(an excerpt from adiscussion I had with a friend about work.)
I never believed in “work”.
I never believed in work as this marvelous redemption of the soul like the Puritans did and like everyone in our country does. It’s trading vast (and irreplaceable) chunks of our life in return for pay that will never be enough, in hopes of some fulfillment that will always be a moving target because our personalities and our desires and our feelings are eternal moving targets. So if money is bullshit and fulfillment is a labyrinth, then there’s been very little difference between any job I might want and the jobs I’ve had.
I used to bitch incessantly about “security”, worried about being a fraud, and lusted after money when I was a musician. I’ve learned more at a stupid menial hourly-pay gig than I did as a working musician for almost 20 years. While the money-lust (or simple poverty of funds) hasn’t changed, I’ve somehow managed to discover that I am a detail-oriented and conscious worker, because that is who I am and not because of what I do or because of anything I’ve done. That said, I’d rather live in art-world than janitor-world, and whether or not I could put my security-obsessed neuroses behind me and carry forth what I learned, while not impossible, is far from obvious.
I would close by saying that I no longer fear having to take menial work in search of my next chapter of life, but I’m not certain that I give a thundering rat-fuck about having a “career”. I’m done with talking about careers. Being me IS my career.
For those few of you that follow this tiny thing, I’ll start by explaining what the original parameters of this blog were. It was a way to spend 30 minutes of lunch–a sit-down-at-a-table slow lunch–and jot down whatever bits of thought or inspiration that I had during that time. Anything to which I had listened, anything I had read, something on my mind–anything to keep the creative impulse going during the extensive and seemingly never-ending COVID lockdown.
…but then, things changed…
As the municipalities in which I live and work started to come out from under lockdown during vaccinations and subsequent reopenings, my schedule got a lot busier. And then it didn’t. And then it changed completely. I found myself no longer with a quiet expanse of time in which to write during the day, which was the first obstacle…
The second obstacle is one familiar to all writers and other creators–or at least to myself–and that is a seeming disbelief in the meaning of creating yet more words or music or photos or anything in a world where digital technologies have inundated human civilization with more information than they could possibly process in ten lifetimes, let alone the one through which we’re journeying. Does any of this–and I do mean any of it–mean anything?
This question bedevils me. It’s helped to stifle and bring to ground just about every creative endeavor I’ve had in my life. It’s an incessant battle against my cynicism (and as a GenX person, it’s very, very, VERY ingrained in my psyche) and trying to reach a place where what I could create might mean something to me, let alone other people (and that’s another post somewhere down the line.)
That’s the rub; figuring out how what I do might feed my fractured, exiled soul in this digital cacophony. There’s no right or wrong answer. I might have more such silences along the way, but for the moment, I’m back. Not writing during the day (or still writing that much,) but here nevertheless.
I’ll have a few things to chat about: more Bandcamp selections, the rebooting of culture after such a long interruption, moving, aging and impermanence, and maybe whatever I can capture in a photo along the way…
(Welcome to a new part of my humble endeavors, which will introduce you to snippet reviews/reactions to music to which I’m listening at the moment, in order to spread the word about a lot of little (perhaps) known but wonderful recordings out there. I’ll try to be somewhat substantive, but these are just largely reactions, sparks of my enthusiasm or any other gut feelings that strike me. I’ll write as much as I can cram in 30 minutes. All of the selections can be found on Bandcamp, either on the website or on the app.)
1. TaboTagoSessions 04: Live at Zionskirche, Berlin 2017/12/10
I’m not versed on German electronica, and I came across this and was intrigued by the concept of an ambient concert in a historic church, divorced from any theological content. European churches (the older ones, at least) are vast stone resonators for the choirs and organs that used to (and still sometimes do) inhabit them. If there was a better place to do atmospheric ambient, I can’t think of one. That said, I didn’t know what to expect from a long-track recording in concert from a group that draws on inspiration from Germany’s 1980s electronic scene (mainly Krautrock and Tangerine Dream), whether or not it would be poppish nasal synths or something else. What unfolded over the next 45 minutes felt as organic and yet unexpected as anything I’ve heard yet. The encore is much trippier, slightly Jon Hassell-esque than the first track, and one I like even better.
2. Hiemal: Aether
Hiemal is a French composer of what is described as “dark drone ambient”, but I find it as anything but! Listening to his long-track pieces reminds me of the effect of standing in front of a Mark Rothko painting, looking at (seemingly) stationary colors and finding them in actuality to be in a state of flux in terms of brightness and intensity. Profoundly meditative with a high, HIGH ceiling.
3. Dur Dur of Somalia: Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Analog Africa records)
I’m listening to this as I write, something I came across today. There was a time when Mogadishu (the much-suffering and bullet-pocked capital of the equally suffering country) wasn’t a war zone. There was a time (in the 1970’s and 1980’s) when the capital played host to a flowering of bands, playing music that blended Arabic-language Somali song with the style of funk music that reigned in many corners of the musical world at the time. Dur Dur was one of them, one of many bands whose musical legacy has persevered through the times of war and famine that followed. Analog Africa is a German label that has devoted itself to finding and preserving as much of these historical recordings as possible. A delightful postcard from a different time.
It’s near the end of my lunch break and I have less than three minutes to pen something down. So here it is: I walk around doing my job, and I find myself looking forward to finding the next weird and wonderful album on Bandcamp; forward to feeling the warmth of the approaching spring as I walk back to my car, as I also drive between jobs. I look forward to the small phone conversations I’ll have, and to whatever might be next on my ‘Chillax’ or Electronica playlists. I look forward to whatever joke someone sends me out of the random. Is this “happiness”? Is it visceral, rainbow-colored? I don’t know if I can call it that, but I do know this: it is an energy that keeps me going, keeps me walking, keeps me asking, wondering, and just basically living. It’s hard to define sometimes, and often it seems imperceptible to workaday discernment. It is nevertheless there, and it has stayed with me through a lot of valleys and also the peaks. The energy is the thing! Whatever you choose to call it–that’s just advertising….
During my scant lunch time I often read cultural critics (Clive James to Alex Ross to James Wolcott and so forth,) for my “popcorn reading”. Go through enough essays and you begin to get an idea of the types of things you might have missed in school or in the more conventional areas of discourse, be it in the classroom or coffeehouse or in front of the water-cooler. Why was this filmmaker or that musician or that ‘ism’ so damned important? Why did everyone lose their shit when Friends or The Office or The Sopranos ended? I ask because more often than not I simply wasn’t paying attention, part of my deep-seated animus towards ‘pop’ culture. Occasionally, in reading something I come across an insight that finds its way to my thought-clogged over-analyzing mind, something that illuminates a few (very rare) answers. Take noir, for instance; what was the big deal? What was the black-and-white world of palookas, gumshoes, hoodlums, and molls all about? Where did it come from?
I hadn’t found myself all that curious in my younger years, merely assuming that noir was just another step down the pop-culture path, the citified version of the beloved American western shoot-em-up-bang-bang, only with a Big Apple accent and tommy guns in place of ten-gallon hats and six-shooters. It took an observation from James Wolcott to nab my attention:
“Although it had its roots in German Expressionism and the private-eye novel, film noir fully emerged like a walking hangover after World War II, a haunted shadow rising from Europe’s bombed-out rubble and Japan’s radioactive ash—a slice of death drawn from a larger annihilation.”
Somewhere in my reading life I had come across a book called The Best Years, which described the interwar period between the end of the Second World War and the Korean War in the U.S., which (quite ironically) saw a retreat of the euphoria and optimism from the defeat of nazism and the establishment of the United Nations (a hope for the preceding conflict to have been the “war to end all wars”, similar to the hopes of those who survived the First) to an age of fear–fear of the age of atomic weapons as well as a burgeoning “cold war” between the west and the Soviet Union. Now noir–film noir, to be precise–meant something–it was a reflection of the larger fears around it as well as a look into the inner dystopias of the human condition, encounters between isolated individuals in barren settings.
From this thought, I went with another impish thought: that perhaps noir‘s time has come back–from the mania of acquisition and social mobility of the 50’s, from the hippie-dippy free-love überidealistic 60’s, from the ‘I’m-ok-you’re-ok mood-ring 70’s, from the get-rich-quick Reagan 80’s. The American dream is turning out to be quite a bad acid trip–a fall from grace for a superpower who threw its cultural and economic weight around with few restraints for the majority of the previous century.
So what might noir (film or otherwise) look like in this day and age? Would it be The Net sans Sandra Bullock and the thriller setup (this reference dates me, I know.) Would it be something like Sleepless in Seattle being more like Waiting for Godot? The cyberdystopia in which we find ourselves gives us a possible starting point, a morass of comment chains, internet trolls, clickbait, and doomscrolling–ridiculously isolated people with little resilience and sensory overload attempting to find some sense of vindication or balance in a world gone GameStop; a commentary on the limits of culture and communication in a world supposedly evolved to enhance both.
In the end, my fascination with noir (I suspect) speaks to a central problem in our society, and that is a relentless belief in positivity, profit, and progress at all costs. I might have added “perfection” but that’s another series of posts for another time. In an age in which we find ourselves and society ‘not as we once were’ (a historical ubiquity only made more pertinent by our trajectory as a so-called “superpower”) but having to confront the vast seething plethora of inequalities and discontents that were either hidden or ignored by the cant of power and preeminence, we find that “morning in America” or “halftime in America” or a host of strategies to help us lose weight, find our passion, make money and retire comfortably, or to find perfect love have become our hiding place of choice, kept away from the vast challenges and a very uncertain future by just believing. At some point, though, these prescriptions work until they don’t. And when we can’t hide behind relentless positivity or awareness, it might just have to fall to noir and the like to tell us who and where we are.
If you’re amongst the group of observant old-school “Christians”, then chances are you had some smudge on your forehead yesterday; The traditional start to the old liturgical season of Lent happened, otherwise known as “Ash Wednesday”. I moved on from the theist world long ago, but something about this particular day (full disclosure: I worked as a church musician for 25 years, hence my familiarity with the subject) has always left me wishing there existed a similar locus in secular calendars for the occasion of self-examination and reflection on one’s deeds, fears, and a call for some kind of renewal (about the closest thing I can think of is the day I go to visit my therapist,) as a smidge of uneasy conscience would do our increasingly knee-jerk, sectarian, and thoroughly stressed-out world some occasion to stop–really stop (but then what have we been doing for almost the past year under quarantine??)–and look at the condition of our ethics from a place of listening. The examined life is comfortable for no one; hence the reason why Ash Wednesday wasn’t exactly a popular time even amongst people calling themselves ‘christian’.
Another thing that would turn most people off is the quietude amidst all of this soul-searching, which would be great in some kind of bougie yoga retreat with a full spa and aromatherapy, but which seems like prison when people in a sanctuary do it. Nope, too church-lady! too many hard pews and too many stern pastors and their faces like granite, and too much finger wagging! Not to mention the hard pews…
Just because the occasion of “Ash Wednesday” is seemingly the relic of an era where witch-burning and self-flagellation was the norm doesn’t mean that there isn’t a dire, pressing need for a little more reflection and a little less self-affirmation once in a while, especially amongst those in power and those all too satisfied with the state of their ‘beliefs’; Out of uneasy consciences comes progress, and–just perhaps–a little more compassion.
Snow. Friday of a three-day weekend. Tension unraveling, some pockets of space and silence to consider anything and everything….
Simplicity comes to my mind as I see snow–the simplicity of having so much slow motion and soft white wipe one’s senses almost clear of thought. One might think that this leads to a moment of “peace”, and maybe this is so for a lot of folks; this effect works something different in me, however: the right to melancholy. Melancholy without judgement or fear. The right to be sullen, parochial, and to withdraw from as much unnecessary small-talk such as encountering other people causes. We run from this type of thing, perhaps afraid that once in our funk, we might never re-emerge. For some people this might be a concern, but not for me. I think more damage has been done by relentless, toxic positivity than by sarcasm, irony, and detachment combined. Not for the reason of countering the worst aspects of our quotidian emotions, but for the effect of relegating all emotions related to sadness or dissatisfaction to the realm of the undesirable and of the unnatural, where treatment must be sought! Thereby the full gamut of human emotion is reduced to (very nearly) a ridiculous duality.
We retreat and sulk and hibernate to give our energy time to replenish itself. Take this time. Ditch the small talk and go read whatever gets you into the state of mind, be it Bāsho or Thomas Hardy or whatever…
…supposedly we’re in an age of tearing down hierarchies and expanding the possibilities of creation in the world of the arts. The stodgy citadels of academia are in retreat (as much from budget-minded administrators as from any howls of indignation for accountability for decades worth of elitist, over-meritocratic, and tonally leaden curatorship over credentialed training,) but there’s a part of me that wonders if all of that “leveling” isn’t merely a pose, an attempt to get the p.r. straight for the next generation to sneak back and revere the old methods as much as did the aged professores they replaced…
…can the avant-garde get its groove back at the level of theory?..
The next “great” movement (so I–in my uninformed biased opinion–predict) will involve small, quiet, short, and intimate as its foundation. Our senses have been assaulted from so much anxiety, sensory overload, doom-scrolling, and shrinking budgets. I sense a contraction to a basic re-engagement with letting our powers of perception rest and heal, even as we wrestle with a juggernaut of fundamental problems in our everyday world. One can’t build the next Sistine Chapel if one loses one’s belief in its power to even work! The next chapel might have to involve a deep-breathing liturgy…
At some point all of us ‘creative’-types have come across Richard Taylor’s advice:
Instead of supposing that a work of art must be something that all can behold—a poem, a painting, a book, a great building—consider making your own life a work of art. You have yourself to begin with, and a time of uncertain duration to work on it. You do not have to be what you are, and even though you may be quite content with who you are, it will not be hard for you to think of something much greater that you might become. It need not be something spectacular or even something that will attract notice from others. What it will be is a kind of excellence that you project for yourself, and then attain—something that you can take a look at, with honest self-appraisal, and be proud of.
Whatever your thoughts about the more controversial aspects of Taylor’s work, I (sitting in what can only be described as extreme repose deep in the dregs of a disappearing weekend) would counsel a slow second look at his aforementioned suggestion. In an age where ‘art’ has (in career terms) an uncertain definition and an even more uncertain future, this bit of advice might help us reconnect with why we follow anything creative in the first place; not for fame or fortune or Festschriften dedicated to our honor, but for our own satisfaction and inner fulfillment.
You might think, well duh! Of course we all know this! So what? and I’d direct this to a tighter focus on our present time, with the omnipresence of social media and the lure of projecting oneself as some kind of ‘Influencer’ (a perfectly pretentious term the toxic aspects of which I’ll critique at a later time) and the rampant narcissism of the theater-of-commentary at which our modern life seems to have arrived; We are all the protagonists! We are all the narrators, the observers, the individual in a world full of strangeness! We’re all our own manners of Gumps and Buellers or whatever, wading through a sea of experience for our own amusement and commentary!
Such are the times. Most (or very nearly all) of us at some point have probably felt like the main character in our own movie playing 24/7 in our head. This is unavoidable. Most of the time, we implore ourselves (or are implored from without) to focus on the world outside of our own head, and for good reason. However, if the game is too much to give up, then I’d like to add a few things to Taylor’s advice:
1). Good protagonists don’t run from contradictions.
We spend a great deal of time trying to fit, whether it’s into a scene or society or our jeans or whatever. We try to ignore things in life that don’t fit in with our narratives about ourselves. We’ve tried to shoehorn people into labels: fat, angry, fast, inattentive, religious, liberal, closed, you get the idea. The hard truth is that nobody is a neat equation or a hard-and-fast description. Doesn’t happen. And as if that isn’t bad enough, we try to label ourselves, and make ourselves fit, desiring to escape the mosaic into whose face we stare in the bathroom mirror each morning. The most interesting characters find ways to accept or negotiate the disjunctures and incoherencies about themselves, finding a way to becoming a richer person; so as it is with people, so it is for the protagonist.
We relate to characters who have the same fears and insecurities as ourselves, and (no surprise,) we find it easier to connect as people and as art-enthusiasts when we find this commonality present. It makes for more emotionally coherent stories, and can tell us something about ourselves in the process. You never see anyone in the starring role with no sense of vulnerability unless it’s a horror-flick or a cautionary fable. If we go through life avoiding vulnerability, not only do we never evolve, but there’s a serious price to be paid in the process.
3). The best type of protagonist to be in your own self-visualized art is not to be a protagonist.
A character, protagonist, (anti)hero, champion, contender, or anything else of this nature is meant to be perceived instead of being something that can exist fully-formed without the need for an audience. Characters in books or movies don’t stop to ask us what we think (and if that happens its just a bunch of ironic malarky, going meta just for kicks,) and they certainly don’t spend time looking in the mirror. (There’s a reason for the tale of Narcissus.) Being a person instead of a character allows us to live in the ways that we imagine our self-imagined character should be living, instead of trying to posit ourselves in whatever way, hiding behind masks and never being seen in the process. In the words of the Falken computer about Thermonuclear War from the movie WARGAMES, “strange game. The only way to win is not to play.”