This is a piece I wrote in the middle of the 80s and thought, sadly, I’d lost. But it turned up and I’m posting it here. Another of my orphans.

JAN SWAFFORD–
IN MEMORIAM: GANDY (ca. 1984)

I first set eyes on Gandy Brodie on a blustery day in November, as I was driving to my schoolteaching job in Vermont. There he was, hanging his thumb beside the road at West Townsend. I pulled over automatically – hitching was the only form of public transportation in that area–, then regretted it when I saw the shabby figure galloping toward me. “O Christ, a bum,” I groaned. As he neared the car I revised that estimate: surely this is another resident of the Brattleboro Retreat, out in a day pass, seeing the sights. As he opened the door and slid in I confirmed a mad light in those wide eyes.

As with all my hitchhikers there ensued a period of confusion, because my VW Beetle came equipped with detectors that detected the backside of anyone sitting in the car, and a buzzer that wailed until that seatbelt was fastened, and finding the seatbelt was not easy. Still, this stranger went beyond the usual bounds of incomprehension, totally unable to grasp my instructions, smiling in a really unsettling way at my groping around his person, looking game and crazy/friendly, until I had for the only time in my experience to get out of the car, go around, open the door and hand his belt to him. Then he couldn’t figure out how to fasten it.

Finally he was squared away, the banshee buzzer ceased, and off we set. Glancing over, I saw him smiling and staring fixedly ahead (retreat patient, all right) and holding a new artist’s brush tight in his fist. Trying with a certain sense of despair to break the ice, I asked, “So, you have a brush there. Are you an artist?”

“I’m a famous painter,” he said.

Like nearly everything Gandy said, that statement was susceptible of interpretation, had layers of versions of truth mixed in with ironies and outright fantasies. All this, of course, was just like his paintings, those layers and layers of speculations and revisions, all of it seemingly talked into place with his never-ending, fantastic, exhausting rap.

Gandy was and is famous and not famous. His paintings are in the collections of the Metropolitan Musician of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, among others, and he had significant admirers. One of the latter was critic Meyer Schapiro, who wrote of him, “Gandy Brodie stands out by his stubbornly personal poetic art… the arrested metaphors of insecure and frustrated existence…the purity and perfection of emerging life.” He had an extensive show in New York about fifteen years ago. For what it’s worth, I’m a middling dilettante of painting and I don’t know anyone of Gandy’s generation whose work I appreciate more. But as for famous: for a while I queried a number of painters and found no one who’d heard of Gandy Brodie. As the young aspiring composer I was when I met him, I hadn’t realized yet that there’s a substantial difference between good and famous.

But that elusive fame was important to Gandy, in the singular admixture of the sublime and pragmatic and incomprehensible that made up the color of his consciousness. He talked often about getting ahead, played the hustler, dropped more than a few names. Once when I was visiting his house he shoved before my eyes one of the stranger photos I ever saw. It was from his days as a hot young New York painter, I suppose, a picture from an old Vogue, maybe by Avedon, from sometime in the 50s. Posing in the photographer’s studio was a smashingly dressed Vogueish model of the era; beside her Miles Davis, trumpet in hand; and kneeling at their feet Gandy, holding one of his paintings and looking smug. That night he told me he had lived for some time with Billie Holiday, who was his greatest influence. I never found out to what degree that was true, but I began listening to Billie then and still do.

I get ahead of myself. The day we met, Gandy and I made our way down the road from West Townsend and sounded one another out. I told him I was a composer and at present was making my living teaching music at the high school in Townsend. “Then you teach my son Shane,” Gandy said, and so I did – my moony guitar-playing Grateful Dead head, Shane. Sure, of course. Gandy became a little interested in me: a fellow artist, a mentor for his son. He was to maintain that interest, despite my comparatively fledging creative career and my shy incapacity to cope with him. The thing was, you see, Gandy took everything seriously, which was one of the most nearly intolerable things about him. So if he was going to be interested in me he was going to lavish the blinding glare of that seriousness on whatever encounters we had. Always, I shrank from it. I’d never met anybody larger than life. I myself was just life-size.

I dropped Gandy off in Townsend and he aimed his thumb toward Newfane, where his studio was. Later that day I told Shane I’d met his father. “Pretty weird, huh?”, Shane said.

As best I can remember, I saw Gandy on six or seven further occasions over the next two years, the longest of them maybe two hours. But I felt then and still feel that he is as much a part of my experience as people I’ve known for years. It had to do with the density of our encounters. A meeting with Gandy was never a quick greeting or a simple get-together. It was an Event floating on the unceasing stream of his talk, which was an infinite dissertation on painting and the universe and one’s relation to them. I quickly discovered that it was impossible to banter with Gandy; every joke, every conventional ploy of conversation was absorbed into the labyrinthine processes of his mind and before my ears transformed into something rich, strange, and bewildering (bewildering, at least, to a young composer wrestling with the quotidian demands of art, a job, a new wife, and money). I have no samples of Gandy’s words to offer because I rarely could remember a thing he said. I only remember a musing voice, a rambling and weary rhythm, webs of ideas trailing off into obscurity.

Once he came to my place for a visit and I played scratchy tapes of two or three early pieces of mine, the only things that had been performed by then. He proclaimed them magnificent, which they were not, but I hoped his instinct about my artistic promise was at least a prophecy from what might be a bona fide prophet. Visiting his house I met his wife Jocelyn, herself a painter. “Jocelyn could’ve married Picasso, but married me instead,” Gandy told me later. As best I can figure, what created that notion was that Jocelyn, as a young and beautiful painter, had lived in Paris at the same time Picasso did.

Driving through Newfane on sunny days in the spring and summer I would pass Gandy painting in the yard outside his studio. I wish I’d stopped, but never did. I was too shy, he was busy (though I found that having a visitor never seemed to slow him down), and on sunny days in spring and summer I lacked the nerve to deal with him. Even in passing, though, I could see the somber and sprawling tapestry of his colors, him dancing before the canvas going at it with strokes sweeping or gentle.

I visited his studio only once. It was a barn piled with decades of paintings, most of them still in progress. On an old easel dripping with stalactites of paint sat a canvas. Like all his work it was representational, but done in a free and hyperexpressive style reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism. In the middle of the canvas was a figure, which in spite of the morass of paint one could somehow recognize as Gandy, holding his pallet–a self-portrait of the painter in late middle age. It was the background that was astonishing: it’d been redone so many times that it stood out nearly two inches from the canvas. His image in the center was buried as in a pillow by that swelling mass of paint. “It’s a wonderful effect!” I exclaimed. “It’s sheer incompetence.” Gandy said in his dreamy voice, painting as he spoke.

By that point he’d become a fixture in my dreams. Always he was a wild, prophetic figure, sometimes robed in white, a judge and a goad and a burden. Once I dreamed he was sitting in the rafters of his studio declaiming away, and we were down on the floor in tears, begging him to come down among us and paint again.

My memory of our next-to-last meeting is hazy. He’d called and asked to visit me where he was staying, teaching at some summer school. He wanted me to talk to his son, who had gone to college to major in music. Gandy wanted me to inspire Shane, or something. Nothing much happened; Shane was diffident, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Saying goodbye, Gandy suddenly kissed me on the lips.

The last time was in Brattleboro. I ran across him in front of the library where he was hitching. He asked me if I was going toward Newfane. I was not. He stood with his thumb out, talking away. I remember his broad and strangely handsome features under a dirty wool cap, his stocky, strong figure and shambling grace. I recalled him saying he had studied dance with Martha Graham. (I didn’t believe that, but apparently it’s true.) A pickup truck pulled over and the driver motioned him to get in back. Without ceasing his rap, Gandy clambered into the back of the truck and tumbled heavily to the bed, turning to continue his monologue to me. The truck drove away, his voice faded into the distance. I looked after it for a long time.

A year later I was back in Vermont for a visit, no longer a resident schoolteacher, now taking a crack at graduate school. I phoned Gandy’s house and got Shane, who told me what had happened: Gandy had gone to New York and on some back street dropped dead of a heart attack. By the time he was picked up his wallet was stolen. It was a week before Jocelyn found him in a morgue. He was 51. “His father and brother died the same way,” Shane told me. “It’s the curse of the Brodies.” So that darkness had been stalking him, shadowing his monologues. To Shane I said what one says, then for some reason asked about the self-portrait. “The figure turned into a tree,” Shane said, “but it’s him all the same.”

That was 1975. Dealers have some of his work, but I suspect a lot of Gandy’s paintings are still piled somewhere unsold. That’s what Jocelyn told me years after he died.

I don’t know how much of this recollection is true and how much I’ve imagined or dreamed. I still dream about Gandy.

Story

STORY – from a dream 11/088
ON THE WAY TO THE GAME

One, two, three. One, two, three. Okay, let’s check it. All right, it’s recording.
Okay, I, uh… I hope this little recorder holds up for a while because I’ve got some things to say before … Wait, is that a … No. Whew. Good. I don’t have to run like hell right now. I forgot my cattle prod. I can’t run anymore anyway.
I’m, ah, out on the street as you can hear, whoever you are. I’m trying to get to the stadium. It’s ten in the morning, maybe twelve blocks to the stadium. Decent day for a game, at least. No rain, just those high clouds you never used to see, pink on the top with lightning or something sparkling around in them. I don’t know if they ever figured out what that is.
The thing is, future people… Why do I say that? What future people? Who am I talking to? Well, the recorder will be here, maybe, so maybe somebody will be around to listen to it. Maybe even I’ll listen sometimes, to remember, with what time I have left.
Anyway I appear to have more memory left than most people these days, so I want to get this down. Maybe talking can make this, this mess… Christ, mess isn’t the word for it, nowhere close to the word for it. Ah, so I, I want to talk about it. Try to make some sense… That’s not the word either. There’s no sense in it at all.
I just left the house. See, I can remember that. This is good. Not many people on the street right now. Probably a lot at the game, but a lot of people just don’t leave the house anymore. Too scared. Bones picked clean on the streets to remind you about the risks of going out. The screams in the distance. It’s better during the day, though. As long as you remember your cattle prod.
At home it’s garbage day. Ha! So I got rid of the garbage the usual way. Even though, sure, it’s supposed to be against the law. But I still do it the usual way, like most people law or no law. I turn on the stochastic translator on the sink, it starts to whiz and click, the little ramps turn into a blur and the clicks turn into a hum, the garbage on the receiving tray gets kind of wavy and transparent, then it’s gone like a puff of smoke. Amazing gadget. No home should be without one. We love ’em. Snapped ’em up when the price came down.
The thing is, nobody knows whether it was the home translators, millions of them, that made the difference. We don’t know. We don’t really know. So now a lot of people including me just keep using them on the theory that things could hardly get more screwed up. The situation hasn’t changed much in a year or so, as far as anybody can tell. Sure, maybe one day suddenly everybody will get wavy and transparent and disappear like smoke. And there you go, end of problem. Unless we find ourselves in the Paleozoic Era or up in Betelgeuse or something. Which would not be fun. And which isn’t impossible, they say. Nothing, no thing whatever anymore is too impossible to happen. Just– Ow, dammit!…
Agh! I stumbled. No, Miss, I’m okay. Yeah, I’m fine. Nice day, huh? You going to the game? Good. Enjoy it. What? Yes, I’m Athletic Director. That’s me. Good… Thanks. Thanks. Enjoy the game. Go, Raptors!
What the heck did I stumble over? That’s… Oh, great. A femur, and it looks human. Just great. I’ll turn this off a…
Glrp. I want to … Eh, ah, as is well known, used to be well known, the stochastic translator was developed at our university. Huge accomplishment, no question about it. Earth-shaking, they said. Epochal. Jesus God in heaven that sounds funny now.
I’m at the corner of State and Executive. Here’s a bench, I’ll sit down a minute. I’m not in real good shape these days. Going to meet my maker before long, and it won’t be too soon. I can hear the cheers and the band at the game. Somebody made a touchdown. All the same who it was, there’s only our own team here.
A device that could send things forward and backward in time. I guess epochal is the word for it. Except for the little problem. It’s a one-way trip, and you couldn’t tell where or when things were going to or coming from. In time. At least not at first. Then where some of the things were coming from got very clear. Oh, very clear indeed.
They were trying to get rid of garbage, for godssake. That’s where it started. The garbage had gotten overwhelming everywhere, stacking up and stinking all over the place. Before then there’d been a little success dematerializing matter, in small ways. Some were worried that could be dangerous, could start some kind of chain reaction that would dematerialize everything. But that turned out to be easy to control. I’m not a scientist, but that’s what they said. Easy to control.
Wow, here’s a bus going by. Hear it? Not many busses anymore. Who wants to fool with them when there’s no money for fares, and only so much gas left in the storage tanks. The bus is full, though. From the yells I can tell they’re headed for the game. I’ll get up in a minute. God almighty, I am so tired.
What happened was, a guy in the physics department named Leonid-something was fooling around with this peculiar gadget with two side by side ramps facing in opposite directions, with an oddlooking chain that races around the outside of the ramps, and somehow that and the computer inside it created a beam or something that affects matter. He said he stumbled on it. Holy Mother of God, stumbled on it. So it looked like it could get rid of garbage at least, and everybody said hooray.
They started experimenting with disappearing larger and larger piles of garbage. Before long, though, the scientists noticed what they called “artifacts.” These were bits of rock or even strange smells that would show up when the garbage disappeared.
Like I say I’m no scientist, but somehow they figured out what was happening was that things were coming and going in time. Bits of things, like smells or pebbles. Naturally they started focussing on that issue. I guess they figured if the dematerialization of garbage didn’t get out of hand, didn’t start a chain reaction, neither would fooling with time. They were wrong, but it was all quite logical. That’s what they said. Logical!
I’m getting excited. Let me catch my Glrp. There’s Ben and his wife, they don’t see me. I don’t feel like talking to anybody right – Oh – Hi Ben! Hi Betty! Going to the game? See you there. No, I, I’m all right. Just resting a minute. Yes, it’s a voice recorder. I… You don’t want to know. Private…haha! Yeah. See you there.
Where… Ah. At first they called the thing a TrashMaster. When the artifacts started turning up and they realized what was happening, they renamed it a stochastic translator. That was when they developed the software to enhance the effect of moving around in time. I don’t know the math of course, but they said what the thing did was to analyze random patterns in, I don’t know what, the vibrations of the universe or something, and figure out probabilities. I’m no physicist, but I gather what happens is, in a flash the gadget takes random patterns and sorts them into possible ones then amplifies them into probable ones, and then in the room things get wavy and disappear, and sometimes near the translator there was a rock or a funny smell, all kinds of odd little things.
Before long they invented the receiving tray that would attract the artifacts, and that kept everything nice and manageable. Right. I’d forgotten. That’s the word they used for the tray: manageable. It was the same tray that later, in the home model, you used to dispose of garbage, sending it who knows where in the past or the future. People were crazy about it, the streets were cleaner, the city smelled good again. All so harmless, so convenient and manageable. I guess they assumed the garbage would end up in the middle of space or in some other dimension or something. But it didn’t. It stayed right here on Earth. Only not in the present time.
I was there when they unveiled the first translator, right in the middle of the football field. Reporters from everywhere in the world, news cameras all over. First they dematerialized some garbage, then they materialized an artifact. The device didn’t produce anything big that day, but what did materialize on the tray might have told them something. It was a tooth. A large, unidentifiable tooth broken off at the root. With blood on it. People got a good laugh out of that. It was the first artifact the public had ever seen, and it was plenty amazing I guess.
As amazing things do, after a few years it got familiar. People couldn’t wait for the home model to arrive. It was programmed not to produce artifacts but only once a week to dispose of garbage, or anything else soft and mushy you put on the tray, like a dead dog or whatever. It was programmed not to affect anything living, but before long people discovered a way to make it zap bugs and the like. At that point folks started some informal experiments that got pretty nasty. Things were changing. But of course it happened so slow, people hardly noticed.
I ought to get up in a minute. They expect the Athletic Director to put in an appearance at the games. Start me talking on this stuff, I don’t know where to stop. But how many people remember all this history now? All this epochal history. What a word. I’ll say it’s epochal!
First the home garbage translators started accepting living animals, which they weren’t supposed to do. Some really sick home experiments then. Then artifacts started showing up when and where they weren’t supposed to. Artifacts. That’s the word. Pretty fancy word for a twelve-foot sabre-toothed tiger in your back yard eating your pets, eating your kids too, if you turn your back for a minute. It didn’t happen all at once. It took years, long enough for us to get used to using translators in our daily lives, long enough for them to become indispensible. The world garbage crisis solved by a miracle of science and ingenuity and, some said, even divine intervention.
Only that artifacts started turning up on their own, nowhere hear a translator. Happened here and there, all kinds of weird stuff including at one point, this was in the papers, an old dirty tennis ball materialized in the swimming pool of the Indiana governor’s mansion, while the governor was swimming. Seemed funny at the time. Then after a few more years larger things started appearing. Some of them alive and hungry.
Like I say, it didn’t happen all at once. It was slow. Years. But one fine day in Minsk, Russia, there was a wooly mammoth tearing through a town garbage dump. By God, that got people’s attention. At that time they were building a Very Large Stochastic Translator inside a mountain in Switzerland, intending to study the history of the universe and all. Of course just as the VLST was getting finished after billions of bucks, they put the kibosh on it. Switch that thing on, you don’t know what’s going to go up like smoke or appear in the receiving area, but you know it’ll be very large and very bad.
Then the weather changed, those strange high clouds started forming. This damned miserable drizzle we have most of the time now. In other words all hell broke loose, bit by bit. I remember the day I looked out the window of the Student Union and on the street there were a polar bear and some kind of velociraptor watching something that looked like a giant wolf gnaw at a basketball. When the ball blew up they all ran away. One of the students who’d been playing basketball in the neighborhood was never seen again.
The government said, be careful, stay off the streets at night when the artifacts–they actually called them that–were most active, and during the day be sure to carry your handy six-foot cattle prod at all times. The cattle prod business became the world’s leading industry. A lot of my fellow citizens don’t remember when they weren’t carrying them. For some time the animals, one heck of a zoo of dinosaurs, mammoths, big cats, all kinds of creatures we had no idea ever existed, were out and about. At first they mostly prowled dumps, which is what told us where the garbage had gone. These things had developed a taste for our table scraps. They were probably eating them when they got translated. But there was not much edible in dumps anymore, most people used translators, so the animals got more interested in fresh meat. There’s been massive efforts to catch and kill them, of course, so the numbers never get large, but they turn up faster than they can be managed. So it’s not such a good idea to play basketball outside. Peculiar artifacts turn up not only from the past but apparently from the future as well, but–and this is ominous you have to admit–there never seems to be anything from the future that’s alive.
Everybody said, nothing to do about it, what’s done is done, we’ll learn to live with it/ Science will solve the problems soon, we love our garbage translators and we’re going to keep them. For a while scientists were working on a reception device that would show the past or future like a TV screen. The athletic department already had one of those on order, when they were ready, so we could study the games of the past. (They’d program them to blank out the future of course, but there are ways around that.) Then the weather changed. Then a lot of other things. That’s why we can’t get out of the city now, the roads north and south end in giant smoking sinkholes and the ones east and west are breaking apart. We don’t know why buildings inside the city aren’t crumbling, but there’s no guarantee they never will.
I remember the day, the TV broadcast when one of the inventors of the translator told the world what had happened. I remember his words exactly. “It turns out, unfortunately, that time is a mechanism. Like a machine. And it looks like somehow with the translators we’ve broken the mechanism. God knows how, but that’s what happened. We’ve broken time. We don’t know whether it’s only on Earth or everywhere, but here on this planet, time is unraveling. But I mean, my God, there’s going to be, I can’t…” And then ladies and gentlemen of the television audience, he broke down and cried like a little baby.
A month or so after that all the television screens went blank, the radios went mute, the internet expired. Around here, anyway. Maybe all over the world, but there’s no way to tell. The electricity from the dam is still on, though. The stadium still stands and night games look swell under the lights. And our stochastic translators still work.
Really I’ve got to get to the game. And jeez, now that I look at it, the power meter is running low on this recorder. I’ll sign off right now in a minute.
Ah.. What can I say? How to end? They, they used to say all politics is local. I guess the end of the world is local too. If it is the end. Sure, I hope it’s not, but I probably won’t be around to see it anyway. Some people say we’re going to a higher state. Translated to a higher state. Ha. Wish I… Well.
I remember the day I stopped at the box office to get my ticket for a game, and the smiling folks inside said you don’t need one anymore. Fine, I said. Do you know where I can get some food? I’m hungry. They smiled. Well, they said, most of us don’t get hungry now, so we can’t help you. Strange, isn’t it? But it’s not so bad. Enjoy the game.
Everybody’s memory has started to get kind of wavy and transparent. It’s starting to happen to me. When memory started to fade one of the first things to disappear, and this is a blessing I guess, was fear. Well, that’s not the word. Fear isn’t entirely gone and thank God for that, we need it. But terror, despair, you don’t see those so much anymore. You’d think the crime rate would be bad but it isn’t. I guess when you don’t have to eat and you aren’t scared, you don’t have to steal or bother anybody. People seem more, I don’t know, benevolent.
I used to go to church and pray a lot, go to confession and all that kind of thing, but not anymore. My sins are harder to remember. I can’t remember my late wife’s face. I can’t get in touch with the kids. Churches are mostly empty, what few priests are left don’t have much to say. They smile benevolently and give you a blessing from the maker of us all.
Did the maker of us all make the stochastic translator? If He did, maybe it shows He was getting tired of His creation. Wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over. Or maybe He needed to be alone again for an eternity or two. Or maybe it was just the human race He was tired of.
I’m losing my train of thought here. Most people aren’t hungry all the time anymore, like I am. Friends bring me old stuff from their pantries, because they don’t need it now. These days people mainly want to just enjoy themselves any way they can, like they used to. In this grand and great university town where everybody’s a big sports fan, we just keep going to the game, the football game that never ends.
Wow, here’s a bus. I’ll

About Musical Biography

TALK ON MUSICAL BIOGRAPHY FIRST GIVEN AT TUFTS, JANUARY 2006:
“LISTENING TO YOUR SUBJECT.”

Let me start with a quick tour of what I think I’m doing as a biographer and why, then get to what I can of the how.

I’m a composer who writes scholarly biographies of composers aimed at a wide audience. I hope to write things that can be of interest and use to trained musicians and scholars, to performing musicians, to the mass of readers and music lovers. I think there’s a need for compelling writing from within the profession that casts a broad net. And it seems to me that the point of view of the rare composer who writes about composers can integrate and complement the angles of musicologists and theorists.

I cast a broad net by emphasizing the person behind the notes: his ideals, personality, friends and lovers, his Bildung as the Germans call it—a person’s education and growth not only in knowledge but in life. This all functions within a particular historical moment and zeitgeist. I emphasize the personal not just to grab readers, but because of some convictions about music: the technical and formal elements that occupy us as musicians are important, but more important is the human element, Above all, music is something people do to move and to communicate with other people. To put it another way: music contains abstractions unique to the art, but they are not the real point. Music and musicians are part of the world, not isolated from it.

In the end, the goal is to paint a subject so that he stands up and casts a shadow, so that by the end of the book a reader feels they know this person as they would know a friend or a family member, or at least a long-time acquaintance. That’s how I feel about my subjects: I’m present at the birth, en route I rejoice and regret, criticize and applaud, and end up beside the grave. At the same time, as with friends and acquaintances, you keep your own council, and respect what you don’t and can’t know about another person. In the same way that what your subject doesn’t do or say can be just as revealing as what he or she does do or say, what we can’t know about somebody has to be part of our understanding of them.

I don’t see that there’s anything unusual about what I’m saying, as long as we’re talking about biography in general as distinct from musical biography. In fact, that’s a distinction that on the whole I don’t make. I don’t see how musical biography has to be innately different than any other kind. True, musical biography has its own history and tradition. We also know that this legacy includes a lot of 19th century theories and assumptions that most of us don’t subscribe to, such as the Romantic cult of the Genius as demigod. One way to escape the shibboleths of the past, not the only way but one way, is to say biography is biography: reporting a life to readers, whatever the subject’s occupation.

The technical aspect of music is the main difference between musical biography and, say, literary biography. The average reader can more or less follow a poem but doesn’t know from dominant seventh chords. As scholars, each of us has to deal with this issue based on our particular career, project, and projected audience. As I used to tell my writing students, who you are writing for has much to do with how you write: when we write for experts the technical is naturally more important; for a wider audience you try to find ways of talking about music that are not too technical yet also not flapdoodle. That’s not easy to do, and writing about music doesn’t come easily for me, but unfortunately that’s my job when I’m writing for a broad audience.

So I see myself as a biographer, period. Sort of. Meanwhile I have no doubt that if I weren’t primarily a composer, I’d be talking from here to sundown about “the art of biography.” Since most of my creative juices and ego are involved in composing rather than writing about composers, I don’t define biography as art. For me art is when you make it all up, when you get to play God. Fiction writers, of course, regularly use personal experience in their work. When I first tried writing fiction I was astonished at all the things emerging on the page from my life that I’d forgotten, that I didn’t know I knew. Yet to me a novel is still an invention, one that comes out of imagination working on experience and then goes back to its source: the world according to X.

I believe ultimately composers do the same thing: write from deep personal experience, which includes the experience of music. With any kind of art, if it doesn’t come from your guts it’s not going to reach anybody else’s. Music is no different. But with composers the process of turning life into art is much more veiled and mysterious than with, say, novelists. Much of what a composer writes rises from the history of music and the nature of sound, according to X. Like a novelist’s art but much more so, a composer’s art is involved in traditions of genre and craft, rules of the game, the technique and character of instruments, and so on.

For one example, I know Brahms’s adolescence playing in waterfront dives, where he was abused by the resident prostitutes, influenced his work, because you compose out of everything you are. What I can’t know, unless he had spelled it out, and he didn’t, is how Brahms’s childhood influenced his music. That, I would not presume to say. He did spell out that he believed his abuse influenced his life: he said it wrecked his relations with women, and I duly reported that.

In passing, I’ll note that based on my experience as composer and writer of both fiction and nonfiction, my current metaphor for the relationship of artist and work is a DNA molecule: two strands vitally connected in every part, at the same time individual streams, in some degree each with its own agenda, that can be separated and go off to fertilize something or somebody else.

So I call fiction an art, biography a craft. Because biography is a branch of history, where you can’t play God but have to submit humbly to what’s known, I also think of biography as a kind of higher journalism. Your first and primary job is to report who, what, where, when, and if you can, why. At one point in reading Brahms’s letters to his lifelong love Clara Schumann I found an unusual case of his pressuring her to bring her daughter Julie along on a visit. Only a year or so later did it become clear to Clara that he was in love with her daughter.

In a book, only after I’ve laid out the life as it was lived, the art as the artist conceived it, the art as the audience of its time perceived it (the latter being two quite different things), only then do I allow myself to judge, to gloss, to interpret–much of the time interpret in some quarantined way like an afterword or an endnote. While I resist interpreting an artist’s life, however, I freely interpret his work because it’s there to be responded to, so among other things to be interpreted.

I say biography is higher journalism simply because you have a lot more time to write it than other kinds of journalism, but the goals are similar: get the facts straight as possible, let the facts speak for themselves when possible, let your subjects speak for themselves when possible, and lay out the life in a clear and readable way. Fact and truth are the game, not ideology, and the reality that both fact and truth are unattainable doesn’t change that. Like all artists, in my creative work I’m in the profession of trying to do the impossible–compose as well as Mozart–so that’s a normal state of affairs for me.

As you respect fact as the coin of this particular game, I suggest that a biographer needs to respect the fact of another person’s life–the concrete reality of it, the integrity and also the mystery of it. I have a moral conviction that a person’s life was not lived in order for somebody else to interpret it for their own benefit. I’m not talking about avoiding unpleasant things in your subject; you don’t. The way I honor the reality of a life is to let the facts of somebody’s life and words speak with minimal interference from me.

Now I’m getting around to my title: listening to your subject. In my Brahms and Ives biographies, much of what seems like interpretation is simply an explication of what they said about themselves, however obliquely. With Brahms especially I came to trust his hard-headed common sense and self-knowledge. Brahms didn’t lie to other people and he didn’t lie to himself. When he said in a letter by way of explaining some of the gloom of the Second Symphony, “I am a severely melancholic person,” he knew what he was talking about.

Charles Ives was a different matter. I came to trust his idealism and essential good-heartedness in nearly everything. Even if I found some of his ideas about life and art delusional, they were magnificent delusions, for the best of reasons. He believed, among other things, that humanity was rising inevitably toward divinity, and that music plays an irreplaceable part in in that rise. When it came to Brahms I ended up agreeing with him about a lot of things, and wishing I could agree more with Ives. I wish I could share Ives’s faith in the best side of humanity.

With Beethoven it was yet another matter. I think he was given to not so magnificent illusions and delusions about a lot things, including himself. I found that you can only fully trust Beethoven when it comes to his musical wisdom, skill, and judgment–there you can trust him almost absolutely. In the rest of his life, not so much. In his better moments Beethoven was quite aware of that himself. He once wrote in a letter: “Everything I do outside music is stupid and badly done.” I took him at his word.

In writing I’m guided by no theory and see my subject through no prism except in light of an inevitable limitation that he’s him and I’m me. I start a book by doing anything I can to wipe out of mind everything I think I know about my subject, and start over from scratch. I’ve found that the best insights come from working intensely with the whole of the material you’ve collected. Until then I collect facts with an attempt at zenlike detachment, waiting until the facts start to speak to me–often by way of two or three independent facts coming together and striking a spark. A simple example of facts coming together happened with the Ives biography. Part of the Ives family legend had Lincoln observe to General Grant of George Ives’s band as they marched past, “They say that’s the best band in the army.” That may have happened, but by putting two dates together I realized Ives’s father was not himself there that day—he was home in Connecticut recovering from an injury. He didn’t witness his greatest moment of glory.

The structure of my biographies I call “chronology with hooks”: the life is discovered as it was lived, the way we all discover our lives. Then at certain points it’s logical to bring up larger issues. Charles Ives was pervaded by his childhood in Danbury and the ideas of his band-director father, so I began with chapters about Danbury and its people, its hat-making industry, its bands, about the 19th-century brass-band tradition, about music and the Civil War, above all about the marvelous, eccentric Ives family.

When I looked at Brahms’s Schatzkästlein, the book where as a teenager he wrote down favorite quotes from authors, I saw the writers were mostly high-Romantic: Novalis, Wackenroder, E.T.A. Hoffmann, et al. In other words, Johannes was a very Romantic young man, though not such a Romantic adult. His teenage years were the hook to talk about Romanticism and a Romantic Bildung. When Brahms moved to Vienna, it was time to talk about Vienna–always a gratifying thing to do. With Beethoven, Brahms, and now with Mozart I’m dealing with Vienna in different parts of its history, from the Enlightenment to the fin de siècle.

Because I respect the reality and integrity of my subject’s lives as they lived them, I don’t shape the life into a book. The life shapes the book–my subject’s high points and low, joys and sorrows all given their due, in what approximates their true chronology, their true importance and true proportions, as doggedly if imperfectly as I can discern them. I’ve been accused of rambling, but that’s how it goes. I’d rather my books be more like life and less like literature. And my current favored metaphor for life is an improvisation on themes–often unconscious themes.

Some of the themes of a person’s life are obvious, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Ives’s hometown of Danbury was important to him, so it was important to me. I began the book with an evocation of his town. One of the main themes of Brahms’s life was his early and lasting fame, all the satisfactions, frustrations, and terrors that entailed. His book began with a scene of roaring but ambiguous applause. Beethoven’s ideals came from his youth in Bonn, so I spent a lot of time with the town, its people, its Enlightenment ideals, the Freemasons and Illuminati.

The less obvious themes of a person’s life are the things you notice turning up again and again in the material. With Brahms, it slowly sank in to me that in company his main conversational gambit was to find out the going opinion and then attack it. Brahms was the perennial Devil’s Advocate. If he was around Wagner fans, he lambasted Wagner. If people were running down Wagner, he suddenly became “the best of Wagnerians.” Eventually I realized what he meant by that: he admired Wagner’s music as music, his achievement for its ambition and scope, but dismissed all the hoopla and propaganda with which Wagner buttressed his work.

Again, I don’t write out of any theories. My themes and ideas come from my guy. You keep watch on your subject to find patterns, habits, themes. It’s a bit like watching a spouse, to find the things we need to know in order to live with them. Here’s something that helped me understand biography. Years ago I read a review of a bio of the American writer James Agee that essentially painted him as a monster. The reviewer wondered, if Agee was that bad, why so many people were so fond of him. At the time I was in a writer’s group with Alex Eliot, who was once art critic of Time magazine and knew nearly everybody. I asked Alex about the critic’s question. “Well, it’s pretty simple,” Alex said. “When Jim Agee was sober he was a great guy and everybody loved him. When he was drunk he was a bastard. And he was drunk a lot.” The biographer had apparently never figured out that his subject was a sweet guy at heart but a mean drunk. These are the kinds of fundamental human dynamics that biographers need to figure out–when we can. When we can’t, we should leave it alone, or at least be clear about when we’re speculating.

Of course, often you can’t figure it out. In the end you’ll most likely never find the things locked in a person’s heart that may explain everything about them. Often, surely, that person doesn’t know them either. In movie terms, you rarely find Rosebud–and if you did find it, there’s no guarantee it would explain anything, and if it did explain something, you might not understand the explanation. There’s no answer to this inevitable incapacity of biography, our inability ultimately to know another person, except to note that whatever people do and say and write reveals them in a more than superficial way, if you know how to read the signs. No one can say or write five words without telling you something about themselves. Even though Brahms, for example, was guarded in his letters because he feared they might end up in print, he could not help revealing himself in them.

Which is all to say that you need to listen intently to what your subject says, how he talks, what he means. You listen intently, even if your subject is lying, even if he appears to be nuts. When John Kirkpatrick first met Charles Ives, he happened to use the phrase, “for simplicity’s sake.” Kirkpatrick was horrified to find the word “simplicity” had triggered one of Ives’s fits. Ives jumped to his feet and went on and on excoriating simplicity until, with the cry “God DAMN simplicity,” he fell back exhausted. Kirkpatrick thought he’d killed him. I don’t think Kirkpatrick ever understood why Ives reacted so violently, but I think I do. Simplicity was a word the emerging populist / Americana school of composers was using to belabor Ives and his friends, and he knew it.

Brahms was fascinating to observe as a writer and talker, wonderfully subtle, ironic, sardonic, and funny. When he was most serious and closest to his heart was generally when he was most guarded and oblique, but I think he wanted to be understood. He once noted in a letter, “I only write half sentences. The reader has to fill in the other half.” I felt that nobody had tried to understand the unspoken half of what Brahms said. For example, his crack about the Fourth Symphony: “Oh, once again I’ve just thrown together a bunch of waltzes and polkas.” That’s a joke and a good one, like most of Brahms’s jokes, but it’s also half serious: the Fourth Symphony is largely made of dances, however solemn and mournful, though the scherzo is a kind of polka.

When our subject writes a letter, we need to remember where they are in their lives and to whom they’re writing, what the history is between them. There’s an often-quoted letter Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann where he says, “Passions are not natural to mankind…The man in whom they overstep the limits…should seek medicine for his life and health.” That letter is generally taken as a statement of principles by Brahms, and that’s one dimension of it. But there are other dimensions. The letter was also written to a woman Brahms had in effect recently jilted; in part, he’s exhorting Clara to get over it. And third, it was written to a woman who in fact was given to bouts of hysteria, and Brahms wished Clara could get over that, too.

Now I’m going to present a group of quotes from my three biographies, with my glosses.

Charles Ives, writing supposedly about Hawthorne’s stories but really about his own music: “Not something that happens, but the way something happens.” By that Ives means that, say, the way musical amateurs sing a hymn or play a march, for all its roughness, is an expression of something deeply felt. For Ives the “something” is, say, the musical notes on the page, but they are only the outward symbol of a fundamental inner reality—call it psychology, call it spirit. The roughness itself, the way a piece is sung or played by everyday people including the wrong notes, is part of the real music. Drunk bandsmen on the march at the Fourth of July parade might fall off the beat or forget the key, but to Ives that was as vital a part of the music as the notes, all of it rising from the human heart and soul. As Ives wrote of amateur town bands: “They didn’t always play right & together and it was as good either way.” For Ives not the notes of a hymn but the way they come out of people’s mouths and feelings is a symbol of the eternal spirit at the core of humanity.

Johannes Brahms, telling a friend how he replied to Nietzsche concerning the latter’s Hymn
of Life, which the philosopher had sent him hoping for praise. Brahms told a friend that it was “much the same as any young student’s effort.” But later, to the same friend: “I’ve done it! I’ve extricated myself beautifully from this Nietzsche business! I simply sent him my visiting card and thanked him politely for the stimulus he had given me. The amusing thing is that I quietly avoided mentioning the music at all!”

Now Brahms to Clara Schumann, concerning Eduard Hanslick’s celebrated tract On Beauty in Music: “I found so many stupid things on first glance that I gave it up.” Now Brahms to Eduard Hanslick, concerning On Beauty in Music: “I must also send you my most sincere thanks for your book Beauty in Music, to which I owe many hours of enjoyment, of clarification, indeed literally of relief. Every page invites one to build further on what has been said, and since in doing so…the motives are the main thing, one always owes you double the pleasure. But for the person who understands his art in this manner, there are things to be done everywhere in our art and science, and I will wish we might soon be blessed with such excellent instruction on other subjects.”

Have we caught Brahms being a hypocrite? Political maybe, but not hypocritical. Brahms was a relentlessly and sometimes brutally honest man. But after all, Hanslick was not just a personal friend of Brahms; he was the most powerful music critic in Europe. I came to realize that like the note to Nietzsche, but on a grander scale, the letter to Hanslick is a masterpiece of Brahmsian irony. Some translations: “Every page invites one to build further [you don’t go very far ]…the motives are the main thing [I know you mean well]…I wish we might soon be blessed with such excellent instruction on other subjects [Don’t do this kind of thing anymore, you’re not any good at it].”

In both cases the letters did the trick: Hanslick proudly quoted his letter in a memoir, and Nietzsche went about telling people his tune had received “deep signs of respect from Dr. Brahms.” One can hear Brahms’s lusty laughter. He was, by the way, an imaginative practical joker. At one point he convinced his musicologist friend Gustav Nottebohm that he had stumbled on a new sketch by Beethoven, wrapped around a sausage in the park. It was a current pop song, written on old music paper by Brahms in an expert imitation of Beethoven’s handwriting. He had paid the sausage-seller to give it to Nottebohm. Likely he dined out on that story for a long time.

Charles Ives, introducing his collection 114 Songs: “Greek philosophers, ward politicians, unmasked laymen, and others, have a saying that bad habits and bad gardens grow to the unintendedables; whether these are a kind of daucus carota, jails, mechanistic theories of life, is not known, but the statement is probably or probably not true.” Daucus carota is the species name of the common carrot. The sentence is just like one of Ives’s more riotous pieces: an accumulation of things piling up rapidly to a final punchline, and that punchline “probably or probably not true” shows his love of paradox. He’s basically saying that the songs have gotten so out of hand that he has to get them out of the house. The sentence also shows how gnarled, oblique, and apologetic Ives could get when presenting his music to the world. Meanwhile it further reveals that in his music, prose, and person Ives was a very funny guy, in a kind of proto-surrealistic way. He once sent a hilarious letter actually to his daughter, but written to “Raggedy Ann Ives,” who was Edie’s doll.

Brahms, writing to his publisher Simrock to ask for an advance: “The so-often-praised goodness and charity of your Well-bornship give me the courage to approach you with a great proposition. My situation is terrible, a horrifying future stares me in the face; the abyss appears yawning before me, I fall therein unless your saving hand draws me back. With the last one-mark note I must now proceed at once to the Igel restaurant, but with what feelings shall I eat, and indeed, drink!” Brahms was also very funny, generally at somebody’s expense though often at his own expense, and there was usually something serious concealed behind the joke. When he was rehearsing one of his quartets the violist asked if he liked their tempos. “Yes,” Brahms said. “Especially yours.”

Beethoven, four letters from a single month, August 1819:

[To his patron Archduke Rudolf] “The persistent worries connected with my nephew [Karl] who has been morally almost completely ruined are largely the cause of my indisposition. At the beginning of this week I myself had again to assume the guardianship, for the other guardian had resigned after perpetrating a good many misdemeanors for which he has asked me to pardon him.” Beethoven had adopted the son of his late brother and was trying to keep him away from his mother, whom he called “The Queen of the Night.”

[To a Viennese acquaintance] “Recently an attempt was made to make my nephew appear before a commission. That I cannot possibly allow. He is innocent and that I can testify so far as he is concerned. The meager support which the guardian I appointed received…coupled with the mother’s wicked intrigues is the only reason why my poor nephew and ward has been put back in his studies for a whole year.” [This is one of Beethoven’s rare accusations of Karl’s mother that was likely true. He considered her capable of anything, not omitting hiring herself as a prostitute and poisoning her husband. She was, to be sure, a piece of work.]

[To another acquaintance] “The best thing would be to resign the guardianship without choosing anyone and to leave Karl entirely to his fate. For already he is an utter scamp and is most fit for the company of his own mother and my pseudo-brother.”

[To Archduke Rudolf] “In the world of art, as in the whole of our great creation, freedom and progress are the main objectives. And although we moderns are not quite as far advanced in solidity as our ancestors, yet the refinement of our customs has enlarged many of our conceptions as well.”

Whether he is being idealistic, paranoid, or at wit’s end, Beethoven’s language is direct,
concrete, uncensored, and without irony (except occasional blunt and bitter irony). Yet
because of his capriciousness, much of what he says can’t be taken at face value.

There’s much more to be said but I have to finish somewhere, so I’ll do that with a few bits of ideas. I’ve spoken about writing with respect for the life as it was lived, and reporting that life clearly, fairly, and fully. I add that anyone’s life is not mainly lived in ideas and abstractions but in feelings. Feelings are facts too; feelings are an important part of the story. For me, the function of writing is to be clear and readable, but also to convey the emotions of your story so that the reader understands them. Many of the emotions are obvious: Brahms loved his mother, he was sad when she died. You don’t need a citation to know these things, you only have to be human. His mother was important to Brahms, and what’s important to my subject is important to me. Somebody once took me to task for talking so much about Ives’s illness: “He was an executive, executives get heart attacks, it’s boring.” All I could say was that Ives was seriously ill and that had much to do with his later life and career, so I had to report it.

So the form and style of my subject’s life is the form and style of my book, their themes my themes. Charles Ives was involved in music, philosophy, aesthetics, politics, business, family, and more. To get all that in, and to project the eccentricity and the paradoxes of that all-embracing man, I resorted to three kinds of chapters, occasional imagined episodes, and endnotes of all kinds, not omitting an illustrative story about my highschool band: we set out playing the Star-Spangled Banner in two keys at once, with Ivesian results. Ives believed that one should stand up and say one’s piece as an individual, and in my endnotes, I did. Meanwhile in his music Ives wrote what he called “shadow lines,” and the endnotes were the shadow text of my biography of him. That was my Ivesian book about Ives.

The challenge of writing about Brahms was that except for some dramatic post-adolescent years and a tragic end of life, because everyone’s life ends tragically, Brahms did relatively little but write music, perform music, hang out in cafes and taverns, visit brothels, and fight with his friends. He lived in other words an exemplary composer’s life. In contrast to Ives there was an enormous literature about Brahms’s music, and I felt his work was generally well understood. What I felt was not well understood was his personality, so I concentrated on that. My Brahmsian book about Brahms was a straightforward, hard-headed, craftsmanly affair, with well-behaved endnotes. Some were disappointed in that book because they assumed the Ives was “the way I write biography,” and the Brahms isn’t like that. But there is no way I write biography. There is only the subject at hand.

With Beethoven I was haunted by his words about being the most wretched of mortals. His life was heaped with misery and for him it was only made endurable and meaningful by music. In my book about Beethoven his music had to redeem his life and make it bearable. Thus the subtitle: Anguish and Triumph.

Which is all to say that when I’d finished the Ives book I ran across a line of philosopher Stanley Cavell’s that expressed the method I’d instinctively arrived at. I think it’s a good way to conceive biography and a lot else, and a good way to end here. Cavell said: “The way to overcome theory correctly…is to let the object of your interest teach you how to conceive it.”

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