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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Illinois: Back to Nonazang

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Illinois: Back to Nonazang

If you get so lost that you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and then go 13 miles past that, you will reach Nonazang. It's the most empty place imaginable, in which nothing ever happened and nothing ever will. Be sure to bring some paper with you.

On the first day I got here, I was messing around on the piano when my grandfather came in. I played some of my latest music for him, and he asked if I remembered what I'd played at my bar mitzvah. As an answer I halfheartedly played the theme from the very first piano piece I ever composed (which my piano teacher at the time named Celebration), but told him that I'd long since forgotten the majority of the piece because I was embarrassed by it. It was just a bad imitation of Bach, after all. He told me he had a videotape of my bar mitzvah. Would I like to see it? Heck yes.

The past shows how far you've come. You can look at it and laugh, and say "I was like that once?", and understand how much better you are now.

We hurried into my grandfather's study, a room that always smells of pipe tobacco no matter how long the window is left open. The desk in the corner surrounds a chair on three sides, one of those sides holding an old computer. Across from that is an antique chess board, which hasn't been played with in so long that the pieces have cobwebs between them. Between the door and the big bookshelf (filled mainly with political thrillers) is a massage chair; I've never really understood the appeal of those. And in the middle of the room, across from a couch, is a small TV and a radio which is usually on playing classical music. Under the VCR, my grandfather pulled open drawers filled with videos until we got to the very last drawer and found the one marked "Mory's Bar Mitzvah 2001".

It was a long recital. I'd only remembered playing my own piece, I didn't remember playing all the rest. It was all the pieces I'd learned in my piano lessons, apparently. And it wasn't what I expected. Sure, I had little control over dynamics. Sure, I sped up and slowed down at random points. Sure, at some points I got so stuck and confused that I needed to pause for ten seconds, go back and try again. But I knew what I was doing. It was clear to me, as it must have been clear to everyone in that room, that I did in fact understand what I was playing. It wasn't just notes, it was questions and answers and agreements and rebuttals and gentle happiness and bitter sadness and little me was swinging around with his whole body like he was just surrendering himself to the music and didn't notice or care how many people were watching. The kind of understanding I displayed in that video is the kind that you can't be taught, you just learn for yourself. And along with that, it was unbelievably amateurish. But somehow I didn't care. I've been taught quite a lot since then, but little me was my equal in all the ways that matter.

And then my own composition. It's a good piece.

I can certainly see why I stopped playing it. The left hand often just plays octaves, it repeats itself without changing anything, the structure is so disjointed it might as well be two separate pieces. But I'll be damned if I didn't find it fun to listen to. There's an energy there, an enthusiasm for doing something new and not having a rulebook in front of me but just feeling it out as I go. To call it a bad imitation of Bach would be grossly inaccurate, for many reasons. First off, it doesn't really follow classical music theory. Secondly, there's a point where it reaches a natural conclusion and then starts a totally different theme, in a style that's absolutely nothing like Bach. It sounds classical (rather than baroque), and then there's something that sounds like some sort of New Age chorus where it's just fun to play and who cares about subtlety. And then when I got tired of that second theme, I slowly switched back to the first one and gave that a second ending. It's nuts, sure. But it's unpredictable and fun. I was an idiot to forget it.

A few days later, I went to my grandfather's study again and put the tape back in. I ran back and forth between the study and the piano, and piece by piece I relearned my old composition.

It's a problematic piece from many angles. I saw that at once when I played through the whole thing. I don't know if I'd necessarily want to play it for anyone else. For a few seconds I considered rewriting it. But only for a few seconds. It is what it is and the lack of maturity is just a part of its quirky charm. And I don't need to play it for anyone other than myself.

I must have started that composition in sixth grade. That was a time where it felt like nothing had ever happened to me, and nothing ever would. So I needed to entertain myself, and that's how this whole composition habit started. It seems like a whole different world. Nowadays, I'm normally in the luxurious position of being able to get whatever kind of entertainment I want, whenever I want it. So there's no longer much need to entertain myself.

That's what this trip changes. Without my big sheet of paper, my life here would be pointless. So I need to find the point for myself.

Let me be clear: there is nothing on the paper except scribbles. There are angles, and there are circles, and that's about it. I think most people would not be impressed. But at the same time I have no doubt that if I were to show it to sixth-grade me, he'd approve. It would remind him of all the random lines he'd drawn on papers in school, to distract himself from the mind-numbing tedium. Except, those were small-scale. This here is the dream. A big world of static shapes in some sort of epic struggle. There's an uncertainty to drawing this game, but there's also a specific kind of joy I vaguely remember from way back. There's no rulebook for what I'm doing, just intuition.

So naturally it's imperfect. Some sections of the game world are going to be much bigger than others. Lots of ideas are getting repeated without adding much of a different spin each time. But I think that's going to be part of the quirky charm of it. Like it or not, this is a world which could only come out of this particular time and place. Because in this increasingly empty house, whose prime (I suspect) was decades ago, I'm tapping into a very specific energy. I look out the quiet living room through that window that says there's nothing else on Earth, and when I look back down at the paper I know exactly where to go next.

If you get so lost that you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and then go 13 miles past that, you will reach Nonazang. It's the most empty place imaginable, in which nothing ever happened and nothing ever will. Be sure to bring some paper with you. You may impress yourself.



It is funny that paper comes up today. I was horribly bored on an airplane today, nothing was satisfying until I realized that I had blank paper I could draw on.

It took a while to get going, but once I got into it, I really started to remember that there is something in my drawing that is useful, and fun and exciting.

And that's especially true in your case, since you can actually draw. The only reason I'm comfortable doing this thing is that there's nothing remotely representational about it.

There's something really cool about a blank piece of paper. I used to understand that, before school beat it out of me. Every book was something to explore, every empty notepad was something to divide into sections and scribble in and write ideas in. (Here I'm talking about when I was five or six.)


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