Short Stories, vol. 1 (2023)
for piano, percussion, and playback - 60'
Short Stories, vol. 1 is a tapestry of structured improvisation and through-composed music constructed around six field recordings made by John and Ruby Lomax during their 1939 Southern Mosaic trip, during which they documented hundreds of hours of folk songs and instrumentals from Texas to Virginia.
The six recordings* in Short Stories, vol. 1 were made in Texas, Florida, Alabama, and Arkansas. Each offers a unique window into southern music and life in 1939 while also existing as a precious sound object in itself. The distortion and static draws me closer and enchants me. I find myself wondering about who the musicians were, where they lived, how they lived, their family histories, and more. For me, then, each of these recordings feels like an unexplored story about a specific person in a specific place in a specific time. The title also points towards the rich tradition of Southern Gothic literature with authors like Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison.
On one level, Short Stories is about the dialogue between recorded sound from 1939 and two live instrumentalists, the tension between the fixed tempo and temperament of the piano and vibraphone and the more fluid and human approach to pitch and rhythm heard in the voices and fiddles, and the tapestry of music against noise. The field recordings are at times heavily manipulated and contextualized and at other times clear, present, and unadorned. The piano and percussion parts move between echoing and mimicking the field recordings, providing context and support, and providing contrasting contrapuntal material. My hope is that, through these treatments, new details of the recordings come to the fore.
However, Short Stories is also about the dialogue between past and present, at times creating distance between the two while occasionally blurring the vast temporal gap. The music also explores concepts of nostalgia through these 84 year old field recordings. In The Future of Nostalgia (2001), Author Svetlana Boym writes about a few different types of nostalgia: a “restorative” nostalgia that seeks to recreate the idealized past and a “reflective” nostalgia which “dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity.” Short Stories, vol. 1 is certainly investigating reflective nostalgia, but perhaps also a kind of critical nostalgia.
In the south, nostalgia and how we collectively remember the past is extremely complex and is itself a political act. There are some who might hear one of these field recordings and be swept into a nostalgia that seeks to restore the idealized bucolic past. However, the same recording can be heard as a reminder of incredible tragedy, erasure, discrimination, and loss. Many of Lomax’s recordings of Black musicians were made in coercive circumstances; in the state penitentiaries in Arkansas, Texas, and Florida, for example, Lomax was known to have bribed prison officers to force inmates to perform.
I hope to give forgotten voices another chance to be heard and forgotten histories to be told. I hope to highlight moments of particular beauty that might otherwise never again be heard, for in every crackly field recording is a wealth of knowledge, experience, history, and humanity from which we can learn.
Finally, I would like to offer special thanks to Greg Stuart for workshopping this piece with me over the last few months. It would not exist without his flexibility and musicianship as well as his incredibly thoughtful insights and suggestions.
-David Kirkland Garner
*The six recordings are housed in the Library of congress: (1) AFC 1939/001: AFS 02591b01, (2) AFC 1939/001: AFS 02648b02, (3) AFC 1939/001: AFS 03556b01, (4) AFC 1939/001: AFS 02704b03, (5) AFC 1939/001: AFS 02620a02, and (6) AFC 1939/001: AFS 02668b01