The summer after seventh grade I went to a camp for young composers in rural New Hampshire. It was fifty of us, from middle school up through high school, on the vacant campus of a preppy boarding school. We wrote music together, studied avant-garde works by John Cage and Steve Reich, talked about Bartók on the sidelines of a capture the flag game, in which neither side seemed particularly invested. We sang offering songs before sitting down to dinner, Brahms lieder after hiking a mountain. There was even a song, “Goodnight Music”, that we sang in the theater before heading off to sleep, bleary-eyed and mumbling. Each night a different pianist opened the song with an improvised introduction, ending always in the same “secret chord.” I never figured out what that chord was.
Looking back, I was probably a bit out of place there. My roommate, a precocious kid from Philly, had been in marching bands and all-state orchestras for as long as he could remember. He handwrote his final piece, a meticulous recreation of a baroque fugue, in a few hours; I painstakingly labored over mine, a jazz-influenced duet for cello and piano, in my first and only all-nighter—blotted with pencil-marks, it made the pianist exclaim that perhaps I should consider a career in abstract art. Penmanship aside, though, I really did feel at home there, in a way that I maybe haven’t felt when surrounded by many of my classmates at Yale. They stripped us of our phones; rather than a Draconian restriction, I viewed this as somewhat quaint and charming respite, an escape (for a couple months) to a bygone world where letters had to be pored over, major events registered months after the fact.
One of these events was the dance at the end of the summer, which I would later describe to my mother in vivid detail in a letter. The dance was in the gymnasium; one of the faculty, apparently a lights specialist, had rigged up a comically large disco ball in the center of the room. My first meaningful crush that I remember, a graceful pianist from Honolulu, was in attendance. At first, there was the square dance, which I had never done before. I dragged my roommate into the center of the room and emphatically tried to learn the steps, each move exaggerated and drawn out, like how I imagine a Giacometti sculpture would dance. My movements were so large that, inevitably, I tripped and nearly fell, suspended just in time by my stocky roommate. The whole display caught the eye of my crush, though of course her expression was one of sheer delight at my embarrassment. I rushed into the hallway to get a drink of water.
The hallway was stuffed with athletic trophies and memorabilia. I thought to myself that the very campus we were inhabiting, writing our chorales and quartets on, and recording the sounds of its birds in an attempt to make our own musique concrète, was where the wrestling team would brawl its way to an all-state championship nine months out of twelve. Now that I thought of it, the atmosphere of the all-state orchestra competitions that my roommate described was not unlike that of a high school wrestling fight, the drooling gravitas. Why were we square dancing? It felt like I was an extra in Witness. I wanted to be Harrison Ford! The rhythm of it didn’t go at all with the ambience of early 2010’s pop music. We should be moshing!
Thinking like this just got me more and more anxious about how my final piece was going to turn out—was I going to leave that summer having made my musical mark on the hillsides and woodlands of New Hampshire? My dad grew up in Hanover. He and my mom met at college nearby, in Vermont. In some way, was I feeling pressure to live up to the circumstances of my birth? More importantly, why did I always overthink things like this?
The moment that this thought presented itself like an idée fixe in my head, “Kiss” by Prince started bellowing out of the PA. I knew the song from my mom’s iPod shuffle, but I had never felt the song before. Not like I did then. I knew my crush was dancing with a sardonic cellist from Harrisburg, PA. I knew it because they had been “together” since the beginning of the program. It no longer mattered to me. The song, his voice, a suggestive lilt building to an impassioned scream—it was everything. I ran back into the gym and started to dance, wildly and uncontrollably.
I had a piece that I was writing for solo piano. It was inspired by the sound of my alarm clock; I wanted to use that interval, the perfect fifth—seemingly so platonic and square—and screw with it by repetition and rhythmic and harmonic variation until it felt like something unhinged. I wrote it the morning after the dance, instead of working on my final piece like I was supposed to. I had it performed that weekend.
Since my awkward debut on the dance floor I’ve fallen in love with Prince, not only as a singer and performer but as a songwriter. He manages to capture so many extremes—the dirt and dismay of everyday life, the ineffable joy that it can bring, the barrenness and numbness of relationships when this joy has been wrung from them—often in the same song. The song that I cover here, “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore,” is both plaintive and ecstatic. It accepts the separate fates of its main characters while still wondering where it all went wrong. I like to think of it like a message left on someone’s answering machine for just a little too long. The piano part I’m playing on this version begins with that same interval of the alarm clock, which also happens to be the tone of a telephone that’s been hung up.