“Do not dwell in the past,
Do not dream of the future,
Concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
“Do not dwell in the past,
“Do not dwell in the past,
Do not dream of the future,
Concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
Mountain of snow against the darkening sky drifts from vision and becomes the lost peak of legend.
Mountain shadow swallows the valley, consuming trees and river, the last drops of light.
What secrets does the mountain take from the day into the night?
When the ravens fall silent, when the wind scatters, returning to its mysterious beginning, the mountain voice emerges from cracks and fissures, from the very earth that turns raw molten materials into the giants reaching to the heavens.
An ancient voice calls across time in the space we cannot hear, in the dreams we see when we reach beyond the death zone and what we think becomes irrelevant and what we desire spiritually, the things that have no name, become tangible, become the vision floating across the horizon.
After the smoke clears and unnatural sounds dissipate
the valley, mountains, and river return.
The mountain shadow continues the journey started millions of years before
and the river moves animals and earth further downstream to fertile
lands and eventually to the delta spreading its fingers for miles with
long threads reaching into the sea.
For a moment the clouds pause as birds swarm from the forest
and overtake the sky filled with defined shapes alternating
from grey to pink as the sun has completed another day and makes
its way to the horizon before one last wink says goodnight.
Beyond the clouds there is hope of peace.
Grey infused frozen water consumes the last light before the fields darken.
Distant planets follow me from dawn until dusk and a new world emerges where I have become one with beings and energy I do not understand yet make sense at levels I did not know existed.
I left my field years before I arrived here, in search of a new beginning, a chance to erase the past, the stories I have written.
Days traversing empty fields become lost in the mountain shadow where the sky became the ground as we became blind from snow and ice.
With no vision or guidance I was forced to remember ancient words from mountain tops.
It was difficult to separate the truth from lies, the cloaked wolves from the bodhisattva sent from beyond the shadows.
I stumbled upon a rock and fell into a creek feed from glaciers. I feel deep to the bottom of the creek and then I stopped.
The cold become the darkness of my being. The shadows thickened and became a vision of nothing, an island of another existence.
In that moment of eternity I stood on the shoreline of swirling black light and stared at the island. On that island a life played out like a movie and after some time, I realized it was my life, it was my movie.
I watched the choices and decisions I made, the people I loved, and the people I hurt. I watched the distance I kept and the selfishness I exuded. At times, I thought those on the island, in that temporal dream state, looked over at me across the distance as I watched them, as if they know I was there apart from the person they were interacting with.
When darkness becomes all that we know, a choice is presented to grow beyond the person whose own words and actions put them there.
Thinking back on the past
I see the signs and guides
more clearly and with more
openness than at the time.
Thinking about where I am now
I plan what future I want,
the reach of my sphere of influence
and the morals I must exhibit.
What I question are the words
thrown to the wind by others,
by shamans and preachers.
By those speaking of truth,
another way to live, of
supposed lies, our blindness
while they pilfer our pockets
and exist in the same state.
What matters most are words and actions
of respect, peace, and unity to those
we love, know, and hold and those
we have never met here.
What matters most are the daily choices
made for ourselves and those around us.
An early morning walk through a November-drenched park with Leroy, Alaskan coffee, and music. As the wind blew hard off the lake, yet the pace was slow and purposeful, I chose “Lost in the Chambers of the Sea”, by Startle the Heavens (Ben Leopard).
Starting off brisk and cloudy, we watched thousands of ducks float upon the water and eat. Hiking through the trees and along another lake, we left the city behind and let nature cradle our spirits and heal our minds. Looking for peace, we found the rising light and a path through the forest.
November is the transition of fall to winter.
November gives up the red, orange, yellow, and gold for brown into grey.
The sky gains depth, definition, and clarity.
November is laid bare at your feet and we head within ourselves to find warmth and answers to the probing questions and immediate need to cope with change.
November is the month we begin to find ourselves.
reveal the moon
and the still water
absorbs the light.
Behind the moon
the tree line
across our faces
as we listen to
distant coyote cries.
The child’s nose leaves prints on the glass
kitchen window overlooking the apple tree.
Wide-eyed, determined, safe -
was that a snowflake?
Did one land in the grass?
A frantic search for the
first snowflake signaling
winter, snow forts, and snow days.
There, that has to be one!
And the phone call to grandma
to let her know, that it is snowing,
that I will remember this forever.
The depth of days, carrying
the memories from the past
through the present into
a future laid bare in our hands.
Silence precedes the chaos
we create, but until that
moment the silence is unsettling,
daunting, and disarming.
Snow comes first with a
message of peace and hope
a subtle warning from the
winds originating beyond
our sight but forever
buried in our minds
as their words become clearer
the closer we are to nature.
I have 3 pieces of backpacking equipment that are no longer needed and taking up much needed space in the gear closet. Please contact me with questions, price, shipping, etc.
GoLite Shangri-La 2 minimalist backpacking tent
Black Diamond flick-lock adjustable hiking poles
First Ascent Big Tahoma 75
The newest member of the family will be home soon. Here she is, Vinny, at 4 weeks old.
The Light Collector, #1.
Here is the interview I conducted with Peter Vircks, a jazz musician from Minnesota. This appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Stone Path Review.
Introduction, by William Ricci
Minneapolis-based musician, composer and arranger Peter Vircks is a founding member of the modern jazz group Moveable Feast and the Peter Vircks Quartet. He is also a member of Rhythmic Circus and part of their current production Feet Don’t Fail Me Now.
In 2004 he was accepted to attend the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music where he was mentored by Bill Frizell, Dave Douglas, Mark Turner, Han Bennink, and, Clarence Penn. He is also a 2007 American Composers Forum Subito Grant recipient and subsequent adjudicator. Vircks is credited as a sideman on dozens of recorded albums and has performed music on several nationally syndicated commercials and independent films.
Peter’s debut album, What You Believe is True, was released in 2014.
More information and tour dates can be found at: http://www.petervircks.com including November 21st at Jazz Central Studios in Minneapolis, MN.
I started playing the saxophone the summer before fifth grade, in 1984, when kids in our school district were offered group lessons. I was tested on mouthpieces for all the band instruments and was told I might do well with any of them. I made all the right sounds and had a previous musical background. Other sections were filling up so I was steered toward the saxophone. My folks bought a King Cleveland alto for me.
Well, I’d already been taking piano lessons at age five and had been singing in the church children’s choir for a few years at that point. I even bought a guitar with my own money from the Montgomery Wards catalog when I was six for twenty-six dollars. I never really figured out how to play that crummy model at all. The strings were too high off the fret board. Somewhere there is a super-8 film of me smashing it to bits.
I played in band until the middle of freshman year in high school. There was a compulsory marching band and pep-band component for all concert band members. Now, I was a skateboarder and that was my Identity. Image conformity, groupthink and sport ball were already things I questioned.
Dressed to the eyeballs in thick blue polyester uniforms, one of my older section mates was reprimanded by the director for something she didn’t do. I noted the injustice and immediately voiced my concern, which somehow earned me a parent-teacher meeting. In the past, I also had been scolded and punished for things I did not do by the same director. I was a great student with great grades, but in the meeting I was given the choice to leave band or stay on. I left. It brought my mother to tears, but, except for her tears, I was not conflicted and it felt like a weight was lifted. I loved music but not the stress of band room authoritarianism.
By that point, I had earned high marks in the state saxophone ensemble competition and I really liked playing the instrument, too much to just abandon it. So I sought out private instruction and kept playing.
When senior year rolled around, an independent music study class was offered as an alternative to regular study hall and there was also the extra curricular Jazz band. I joined both because I was really getting into figuring music out. I loved playing along with the radio and jamming with schoolmates and friends, but improvising was still walking around an unfamiliar living room with the lights out.
It was impressed on me around that time that, while choosing what you’d like to become, first determine if that which you’d like to become, as an end, is a good thing. If it is, then aim in that direction, forget about the end, and start walking. So I did, kind of.
The word “jazz” is problematic. There are issues historically with cultural appropriation, etymological uncertainty and its creation as a commercial label too constrained to corral the many species of music it spawned in the twentieth century.
The word, to many non-musicians, conjures images of swingy-dingy, lindy hopping, black and white footage of the bygone, post WWII era America with lots of flash and razzle-dazzle. Big band jazz-hands and couples dance-off competitions. Or the opposite: milquetoast, synthetic, “smooth jazz” with its pantyhose saxophone solos replete with the obligatory super long high note that was probably born in an elevator of some department store in a suburb of Los Angeles. I generally don’t identify with either set.
I still use the word “jazz”, but sparingly, I guess. Mainly because there is no good alternate word, no term has arisen to take its place. When I say I’m an “improviser”, I’m met with blank stares or folks assume I’m talking about “noisy” free-jazz. Free-jazz is a part of my picture, but only a part. When I say Black American Music, folks say “hip-hop or R&B?” When I say America’s Original Art Form, they say “baseball?” or “water fowl decoys?”
Technically, I was introduced to the music in my school’s sixth grade “Jazz Band”. My first improvised solo in a concert occurred in seventh grade. A girl I liked gave me a necklace after that concert which blew my mind. That was a sweet reward for a terrifying experience. Enter Pavlov’s dog.
But really, I think the kids in that middle school band were just doing what they were told for fear of punishment, going through the motions. There was no cultural or artistic context, no clear explanation of the origins or direction of the music and no examples of the authentic music were ever played for us, in my recollection. If there was, it was lost. We just sort of clunked along not able to absorb the academic description of swing as described by our director, who resembled Lawrence Welk’s elf in gum soled Clarks, bless his heart.
At the same time, as a skateboarder in the later 80s we were few, marginalized and harassed. Petitioning the city council didn’t get us a small outdoor area set aside for skateboarding. So, behind the businesses, in parking lots and alleys where folks didn’t mind us or couldn’t find us, we improvised over the paved context. We honed skills in our bag of tricks to perform over different obstacles. Much later, I came to recognize how akin to musical improvisation skateboarding is, like both of these skill sets use the same pathways in the brain. There are just as many ways to skateboard over a cement-parking block, as there are ways to blow over a C7#9 chord. The freedom comes in developing an array of options. In the moment, exciting new possibilities present themselves as we improvise using the things we’ve practiced.
I grew up in a house filled with the music of John Denver, Crystal Gayle, Neil Sedaka and Roger Whitaker. My older brother was a metal head, blasting it from the basement. In those pre-CD days, the early days of MTV, I could wade through what I heard on the dueling pop radio stations without getting too excited about much. But interest peaked with songs like Axel-F and Rockit.
When Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock album was released, I was way into break dancing. Hancock’s Rockit resonated with that dance esthetic, but I could never have known then the depth to which his creativity had already affected American music in previous decades. I was fully insulated. No one I knew probably had any knowledge of that sort of stuff, most suspiciously, any public school music teachers I’d associated with.
In 1987 I bought my first ever compact disc, from the grocery store. It was entitled The Best Of Jazz Saxophone Vol. #3 because, hey, that’s the instrument I play. It was then that I realized I could relate the physical vibrations and sensations I got playing the instrument to historical examples and how they got their tone. It also started to feel like I was coming into a secret knowledge. A real world of music and style apart from anything knowable in family and current friendships, let alone school band. Many of my early impressions of this CD persist. Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis had this tearing, earthy and wide sophistication I liked. Zoot Sims was impossibly fast, lilting and fluffy. Illinois Jacquet felt labored, woody and stuffy yet bouncy and funky. Gerry Mulligan (on soprano) was beautifully complex. Sonny Stitt was squeaky and sharp, but really real.
There were two record stores within biking distance from my house. One had previously been a Volkswagen dealership and the other had a huge sousaphone-like contraption on the sign. I would buy Fugazi, Meat Puppets, Primus, G.B.H., U2, Spyro Gyra, The Cure, Blue Oyster Cult, and Sting among other artists. Some were misguided choices, others not so much. Fugazi hit me in a positive, anti-discriminatory, anti-racist sort of way, but the Sting album Nothing Like The Sun really struck me. The compositions and lyrics had gravity for me, but what slayed me was the saxophonist. I identified with that. With his sound. I didn’t know until years later, after listening to a lot of Branford Marsalis, that it was him on that record.
Another ear opening experience I had was while practicing to the radio. I would regularly pick a random station and try to play along with whatever was on. I’d stumble through everything from Dust In The Wind to Life In A Northern Town to The Rose to Phil Collins – country, commercials, classical. One day, I turned the FM dial all the way to the left. I knew that if the cloud cover was just right and the wind was blowing in the right direction I could get reception from a college station some sixty-five miles away that had weird music programs. Through the static, I heard bassist Jaco Pastorius. My mind was blown. I had never heard anything like it. Like getting stabbed in the brain by some urgent liquid metaphor.
More and more, I strayed into the “Jazz” section at the record stores. I “discovered” more favorites: Stanley Turrentine, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, and Joe Lovano. Also, Michael Brecker, who I then thought looked like a jerk on one album cover, made me furious that that guy could play like that, may he rest in peace.
My High school had one of the best graphic design and printing press programs in the area. I loved drawing, photography and creating imagery, so I enrolled throughout my four years there.
The instructor, Mr. Carl Loverude, a great teacher, hoped I’d find my way into that profession. After all, it was one of my top two picks for a career. Upon hearing I was considering a direction in music, he gave me some words of wisdom: “In graphic design, it’s what you know. In music, it’s who you know”. Those words haunt me on my bad days.
I was torn between those career paths. So, alone, I picked a penny out of my pocket and flipped it… Tails. Music.
I ended up at UMD in the Jazz Studies program instead of Stout University for graphic design. Life would have been so vastly different had it gone the other way. My wallet shrugs when I think about it.
Life would also have been vastly different had I stayed there, at UMD. I left after a year and a semester. The education was not lacking, but the scene. And the promise of more gig opportunities back in Minneapolis seemed to trump any girl or band or degree trying to keep me there. I transferred to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis for a short while.
There were these two days in 1994. I was living near the U of M with one of my best friends, in his house, and I was working at a neighborhood grocery store part time after classes. I was gigging a little around that time. My friend and I had a bad falling-out regarding something trivial about hardwood floors, so I moved out of his house. Then the director of Jazz Studies stood me up the 6th time for an audition. I was fed up with the institution and that was the last straw, so I quit school. For other reasons, I dumped my girlfriend and quit my job, then moved back in with my folks. Toughest two days of my life up until then, but it was a clean break.
Through the nineties I’d had a few different day jobs. For a while, I was Geovista driver and navigator for Geospan Corp. manning the first vehicles for filming 360 degrees while driving with GPS navigation plotting, for what was to eventually become Google Maps’ Streetview. I was also a furniture mover, fishmonger and trucking coordinator for a non-profit.
I don’t have a single greatest influence, but a short list of saxophone greats I admire, in a rough chronology, might look like this: Dexter Gordon for his tone and phrasing, Stan Getz for his lyrical invention, Yusef Lateef for his tone and world influence, Stanley Turrentine for his quintessential sound, Lou Donaldson for his rhythmic taste, Wayne Shorter for his compositional vision, Joe Henderson for his unique melodic approach, Bennie Maupin for his lean phrasing, Michael Brecker for his harmonic virtuosity and viciously devastating technical ability, Joe Lovano for his husky sound and rare cleverness, Branford Marsalis for his beautiful fluidity, Courtney Pine for his vibrant stamina and Kenny Garret for his core sound and soul notes.
Lately, I’ve been listening to Vince Mendoza’s albums Epiphany and Nights On Earth, Robert Glasper’s Black Radio & Black Radio II, Donny Hathaway’s Extensions Of A Man, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Wayne Shorter’s Allegria album and Brian Blade’s Mama Rosa.
It’s tough. I usually justify time away from my wife and kid by relating to my Dad who has been a truck driver since the late 50s. He was gone a lot when I was growing up, but he always came home. I grew up with his absence not being a big deal. It is sort of shaping up to be like that with my family now, but my business now is not as consistent or lucrative as my father’s was then, leaving my wife right now with undue burden. I’m in no position to turn down work and I’ve even been doing part time labor to fill in the gaps between gigs. I remain optimistic though.
Air travel has lost its novelty. My wife travels for work as well and we’ve done pretty well with our pact to not both be gone at the same time, but it has happened where we’re practically high-fiving on the concourse after my flight arrives at the airport and I’m handed the kid so she can leave on different flight.
My son started piano lessons when he was five and there are keyboards, a guitar, recorders, drum set and percussion at his disposal around the house. He also knows how to use the record player. His tastes currently lean toward rock and pop music, but he’s only ever said good things about my music. He even told me last week, very matter-of-factly, that it wouldn’t be a bad idea for him to play the saxophone when he’s older.
I hope my legacy will be that of an effective communicator of compelling, unique, transcendent, uncompromising musical ideas where beauty trumps base convention.