A Life in the Margins of American Music
Cracking the Codes
Larry Tso speaks in code: “Believe one day back there…back in the eon time…”
Canyon de Chelly appears like an apparition in the high dry desert, its outline resembling two giant slender hands elegantly conducting a warped tune, a surreal dance around the fires of antiquity. This is a mythical land trussed by steep sheer red rock walls that settle in deep canyons. Narrow rivulets flow slowly along the canyon floor fed in the summer by rainwater. In the winter melting snow seeps down the canyon walls to nourish the fertile farmland tended by small Navajo families who live on the canyon’s floor.
For years I have traveled to Canyon de Chelly on my trips to the American southwest, pausing for one, two or three days on journeys throughout the Four Corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. Each time I visit Canyon de Chelly I experience a spiritual transformation. I find myself strangely at ease and relaxed, open to new feelings. There is something about the landscape that caresses the soul and frees the body from tension that clings to the bones and muscles, residue of battles won and lost as an urban warrior and, as a reporter once described me as, “…a street fighter for New Music." In 1992 I traveled deep into the canyon with Larry Tso as my guide.
Prefacing his descriptions of rock formations, pictographs and ruins of cities built by the Anasazi, “the ancient ones," with the phrase “believe one day back there or “back in the eon time” Larry Tso transforms the majesty of the land into a personal account of his people’s struggle to survive against natural and human forces of conquest. The Navajo people have survived because of their belief in “…one day back there”; a simpler time when people valued respect and honor, qualities sorely needed in much of the world today.
Larry Tso is a Navajo Indian guide on the Navajo Indian Reservation in northeastern Arizona, and Canyon de Chelly comprises two canyons, one named Canyon del Muerto, or Death Canyon, the other Canyon de Chelly, a Spanish mispronunciation of the Navajo word Tsegi, which means roughly Rock Canyon.
Larry Tso speaks in code. So do I: “…sonic traces; performative qualities; tonal language; timbral structure…” These are a few of the words that describe and encode the rhythms of the music I have heard over the past 30-plus years as a musician and director of Relâche, an ensemble for New Music that I co-founded in Philadelphia. Throughout those turbulent, complicated, satisfying years and during the past seven years since I left Philadelphia first for Montana, then Louisiana and New Mexico, I find myself asking time and again “who has broken the code?”
“One day back there,” for me, is February 2000 I am sitting at my desk in Helena, Montana, wondering why I moved to that desolate mountain town away from the intellectual and artistic life that nurtured yet tortured me in Philadelphia, New York and points beyond. “One day back there” is June 2001 a year after the fires that ravaged the Montana landscape when I prepare to leave Montana for Baton Rouge, Louisiana and a tropical climate far removed from the numbing cold and despairing narrowness of many people who live among the high plains. Louisiana: Great Food! Diverse population! Singing and dancing! And rain. Lots of rain to lubricate the body and spirit. That day back there in February 2000 I began to write. That day back there in June 2001 I had completed nearly half this book. And now, today, satisfied and relieved I have completed this book, I still ask the question, “who has broken the code?”
I have written this book in an attempt to provide a historical context for musical activities and accomplishments by hundreds of talented people. Many of these people share with me a need to be part of a living musical culture, one that absorbs past cultural histories (…back in the eon time) and combines them with current experiences to create new musical forms and languages that settle on the ear and mind and body until they are forged--ontologically--into a vernacular of time. Like me, many of these people value artistic integrity and intellectual curiosity in pursuit of a better understanding of our world. And many of these people share none of the qualities or values that shape my life; they pass through our shared space sometimes helping sometimes hindering the cause. But all of these people have contributed in one way or another to a life lived in the margins of American music.
My life began in the margins of Philadelphia, far from the gilded streets of Center City and even farther from the gilded and glossed streets of the Main Line. Kensington is a once proud neighborhood within a city of neighborhoods, now it’s a part of Philadelphia that barely exists. It is a victim of greedy politicians and their developer friends who sold most of the neighborhoods down the river in order to resurrect Center City and line their pockets with money earned by the hard working folks living in the margins of urban post-WW II America.
From the early years in the 1950s to travels throughout the Pacific with the Navy in the 1960s then back to the city that nurtured and eventually rejected me, I celebrate my life in Philadelphia with stories and remembrances of “…the eon time…one day back there.” These are the stories that shaped my life in the aesthetically emboldened world of new music, viewed through the collective eyes and ears of Relâche. Along the way I explore the history of the New Music America festivals that were presented throughout North America between 1979 and 1991. These were important events in late 20th century American music history yet little has been written about them. I discuss Music in Motion - The Virtualconcert, a national program designed to generate larger, better-informed audiences for new music and integrate early technologies developed for the World Wide Web into the process. And I tell the stories that shaped my life as an artist-administrator during the final years of the 20th century.
These stories are hopefully told in a language free of code, yet the codes permeate my life. I was trained by the United States Navy to intercept and decipher complex codes during the middle years of the Cold War. These experiences gave me insight to the codes that I would have to parse in order to gain access to immense wealth that had been deposited like an alluvial cone along the Byzantine corridors of American culture, money I can claim as my own if one dances a Hegelian jig, as I do. Like the Navajo Code Talkers who devised a unique code based on their concise aural language to confound the Japanese in the Pacific Theatre during World War II, I helped create a code to describe a musical language born from the marriage of multiple languages of musicians worldwide.
Since a code is intended only for the initiated, my hope is to give the reader sufficient narrative data in order to make him and her aware of a vital time in American music history, one that is described in an inclusive, broad narrative language. No doubt I have slipped into code from time to time. If so, I hope these lapses do not interfere with the reader’s ability to parse the text and break the code. I hope by the time you have finished this book you will want to learn more about some of the music that shaped America in the late 20th century. And as a listener to the world’s music you will begin to demand more from the music industry.
As I begin a new life in the American Southwest, I often think of Larry Tso. I wonder if Larry Tso is still alive and roaming among the ravines of Canyon de Chelly, explaining to adoring, albeit confused, tourists the meaning of the curious lines and shapes inscribed on the canyon walls depicting hunts, droughts and slaughters at the hands of enemies. And I wonder if Larry Tso tells his stories in a new code. I doubt it. Larry Tso appeared to be a man clearly of his time, and his awareness of time is shaped by “…the eon time.”
If Larry Tso is still living the kind of life I observed in 1992, then I envy the apparent simplicity of his life as a guide in Canyon de Chelly. Larry Tso does not have to spend hours dreaming up schemes that will fit the politically correct agendas of agencies and institutions that govern much of early 21st century American life. Larry Tso does not have to wrestle with his conscience as elected and corporate officials plunder the American dream in the early years of the new millennium. No, Larry Tso has the time to dream, to continue speaking in codes and to “Believe one day back there…back in the eon time.”