nyc-based composer, pianist, arranger, and music director. i do other stuff, too.

On Process, Forgetting, and Mail Chutes

Added on by Avi Amon.

I recently wrote a post for the Target Margin blog. Sharing it below, in full, as well:

Something happens when you allow yourself to get lost, to forget. You make yourself available to receive little bits of gold you couldn’t have found if you were looking for them. For example, if you were to walk by certain elevator banks in certain oldish, tallish buildings (typically in Midtown, downtown Brooklyn, or the Financial District) you might notice certain brass and glass architectural details built into the wall, with the following inscription:

CUTLER MAIL CHUTE CO.
ROCHESTER, N. Y.

Easily-overlooked bits of nonfunctioning nostalgia, perhaps. But in the context of this piece I’m developing (if we can call it that), I suddenly saw them as ghosts of a forgotten process and of a place I used to call home, hidden in plain sight all over the city.

I’ve written a short play to demonstrate my process, generally speaking, with collaborators in the past:

THEM
We’re doing a thing! Are you a composer person?

ME
Yes, I am a composer person! What’s the thing?

THEM
Here’s the thing! What does the thing sound like?

time passes…

ME
I figured it out! The thing sounds like this! (demonstrates what the thing sounds like) Please consider giving me money.

Blackout.

Let’s be clear: I love every minute of it. And I don’t mean to make it seem like it’s always easy or that I always have a plan, because it isn’t and I certainly don’t. But it usually has an end goal in sight and when you have an end goal in sight, it becomes easy to rely on muscle memory. A song goes like this. Underscoring goes like that. I was getting tired of what that muscle memory was starting to sound like for me so it was time to get rid of some habits.

Most of my music creation comes out of a structured improvisatory process that takes a long time and involves wading through a lot of bologna to get to the good stuff. What if I applied that technique on a macro level? Zoom out even further to an entire piece of theater – I could create or collect enough material to cull through and deal with it later. Also maximum scariness challenge: maybe it wouldn’t even have music in it?!

In short: what happens when I step away from creation and towards discovery?

My plan was to have no plan, to get lost in the accumulation of stuff, and to let that guide the process. It’s sort of like falling down one of those deep Wikipedia rabbit-holes where you “learn” everything there is to know about Nietzsche, Liberia, bread-kneading, the many types of mint (there are many), Judy Blume, and Bitcoin, only to realize that it’s 6am you didn’t do any of the work you had planned on doing.

But less mind-numbing. And I still feel good about myself and my choices.

About halfway through my year with Target Margin, I came across this article. It’s like, well-written, and interesting, and about a really devastating earthquake that’s supposed to happen in the Pacific Northwest and how we’re not prepared and blah blah blah. But what was REALLY interesting is how scientists confirmed when the last earthquake happened (in 1700) by comparing geological records with Japanese accounts of a big wave, and myths passed down through generations of various First Nations tribes. This type of historical detective work is absolutely fascinating, particularly reinterpreting the often-metaphorical language in the legends— there is always a context in which anything that is written or said is written or said.

This led me to countless stories and legends (many about natural disasters), archeological discoveries around the globe and here in NYC, forgotten whistling languages, modern diagnoses of ancient diseases, and the discovery of the color Blue. I learned that there is a person with the title Neuro-Cultural Anthropologist. From that person I learned that Memory Studies are a thing. And then I learned about the distinct types of forgetting we might experience on a societal and personal level. From there I began reading about dementia and personal identity which, in turn, led me right back to storytelling which, it has be come abundantly clear, is the skeleton on which we hang our entire universe.

As with noticing the Cutler Mail Chutes in the hallways of old buildings, I am simply allowing information to happen to me and taking meticulous notes along the way. There is so much magic buried in obscure texts, forgotten places, dead languages, and deep in our brains. So many things are forgotten and destroyed only to be rebuilt or rediscovered in some unpredictable form later. I think I’m still pretty deep in “improvisatory” fact-finding stage, but I’ve begun to pull out specific characters, narratives, and bits of sound (ok, it might have music in it) that will hopefully maybe someday fit into a piece/project/opera/something-more-than-a-pile-of-things-on-a-table.

I’m still a bit lost, but I’m super excited about it.