Listen Up: Art of Flying

Photo: Doctor Foxglove. Make-Out Room, San Francisco, 2013.

I have been listening to Art of Flying for more than fifteen years. Their songs seem ancient and modern at once: as though plucked from the sky and rolled in our world. I listen to An Eye Full of Lamp (2000), their first full-length album, and have a hard time selecting particular songs from it, since they form a piece. Many are tightly and beautifully crafted, with attention to each instrument, each part; others are exploratory, a little like driving late at night and taking a different road from the usual, which takes you through forests and fields and stars and scares you just a little, though you want to be there. Listen to the whole album, and all of their albums, and you learn what it means to live in music, to make each note, sound, and word matter; to catch a song’s drift, that thing that makes us want to play it again and again.

At its core, Art of Flying is the duo of David Costanza and Anne Speroni. They have been playing music together for several decades, with other musicians coming and going for short, long, and recurring intervals: first as the Whitefronts (named after a local grocery store), then as Lords of Howling, and then, since the late 1990s, as Art of Flying, which has recorded nine full-length albums, if my count is correct, and several shorter releases. For years they recorded their albums in their own studio, the legendary Barn (in Questa, New Mexico); eventually they had to give up the Barn, but the music continues and changes. While delighted to be on the radio, to receive even brief messages from listeners, to play concerts around the world, they have never let publicity distract them from the music. A big record label might have pressured them to make their songs more packageable; they have no interest in that. They are here to make music the way they hear and imagine it. Their influences range from the Minutemen to Nick Drake; their songs are filled with surprises and treasures. Their listeners respond enthusiastically. The Italian magazine BLOW-UP has called them “the best-kept secret in American music of the new century”; the secret has been spilling slowly. They have been played over the years on independent radio stations such as WFMU and KALX, and received vigorous praise, such as in Lynne Robinson’s article in TaoStyle and J. Simpson’s in Divide and Conquer. Nonetheless, discovering their music is a private experience, since it is best done with full attention and a little stretch of time.

Let’s start with one of my favorites of all their songs, “Born to Follow,” from their 2005 album asifyouwerethesea.* It gives me the shivers, about sixteen years since I first heard it.

arise arise yr work is done
the fields are buried with the dead
how sweet it looks like no one won
some dreams awaken some dreams are dead

and under heaven the thunder rolls
its messages in shadows hid
don’t waste away yr wind
you were only born to follow.

It was hard to choose one song from this album; I also wanted to bring up the opening song, “What the Magpie Said,” as well as “Song for Coins Tossed,” “The Sailor’s Song,” “Song for Orion,” “Butterfly Song,” and, well, the whole album.

But I have to do this in some kind of sequence, so let’s go back to An Eye Full of Lamp and take a few minutes with “Island Song,” whose flugelhorn, played by David, and whose singing, by Anne, sound like they’re coming out of a late-night street in the memory of years ago. I want that horn to come back in the song with the same melody, and the first time it does, but then at the end it doesn’t, and I love that it doesn’t: “But all we wanted was to be together” leads not to the original melody, but to “fireflies and flame-throwers.”

Now let’s turn to Garden of Earthly Delights (2002), the first Art of Flying album I ever heard, thanks to my friend Cory, who sent me a copy, thinking it just might be up my alley. To say that I was blown away is apt here, since the second song is “Blow Away.” This album rolls from one gorgeous and evocative song into the next, from the words “& now yr great & mighty king has got no clothes / & neither does the queen” to the album’s closing lyrics, “& THOUGH I will die without yr kiss / there is more to love than this / in a garden of earthly delight.” Each song feels as if I had remembered it from years and years ago, although I had never heard them before the first listen. This is the album I have given away to people as a gift; this is the one I would still most likely give, along with Escort Mission and a couple of others.

The fifth song, “Tomorrow,” is about as perfect as a song can get in terms of poetry, tune, and harmonies, the alternation between words and “la, la, la,” and the sounds of guitar, piano, tuba, and trumpet. This is a song I could imagine in a classic songbook of some kind, to be sung by future generations.

I leaned my back against an oak
I thought it was a trusty tree
& first it bent & then it broke
my true love had forsaken me
my dream of peace could not come true
the wind had swept our hearts away
& so I sing this song to you
tomorrow blows us all away

Another favorite from this favorite album is “Goodbye Too Soon.” I love the slow dance of its rhythm, the evocation of lullaby, the joining of heartbreak and perspective.

There is a humility throughout the albums: a knowledge that we do not live long, that greatness is not given to most of us, that we can lose anything at any time, and that it’s still possible, to find beauty, or maybe possible only when we know, somewhere down their in our souls, that we don’t possess it. We still try and hope to possess it in some way or another; that doesn’t go away, but we also know better, and learn better, and fail again. There are no pat realizations here; it’s difficult no matter how you go about it, and just when you start coming to terms with it, mortality socks you in the stomach. But music will be there, even then.

I had promised, in the piece about animals in songs, to bring up “The Jaguar Song” here (from their 2014 album I’m Already Crying), and I wouldn’t leave it out anyway. It starts out with a William Blake-like feeling:

the jaguar in his forrest bright,
a river made of tears,
tangled through the longest night
’til stars flew everywhere.

But then it moves into something else:

i watched them from the ferris-wheel
mesmerized by all the lights
the strange things we must see as real
as black & white

and then the chorus, full of sound and spirit, with that wonderful chromatic progression leading in:

they cannot steal our story
they cannot steal our love
they cannot steal the heavens dancing way up above
they say i don’t remember well…
i don’t need to
when i’m holding you

What is this jaguar? So many possibilities come to mind, but to me it is something like music itself, weaving its way through heartbreak, shedding stars as it goes, but taking something from you too, the way he “sets his eyes ablaze /
and licks the lips right off my face.” Both of these things are happening at once: something being taken away, something being untakable.

I will finish with “Hang Around the Water,” the first song from their most recent album, Escort Mission, a sonic masterpiece. (I brought up “Song for Iris” in another piece recently.) I don’t even know what to say except: listen to the album from start to finish, then repeat! Then maybe set it aside briefly, and return to it with the songs now familiar. No matter when it kicks in for you, each listen will bring something new.

Oh, no, I can’t finish this piece without mentioning “ThOUGH the LIGHT Seem SMALL,” on which I had the honor of playing cello (in the recording itself, at the Barn). I love the slightly archaic subjunctive (“seem” instead of “seems”), which by itself does so much for the song. I also love the rhythmic change, between verse and chorus, from a slow 4/4 to a 3/4 (or similar), and the change of texture that goes with this. And the lyrics, which begin:

When the bright unspoken light of Winter takes the world
Gathering each solitary day,
All the pages written you won’t need them anymore
Winter comes & Winds us all away
& Winds us all away!

I hope this piece has introduced a few people to the music of Art of Flying. I’ll just finish with a little story of meeting them for the first time. I think it was in the summer of 2005, just a few months after asifyouwerethesea came out. Or else 2006. I know I had heard that album many times before going there. They (and the wonderfully enthusiastic and talented Larry Yes) encouraged me to come out for SuanFest, and I was excited about doing so, but also nervous, since it isn’t easy to show up at an intimate music fest hosted by musicians you admire. But yes, I flew out Colorado, and then drove southward to Taos in a rental car. They were playing a show in a little club in Taos that evening, and I wanted badly to make it on time. I took a road that led me up steep hills and through pine forests, winding this way and that, and then the sky darkened, and torrents started coming down, the kind of torrents where you really can’t see through the window any more, and I was going along slowly, since there wasn’t even anywhere to stop, and wondering if I would get there at all, never mind on time. But then, as happens in those parts in the late afternoon, the rain suddenly cleared, the sun poured gold onto everything, and I continued on my way, driving through the gold, and got to Taos after sunset, and then to the club, and there they were, and I met them and relaxed into an evening, and then a full weekend, of glorious music. That first night, I stayed in someone’s friend’s house, on Blueberry Hill, which brought to mind Hannah Marcus’s song “Hairdresser in Taos“; at SuanFest itself I stayed outdoors in a tent, like most of the others.

Sixteen years have gone by since then. And their music has gone on and on, growing more and more beautiful, not only with the newer albums, but with the returns to the older ones. Thank you, Art of Flying, for all of this. Oh, and one more song (is it possible to finish, really?), “Butterfly Song” from asifyouwerethesea, with Sare Rane’s lovely and fitting video below.

wings like a butterfly
mouth full of june
I ignored all warnings & flew to the moon
the knife & the fork & the spoon were all there
we cut up the king & we braided the air

peace…where could you be?
held in a dream…more real to me
than all of these magic powers gone

And that’s the end of this beginning.

*For the main songs mentioned here, I embedded Bandcamp audio. If you like them, you can go to Bandcamp, listen to more, and purchase the songs or albums. Bandcamp lets you listen to the music for free, without advertisements; if you do decide to buy it, Bandcamp takes 15% and pays the rest to the musicians.

Also, while Art of Flying often put their album and song titles in lowercase, I usually capitalized them here, so that they would stand out visually.

This is the third piece in my “Listen Up” series. Each installment focuses on a particular artist or band whose music I love. Your comments are welcome.

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2 Comments

  1. Thoughts on Sincerity | Take Away the Takeaway
  2. Song Series #16: Songs as Experience | Take Away the Takeaway

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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