Six months ago, my friend Awadagin Pratt asked me to make a record with him. He got the idea while reflecting upon the opening lines of “Burnt Norton” from T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”
He wrote to me about the poem’s “magical, musical first stanza” and the way the “first sentence completely captures the manner in which music is heard, its linearity and its potential for entropy in the same moment.”
No surprise – the “Four Quartets” themselves are said to have been informed by music, specifically Beethoven’s late string quartets. And no surprise that a musician like Awadagin would find inspiration in them – he had always been brilliant, even back in our undergraduate days at the University of Illinois, when we forged a friendship competing for the most hours logged in the practice room. I was studying trombone. Awadagin? Piano, violin and conducting. He always won.
When Awadagin and I began emailing, we hadn’t banked any money. Nor had we signed any contracts or booked any studios. But all that began to change as soon as we connected with other artists.
Since college, my career has toggled between running arts organizations, hosting a radio show, writing and teaching. Awadagin’s accomplishments have piled up. He’s become a decorated concert pianist, winning the Naumburg International Piano Competition and an Avery Fisher Career Grant. He’s performed with some of the world’s leading orchestras and enjoyed a successful teaching career.
And now he wanted me to make an album with him. An album in which a collection of composers would “match wits” with T.S. Eliot, creating soundscape that could draw new meaning from an already-profound collection of poetry.
Needless to say, I was already in.
In the months that have passed, I have found myself continually amazed at how quickly a single idea can gain momentum – if it’s an idea you believe in and can share with others. When Awadagin and I began emailing, we hadn’t banked any money. Nor had we signed any contracts or booked any studios. But all that began to change as soon as we connected with other artists.
First, to help navigate the direction of the project, we thought we should consult an experienced record maker. Over the summer we traveled to western Massachusetts to visit composer and New Amsterdam Records co-founder Judd Greenstein. With his wife, violinist and composer Michi Wiancko, Judd owns 100 acres of land that doubles as their home and the artist retreat-cum-music festival Antenna Cloud Farm. We spent a weekend listening to music, learning about each other’s tastes, searching for composers and creating timelines and fundraising strategies. By the time we left, our project had become a team of three.
We enlisted more collaborators. We reached out to a variety of composers and ensembles. We decided that our forces should include, but not be limited to, a strings ensemble and a vocal group with a one-of-a-kind approach to their art. We made plans for a rehearsal retreat and narrowed down our choices for recording studios to two options.
And even while Awadagin’s initial idea gains solidity and structure, I can’t help but wonder at the ways it will continue to change over the many months – years! – of this project, as it filters through the minds of dozens of musicians. Will we even recognize it at the end?
That’s where 21CM comes in. At this publication, we spend every issue either encouraging musicians to take on projects that scare them or covering musicians who have done just that. We know the bravery it takes to move ideas to action and we know that no project unveils itself with a full set of plans, ready to be seamlessly executed. Art-making is messy.
I hope we’ll be able to not just share a work of art with you, but all of the wisdom we acquired while producing it.
Now, we have the opportunity to share this process with you in real time. Over the forthcoming months of this project, I am going to document our progress. We are all going to learn, together, what it takes to work collaboratively to realize a creative idea. I will share with you our failures as well as our successes, the obstacles we will encounter and how the project may change in ways we did not anticipate. By the end of it all, I hope we’ll be able to not just share a work of art with you, but all of the wisdom we acquired while producing it.
Since starting this journey, I’ve found myself thinking of a childhood memory. My mom used to get up before any of her nine children on the weekends, and I would come across her in the morning, making quilts. Savoring a cup of coffee, she found serenity in the repetitive motion of pin basting. I remember the care she took, meticulously aligning corners so that all the points of the stars matched and were not cut off by the seams.
Before starting, she’d choose the fabric, the palette, the pattern. But making a quilt is a lot like a spontaneous composition: There are a multitude of decisions that will change the way a memory quilt speaks to a living history. I’ve remembered, too, a passage from Whitney Otto’s “How to Make an American Quilt”: “You have to choose your combinations careful. The right choices will enhance your quilt. The wrong choices will dull the colors and hide their original beauty. There are no rules you can follow. You have to go by instinct and you have to be brave.”
This seems like apt advice for making any kind of art from scratch. The album that Awadagin, Judd and our team make will be sewn from the original beauty of Eliot’s verse – his meter and rhythm, his own poetry and music. The palette and pattern will come from the musicians we bring onto the project.
But I love this moment, when, because nothing has happened, it feels like anything can. We don’t know what it’s going to look like, but we know we’re going to make something remarkable, even if, for now, if we’re just tugging at threads.