Saturday, May 18, 2013



it begins with breathing, I am certain of this, but I didn’t know how it ends, I never knew how it ends until recently, everything is in the lungs, before I could breathe my mother breathed for me, she breathed and then I could breathe, and not long ago I watched and I listened and I held her hand as she breathed her last breath, so I know how it ends, it ends as it begins, with breathing

early on an August morning in 1947 my mother began to breathe, and early on a March morning in 2013 she stopped breathing, her life could be measured in breaths, in years (the years she breathed), in days, in the number of children she gave birth to, or the number she lost, or the things she made with her hands, or the dogs she kept as companions, or the places she lived, or the places she visited, or the songs she loved, or the cigarettes she smoked, the pain she endured, such could be the parameters of her life as a work

and is this a strange introduction to a performance of the work of her son? I don’t think it is, I want to situate my music in a context that is meaningful beyond the parameters of pitches and rhythms, for which, even as a musician of many years, I have limited understanding or objectivity, my work is not about sound phenomena, I have only a cursory interest in sound phenomena but a great interest in social phenomena, I have written it before, elsewhere: music is not (merely) about organizing notes, it is about organizing ourselves, and I ask myself as I perform or write or record, how do I organize myself amidst others, with others, what do we do when we listen, what do we do when we write, what do we do when we perform, what is the music that my particular body makes, a particular body my particular mother made (not to suggest there is anything special about either of us, or others, any more than any others, just that we are all particular and it follows that the music one makes will be particular too), I think about the social phenomenon of breathing in tandem with the breathing of others, it begins with breathing, I am certain of this, and it ends with breathing, I am certain of this, and why should it be anything else in between?

does this sound complicated? because I don’t want it to sound complicated, I want it to sound simple, it is simple, as simple as breathing, an act you do without thinking about it, or you do and you focus on it, or it is labored, difficult for you and so (simply, without complication, without obfuscation) it outweighs all other things you might do or think about doing, I watched and I listened and I held her hand as my mother breathed in her last hours, now faster, now slower, now louder, now softer, I watched and I listened and I held her hand and surely she did the same when I was born, so I think I understand something about breathing, but sound phenomena confuse me, and in a world of confusion why add more confusion?

this is not a manifesto, I am trying to situate my work in a context, and what I am thinking about as I write is what kind of music the sound of my first breaths must have been for my mother, because perhaps this is music that all children and all parents can understand, and we are all one if not the other, and I can approximate what my mother felt, if not in the details, then at least in the awe and the humility, by contrasting it with the kind of music my mother’s last breaths were for me, something I knew I would never hear again, but to ask what kind of music I am thinking of is to think about the parameters of this music, I don’t know, it is not delineated by temporal durations, or spatial dimensions, or structure, or word count, and there are no words to describe this gift my mother gave to me, to let me hold her hand and let me listen and let me watch as the work that was her life ended, as she died

but there is a metaphor: it was like breathing


when I was very young I told my parents I wanted to be a fire engine -- not a fireman, but the actual vehicle, it was the sound of the thing, the spectacular sound of the siren that I wanted to be, and I imitated it often, but by the time I was four years old I had changed my mind and I told my parents that when I grew up I wanted to be “a mommy”, I had learned to appreciate a social phenomenon, perhaps sirens have a social function but they don’t have an inclination, but mothers do, at least my mother did, she wanted me to be good at what I do, and for others to care for it, and for me to be “happy” doing it, and she taught herself, late in life, to appreciate the odd sounds and odd social phenomena of whatever scenes my music found a home in, experimental or avant-garde or contemporary classical or free improvisation or noise or jazz or rock and roll or whatever you want to call these attitudes toward music making and the social behaviors that develop around them, she went to all the strange concerts and talked to all the musicians and bought their recordings and invited them to her home and fed them, and she asked me what I thought and she told me what she thought, and for someone who never played an instrument or wrote a song she breathed this music deeply, and maybe the dying process began earlier than we thought, maybe it was when she stopped being able to go to concerts and see her beloved musicians and speak with them and support their work, but I will tell you this last story it was perhaps ten days before she died and I was so busy taking care of her that I hadn’t played or practiced any music or slept in weeks but I put on a Bobby Darin LP and we never really listened to that record and it held no special meaning for us but fuck, music is music, so she in her wheelchair and me in my exhaustion and deep, deep sadness at the devastating loss I was about to endure we danced a little to that music and the joy in the room was intense and now I don’t want to speak of her in the past tense I want to breathe into my saxophone, this after all is the ability she gave to me, to breathe, this is where it began and this after all is where it will end, with breathing

[note: written for the program website of Kate Moore's 'Handmade Homegrown' concert series in The Hague, for which I gave a performance on May 16.]

Friday, March 22, 2013


(eulogy for my mother 1947-2013)

When music played, she would look out a window, see tree branches swaying, or people walking, and note the choreography. I would send her recordings of my music, and she would listen to them, again and again and again, and she would treasure them as if they were her grandchildren, and play them with pride for friends, and memorize their every vibration, and know them as though she herself had written them - and hadn't she? with her own body and her own soul, thirty-six years ago - and tell me that she heard great choirs singing my work, she would orchestrate greater versions of it than I could imagine, in the time it took for a bar of a piece to play, she would orchestrate lavish versions of the music and the production and the publicity, she would describe the immense productions, already clear in her mind, the dancers, the elaborate set designs, the lighting plans, the colors swirling and telling stories within stories in their intermingling. And her orchestration would extend to the accolades and success it would bring to her son, because hard work and risk-taking will always bring great rewards, how it would permit me to travel and buy a home and raise a family, and how that family would thrive and honor the toiling and risks and sacrifices of her dear parents, parents whose adventures she memorialized with such reverence that their very kisses to each other became legends as sacred as any other to the ears of her children. She would hear a note and it would extend from a fine, small molecule of air that she would capture gently between her thumb and one of her long, brightly painted fingernails, out in a flourish full of grace, to the heavens, the stars, through whole solar systems, to the furthest reaches of being itself, and with a wave of her head and an "ah" or two clicks of her tongue, she would catch herself, remembering something, the corporeal, the belly, she would ask "is it lunchtime?" and always, always, always, before she would eat she would offer you up the world to fill your own belly, and if the world didn't satisfy you she would offer you another, or another, and if three whole worlds would not satisfy you she would find another again, anything, and what else, and you would have ice cream covered in hot fudge and whipped cream for dinner, or a spectacular meal of many courses made from scratch, or your choice, anything you wanted, of the town’s finest dining, there is no modesty in matters of the belly, but she would teach you how to grow in the garden, how to grow fruits and vegetables and herbs that nourished you, and how to grow flowers that delighted you, with strange names she would always know, as though these were names she herself had chosen for them, and she would always know their season, their particulars, like a mother knows what foods her babies like to eat, there were whole taxonomies of flowers and plants in her head, and everything was a sprawling taxonomy, mountains of beads and jewelry and ribbons and fabric and paint and glue pouring out from makeshift workspaces, arranged into families and groups as precariously and with as much poetry as any really living life, and the ups and downs of the stock market and the ins and outs of real estate were arrayed in her mind and upon the slightest slivers of paper, the backs of receipts and envelopes and matchbooks, mysterious ciphers in her careful, lovely scrawl, populating reams of scratch paper that curled around her house like vines, full of lives of their own, flowing from every surface, and each calculation coming with a mathematics and a lesson on self-sufficiency embedded in it, and recipes, oh recipes, as though recipes were a kingdom unto themselves, and tuna salad begat egg salad, and egg salad begat devilled eggs, the kitchen at once a sacred shrine and a restless artist’s tangled workplace, and back out in the garden she would teach you how to pull up the weeds, not just which ones to pull, but how to do it as a discipline, as an aesthetic, as the sun rose, when the rest of the world was asleep, with a good dog at her side, and a cup of too-sweet coffee in one hand, and the new day full of possibility, full of opportunity, the early bird does not catch worms, she opens up her own restaurant, she teaches you how to eat, how to cook, how to present food elegantly, because the table is a canvas, the good spirits of her many guests are canvases to paint upon, generosity is a thing to paint with, everything is adorned, everything is arrayed, every thing is part of a collection of things, and because her bright green eyes were prisms, and her long hands were factories, every thing can be made to be some other thing, turned around, painted, put in a new context, given to a school or a church for children to make new art with, or sell it and sell it and sell it until you can buy a house and sell a house and save enough to give away so her grandchildren will never be cold or hungry or sick and the things she labored greatest over, the pains she suffered most for, the love that just flowed and flowed and flowed out of her because she had no beginning and no end as long as she loved, and her love was out in the world, here we are, with names she gave us, doing her proud, seeing, hearing, feeling this immeasurable limitless potential of a world she dreamt up for us, to travel over, to sing to, to entertain, to build upon, to find love on, always to find love, to find someone to sing to, to travel with, to entertain, to build with, to dance with, to laugh with, to cry with, to cook with, to fill the belly and the heart with, to dream dreams with, to breathe with

and I was there with her as she breathed her last breath, her hand in mine, her no-longer seeing eyes looking through me to a new world, her sweet face young again, poised, mischievously to the end, in the vaguest suggestion of a smile, with the lines of life and care and her prodigious, idiosyncratic folk wisdom smoothed over in her departure from this place, that last breath pure and calm and full of peace, even in her last instant of life a lesson to hand down to me, her son, her friend, and a hope that this world, this world without her, would be like this world with her, a place where to wake up and breath is to dream without limitation

Thursday, January 10, 2013



We don't drop bombs on the brave, embattled people of Afghanistan. We don't drop them on Yemeni boys whose first beards only they and their mothers can see. We don’t drop them on weddings and funerals and search parties in Pakistan. We don't give them, as gifts, to the persecutors of Palestinians. We don’t commission, design, or make the bombs, and we don’t order others to drop them.

We don't manufacture the guns that cops use to kill one person of color in the United States every thirty-six hours. We don't sell the guns, we don’t profit from the gun sales, we don't fight for the right to own them with the same money we fight against the reproductive autonomy of women. We don't enshrine the legality of white folks killing black folks under "stand your ground" laws drawn up by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

We don't wear badges. We don't wear uniforms. We don't demand to see your license and registration, or your passport, or your visa, or your working papers, or your student ID, or your rental agreement. We don't set up checkpoints, we don't stop and frisk. We are not racial profilers. And we are not colorblind.

We make beautiful music together. We know how to dance. We know when to dance, when to party, when to run, and with whom. And we know when to stand up, backs straight, facing the State, meeting its hatred of itself with our love of each other.

We hold hands, we lock arms.

We feed each other, we clothe each other, we keep each other warm. We don't hoard food. We don't waste food. We don’t shame you if you’re hungry. We’re not embarrassed when our stomachs rumble. We don’t eat first.

We don't build walls, we smash them. We cut holes in wire fences. We tear down advertisements. We cover walls with art and messages.

We don't build jails. We don't kidnap people, we don’t kidnap animals. We don't pour chemicals into the eyes of rabbits and mice, we liberate them from the labs where they're held captive and tortured. We don't torture. We aren't torturers who say we don't torture.

We don't distinguish between human rights and civil rights and animal rights. Every species is endangered. The world is a wildlife preserve.

We don’t hold elections hostage. We don't hold elections. We don't represent anyone but ourselves. We don't pledge allegiance to flags. We don't wave them, we don't wrap ourselves in them. We don't salute them. We have no nation, and it is not great, and it never was. We don’t govern. We are not governable.

We are not constituents. We are not citizens. We are not consumers. We are not products. We don’t yammer on about renewable this and sustainable that. We are not a science experiment. We know that ethical shopping is still shopping.

We don't take instructions from strange old men in strange robes with monopolies on god's will. We don't pray at the altar of oil. Or gas. Or coal. Or uranium. Or money. Or technology.

We know that the bed and the bank of every river and stream is a sacred site.

We understand consent, we honor it and we insist on it. We don't rape. We don’t rape women, or men, or children. Or oceans. Or economies. We lash ourselves to trees and stand up to bulldozers and knock the teeth out of the mouths of racists. We bash back.

We respect autonomy, not authority. We offer solidarity, not charity.

We don’t do business. We don’t make deals. We are not our jobs. We are not our debts. We are not our illnesses. We are not our educations. We are not our parents, or their mistakes, or their failures, or their fears. We don’t owe them. We are not our children. We don’t own them.

We don't indoctrinate children. We don't fire their teachers, we don't close their schools. We don't lie to them about the world. We don't feed them poison, we don’t rob their bellies of food. We don't round up their fathers and then blame them for being fatherless. We don’t work their mothers to death and then blame them for being motherless. We don't teach them to love their country. We don't teach them to hate their bodies.

We feed each other, we clothe each other, we keep each other warm. We hold hands, we lock arms.

We know when to dance, when to party, when to stand up, backs straight, facing the State, meeting its hatred of itself with our love of each other. We know when to run, and with whom. We know how to dance. We make beautiful music together.

We don’t target whole cultures for eradication. We don’t target whole forests for eradication. We don’t build zoos, or museums, or glass and steel towers. We don’t close libraries, we don’t destroy them, we don’t burn books. We don’t fire plutonium-powered rockets through the stratosphere. We don’t insist on cooking the atmosphere. We don’t casually calculate the risk, we don’t prepare environmental impact assessments and then, fuck it, drill anyway.

We are not all of the above. We are not multiple-choice. We are not either/or. We are not census data. We are not statistics. We are not metrics. We are not the general populace, the American people, a concerned citizenry, a nation divided. We are not a movement. We are not united. We are not the People. We don’t petition the king, there is no king.

We hold hands, we lock arms.

We don’t reach across the aisle. We don’t lend bipartisan support. We don’t legislate. We don’t segregate our concern. We don’t say that progress is being made when you stick a knife in our backs nine inches and pull it out six inches. We never thank a politician, for anything, ever. We don’t ask what we can do for our country, because we don’t have one, we don’t want one, and we don’t want to know what it can do for us, either.

We don’t ask for handouts. We don’t ask for tears. We don’t want casual, drive-by, fashionable outrage at our situations. We do want the boots off our backs.

We are not slaves, because being held captive, for days or decades or centuries, does not make one a slave. We are not, nor have we ever been, nor will we ever be, wretched refuse. We are not a melting pot.

We are not overpopulation. We are not illegal. We are not here to breed. We are not addicts, even when we are addicted. We are not welfare mothers, even when we are mothers on welfare.

We are not what you say we are. Whatever you say we are, we are not that.

We know when to run, and with whom. We hold hands, we lock arms. We make beautiful music together. We know how to dance. We know when to dance, when to party, when to stand up, backs straight, facing the State, meeting its hatred of itself with our love of each other, meeting its hatred of itself with our love of each other, backs straight, facing the State, meeting its hatred of itself with our love of each other.

(Philadelphia, November 2012)

[Note: written for the first issue of Bread & Roses, a publication that works to cultivate an explicitly anti-oppression community at Cornell University & in the broader Ithaca, NY community, run by students / comrade activists at Cornell.]