Stranger on the Shore

Nick Jaina writes about turning a remarkable true story into a song cycle

You know the kind of man he was. He was the man you turned to when things went wrong. If somebody burst through the doors of the restaurant with a gun, he was the man who would somehow handle everything. Or if someone was choking. Or if something broke. Even a lightbulb. He would take care of it. He would turn the trouble around. He would hold up the sky. There are only a few men like that scattered around the world. If there weren't any we wouldn't know what to do in times of trouble. If there were more there would be too much overlap. We'd be too taken care of. We'd get soft. It's good that there are so few. But it means we miss them so much when they're gone.

Nick Piantanida lived in New Jersey in the 1960's with his wife and two kids. "I thought he was Superman," his wife said. "I didn't think anything could hurt him." Imagine getting to be the wife of Superman. At first you wouldn't believe that his gaze was genuine. You wouldn't be able to understand why he would single you out as the one he wanted to marry. Why he'd slowly drive alongside you as you walked home, asking you over and over again for a date, until you finally relented.

Nick was a basketball player. Professional, even. Played in organized leagues. Could've been a star for the Knicks. He was a climber. He went to South America to climb waterfalls. He wrestled cobras. He was all over anything that you would only sit and be afraid of. People like him, they draw you in, because their energy feels so alive. And it feels so empty when they leave you, because then you're just a planet spinning out of orbit, with nothing to hold you in. That's until you realize that the qualities that this person brought out in you are qualities that are already inside you, somewhere, always. That this amazing person was like a magnet, finding all the iron-rich slivers in your body, aligning them all in one direction, towards one purpose. But even when you're on your own, you still have the image of that person in your head, of the way they made you feel. You can use that as a map to guide you on your own. It's better that way, even. It's a spirit that you can invoke, at the moment when you are staring over the cliff, afraid to jump off. Nick would do it, you think. He would jump just like that, without hesitation. He wouldn't let his mind spin out of control and cripple him with negative possibilities. He would have already jumped, in the time it took you to look down and consider the scene.

"When you were with Nick you didn't really need entertainment," his wife said. "We were our own entertainment."

But when Earthly efforts come easy to you, how are you to ever know if you are just coasting by? You have to push to the edges of your own tolerance to see what is possible. And when you push to the edge, sometimes you push right off and into the void. How else would you know what your limits are until you're skating past them? Oops, there it was, my limit...

He wanted to see the darkness of space, the curvature of Earth. He wanted to free fall from higher than anyone ever had before. His idea was to become an expert at parachuting. He even moved his family to Lakewood, New Jersey to be closer to the airport that offered skydiving training. If you want to follow a giant dream that at first seems impossible, you have to take the little steps toward it that are doable. You can walk into the skydiving office and ask for a lesson. You can start to search your connections for someone who could possibly get you a space suit and a space helmet. You can find smart people, scientists or mathematicians, to get someone to design a balloon that could withstand the coldness of space.

His idea was to go up in a gondola to over 120,000 feet, past the highest mark that the well-known Joseph Kittenger ever reached, and jump out with a parachute and float to the ground. This was in the mid-sixties, before the United States had landed a man on the moon. Going up to space still required miles of faith as well as technological capability. There were still so many things that had never been done before. Science and mathematics can help with pinning down so many ideas of how objects and bodies will behave in different environments, but there is still the cold reality of the moment, when a parachute is supposed to open up in the stratosphere, something that had never happened in the history of the world, and the few yards of carefully manufactured fabric will either behave like people expect it to or just NOT.

He drove a truck to pay for his dream, and to support his family. His whole life was side to side, Earthbound. He was trying to push it vertically. There is nothing someone could do that would be so extremely, literally, up-and-down as floating up in a balloon and then jumping out. It would be like taking an elevator to the one-hundred-thousandth floor of a magical building and snipping the cable and falling all the way back down through the elevator shaft.

For the Satellite Collective's song cycle Cosmonaut, I wanted to simulate in music the feeling of lifting off the ground, breaking through the clouds, suddenly realizing how high you'd gotten. I tried some musical ideas on the piano, but felt that they were too heavy and tied down. A piano is many things, glorious and heavenly, but when you're trying to float through the clouds you have to cut certain ties. So I moved to the guitar. I had been taking guitar lessons for a year, focusing on ragtime music and Bach pieces. Something in the steady fingerpicking, the oscillating syncopated rhythms of an acoustic guitar, sounded like a solitary man trying to climb up to space. It didn't sound like a rocket blasting into the sky, but then of course Nick didn't have a rocket. He had a little balloon that slowly expanded as the atmospheric pressure became less and less. I tried to write arcing, pressing, determined guitar figures, mixed with breaks of awe at the glory of his altitude. I wanted it to sound like Da Vinci pedaling a flying bicycle contraption for the first time, each new height foreign and special.

For inspiration I found a video on the internet of a man and his son showing off their science project. They made a little balloon that could lift up a small box, put a video camera inside it, protected it with styrofoam and launched it. Even if you've been in airplanes or seen Space Shuttle footage, there was still something so shocking about being able to create such a humble project that could reach into space. Somehow you can't believe that it could be that simple, that something could just rise up through the air, and that if you attached a sturdy enough camera to it, you could see what it had seen. I watched the video over and over, got used to the mixture of calm and anxiety that I felt as the balloon kept going up. It became a comforting rhythm: the view didn't change all that quickly, but eventually you saw the blackness of space, you saw the Earth start to curve, and you knew that you were somewhere dangerous and unreal and forbidden. Do they even let people launch things up there to those heights? Is that even legal? You somehow think of NASA or the Air Force as having an impenetrable grasp on exactly what is happening in our country's airspace at any given second. That it would notice if a tiny balloon was going up in upstate New York and they'd come along and shoot it down. But the skies are just too big. There's no way to keep track of all that traffic. Even on September 11, 2001, there was an achingly long time before anyone really understood exactly what was happening, and that was of course much bigger and more important than a little balloon launched by a father and son.

But I got too enthralled with those emotions, the pedaling up through space and pausing to be struck by the wonder. Nathan Langston, my friend and co-composer, felt that the music sounded too soft, too serene. That there should be more of the thrill of the parachute shredding and the stark terror of being so high up. He said the piece as a whole was sounding too much like a funeral, that it needed to have more of the celebration in it. He was certainly right. He had been the violinist in my band for many tours around the country, and I had come to depend on him providing a certain nasty disruption to our shows whenever I got too soft and precious. He'd often look at me before we went onstage at a particularly challenging moment and sincerely say, "What we need to do tonight is get rowdy. Play from our guts. Change some lives." Of course, that was ALWAYS his plan, it's not like it changed depending on the situation. But that's a pretty good plan to always have. For this song cycle, we certainly needed to make things more rowdy. I too often jump to the end of the story to try see the whole arc. In this case the story literally had many ups and downs: Three jumps of different heights. Two crashes. One death. But the death is just the end of the story. All along it was joy and exuberance and frustration and dread and fear.

Edward Cameron started collaborating with us because he had some experience arranging vocal works, and this was supposed to be a vocal work. He came in with some beautiful pieces on piano. I had already rejected the instrument as too Earth-bound for the type of composing I wanted to do, but the music that Edward brought was too beautiful to not consider. It would be perfect for the horizontal scenes of the cycle: the long stretches when Nick was driving a commercial truck across the country; the moment when he saw Sputnik flash across the sky as a child and felt so small and rooted; the moment of release to death, when he passed through the plane of up and down and side-to-side and finally was freed from all gravity and friction and time. The addition of Edward's pieces helped solidify the structure, which was already dictated by the actual events. In short the arc would be:

Inspiration. Climb. Fall. Work. Climb. Fall. Reflection. Climb. Lose oxygen. Pass Away.

The original impetus for the song cycle came from Kevin Draper, our producer, librettist and visual artist. He founded the whole collective because he wanted a medium for his writings other than submitting them to the New Yorker and getting a rejection letter back on nice stationery. Kevin was working a job that required him to fly across the country and back every week. I pictured him sitting in business class on a long series of anonymous nights drinking a ginger ale out of a tiny plastic cup and typing away the poem that would become the silent libretto for our piece. He was initially intrigued by the group of people sponsored by Red Bull who wanted to break Joseph Kittinger's record for highest free fall. At first he wondered what the story of Joseph Kittinger was. In searching for that story, he found the story of Nick Piantanida, a much more obscure man, in an old Life Magazine article.

Kevin's poem was originally intended to be the basis for the lyrics of the song cycle, and the music was meant to be sung by a choir. The voices were supposed to simulate the freedom from gravity, especially in contrast to the ballet dancers who would dance in two works we were also composing, and which would share the program. The bass to soprano range of the vocalists would highlight the joy of cheating gravity, spanning up and down at will. In practice, though, the words of the poem were difficult to put to music. And the choir we assembled for the workshop performance somehow seemed too anchored in place. For the New York performance in the fall of 2011, I stubbornly held on to the idea for a while that I could sing the music myself, but just a week before our show, I called my friend Kaylee Cole who was recording an album in Los Angeles. I asked her if she could fly to New York and learn a song cycle to sing in between two ballets. She didn't even hesitate in accepting. Her participation ended up salvaging the work and giving it the breath it needed to get in the air. Her voice sounds to me like ancient civilizations longing to be discovered. Any time I've asked her to sing one of my songs it always just clicks into place without any great explanation or coaching. She was perfect as the comforting but forboding voice of this beautiful story.

For the same reason that the piano originally weighed down the music that was supposed to soar, the finely crafted and dense allusions of Kevin's poem felt too heavy to balance out the music. We'd have to jettison words and phrases to keep the music light enough to achieve altitude. We tore the guts out of some bits of Kevin's imagery and lashed them together with other pieces to make a proper floating vessel.

Most of the lines Kevin wrote just wouldn't budge in their adherence to the page and not the song. For example, the opening stanza of Kevin's libretto:

Soviet umbrellas splay on the sidewalk
Like murdered crows
A killing wind came
They exploded in a fit of rods and knuckles
Grant me one hot plate
Scrambled eggs and dry toast I will tell exactly how

Try making that into a love song! It was the genesis of the story and the light that would guide us through, but unfortunately not something that could just be transferred to music whole-cloth. I had to reach into the story to find my own bits of resonance. It wasn't hard. After all, I shared the same first name as the hero. And I was living in Brooklyn, just a few miles from where he lived. Nathan, Kevin and I even visited Union City, New Jersey one day in a rented car, looking for some remains of his story. The town itself was impossibly run-down for being just a few feet from the promise and bustle of Manhattan. The bars had changed their names and had no memory of a Nick Piantanida. The only tangible sign of Nick was the cemetery outside of town, where we found his tombstone amongst the thousands there on a hill overlooking the high rises of the big city. The inscription on it was from a Walt Whitman poem:

I am an acme of things accomplished
and an encloser of things to be

And that's all we had to go on for personal connections. But the bigger ideas were all accessible: pushing against domesticity; loving your family and wanting to take care of them, but at the same time needing to go out and see what was out there, over that hill there, in that place where no one has ever been. Even if it meant the possibility that your exploring and striving and pushing could lead to your own death, and that you would leave behind the very family that you were doing it for. Of course any American man could relate to that, as it was everything about the foundation of this country and the relentless pushing to the sea that brought us to the present day. That this story really happened in the middle of the sixties, that it happened so close to New York, that it happened so profoundly and yet nobody knew about it, those were the aching details that made it more resonant. Everyone is looking to tell a new story, one that hasn't been heard before. I've always thought that folk music is distinguished by its insistence on telling the stories of people who don't have a voice because they are poor or oppressed or dead. This would be a folk tale.

A visual component was needed to accompany the music. This piece would be staged on a program in between two ballets, a somewhat unfair challenge to burden a song cycle with. The audience would be expecting movement and grace and beauty, and then everything would pause for this recitation of a sad story. The Satellite Collective's photographer Lora Robertson worked on a series of photographs that would be projected behind the musicians to create an awe at the sheer verticality of the event. She experimented in her studio with a series of lighting techniques that would be both stark and natural. Her pieces are a series of strange still life compositions, projected in such a way that images of raw meat and armor fade in and out of flickering halves of a full moon. Perhaps the most striking element is a fast-moving series of shots of a little blue bird dancing around in a turned over glass, pulling bits of string in a mesmerizing pattern.

But, back to the libretto. Taking a beautiful piano piece from Edward, Nathan and I sat down in his apartment and tried to put words to the melody for the opening of the song cycle. There were precious few syllables available in which to get our idea across, so we had to strip it down to the basics, and then strip it down still further. What information could we pack away in subtext so that we didn't have to waste words on it? If we were starting with a scene where Nick was still a child, how could we imply that he's a child without saying that? It was nearly as precise as haiku-writing.

The first lines of the libretto proper start like this:

The blue in my eyes
Light from the maritime North
From Drake's channel
More from the stratosphere
Where I have gone collecting

This is the young Nick Piantanida looking up and seeing the faint light of Sputnik dart across the sky, forever changing every bit of his DNA, as profoundly as you would've been changed if you happened to be standing outside Hiroshima when they dropped that horrible bomb. It's one instant where the light flashes through your body and now you can never go back to who you were. You have to push forward with this new information and this powerful edict to go and do something, not even knowing exactly what it is yet you need to do. And so, put to Edward's graceful piano and vocal melody, we wrote that sentiment lyrically as:

Blue light caught my eyes when
That star traced us in chalk
A new constellation
From you my name was born
I have gone collecting
From roof to roof

Those were all the syllables we had available to us for that specific piece, and then we had to move on and keep telling the story. From there it went on to the rise and fall, rise and fall. There were three ascents in total. The first time up, the balloon shred to pieces in the fierce winds. The second time, Nick couldn't release himself from the gondola due to a valve on the oxygen line that became stuck. He rose up to the desired height of 120,000 feet, but was unable to jump out, no matter how much he thrashed at the line with his puffy gloved hands. So he sat in the basket as it went all the way back down to Earth, a humiliating and nauseating descent for such an experienced skydiver. All the way down in his plywood box like he was in an outhouse in a tornado.

I walk the plank for you and find
That I'm still tethered to the bridge

The music for the second ascent came from a guitar passage I was working on in that pedaling, ascending style. It was very much inspired by the Bach guitar pieces I had been learning. When I was young I never really responded emotionally to Bach. I gravitated to Romantic composers like Chopin and Beethoven. Their dynamic expressiveness was instantly accessible to me. Bach's music had always just sounded like a math equation. My appreciation of Bach came together slowly, from the charming fact that every cellist can play at least the beginning of his cello suites, that music that you've heard in so many films when there's a scene of a hopeful priest walking over a hill to share something with his congregation, or a teacher finally having a breakthrough after hearing something her student say. I began to understand the context a bit better when I learned that there are no dynamics in Bach's music because at the time he was writing on keyboards that had no dynamics in them. He was working with the instruments that he had, and the mathematical structures he built now sound to me as beautiful as a gracefully opening hyacinth. Certainly you could break it down to mathematics, but the complex beauty of it is what makes it emotional.

Not to say that I was achieving that in my guitar pieces, but that was at least the inspiration. That style of music seemed to fit the extreme effort of trying to break through gravity, those cascading arpeggios constantly working towards the end. For this piece I was able to more easily pull together phrases from Kevin's poem to fit with the melody. These phrases:

The gods of pineapple
Of coal and teapots
Banging pianos
Turn the cranks
A delicious sunset
Radiant bombs
Our special gift
One to the other
Rolls across the craters

were turned into these lyrics:

Turn the cranks
A second sunset
Blushing bombs
Our special gift
A plane to chase us down

The composition of this whole song cycle spanned a period of several months, where I lived in both Portland and New York. When I was in New York I was able to work with Nathan and Kevin. When I was in Portland I worked with Edward and also Amanda Lawrence, our violist and fellow composer. If Nathan's influence on the ensemble is to provide the frenzy of crashing gondolas and the terror of falling out of the sky, Amanda's music provides the strong unbending confidence of the earth itself. She has a long, gorgeous vibrato in her bow that always manages to dredge a deep cavern of emotion in my stomach whenever she harmonizes with a guitar or piano line. We worked in her Portland apartment over glasses of wine while her bizarre dog Felix fretted and snorted on the floor, invariably getting some sort of terrible noise into every take of every demo recording we made.

I felt like it was important in all of these pieces of soaring and striving to remember the connection between the man and his wife. I pictured what it would feel like that third time he was strapped into the gondola, after two terrifying failures. A quiet moment when the technicians are checking their instruments and man and woman can look at each other with tenderness and wonder why his ambitions have led him to such a strange and dangerous precipice. One last subtle moment together for two lovers.

Memorize my face
And all the angles that it takes
To make the man that you love fit inside
A birdcage now, a birdcage now
And there is not a stable
That would keep a hobbled pony
They would render it for parts
And they would find a horse who's strong and able

But that moment, like the song, were over too quickly. It was soon on to the last ascent. I subtitled the piece of music that conveys his third attempt, "A Stranger On the Shore," a tribute to the Acker Bilk instrumental of the same name that was popular on the radio in the mid-sixties and which Nick and his wife liked to slow dance to. The last line in this penultimate part of the song cycle ends with the word "emergenc--" which was the last radio transmission that Nick sent before he lost consciousness. The word was obviously going to be "emergency," but there is some cruel resonance in how abruptly even that panicked communication was struck down. On ascent, Nick's face mask cracked and he was too high up in the atmosphere to be able to breathe enough oxygen. The piece then merges quietly, shifting from C minor and 6/8 time into G minor in a 3/4 time for the last piece of the song cycle, "Partition," whose music came again from Edward, and existed as a beautiful wordless lament for a long time. Again the delicate balloon of this melody felt too laden with any words I tried to put with it, until I broke through with the simple thought of Nick's desire to comfort his wife and children at that moment of him losing oxygen. Science will tell you that when your brain doesn't get enough oxygen, you suffer from hypoxia, which is marked by extreme euphoria. The last piece goes like this:

And bathe my body in tallow and lye
Our babies faces bursting to cry
I have gone
Your face is softer than the curvature of Earth
You see I'm only away for a while
I have gone collecting

I thought of it as an elegy. The moment when you pass through the partition of existence and find yourself calmly on the other side, whatever that is. Nathan thought of it as a ticker-tape parade. That all the working and practicing and hoping and planning for the big launch were all for one distinct vision: that he would end up on the ground and kiss his wife and know that he was the first and only man to do this one thing. And that he would have a parade back in his hometown, with ticker tape and children laughing. The fact that he never physically made it to that parade doesn't matter. In his mind, in that moment of euphoria, he simply stepped out of the basket he was riding in, out of the life he was living, and climbed right into the backseat of a car driving down the main street of Union City, started to smile and wave to his adoring friends, and never had to stop.

Additional Videos:

Father and Son launch balloon into space.

Felix Baumgartner jump.

Kaylee Cole singing her song "Your War".