W.A. Mathieu is a composer, musician, and teacher whose career has included work with Second City, The Committee, Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, the San Francisco Conservatory, Mills College, and the Sufi Choir. He has recorded several solo piano albums, including Available Light (Windham Hill).
= 9,10 = Symphonies of Place
Symphony Number 1
At home in Sebastapol, California. I am writing at the kitchen table, my right ear next to the open window; it hears outside sound, mostly. My left ear hears sound coming from the kitchen, and the rest of the house beyond. Immediately I notice my noisy refrigerator motor is OFF, at least for the time being. It is a bright midday in June. The temperature dial says 66.
Three or four noisy crows are circling. A car whizzes up the hill. The swish of my felt-tip pen on legal paper. The skin sound of my right hand as it slides across the paper. My wife, Devi, is eating breakfast in her office down the hall.
The spoon against the cereal bowl: metal and crockery. The intermittent rattle and thump or her computer keyboard: she thinks, she types. There are several kinds of birds, I don't know their names: peep peep, warble, chip chip. Now I recognize the call of the Swainson's thrush rising from the creek on the other side of the house.
Wind in the nearby apple trees. Fast little forays of flies -- there are two in the room. Each buzz lasts for one second, begins high and ends lower. Do they rev down for landing? Now there is a special bonus: from the fire station a mile east the noon siren goes up, stays level for three seconds, and gently decays into all of the above.
A car goes by too fast for the two-lane blacktop. High whoosh of air. Tire noise. As it labors uphill around the first bend its metal throat explodes open. Around the second bend two tires shriek at once, a twinge of white dissonance. An airplane is droning on a straight path, not near.
There is a single world-class ding from the best wind chime I ever heard -- a wedding gift from Anna and Richard. Our aging cat utters a soft meow of complaint that somehow reminds me of my Grandma Clara, long dead. In the lulls I hear traffic from the through road, two miles north.
Our dog is lying half-asleep under the quince bush. When he stirs I hear his fur against the grass. My breathing. I am now aware of two cicada type of insects, both scraping their knees. In front of me, nearby, is the slower one; the one behind me is faster, but farther away. I don't know how long they have been singing.
I absent-mindedly rub the fingers of my left hand together: the high-pitched swish of skin on skin. My knuckles creak, I as so protective of my piano hands that the sound makes me uptight. I put my left hand against my face and rub the stubble of beard; now that is a weird sound.
Wind in distant trees. Now Devi's computer printer suddenly starts to whine. The refrigerator motor lumbers back on, and I'm going to walk the dog.
= 11,12 =
SYMPHONY NUMBER 2
Downtown Santa Rosa, California. It is a summer evening -- after dinner but still daylight. I am on the perimeter of a pedestrian area surrounded by shops, a restaurant, and a movie theater, sitting on a stone ledge near the theater entrance.
I hear the footsteps of a couple passing by. The guy's keys hit against his belt. Thirty yards away, city traffic: light trucks and cars. The big glass doors of the theater open with a squeak and close with a whoosh and a click. The high whine of an engine. A truck tailgate slams open. A car starts.
Three small kids pass, with Mom: their footsteps and a plaintive, muffled request. Low conversation nearby. Running footsteps, tennis shoes. Wind in trees. The pages of my writing pad rattle in the wind.
In anger a woman shouts, "What!" A small child calls, "Wait!" A group of men is talking across the courtyard. Nearby, one man mutters something. Some kids far away. Someone is calling "Kevin" many times.
Devi knows I'm writing down sounds in my book. Now she crosses my line of vision, pawing at the cement like a pony. Our laughing. Sandals shuffle. The squeak in the door has developed into a long followed by a short.
Sounds from a conversation. More laughing from somewhere else. A uniformed theater sweeper sweeps; the plastic broom bristles go sweep sweep; his plastic trash catcher scrapes against the cement. Plate glass creaks in the wind. A proud voice booms, "You did it!" More keys jingling in step, fading.
= 14 = A dozen years later, in 1967, I moved to San Francisco and went to hear rock bands at the Fillmore. I hooked into the singing of Janis Joplin, and one Sunday matinee decided to see what would happen if I stood two feet in front of a speaker twice my height and cranked to the max. Two things happened: I experience a blend of ecstasy and pain so intense that I will remember it forever. And I went a little deaf.
= 56,57 = I once had a drummer friend who considered his VW bug more interesting as a percussion instrument than as a car. He carried extra pairs of mallets and drumsticks for his friends, and whenever he drove up we played his car, which did not have a square inch of undented surface. This was the right idea, if perhaps extreme.
= 70 = One evening in 1985 I was playing a solo piano concert in San Francisco. I was in the middle of a long improvisation when the ceiling opened up and there was the head of my spiritual teacher Murshid Sam Lewis -- who died in 1971 -- smiling down at me. He was enveloped in silver light and looked like the Sistine chapel. After an interval of communion I realized that even though I was playing the piano there was no sound. We were in a heaven world of perfect silence. I said, "Murshid, I have to go now, I'm playing a concert." Zoop! the ceiling closed like a curtain, and I was back in E major again.
= 141 = I once taught improvisation at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, in a course required of all incoming freshmen. The first exercise on the first day of class was called Ribbon. We would arrange ourselves in a circle with our various instruments. Each student would play a single note in turn, making a succession of single tones progressing around the room. After a while the exercise would transcend "it's my turn to play a note," and a ribbon of melody would emerge. Borne along with it would be the realization that music can be collectively improvised.
= 173 = In earlier years, when I first began to go to the concerts of my teacher Pandit Pran Nath (he's still singing), I noticed flowers everywhere, incense, and clean white clothes. A thin brown man sitting cross-legged on a rug would sing North Indian classical music for two hours in front of forty or fifty devoted listeners. The air filled with honey. Our borders melted. We merged the concert into flickering light. Our ears got big.
After the concert, people would stand around, quietly smiling. "Thank you, Guru-ji." "Thank you." "Thank you so much." He would reply, in Hindi-accented English, "Everything is God," or in Arabic, "Ya Malik," God is King.
= 179 = RECORDINGS BY W.A. MATHIEU Solo Piano Albums Streaming Wisdom (1981) In the Wind (1983) Second Nature (1985) Listening to Evening (1986) Available Light (1987) Celebration (1990)
Musical Settings of the Poems of Jelaluddin Rumi In the Arc of Your Mallet/Quatrains (1988) Text translated by Coleman Barks. Composed by W.A. Mathieu. Sung by Devi Mathieu and members of the Sufi Choir, with W.A. Mathieu, piano.
Available from: Cold Mountain Music P.O. Box 912 Sebastapol, CA 95473
The Listening Book is available as an audio tape from: Shambala Lion Editions P.O. Box 308 Boston, MA 02117-0308 (617) 424-0030
= i = "This book reads like music. A beautiful procession of moods, led by a liquid imagination, cascade over playful rapids to the peaceful stillness of deep listening." -- Terry Riley, composer and musician
= back cover = The Listening Book is about rediscovering the power of listening as an instrument of self-discovery and personal transformation. By exploring our capacity for listening to sounds and for making music, we can awaken and release our full creative powers. Mathieu offers suggestions and encouragement on many aspects of music-making, and provides playful exercises to help readers appreciate the connection between sound, music and everyday life.
Typed by Cheryl Vega 7-15-95