James Caldwell’s creative life is the embodiment of the principle, Start at Home. In his case that is not only Macomb, Illinois, but even more precisely, in his pockets. Whereas some might consider music to be a soundtrack to their lives, an add-on, Caldwell reaches deep into the spaces around him for sonic potential and helps it emerge. For more than twenty years I have pursued a sporadic project of making small musique concrète pieces. The original set used sounds I made with things I found in my pockets while working in the studio—coins, keys, plastic pill bottle, comb, paperback book, rubber band, and a screwdriver struck against a wrench. (It is possible I put one or two of those things in my pocket expressly so I could find it there.) As I returned to the project, I continued working with small found sounds, but not necessarily things from my pockets: ping-pong balls, a stapler, M&M’s, binder clips, finger cymbals, a pencil run over the rungs on the back of a chair, dresser handles, the bag from a bunch of apples from the grocery store, a wine glass, and then — moving outside into my yard — cicadas, lawn furniture, garden stones in a wheelbarrow, birds, the distant rumble of the Macomb Speedway, and some odds and ends sitting around on my hard drive. Even as the objects became larger or farther from me, the pieces remained pocket size.
The source sounds have always been somewhat autobiographical. I still carry too much stuff in my pockets. My family serves M&M’s in a traditional crystal M&M’s bowl with a distinctive sound that we all respond to. The pool table is in my brother’s basement. Binder clips are my favorite office supply. My grandchildren play with these wooden blocks, bounce play balls in the basement, and fight with cardboard tubes from wrapping paper. Some sounds are from objects I’ve used for drawings and photographs. Many sounds are from household objects whose sounds I become attuned to simply in the act of living in a home and banging on things. The sets of concrète miniatures on this album are grounded firmly in a tradition that stretches back to the early days of electronic music. You might hear influences of Xenakis, Hildegard Westerkamp, Mimaroglu, Steven Feld, Kenneth Gaburo, Hugh LeCaine, or Mike Post’s scores for “NYPD Blue.” The small pieces as a coherent collection are in the tradition of Bach’s Inventions or Bartok’s Mikrokosmos; bite-sized studies to bring delight and attention to the everyday stuff around us. In all, Pocket Music is a testament to an attentive life, well heard and played with. The album – his first portrait release after a lifetime dedicated to nurturing others – represents one facet of the wide-ranging interests of a composer and visual artist who has made his career in the Midwest, teaching at Western Illinois University, co-directing the annual New Music Festival, collaborating with local colleagues, and programming hundreds of new pieces by living composers on dozens of concerts.