The following is a speech I wrote for an event that was not able to provide a piano. I chose not to deliver the speech after learning that the presenter wanted something more theatrical, and that political statements were discouraged for this particular event. It is entitled “I Need To Float.”
I have so much to tell you.
Only 15 minutes though.
15 minutes is all we have.
So let’s not waste any time.
I could create a poem for you.
I could create a monologue for you.
I could create nothing for you.
I could create something.
I could create a monodrama.
I could create a percussion piece.
I could create a short form mini-opera.
I could create an essay for you.
I could create a stump speech for you.
I could write a story for you.
I could play chance operations with you.
I could invite audience participation.
I could say no words at all, and simply act through gestures only.
I could say only words, and simply express through words and words alone.
I could decorate my body to express what I need to express, and simply stand in front of you for 15 minutes.
I could eat fruit on stage.
I could throw tomatoes at you.
I could sleep for 15 minutes.
I could strip naked, and masturbate in front of you while drinking a diet coke.
I could say and do nothing.
I could say and do everything.
Or, I could say and do some things.
I could waste 15 minutes with a list of 4,342 things that I could conceivably do with fifteen minutes of your time.
I could list the tragic loss of non-white lives in this country, dating back to the first Europeans to purge Native American people, and the first slaves kidnapped from the continent of Africa.
I could tell you how tired I am of white, male privilege. How much it angers me.
How much it saddens me.
I could tell you how much.
I could tell you about the things I love.
I could tell you about how much I love music.
I could tell you why I love music.
I could tell you about my family.
I could tell you about my friends.
I could tell you these things. I could give to you these things. These things I could create for you.
All of these performative ideas–whether musical or not–are essentially diversions, artistic and sometimes artful refusals to engage in the literal, in the exact. It floats in the clouds of ideas, rather than the Earth of immutability. My ideas are more playful than they are courageous, more riddled than they are solvent, they don’t lay upon the ground, they float above it.
I grapple with this often. I feel worried at times that I won’t land upon the ground in time. Or at all. I’m afraid that I won’t portray my life as an artist clearly enough amidst my cloudy thoughts. I’m afraid of having said too much while saying too little. I feel afraid the way a kite without a string must feel afraid. I feel afraid the way a swing without a seat must feel afraid. I feel afraid the way a bee with too many wings must feel afraid. Or too many stingers. Or too many hives.
I am very smart. I am very brave. I am very loyal.
This is the first time I’ve ever spoken those words in my life to another human being. Others have spoken them for me, but I have never before produced them with my own mouth.
I am a musician. I am an artist. I am a writer. I am a performer. I am a composer.
These are all things I mean to say, and know how to say. I am very smart. I am very brave. I am very loyal. I am a musician. I am an artist. I am a writer. I am a performer. I am a composer. You see? I’m trying to ground myself. I’m trying to be exact. I’m trying to be the string to that kite, the seat to that swing, the one-wing-less, the one-stinger-less, the one-hive-less to that bee.
To be in the world is to be many things: complicated, angry, personal, passionate, cruel, sweet, murky, radiant, fast, slow, easy, telling, spacious, patient, and beautiful.
I’ve spent all of our time thus far floating about.
I would love to share a neatly packaged story that makes you like me, relate to me, connect with me, so that you can go home and say to your spouse, friend, cat, dog or journal, “hey, that guy’s not half bad.”
But that neatly packaged story that makes you like me does not exist. I wish it did.
It feels wrong (perhaps impossible) to bring me down to your earth.
I’m a kite that doesn’t reach the ground; I’m a swing that doesn’t reach the ground.
No matter which way I hang, no matter which way I swing, I do not reach the ground.
But I do reach the ground sometimes, just not for you, right now. When I’m on the ground, I’m a broken swing, a useless kite, a bee with clipped wings, a bee with a lost his stinger. You don’t want to see that side of me.
I’d like to think of music as in-the-air. Sound travels out of our instruments, through the air, and into our ears. I’m sort of preoccupied with the through-the-air part of the experience, the voyage rather than the origin or aim.
This has become a long speech.
I turn the page [turn page]
As a day passes. I think of leaves when I think of pages — in many languages, a piece of paper and a leaf from a tree are the same word. Feuille in French. Foglio or foglia in Italian. Hoja in Spanish…
When I was a little kid, I told a story to my dad that if I was a leaf, my dad would catch me before I hit the ground in the Fall, take me inside and keep me warm and give me water during the Winter, and in the Spring, glue my leaf body right back onto the tree again. My dad asked me what would happen when he dies, and I told him then I would die too, and that would be okay, because then we can die together.
To this day I’ve kept the superstition that you can’t take a leaf from a tree unless you catch it in the air as it falls from the tree. Perhaps this is what t.s. eliot saw in the leaf. There is a rare, tragic, lovely beauty in a falling leaf.
But I don’t mean to get too tragic here, with you here and all. A falling leaf can be caught. A fallen leaf can become ground cover and fertilizer for future plants, a fallen leaf can be what you use to wipe dogshit off the bottom of your nice shoes. Think about it.
Now, to talk a bit about music.
I particularly like the mid-to-high register–the top part of the alto register, through the meat of the soprano register. When Norwegian composer Kristin Bolstad asked me to “think of the most beautiful sound you know of” and ” transfer this sound from your mind to your body, and to your instrument”, I came up with two notes: C5 and E5. I think my particular love of Nina Simone’s version of Little Girl Blue is because of the simple melody she uses, introduced in the heart of this register I love.
The melody is in Ab major.
I have a special love for Ab major. I have a special love for the feel of Ab major at the piano. The first big, serious piece I ever played was Beethoven’s Op. 110 in Ab major. I was also learning Liszt’s Liebestraume at the same time, so the comfort and warmth of Ab major really made an impression on me. The cozy comfort of consistency (the 2 groups of 2 black notes) softly imposed against the piano keyboard’s architectural inconsistency of 7 white notes to only 5 black. The G happily slides off the Ab and the C does the same from Db. The step from Bb to C is cautious yet distict, as is the Eb to F.
The relationships within Ab major are balanced, kind and smooth—all things I aspire to be and become for myself and acknowledge and celebrate in those around me.
My least favorite key is G major. I think it is a product of working on Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I’m an obsessive person, but Bach finds a way to out-obsess obsession itself. Bach maintained a rare formula that rendered him incapable of burnout. Bach is probably my favorite musician and composer of all time.
My second favorite is not a person but rather an assortment of pieces:
Luciano Berio’s “Wasserklavier” from Six Encores
Arvo Part’s “Fur Alina”
Frederic Rzewski’s De Profundis, for narrating pianist
Johannes Brahms’s Haydn Variations for orchestra
Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies, for solo piano
Nina Simone’s version of Little Girl Blue
Robert Schumann’s “Wehmut” from Liederkreis, Op. 39
Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet
But they are all just words and names…Music doesn’t exist in the naming of things. Music is a symbol behind the eyes and under the ears of the heard naming of a thing. With words alone I am simply naming things—it is you who must symbolize the music.
Symbols are powerful objects.
Objects are powerful symbols.
Symbols are objects,
Objects are symbols.
A kite with no string is an object and symbol
A bee, with 3 wings,
A swing, with no seat,
These are objects and symbols.
(But symbols are not that important. What is truly important are subjects and people.)
Objects and symbols are what we deal with in words – subjects and people are what we deal with in real life.
Is the rope to a swing what a string is to a kite?
Or are they opposites?
Is a bee with 3 wings and two stingers more reckless than one with 2 wings and one stinger?
One of my favorite pieces of music ever written is Erik Satie’s “La Balancoire” (The Swing) from Sports et Divertissements. The words in the score read:
C’est mon coeur qui se balance ainsi, It is my heart that swings
Il n’a pas le vertige, It does not have vertigo
Comme il a des petits pieds, What small feet it has
Voudra-t-il revenir dans ma poitrine? Will it want to return to my chest?
It is my heart that swings
It does not have vertigo
What small feet it has
Will it want to return to my chest?
A swing needs a rope to float
A kite needs a string to fly
A bee, and all things in the air, still must land sometime.
Floating is part of my identity
But I need the Earth and all of you on it, in order to float.
My fifteen minutes could have been spent
But instead I floated around. I floated around, all around. Because I need this. I need this for me.
I need to float.