Josh Ritter, trans. Chris Thile: Another New World (Bach: Partita for Violin No. 3, Mvt. 1)

Fractal geometry will make you see everything differently. There is a danger in reading further. You risk the loss of your childhood vision of clouds, forests, flowers, galaxies, leaves, feathers, rocks, mountains, torrents of water, carpet, bricks, and much else besides. Never again will your interpretation of these things be quite the same. 
— Michael F. Barnsley
Fractals Everywhere (2000)

In the strange and curious ways that our minds tend to operate, I often suspect that there are certain sequences of thought that are analogous across various experiences.  Whether enhanced by memory and time or rooted in reality, the first time we experience certain events places some sort of marker in our internal database that makes us believe, rationally or not, that it was the bee's knees.

First time driving a car, first time away from home, first time kissing a girl- all experiences in this "first-time" vein have a tendency to reside in the annals of time as nothing short of remarkable, magical even. The ultimately tragic part of this "newness" is that over time the excitement tends to fade.  What once created a tremendous high will eventually become mundane and ordinary and often we find ourselves scrapping to achieve that initial crest, forever searching the horizon for our Annabel Lee.

In 1849, Edgar Allen Poe wrote the poem Annabel Lee.  He also died that year from causes that have never adequately been determined.  Poe has garnered a reputation for being a master of the written word as it relates to death and the macabre, though some research into his life suggests that this direction was as much a product of his environment as much as it was a conscious decision by the author himself.  Poe was aspiring to become a writer in a time when a lack of international copyright laws gave publishers little impetus to actually pay for anything to fill their journals and publications. It is entirely possible that his focus on such dark topics was partially established to stand out in the discerning press of his age.

That's not to say Poe wasn't an odd duck though.  He did marry his cousin, Virginia, (who was half his age) and whom would die approximately a decade after their marriage from what we're told was tuberculosis.  It is thought that these experiences combined with the considerable alcohol consumption he used to cope with them also played a significant factor in shaping the author.

Annabel Lee is a poem describing the story of a young love so potent that it was ended by the jealous rage of the angels observing it from above.  There is a certain maritime element to the story and Poe uses it as a setting for the poem that describes the presumed death of his love and his perpetual remembrance of Annabel Lee and the emotions that once existed between them.  It speaks to a longing perhaps not just that a man has for a woman, but possibly of the passion that can evolve out of man's heart toward just about anything really.

Even a memory.

In his sixth full length studio album, the singer-songwriter Josh Ritter presented the world with his own poem set to music called, Another New World.  The text evokes several nods towards Poe's work, where we follow a hardened adventurer who has arrived at a precipice of Alexandrian proportions.  Having discovered all the natural spoils the Earth has afforded, he begins to ponder the possibility that the last unexplored region may house another world of inconceivable wonder.

The tale continues that the "Annabel Lee" is a most seaworthy vessel and should any ship crafted by man be capable of broaching the last stronghold of Earth's bounty it would be she.  The captain in Ritter's song possesses a passionate relationship with the ship, where upon leaving harbor to venture into the unknown he muses as his crew-mates are waving farewell to their loved ones, he "never had family, just the 'Annabel Lee'", and therefore no "cause to look back." Ritter establishes the relationship between the captain and the 'Annabel Lee' as two lovers who have conquered adventure after adventure and her captain is assuredly leading her to safe harbor in what must be the last frontier for the both of them to find, together.

However, as in any great epic, disaster strikes and the "Annabel Lee" is frozen in ice as she penetrated the Arctic circle.  Slowly her crew deserts to seek passage home, but the captain remains and eventually finds himself slowly destroying the ship in order to keep a fire stoked to survive in the hold.  The end of the poem brings him home safely, but leaving the ship to her fate while pondering visions he has of her in safe harbor on the top of the world.

There are certain pieces of music that resonate with me to the level that I feel it in the flesh and sinew of my body, as if somewhere deep in my genetic code, there is some sort of familiarity that causes a sympathetic reaction.  It is difficult to predict this reaction, however when it occurs it is quite apparent.  Much time is then expended trying to relive and explore that "first-time" experience as I am careful to analyze it further.

You see, there is a danger in furthering one's knowledge in any subject area.

The quote today comes to me from a geometry textbook I used in or about the 10th grade.  It has stuck with me as it seemed quite profound to my teenage mind at the time.  Part of the danger Dr. Barnsley is implying comes with the understanding that as we grow to learn more of the natural order of things around us, the magic will wear off.  As any educated musician will tell you, 18th century-based music theory is a pretty solid way to reduce music to what is essentially mathematics.  It dissects and lays bare what non-musicians perceive to be "music" and transforms it into something else entirely.  It makes it impossible to simply sit and listen to music without attempting at least a mildly provocative analysis.  At least for me.

The consequence of this is that some music has grown exceedingly boring.

So when I discover something as indescribable as "Another New World"-  I just want to stay and live in that "first-time" listen forever.

The Josh Ritter version is remarkable, but the arrangement I have chosen to share comes from one of my most cherished musicians, Chris Thile (who we've discussed before).  The video is of him performing the work live and at its conclusion he drifts seamlessly into the prelude to Bach's 3rd Partita for solo violin.  Thile's technique and musicality is unmatched.  Listening to him play this work will in fact put you aboard the ship as you brace against the cold spray off the bow. Your hands grapple for stability against the icy, damp wood of the gunwale.  I swear you can feel the grain of the timber under your fingernails if you close your eyes tight enough.

This piece, this poem speaks to me on such a personal level.  It hearkens to a place that I feel all of us at one point or another have mistread in that we seek the unattainable and sacrifice a part of ourselves in the vain attempt to reach our destination, whatever it may be.  It speaks on a love so deep that we'd give up everything to find safe harbor again, and in doing so we inadvertently allow that love to slip through our fingers.  It's almost a bit of hubris, but of an ironic sort as our pride is not for our own consumption, but for our beloved.

And in tragic conclusion our pride is the ruin of all.

The question remains, and Ritter gives it to us to wonder, was it worth it?  To sacrifice happiness for ourselves in the hopes that somehow, against all odds, our own "Annabel Lee" finds her way to the new world?  Or is she adrift, charred and icebound, in the cold, bitter tranquility on the edge of the unknown?

The pairing of the Ritter and the Bach is Thile's own invention, and one I suspect that is directly related to his virtuosic appreciation for the mandolin.  But going a little deeper, and knowing what we do about Bach, I am forced to ponder if this piece would not have resonated deeply with the master himself?

See you next Friday.