The common refrain I hear in response to the question, “what kind of music do you listen to?” is “oh, everything.” I think that may be us not wanting to be put in a box. “Mostly stuff I liked when I was in my late teens and early twenties” is more accurate, in my experience, but that’s not to denigrate people who like the things they like.
While I wish everybody lusted for new and more music the way I do, there’s a danger as well. Or, to not be so dramatic, a downside. Especially these days, music is a cornucopia of bands and releases. There’s so much more to listen to than one person could possibly consume, even once, and it’s very easy to get into a habit of racing through playlists and album streams without really paying attention to them, just having stuff on in order to get through the ever-growing lists. It feels like I’m cheapening music, sometimes, indulging my inborn collector lust, the part of humanity’s acquisition drive that gamification and social media feeds trigger and reward so shrewdly.
But deep listening to the same piece has the opposite effect. In a way, it’s a form of singletasking. The tenth or twelfth time through Ethan Gruska’s wonderful Slowmotionary, for example, or the hundredth time through Hounds of Love and lo and behold, I hear something I’ve never heard on the album before. In a way, it’s new again, I’m startled out of my assumptions. It can happen with art, too. Spend several sessions over a few weeks going back to a museum and just looking at one painting. A Rothko, or a Klee, or a Walker, or a Gueorguieva. Things are revealed to you, colors you didn’t notice, symbols overlooked, a compositional element that ties one side to the other, even references to other works.
Deep dives, if we consciously make them, are keys to insight.
Surfing used to be my church. I went more often than once a week, but that’s nothing unusual to many. Muslims would rightly say, “… yeah? And?” But for a non-religious person, I still enjoy and get tangible benefits of viewing some parts of my life as sacred. More often these days, they’re moments, not necessarily entities or institutions.
Today was one of them. I’d had Mark Hollis’s sole solo album (eponymous, 1998) in my collection from about 2004. I was—am—a big fan of Talk Talk, having rediscovered them after I lost track for several years after they released The Colour of Spring. Theirs was one of the most rapid and far-reaching evolutions in all of popular music, going from a synth pop dance band through post rock over the course of five albums. They didn’t do it as fast as The Beatles, but they went much further, stylistically. Mark Hollis really was the driving creative force behind the music, and I wanted the final chapter in his oeuvre to be special. From what I’d read, the album was relatively quiet, so I wanted to experience it alone in a room on a quiet day. As quiet as one could get in the city, of course.
The problem was, I was trying to create a perfect moment, and I don’t think they can be manufactured. What I needed to happen was a sacred moment. An amazing experience can happen more easily with that intention and setting, but you don’t need perfection to experience the sublime. But I made sure I’d be alone for a while, opened the blinds to the sunset, and started the album.
It wasn’t a perfect moment. But it was profound. I’d been putting off a really nice experience so I could try to make it perfect, but really, I’m not sure that’s good for me. For us. It was certainly unfair to put the expectation on the artist to have made the perfect thing, even if that turned out to be true.
We need more of this sacred time, I think. I unreservedly recommend you take 45 minutes, or an hour if it’s long, to just listen to a single album you’ve never heard before in a devotional way—doing nothing else except perhaps look out at the trees and skies nearby.
One of the things you have to discuss in any conversation about Prince is his staggering capacity to create music. He seemingly never stopped. There’s up to 100 albums’ worth of music he left behind, in addition to the 39 studio albums—and smaller projects—he actually released. And he was really, really good.
For me, it’s an unbroken string of brilliance from Dirty Mind all the way through the Love Symbol Album. And even the worst Prince record is pretty good.
What can you do in the face of such awe-inspiring making? Some people say they feel like giving up, confronted with any such prolific master. But I hope we’re inspired. It does help to be a genius, that’s for sure. But the faucet is always there, even if the pipes are not as big for most of us.
Listen to some Prince and make some things of your own.
I watched a documentary about the rise, fall, and rebirth of analog modular synthesizer technology called I Dream of Wires.
I was amused to think that modular synthesis is what many artists do as part of their work. We take bits of ideas and parts of a whole and put them together in new ways, moving plugs and dialing certain elements up and down.
We make and remix concepts and create new things in the world.
No, not the Michael Penn song—although that still holds up, as does the album it’s from —but rather I’m thinking back on this flood of prescriptive, advices, maybe some platitudes? I’m not sure if this can go on forever. Maybe? If academia is to be taken at face value, perhaps there’s always something more to say about art and how it’s made.
I’m thinking ahead to 2018, what I want to accomplish, and, to my own chagrin, no small amount of fretting over what seems an ever-diminishing supply of time to do, well, anything.
I do find it interesting that you could always make this argument at any point in your life. It seems impossibly short when we look at it in the context of history.
I suppose the platitude here is to note that the time we have left is the time we have left. A tautology to mean it’s just as valid to consider there’s time enough to do some things, and that’s all anyone ever has. A pile slightly bigger for Stephen King doesn’t mean our own small pile is any more (or less!) pointless in the grand scheme of a vast universe.
We make sense of existence through our art, and thus meaning, and most of us find that more fulfilling and worthwhile than not making it.
If this all seems like the climax of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy original radio series—and its adapted scene in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe—with the eternally skeptical Ruler of the Universe, doubting not only his own existence but that of everyone else and their actions, I feel you. Optimism comes and goes, like pessimism, and motivation, and indolence.
We merely know it pleases us to make these things, and if it does, we should keep making our efforts. And do more tomorrow.
I’m a big fan of Song Exploder, which gives us a partial behind-the-scenes sausage production view of a specific song, as related by the artists. The mechanics of creativity are endlessly fascinating, even if they don’t add up to much on their own.
But still, it’s useful for artists to examine others’ processes. It can inform our own, give us ideas, offer new possibilities. Even when the medium is not your own, a glimpse at raw creativity in motion is inspiring, and we can make connections to our work we didn’t even think about before.
I associate Nine Inch Nails with fury, and obviously they are mostly concerned with sound. The band Grizzly Bear is similarly concerned, and they offer a counterpart: sometimes touching the sublime. But there’s little anger in the SE episode below. Here are two episodes of SE, examining each band and the details of creation in making a song apiece, each approaching sublimity. They signify nothing, but out of nothing everything was born.
Episode 124: Nine Inch Nails
Episode 113: Grizzly Bear
We, or rather, we in the “first world,” have a tendency to hold on to music from our adolescence or youth as we get older. The albums and songs we played over and over in our bedrooms, or heard a hundred times on the radio or music video channel, reach a gilded status when we’re long past that youth. We rediscover the music of that long past time, or it never really left our stereos, when we’re somewhere along the steeply sloping path to our (pathetically-titled) middle age.
I’m not sure why this is the case for so many. Maybe we’re trying to recapture a feeling of promise or potential before adulthood crashed into us. We might just want to experience a little of the energy or excitement of that oncoming juggernaut. Either way, or even given some completely different motivation, the strange, exploratory music being made now is very often ignored, brushed aside, or dismissed.
There’s no doubt in my mind we could extract new insight or meaning from the old stuff, the songs that filled us with emotion when we were younger. But there’s immense power and possibility in things being created now, out of the fabric of the reality which just passed. Giving it a chance might just be the wound-up spring pressed into our being, ready to uncoil into our next creations.
When I was 11 or 12 years old, I thumbed though my Uncle David’s record collection, for reasons I don’t know (other than whim), because I wasn’t allowed to just play them on my own. Halfway through the row, I stopped dead on an earth toned abstract cover depicting a man with his eyes closed and a cone of energy or light beaming from (or to?) his forehead—Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. I thought then that my uncle was more hip than I thought. I hadn’t heard much Stevie Wonder at that time, but I knew he incorporated jazz and funk into his music from what I’d heard on the radio (and possibly his appearance on Sesame Street). I only understood his socially conscious lyrics later, when I was older and had read and heard more about him and his music. “Living for the City” was a glimpse into that side of the lyrics, and I only knew it in a memory from the radio.
But I didn’t listen to the album then.
I’ve only just heard it front to back, and it’s a masterpiece. It’s very much a collection of sounds that holds up 44 years later. I was also a bit dismayed to hear the frustration and anger of “City” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All,” a dig at another corrupt, racist administration was only too timely. But it’s well worth listening to, and reveling in. Stevie played much of the album by himself, working through multiple instruments and bringing his typically brilliant melodic sense and gorgeous pipes to join then-shiny modular synth sounds to new audiences. It’s only 9 songs and 44:12 of your time, but I think it’s always good to discover something new that’s been with you most of your life.
Sometimes our contribution to creation isn’t up front and flashy. Sometimes it’s support and foundation for the obvious stuff, which wouldn’t be able to stand on its own. That was Malcolm Young’s place. He anchored the massive tower of explosives that was AC/DC, a leader content to drive the bus from the back.
I heard he’d died this morning, and very soon after I listened to Highway to Hell, my favorite AC/DC album, and one that objectively belongs in the top ranks of Best of All Time. It’s overflowing with hooks, nearly every song comprised of variations on open chord sequences of A, D, G, and E. That should get boring or grate on one’s ears pretty quickly, but the Youngs seemingly never run out of ways to riff on simple changes. It also holds the album together, and when I first discovered it as a whole, I rarely played just one or two songs from it. There’s sex, violence, and dark themes, but even more so their characteristic sense of humor all over it. The band never took itself too seriously.
Anchors are vital to ships, and eminently useful to art. May we never overlook them.
I’ve been listening to Shearwater’s monumental, epic (and is there any other way to describe any other Shearwater release?) album Jet Plane and Oxbow. It’s an album fraught with distress and fretting about the U.S. and its place in the world. Perhaps more accurately, it’s focused on Americans and our perennial desire to turn inward. The recent election and desire among a large segment of our population to repudiate and reverse course from eight years of (in the eyes of some in the center and on the right, at least) leftward tack is throwing the lyrics of most of the songs into sharp relief against the backdrop of an unabashed move to metaphorically wall up more than our southern border.
It occurs to me that I’ve been misusing my blog, here. I’ve been treating it as some special, or precious, stone upon which to write only the most essential of commandments. That’s probably arrogant. I’m given to flights of fanciful indulgence in social media, which tend to pass before the eyes of friends and followers (usually they’re one and the same) like dandelion seeds. Swoosh. Here and gone in a blink. Blogs are much more interesting to me when they offer glimpses into the minds of their minders. Kottke.org is a lost pastime that I’d much rather try to emulate than any artist’s portfolio page.
But back to the inspiration for this post, my plan was to write my ephemera here, and let other platforms be themselves, in turn. If there’s a long form native to the interwebs, is it not the blog? Long-form journalism had its beginnings in traditional print, as did the essay and even serial photographic reporting. My personal dismay at what I view as an authoritarian turn to the country of my birth led me to sustained bursts of anger, which are often fed by the ability to share outrage and the borrowed outrage of others with one-click speed. But it isn’t very good at exploring or rumination. Outrage is fleeting, and all the quicker when it drops into a swift-running stream of endless blobs of other insistent voices. Some of those are so loud they carry millions of us along with them to amplify the discrete thought of an idle moment between bouts of simply being famous.
There is a deep sincerity to Jonathan Meiburg’s brooding, heartfelt disconsolation. It mirrors what I’ve been feeling for a couple of years, now. I’m simultaneously tired of my country and in love with its land, people, and promise. I despair at its failings and cling to its hope. I’ve been planning to go abroad to grad school, and that may be the best thing for putting all this anxiety in perspective. What if I need to get away from my country to return to it? If I don’t want to, was it mine? Do I belong somewhere else, if anywhere?
Ah, but here’s a link. And here’s hoping I remember to write my ephemera here more.