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An Artist Travels to Omaha

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Guitarist Jesse Langen has arrived in Omaha, and will be performing and teaching throughout the week. A look inside the mind of a touring musician:

Right Now:

Right now I’m on a train from Chicago to Omaha. I got invited to teach and play at the Under the Radar festival; naturally I would end up in Omaha, teach, and play. Sometimes life interferes with these plans and decisions, but of course it is wonderful when the great or beautiful things we want come to be. A week from now, I will travel back from this festival; I will have met many great musicians, spent quality time with those who I already have the good fortune to call colleagues and friends, met students who will no doubt surpass us, heard several great performances, and hopefully have played and taught well enough myself. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfalmagorians who said that the time of your life makes a permanent shape in the universe, and that after you die, your shape stops growing, but you get to go back and visit any parts of that shape that you like. From this side, it’s easy to believe that the times in life when I and everyone I care about get what we want; when we’ve set out to do, have, or be, and we succeed; these surely are moments to celebrate, and later to revisit.

Or, I’m on a train. I ended up in a fancy car, because there was only one ticket left, this one, when I got around to figuring out my transportation. Right now the car is stopped, and I’m looking out the window at a tree with loads of tiny leaves, each maybe six times as wide as a pine needle. I don’t know what it’s called, but my dad would. Some of these leaves are in the sunlight, some in shadow, all in motion with the breeze, and I can feel the contents of my mind behaving exactly as the leaves on this tree. Except now we’re moving, and the tree is now no longer a reflection of my mind, but an independent and sentient being, an ent maybe, waving goodbye to me in the breeze. I find myself thinking about Fred Gifford, Fred Rzewski, Tomas Gueglio, Gesualdo, and John Zorn, as I’ll be playing or workshopping music by these composers, and while I want the improvised portion of my set to evidence a clever and cultured interaction of the works of their’ music, I can feel much of my mind operating under my own radar, making decisions beyond the reach of my will regarding what will actually happen. When it goes down, it will have felt inevitable (whether good, bad, or other), and it will have felt like I decided it, but I simply can’t know what it will be yet, try as I might. At least I think it’s seemed that way other times. Maybe I’ll ask Amanda if she’s felt that, like some part of her not only knew, but decided much earlier what was going to happen. How do radars work, and why is it sneaky to do under them—do they not point down?

Now bits of buildings, trees, and fences are going by out the window. I can’t tell if it’s a city or just…what would the word be if it’s not a city? Did I tell all of my students that I’m out of town? Maybe Amanda and I will play MTG this week! What’s the age range of students in this camp? Whoops, somebody spilled something further down on this car, I heard liquid splashing and a pithy monosyllable. Weird to think I’ve never actually shook hands with Danny Clay, when it feels like we already work together. Will I work out this week? What’s the coolest one-syllable word I can think of? Boy I love trees. Never written a blog before though, with any luck this will be the worst one I’ll ever do.

The question in my mind about these two versions of my trip to Under the Radar is how the one relates to the other. Limited as my accomplishments are, it’s a minor miracle that I get anything done at all when my observing a tree approaches an unforced and voluntary brainwashing. How am I to actually show up to my own concert, let alone make meaningful and organized music? But, art being a magical or fantastic space, I like to believe that, in improvisation, these two ways of experiencing life, purposeful and capricious, are dependent on each other. The way to get from point A to point B most efficiently, in my absurd version of improvisation, is distracted, accidental, and mistaken; only ever correct or on point despite itself.

I realize I’ve described a tall order here; I hope to at least honor the spirit of this on Friday.

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