Listen to “E flat (slow trill)” from Narratives

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The piano stands in a studio on a rise in a valley full of trees, creeks, and cows. Next to the keyboard are some recording machines with buttons and dials set just so. When I walk the stone path through the grass up to the studio I can, if I want, sit down, press a few buttons, glance at the valley trees and coastal hills, and record an improvised piece.

I choose one of the twelve tonal centers — or one of them chooses me — and a story begins to unfold. The notes of the mode reveal themselves one by one, hiding then re-emerging as elements of landscape, character, and plot. I’ve begun to notice that the stories aren’t about me, or the valley, or the wife or kids, but about themselves. The pieces unscroll their lives to the player, narrate themselves, explain how it feels inside. They ask me to be patient. I try to follow the story, to nod and be sympathetic as if to a wanderer, “Yes, I see, I understand.” My ear follows the plot; my fingers follow my ear. If I can follow the narrative line through to the end, I save the recording.

During a span of two years — from 1998 to 2000 — I saved about 65 of these stories that told themselves to me. Here are 19 of them, sequenced together to tell, I hope, an even larger story.