Michael Wright

Michael Wright is the Associate Editor at Fuller Studio. He studied theology and the arts through the Brehm Center, and he writes about contemplative dimensions of culture. Find him on Twitter @mjeffreywright.

Noteworthy: More than a Spectator

In the documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, New York City’s beloved fashion photographer received an award from the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France and said, “It’s not the celebrity and not the spectacle. It’s as true today as it ever was: he who seeks beauty will find it.” It’s one of the few moments in the film when Bill’s ebullient personality cracks to reveal a wide-open heart filled with both deep love and wonder for the world. At that point, you’re listening to less a lecture on fashion and more his life’s thesis—the open-hearted pursuit of beauty.

My only experience of Bill is watching the recent documentary and a few interviews, but even with that limited connection, I’ve found myself thinking about him—even grieving his recent death. It’s not intimacy per se, but I have a real sense of gratitude for the choices he made to pursue his work. As Søren Kierkegaard said, “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Bill’s life as a photographer is a model of that kind of purity, and reflecting on his simple yet consistent commitments can help with our own pursuit of beauty.

He committed himself to his creative work. As soon as Bill discovered photography, he documented New York City for the rest of his life. Sometimes working two jobs at a time, he always found a way to be on streets taking pictures, “letting the streets speak to him.” It was a commitment that shaped his personal life (he never married) and even his apartment. A quick glance at the rows of file cabinets crowding every corner of his apartment—a priceless photographic archive of New York—and you can see how his life and work were fully integrated.

He lived simply. Bill rode bicycles all over the city, and the fact that they were often stolen didn’t matter to him; the tool was a means to an end, and if it needed replacing he would replace it. It’s an open-handed approach to possessions that carried over into his whole life. He seemed genuinely uninterested in accumulating wealth—it was a distraction to him, and choosing simplicity emerged less from a place of moralistic self-denial and more the need to remove whatever obstacles kept him from his work.

He separated himself from those with power and influence. Bill distinguished himself from the socialites he photographed by wearing a bright blue worker’s coat and eating before events instead of accepting the wine and lavish gifts offered him. And it wasn’t only his dress that separated him from others—at times he refused payment for his work, preferring creative freedom instead: “Money’s the cheapest thing; liberty and freedom is the most expensive!” These clear visible markers signified the purpose of his work. By resisting the social (or financial) hierarchy, he was free to work without deference to the expectations of others.

He treated everyone—regardless of status—with compassion. Giving up a sense of entitlement overflowed into a compassionate interest in every person around him. In scene after scene in the film, he spends just as much time laughing with people on the street as a wealthy museum donor; he’s fascinated by people and they way they clothe themselves whether that’s a homeless person or a runway model.

When I look at these choices, Bill seems almost like a priest, and in the film one friend even called him a “fashion deity.” Certainly, he wouldn’t want that kind of attention, and it would be irresponsible to canonize him. But think about Pope Francis or His Holiness the Dalai Lama or any celebrity with the reputation of being “down to earth”—they all share the same open-handed relationship to their own power and a genuine interest in others, and Bill’s work as a photographer is much closer to saints than the paparazzi. G. K. Chesterton describes a similar egalitarian quality in St. Francis of Assisi:

“There was never a man who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernardino was really interested in him; in his own inner individual life from the cradle to the grave; that he himself was being valued and taken seriously, and not merely added to the spoils of some social policy or the names in some clerical document.

Free from selfishness, St. Francis could engage others not as means of accumulating wealth and status, but loved persons qua persons. This kind of openness to others is transformative, and as a photographer, Bill looked through his lens with this same love—and that’s inspiring no matter what our creative work might be.

 

 

 

We Are All Moths

Ryan Lott is a film composer, sound collector and remixer, and the founding member of the band Son Lux. Now with the help of multi-instrumentalists Rafiq Bhatia and Ian Chang, the trio has distilled Ryan’s earlier “investigations of sound” in We Are Rising and Lanterns into a new distilled voice that is both visceral and heady, precise and surprising. Their newest album, Bones, begins with Ryan singing, “Close your eyes / swallow the sun / you have only just begun,” a lyric that expresses the band’s musical ambitions and a theme throughout Ryan’s lyrics: a resolute desire to move through suffering towards light—no matter how painful that struggle might be. I talked with Ryan over email about metaphors, the “hidden” discoveries in the creative process, the way songs meet people in their suffering, lectio divina, and more.

 

Michael Wright: Hello Ryan, and thanks so much for your time. In interviews, you’ve mentioned a particular show in Berlin when you realized Son Lux was no longer a single artist with two hired hands but a trio. Why did that show have a catalyzing effect on the band? What is it about the three of you that makes your performance have that creative and unexpected excess?

Ryan Lott of Son Lux: That show was our very first show ever. It’s something we had the moment everything was plugged in and people were listening. I hadn’t experienced it before, that sort of effortless chemistry. We all feel the urge to throw a relentless energy into music. Perhaps that sort of unbridled, almost aggressive effort, combined with the mercurial ease with which our minds combine, is why it works. That and luck. And good food.

MW: You’ve called your music “investigations in sound,” and over the course of your albums, it seems to expand from an intellectual investigation to an emotional one. Now that Son Lux is a trio, there seems to be greater risk, and a distilled emotional struggle in your music. Do you think this is from the trust you’ve developed as a band? How would you characterize your search for new and honest sounds?

RL: I’ve never thought about it that way, but maybe I should. Intellectual and emotional investigations might be unfair paradigms to diametrically compartmentalize the human experience and expression. I understand your observation, but a change in the vehicle or manner of expression doesn’t necessarily change what is being expressed. If there is a perceptible change, it may be the result of what I hope is an emotional maturity that has allowed me to continue to become more vulnerable and honest with myself and the world around me.

MW: During my research, I was fascinated by the way you’ve built up sound libraries from years of collecting sonic scraps. Over and over again, you’ve talked about the importance of starting with acoustic, human-made sounds. Why is that? Why have an expansive collection of human-made sounds if the end result may not register to an untrained ear listening to electronic music? I’m interested in this paradox of your desire to “make human music” with new technology.

RL: Perhaps your questions answer themselves! I am interested in the same paradox. I believe there is truth on the other side of paradox. Or at least, there is truth that comes with greater confusion, dismantling our certainties. Personally, I’ve been guilty of assuming that clarity necessarily accompanies a revelation of truth. In so doing, I’m sure I’ve failed to see truth because of the grey fog of confusion and complexity surrounding it.

 

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MW: That sense of truth-in-uncertainty definitely fits within a spiritual tradition (I’m specifically thinking of The Cloud of Unknowing and the via negativa), and it also reminds me of your discussions on the “hidden”. You’ve said in interviews, “In order to find the hidden thing, I’m always looking to place limitations on the main road,” and “It’s behind that bend, around that corner, where beautiful things happen that maybe I didn’t cause to happen but I came upon them. I had to be on that road to discover them, but more than that it feels much more like a discovery than a creation of my own.” I’m curious: what is that hidden thing? What are you looking for?

RL: The hidden thing is the thing you can’t will to exist. You can only put in the time and heart and money and strength and pain. Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” I’m not exactly saying this, but it’s a related sentiment. There is something beyond your imagination, that doesn’t just wait to be found; at some point it comes out to greet you. When you catch it in motion, creeping toward you of its own volition, there’s a beautiful feeling of excitement and humility.

MW: That’s fascinating—the discovery is a complete gift, but we still have to create the conditions for it to occur. It’s like cymatic experiments where scientists create a controlled space and discover new emerging forms; or, in your own words, your music is a kind of architecture for “the investigation of sound.” What has this musical approach provided you?

RL: My manager Michael Kaufmann once said to me that I build great cathedrals of sound, but I needed to fill it with smoke and sacrament. I love this analogy because it speaks to creating a space that serves as a platform to explore beyond the space. This relates to your previous question about intellectual and emotional expressions. Perhaps there is some distinction. I think this way, but I also think in a purely technical way. Theoretical ideas, divorced entirely from a lofty sense of purpose and gravitas, really excite me. They’re the kindling. Once the fire takes, I move into a more emotional, or perhaps more accurately, a more sensuous pursuit to create that “smoke.”

MW: The theologian Douglas Christie said in an essay on embodiment and the natural world, “The rupture—between the human and more-than-human, between body and soul, heaven and earth, spirit and matter—must be named and acknowledged before the healing can begin. Only when we allow ourselves to feel the full weight of our exile will we be able to begin describing and imagining a world charged with eros, a world straining to be joined together in a web of intimacy.” Your music seems to hover around this struggle. From lyrics like “let’s meet in your open wounds,” “I will be a breathing man,” to the lungs and bones imagery throughout Bones and Lanterns—there’s this sense of struggling to connect the body to the larger body of the world, whether that’s internal or communal. Could you reflect on this exile?

RL: I would betray the songs to build a didactic, or splay them out like a junior high biology project. But I love your interpretation! And it’s “let me in through your open wounds,” but I prefer your version. Do I have your permission to use it at some point?

MW: Of course! I’m happy to mishear whenever it’s helpful. Your lyrics also use metaphors of light. It’s in your name (which echoes the “fiat lux,” that moment in Genesis when God speaks light into existence), and it’s throughout Lanterns and Bones: light coming from mouths, swallowing the sun, etc. Why are you drawn to metaphors of light?

RL: We are all moths.

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MW: Yes! This is exactly the image Annie Dillard explores in Holy The Firm; we can’t help but to move towards it—no matter what it burns away. Early in your career you and your wife founded the ministry ASH (Arts Serving Humanity). Looking back, was there something about that season that informed your full-time work as Son Lux? Do you see Son Lux’s music as a service to others? I’m curious if you have any stories of how fans receive your music.

RL: One of the most rewarding experiences we have on tour is meeting with fans after shows. We get to hear stories of the way our music, completely apart from us, does some sort of magical work. I’m grateful for Music’s ability to act in this way, despite its Makers’ intent. It’s something made in three dimensions, but occupies five. It does something we can’t do, and we’re grateful to glimpse it, and to feel it. We’ve heard stories from people on the precipice of suicide, even in the act of it, who’ve come back from the edge as a song of ours swirled into their mind. Who’s doing that? We’re not doing that.

MW: I think we all have songs that join us through our darkest times—they can express what we don’t know how to say. The mystic Meister Eckhart said that “the soul projects itself outward into created acts in order to understand itself.” I love that—it’s as if the right art at the right time reintroduces us to parts of ourselves we’ve forgotten or voices hope we couldn’t quite believe ourselves. On a more technical level, many of your songs have dramatic contrast in style and dynamics: the frenetic drumming and vulnerable silence, legato melodic lines and halting pizzicato, an almost mathematical precision in the arrangements and off-tempo horns and wavering voices. What’s going on there? Why are you drawn to these contrasts?

RL: Surprise in music is the best thing. The. Best. I’m essentially aiming to balance the fulfillment of expectation with surprise. Our brains are wired to dislike anything that fails to meet our expectations. As with life, so it is with music. But tension and release are the building blocks of musical architecture. Anticipation and expectation grow in moments of tension, and fulfillment of that expectation is the release. But there’s a way to bring release a different way, with surprise. But the sensuous impact of the surprise must trump the satisfaction of fulfilled expectation. In electronic music, “the drop,” is a good example of a release. It’s awesome, and as soon as you hear one, you want another, but it’s the easy way out. Give me a surprise that feels even more wonderful than what I hope is coming, and I’m yours. Good spiritual metaphor there, right?

MW: Sounds like the “hidden” to me! What surprises outside of music deepens your creative practice? Books? Meditation? The Brooklyn Museum? Hours browsing books in The Strand? Punch Brothers? All of the above?

RL: Here’s a good list, excluding the obvious influences of family & friends. New York, Paris, Bob Dylan, Hamza El Din, Radio & Portis heads, Andrew Norman, Young Thug, Zaha Hadid, Dawn of Midi, Samiyam, Senagalese dance drumming, Kendrick, Björk, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Elon Musk, Krista Tippett.

MW: Great choices. Krista Tippett has said, “Christianity is my mother tongue,” and that seems true for you as well. You’ve used biblical imagery throughout your music, and Andy Whitman and you both compared your music to lectio divina. A song like “You Don’t Know Me” (both the song and music video) seems to continue that imagery with a strong critique of public forms of religion. How does your mother tongue inform your music and what animates you spiritually now?

RL: Let me grab some bourbon, one sec.

OK, I’m back. Lectio divina was an early influence on Son Lux. It was the thing that caused me to abandon binary form (verse/chorus) almost altogether on the first record. It also informed the process by which I investigated sound, because I needed sound and texture and color to do some heavy lifting, in lieu of structural pivot points that binary form provides. I could go on for a million years about this, but I like the mother tongue question. And this isn’t really answer, but we speak the language we’ve learned. When it fails us, we learn it better. And then when we learn another language, we discover the strengths and weaknesses of our mother tongue. The same is true of countries, of cultures, of religions, of everything, maybe? Christianity continues to provide an allegory analogous to my limited perception of the human condition, but I also recognize its weaknesses as a means to explain everything, or perhaps more generously, its insistence on keeping many explanations hidden from sight. For this, I’m incredibly frustrated and thankful.

MW: Björk sings, “no one is a lover alone / I propose an atom dance,” and it’s a good handhold into your work and the way you voice the struggle for authentic relationships in our world. You have a tribe of intellectuals and wayfarers and creatives reading this interview: any last proposals you’d like to make?

RL: Amplify the voices of the unheard, unshackle yourselves from the myth of an acceptable bell-curve.