT: One of our Mud Luscious Press writers is from Brooklyn (Sasha Fletcher) and it is a place I idealize in my mind, being a middle-stater.
JG: It’s definitely the center of the “scene” I inhabit, but I hope that it becomes enough of a national movement that such geographic restrictions are no longer necessary. This interview is a nice indication of the possibilities, yes?
JAT: Yes yes yes.
So we’d like to talk place and environment (our own) and what we are working on. What else?
JG: I guess we should talk about interfacing with an audience, since you have a press and I have a record label, etc.
I have some ideas about topics that connect our work, but also about the differences between our media that create different kinds of decisions and impacts of decisions, but I don’t think that’s a “topic” per se.
JAT: Sounds good though, ‘topic’ or not.
JG: Great. So, what brought you to Colorado and do you feel that the environment impacts your work?
JAT: What brought me to Colorado was birth — I was born here and grew up here and am raising children here. My parents are from Colorado and my grandparents are from Colorado. Before that it was Kansas, which is only a more flattened Colorado. The environment certainly impacts my work (I’ve noticed it the most in recent projects), where trees and mountains and rivers all somehow sneak in and the weather, it is ever-changing and prevalent here, seems to dictate what season I write in or with. And while you are writing now in NH, how does [your normal Brooklyn] scene impact / evoke you?
JG: It’s funny, I grew up in Manhattan, so we’re both artists who stayed close to home. Do you get the “I’ve never met anyone who’s actually FROM Colorado” line, in the same way that I get “I’ve never met anyone who’s actually FROM New York”?
JAT: Oddly in fact, most times I mention Colorado to people they know someone who is from here or lived here or studied at a college here —perhaps it is less of a fly-over state than I think,.
JG: It’s a destination state, for sure. That’s why it seemed plausible that you’d have had a similar experience.
But what you’re describing about the weather, that’s what I miss in Brooklyn — I love the community, the sense of it being an artistic destination for people, the last stop on a lot of journeys (in the sense that people move there to begin their careers, or to advance them, and have wanted to make that step for a while), but I don’t like how it feels permanently isolated from the rest of the world. New York in general is a bubble, just like anywhere else, except that there’s a valve constantly letting people in from the outside. So you get the sense that everything ends here. But that’s a depressing thought, when you realize that there are 300 million people in America who don’t live in New York, and 6+ billion in the world.
Oh, but the weather — the city diminishes the sense that one is in the “world.” One is only in the “city.” Cities and The World are in opposition to one another, or at least, they can be. Or, at least, New York is.
How have the recent projects you described been impacted by your environment/the weather/etc.?
JAT: An end point, a city v. the world (or the rest of the world), I find that a fascinating image, A gate letting people in but without a release valve to balance. That is how I picture New York City in general, though that idea has both negative and positive connotations for me.
As for the weatherly impact, it is really as simple as what I see goes into me and comes out on the page. When our seasons are changing, for instance summer into fall into early winter, that is where my characters will reside. I just finished a poetry manuscript about two men in love with the same woman and the woman in love with both of them and both of them heading off to a civil war, but as much as I tried to dislodge that book from my place, to avoid redundancy or to find a new vibe, it still became a book about summer into fall into early winter. And when the snow starts to fall here in the next month and the temperatures don’t go above freezing for weeks on end, my characters will freeze in snow, standing in their coats near doors they want to enter.
JG: Is that Variations of a Brother War?
JAT: Yes sir.
JG: Yeah, I feel the seasonal nature of even the excerpt I read. Flowers, apples, “fall cool”….these are totally the most evocative moments, the ones we’re sure about, for me because they have smells attached to them —apples and flowers and the smell of cool. That said, it was a challenging excerpt for me. There were a number of images that were hard to parse. Like “swimming in hands” — I re-read that again and again. Was that your intention? I felt like the quick-to-understand and the difficult-to-understand were in dialogue here.
Actually that feels like a theme in your work in general.
JAT: Yes, exactly, and those were the images that I could not bar from the book. I tried to let it be summer, but the words always cooled, and then it was rain, and then it was rain turned to freezing mists. There was always snow coming, even when I didn’t want it to – though in the end, the coming snow helped me see that the book was finishing and their narrative was almost done. But I think challenging is a fair appraisal of my writing — some also say ‘thick’ — especially in Variations of a Brother War because each section is built on three exactly 100 word segments, so cutting words was a difficult and brutal thing, and even thickened my words a bit more in places.
JG: Oh I didn’t realize that!
JAT: As for ‘swimming in hands’ — the intention is that Miller is mentally swimming in the hands of his mother, her hands making soup, her hands slapping his face, her hands as the memories that torture him while he is in battle,
JG: From now on I will always count the words in every excerpt of everything I read.
JAT: I need restraint sometimes, and this Variations was restrained by word count.
JG: Well one of the things that you risk — and I mean this in a good way — in your approach to grammar, I think, is that there’s going to be this ambiguity. Like “he thinks of his mother swimming in hands” makes the subject of the sentence kind of ambiguous. So what are the consequences if your reader thinks, like I did, that the subject there is “his mother” and not “he”? My head is totally immersed in these kinds of questions because I am doing Hebrew study for this piece about King Solomon, and the grammar is all over the place. I try to trust the translations but then when I talk to scholars, it seems like I shouldn’t. And since this piece is one where I’m making a new narrative within the Solomon story/legend, and doing so ultimately in the service of a fundamentally musical narrative, I feel fine doing those kinds of substitutions sometimes. At least in my head.
JAT: Yes, the risk is conscious (and sometimes perhaps too great). If I were to edit that particular sentence down again, I might add a comma, to clarify. But in a sense, I want / wish / need / push my writing to wash over readers — I want it to feel like a wave. But not a wave to surfers, looking to ride it, but a wave to people nearly drowning, daunted by their constant coming, struggling to survive but then that ultimate exhaustion and thrill when they reach the shore, when they have lived, and the waves are behind them, continuing. Because when we have that encounter on the shore, we always look back, we always watch what almost consumed us, and we always keep it close to us.
Translations, though, I think are particularly sticky, because that is more than one person chucking grammar to the winds, and which of those two (or more) people do you trust most (or at all)?
I love the wave metaphor. It’s the safety of art, that you can engage with sensations that might be threatening in other contexts but here are essentially “safe,” even if they do work in ways that are personally threatening and challenging.
On the other hand, I am personally obsessed with clarity — the idea that someone could come to my work without any prior experience (a tabula rasa) and understand the story. This is really hard, in music, because people bring so many expectations to the table, and almost none of them are expectations about a narrative that is in the least bit challenging or complex. They aren’t looking for characters, they’re mapping what they’re hearing onto their prior experience and expectations with and from music. Most of the time. So you have to start simply, or at least, start with something that is obviously an idea, something where listeners can hang their hat right away.
And you seem to do this too. Beginning with the characters — Miller, Boy, The woman, etc.
So I have a very simple image to start with, the way in one of my pieces, you usually have a very simple theme.
JAT: Yes, yes, yes. Though this starting hook seems a much harder feat in music — how do you do it in terms of theme or simplicity? How do you give listeners something to hang their hat on?
Is it a clear melody, or something much more complicated?
JG: Repetition is so important in music. I was on a panel discussion last summer at a music festival and we had questions to address, and one of them was about the meaning and value of repetition — which seemed to me like asking about the meaning and value of rhythm, or harmony, or form. It’s not even a question whether musical objects should repeat; you can deliberately not repeat things, but then you are working against our basic human process of learning the material. Every music in the world has repetition at its core. It’s really the one constant. But in order for repetition to be cognizable, there has to be something clear enough to be heard as repeating. I like that thing to be something that can be “used” in a variety of ways.
JAT: YES — repetition. I cannot express how much I love repetition in all the arts — the way repeated phrases break and re-break and evolve — evolution. YES…
JG: It shows in your work!
JAT: And your music does that wonderfully, brings me back and back and back.
I think it interesting to talk about how much of that repetition is conscious versus how much of it is how you inherently create your art, at its root — is it for the audience, to help them along, or simply how you shape your music (or both)?
JG: There’s not a distinction in my mind between writing for me and writing for the audience. I listen to my own music all the time, so it’s really writing for me as the future audience member, and presumably the one who needs this music the most desperately — desperately enough to abandon all other pursuits in favor of creating it! So the repetition is very much conscious, but also fundamental. I need things to repeat, so they do. If something doesn’t repeat, that feels like much more of a statement than if it does. Why is that thing all by itself? Why does it appear only that one time? What does that mean? As opposed to, why does that thing happen more than once? That, in music, is a strange question, when music just goes that way. On the other hand, in writing, I feel like the norms are reversed, so your repetition can feel more like a break from convention —even your decision to not use pronouns sometimes, or to emphasize a particular conjunction or punctuation (the repetition of constant short sentences/the repetition of periods themselves).
JAT: Ah. Yes. In music, you are right, a thing by itself is a strange and questionable moment, something our ears usually resist. How true. And in writing, there is often a string of single moments that do not return. Whole books are created on this principle. But the writers that I love most (Peter Markus most of all) understand that repetition is its own beautiful story. That to repeat an action, or a name, or a rhythm even in the sentences themselves (short short long, short short long) is to bring the reader, as he or she reads, into a chant. I suppose perhaps akin to the melody that sticks in your head, that you are humming / singing / whistling without knowing it.
And you, as your own audience member, is very interesting. How much do you listen to your own music (not the stuff you are working on, but the completed pieces)?
JG: Quite a bit. I mean, it’s my favorite music. Seems weird that a composer wouldn’t listen to his or her own music.
Repetition in language can make something written sound like something spoken. Do you read your work? I mean, a couplet like “This was a way for the egg to find escape./This was a way for the woman to carry her home with her or out to sea.” is totally haunting, because it combines a classic ending-idea (the double “this was a way”), which is so evocative, with the interrupted quality of the “or” move that you do in the preceding sentences. There is something very, very compelling about that. It’s a beautiful mix of the nostalgic and the modern — that’s very hard to pull off, and something that I wouldn’t have thought of as personally important, but when I frame it like that to describe your work, it actually also feels self-descriptive. Like, I love angular, aggressive gestures that yield really big-R Romantic narratives. I love the heart to be on the sleeve with material that has a very strong profile. Your move at the end of that poem (?) flips the ending, but it also flips the earlier material, the whole narrative.
JAT: Funny, just because I re-read my work the most in the pre-publication phase, when I am editing for the final proof, but I don’t know if I’ve ever picked up a book I’ve written, in its published state, and read it through again…
JG: I think it’s different with music. Music is so directly physical.
People go to hear a Beethoven symphony hundreds of times in their lifetimes. You wouldn’t read Faust a hundred times. Or would you?
JAT: Perhaps — though I mention Peter Markus, and I’ve read his books several times already, even though they were only published in the last few years.
And I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea probably a dozen times, at least. Typically I read that one once a year
JG: That’s interesting. When I finished typing the Faust sentence I realized that I might be mistaken. Perhaps the distinction lies in the need to have the experience of encountering one’s one music in the physical realm. Or perhaps there’s no distinction at all.
JAT: The distinction for me is that when I re-read the published material, I realize that I cannot change it, and for writers (or perhaps all artists) there is such a pull for perfection that re-reading sometimes guts me, thinking of how I could have changed a comma placement (see our conversation above about that Variations of a Brother War excerpt) or a word reversal.
Can I say too, about what you said above, about a big-r Romantic narrative with aggressive angles, that that is a beautiful description of your music, as I hear it, the way it drives but also houses a love, a lilt, and I imagine that this is not an easy thing to do in music,
JG: I don’t know what’s easy, I just know what I strive to achieve. You know, it’s like, there are local events that interest me (the themes, the kinds of material, the way that different instruments interact), and then there’s the big “stories” that interest me — I’m not really interested in art about art, I like art that is trying to bring me somewhere. So I bring the listener somewhere, and try to make it a personally meaningful place, and I do so using the bits and pieces of musical Legos that I’ve found to be the most engaging.
JAT: Musical Legos, brilliant…
JG: So tell me about your press. What is Mud Luscious? Great name, by the way.
JAT: Mud Luscious Press (thanks to e. e. cummings for the phrase that gave us our name) is an online quarterly, a monthly print chapbook series (that I hand make at my kitchen table) and a novel(la) series that has, through the past year, produced three novel(la)s and an anthology with three more novel(la)s and another anthology on the way in 2011.
What about your label, tell me about that…
JG: The label is New Amsterdam Records. We put out 6-10 records a year, a tremendous range of styles and sounds, but all flowing out of the idea of mixed-genre music that has a foot in the western classical tradition. Some of our albums sound like bands, some like chamber music, some like jazz, some like other things, some like nothing else really at all. It’s very eclectic but it’s meant to be a means of bringing music that has the potential for a broader impact (more people who absolutely love it) to its audience. I’ll say this, I don’t think that I would feel as confident as I do in taking all the chances I take with building my own ensembles and writing music that throws traditional genres out the window, if I didn’t have my own label. Do you feel that way about having your own press?
JAT: The press gives me a great number of contacts, and a really tremendous footing in terms of reading all the greatness that writers are composing right now, but since I don’t release any of my own words via Mud Luscious, the confidence is only fleeting at best. It does help me to see though where my work fits in, or doesn’t, and the rest is up to me to gut-check and go.
JG: Oh that’s interesting.
JAT: Do you release your work on your own label? And/or on another label?
JG: The whole impetus for starting the label (with fellow composers William Brittelle and Sarah Kirkland Snider) was to create outlets for our own music. We didn’t feel like our music was being given the proper context by other labels, and there were actually very few labels where it was even plausible for us to consider releasing our own music. It’s still mostly that way — if we didn’t have a label, I would probably just self-release.
But what’s happened since then is that having the label actually changed the music, because it created the possibility that we (and others) would write for albums, for recording, and would not be tailoring everything to traditional performance contexts. Infrastructure is a big issue for me, and for us.
JAT: There is a lot of talk about the comparison between self-releasing in music versus literature — where musicians are almost expected to hawk their wares at shows, etc., most authors are looked down upon for any self-release, i.e. the label of ‘vanity’ publishing…
But yes, the infrastructure and simply the ability to do this, as musicians, is I think vastly different from that of a small press, where budgets and audiences are much smaller
Though, I type that and am not sure.
Are audiences for music larger than audiences for lit (in terms of ‘indie’ scenes)?
JG: It’s the Wild West. There used to be all kinds of “rules” in music, too — the notion of “vanity” labels, etc., but that really doesn’t exist anymore. The “shoulds” have disappeared.
I think the Editor will have to step in to answer that one, J.A.! I mean, it partly depends what you consider “indie,” right? Like, bands rise from small labels to larger indie labels to even larger indie labels to subsidiaries of major labels…but it’s the same band.
JAT: Yes, and I think authors can move up that way too, although interestingly there are a slew of authors who make it work in reverse. They get a major contract, the major house doesn’t work for them in the way they like, and sure enough, they end up with a much smaller house who is willing to do more for them.
JG: That happens in music, too. Look at Radiohead, for a famous example.
JAT: Yes, and they break the structures by manipulating them. Sometimes it takes the bigs to bring out the smalls.
P.S., I love Radiohead – are you a fan?
JG: Right. The challenge, though, is figuring out how to have all these little scenes actually change the broader cultural dialogue. At least, that’s where my interests lie. (re: Radiohead: of course!)
JAT: How do you think New Amsterdam is playing into that interest, with regards to the future of that cultural dialogue?
JG: What I mean is, we can discuss Art in this extremely rarified way, as fellow Artists, and we can bring what we do into the Highly Educated discussions, and bring those cultural issues to the table, but I worry that we’re just substituting our art for other art that is fundamentally good, or our questions for other interesting questions, and not really doing the hard work of getting people who never engage with art beyond the multiplex or the television to have access to anything like what we’re discussing or making. It’s that bubble problem.
I see it as having different stages, in terms of tackling the problem. The first step is just to get a seat at the cultural table, which I think we’ve been able to do. The next step is to become more of a national organization, rather than a local one, which we’re working on. Then once that happens, we have to find ways to change the national conversation about art. That’s easily the most challenging of the three stages, but I don’t think it’s worth tackling until steps 1 and 2 are taken.
JAT: That is a great plan. Admirable and realistic, as well. So how do you go about #2? For us, it is about greater distribution, which increases visibility, which increases sales, which increases publicity. Is it the same for you?
JG: Yes, but also press, and even more importantly, shows. We’re trying to get our artists to tour more, to be booked by major national presenters, and to hook up with other music scenes around the country. It’s expensive but ultimately it’s necessary. This is where the New York Bubble can really be dangerous — success in New York can make you feel like you’re doing great, having lots of success, and people in older generations reinforce this because I think that used to be more true when there were fewer artists working. But now, there’s a tremendous glut of artists, and really talented ones, too, and just because you have a New York Times mention or a good crowd at a decent venue doesn’t guarantee you anything. That’s a way to start your career, but the infrastructure isn’t there to carry you along. You have to work hard to build on those successes. But New York doesn’t tell you that. New York tells you that you’ve done what you need to do.
I have no idea how that resonates with you, in Colorado! It could sound like a big pile of nonsense.
JAT: Yes. If authors could tour and read their work in various venues here and around here and outside of here, we would have all we needed to step up to that cultural conversation in a higher power seat. But the cost, etc., you know the drill. Funny though, for us, in Colorado, it is probably the opposite in terms of measuring success. When I see our books popping up locally, regionally, or our authors being invited into the state universities for readings or signings, then I will know we are making an impact. Getting books to go around the world isn’t as hard as it sounds, but getting those words to infiltrate all the way back to your home base, that is more difficult.
And it all comes back to place here too, a nice bookend of sorts. Though I still want to feel what it feels like to be in that glut of NY talent. It must be something to behold.
JG: Yeah, that’s a nice way to wrap this up, I suppose.
You should come to New York! At least for my world, it’s really preposterous how many people are doing interesting things. I was dating a poet for a little while earlier this year, and even in going to a few events and reading some things that were in her world of ideas, it seemed like a parallel world of depth and substance, too.
JAT: I am headed there, as soon as I can. The music, the art, the writing, I believe it is probably unparalleled.
And if we are wrapping this up, tell me at least what we can hear of you next? Where can we find it and listen? I want whoever reads this to listen to your work — it is fantastic.
JG: Thanks, man. Likewise with you and your work. I really found it moving and I look forward to getting some fuller examples. My current project is the big work about King Solomon. I’m thinking about what you said, back at the beginning, about seasons, because it’s snowing quite hard right now up hear in New Hampshire, and I’m writing about characters in the desert (in their original form) who may have literally never seen snow, and that’s an interesting contrast. But that’s going to be presented (in part) in my show on the Ecstatic Music Festival, which is a big festival that I curated at Merkin Hall in Manhattan, all about collaborations between people working in classical and non-classical forms, exploring the space I described earlier between and around genres. It should be an exciting festival and this piece is going to be good — but I have to finish it! I’ll also have a big triptych in Toronto in February, and I’m building toward a big orchestra premiere in Minnesota in Spring of 2012. But also, we’re releasing some records with my music on them in May and probably October of this coming year. Lots going on. How about you?
JAT: I love that contrast between the desert and the snow. I love too about the collaborations type festival, which means that art is begetting art. For me, I have a book coming out with Fugue State Press (based in New York) called A Man of Glass & All the Ways I Have Failed. And another New York connection with a collaborative book I wrote with John Dermot Woods, a New York resident, called No One Told Me I Would Disappear, a novel built on text chapters and art chapters, both working in conversation to tell the narrative of conjoined twins who long to separate. That book should come out from the other coast, in Portland, sometime in 2011.
This has been great by the way, talking about all of this, and I’m going to be all over listening to more of your work.
JG: Excellent. Well, I hope you get snow out there yourself. This has been really interesting and fun. I’ll look forward to reading further.
JAT: Fantastic. Best in all your music and enjoy the snow. Be well,
JG: You too.