Once at Englewood High School my English class was given an assignment to compose a poem. We each had to stand up in front of the class and read what we’d written. One of the girls was the first to go. She stood up at the blackboard and started explaining what she’d tried to do. “This is a poem about—” The teacher cut her off right away. “Stop,” he said. “Just read the poem. Don’t tell us what it’s about.”
At the time I only heard it as a practical injunction related to what I was going to have to face a few minutes later. But it stuck somewhere in the back of my head, and to me it’s a decent summation of the way art works in general. You don’t need to know anything about art. You don’t need anything to be disclosed in advance. You just need to experience it.
The point isn’t that art is universal, except to the extent that all human societies make it in one fashion or another. There are still barriers and ambiguities, aspects of any given instance that some people won’t be able to understand or engage with. But you can’t explain art. It simply doesn’t work that way.
Sometimes I have to destroy my own process to get to something new.
I find that the less I say about my music, the better. If I say anything, it tends to be oblique or oracular: words meant to jar the listener out of the complacency of expectation. Then it’s on you to come to the sound curious and open-eared to hear what you find.
There is an expectation that an artist’s autobiography will function as a primer, providing “explanations” of the art. But this book is not a listening guide. If anything, it is an extended defiance of that expectation. If it’s meant to teach you anything about my music, it starts with the lesson that you need to relinquish that desire for transparency. Music is about listening. Nothing I can say can mean anything once you start to listen. It’s about the sound, not about the words I might be able to pin up to preface or accompany whatever the sound does to you when it goes in your ears.
If you really need to know, I can tell you—for whatever it’s worth—that anything can go into my music. I get ideas from all sorts of sources. It might be going to the theater or looking at a painting or just watching a tree branch outside the window. It might be reading about the muddy intricacies of trench warfare during World War I or poring over The Book of Five Rings (Miyamoto Musashi’s seventeenth-century book on sword-fighting tactics) or looking at the novels of James Joyce or Heinrich Böll. Anything can seep into the music.
I’ve always been intensely engaged with the music of other composers. But even if I sometimes glean techniques I can adapt, I tend to get my information on another level. I get more ideas about music by looking at a sculpture or by watching a dance than by listening to other music. I go elsewhere: that’s how I get informed. But that doesn’t mean the music is about any of those other things, or that there’s some key source that, if you were aware of it, could unlock the music for you as a listener.
Rather than providing subject matter, these kinds of things shape my music through a kind of loose formal extrapolation. Say I’m reading about trench warfare. It might focus my attention on the way you can have multiple levels of engagement: some things going on above ground and other things happening in the tunnels.
As I saw firsthand in Vietnam, tunnels can be hidden mazes—they’re networks that give you ways of getting from one place to another without being seen, without exposing yourself. Trenches are territory lines, too: a crude calligraphy of advancing and retreating forces confronting each other across a no-man’s-land. And they end up being social spaces, too, where you sleep and eat and smoke and pee and write letters home. You could even say they have their own temporality. A trench is a whole emotional atmosphere with a palette of its own, from apprehension—Is that a rifle barrel I see poking out from that crevice?—to silent pools of boredom.
But I’m not thinking about all these things to write music about the historical experience of a soldier in World War I. Instead, the process involves a kind of transposition: how can a piece of music work on multiple levels in a similar way, or suggest that sort of emotional ambiguity? The parallel is subtle—a matter of intuition—rather than straightforward and mechanistic. (In other words, working on multiple levels in music doesn’t just mean using a mix of high pitches and low pitches.) The transposition makes me think about musical structure in a different way.
Not everything is everybody’s business. The elements that factor into my artistic process are part of that process, but they don’t necessarily have anything to do with the impact of the finished artwork on the listener.
People always ask me about my song titles. “Keep Right On Playing Thru the Mirror Over the Water”—what does that mean? “Salute to the Enema Bandit,” “Spotted Dick Is Pudding”—what in the world are you referring to? “To Undertake My Corners Open”? Why are your titles so cryptic? “Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket”? They assume too quickly that titles are always descriptive or programmatic: clues about content. That might be the case for some composers.
But I use song titles as another source of stimulation. They might have roots in my artistic process—in the sundry stuff I encountered as I was making the work—but their function isn’t to suggest that the music can be reduced to those sources. For the listener, they function as a spark. The language is meant to spur your own thought process as you listen. You don’t need to know what I might have been thinking about. Instead you need to start with this material I’ve thrown on the table in front of you and figure out your own reaction. What now? What does it make you feel? What does it make you think about? Take me out of the equation. You’re the equation: your ears, your blood pulse, your own sound world, your own predilections. Now what do we have?
Experimentation is at the heart of the creative process. What sets art and science apart from every other domain of human endeavor is that they are formalized realms for radical experimentation. For taking chances. Areas of activity where conjecture and risk taking are privileged and failures and dead ends are accepted as part of the game.
This is the reason there’s perpetual tension between musicians and record companies: experimentation doesn’t go well with commodification. The same sorts of tensions can arise in science, with the funding of research that seems too theoretical, too far out, too removed from any practical application or patent potential.
To expel myself from my proclivities, sometimes I have to let my mind slip into another world. Then it’s hard to fall into habit, into the same old ingrained ways of working. Sometimes I have to destroy my own process to get to something new.
In the winter of 2009 I had a residency at the Copland House in Cortlandt Manor, the town up the Hudson River from New York City where the composer Aaron Copland lived in the last decades of his life. Copland called it his “hideaway.” You’re up there alone in this beautiful house in the woods. I was reading some of the books I found in his collection there—I came across a copy of Ulysses and started rereading that—but I was also just looking out the window. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
There has to be a situation—the song sets up a situation—and then I have to extricate myself.
One day I noticed a vine outside the window in the den that should have been dead. It was December. All the trees were bare. But there was one bush that had a vine coming up through it that had attached itself to the brickwork on the side of the house, and there were a few leaves on it. I started sketching the vine from different angles—just sketching the structure, the three-dimensional distribution of what was in front of me.
When I looked at it carefully, I realized how complex it was: some parts of the vine looked dead, and then there were these sections with leaves that seemed like these little residual clumps of stubborn life. A little bit of green that seemed determined to hang on—wind and snow and ice be damned. Wow, I thought. Look at that.
I didn’t have a plan. It just piqued my curiosity.
I would check it out every morning, and then I started to appreciate the ways it was changing. A leaf might fall to the ground during the night. The composition kept altering itself, and there was a rhythm to the changes, even if I couldn’t predict exactly what was going to happen when.
I woke up one morning and saw that two clumps of leaves had fallen off. They had already lost their color, and the intensity of green of the remaining leaves on the vine seemed heightened in contrast to the brown around it. There was less green left, but that made the color seem even more vivid.
None of this is surprising from a botanical point of view. Changing seasons isn’t like flipping a light switch. Nature is filled with peculiar little pockets of resiliency and resignation: some things that seem determined not to die, and others that seem to let themselves go prematurely.
But this mundane insight affected my compositional process, because I started playing with contrasts between areas of activity in the music I was writing, too: shifting contrasts between developments in the foreground, the middle ground, and the background of the soundscape. Motifs that lingered “too long” until they came to be highlighted in relief against their surroundings.
This is to say that for me, musical experimentation isn’t a matter of finding new content—I was never trying to depict the falling leaves in sound—but is instead a way of finding a formal instigation from an entirely unrelated source through a simple practice of observation. Making myself look elsewhere. It was as though watching that bush provided a way of making my mind go out on a limb.
Once a journalist asked me about the title of my tune “Jenkins Boys, Again, Wish Somebody Die, It’s Hot” from the record Carry the Day. “What difference would it make if I told you?” I replied. I can fill in the background, sure. The title alludes to something my great-grandfather told me. In the cotton fields the only way you could get a day off is when a white person would die. Then everybody would get a break for the funeral.
Working in the fields on sweltering summer days, my great-grandfather told me, folks would look at each other and say, “I wish somebody’d die.” It was a code: I can’t take this shit anymore, it meant. Not a solution, but a way of acknowledging a shared predicament. Slyly veiled hostility, an aspiration for release, passed softly to the person next to you along the row of cotton. The overseer would be standing there but he didn’t know what they were talking about.
And in Illinois, whenever it got really hot my Grandma Gertrude used to proclaim: “That’s the Jenkins boys.” It was what they used to call a heat wave so vivid you could see it hovering like figures on the horizon.
So those different histories—those experiences, those ways of seeing the world, those way of speaking—are knotted together in the title of the tune. But what does it help you to know that? The song’s not a description of that. Listen to it. It’s not an ethnographic portrait of labor on the plantation, or a family memoir.
I think that ultimately the listener gets more when the stimulation is not explained. Then you have to take it in as you listen, letting the language resonate with the way you hear the music. It’s when you don’t know exactly what it means or where it comes from that its full implications come into play. Stifling heat. Airlessness. Murderous thoughts, muttered low. A certain lingering menace. Them boys again.
In the way they play off each other, the combination of language and music might suggest the desire to get free of something. And in fact, for me, that was the real mathematical problem in that particular composition. That’s what inspired it, that compositional question: How do I exit here? Or better: How do I break away from the situation? There has to be a situation—the song sets up a situation—and then I have to extricate myself.
From Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music by Henry Threadgill and Brent Hayes Edwards. Copyright © 2023. Available from Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.