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We took the train out to Ronkonkama / The leaves were changing and so were we

Yesterday was a full day, to say the least.  I finished editing chapter two of the Archeology textbook, then got on a train to Williamsburg (or rather many different trains: the C, D, R, and L) to interview the lovely Stacey Linnartz (“Its Okay to Break”).  Post-interview, Mike and I went back to his place in Park Slope to look at the footage, start to edit “After Apple Picking,” and begin to brainstorm questions for the interview Tuesday with Michael Stuhlbarg.

photo © 2010 Michael Heck

What I’m saying, basically, is that we’re busy.

I must pause here to say that without Michael Heck, this project would just be a song cycle, sans the multimedia.  I now have Final Cut Pro on my MacBook, but film editing – I’m beginning to learn – is both complicated and time consuming.  Makes me feel a little bit like a luddite.  I’m really grateful to have Mike working on this project with me.  We’re getting close to a final edit on the interview with Dave Beck, which I hope to share soon.  And the footage we got for “After Apple Picking” looks fantastic.  That song (a portrait of Christine Mild) tells of a trip we took together out to Long Island last fall to go apple picking at an orchard.  Needless to say a few things went wrong, and we ended up buying apples at a farmer’s market instead.  To film the projections that will accompany her song, Mike and I took the LIRR back out to Ronkonkoma and shot footage from the train window, as well as footage around Ronkonkama and at the farmer’s market.

We also shot this little travelogue for all of you:

After recording Chapter 3 of this Archeology book today, I plan on spending a lazy Memorial day at a BBQ in Williamsburg with Trisha Rapier (and a few other folks from My Ohio, the musical I just finished in Vermont).  More from me soon though.

I mean, we interview Michael (“A Soft Spoken Serious Man”) on Tuesday…


Eva and Leo are my niece and nephew.  They are adorable.

I live in New York.  I see them twice a year.  I miss them.

Stephanie (my sister in Michigan) has tried to alleviate this problem by setting aside time to Skype each week, and we seem to have found the perfect time, between ten and eleven (a.m.).  I have showered and had coffee by then, and the kids are up, breakfasted, and shiny like pennies.  This morning was such a morning.

I almost can’t imagine what it would have been like to have lived far from family in different generations.  Well, I suppose that isn’t true, it just means I wouldn’t have known them.  Eva is about three and half years old.  She does gymnastics, her favorite color is yellow, and she likes kittens.  Leo turns two today (I sang him happy birthday at the end of our conversation).  He has red hair, a thing for lawn mowers, and likes everything his sister likes.  Now telephone conversations with young children can be difficult, filled with long pauses, and careful decipherment of phrases.  With Skype though I can see them, and it makes all the difference (even if I do feel now and then like I’m on an episode of the Jetsons).  Let me explain:

Eva and Leo they travel with me / Everywhere that I may go

Every conversation becomes show and tell.  For instance, this morning the following objects were brought to the computer: a toy tractor, a medal received for feats of gymnastic prowess, and plush stuffed animal dogs named Woof Woof and Puppy.  A book called “Good Night New York” made an appearance, and then got a ride in a toy truck.  For a few minutes, Eva (who was then off camera) would sporadically yell “DONUT SANDWICH!”  When Stephanie left briefly to tend to her newborn, Audrey, Eva and Leo quickly began to jump on the couch for me (this time, thank God, on camera).  You don’t get these things in a phone conversation.

I travel quite a bit for work.  In the past two years I have acted in plays across the country, in Washington, DC; St. Louis, MO; Greensboro, NC; and Burlington, VT.  I may have qualms with Actor’s Equity (the stage actor’s union) on occasion, but shipping boxes they do well.  If I work out of town, my contract allows me to mail something like three hundred pounds of boxes (in addition to lugagge) to and from the theater.  I usually just pack one box, with essential items like that French press I always mention, and magnetized pictures of Eva and Leo that I put on my fridge.  Not matter where I am, they are always there to welcome me home.

The link below is a simple demo recording of my portrait of Eva and Leo.  The story behind the chorus – running around the house ten times – will have to wait.

Ten Times Round the House by Matthew Carlson

My sister Anni introduced me to Chuck Close.

She left Michigan and moved to Minneapolis in 2005, where her then boyfriend (now husband) had found his dream job designing bicycles for a company called QBP.  Anni and Joe drove an enormous U-Haul with all of her things from Michigan to Minneapolis that summer, and the plan was that I would follow a few days later with her car.  I had already lived in New York for a few years by then, but had just quit my job and was about to begin grad school at NYU, certainly a sea change in my life.  I sublet my apartment for a month to my soon to be classmate Ben Graney (whom I had never met), and then flew home to Michigan to spend time with family before heading out on a road trip: Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis.

Dave Beck (whose portrait in the cycle is “I Can Breathe Underwater”) and his wife Emily lived in Madison, both in graduate school for art at University of Wisconsin.  Dave and Emily, in the years that followed, introduced me to many artists; whenever they’re in New York we always spend hours in museums or galleries, and I think its partly their influence that makes me search out modern art in whatever city I may find myself.  But it was Anni who introduced me to Chuck Close.

I had never heard of him before.  She took me to the Walker while I was in Minneapolis, and the major exhibition that fall was a retrospective of self-portraits by Chuck Close.  Now if you’re unfamiliar with his work (as I had been) you should know that his canvases are enormous (roughly 7 x 8.5 ft) and that his style is photorealistic.  The piece that would become one of my favorite pieces of art is a huge acrylic painting that I mistook for a photograph.  He is literally larger than life in this painting, with wild hair and five o’clock shadow, thick black glasses and a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth.  Not until I got close did realize it wasn’t a photograph.  His incredible attention to detail, as well as his willingness to look disheveled and unmade even in his own self-portrait, really affected me.

My first real memory of Chuck Taylors is probably from grad school.  Michaela McManus had a pair, and even though the days of punk rock were long faded, and even though the rise of the Williamsburg hipster threatened to make a mockery of them, I bought a pair.  And I have to say, I felt very cool.  I wore them out.  I mean, I completely wore them out, until so little was left of the soles that it was like being barefoot.  I have a pair that I wear even now, the kind without laces that seem to be an optical illusion.  Yet despite all of this, I still associate Chuck Taylors with Stacey Linnartz (whose portrait is “It’s Okay to Break”).

Stacey has impeccable taste, and always manages to look stylish and put together, even in grad school when that was nearly impossible – read: three years of sweatpants.  I distinctly remember her arriving at NYU one morning during the spring of our first year in a beautiful yellow dress and a pair of black Chuck Taylors.  That choice, to wear Chuck Taylors with a dress, epitomizes the pixyish, whimsical qualities that endear Stacey to most everyone she meets.

She wears Chuck Taylors and a beautiful dress

She’s like St. Augustine, her heart feels too much

So you could say that I now have an old pair of Chucks that I carry around with me.  They have different last names, one is a painter and one is a shoe.

I am not a morning person.  Anyone who has lived with me will tell you this. Without at least one cup of coffee (preferably two cups of a freshly ground Kenyan blend steeped in a French press) I am nearly inhuman and certainly asocial.

I am a runner.  I like to run.  I mean, I’m not serious about it anymore.  I’m not training for anything.  I talk about running a marathon in the few remaining years I have before needing a hip replacement, but at the moment its mostly talk.  For a long time though, when asked what accomplishment made me the most proud, I would say that I still held the record at my middle school for the 1600m.  I finally had to stop saying that recently when someone broke it.  But that record stood for almost fifteen years, and as far as I know, I’ve still got the 800m.

Being a runner and not being a morning person presents something of a conundrum.  People usually run in the morning when it’s coolest, especially in New York City in the summer.  Not really an option for me, doesn’t work so well. Instead, I run in the evenings through Riverside Park along the Hudson River, which since moving to Washington Heights a few years ago, quickly became one of my favorite things about this neighborhood.  However, Riverside Park is not necessarily a place you want to be when it gets dark.  So before leaving I always check online as to when exactly the sun will set that day, and plan accordingly. Last fall, with the days getting shorter and shorter, I didn’t get out the door quite as soon as I would have liked.  I had checked when the sun would set, and knew I didn’t have too much time.  But this just meant that I needed to run faster, right? I needed to outrun the sun.  Since that night, the phrase “outrun the sun” would stick in my head each time I raced the sunset back to my apartment.

(left, Riverside Park under the GW Bridge; right, Shawn Kemp)

Shawn Kemp is an actual runner, a serious runner.  I mean, she has a pair of Vibrams, those shoes that aren’t really shoes at all but sort of like plastic socks.  I hadn’t seen her in years (we met in high school at a summer camp for smart kids, more about that soon I promise) and recently we reconnected via Facebook.  She lives in Germany now, but in December she happened to be passing through New York on her way home for Christmas.  We had dinner together in Greenwich Village, and it was if no time had passed.  And yet it had.  We had changed, but somehow had become more ourselves, if that’s possible.  We outran the sun that night, as sometimes happens with old friends, and found ourselves back in a friendship we had almost forgotten.

That image became central to her portrait, the lyrics to her chorus, and eventually the title of the project itself.  We outrun the sun when we remember and yet at the same time forget, when time loses its hold on us and lets us run ahead.  The sun will catch up to us again, of course, and our relationships will evolve and change. But we’re reminded of how they began.

We outran the sun / Found ourselves where we’d begun

We are still the same / And yet somehow more ourselves

And the sun it slowly catches up with me.

I’m writing a song cycle.

I say this out loud from time to time, and it still sounds a little strange to me.  I suddenly see this image of myself as a 19th century German composer in an oil painting, like Schubert or Schumann.  And I certainly appreciate their music, but more often find myself listening to Radiohead or Sufjan Stevens (whose albums actually could be considered modern song cycles).

I’m writing a song cycle/multimedia piece for the theatre, and its title is We Outran the Sun.  It is a series of portraits of the people in my life, meant to capture the essence of who they are as well as their relationship to me.  Of everything I’ve written, its probably the most personal.  The project will include projections of interviews with the actual people in the portraits (as well as more abstract images during the songs themselves), designed and filmed by Michael Heck.  In performance, it will be me at a piano with my laptop, and nearby a canvas upon which these images will be projected.  We have a lot of work to do.

This blog is a documentation of the creation of this piece.  I will be posting still images and video clips of the interviews, lyrics and information about the songs, demo recordings and mp3s, as well as profiles of the people in the portraits.  I’ll be premiering the song cycle this summer at Studio Tisch in New York City.  I’d love for you to follow along, and you can do that by clicking the tab that says “Sign me up!” on the left.  Whether you are in one of the portraits or whether you’ve simply stumbled across this page, welcome.

We’re at the beginning.  And as Sufjan might say, we are “all things go.”

photo © 2010 Michael Heck

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