Week of Wonders: Prelude

Kurt and His Week of Wonders
(with an unwitting soundtrack by Harris Eisenstadt)


I spent the first week of September between Ostrava, the Czech Republic, New York City, then Guelph, Ontario. I carried with me a record by Harris Eisenstadt called “September Trio” with Ellery Eskelin and Angelica Sanchez (released by Clean Feed October 25). The track titles spell out the first week of the month (“September 1” through “September 7”) so it seemed natural to listen to one track a day as I kept my travel diary, beginning on the 1st, which was the 8th day of the Ostrava Days festival. The only edits from what was written out in longhand in the little notebook I bought in Chinatown were made for clarity. My personal context (mood, surroundings, geography) was allowed to influence me as much as it wanted to.

I was in the Czech Republic to cover the Ostrava Days festival for New Music Box. The review can be read here. My review of the Guelph Jazz Festival appeared in the New York City Jazz Record, a PDF of which can be downloaded here.

It was a week that caused me to question my own preferences. Is it improvised music I gravitate toward (a delineation which brings up innumerable questions)? Or is it small group music? Perhaps, but not only that. I found myself surprised, maybe even embarrassed, by the simplicity of discovering that it's contemporary music, current, modern, post-modern, music of the now that attracts me. There's a sense in which freely improvised music is as now as it gets. But perhaps Morton Feldman's music was so infused with the now that it resonates even today, even … now. Or perhaps, as Keith Rowe suggested to me in an interview I did for the NYC Jazz Record shortly before leaving town, “If you pick up a composition by Shostakovich written in 1950 or 1960 and open the pages in 2011, it's alive at that moment. The past is continually changing before us.” But then a composition by the composer Lucie Vítková, heavy with rock drumming and techno-sounding clarinet, seemed a rather dated piece of pastiche. And yet I enjoyed it quite a bit. Was it of the now, or yesteryear? Could it be that Feldman – who would be 86 if he were alive today – is more of the now than the 26-year-old Vítková? Does that even mean anything?

Traveling from a classical festival in Europe to a jazz festival in North America gave me a lot to think about – things I'm still trying to resolve.

Week of Wonders: September 1

September 1, mid-afternoon

This afternoon I ate shmaky. The server – a friendly woman who smiles a surprising amount for an employee in a Czech restaurant – told me, in halting English punctuated by giggles that she didn't know what it was either but assured me it didn't have meat in it. “Number three is always vegetarian,” she said. Shmaky, as it turned out, was a pasta dish, a sort of mushroom stroganoff.

I've been in Ostrava a week – my first time in Eastern Europe but within the familiar festival bubble: Lost on the one hand but on the other with people around who are ready to make things easier for me. Hosts.

Suddenly I'm hearing Big Star's “The Ballad of El Goodo.” Probably inappropriate for a festival of contemporary classical music, even if the song is only playing in my head.

I took the train to the old section of town called “Přívoz” this afternoon. After a bit of walking around I stopped in a café for an espresso. A well-mustachioed man inside may have yelled “al fresco” at me, or perhaps it was something in Czech, but in any event I took a seat in the small garden where another man scowled at me while a third slept. After five minutes under his blurry gaze (and with no waiter emerging) I left and found another café more willing to serve me and after a bit of charades – not two espressos, one double, please – I sat down to take on my afternoon assignment.

An opening soulful wail from Eskelin is followed by a repeating, somber phrase from Sanchez. Eisenstadt sets a couple beats of the bass drum and he and Sanchez fall behind Eskelin. In short order, though, he drops out and I'm reminded on the one hand of Marilyn Crispell and on the other of all the wonderful duets Irene Schweizer has done with drummers. All female pianists. Interesting – unless it isn't. Upon Eskelin's return they find a more equal footing.

It's 2:45 pm in Ostrava, which means its 8:45 am in NYC, but this sounds more like 2:45 am. Where is it 2:45 am right now? And why doesn't Eisenstadt provide times of day for the pieces. This should be done more often. Didn't Blue Note only record people after 2 am in the early days? I know they're pros – next week at Guelph I'll be attending 10:30 am shows, for the love of Pete. Ah. Six minutes in and they've surprisingly picked up the pace, if only momentarily, and then a return to the repeating piano figure. It's quite beautiful, and there's something appealing about a piano trio without a bass. Less push from the back. And then it's over.

Week of Wonders: September 2

September 2, mid-afternoon

Classical festivals are different from jazz festivals. [A symbol here indicates something was to be inserted, perhaps some bit of text scrawled on a napkin and soon lost.]

Sometimes I'm relieved to hear a record that is so plainly jazz, plain good jazz. I mean, there are plenty out there, but to find one that has a purity to it, that's not trying to be jazz plus anything or to question or undermine (jazz minus something?). Jazz that's inventive but easy. The second track begins with a melody line, nice and easy, it's slowly dismantled into component parts, but not in a way that is jarring. Wow, and Eisenstadt's brush work here is beautiful. It's a ballad. I think yesterday's was as well. It's also brief – just five minutes. Nice.

Week of Wonders: September 3

September 3, late afternoon

Another ballad.

I'm sitting on Nádražní, the main street in the Ostrava center. It's funny how a place can become so familiar and how fellow festival goers and performers become the stand-in townspeople in the festival bubble. I know Ostrava, but it's an artificial Ostrava. Is that sad? Are ballads sad? Tomorrow I leave. In nine hours, even – 3:45 am train to get to the airport in Prague.

Angelica Sanchez is reminding me of someone here. Paul Bley? Paul Bley is as much a mood to me as he is a person. I wonder if I'll ever be here again. I may not, but I will know that the Americans I met here – Lisa, Beau, David, Larry, George, Pauline – all in or near New York, I'll always know I met them here.

I wasn't feeling sad to go before I sat down. It's not a street where people sit. It's time for dinner. A nice flutter at the end of the tune. This song is somber.

Week of Wonders: September 4

September 4, mid-evening

I have left the festival bubble and entered the travel bubble.

The festival bubble is a great one. Artificial in its way or perhaps more real than real if we allow the artistry of expression to outrank the ordinary. But that is of no consequence now because that bubble has popped and I find myself now in the travel bubble, which can be a weird one.

After last year's expedition, I should know better than to go somewhere further than I can walk. Nevertheless, at the airport in Prague this morning I accepted an offer to take a later flight in exchange for a travel voucher. It would put me into New York about six hours later and would also give me a free ticket to get to this conference where I'm invited to speak on a panel but there's no stipend for travel. I also got an upgrade to business class, which is nice when crossing oceans (which you shouldn't really do unless you're walking).

It seemed like a perfect plan, so I should have known it wouldn't work. (Who was that guy whose heels would melt when he got too close to the sun? It's like that.) The flight to Paris, where I should have connected to NYC, was delayed, leaving me with about six hours in the Paris airport and with about 10CKZ (roughly 65 cents) in my pocket. Of course I could have gone to an ATM, and I did have American money with me, but I also had something else: a business class ticket which I was pretty sure would get me into the Sky Lounge which I didn't really know what meant but it had to mean something.

I'd been up about 20 hours, and wasn't going on much sleep the night before, and the fourth dimension was starting to distort. The Sky Lounge, however, had everything, or at least some things. Sandwiches, snacks, espresso, Scotch and computers. I fixed a little plate of food, made a double espresso, sent some emails and then headed back down to check on my plane. Another delay, so I headedback up and was glad to see Johnny Walker was still hanging around the lounge as well.

I'm not a daytime drinker by any stretch, but here's the thing. Inside the travel bubble, there is no day or night. In fact, I wasn't even in Prague any more than I was in Paris now because airports (and airport hotels) aren't cities. They are islands, they are – what was it they used to call Tangier? An international zone? They are just earthly holding points. Espresso or Scotch, day or night, it doesn't matter.

I got food vouchers at this hotel in the bubble. One for dinner and one for a quick 6 a.m. breakfast before I go back to my home planet. And a glass of wine with dinner, of course, this being “Paris” and all. I go to the lobby and put on my headphones (they do a good job of drowning out “Time of the Season” on the P.A.) and order a beer (€6?).

It's another ballad. I suppose this record might not step up. I suppose that's appropriate enough for September. This one is all full of Eskelin tenor phrases, jumping register so easily (actually reminds me of David Murray in spots, which is unexpected). There's a nice angularity to this one, though. It's not really a ballad so much as you can tell it could be, even wants to be, but there's too many curves in the road and they can't quite relax or speed up too much. Ah, they are picking up the pace a bit, though, even more Murrayesque. Is this something that's always been in Eskelin's playing? No, I don't think so. He's not usually this liquid. I wonder if Eisenstadt pushed him this direction. Funny, I haven't checked for composer credits yet. Yep, all by Eisenstadt. Oops! Song's over.

Week of Wonders: September 5

September 5, lost in time

Today is a very long day. Today is 30 hours long. It comes out even because I had a day that was 18 hours long last week. Even Steven. But what if I were flying from Prague to New York one way, not round trip? Then I'd be ahead of the game. Six hours up! It's hard to imagine that it all evens out, that for every one-way passenger heading east there's a one-way passenger heading west. The airlines have enough to worry about without that kind of headache. And besides, it hardly seems fair robbing hours from Peter to give to Paul, so to speak. The only thing that seems plausible is that if you make a trans-oceanic flight, or even a shorter one, really, without a return trip, that you die a few hours earlier than you otherwise would have. Or later. That's the only way it could realistically even out.

The name of this song is “September 5.” I am listening to it 37,000 feet up in the air. 2,012 miles to New York, 2,019 miles from Paris. Sanchez opens, another simple piano figure, simpler cymbal work behind her, sax coming in and out again. I'm finding an appeal in the simplicity on this record – or maybe I'd already found it but it's here again. Lovely solo from Sanchez, bits of discordance, surprising, subtle rhythm shifts – they all shine within the surface conventionality. Sanchez's solo continues as the other two drop out, then the theme returns. Eskelin was the perfect horn player for this. It's not his usual thing, but he's got the smarts for it, he's good at drawing from styles and making something new. Then a surprising deconstruction, a new energy for about 60 seconds before it returns and resolves.

Week of Wonders: September 6

September 6, evening

Forty hours in NYC and it rains the whole time. Try to work on a Sun Ra remix for an upcoming WFMU fundraiser but nothing comes together as imagined. Tried to digitize an LP that I have to write about so I can take it along, but somehow ten minutes gets cut off each side. How does that happen? Forty hours in NYC and all I got done was laundry.

Is there a new energy this late in the week, or am I just in a different place? Eskelin opens, still midtempo but seemingly with more zeal. Could the exact same recording sound different in different places? I bet it could at different altitudes. Wouldn't the density of the air, the available oxygen, affect the hearing? A nice 2½ minute solo intro before Eisenstadt and Sanchez come in, laying a grid over the sax solo which Eskelin conforms to at length. Then they modulate together. Then a wonderfully uneven piano line. This is shaping up quite nicely. It's the longest track on the album by at least a couple minutes, and so far by far my favorite – although I don't exactly feel as if I remember the others Perhaps this whole exercise was a mistake.

But in truth the last five tracks day by day felt a bit samey to me. This one stands out. The others were in sentences – this one's in paragraphs. This moves in – oh, what is that song? I hate that song. “She moves in mysterious ways”? God, I don't know who that is but I know I hate it. A return to form, return to the A section (if the intro isn't counted). I wish I had counted – four parts? five? What day of the week is this Sept. 6? I wonder if the tracks are tied to a particular year. Did Eisentadt write one song a day? Song's over.

Week of Wonders: September 7

September 7, mid-afternoon

There's a language to hotels. It's another kind of bubble. There's a few things to learn: Do they do the towel recycling thing here? Are there any interesting local TV channels, preferably public access, with arts programming? (Victoriaville, Quebec, has excellent public access.) What's in walking distance? But for the most part, you know how things work. That's what hotels are for, to make you feel at home and not confused. At least in Europe and North America. I stayed in a hotel in Morocco without a clock or a telephone – and my watch had broken – but I don't know the North Africa rules. Another hotel in Lisbon inexplicably hung the “Do Not Disturb” signs well above eye level in the bathroom. It took me two days to even notice it was there. This was a violation of the common code, a grammatical error in the language of hotels.

But this, this is a Holiday Inn on the bypass in Ontario, which feels distinctly like where I grew up in central Illinois. I know how to negotiate the space, and have just enough time for a quick rest before the first concert on the first night of the Guelph Jazz Festival. And enough time for the last song on the CD, the shortest one here. But this feels more sinewy today, unless “September 6” just changed my perceptions. So brief I'm nervous to write because it seems it should have ended already. Eighty seconds, right? No. Two minutes. I misread. And the fastest two minutes on the record, I think. I wish I could remember the record. I did like it, though.


Vampyre Storie

I was asked by Bronwyn C., curator of the Thunk Tank on WFMU, to craft a story for their Halloween show, which we did live last night. So much fun! You can listen to the whole show (with Brownwyn, Jay, and Amanda Nazario also reading their great stories) here, or read the monologue I crafted below.

Thanks to Urania Mylonas and Lea-Beth Shapiro for their input while I was working on it.

Vampyre Storie

by Kurt Gottschalk

People always want to talk about things they don't know anything about. It's ridiculous. Other animals don't do that. Other animals' whole thing is using what they do know. I mean, that's their whole strategy for survival. But people don't usually have to worry about survival so they have time to spend acting like they know things they don't have any idea about. Like have you noticed how if a white guy gets together with a black woman, or the other way around, the white one all of a sudden starts talking about the diaspora all the time? Or how people are surprised if they hear someone from Japan swear? If they're not Japanese, I mean. Yeah, people from Japan swear sometime. People are pretty much the same everywhere, you know? I guess. I mean, I don't really know that, and actually that's kind of the point. I thought I knew that, but I didn't. And I said it anyway.

I think about these things a lot, lying here day after day, about how arrogant people are and how they're really not very smart, they're just inventive. Inventive, but stupid. Like, it's obvious we don't belong in the water, in the lakes and oceans, because we don't have gills, right? But we couldn't leave them alone, we had to keep screwing with them and now we're running out of drinking water, as if there hadn't enough to begin with. Or you are, anyway. I haven't had a drink of water in like two years. Haven't needed it, I guess.

I'm not saying I'm any better than that white guy who hooks up with a black woman, or a black guy for that matter. That's not really the point. I mean, I lie here thinking, listening to the radio, talking to myself, talking to myself, going on about how all the books and movies and stories are wrong. About how what I used to think I knew was wrong. 'Cause the thing is, vampires are nothing like what people think they are.

I'm not a vampire. I say this in my vain make-believe game that there's someone I'm talking to. But I'm not. I'm not sure what I am, really. I'm not quite dead but I'm certainly not of the living, not in any real way. I'm kind of – in between.

It was Elizabeth who brought me here – here to this dark apartment in Chinatown and here to this state of being on the verge, on the edge of being. Elizabeth is a vampire. Whole hog, bloodsucking, daytime-sleeping, death-stinking vampire. Elizabeth. The love of my life. Well, that's a weird choice of words, but she is. And as her boyfriend I have a claim on that politic. I get to look down on all of those romanticizations of the vampire life – there's that word again – the vampire existence, anyway. It's not all glamor. It's pretty lonely, really. Vampires tend to gather together, well in the city anyway, at least for practical purposes. Making rent is a real issue for them, so they live in these rundown places with as many coffins as will fit side to side. But they don't talk to each other much. They don't share anything. There's no ... conviviality among them. They're pretty lonely. I mean, it seems that way anyway.

It might be obvious to say, but anything pleasurable usually has to do with being alive. That's what they crave, and that's why they're so sad all the time. When they get living blood in their system, they can be kind of alive for a while, kind of feel physical and emotional pleasures. It's not – well, I don't know what it's like, but Elizabeth says it's only kind of like when she was alive. But they don't have any support system to keep the blood alive so it wears off before long.

I met Elizabeth at a bar in the meatpacking district, one of those blue neon places. I knew as soon as I saw her I wanted to spend my life with her and within a few hours she was telling me she felt the same way. When the club closed at 4 and I suggested we go for breakfast and she bit her lip and invited me to her place instead, I thought I was the luckiest guy on Earth. I still think that sometimes.

We discussed the arrangement that night, as soon as we got upstairs. She told me all about the vampire thing, the basics. Yeah, the basics are like in the movies. She bites me, she feeds on me, and I become one of them. And I was game, really. She made it all sound sensual somehow. But that wasn't what she wanted. She told me about the vampire life, about living in the shadows, about being a shadow It wasn't just blood that she needed, it was the blood of the living, it was life. She told me about how feeding on the living temporarily gave her the feeling of being alive again.

She said didn't want that for me. Other vampires – she motioned around the room and I realized, my eyes having become somewhat accustomed to the darkness, that what I thought was furniture was just a roomful of caskets – other vampires are cold, boring, lifeless. She didn't want to make me into that, she said. She wanted to be able to love me. And to love me she needed me to continue to be warm-blooded.

But I was under her sway and I insisted that I wanted to live in her world, that I wanted to be of her kind. That's how the deal came to be, although it seemed like something she'd given thought to, something she thought might work. The arrangement was this: she would take enough of my blood to feel myself coursing through her, and leave me with enough to remain on this side of the divide. It wasn't a precise process, but she told me she'd felt the life drain out of people enough times that she thought she could tell when it was about to happen. And if it didn't work? I'd just become a vampire, which was what I wanted, at the time anyway.

And that's where, or how, how I live. A few pints of blood to keep me animated, but not enough to thrive. Not enough to get up even, really. Certainly not enough to walk. I am, well, I'm awake. I spend nights waiting for her, usually listening to the overnight BBC broadcast on the little radio in the casket we share. Sometimes I'll put on a music station but I'm not really that interested in listening to music. Music makes you want to move, and moving usually makes me tired.

It might not sound like the greatest situation from the outside but when Elizabeth comes home just before dawn, those are happier times than I ever had when I was alive. I can actually smell her while she's still in the hall. I mean, I hear her too, but I know her scent. And when she climbs into the coffin and lays beside me, her skin warmish, more than it will be in a few hours anyway, and her eyes electric ... In the first few hours after a kill everything about her is alluring. She'll lie down next to me, arm across my chest, one leg over mine, so soft, so feminine, and kiss me so lightly, on the cheek, on the lips, forehead, eyelids, maybe a quick lick along my temple, the kisses growing more passionate until I feel her teeth sink into my flesh. It's surprising, the localized heat when she pierces my skin and begins to draw, and she does this thing that I can only think is her own invention. She starts pulling my blood out of me and then pushing it back in again, mixing it (I guess) with the blood she'd taken in when she was out, and I feel this warmth growing inside me. It reminds me of blowing up a balloon, like she was blowing up a balloon inside me. I feel it grow, through my chest, through my arms, into my brain, and then lower, the warmth, coursing down below my waist, awakening me, and then she moves on top of me.

It's hard to say what she gets out of it, of the sex, and I certainly wouldn't ask her. But I mean, I guess it's kind of a pantomime. It's like doing something that the living do – doing something that makes life, even. I know I don't feel much physical sensation, but I do like feeling close to her like that.

Once we're done, she feeds me. Still lying on top of me she'll kiss me again, long, deeply, and then I'll feel a sort of wrenching inside her, her ribs convulsing against me, and she'll regurgitate part of the night's kill into my mouth. My throat opens automatically to receive the raw and partially digested flesh, of a human, of a dog or a rat, I really don't know. I guess it sounds gross. But honestly? I don't think I could digest food on my own. I think I need her to begin the process of breaking it down. Like a mama bird, my frail little mama bird.

It seems sad at the times I stop to think about it – times like now – but really it's not like I was a grab-life-by-the-horns kinda guy before. Am I – I don't know if I'm better off now or not. It makes me think of that Joni Mitchell song. Man, she would have made a great vampire, or a great Hollywood vampire I mean, all pale and gaunt. She's not – I mean, vampires aren't like that, don't look like that, they're – I know I shouldn't say it but they're uglier than that. I mean, they're dead, right? Elizabeth – I wouldn't say this to her, of course, but her eyes don't really fit right in the sockets anymore, and you can pretty much see every bone under her limp skin. And of course she smells like hell. Like wet rust. Times ten. But you've got to figure she's spending at least part of each day rotting, when the blood levels get low, right? The thing is, though, you kinda don't know what it means to love life until you try living without it. And vampires? Nobody loves life like vampires. I mean, you don't see them going out gay-bashing or conducting tribunals or fatwas or inquisitions or lynchings or anything. They hunt, sure. They kill to eat, but they don't kill out of hate. Because they don't hate. It's kind of beautiful. They hunt life, they seek life out, which is more than you can say for most living people. Like, oh right, like the Joni Mitchell thing. “Don't it always seem to go / that you don't know what you got till it's gone?” For real. I don't really know how long I can stay here. I mean, I don't know if what Elizabeth and I have is really a forever thing. And I don't know if I can really leave either. But if I ever go back to the daylight life, I'm really gonna live it. You know?


Oscar Wilde

"Is criticism really a creative art? Why should it not be? It works with materials and puts them into a form that is at once new and delightful. What more can one say of poetry?"