The Terra Verde Corner

Quest for ecstasy
An interview with David Thomas Roberts
by Lynda Lester
From The Secrets of Terra Verde

The Painting

Note: Before we began this phone interview, I asked David if he would mail me some of his poetry. He said he would, but it might be hard to find -- then launched into a unique explanation as to why. Suddenly, I had entered DTR's world -- and the interview had started on its own.

I live in such a straitjacketed and somewhat ruinous state of clutter, it's horrible. People kid about clutter; I don't kid about it. It gets in the way of everything I do. I've told this to people who have known artists all their life, and they've never seen anything like what I live in here -- there's not even space for what I have. I'm nervous about getting rid of things; I find it difficult.

That's the only thing that would get in the way [of sending poetry]. Posting it will not be difficult. Digging it out of the pile in which it's stashed -- that's difficult. Hmm, I think I see part of it now. [sound of rustling papers]

You live in Moss Point, Mississippi? Where's that?

Where Kreole melts into East Moss Point -- 28 miles from Mobile, 110 miles from New Orleans.

Do you live with anyone? What's your house like?

I live here with my mother and my brother. It's a medium-sized ranch house, built in 1961. It's not the house I grew up in, but it's three blocks away. The place is big enough, except for my room and my things.

Before this room became too filled and cluttered, it was something I was proud to show off. Many of my paintings are here, my best, mature work as well as the earlier stuff. There's a lot here that I'm proud of. It's caused me much pain, because that work is inaccessible. My breathing problems are exacerbated because I can't clean it; the dust accumulation is almost uncontrollable. That's what I cope with -- and that's why I'm so thankful to be away. I'm gone about a third of the time, and grateful to be away.

My solution is to set up a new place in the Ozarks -- I've owned some land there since October '94. My intent is to set up a camp and make a home there as soon as I can get the money together. I just bought a truck, my first vehicle; it took 80 percent of my savings. As soon as I can get several thousand dollars together, I'll put up a structure, and there I'll be.

Where in the Ozarks is it?

It's in the north end of the Potosi District of the Mark Twain National Forest in Washington County, Missouri. That's the land I really felt destined to own. Circumstances were in line to see it happening in '93; it legally became mine in '94. I'll be going soon.

So, if I may ask you some "big questions" -- what is the purpose of art?

To keep human reflection vital. To enhance and expand humankind's contemplative powers. To enhance contemplation, both analytical and mystical -- both are necessary to feed the mind; they work together.

I discovered in my mid-teens that I had a natural tendency to see artistic expression in much the same way as Andre Breton and other first-generation surrealists. I was consciously influenced and largely shaped by their ideas.

I believe that the approach to music should be as uncompromising as one dares, as free from collective considerations and immediate social considerations as one dares. I strongly disagree with the opinion that art must benefit people in a specific way, or target a certain segment of the population in a specific way. And I've had this discussion before -- usually in an argumentative context with political activists who thought art should have much more of a collective function than I do.

First and foremost, the act of artistic expression is a journey inward in view of retrieving something vital and bringing it out -- then presenting it, allowing it to have whatever effect it might be destined to have.

The supposition I've always carried is that an individual's relentless inward examination stands a good chance of yielding something of value to another individual. Art is very much about individual speaking to individual, not about an activist ascribing to himself the task of participating in some socially charged forum with artistic pretensions.

For me, art is the ultimate act of individualism.

That sounds like the ideal of the romantic movement.

I think there's definitely a connection.

The ethos behind romanticism is something I'm quite comfortable with. Romantic music is very much the cultural language base of Terra Verde. So yes, there is a theoretical link to romantic music for me. I'm sure Scott Kirby and Frank French would say the same.

Obviously, the language of the 19th century continues to inform the specifics of what we're developing today.

How can music help humanity?

Like any expressive art, music offers an individual seeker a chance for new forms of discourse -- which, by definition, is ultimately helpful.

For me, more than other art forms, music has a tangible impact on the psyche. Music is the most intimate, the most comforting, the most trusting, the most thorough of all creative languages. So if art is ultimately about -- and I think one thing it is about -- touching the most remote regions of the human psyche, music is very well equipped to do that.

I think for me, music is the most affectionate of the arts. There is the lover-like role of the art object; and for me, the kind of tenderness and intimacy I experience with certain music would be inconceivable with painting, fiction, or even poetry.

How did you come up with the name Terra Verde?

That's a good story. For a couple of years, back in '94 and '95, Scott, Frank, and I increasingly recognized the need for a recontextualization of the ragtime-related music we were making. We'd hit on the term "New World piano music" as the broadest possible banner to bring together varieties of piano music from the Americas -- but we now needed something that would clearly identify us as distinct from any association with the traditional ragtime scene.

There were two reasons why it was important. First, what we were developing clearly was different in a higher sense, a culturally defined sense, and we needed to offer a name to our listenership that would help to identify this freshness. And second, we had the practical need to separate ourselves from the tragically self-defined vapidness that continues to describe much of the traditional ragtime community.

Ragtime as a form continues to suffer the circumstance of appearance. Ragtime continues to suffer from an image problem that comes from various sources -- and most of those sources are familiar to people, including performers, who have been exposed to ragtime.

It's important we break with that, do everything within our power to distance ourselves from a musical atmosphere which continues to suffer from that. There are some striking cases of people who are quite pleased to accommodate that; unfortunately, performers on the ragtime scene are crucial in people's misunderstanding and are, in fact, keeping it from going forward. Frank coined the term "ragtime ghetto" to identify these problems of perception plaguing ragtime as a form.

With that in mind, Scott and I were driving across northwest Florida on Interstate 10 in October '95, and we started offering possibilities for names for the genre we were developing.

I liked the term "Terra Verde" because of its meaning: green earth. It's a Latin term I'd known early in my life, an early oil color; it's been on the oil painting palette for centuries. Rembrandt used it, and perhaps the earliest painters in the Renaissance, after the Van Eycks developed oil painting; I wouldn't be surprised if it was on their palette too.

I threw the term out to Scott; he mulled it over. He liked it; I continued to like it. And as time progressed and we moved east across the Florida panhandle, we knew that's what it would be. So that's how the name was born -- out of practical value and cultural need.

Who's your audience? What kind of person would like Terra Verde?

Every listener interested in music that aspires to something elevated; listeners who are passionate about a wide range of music, who understand something about western culture, who know and love classical music but are interested in a variety of ethnic and folk music; listeners of highly eclectic tastes; listeners looking for something fresh and yet friendly and somehow familiar.

It's difficult to exclude any listener except for those utilizing music in a purely functional, i.e., background-music, role. No doubt much of what we're doing could be utilized for that, but that's not what we want.

If someone brings a passionate interest to music and is comfortable with the traditional tertian harmony of the West (i.e., harmony based on triads), they will very likely find something of interest in Terra Verde. And that harmony has gone around the world in so many guises, I suppose most of the world could be comfortable with it. It's largely just a matter of bringing Terra Verde to them.

What does Terra Verde have to offer that most rock bands don't?

There's so much. There's a vast sea of communication it offers that they don't. At risk to myself, I'd say it offers a more reflective and profound experience than most popular music -- and most earlier ragtime. Scott Joplin, of course, is a great exception to most early ragtime, and certainly Joseph Lamb, James Scott, and a few other composers stand far above most of what their contemporaries were doing.

Terra Verde as a form is a more interesting music than most popular music aspires to be. Many people who grew up listening primarily to popular music are searching for something that provides a more experiential link to what's meaningful about their existences. Consciously or unconsciously, they're hungry for an experience that revitalizes their interior and shows them more of their interior.

Terra Verde is certainly a music that can provide that -- as are most of the great classical works and a great deal of the more inventive, imaginative folk/ethnic music.

Maybe a better question would be, what can Terra Verde offer that Chopin doesn't?

I choose Chopin because so much of what he is about is what we're about, in another guise. Chopin made such haunting personal use of ethnic material -- the polonaise, the mazurka -- as evidence of his own folk roots (although there is also a French influence that runs more subtly through him). But this linking of "high art" to folk or vernacular culture is evident in much of what was happening in the New World. And Chopin was doing it very systematically and masterfully in the Old World in the 1830s and 1840s.

What we offer that Chopin doesn't is probably more circumstantial than anything else. It's time contingent. We offer American and Pan American minglings that speak to listeners today in the Americas, and certainly beyond. We offer a consensus of cultural strains that have evolved since Chopin wrote in the early- to mid-19th century. Our music might contain a confluence flavored by the French musette, bluegrass, late romanticism, ragtime, and a whole panoply of Latin elements that European romantic composers couldn't have accessed.

Chopin is one of those forces you can't improve on; you just do things differently, learn what you can, and circumstances will hopefully set you apart. He lives as a figurehead for Scott and me -- perhaps less for Frank, although Frank has played his pieces and admires his greatness.

What's special about house concerts?

The chance to be so physically close to the artist and so concentratedly observant of the artist as to be quite literally a visceral part of the experience.

The house concert is performing intimacy personified -- and it has a great tradition. It's a descendent of the salon concert, from the likes of Chopin and Liszt. It's viable, personable, and has the capacity to frame music in the quasi-religious way that I aspire to be part of as a performer. I believe a musical performance should attempt what church should be about, no less. It should be an attempt at invoking crucial mysteries and searching for lost links. A musical performance that doesn't somehow attempt that falls short of the standard I believe was set by the great music makers throughout history.

A number of composers have talked about mystical or ecstatic states of awareness -- Berlioz, Satie, Scriabin...

For starters, Scriabin puts me in mind of a word that occurs again and again with me in any series of thoughts about music, and that's in his "Poem of Ecstasy." It's the best-known artifact I can think of that incorporates the word into the title.

I believe that much of the greatest music is about the quest for ecstasy. Whether the composer forms it in such language or not, I'm convinced it's at the root of what makes music last.

This may be the most important thing we can talk about, at least for me. [pause] This is such a noble topic, I feel I run the risk of being trite no matter what I say, because it's very serious business.

Certainly I think that much of most significant music yields what I can safely term an ecstatic state. I would say that of composers as ostensibly different as Franz Liszt, Scott Joplin, Charles Ives, and Domenico Scarlatti. Scott Joplin, I'm certain, found a means for expressing ecstasy quite apart, not only from the ragtime culture that surrounded him, but from any other composer in history. That's a specific topic unto itself, and I've thought of writing an article on the role of ecstasy in Scott Joplin -- a haunting, amazing, and singular aspect of our historical legacy.

Liszt was very much about the pursuit of ecstasy. He functioned in a culture that was focused on the sublime, that believed in a kind of spirit of religiosity that became nearly taboo in the 20th century, but which most 19th-century intellectuals were quite comfortable with. Now, thankfully, late 20th-century spiritual concerns being such a given, it's perfectly acceptable again -- and partly because of that, his ultra-romantic works are in great demand by late 20th-century listeners.

I have a higher opinion of Liszt every time I hear one of his works. I increasingly realize how little I knew of him growing up and how significant a guiding force he can be for us now.

Why is ecstasy important?

In a way it's important to ask that, but in a way it's not worth asking. That's a theological question that has to be answered, if only to oneself. [pause] That's the most challenging question I've ever been asked. In a sense, it's self-evident, but the answer demands that you be absolutely truthful.

OK -- because the state of ecstasy is the felt evidence to the individual of the significance of all things. It's individually intuited by everyone -- and, by God, it's something very few people deign to articulate. That's a damn good question.

What do you find limiting?

My own inability to be transcendent at every turn. I have a lifelong proclivity for becoming embroiled in argument, in strife ... also, a certain pettiness that manifests itself in a taste for personal power.

What do you find liberating?

What I find liberating is being alone with the droning, consuming power of the earth itself, the embracing, vast identity of the land. I'm more passionate about the land itself in this point in my life than about art. Land has erotic overtones for me that fortify an obsession already so intimate and consuming that I find myself wanting to truly lose myself. Sometimes I think that I'm driven to use the land and its rapturous possibilities to get closer to death -- meaning my own, but also the meaning of death for all.

What is the meaning of death?

It's a challenging transition from one segment of this vast biography of ourselves to another.

What's your dream?

It would be somewhere between something intangible of planetary significance and something more personal.

If my fondest dream come true, what would it be? A painless and rapid reduction of the human population. That is certainly my favorite practical dream; I find myself fantasizing about it many times per day.

On a more personal level, I'd love to own tens or hundreds of thousands of acres of land in my chosen regions -- from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to southern Missouri and southern Mississippi and Alabama to northern Idaho to eastern Kentucky -- lands I would never allow to be changed, never allow to be logged or settled: they'd be true set-asides, testaments to the infinite glory of the land. If I owned it, nobody would be building or timbering, there'd be no cutting, no inhabiting ... there's nobility in that dream, even though it is acquisitive.

What's the purpose of your life?

I have to ask you if you mean this life span, this biography, or do you mean my larger, presumably permanent existence?

Your larger, presumably permanent existence.

I honestly don't know. An attempt to answer that is tantamount to "why anything?" I suspect we've been a part of this creation all along.

In the temporal realm, in terms of my current life span, it's to do what I'm doing -- to give the most communicative and memorable voice I can as an artist to what I'm able to access of who I've been and what I've learned from that. There's so much I don't remember. I don't remember anything before this life span. I have a very acute and well-tuned ability to remember everything since 1955, though, and that's what I'm really responsible for as an artist.

Scott said his calling in life was to bring people together through music.

Scott and I are two fanatically reflective self-analytical seekers who can readily dissociate from ourselves while getting into the thick of who we are ... being able to detach while being in your guts, that's a tightrope.

If you were a drink, what would you be?

The temptation is to immediately go with my favorite drink, which is pineapple coconut juice. That's a refreshment, that's an uplifting sensation. But I don't know if I see myself as being that thoroughly wholesome.

Have you ever used controlled substances?

I've never done drugs, I've never once used illicit substances, I've never done anything hallucinogenic. I've never taken anything stronger than a mild over-the-counter cold medicine in my life. I've never been attracted to the social mystique. In fact, I'm repelled by it. I can honestly say I have a hatred of conforming to anything. Early on I made a decision never to try drugs. It implied certain subsets or ideas of a social norm to be pitted against other norms, and I didn't agree with either. I listen to the self that produces something not produced by any social norm.

In the days of the hippies, the idea of drugs never appealed to me; now more than ever it doesn't. Whereas some of what came out of that scene overlaps with what I'm about -- much of so-called New Age is a part of who I am -- part is at odds with who I am. I'm used to living with that. I'm used to being as true as I can to myself, used to wrangling through competing configurations, people, and thoughts -- I'm comfortable with it.

With artists, it's rarely so observably volatile as with so-called political extremists, although my own rage could be brought to the surface by my being forced to rub shoulders with artists devoted to a world view in contradistinction to mine. If there's one belief system or kind of adherent with whom I make little effort to get along, it's the fundamentalist materialist. Of all the lousy religions ever conceived, surely materialism is the most ostentatiously worthless, and I don't pretend to be tolerant of it. And I damn well don't.

Will you be moving away from ragtime in your future compositions?

Yes -- because I'm committed to getting back to territory I abandoned many years ago, before I became a ragtime-based composer. I'm currently planning works that have little to do with the ragtime or New World element, exploring a full eclectic potential. The percentage of ragtime compositions -- or Terra Verde, for that matter -- will increasingly lessen.

I must revisit and explore territory that I abandoned in the 70s. And my interest in electronic music certainly features in that expansion. I'm a fanatic about space music; I have as much passion for it as anybody around.

I like Michael Stearns; I love "Hearts of Space" -- it has been a great consolation. It's my favorite radio show, my favorite popularly disseminated presentation of any kind. I simply won't miss it. On Sunday night, Public Radio Mississippi plays 12 hours of space music and New Age programming; I listen every week I'm here.

Do you meditate?

Not in a strict sense, and in any sense, less than I used to ... I was primarily interested in it in an exploratory sense in my teens.

I need to say that much of the meditative state emerges in some things I do; it has that property at times, especially the writing of poetry -- that's often close to an act of active meditation.

How do you compose?

I compose predominantly at the piano. Not infrequently, an idea emerges away from the piano; I bring it back and work it out at the piano. A lot results from improvisation at the piano.

Are you working on any new pieces now?

I'm working on two commissions. One is from a friend in Kansas City for his sister. I'm starting on the second to get advance funds for my trip to Kentucky -- a couple in Kingsville, Ontario, have asked me to do an elegy for their daughter who was killed in an accident. I'm also working on a piece called "Audrey of Dorset House."

One last question: Is it true that you don't use a suitcase when you travel -- that you carry your clothes in plastic trash bags?

I was actually just given a couple of suitcases. But I use plastic bags a lot. I have a little travel bag in which I carry a notebook and money. Typically, I travel with the travel case, a plastic bag, and a box of CDs tucked under my arm.

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