Sunday, April 27, 2008


I suppose it was inevitable. After less than two years of living in Tucson, I have started reading historical and cultural books about the Southwest. My mother tried to interest me in westerns when she moved to Phoenix in the late 1970s, but they seemed irrelevant when I lived in Ohio. Perhaps it's the wide open spaces that we see as soon as we drive out of town. Perhaps it's the amazing but true fact that Tucson closes the public schools for the annual rodeo parade. No doubt there's a big chunk of mythology planted in me by years of watching Hollywood westerns. But it's one of the behavioral trends that I see in myself and have to stand back, scratch my head, and wonder why.

Two recent books from the vacation reading have prompted these reflections. In one of them, Cities of Gold by Douglas Preston, two greenhorn cowboys recreate Coronado's initial exploration into the southwest, riding over a thousand miles on horseback from the Mexican border south of Tucson to the Pecos Pueblo near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The book is equal parts riding story and history lesson, covering not only Coronado's initial contacts but whatever we know about pre-Coronado native civilizations and their subsequent demise in the wake of the American conquest in the nineteenth century.

The second book is by Richard Grant, a British ex-pat who was living in Tucson when he wrote American Nomads. This book has more general interest than Preston's, not being limited to residents of the southwest (although cowboys, historical and contemporary, participate in his tale). Nomads, people of no fixed abode, live way off the grid, and include an amazingly wide spectrum of contemporary American society, albeit mostly unknown and undocumented. In addition to rodeo cowboys, Grant also visits the annual Rainbow Family gatherings, the annual gathering of retirees in RVs at Quartzsite, Arizona, the tribal headquarters of the largest group of nomadic Indians (the Comanches), and even the Freight Train Riders of America, formerly known as hoboes. It's a fascinating array of tales of wanderers past and present, with occasional references to nomadic philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, whose seminal work A Thousand Plateaux spun the image of a eternally outside nomad war machine across a dozen different knowledge domains.

The most well-known musical nomad was Harry Partch, who spent formative years riding the rails as a hobo, participating in the loose and unstructured society that flourished for a brief period during more sympathetic, less dangerous times. Partch's unique musical system based on a 43-note scale (rather than the usual twelve) lies fairly far outside any mainstream, although his maverick status finds him at the headwaters of some kind of tributary that continues to contemporary microtonal composers like Kyle Gann and Ben Johnston.

Drone composers have a nomad representative in Michael Northam, whose resume reads like a fifteen-year travelogue. His very occasional blog posts are separated by several weeks and thousands of miles. While it's easier to make a case for an audible nomadism in Partch's music than it is for Northam's, I hear a powerful yearning for stability in the way Northam combines dozens of layers of source material, a constant that permeates the delicate and timeless texture that he constructs. But this is an aspect that I bring as a listener — Northam's concerns as expressed in interviews and his own writings tend more to complex systems, meterological phenomena, and the complex layering in tiny molecules. But for all the imaginative stimuli that come from a contemplation of nomadism, I would be hard pressed to identify a nomadic aspect in Northam's work that wasn't present in other drone artists. But southwestern landscapes, rootless nomadic wandering and slowly moving journeys like Preston's are growing in my personal symbolisms, which inevitably colors the way I listen to and perform music.

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