Music & Performing Arts

Chance the Rapper & the Joyful Noise of Desecration

It’s hailed as “Music’s Biggest Night” but in reality, it’s a very, very long afternoon that turns into a glamorous dusk. Outside of the Staples Center, the Los Angeles sun was finally setting. Women wearing millions of dollars worth of jewels, men in custom-tailored bespoke suits, all of them intoxicated by their own beauty and the world’s best champagne, turned their eyes to the stage for one of the final performances.

A song begins, and a female voice belts out from the darkness. The tune is familiar to many in the audience and those watching at home. The rich, pitch-perfect vibrato grows in strength as it continues singing in the distinct and unmistakable style of down-home, Sunday-go-to-meeting worship. A spotlight clicks on, and a slender, impossibly young-looking man dressed in a tribal patterned sweatshirt and jeans appears. He looks humbled, honored to be here but also steady, self-assured. His body rocks with energy as he directs his fingers upward. Pre-recorded vocals cascade out from the speakers, an authority speaking from above. Scoffing at, obliterating the vanity of all those who sit before the stage, the voice speaks with a smirking, palpable sense of irony: God is better than the world’s best thing.

And then Chance starts rapping, with the speed and intensity of a seasoned professional performer; with all of the ambition and revelation of a prophet before his king.

That was how much of the country met Chance the Rapper. It was the perfect introduction.

Chance’s medley stands in contrast with the performance of A Tribe Called Quest during that same awards show, just moments earlier. ATCQ chose pointed satire and polarizing, hyperbolic statements to accompany their songs, memorably referring to our current president as “Agent Orange” and inviting a parade of hijab-clad dancers on stage alongside them. While it’s demonstrable that this particular brand of criticism greatly aggrieves the White House’s occupant (source: Twitter. His own.), there’s also proof that political satire rarely motivates change within societies. In Heather LaMarre’s study, “The Irony of Satire,”  she brings to light the connection between confirmation bias and performances like ATCQ’s and recent Saturday Night Live sketches; these acts of theater leave just enough ambiguity that viewers can absorb what they want to absorb, find amusement in what they agree with, and leave the rest for someone else to interpret.  

But Chance’s national debut didn’t abandon politics, and neither does Chance himself. A strong proponent of the successful “My Brother’s Keeper” mentorship program, Chance also led voter-registration drives at his concerts and championed the democratic process throughout election season last year. Chance’s lyrics incorporate political references that sincerely question systemic marginalization and tend to reference role models, not enemies. The only antagonist Chance seems threatened by is Satan himself.

There’s been some commentary that “joy is an act of resistance.” Watching Chance brings us to the inverse question, “Can resistance itself be an act… of joy?”

In the Byzantine Empire, the long-suffering peasants supported a government-sponsored campaign of iconoclasm. They sought out and destroyed religious and political iconography, which they had come to see as symbols not of faith and prosperity but as representations of class barriers and bloodshed. They saw destruction as the only way forward for themselves. Destruction of artifacts has been an oft-repeated sign of resistance and a society in tumult ever since.

Part of what makes Chance so special, so significant to the moment we are in is this: while many seek to deconstruct the broken systems of our divided political classes, Chance remains a true egalitarian. He’s an iconoclast that doesn’t seek to behead the ancient statues of our shared past. He embraces religious symbolism, treasuring them, all the while his very existence desecrates the system he’s escaped. “The people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be,” he declares in the reprise of his song, “Blessings.” In that same song, he remarks that it “seems like blessings keep falling in [my] lap.” He sees his seemingly magical avoidance from the snare of the music industry bureaucracy not as a conquest of war, but a charming accident.

Chancelor Bennett still owns the rights to all of his original recordings. In his own words, he’s “In his own words:  “pre-currency, post-language, anti-label, pro-famous.” He’s such a successful streaming-only artist without label representation that the Grammy’s literally rewrote their own rules so he’d qualify to win one. The natural outcome of Chance’s forever free, forever thankful way of thinking is an infectious magnetism that would be impossible to duplicate.

Whether it’s rooting for the Chicago Cubs in the World Series despite his lifelong White Sox affinity, or working to get tickets back from scalpers so that more fans can attend his sold-out shows, Chance inhabits his own charisma with an earth-bound humility that only serves to enchant his audience even further. Chance celebrates without being self-congratulatory, and elevates others with a graciousness that reads as ever-authentic. His lyrics speak to a running interior monologue; one that reflects an awareness, a deprecation, an amusement; but never an ego.

Conservatives will say that our culture has been pulled apart, thread by thread, and that the center cannot hold our country together anymore. Liberals will say that there’s no common ground to stand on when the other side of the aisle has abandoned intellectual honesty in favor of populism. Both positions would indicate that there is no hope, no way forward, no way to delight in each other across the boundaries of race, religion, and politics. Chance proves these people wrong just by existing. If there was no hope left for our shared culture in the Trump era, hope couldn’t have resonated in the Staples Center late on Sunday night. If we were all out of hope, how could hope have brought the house down?

Anger points to anarchy. Satire stares back at us in the mirror. But hope points us toward each other.

My CD Collection: Les Miserables

(Original Broadway Cast Recording)

I cannot bring myself to listen to this CD. Or these CDs. It’s a double album. I got it on my birthday when I turned 19, or maybe 20. I had asked for Les Miserables because weeks or months earlier I was riding with my friends on the way to the beach to go surfing, and they were playing it on the stereo. The car was a dumpy, red, Chevy Blazer. The driver always left his wetsuits in the back, and it smelled like mildewed rubber.

So my friend doing the driving, and my other friend riding shotgun, had apparently fallen in love with the soundtrack to Les Miz in the week or so since I’d last seen them. They normally listened to REM’s Document, over and over and over. Now, to my dismay, they were playing at high volume a ballad by a sweet-voiced young woman, singing her heart out for a man who doesn’t love her. A musical? I asked, mockingly. We’re listening to a musical?

And yet, like a scoffer of a cult who, through sweet coercion and with remarkable speed, becomes a willing and earnest convert, I soon succumbed to the charms of the form. Because I was in the backseat, surfboards stacked across the folded seat to my left, my friends felt distant. I was wrapped in a little pocket that was lined with this woman’s heartbroken song. Despite my aversion to anything other than rock and/or roll, I, just like my companions up front, found myself smitten, overwhelmed by the singer’s bathetic crescendo. The softly sung denouement (“I love him, I love him, I love him–but only on my own”) was like a warm bed after a good cry. I left that car with a new thought in my head: I would like to hear this woman sing this song again. Many times again.

I’m not sure I’ve quoted the lyrics correctly. I refuse to look them up, just as I refuse to fish out Les Miz from the stack of CDs in the back of my office. I have a problem with the past. I am unable, or unwilling, to forget what’s embarrassed me, even when it’s been transfigured by hindsight and age into a charming or entertaining story. An example: One time, in 8th grade, before school started, I decided to play a prank on a pair of girls I noticed walking, a few yards away, on the blacktop: I’d run in front of them and pretend to be catching a football coming from behind and above their heads. They would duck and scream in panic, I’d say “ha ha, just kidding!” and then—what? They’d ask me to take them to the 8th-grade dance? (O Lord, what was I thinking?)  Off I went, sprinting toward the two, my arms outstretched and waiting for my imaginary spiral, when I tripped and fell not ten feet before them. My elbows were grated like cheese as I slid on the asphalt.

There are, alas, no time machines. I can’t go back and shake me by my terry-cloth collar and say, “Young man, think this through.” But if I did have a time machine, I’d need loads of fuel: There are dozens of moments, from about fourth grade and on into my forties, I’d like another crack at.

What does any of this have to do with Les Miz? Well, because I suspect the soundtrack is terrible from start to finish, I don’t want to be doubly embarrassed: First, by my insane, emotional response to one, particularly sentimental song; and second, by how much I enjoyed the whole shebang at the time. Some of it, even then, I knew was bad: “Lovely ladies come along and join us COME ALONG AND JOIN US.” Chewing the scenery a bit, eh singers? But for the most part, I found Les Miz profound, when maybe I should have been—ironically on the outside but secretly in tears— reveling in its self-important, trashy-tasteful aesthetic.

This is a diagnosis of my weak constitution. I was—heck, still am—susceptible to grand gestures of lonesome woe-is-me-ness. All through high school I was getting my fix for it from Robert Smith, of The Cure (dreamy, resplendent, mopey) and Morrissey, of the Smiths (witty, self-reflexive, ironic). I must have listened 1,000 times on my Walkman, while I mowed the lawn, to that little, imagined dialogue Morrissey has on “I Know It’s Over.” In it I heard my fears voiced (“tonight is like every other night, that’s why you’re on your own tonight”), along with a resolve that might assuage them: “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, it takes strength to be gentle and kind…”

Other songs continued the theme: From the Pretty in Pink soundtrack I heard “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get I Want,” my first encounter with the Smiths, singing a desire I shared but would never myself utter. “Unloveable” embodied a gambit I seriously considered but somehow (mercifully) never tried: If I declare how unloveable I am, then surely the unnamed object of my affections will come round to tell me, No, it isn’t true! You ARE loveable! I took from these songs the idea that self-pity can be used as a pre-emptive strike on anyone’s apathy in the face of one’s obvious awesomeness: “I know that you would like me if only you would see me,” Morrissey sang, and I sang in my car those words with him, making them my own. This kind of thinking comforted me in my own quiet performances of humility and self-denigration.

If this sounds a little over-the-top, it’s probably because at the time I took Morrissey’s persona at face value, failing to recognized how laced with humor and deliberate exaggeration it was. I listened to “Reel Around the Fountain” and “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” and believed that the weight of love and unspoken desire is as crushing as a ten-ton truck–which, of course, it is. But it’s not what a seventeen-year-old needs, or not what this seventeen-year-old needed, since it merely amplified my already melodramatic, hormonally charged disposition. It was like spiking a Redbull with coffee and speed.

Last year, in Slate, Forrest Wickman wrote a polemic “Against Subtlety,” which calls out the notion that subtlety is the hallmark of good art. He approvingly recounts Pauline Kael’s description of the great, unsubtle Citizen Kane: “‘a shallow masterpiece’ that is ‘overwrought’ with ‘obvious penny-dreadful popular theatrics.’” The same critique could be applied to Morrissey’s lyrics, especially in that first qualifier: They are shallow because they come from a shallow place—a childish, if very real, wanting to be loved as much as possible by the person sitting right there, in the seat next to you, blind to how much you want them, and who cannot, for whatever reason, be alerted to the emotional tsunami gathering strength at their elbow.

While the brilliant mordancy of Morrissey’s lyrics was lost on me, that doesn’t mean I was necessarily misreading them. (Though I confess I didn’t know why claiming someone was a fan of Keats or Yeats was such a diss.) Recently, over dinner, I told a friend who also loved the Smiths back in the day that it was perhaps bad for me to have listened to them as much as I had, especially since I was able to perceive in them the delicious melodrama but not the knowing exaggeration. Because I was unable to tell the difference between Morrissey singing “I Won’t Share You” and Brian Adams singing “Heaven,” it meant that all expressions of unrequited love worked on my unprotected heart, especially, embarrassingly, when performed by—why is this so weird to write?—a woman. Maria McKee singing “Wheels”: Cough-cough. Madonna singing “Crazy for You”: Cough-hack-cough. Eponine, standing beside the river, singing of the one she loves but cannot have (Jean Valjean? Marius? Uh, me?): Wheez, hack, cough.

In short, I can’t revisit this album because it means revisiting a host of other issues that belong in a therapy session, not here in a semi-weekly column. Les Miz fails to admit what all musicals, and all people, should: That while it is necessary, at times, to break into song, it’s also necessarily ridiculous. I didn’t know that then, but I do now.

[Next up: Beulah, When Your Heartstrings Break]

Read the rest of Chris Davidson’s entries here.

My CD Collection, Week 4—Fishbone, Truth and Soul

I grew up loving the Led Zeppelin my brother played constantly; the Queen and ELO and Fleetwood Mac my sister spun in her room beneath posters of the Bee-Gees and Steve Martin and, uh, Fleetwood Mac; the Cheap Trick and Joe Jackson that I had chosen myself. The youngest of three, in a house where pop music reigned (my parents played a lot of Neil Diamond on the oak console stereo, and for some reason we had two copies of The Beach Boys’ Endless Summer floating around), I came to love melody and concision. Even with Zeppelin, I gravitated toward Houses of the Holy and In Through the Out Door, full as they were of eclectic and hummable tunes. I have a faint memory, from when I was seven or eight, of hearing—and being electrified by—“I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” It wasn’t articulable, what I felt, but it was something like, I want to keep having the feeling I’m having while hearing this song.

It might have been my junior high friends who let me dub their cassettes of UB40 and The English Beat, or it might have been the certain songs from the copy of London Calling given to me Christmas of ’82, but I also had a thing for reggae and ska. My love for the rigid, disciplined groove (not loose, not like funk) is hard to trace. One theory: this kind of music, often played by exemplary musicians, gives plenty of space for delightful, seemingly extemporaneous “bits” to show up.

A detour to explain what I mean. There’s a scene in The Graduate where Ben tells his parents he’s going to marry Elaine Robinson and is going to drive up to Berkeley to see her. When his parents learn the details—Elaine doesn’t know of Ben’s plans and in fact she hates him—their delight turns to bemusement. “This whole idea sounds pretty half-baked,” Ben’s father says. “Not it’s not,” Ben replies. “It’s completely baked.” As he exits the kitchen where his parents stand bewildered, the toaster, which has been in the foreground for most of the shot, pops up its toast—a non-sequitur that also serves as an exclamation point on the scene. That “bit” perhaps stood out to me because of the formal discipline of the scene, from the camera’s relative stillness to the framing of the action. The toaster does what toasters do.

Grace notes like these are not what most people think of when they think of The Graduate. Yet for me it’s exemplary of what makes the movie work. In an essay about writing, though really it could be about any kind of art, Stanley Hauerwas tell us, “the truth is in the details, and it is the details that produce sentences that matter.” It’s the details, responding to and embedded in the flow of the work, that make the work of art recognizably human and communal. The inclusion of the toaster popping—whether by happy accident or intentional inclusion—is a grace-filled detail resulting from collaboration between actors, lighting crew, set designers, costumers, the DP, director, and editor.

And what is a band but a group of people committed to shared plans and collaboration? Near the end of The Clash’s “Revolution Rock,” it feels like the song is winding down after Joe Strummer’s declaration, “I’ve seen talent thrown away!” It’s here when the organ gingerly begins to evoke the melody, as if tiptoeing into a room of light sleepers. Strummer shouts, “The organ plays!” and it comes on in full confidence, as if to say, “You’re awake? Then GOOD MORNING!” I love that. What we don’t hear is the years of practice preceding a groove so well played, it affords bits like this to flourish and give the music its character.

So, Fishbone. I bought Truth and Soul, the band’s third release, right after it came out in fall of 1988—my freshman year in college. Listening to it again, for the first time in fifteen, maybe twenty years, was like visiting with a dear, lost acquaintance. The friends who introduced the band to me were themselves music fans and musicians. They helped me separate, with my ear, the drum line from the bass line, the guitar from them both. Whenever all three of us were in the car and Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” came on, we ceased talking so we could turn up and hear the drum fill at the 4:22 mark, a detail I suspect most people don’t catch. This was for me a lesson in close hearing.

(The excellent documentary Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone describes the band’s origins and ongoing musical journey. It lays out their biography and position as under sung, ahead-of-their-time alchemists who mixed ska, soul, reggae, heavy metal, folk, funk, punk, and whatever else they had in the kitchen. It more thoroughly develops a picture this column will only sketch.)

The main thing is that Fishbone were six dudes who could play, and how they played made room for those small, wonderful bits that remind us music is made by people working together through and against their distinct personalities. On opening track “Freddie’s Dead,” a cover of and improvement on the old Curtis Mayfield song, there’s one, fraction-of-a-second horn blast, at around1:35, right after a barely heard “Hey!,” that slots right into the groove. In the same song, on what might be called the bridge, where everything but an unprocessed guitar and Angelo Moore’s freed-from-reverb voice drops from the mix—it’s not just the drama of the moment, but the extra chick-a of the guitar between “It could be such a beautiful world” (chick-a) “with a wonderful girl” that gives the desire expressed in the words its extra kick.

There are so many of these moments on the album, in songs that are both spacious and sonically dense, in melodies that my limited vocabulary can only call “catchy.” That “catchiness” scratched my pop music itch, but it’s the improvisatory moments that leap out. It takes cats to be able to lock in, as they do on “Question of Life” and call-and-respond not just in their voices but through their instruments. Truth and Soul’s songs are composed and produced—in a studio, with a budget for extra takes—but the performances bring to mind something the jazz drummer Ralph Peterson once said:

“…a lot of times when you get into a musical conversation [i.e., a jam session] one person in the group will state an idea or the beginning of an idea and another person will complete the idea or their interpretation of the same idea, how they hear it.

That’s what the organ does on “Question of Life,” “completing” a line the sax plays earlier. It’s what Fishbone’s panoply of voices does throughout the album. Five of the band members sang well enough that they might have been a premiere doo-wop group had they been born a few decades earlier. Take “Mighty Long Way,” a rock song I didn’t love back in the day, but which I love now. The five singers trade verses like the Jackson 5 or the guests on a Funkadelic track. The form is 70s-inspired rock, loping along and celebratory. Its message: “Me and my friends go a mighty long way.” Its best lyric: “It breaks my ass like a windowsill.” I don’t know what it means, but it makes me smile.

This is something else admirable about the band: its vaudevillian, comic spirit. Listen to “Modern Industry,” from the band’s debut.  My friends and I quoted the lyrics to each other, as some will quote Monty Python. You can hear Fishbone’s ability to mimic vocal types (rock’n’roll DJ, surfer, preacher, Danny Elfman). The song (and video) are a little antic, going for the laugh even at the cost of ethnic insensitivity, a complication compounded by the fact that Fishbone were, and are, comprised of black men.

FBF

Truth and Soul was the first recording by the band that brought their blackness into my consciousness. It was certainly the first CD I bought that wasn’t by white people. That isn’t to say I didn’t know they were African Americans—I had all their earlier stuff on cassette, and I could see—but through this album I reckoned with what that could mean. The liner notes informed me that “One Day”—a song about waiting (for redemption? justice? mass awakening?)—was one of three tracks recorded on MLK’s birthday. And the words for the remarkably spry “Ghetto Soundwave” could have been written last year or last month: Verse one: “There’s another cry of murder / Policeman shoot down baby brother.” Verse two: “A father tries to feed his family / They came here to find their opportunity.” Verse three: “Another bourgeois politician / Hears our plea but does not listen.”

“Slow Bus Movin’ (Howard Beach Party)” was the song that most directly and angrily addressed racism and, well, my culpability in America’s racist legacy: “Round and around and around they go / The bus is goin’ mighty slow/ Brothers in the backseat, Caucs in the front.” The word “Caucs” was too much for one of my friends, who otherwise loved the band, since it—he helpfully pointed out the subtext—implied that all Caucasian people were, you know, ahem. He claimed reverse racism and was truly outraged. Yet the song doesn’t make a lot of sense as protest, if for no reason than its music—a hoedown of goofy movie-Western music. Songs like this confirmed for the dismissive that Fishbone were a novelty act.

Maybe because they were young, Fishbone’s intentionally socially conscious songs suffer from self-seriousness and incoherence. They were just on the other side of twenty when they recorded Truth and Soul, and like most young people addressing social issues in their art, they were full of what Yeats calls “passionate intensity.” At their best, Fishbone’s careening, offhand facility enacted together, for me maybe only, the melody my ear was drawn to and the tight groove that gave space for spontaneity. And sometimes, on this, their first “adult-themed” album, they synthesized both “truth” and “soul,” as they do in “Ma and Pa,” a song that specifies the kind of problems “Ghetto Soundwave” paints in broad, generalized strokes. Here we see that Reagan-era trope—the “breakdown of the family”—through the lens of a narrator feeling for his little sister during  “Ma” and “Pa’s” marital discord. The chorus’s protest, “Hey Ma and Pa / What the hell is wrong wich y’all?” feels real because it doesn’t feel forced.

I saw Fishbone in spring of ‘89, in the barely controlled chaos of maybe the best live performance I’ve ever seen by anyone, ever. Not a mosher myself, I stood enthralled as Fishbone’s mostly white fans manically bashed each other, sang along, crowd surfed while mimicking with their hands trumpets and trombones, and emerged from the pit bloodied and punch-drunk. I wasn’t thinking of the “black” experience in this country and the “truth” Fishbone was trying to get me to recognize. I was thinking of having a good time. (No question the band wanted to have a good time, too.)

The “truth” Fishbone sang about came through only in glimmers. Nevertheless, those glimmers introduced a kid from Orange County USA to a world past the suburbs he registered as normative living. (It would require a few more years and a number of other artists, writers, and friends to help me see a fuller and more devastating reality.) The “soul,” however, shone through loud and clear—in the careening panache the band’s talent embodied, in its overflowing life. As the angel admonishes Angelo in “Question of Life,” “You musnt wrong the right / You musnt dark the light / You must dove the vulture / You must do or die.” You must dove the vulture! That’s a bit of language play I’ve always thrilled to, a grace note in the midst of an album full of them. The double drum roll that soon follows it still sends me on my way.

Next Week: Les Miserables

My CD Collection, Week 3—V/A, Bob Dylan in the 80’s: Volume One

This is an ongoing series by Chris Davidson, our poetry editor. Entries for Weeks 1 and 2 can be found here. 

The first Dylan album I bought was Oh Mercy, on cassette, right after it came out. Reviews, which I’m a sucker for, called it a comeback for the man from Hibbing, so I drove to the San Clemente Wherehouse, bought it, unwrapped it, and popped it in the deck of my ’82 Tercel. This was in September of 1989, a few weeks before I headed back to college for the year. I therefore take it as somewhat of a cheat that Bob Dylan in the 80’s: Volume One includes two songs from 1990’s Under the Red Sky. One could argue that Dylan wrote “Wiggle Wiggle,” one of those two, sometime in ‘89, and that the cumbersome recording process held up its release till the next year. I don’t buy it. “Wiggle Wiggle” sounds like it was written ten minutes before it was tracked. No matter. Bob Dylan in the 80’s with Two Songs from the ‘90s doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

That definitional looseness should give the assembled artists room to have a little fun, and several of them do. For example, “Wiggle Wiggle” (note that I’m repeating that title, “Wiggle Wiggle,” as often as possible), is a bit of amusing drivel livened up by Slash’s transistor radio guitar and Aaron Freeman’s Dylan impression. He’s not the only one aping Dylan here. Like an actor in a Woody Allen movie taking on the director’s tics and delivery, some of the impressions land, like John Cusack’s in Bullets Over Broadway, and some don’t, like Kenneth Branagh’s in Celebrity. I leave it to the listener to figure out who’s who.

Bob Dylan in the 80s came to me from a student as thanks for a letter of recommendation. I was happy to get it. It’s a mild thrill to receive something solid and tangible, instead of, say, a gift card. And a music compilation has its own particular charm, like receiving an anthology of poems, or a box of chocolates. You may not like everything in it, but you’re bound to be surprised here and there by something tastier than you expect.

Nevertheless, any tribute CD post-2010 is a strange object. Consider the album under review. Although a lot of energy went into corralling the performers and creating the artwork and mastering and distributing the thing, and although it has a strong hook—digging up gems from Dylan’s lost decade—its reason for being is unclear. Who is the intended audience? The hard-core Dylan fans I know want to hear him sing his songs, not someone else. And most people under thirty-five are not going to pick this CD up. Some might listen to it on Spotify and choose a few tracks to add to their phones—and yet the point of a tribute album is to hear, side by side, different takes on the same body of work. Perhaps it was aimed at those in line at Starbucks, enticed into an impulse purchase by the rack of CDs next to the cash register, but the coffee chain got rid of those racks in 2015, shortly after Bob Dylan in the 80s was released. It’s possible that songs from the album were played on local NPR affiliates, who then offered it as a premium during membership drives, but I can’t imagine Bob Dylan in the 80s ever flying off the shelves. For the producers to put all that time and effort and money into making this CD as CDs face rapid extinction is an act of irrational, endearing hope.

victoria williams

The first tribute album I got was Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams, from 1994. This is a perfect example of the form. It had purpose, in that it was pulled together for the sake of the songwriter it celebrated, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and, as a low-selling but highly respected musician, lacked health insurance to help manage her condition’s expenses. It launched a charity that to this day helps struggling musicians pay medical bills. It featured a healthy mix of artists, from alt rockers at peak fame to roots revivalists in the rising-in-popularity but hideously named Adult Album Alternative Radio, from college-rock mainstays to revered veterans. It introduced to a wider audience a songwriter whose voice, an acquired taste, kept fans away from her concise, wise, and generous songs. And it landed Williams a new record deal.

Dylan, on the other hand, has had a record deal for fifty-four years, and none of the artists on Dylan in the 80s lights up the marquee like Pearl Jam did two decades ago. Instead, they read like a Pitchfork dream team, before Pitchfork discovered hip hop and Carly Rae Jepsen. Built to Spill’s serviceable “Jokerman” doesn’t reach the aurally majestic heights that band so often reaches, but it’s still a great rock song. Craig Finn’s “Sweetheart Like You” is a lovely ballad that would fit right in as the fourth track of any Hold Steady album. Deer Tick’s “Night after Night” is a charming Jimmy Buffett homage, complete with electric piano and boozy tempo. Reggie Watts’ “Brownsville Girl,” though not as inspired as his riff on Van Halen’s stupid and irresistible “Panama,” reminds the listener that Watts is not just a comedian—he’s a singer of surprising range and a master of sonic trickery. An outfit named Ivan & Alyosha (I get that reference!) turn in a sincere, harmony-driven version of the castoff “You Changed My Life.” (Their version is good, but I prefer the original, with its remarkably propulsive drums and Dylan’s sneering delivery of lines like “You do the work of the devil, you got a million friends / They’ll be there when you got something, they’ll take it all in the end.”) Dawn Landes sings a gorgeous “Dark Eyes,” with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, resplendent harmonist, in accompaniment. In short, this is an excellent listen.

If none of these titles rings a bell, don’t worry. That’s the point. Nobody’s heard of them. As the story goes, the ‘80s were a bad time for Bob Dylan. I mean, look at this album cover! Who let him dress like that? Yet this project demonstrates that Dylan’s weak output might have been a matter of context as much as quality. He’d been recording for twenty years, having released twenty albums. Like Neil Young, at roughly the same time, he tried out different clothes, recording techniques, and backing bands out of…what? Boredom? Desperation?

Dylan

At the beginning of his career, Dylan was called—by marketing agents, by journalists, by someone—the voice of his generation. Despite his protestations, the identity stuck. After twenty years, a few years shy of the demographic definition of a generation, those Dylan “spoke for” found themselves, like him, in their 40s—working, having families, spending less and less time on leisure. In a few years, they’d have the means to shell out $200 to go see him or the Stones or Paul McCartney in concert, or $1000 to see them all at once, a reward for their years wandering the desert of domesticity. In the meantime, what was Dylan to do? Wake up and go to work, just as he had since 1962. His harried fans, who used to buy records and march in the streets and burn their draft cards now had mortgages to pay and kids to raise and minivans to buy. Heroes are for the young. Hence Dylan’s dressing like Don Johnson in Miami Vice. Hence his flirtation with hip-hop and drum machines.

Of course, this kind of pop sociology is based in mere conjecture, since I’m no historian and I don’t pretend to know what Dylan thinks. In the 80s, my understanding of Dylan and the counterculture was limited to a) hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” a whole lot on classic rock radio, and b) occasionally seeing on TV metonymic images of youthful unrest meant to signify “The 60s.” Still, I like to think of Dylan worrying about his slipping audience and thus buying into fads meant to appeal to younger fans. Such grasping makes him more human, somehow. You could argue that Dylan’s subsequent artistic rebirth happened when he remembered what he already knew: That to seek for relevance is a mug’s game. The real pursuit, as for the poets of old, is immortality, which meant Dylan had to reclaim—sonically, visually, persona-ly—his mythic identity. Beginning with Oh Mercy, his sound and wardrobe returned to the roots-oriented, old timey-ness of the Basement Tapes era, though now he had the grizzled countenance to match the threads. Returned from his sojourn through banality was the mysterious man in the alleyway, present but unknowable. For evidence, look at this post-performance interaction with David Letterman, from 1984, and this one, from last year. In 1984, he interacts with the host, and even laughs at his jokes. In 2015, he’s aloof and distant, a resident of Olympus, come down to bless us with his presence.

That’s why some of the best stuff on Bob Dylan in the 80s is either irreverent toward its source, like the Watts performance, or drawn from his born-again phase. Beginning in 1979, the artistic genius, the beat-poet hipster, the man apart sang about sin and salvation and the person of Jesus Christ, and he seemed to believe the whole thing, from Genesis to Revelation. If you’ve seen No Direction Home or Don’t Look Back, you know that one aspect of Dylan’s genius is his refusal to be pigeonholed, to explain what his songs mean or what he means. It’s poignantly sad to hear his aged protest-singer peers lament Dylan’s moving on to a less easily defined set of goals, betraying (for them) the cause their music served. For Dylan, “art” was the cause; it was not subordinate to a political movement. As soon as you let your work be used for a movement, you’re subject to its leaders’ exploitation and eventual irrelevance.

Dylan’s born-again period is fascinating because he willingly let himself be pigeonholed, subordinating his art for an easily ridiculed cause: Evangelical Christianity. It was gutsy of Dylan, in 1960, to give up his name and fabricate his history on the way to Greenwich Village and the subsequent renown he’d achieve. It was arguably gutsier, in 1979, to risk that renown by singing of ideas handed down by tradition instead of forged in the Blake-ian heat of artistic creation. Christian faith demanded of Dylan the kind of personal definition he made his name evading. It also meant that Dylan hitched his wagon to a movement associated with obnoxious, power-hungry men using the subjects he sang about to condemn whole swaths of the American electorate.

Alas, it was as short-lived as his tenure singing protest songs. Yet whatever beliefs Dylan held in 1980, the subsequent decade is pervaded by his encounter with (what he claimed at the time was) the sacred. What these songs lack in innovation and vision, especially when compared with his mid-60s output, they make up in sincerity and a belief in transcendence that predates by ten years David Foster Wallace, Paul Thomas Anderson, and The Soft Bulletin. You can hear it in “Ring Them Bells,” from Oh Mercy, and “God Knows,” from Under the Red Sky, and it pops up again and again in Bob Dylan in the 80s, which ends with a lovely three-song suite about reality, resolve, and peaceful resignation. The marvelous Lucius perform “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,” a song about frail human relationships that also manages to celebrate and reassure us about the approaching, implacable darkness. Glen Hansard brings all the shameless earnestness he brought to the movie Once with “Pressing On,” a song of devotion and will that builds in power as it unfolds, like a religiously-backed “Invictus.” And Carl Broemel’s lovely, nasal tenor, along with a ghostly choir of multi-tracked voices, ends the proceedings by insisting, without hectoring us, that “Death is Not the End.”

Ahh, but this review is at its end. In the few words I have left, I’d like to say—to my former student Nathan who gave me this CD, to the producers of this foolishly devoted project—thank you. I’ve played it and thought about it. I’ve felt better about life each time I’ve listened to its last three songs. And now I’ve written about it. It’s lived on beyond its making.

[Next week: Fishbone, Truth and Soul]

 

The Wounds of Belief

hoe met up before a show. He was wearing a bandana around his face while working on the ancient wheels of his ancient tour bus, adorned with hand-painted flowers and cracked windows. We shook hands, and his were covered in grease. My husband was star-struck, quivering in happiness and the particular fear of wanting to appear somewhat cool in front of your idol—the lead singer and lyricist of mewithoutYou, Aaron Weiss. He washed his hands and changed into a sunflower-covered sweater. In the Portland rain we plunged into a conversation about Palestine, struggling with religious fanaticism, and what to do with our stone-cold hearts.

He talked, I listened, my husband sat with us humming with joy. I wrote down quotes in my little notebook. I tried to act like an impartial journalist, just another person with questions for a rockstar. But really, all I wanted to do was put down my notebook. All I wanted to do was pour out my story to him, to tell him what his music had meant to me, to ask if it ever meant anything at all to him. But I was scared because I did not entirely trust Aaron Weiss due to the depths of our one-sided connection and because of what his answers might be.

Because people change…all the time. The lives we construct for ourselves get torn down and rebuilt, over and over and over again.

Aaron had recently taken a trip to Palestine and written about it on the band’s Facebook page in a series of travel journal essays. It had interested me, this spark of political conviction and belief in the midst of a long period of him delving into mysticism, poetry, and inscrutable lyrics. The evangelical in me was excited. Right beliefs, right actions! Let’s do something about the human rights abuses taking place in Palestine!

What did you think of all of the comments you got from your posts? I asked. There were more than a few disappointed fans, people who said farewell to the band, people talking about their own Zionist leanings. But it was the other comments that got to me, the nice yet insistent overtones I hear all the time when it comes to Palestine: It’s really complicated/don’t pick a side/be on the side of peace/we can’t have an opinion because we just don’t know everything.

Aaron read the comments, but did not feel the need to respond to many of them. “A lot of it was positive and encouraging. To me the critical posts were valuable.” For the few who commented and thanked him for his unbiased approach towards the conflict, he just laughed.

“Of course I am biased. I don’t believe in bias-free journalism, or value neutral terms. Why did I zero in on these particular religious fanatics—people who were extreme and determined in their God-given vision to take the land back? Why did I focus on them? Because their perspective and position is dangerous. And it’s one I resonate with as someone who has struggled with religious fanaticism.

Not picking a side is picking a side. Taking a neutral side is supporting the dominant oppression. That’s part of the reason why I allowed my pro-Palestinian bias to shine through in my posts. If I had tried to be more neutral I could have. But given the imbalance of power in that particular context, I felt it was fair to have a somewhat inverse balance of reporting. I was assuming the majority of my audience would be Zionist leaning, or that they didn’t care.

He was assuming that the majority of his audience is still composed of people who found the band while they were on the Christian label Tooth & Nail Records, when they played at religious festivals and circuits. The fans who screamed along to songs about Samson and longing to be filled up by God, people like myself who made it their life’s motto to pray the words from their song, C-Minor, “open up my doors, my Lord, to whatever makes me love You more.”

I have struggled with being deeply religious my entire life. In the beginning, I copied the desperate hearts for God I saw around me. As I grew older, the drive morphed into a passion to evangelize the world, to convert everyone to be just like me and mine. And in the ensuing years my certainty and faith have been deconstructed. The world itself knocked the wind out of me.

Weiss is familiar with this journey, the difference being that he undertook his movement from certainty to doubt publicly. Now, he says “I’m not catering to a singular ideology. I’m trying to incorporate the full spectrum of my religious familial history and personal journeys. and they are contradictory. There is not a single position that we are putting forth, so people who are looking for that have become disillusioned and disappointed.”

In “King Beetle on the Coconut Estate”,  Aaron sings of a beetle king and his court on their quest to figure out what is inside a great fire. Both a professor and a lieutenant try to explain or overpower the fire, and both come back with singed wings. In frustration, the beetle king cries “We sent for the Great Light and you bring us this? We didn’t ask what it seems like, we asked what it IS!” The king decides to fly straight into the flames while his court sings “Why not be utterly changed into fire?” inviting the listener to understand that some mysteries need to be experienced, and at great personal cost. The song is weird as hell and appeals to that part of me that always wanted to go up in flames for what was good and true and right, to see things clearly and not be caged by the dim mirror of our world. In my own life, this meant living with those who experience injustice and inequality in America, working within refugee and low-income communities, burning bright at the edges of the empire. But of course, after a few years of this, my flame dimmed, and I still had no clear picture of who or what I was actually serving. All I had were questions, piling up on one another.

So I asked Aaron the biggest one that has been burning in my heart for quite some time. What do we do after we have spent so much of our time deconstructing the certainty of our youth? How do we start to engage with the world again, to reconcile our doubts about ourselves enough to speak up for justice when it is plain there is none?

He answered slowly, thoughtfully, full of pauses. He is thinking about Palestine, of course, but I meant the question to apply to all of life, I am eager for his wisdom to inform me, like his songs have done.

“Do you need some degree of certainty to act against injustice? I certainly have felt some of that tension. There is some frustration with that feeling of uncertainty eating into a sense of action towards social justice. Especially when it’s not so clear what justice looks like or what ways we can go about bringing it. It can be paralyzing—doubting everything or thinking critically about your beliefs or your actions could result in utter withdrawal. In the case of writing about Palestine, I did wonder if I was doing more harm than good, especially in the case of social media, where anyone could stumble upon this information. Could this cause people to endorse violence against Israel? I posted because there was such an irresistibility about it; it was so palpable the feeling of the stories I was hearing and the heartache and the oppression and the suffering. Although the situation itself was complicated, the suffering was not complicated.

I have never been to Palestine, and I did not meet the people Aaron and his family encountered. But I have met my fair share of refugees, people fleeing from war and violence and corruption and human rights abuses. 

Even though he was only there for a few short weeks, I sensed that same wounding in Weiss, the same sensitivity that makes him such a glorious song-writer and inscrutable semi-public figure. He saw suffering on a scale that shocked him, and he decided to try and shock others around him. I asked him if there had been any lingering effects of the trip.

“It didn’t follow me as much as I thought it would. The day I left I flew to Europe and saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And very few people since have asked me about my trip to the Middle East. People have not been that interested. For the people of Palestine this was their life, and for me it was a kind of vacation. If I had more conviction maybe I would sell everything I have and leave my life of comfort and live life with the most oppressed. Why am I not doing more? It hasn’t changed my life very much. It’s another reminder of how little I allow my life to be changed. How little I allow my heart to break over the palpable injustice. Children being killed or people who don’t have clean water to drink. Or people who don’t have basic needs met. Why I choose to still buy expensive coffee when that’s happening—I can’t justify that. But that’s where I am at.

Monks, priests, poets, artists, desert fathers and mothers, saints, troubled people, fanatics are stubborn, idealistic, despondent, unstable, euphoric, crushed by never measuring up, swallowed into the sublime belonging for a moment. Us religious fanatics stretch and grow and hope that someday we will become contemplative, but instead settle for an uneasy dance between activism and acceptance. Always on the look-out for another wild-eyed seeker, I had found one in Aaron so many years ago. But even fanatics get tired after sometime.

In Palestine, Aaron went to the Aida refugee camp where the walls were painted with large murals of keys—signifying how quickly the Palestinians had to flee their homes, how they left the keys in their doors, trusting that one day they would be back, how they still cling to that dream. They are keys to their future, keys to having a place back in the world, keys to believing. Aaron wrote about this camp, and he told me the numbers that would not leave his mind:

“There were either 200 or 500 children killed in Gaza last year, for example. I don’t know how to carry that suffering with me. I don’t think I do carry that, maybe a tiny tiny fraction. The times I have felt the most alive and with the most integrity have been the times I have immersed myself in situations of those who are less fortunate and suffering, and not running away from it. Because it’s a trade-off. If you try and run from suffering your life will have a sort of hollowness to it, but if you embrace suffering or face it or try to stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized in any way—there is a difficulty in that but there is also a richness and meaning and a sense of goodness. So where am I? I can’t say. I’m not very far along the good path. But those kinds of trips are like taking a chisel to a stone heart, chipping away at it. I can’t forget those things. And Lord willing my wife and I will continue to surrender and grow in our willingness to surrender to face more of the difficult realities of the world.

I used to know all the right answers. I used to know how to follow God. I used to sing loudly and lustily along with my favorite bands. Now I feel quiet, cowed by a very complicated world. I used to be a religious fanatic, but in the way of those drawn to extremes. I now wish sometimes I could forget about the ways of the world.

I like Aaron, not only because he has a truly beautiful beard, but also because he still carries within him all the parts of himself. He is still, truth be told, struggling with religiosity. I see myself mirrored in him, how trying to follow God has wounded and healed us, how we know too much to be very happy with our life choices, that we are wondering how much of others suffering we are supposed to bear, and how much needs to be released back into the hands of someone bigger than ourselves.

I no longer read the Bible and scour it for prophecies about Israel, nor do I listen to the lyrics of a favorite band in order to validate my experience. I am slowly coming to the place where I see a thousand different sides to so many issues, where I no longer see the need to explain away violence as just a part of God’s plan for the world. I am picking up the pieces after the fires of life. I am searching for the keys to the new and beautiful kingdom where everyone has a home. But most of all I am learning to rebuild a faith, originally forged in being right, which now hinges on how willing I am to be wounded.

 

 

Photo by: Kyle Kenehan

My CD Collection—Week 2, The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing

The first two entries in this series can be found here and here.  Come back next Friday for another album!

This CD represents a number of points about music and commerce and culture trends and influence and aging. I hope by cataloging them I can get at something worthwhile.

1. This CD came into my possession through marriage.

I’ve been married long enough that to encounter something from before I met my wife is like discovering a strange and distant artifact in the most everyday of places, like finding a gold doubloon in the take-a-penny cup at 7-11. There’s the lightweight cook set still used for backpacking, the occasional book (such as Looking for Mr. Goodbar—calm down, people), a few mixtapes made for her by old friends, and a half-dozen CDs, yet none of these things represent my wife’s passions. She’s a good sport when it comes to camping, as long as I do the planning. She loves to read but never buys books anymore (“Libraries are free!” she tells me). Despite being an excellent singer, she rarely seeks music out on her own. A friend gave her the Hamilton soundtrack last year, and she listened to it plenty, but after a few weeks it was back to NPR. This from a woman who in her youth memorized every single word of Styx’s Paradise Theater album. Clearly, being married to me has robbed her of some kind of musical joy.

2. My wife acquired this CD through the BMG Music Club, where you get your initial twelve CDs for a penny.

How do I know? No barcode. [“See? No barcode!”]

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Whenever I think of the music industry crying over people stealing music, I think of these clubs, the last of which appears to have died only in the late oughts. Record companies gave CDs away as if they were valueless, in a system that was easy to game, as long as a few rubes bought a few CDs per year. If one or two CDs at full price covered the cost of the other twelve, then why was I charged $15 each time I went to the Wherehouse to pick up the latest from Pearl Jam? Perhaps we oughtn’t blame Napster or Spotify for the demise of the major record labels. The Man did it to himself.

3. I was a freshman in college when Cosmic Thing was released.

I’d been a fan of the B-52’s for a while. I loved the debut CD in high school, but before that, when I was in elementary school, I heard “Rock Lobster” on one of those old Warner Bros. promotional records, and it was nothing like the Boston, Led Zeppelin, or Neil Young with which I heard my brother fill the house. The neighborhood’s resident proto-hipster, a few years older than me and who made his own clothes and covered his walls in record sleeves and had the first waterbed I’d ever seen, told me and my friends that when Fred Schneider yells “Down, Down,” during the song’s breakdown, everyone at the band’s concerts gets down, literally, sinking slowly to the floor. I took him at his word, even though there was no way of verifying it. Apparently, he was right.

I love that video. It’s bracing to watch a band that few people knew play a song, on a tiny stage in a tiny club, that will in a few years become a cultural touchstone. The songs on the B’s first album are campy, inventive, surprising, and alive. “Planet Claire” builds slowly into something both ominous and dance-worthy, and “52 Girls” has no chorus and unison singing, and the whole album sounds woodshedded and tonally warm and handmade. You can almost “see” the musicians’ fingerprints on the sounds. The drums sound like they’re in the room with you. Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson’s vocals—their yips and yelps and screams and ululations—are bizarre and inspired and were so different from the more traditional “rock” vocals I’d hear on the radio from Ann Wilson and Pat Benatar. Ricky Wilson’s punk-inflected “Peter Gunn” guitar was the secret weapon. “Rock Lobster” is a lot of fun, for many reasons, but the last minute and a half or so cooks with gas via a guitar whose driving, repetitive low end emits, through expressive joy, trebly bleats and squawks. Marvelous. Listen to it again and hear what I mean.

Like John Waters and Tim Burton, who also devoted themselves to trash culture and the campier aspects of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the B-52’s mellowed with age and bigger budgets. Cosmic Thing’s production is credited to Don Was and Nile Rogers, tasteful producers favored by those (David Bowie, The Rolling Stones) looking for a career renaissance. Their touch can be heard immediately, in the drum sound, which is tight and shiny (thok, thok, thok), as opposed to the big, wet drums that dominated the ‘80s. All of the music feels compact. In my car, Cosmic Thing sounded as if it were coming out of one speaker and not two. The middle range dominates the mid-tempo songs. The harmonies are lovely, but the singing is straight. There are no calls of the manta ray or bikini whale. Fred Schneider shouts “Shake your honey buns!” and you may think of your dad saying something mildly embarrassing in front of friends brought home from school.

There’s nothing on the album as irresistibly silly as “6060-842” or “Song for a Future Generation,” as passionately unhinged as “Hero Worship,” as flat-out inspired as “Private Idaho.” The guitar plays a fine rhythm, yet its voice is less punk than adult contemporary. “June Bug” and “Channel Z,” my two favorite tracks, come closest to the strange urgency of records past. The former is about sex, and the latter about ecological destruction, perennial topics of inspiration.

4. Despite the apparently lukewarm assessment, above, Cosmic Thing still sounds great on an August afternoon with the windows open and a warm breeze blowing through (your car, your apartment, the leaves of the trees).
5. This CD represents the end of my influence on my son’s musical tastes.

Once my younger son, the other music fan in the family, grew tired with kids’ CDs, I suggested he listened the B-52’s. He loved them, and they provided, for a time, the soundtrack for our drives. He’s since moved on to his own music—currently in heavy rotation: 21 Pilots. As parents have felt since the invention of the hi-fi, I wish he’d turn it down

6. The B-52’s are still at it.

They last released an album in 2008, called Funplex, and three of the remaining members still tour. I listened to the song “Whammy Kiss” on YouTube, a thing at my fingers I neither pay for nor understand. Climate change continues apace. To write this article, I listened to a CD of music that was manufactured over twenty years ago of music that came out almost thirty years ago by a band that began playing forty years ago and will be playing in San Diego on August 14 with the English Beat. To borrow a phrase from Robert Christgau, “Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies.” 

Next week: V/A, Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One

My CD Collection: Week 1, The Strokes, Is This It

From now on, ‘My CD Collection’ will go live at The Curator on Friday afternoons. Keep coming back each week!

 

The Strokes were part of that wave of garage rock at the turn of the century that was, like techno in the ‘90s, hyped as the kick in the pants the moribund music industry needed. The band seemed aware of the hype that launched them. Look at their debut album title: Is This It. No question mark, as if the answer were built-in to those three words: This Is It. “Take It or Leave It” they sang, the band itself perhaps the “it” the indeterminate pronoun refers to, the “it” band not caring about whether anyone gets “it.” The Strokes were more art-school cool than the self-consciously blue-collar White Stripes, the ironic Hives, or the commercially polished Jet, yet I enjoyed all the music I heard on the radio by these bands, their songs a nice antidote to the post-grunge and Nu Metal saturating the white-people alt-rock airwaves. Nevertheless, Is This It is the only artifact I bought from the garage rock revival. Why?

In the era of YouTube and Spotify, finding new music is easy on the body and the pocketbook, but back in the day, paying for music carried risk and cost. I’d often lament the CD I just paid fifteen bucks for at the Virgin Megastore, even if I had just spent forty minutes (where did I find the time?) standing at the new music kiosk with headphones on, listening to the whole thing from start to finish. Once I owned the music, it somehow transformed into something less thrilling, weirdly familiar. That commonly recurring feeling put a check on my buying habits. When I found something I liked, and which lasted, I was grateful, but I was batting around .275 when it came to buying CDs.

For Is This It, my poor consumer satisfaction average was compounded by what I’m embarrassed to cop to as envy. The Strokes were media darlings, new and hip compared to tank-topped, backwards-cap-wearing hot heads like Fred Durst. They dressed well, they had impossibly chic names (Nick Valensi, Nikolai Fraiture, Fabrizio Moretti, and for a whiff of blues cred, Albert Hammond, Jr.), and were beautiful to look at—still are, in fact. The singing of Julian Casablancas (is this name for real?) didn’t seem addressed to any particular audience, as if he didn’t care what his listeners thought.

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Here’s where the envy comes in. It was hard, especially so fifteen years ago, to listen to any new music without it being refracted through my own conscious music-making self. You might say that, since I play basketball every Thursday evening, I might as well be envious of LeBron James. I’m not. Basketball, one of my favorite things to play and to watch, was a late-ish pastime. I became obsessed in my twenties, after a youth filled with athletic failure.

But music was different. It’s never been flat for me, a series of notes emanating from the radio in the corner. From a young age, music’s been a world, one I could enter and participate in. I started playing the guitar at 19 not to learn other peoples’ songs but to make my own. In 2001, I was seven years into making recordings I hoped others would love as much as I had loved them myself. Few did. Via the hype machine propping up the “it” band of late 2001, I saw in The Strokes all the cool I’d never be plus attention my music would never have. As for the ubiquitous single, “Last Nite,” its swagger and posture, its self-consciously retro production, the singer’s self-regarding delivery, all rubbed me—who convinced myself that self-deprecating modesty was a higher road an artiste should take—wrong.

Why did I buy the CD, then, if I wasn’t convinced by what I’d heard? Critics. I care, for good or for ill, about what critics think. They loved Is This It. Arbiters of cool—like the young white men at Pitchfork—raved about it. Apparently, I wanted approval of people I’d never meet, and one critic in particular convinced me to drive to the store and buy the thing. I don’t remember her name, but I remember she wrote about the guitar solo on “Last Nite,” which she said typified what was great about the band’s music: concision and craft. Nerdy as it might sound, I love concision in any kind of art, finding constraint, both as theme and form, a means by which the mettle of a craftsperson is tested. Limitation breeds invention and all that.

Nevertheless, as a “competitor” of the band’s, I resented and felt intimidated by their look and youth and the praise they bathed in, even by the minimalist production, which I took as a posture, and of course it was a posture! But what about my posture? Can I get a hell yeah for self-deprecating modesty?

This may be why it took about ten years for me to hear the album’s music for what it is: a sonic package meant to hit all my particular aural pleasure centers. I had to grow up in order to receive it. One afternoon, Is This It came on the CD changer while I worked on something in the kitchen. Every song was a concise and enjoyable system of melody and sound. At the guitar solo near the end of “Alone, Together,” I was knocked out. This album, I thought, is a terrific product. And product it is, as Robert Christgau’s brief review perceives and articulates. Casablancas sings with passionate detachment, and the music is a synthesis of the poppier elements of the underground music percolating at CBGBs in the 70s and 80s: The Stooges and The Modern Lovers and The Feelies and The Ramones and Television and Suicide, and of course The Velvets, with some Tom Petty thrown in as a nod to and finger flung at classic rock. The songs are about alienation, I guess, but I don’t listen to Is This It for insight about the human condition. I listen to it because it sounds good, in song after song after song.

It’s even at times decidedly fun, which is to say, not cool. Despite the images of bars and smoking and grimy street life, an anachronism in Giuliani’s New York, the video for “Someday” can’t disguise the fact that this number is a jaunty sing-along. Or listen to the bass on the title track. It plays a melody clearly pushed up in the mix by the producer, who knew it was a great counterpoint to the singer’s ennui-inflected delivery. It’s the loudest bass part on the album, and it undercuts, or overwhelms, the boredom the lyrics avow.

Finally, look at the CD booklet’s artwork, methodically curated to capitalize on the mystery and allure of the band and its compadres, including “guru,” and you’ll find on the last page a thank-you list. The nice boys in The Strokes would like to remind you that they have parents and are grateful for their support.

When I grow to love an album by an artist, I tend to buy everything that artist puts out, but Is This It is the only Strokes I’ve bought, and I doubt I’ll pick up any more. It took a decade, but when I had forgotten it made me feel jealous, I was able to be surprised by it, to favor its discipline and melodic complexity, to bop along to its kinetic, poppy hooks. It was a studied move, but I admire the fact that those who made Is This It decided that rocking out doesn’t need a richer production or higher volume but a restriction of space where the rocking out takes place. I don’t know if the band ever captured such a sustained success again, and I don’t want to find out. I love this gemlike collection of songs. I don’t want to be disappointed.

 

Next Week: The B-52s, Cosmic Thing

 

 

My CD Collection: Week Zero, Introduction

I bought my first CD in high school, Christmas of ’86 or ’87. It was Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibration. I picked it up at Tower Records, a twenty-minute drive from home, after receiving a CD player earlier that morning. A few years later I sold it back to a used record shop, fearing my fragile Christian faith would be overthrown by Marley’s Rastafarianism. I now regret selling it back, but I regret more the initial purchase—Catch a Fire is by far the better album. I wish I had it. 

Over the years, I collected hundreds of CDs, and last year when I moved out of the house I’d lived in for twelve years, I schlepped them with me to the new place. Most sit on shelves in a room behind the garage, unorganized and neglected. I don’t listen to most of them, ever.

In the ‘90s, I reviewed CDs for a San Diego alt-weekly magazine. I remember trashing an album by Letters to Cleo. The music was pleasant enough, perhaps a little slick and plain, which I took as an affront. After I saw the review in print, I felt terrible. A bunch of people—songwriters, musicians, engineers, cover artists, manufacturers—worked hard to make that record come into existence. One of these people said to another, “Hey, try this,” and they did, out of a belief that “this” made the product better. There was hope in all their labor, that perhaps old and new fans would soon pay for its fruits and enjoy them. Who was I to glibly knock the efforts of people I’d never met and who owed me nothing? I stopped reviewing music.

On my shelves is the evidence of efforts of hundreds, maybe thousands, of similar people who worked to make something I’d use to soundtrack the commutes and chores and occasional cookouts comprising my life. As the physical artifact has given way to (seemingly) weightless code, I’ve thought a lot about what a CD (or an LP, or a cassette) is. The gatefold picture accompanying Queen’s Jazz album shows a panorama of the resplendent studio where the band presumably recorded. Is the thing you hold in your hand the equivalent of that picture—Roger Taylor’s twenty-piece drum set, Brian May’s rigs and guitars, the grand piano Freddy Mercury has seductively draped himself over? Is the disk all that airy space above them, allowing the notes of his voice to resonate and attach to strips of magnetic tape? Is owning the physical artifact quantitatively or qualitatively different from streaming it? Do we own music when we stream it? Did we ever? Perhaps like land, perhaps like love, it’s foolish to “own” anything that people work at and say about, “These are my beloved songs: Listen to them.”

queen-jazz-gatefold

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” That’s Walter Benjamin, talking about visual art, but it might be applied to the reproductions of music we collect. Fairuza Balk’s groupie, in Almost Famous, says that to be a true fan is “To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” In her case, that means following the band around and hearing them live. That whole jam’s not reproducible in plastic or vinyl or even, so far, VR.

So what is that pile of CDs in the room behind the garage? Music, sure, as a reflection or shadow of it. It’s also a bunch of markers about my taste, my attempts to display my taste to others, and what I was like at 19, 25, and 37. It’s a series of attempts at being surprised, at believing that buying something and playing it and enjoying it will make my life somehow better. It is, finally, a dreary lesson in capitalism.

Over at the A.V. Club, Josh Modell is going through his CD collection, alphabetically, to critically assess whether its worth keeping or purging certain artists’ work. The focus of this series will be different. “My CD Collection” will be me trying to reckon with the personal history wrapped up in that pile of CDs, along with a critical engagement with its music, its packaging, and the notion that to judge something—like, say, a record by a female-fronted power pop band named after a childhood pen pal—is to step into it. What “it” is is partly what this project is about.   

Even though most music now comes to me via the Internet, I’m apparently not done buying CDs. I passed through my college town last week and couldn’t help but stop at the local independent record store. There I saw Mitski’s Puberty 2 displayed above the rack of CD’s labeled “M.” I’d already heard it three times on NPR’s First Listen weeks before, and I vowed to download it when I had a free minute. But here it was, shrink-wrapped and fairly priced ($13.99), and I walked out a little lighter in the wallet. I don’t regret it. It’s fantastic.

[Next week: Is This It, by The Strokes]

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.

 

 

 

Radiohead in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

After the enamored guitars and driving, straightforward vocals that characterized their first trio of albums (Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer), and the menace of digital angst that haunted the second three (Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief), Radiohead has brought their third (and, many speculate, their final) act to a close. Following up to the manic, disjointed and, at times, accusatory albums In Rainbows and King of Limbs, they give us Moon Shaped Pool—a complicated, ethereal offering that just might be the coda that unlocks it all.

At turns groaning, oblique, and painfully aware, Moon Shaped Pool leaves us with a legacy of what it has meant to be Radiohead. A band unearthed by their audience in message boards and discussed in chat rooms, whose music was downloaded on dial-up and burned onto treasured mix CDs before one day, in an industry shake-up, Radiohead gave In Rainbows to the public for whatever listeners felt like paying. With this act, one could argue that Radiohead transformed into something more than a “band,” becoming an artistic instrument of novel invention, forged in the fires of a technical revolution, echoing with brush percussion and a flourish of strings.

In the late 2010s tumult of personal branding and the headline economy, Radiohead has been steadfastly not that. Their “anti-media” campaign, during which they stealthily deleted all of their social media in anticipation of Moon Shaped Pool‘s’ release, reminded us that they are the last bastion of reluctantly successful rock stars, a team of destiny, the kind of talent that can’t help but loathe themselves a little bit.

Listening to one of the album’s standout tracks, “Daydreaming”, it almost feels like every glowing review and sold-out stadium has been a twist of the knife for York, et al. “Dreamers / they never learn / they never learn,” the song laments, as if accepting at last that the audience will always be an other—a bemused, entertained observer. The listener can never be the knowing, nodding sage in the political theater that is Radiohead’s existence. “This goes / beyond me, beyond you,” the words implore.

But it’s too late. Across the scope of our grating earnest youth, our disillusioned adolescence and now, our tired cynicism, Radiohead has been giving us fair warning of what lies ahead. Moon Shaped Pool is the abyss of Narcissus, the logical conclusion of our subterranean (homesick alien) lifestyles. The audience is fixated upon themselves, seeing in the performer only a reflection of self. Moon Shaped Pool is not a two-way mirror, but a reminder that you can drown in self-reflection.

How can a reflection of a thing, like an album copy, or any object for that matter, belong to everyone, and no one, all at once? It kind of …can’t. Walter Benjamin wrote about it in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

Benjamin goes on, “This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership.”

If there is one protest that runs through the Radiohead canon, it is a continual dismay at the state of modern unreality. The band’s music speaks to the suspension of the body’s organic functions in favor of a grinding, duty-bound consciousness facilitated by technology. “My Iron Lung,” “OK Computer,” “Fitter Happier,” and “There There” are just some of the most cut-and-dry examples. But Radiohead takes the concept to its final, most desperate destination in Pool’s “The Numbers.” In direct address to the sarcastic, side-eyed imagery he’s past invoked, Yorke emphatically reminds the listener that he was only kidding when he praised the life robotic, singing, “We are of the earth/ to her do we return/ the future is inside us/ it’s not somewhere else.”

These lyrics might as well be a direct nod to the core of Benjamin’s signature thesis. “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.”  And in the span of Radiohead’s career, the “authenticity” of objects has taken on a novel conception.  If the reality of a piece of art is connected intrinsically to the object’s tangible form, that means the story it tells is related heavily to the physical history of that object. But what about objects (and artists) that lose their physical history to a digital existence?

Most of my Radiohead collection lives in a server that I cannot locate, written in a language I cannot interpret, using technology I cannot operate. Though the music is tangible—through more venues of cloud-based technology that recreate the sounds of Radiohead recordings—the art is not something I can physically handle, or touch. I cannot inspect the condition in which it arrived in my possession. I cannot document the history or tradition in which it came from. Neither can I make my mark upon it; no matter how many times I listen to Moon Shaped Pool, it will be none the worse for wear. It will always sound the same. The same as everyone else’s copy of it.

If “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity,” and even the original lives somewhere in a server, location immaterial, what is the source of all of our replicas, the parent of Moon Shaped Pool?

It is, of course, Thom Yorke himself.

He knows it, too. Moon Shaped Pool is the performer, at last, dissolved at our feet. A man who doesn’t want to live as a machine anymore. A man who must be on his way. In “Desert Island Disc,” the machinery is again cast aside in favor of a life reincarnate. “Waking up/ waking up from a shutdown / from a thousand years of sleep,” he sings—not as much an announcement as a plea for leniency. How painful it must be to exist only as bundle of sounds.

In you/I’m lost/In you/I’m lost,” he tells us. We know—but we don’t want to let this—Thom’s voice, Radiohead, any of it—go. He has to make the audience us let go, by alienating them severely.

And he does. Using the weapons at his disposal, the disembodied songwriter turns the knife on the listener. In what would appear to be a parting gift for the Radiohead faithful, Moon Shaped Pool fades out with the a living, breathing, studio recording of “True Love Waits.”

Both mythic and inescapable, live recordings of “True Love Waits” have long existed in various iterations, with Thom’s voice sprawling over and caressing every word. The defiant, stunted vocal reach he clung to in later years vanishes in these live recordings, which led fans to conclude that Thom had a heart that beat for them after all. That he did want them watching. That he was happy to be the man, the myth, the disembodied voice of the digital landscape. He rejoiced to exist as Benjamin’s “artifact.”

But now, even this fantasy of Radiohead is destroyed. Moon Shaped Pool presents “True Love Waits”, dirge-ified. The newly recorded version is a dehydrated one; relying on a halted, mourning keyboard. “I’m not living/I’m just killing time.” Thom reverts to his digital self, his voice dehumanized and clouded by reverb. The chorus resonates as it always has, only this time we wonder if anyone meant it to begin with. “Just don’t leave/don’t leave.” It is a grinning challenge, one last wink. Don’t leave, he suggests, while reminding listeners that they can’t make him stay.

Radiohead knows that once the listener walks away, there is no more entrapment inside of their object. The abyss of Narcissus is left behind, both for the musician and the audience. No more self-reflection. No more digital prisons, and no more idioteque. The band’s time and place will cease to be, its meaningーlost on so many of us, all alongーgone for good. Replaced by copies of copies, echoes of echoes, dust upon dust. That’s the best that they can hope for, anymore.

Moon Shaped Pool asks us to look, one last time, and see ourselves before we go.

 

An Interview with Lecrae

It’s a hot Phoenix day at the end of March. The car lot at Grand Canyon University is filling up to the 6th level. Troves of people walk down to the auditorium: families, college students, some dressed to party, others in t-shirts that read “Anomaly,” others “Un-Ashamed.”

Arizona has been a frequent stop for Lecrae for more than 5 years. For the last two, I had the pleasure of interviewing him at his concerts. I’m brought to a holding area back stage, texts are sent, and through a cloth partition emerges this six-foot plus figure. Having published his first album more than ten years ago, he still thinks about what he’s doing with rap, how he wants to deliver his unusual rhymes. He recently published the book, Unashamed, a collection of thoughts on these subjects.

Below you’ll find my recent conversation with him, which has been edited for publication.

 

Charles Carman: Hip-hop and rap begins with Wu-Tang, Tupac, N.W.A. They’re angry; they’ve seen some stuff, and they want to reply to it. They threaten. They’re very creative with their threats. They’re violent. Then you enter the scene. Given how it began, where do you want hip-hop to end? Where is it going?

Lecrae: You have to go back further, to the late 70s, early 80s, when you had artists like Melle Mell or Grandmaster Flash, who spoke out against societal ills and were anti-violent, anti-drugs, and anti-misogyny. Then in the 1980s you have “The War on Drugs”, which radically changed the urban community. The community experienced a militarized police force, drug lords, senseless violence, murders, and the music became a mirror of what was going on. As people began to associate hip-hop with criminality, out of protest, rappers embraced the stigma, and said, “Ok, if this is what you think I am, then I’m just going to go with this.” They started making tons of money, so why change the formula?

Rap has always involved social commentary and scientific commentary—science of the mind and society—but rarely has it engaged the soul and spirituality. As an artist, I’m willing to engage the soul and the social; it’s an alternative view to how we wrestle with societal ills and who we are. I come with an eternal hope, a view of peace, and a view that things can change. I represent more Martin Luther King Jr., while most hip hop is a little more Malcom X.

C: Since “Real Talk” and now with the recent release of “Church Clothes 3”, how has your own work changed?

L: I’ve matured. I’ve always rapped about my experiences. In “Real Talk” you’re listening to a young man who was for the first time experiencing a systematic way to understand his Bible. It was new and I was passionate about this newness. I rap about whatever is fresh on my mind, whatever I’m learning. In “After the Music Stops”, I’m doing foreign missions and traveling. Then you have “Rebel”, where I’m engaging the inner city, standing against culture, and trying to be distinct in my perspectives. In “Rehab” I’m burned out, wondering, “what do I say now?” Then comes now, when I’ve realized that my new mission field and place to engage is the arts community and society. That’s what your hearing, the growth and progress of a person who’s experienced new things.

C: Going back to when hip-hop became an outlet, or a mirror as you say, of the violence in certain communities — some would say: “look, if Eminem, Kanye, Jay-Z, even Kendrick can’t be angry, you’ve taken out the gasoline, anger is the reason they rap.” You want to introduce hope, but they’ve never used that.

L: (Skeptical noise). Two fronts: Yes, hip-hop has consistently been the voice of disenfranchised, marginalized, and angry voices. That’s typical. But at the same time, hip-hop has changed. You can’t really pin it down. Like rock—what’s rock these days? Is it Foo Fighters? Is it Arcade Fire? What about Alabama Shakes? That is what’s happening to hip-hop. It’s become an umbrella—is it Macklemore, Drake, or Kendrick Lamar? This opens the door for people like me to offer an alternative brand or speak from a different vantage point.

C: Though, you do have criticisms, especially in “Anomaly”, opening with “Welcome to America”, and then in “Church Clothes 3” with…

L: No, there’s definitely angst in my music.

C: But you seem to be angry at different things, or at least willing to talk about it differently.

L: Everyone is interpreting a story, and to interpret a story correctly, you have to have a protagonist and an antagonist. A lot of times people have the wrong protagonist and antagonist, people make someone the antagonist who shouldn’t be. I have a broader perspective and don’t think any of us are the protagonist—none of us are the heroes in life’s grand story. All of us are more villainous than we would like to imagine.

C: Eminem would agree.

L: Yeah. But I’m not angry at a particular person. I’m mad at the infrastructure. At the same time, I understand that there are powers and forces of darkness and evil beyond that, and that’s what I’m really upset at, how we’ve become puppets for the forces or evil. That’s what angers me.

C: That reminds me of the short film made for “Church Clothes 3”. The kid at the very end; he’s seen a friend or a brother get shot and runs to get a gun. And everyone watching thinks, “We know what he’s going to do. What would all of us do?” It ends with the kid pointing the gun at the camera and lingering with it there. In the next scene, he throws the gun into the river. That seems to be what you and other rappers like Kendrick would agree with and say together—the throwing away of the gun. But what does the kid need to pick up next?

L: Someone needs to pick the kid up. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance about what’s going on, but no one’s willing to get in there and pick the kid up. And even if they do, it’s about what we’re communicating and teaching. There are practical things that anyone can teach that young man to make him better. But at the core of who he is, he’s a spiritual being. He has a soul. If that’s not addressed, we’re starting in the middle; we’re not dealing with the actual disease, we’re dealing with symptoms. It’s great that people want to treat the symptoms and stop the bleeding, but what is causing the bleeding? Who is picking this kid up?

C: Now I’m thinking about your unique place in the history of rap. You use this word, “Jesus,” then everyone says, “Wait a second, is this guy really a rapper?” But if they don’t have access to that hope, how long do we listen to them be angry?

L: Some people just embrace the mess that we exist in. For them, hope is just protecting your body, just staying alive, survival of the fittest. There’s no hope: just survive. There’s no divine intervention or solution.

This is a fallen world, susceptible to suffering. People who have a hope beyond this life still have to wrestle with temporal consequences. One’s mom is still going to die. Regardless of whether you see her again, she is still dead, and that’s frustrating, and so you have something to lament, something to point your anger at.

Let’s imagine a scenario where all of hip-hop embraces hope. You now have a different type of hip-hop. The culture looks completely different. You can still call it hip-hop. It’s refined, revised; it’s changed, redeemed. But if we’re realists, we’re going to see that not everyone subscribes to hope. There’s always going to be anger, always tension. We’re not going to arrive at a utopian society in this society of glory.

C: Is hope one of the reasons why you choose very carefully how to speak? You are very careful not to let the anger take over your language. Through this precision, it seems you are resisting a culture, especially within hip-hop, where it is so easy to spout anger.

L: Well, part of that is coming from a false sense of masculinity. But hip-hop is pretty masculine as an art form. Bravado is how you identify, and it takes someone who’s confident in their masculinity to say, “That’s not how I’m identified. I can be selfless, I can be gracious, and that makes me a man.” Because if my standard of masculinity is Jesus, and he is the picture of selflessness, humility, responsibility, and courage, then we’re operating from a different narrative.

Culture is not amoral. You can’t just take every aspect. You have to know what to take and what to reject. Simply adopting it would mean rejecting some aspects of my faith. This means that my faith should supersede and win out, and from this, I hope that people see an integrated faith.

For so long, people have believed that to be a Christian, I have to look like something, instead of re-imagining what you could look like in your culture as a Christian. I hope I’m embodying an integrated faith. I hope to redeem and redefine hip-hop, and not continue with the old model.

I believe changed people change things. You don’t just talk about it. Don’t just picket against abortion. Don’t just stand outside the building with a hashtag. Go talk to a young lady and say, “Hey, are you planning on having an abortion? What if I take the baby on?”

You just gave her hope. Pick the kid up.

 

Charles’ earlier conversations with Lecrae can be found here.

Metal’s Romantic Rebellion

The spirit we know as the Romantic has, from its beginnings in the backwaters of eighteenth-century Germany, taken many forms: within its folds can be found the sublime melodies of Beethoven, the passionate verses of Byron, the organic dialectic of Hegel, the pastoral ballads of Wordsworth, the mystical landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, the Gothic blackness of Wuthering Heights, the eerie fables of Washington Irving, the tortured yearnings of Wagner—to name its most popular expressions. At first, there would seem to be little uniting these disparate elements under a single name, and yet the deeper one delves, the clearer the common threads become.

At its heart, Romanticism is rebellion. Not rebellion for its own sake, but rebellion against an enemy all Romantics have deemed the most heretical to life itself: a tidy, rational, scientific, logical, fully knowable, and closed universe; that is, any overly rigid system, which forfeits passion, authenticity, creativity, originality, and mystery for spiritual death. Rebellion fueled Romanticism from the beginning, when a small but vocal group of Protestant German intellectuals, artists, and theologians rose up against the rational principles of the great Enlightenment project, whose expositors were mostly French and mostly atheists or deists (a lukewarm position possibly more heinous in Romantic eyes than atheism). The Enlightenment philosophes had seen themselves as the culmination of history; where before there was darkness, ignorance, irrationality, now there was light, tolerance, reason. Thinkers as different as Newton, Spinoza, Diderot, and Kant, like the Greeks before them, all saw the universe as a cosmos, a rationally ordered system which could be fully explained and understood and whose eternal laws ought to be applied to everyone at all times. Every discoverable question can be articulated; every question has a discoverable answer. The book is closed and the story all but written. Against this towering fortress the Romantic movement hurled itself with the force of a siege engine.

Abbey among Oak Trees Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) oil on canvas Current location: Alte National Galerie

Abbey Among Oak Trees , Caspar David Friedrich, (1774–1840), oil on canvas, current location: Alte National Galerie

Hundreds of years later, that fortress lies half in ruins, having sparred with a host of other enemies, and Romanticism, in many ways, has been reduced to a set of clichés: the ideal of the suffering artist, who is driven to madness by an original, almost demonic, genius; a dual view of Nature, both as uncorrupted, idyllic Eden and terrifying, pagan power; unbounded passion, emotionalism, and unconsummated love. These ideas suffuse our movies, our literature, and our imaginations. But the authentic, rebellious spirit of Romanticism lives on today, often in unexpected places.

If Romantic creativity finds its spark in antagonism to neat, ordered, too-rational, even bourgeois environments, then it has found one of its most fruitful expressions in that often cliché-ridden genre of music beloved of adolescent boys, tattooed muscle heads, faux-Satanists, aficionados of technique, and normal people alike: heavy metal. Music, along with poetry, have always been the art forms most conducive to Romantic expression, for a simple reason. These arts generally embody everything the Enlightenment sought to liberate itself from: intuition over rationality, mystery over explanation, transcendence over materialism. The poet or musician stands as antitype to the scientist, Dionysus against Apollo, as that authority which can rightfully speak for and direct humanity. As Blake puts it: “Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death.” And metal, at least in its fringe sub-genres, has always been one of the most extreme forms of music, seeking to stretch what is inherent in the art to its limits. Metal takes the rebellious and anti-scientific core of Romanticism, channels it through amplifiers, and turns it against the kinds of modern fortifications that approximate the intellectual hubris of the Enlightenment.

That the Romantic spirit animates metal is evidenced by Beethoven’s chugging bass lines, virtuosic treble runs, aggressive chord progressions, and minor-key sonorities, which reappear in the albums of Megadeth, Slayer, and Death. The Gothic tropes of the macabre, the grotesque, and the weird inform possibly every metal band’s album art, stage presentation, and general appearance, but perhaps most particularly those bands with a penchant for theatrics, from Immortal to Rob Zombie. And then there is Blake—who, as the poet Michael Robbins points out in an essay on poetry and metal for Harper’s, is the best untapped resource for aspiring metal lyricists, as in this passage from Milton:

The Negation is the Spectre, the Reasoning Power in Man:
This is a false Body, an Incrustation over my Immortal
Spirit, a Selfhood which must be put off and annihilated alway.

The lyrics in The Ark Work, the latest album by experimental black metal band Liturgy, attempt the same sentiment, even with an outright reference to Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell—although these words fail at attaining the status of what we might call good poetry (as is the case with most metal lyrics, although the words aren’t usually the point):

The doors of perception will open and close
Hope will exist in a problematic relationship with reason
Libidinal energy will whirl round like a rattle rattling
Hearts will be stopped bones will shatter shattering

Liturgy is a contentious band; the often heavy-handed, sophomoric, and esoteric ideas of their frontman, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix—who has penned a manifesto entitled “Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism”—have caused backlash among both mainstream listeners and traditional black metal diehards. But behind the outer pretensions of the band, the essence of their music is Romantic. Black metal, for Hunt-Hendrix, is not the calcified, anti-Christian, nihilistic expression historically associated with the sub-genre. It is rather a protest against prevailing systems and forms of knowledge, an openness to experiencing more than what is immediately evident or logically expressible.

Album artwork for Liturgy's The Ark Work

Album artwork for Liturgy’s The Ark Work

This broadly Romantic intellectual framework is less a product of pure, disembodied reason and more an amalgamation of many factors derived from first-hand experience. As anyone who has been to a metal concert, or any rock concert, can testify, experiencing music live is tactile and visceral. The throng of bodies, the stench and sting of sweat, the assault on eardrums—all of the senses converge to point to something that could never be expressed in words alone. This intuitive, experiential knowledge implies that the world we have built with language and reason is at least partially artificial. Beyond what we can understand, analyze, and speak about, there exists a plane of reality—not some other-world of Platonic forms, but the world itself in its fullness—the very essence of which is creativity, mystery, and life. According to Schopenhauer, “the composer reveals to us the intimate essence of the world; he is the interpreter of the profoundest wisdom, speaking a language which reason cannot understand.” Descartes seems to be missing something from his lofty and mentally isolated chair.

Deafheaven concert

In the Romantic context, all of this was first and most forcefully articulated by the obscure figure of J. G. Hamann, who was, according to Isaiah Berlin, “the most passionate, consistent, extreme and implacable enemy of the Enlightenment.” Hamann—one of whose many self-styled epithets was the incredibly metal “The Magus of the North”—lived and wrote in the East Prussian city of Königsberg at the same time as Kant, and was Kant’s nemesis in most matters philosophical, habitual, and temperamental. “Do either nothing or everything; the mediocre, the moderate, is repellent to me: I prefer an extreme,” said Hamann. Berlin places Hamann as the originator of a long line of rebellious, poetic iconoclasts that includes Blake, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and D. H. Lawrence, forerunners of a sensibility that would later be called existential. Hamann’s greatest enemies were those like Kant and the utilitarian Helvétius, who in their devotion to scientific reasoning as the panacea for all human curiosity, sufferings, and longings betrayed a “total blindness to man’s inner life, or the abysses of which Augustine and Pascal, Dante and Luther wrote” (Berlin, The Magus of the North).

Metal is well acquainted with those abysses. It soaks in them and pours them back out in torrents of sonic energy, howling yelps, and distorted guitars, forming tools to use in the dismantling of a particularly sterile form of Enlightenment rationality. And when that Socratic process of breaking down is not just self-serving or anarchic, when it is directed toward the creation of something new, it can often open up pathways to the transcendent. Nowhere is this more evident than in Sunbather and New Bermuda, the most recent two albums by black metal-meets-shoegaze band Deafheaven. It is difficult to listen to Deafheaven and not be moved, even if you are not a metal fan. They encompass both the highest of the high and the lowest of the low, the full range of human passions which was every Romantic’s duty to express. Although the lyrics again fall short of the eloquence of poetry, lines like “A multiverse of fuchsia/And violet surrenders to blackness now” are fully realized and transformed by the music itself, a perfect harmony of content and form.

When listening to this music, I feel I am in the realm of things apprehended intuitively. Words are slippery things. Like tricks of light at the edge of vision, they disappear when you try to look too closely at them. But the fundamental intellectual agnosticism in Romanticism and metal is not a purely negative posture; at its core is a desire to strip away extraneous ideas, false ideas, idolatrous ideas, the ideas of those who would try to live your life for you. When this happens, the real work of positive self-knowledge, self-determination, even of faith, begins. Hamann again, against the pat systems of stuffy Frenchmen: “Do not forget, for the sake of the cogito, the noble sum.”

Agents of Change

CI recently took one of my classes at Wheaton College to an on-campus, student performance of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. It was a stirring interpretation of a play that continues to challenge audiences, just as it has since its first performance by students at Carleton College in Minnesota in 1948. For those unfamiliar with the play, it portrays the story of a peasant girl who decides to care for an abandoned baby during wartime. Through her love and self-sacrifice, she proves to be a better caregiver of the child than his wealthy parents.

Later, when we reflected on the performance in our “Philosophy of the Arts” class, we had a vibrant conversation about what makes theatre unique among the arts, the benefits and challenges of live performance, and how our understanding of our embodied existence might be informed by watching a play. We also considered how the love displayed by the peasant girl might point to our call to love our neighbor and how a theatrical performance might enrich our understanding of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

For theologian James McCullough, while questions about the nature of theatre as a form of art might be interesting, far more important are those questions that will lead to personal transformation. According to McCullough, our class trip to Wheaton’s Arena Theater, like other engagements with the arts, can and should lead to spiritual growth. In Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation, McCullough affirms what might be called a practical theology of the arts according to which the arts can serve as a catalyst for spiritual formation. The notion that our perception of the arts should have an impact upon our spiritual formation may come quite naturally to some, though certainly not all, ecclesial traditions and communities. But McCullough seeks to bring together two fields–theological aesthetics and practical theology–that have had limited interaction academically.

ssp

Within the growing field of theology and the arts, McCullough stands in the tradition of Nicholas Wolterstorff and others who have maintained that the arts are not primarily something to be contemplated passively. Rather, they should be put to active use and can be agents of change in our lives, which according to McCullough should entail spiritual formation. More particularly, he contends that aesthesis, which is concerned with the perception of art and the development of the imagination, should go hand in hand with ascesis, a term that classically referred to athletic training, but has been adopted and applied to spiritual growth. Or, as he re-phrases it, his argument is concerned with both sense and spirituality, “how skills in sensory perception and imaginative engagement exist in a dialectical relationship with those related to ascetical development or spiritual formation, and how this dialectical relationship can be mediated, enhanced, or catalyzed through encounters with the arts.”[1]

The first half of McCullough’s relatively brief treatment of his topic offers a theoretical framework for what follows. Here, one encounters some of his foundational principles, including the affirmation that art is a form of communication that provides “cognitively valuable content.”[2] In addition, he argues that art is best understood as the amalgamation of three features: the employment of craft, which involves the intentionally communicative use of a disciplined skill; the production of content, which relates to its formal principles and organizing structures; and the dynamics of context, which point to the cultural situatedness of the artist, the artwork, and the audience.

In the second half of the book, McCullough turns to the practical application of his argument by considering three works by confessionally Christian artists in poetry, painting, and music, respectively: T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets; Makoto Fujimura’s The Four Holy Gospels; and James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross. In each case, following a brief introduction to the artist, the particular work is explored in light of its craft, content, and context with an eye towards its applicability to spiritual formation.

Overall, McCullough helpfully draws an explicit connection between aesthesis and ascesis – or, sense and spirituality – and lays the groundwork for further cultivation of this fertile soil. In this regard, he offers a laudable counter to those who fail to recognize that the arts have value beyond their contribution to the history of culture as well as those who fail to see a connection between theological affirmations and the practices of faith.

The book’s brevity makes it quite manageable and accessible, but unfortunately it also means that some aspects of McCullough’s argument are not as developed as they could be. For example, he provides brief vignettes on particular artists or scholars, including Francis Schaeffer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Ludwig van Beethoven, James Loder, and Helen Louise Gardner. These asides are helpful, but they are at times so brief that they leave the reader crying out for more than just a few sentences.

Likewise, while McCullough provides the theoretical framework for the possibility of art serving as a catalyst for spiritual formation, there is little reflection on how these particular works of art might actually lead to spiritual growth. He contends that the arts “catalyze spiritual formation by mediating the dynamics associated with aesthetical and ascetical practices,”[3] and he suggests that spiritual growth “comes about through looking and looking. And listening. And watching. And waiting. And reading. Over and over again.”[4] Encouraging such engagement with the arts with the goal of spiritual growth in mind is surely beneficial, but it leaves several questions unanswered: How, exactly, do such encounters with the arts shape people into more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ? How is this related to prayer, communal worship, the reading of Scripture, and other spiritual disciplines? Why are some experiences of the arts spiritually transformative while others are not?

Related to this, the important question of agency remains unresolved throughout the book. At times, one gets the impression that art itself is the initiator of this spiritually meaningful communicative experience. Surely, the triune God – through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit – plays a role in this encounter that leads to spiritual formation.

As one who teaches philosophical aesthetics, I share McCullough’s view that art is a powerfully communicative medium. That was evident enough after our class trip to the theatre. More importantly, as a Christian and a theologian, I share his hope that our encounters with the arts can lead to spiritual growth. Hopefully, my students walked away from the performance and our class discussion not only with a better understanding of the nature of art but also with a desire to demonstrate the kind of sacrificial love that Christ calls them to show. By God’s grace, the arts can play a role in shaping our spiritual lives and turning us into agents of change.


Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation, written by James McCullough, is published by Cascade Books.

[1] James McCullough, Sense and Spirituality, 9.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Ibid., 15 .

[4] Ibid., 111.

 

*Featured Image from the UBC performance of the The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Winter Albums: Sounds for the Season

This was first published in 2011, but winter’s come again so why not?

As much as I enjoy all of the seasons, I’m glad to see the last flickers of autumnal warmth snuffed out by the cold. I enjoy watching trees shake themselves free of leaves. I like watching my breath roll away as I walk to work. I enjoy hearing the crunch of snow under boot. And I also enjoy the wood crackling in a fire, baking Christmas cookies, and noticing the first snow of the season dancing to the ground.

But what I really love is winter music. Not Christmas music—I do enjoy that too, but I consider “winter music” to be something different. My favorite winter music comes in two flavors: textured slabs of drone (guitar-based or not) or crystalline, atmospheric folk. (As much as I like other genres like jazz and R&B, I haven’t really found many examples that fit the bill here.)

There are many other albums that fall into this category, but for the sake of brevity, I only picked a few to highlight. I wrap up the article with an extended list. It’s not exhaustive (I could add any album by Mogwai there), but it covers some of my favorites.

HumDownward is Heavenward (1998, RCA)

Even though their indefinite hiatus as a band is interrupted by reunion shows every few years, Hum put their music career on standby after the release of Downward is Heavenward. What a note to go out on. Hum’s music was dense: waves of feedback and guitar effects coalesced into something quite melodic, and vocalist Matt Talbott’s quiet delivery of cryptic sci-fi poetry barely surfaced in the ocean of noise. Hum seemed equally indebted to the ‘90s shoe-gazer bands, prog metal, and Polish author Stanislaw Lem, and it’s a combination that worked perfectly for them. And I’ll repeat how thick their music sounds.

Though practically overlooked upon its release, Downward is Heavenward has gathered an incredibly positive reputation over the past decade. I think it’s deserved: the album shifts between complex, shimmering epics (“Afternoon With the Axolotls”),  space-bound pop rock (“Ms. Lazarus”) and tunes that are somewhere in between (“If You Are To Bloom”). While it’s a warm, rich, loud album, there’s nothing summery about it.

Son Lux At War With Walls and Mazes (2007, Anticon Records)

at war with walls and mazes

Son Lux is one man (Ryan Lott), a handful of repeated lyrical fragments, and thousands of short samples arranged into something magnificent. The album has elements of trip hop and neo-classical music, both resting on a wonderfully ambient shelf. Lott uses sampled tones from opera singers, keyboard drones, string quartets, breakneck drums, and a host more; it’s meticulously constructed and wonderfully downbeat, despite the moments of musical euphoria throughout.

Lott’s brittle voice chimes in from time to time, using lyrical riffs to set the mood. There’s a meditative, monastic aspect to how he pauses between verses, eventually repeating a variation and then repeating it again. “Tell me anything you want to tell me, I have nothing to say,” he sings on “Tell.” He follows it up with “I have nothing to say to you / But you have everything to say to me.” It’s simple, but has impact. That the song is permeated by mournful slide guitar and pulsating samples only heightens this. It’s a chilly album, but there’s a lot of warmth sheltered in the ice.

IdahoHearts of Palm (2000, Idaho Music)

Jeff Martin’s music project Idaho started moving away from a full-band rock sound almost immediately after they released their first album in the mid-’90s, but the drift to ambient soundscapes didn’t really register until Hearts of Palm. Martin uses piano and tenor guitar to create frozen skeletons of songs, only sometimes fleshing the music out with drums, bass or additional keyboards. The resulting songs, like “To Be the One” and “Alta Dena,” are hummable without being cloying, pensive without sliding into depressing.

My favorite cut on Hearts of Palm is also my favorite winter song, “This Cloud We’re On.” The warm, fuzzy guitars and shuffling drums part to let in fragile female backing vocals and stark piano. It’s like watching sun briefly cut through the cloud cover on a December day.

 

Other wintery suggestions:

The Cure — Disintegration

Elliott Smith — Either/Or,

Okkervil River — Black Sheep Boy

Castor — Tracking Sounds Alone

The Twilight Sad — Forget the Night Ahead

Red House Painters — Red House Painters (Rollercoaster)

Eric Bachmann — To the Races

Mogwai — Mr. Beast

Urge Overkill — Exit the Dragon.

Fervent Self-Searching in Daloy Dance’s “Canton Atbp”

Desired and desiring bodies permeate Ea Torrado’s dance performance, “Canton Atbp” at the 2015 Fringe Manila Arts Festival. Portraying the sex workers of Manila, dance couples enact the old covetousness for bodies. There is the dismal traffic of human bodies in exchange for food, a place to sleep, and other basic needs. Men lustfully gaze at women’s bodies, women wear blank stares, showing the sinister tedium of being caught in a dark, exploitative game. Pancit cantons are packets of instant noodles, and the title “Canton” comes from how sex workers in Filipino urban communities trade a tryst for a packet of pancit canton.

“Canton” forms the first part of the 90-minute dance performance at the CCP Blackbox Theater, performed by Daloy Dance Company. A new enterprising contemporary dance group, Daloy is led by its artistic director Ea Torrado, a former ballet dancer trained in modern and contemporary dance. Torrado has performed for the Philippines’ top ballet companies—Ballet Manila and Ballet Philippines—and also had a professional stint overseas with Ballet Tennessee. Her recent forays into contemporary dance have led her to choreographic collaborations and experiments with dancers, theater and visual artists, and she has emerged as one of the most promising contemporary Filipino dance-makers.

Originally choreographed as a one-woman show first performed by Torrado at the 2014 Fringe Festival and the Ho Chi Minh International Dance Festival, the work “Canton Atbp” has now evolved into an ensemble piece to further flesh out the theme with a bigger cast. Dancers wore grey and black apparel, designed by John Carlo Pangunaling, highlighting the somber ennui inherent in the theme. They moved like shadows, heavy and ponderous across the stage, carrying the weight of a hidden world where people often remain nameless and unnamed. Here, women are manipulated like robots by prurient men.

daloy bodies

It is interesting to note the diversity of bodies that comprise the Daloy ensemble, breaking the corporeal stereotype of dancers as the uniformly slim and lissome. Daloy has well-sculpted dancers of medium-height, to small types and heavyset ones. In their dance, we find a quiet celebration of the heterogeneity of bodies, each equipped and articulate in exemplifying a composite array of somatic structures and utterances that seem to show the wide possibilities of transgression and transformation in the contemporary performative condition.

Thespian Delphine Buencamino took the lead role in the latter part of “Canton,” as she becomes a body passing from one among many. She shows anguish and vulnerability as she bolts and charges from one space to the next, only to be caught in the same web of people who keep her trapped in the peddling and uneasy exchange of bodies. Despite the darkness of the theme, the piece showed a seamless choreographic flow with touches of contact improvisation technique that the group is known for.

daloy

The second dance of the evening, “Himalaya,” contrasts with “Canton,” as it is a lighthearted piece celebrating the traditional value of bayanihan (cooperation) in Filipino cultural communities. “Himalaya,” the title, is a contraction of two Tagalog words, “himala” (miracle) and “laya” (freedom), and provides clues regarding the inventive melding of ideas and cultural tropes—the ancient and the contemporary—that Daloy seems to represent in their curatorial and performative agenda.

Dancers wove in and out, forming harmonious entwinements that show the verve of festive unity and the concomitant virtues known in Philippine pre-colonial life. It began with a short duet between Ea Torrado and Al Bernard Garcia, who melded rapturously with the group ensemble. Barefoot, raw, unfettered and earthbound, the movements are reminiscent of the Southeast Asian ritual performances. Towards the end, dancers accompanied their movements with melodic howls and bellows, echoing rapturous chanting incantations in Asian musical traditions, bringing the audience to a convivial mood, gradually built after the downcast temper of the first dance.

“Canton” and “Himalaya” exemplify the diversity of themes that Daloy Dance Company are capable of rendering in contemporary kinetic form, blessing us with a language of movement that is fervent and borne of heartfelt self-searching in the habitat of Filipino contemporary dance and performance. In their performances, they create a space for the aesthetics of the everyday and traditional values to meet, engaging in what Philippine Humanities scholar Felipe de Leon, Jr. calls the “re-enchantment of art.” Combined with their bold experimental gestures and use of cultural traditions, Daly Dance Company is an audacious voice slowly navigating the new ground in the current Philippine dance scene.

Art critic Suzi Gablik has critiqued the alienation and social antipathy of Western modernist art, while invoking art that can be a relevant crucible for a people’s sense of purpose, offering a sense of community, an anchor of a culture’s time-honored values amidst the precarious hegemony of hyper-consumption in the contemporary art world.

The Daloy Company embodies Gablik’s hope for art, emerging as a community of artistic collaborators, drawing from traditional and contemporary Asian/Filipino representations of selfhood, not a hegemonic one, but an identity contested and negotiated in an increasingly global world—where boundaries must be set and constantly articulated through the dynamic crucible and language of the performing arts.

A Call to Lament

In the wake and chaos of grief, we humans long for order. I experienced this longing only a few months ago when my fiancée and I called off our engagement. The pangs of grief were so great that I buried my sadness, hoping to delay the waves of depression that would inevitably come. I spent the next several days trying to forget the pain of losing the woman I loved. Cleaning the house, reading books, listening to records and hanging out with friends gave me a temporary sense of order. Yet the pain lingered despite my best efforts to suppress it.

When grief enters our lives, a cosmic rebalancing is needed. We often react as I did, seeking out hideaways of structure in small ways: organizing a desk, doing the laundry, cooking a meal. But were not okay. Choosing to ignore the grief does not help. When weve suffered a great injustice, the pain will not go away. If only someone could brush away the pain as simply as scrubbing dirt off our shoulders.

Americans are quick to offer platitudes to those who grieve. Think positively. Everything will work out in the end. Pray and God will take it away, we say. But optimistic clichés only serve as salt in the wounds of despair. Thinking positively begets a swirl of manic highs and lows. Were afraid to grieve and to remain in grief too long. Oftentimes the best prescription is to weep, and for those around us to remain silent and weep with us.

The 80s New Wave band Tears for Fears was founded on the idea of fully pressing into pain as a pathway out of grief. Band members Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith recount in an oral history of their debut album, The Hurting:

Roland Orzabal: “I had a guitar teacher, and she introduced me to a book called The Primal Scream (by [American psychotherapist] Arthur Janov). And I read it, and it became my bible…The therapist would try to lead you to recall something that happened to you, and your way of mourningand its a deep way of mourningis that you actually cry…I converted Curt, you might say. I suppose both of us were believing we were victims, so we would quite often try and convince other people of the validity of Janovs ideas, but no one would…”

Curt Smith: Once Id got the name Tears for Fears in my head, which was from the Arthur Janov book, Prisoners of Pain, I told Roland. I think pretty much straight away we knew that was going to be the name.

While The Hurting explored their personal experience with this psychological process, Tears for Fears second album, Songs From the Big Chair, uses the method of primal therapy, a form of psychotherapy which focuses on internal psychic pain, to express collective grief in response to great suffering. Throughout the album Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith tell us that if we saw that our tears can heal, then we Westerners might not be so quick to brush aside our own grief or the grief of others:

Between the searching and the need to work it out
I stop believing everything will be all right
Broken, we are broken

—“Broken”

I believe
That if you knew just
What these tears were for?
They would just pour
Like every drop of rain

—“I Believe”

While the biggest hits from the album (Shoutand Everybody Wants to Rule the World) let out frustrations about injustice in the world, the B-side suite provides a framework of allowing ourselves to grieve.

Sounding like an evangelist for primal therapy, Orzabal provides his testimony on I Believe with expressive but purposely weakly delivered vocals. This life is shaped by tears, he sings, beginning with our screams as we exit the womb. And yet our life of tears makes us strong:

I believe
That when the hurting
And the pain has gone
We will be strong
Oh yes, we will be strong…

And I believe
No I can’t believe that every time
You hear a newborn scream
You just can’t see the shaping of a life
The shaping of a life…

These words are set to emotionally vulnerable, almost sentimental music, yet the song ends in a sustained clash of incongruent synthesized tones. A sudden interruption of large cavernous beating drums leads into Broken,signaling that, even if we subscribe to Orzabals faith in primal therapy, we must not forget our pain. Grief is an ongoing, lived-through process.

A process that is also found in the  laments of the Psalms in the Bible. In a lecture series on the Psalms, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says that they are models . . . of learning to have faith in the midst of disorientation, pain and loss. While many Psalms express personal lament, some engage in the form of communal grief that Songs From the Big Chair encourages:

Let the groans of the prisoners come before you;
according to your great power, preserve those doomed to die!
Return sevenfold into the lap of our neighbors
the taunts with which they have taunted you, O Lord!
But we your people, the sheep of your pasture,
will give thanks to you forever;
from generation to generation we will recount your praise.

—Psalm 79:11-13

How long, Lord God Almighty,
will your anger smolder
against the prayers of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears;
you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.

—Psalm 80: 4-5

But you have rejected us and disgraced us
and have not gone out with our armies.
You have made us turn back from the foe,
and those who hate us have gotten spoil.
You have made us like sheep for slaughter
and have scattered us among the nations

—Psalm 44: 9-11 

The Psalmslaments are a way of handing those dark proclivities over to Gods good grace, Brueggemann writes. And if we do not do that, the way these Psalms invite us to do that, then we are left with two options of denying them [dark proclivities] or acting them out.”

Like the Psalmist, the song “Broken” addresses our need to act out the grief process. With all the fire and brimstone of a megaphone street preacher, Tears for Fears proclaims our collective brokenness. Searching for a path to relief, they find that everything will not be all right. We are broken, they sing, and a thundering bass-drum combo undergirds the crunching dissonance of the telephone-toned keyboard melody, pushing us into the maelstrom of heartbreak and mourning.

Interjected between the studio and live versions of Brokenis a personal narrative of romantic heartbreak. In Head Over Heels the crushing and oppressive keyboard melody from Broken transforms into a beautiful yet stately piano line with a slight air of unsettledness. On its own, the song deals with the anxieties and pressures of a romantic relationship.

Something happens and I’m head over heels
Ah don’t take my heart don’t break my heart
Don’t throw it away

I made a fire and watching it burn
I thought of your future
With one foot in the past now just how long will it last

Placed between two laments of brokenness, however, it plays as a narrative, a storied example, of what pressing into the pain of grief looks like.

In my own Christian context, personal stories of fallenness, salvation and restoration serve as embodied examples of Christianitys meta-narrative: life in a sinful world, Jesus death and resurrection, and the new heavens and earth. Head Over Heelsoperates in a similar manner as a storied explanation of brokenness that both personalizes and validates our need for healing through tears.

Closing out the album is Listen, featuring a bubbling rounded synth, sampled operatic singing and record scratching, pulling the listener in various directions without ever settling into a space of respite. The cryptic lyrics further confuse the listener: “Mother Russia badly burned/ Your children lick your wounds/ Pilgrim father sailed away/ Found a brave new world/ Cumpleaños chica, no hay que preocuparse/ Soothe my feeling” While the title of the song calls us to listen closely to the words, we are not meant to understand their meaning. Obfuscation is the point, demonstrating that no one knows the true depths of grief, even as we seek to soothe our anguish.

Christians believe that one day there will be an end to these tears, that God will personally wipe away every last drop from our eyes. But as the Psalms and Songs From the Big Chair remind us, as long as we live in a broken and suffering world, we cannot wipe our tears away. A life-altering diagnosis, the end of a marriage, the death of a loved one, a shooting in a church, the sale of baby parts, refugees fleeing a war-torn country: for these things we must allow ourselves to be deeply troubled and to weep. As a psalmic lament, Songs From the Big Chair calls all of us to grieve, but also to find hope in and through our tears. Then maybe we can begin to understand what our tears are for, letting them pour like every drop of rain, and we would begin to heal.

Screaming for Silence

With the recent release of their sixth studio album, Pale Horses, Philadelphia-based band mewithoutYou (henceforth mwY) has once again delivered the musically tight and lyrically dense output their fans have come to expect, including the religious exploration typical of their music. This latest album represents a return to roots for the band, not only musically, but also spiritually. Multiple tracks’ narratives are interspersed with Christian hymns, and the careful listener can hear an acknowledgement of homecoming in the words of the opening track, Pale Horse, when frontman Aaron Weiss sings of the “oil and wine/ I thought I’d left that all behind.” Here, Weiss continues his insistent musical address to God, but who is mwY’s God?

mewithoutyou-pale-horses

Pale Horses

The answer to the question is not so simple as “Jesus Christ,” though Weiss is open about his Christian faith off the stage. Close attention to mwY’s lyrics reveals that the answer lies in the realm of the apophatic or ‘negative’ theological traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—the three religious traditions with which Weiss works the most and the three religious traditions with which he was raised. The goal of traditional apophatic theology is to probe religious language to highlight its limitations in regard to the God who cannot be contained by human speech and thought. This form of religious speech that questions religious speech serves to prepare the believer for individual contact with God, an encounter that can often be encumbered by theological language.

We can trace this thread throughout the band’s discography, and in what follows I will offer a global interpretation of a number of mwY’s songs that present this apophatic theology. By this global interpretation I don’t mean to suggest that there are no inconsistencies of thought between the albums, or that Weiss’ thought has not developed throughout the band’s career; both of these are true. Nonetheless, there remains a consistent vision with regard to both the language and experience of God that we can discern in Weiss’ lyrics, beginning in earnest with the band’s sophomore album, Catch For Us the Foxes.  

Recurrent in this album is the contrast between the revelatory functions of silence and the distracting effect of music and words. In “Leaf,” Weiss bemoans the cleverness of his verbal response to the suffering in the human condition:

“However much you talk…however well you talk…/You make a certain sense, but still only stupid talk /However much I strut around…however loud I sing/ the Shining One inside me won’t say anything.”

This call to silence is repeated in, “The Soviet,” where Weiss pleads for musicians to “turn [their] ears to silence/ for they [the little foxes] only come out when it’s quiet.” The little foxes in this album, drawn from Song of Songs (2:15), signify the sins defacing the vineyard of our lives. In the face of suffering and sin, the human instinct to speak, to make noise, can stand in the way of self-knowledge and contact with the silent Other at the heart of all our striving. There is, of course, an irony to the band using words and music to request that words stop, and the album itself reflects that awareness of this in “Four Word Letter (Pt. Two),” when Weiss promises to “curb all our never-ending, clever complaining,” for “who’s ever heard of a singer criticized by his song?”

It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright

This skepticism of talk extends in other mwY songs explicitly towards religious discourse. In “Every Thought a Thought of You,” the opener to their fourth album It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright, Weiss confidently sings, “No need for books when we’re with You.” The reference to holy scriptures (of any faith) is plain, but this statement should not be understood as a blanket call to do away with religious texts; indeed, the incessant biblical allusions that pepper the album make that reading difficult to sustain. Nevertheless, these texts’ ability to accomplish what some religious believers desire from them is directly challenged. In the song “My Exit, Unfair” from Foxes, Weiss sings that he “said water expecting the word/ to satisfy my thirst/ Talking all about the second and third/ when I haven’t understood the first.” This time the contrast is between talking and understanding; there exists an insufficiency in words—however religiously charged they may be—to deliver their promised presences. The religious centrality of water in Christianity is well known, of course, and when we consider that Christ refers to himself as the “living Water” (John 4; John 7), we can appreciate the depth of Weiss’ critique of remaining at the level of tidy religious talk when dealing with the depths of human desire (thirst).  

This problem of religious language intensifies in “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume,” the centerpiece track of the band’s 2012 Ten Stories. Weiss opens the song with cries of the confusion of language: “Provisionally ‘I,’ practically alive/ mistook signs for signified.” The theme is picked up later in the song with an extended metaphor of words as arrows shot out into the world. The story’s narrator sings “midnight archer songs” with “broken bows,” proclaiming “our aimless arrow words don’t mean a thing/ so by now I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s no God/ and there’s definitely a God!” Listening to the song, you experience a jolt of confusion and upended expectation when Weiss apparently confesses to a loss of faith, only to have that understanding immediately reversed by Weiss’ equally insistent claim that there’s “definitely a God.” Here Weiss pushes his listeners to recognize that to speak of God’s existence is a complicated affair, involving negation and affirmation, as well as development over the course of a lifetime. As he sings in the third track of Pale Horses, “D-Minor,” “This is not the first time God has died/…this is not the first time capitalized three-letter-sound has died.” “God” will, in the course of a believer’s life, repeatedly “die,” and this is exemplified by Weiss’ reduction of the idea of God to its bare conceptuality in the meager signification of its spelling and sound.

Belief in God, then, paradoxically involves a certain suspension of belief in God, and suspension of beliefs more broadly is something mwY’s music asks of its listeners for the sake of a deeper contemplation of the mystery to which their lyrics point. They ask their fans not to mistake a sign for the signified. Wrapped up in this suspension of beliefs is a suspension of the self-conception that develops around those beliefs. The dissolution of the self and the dissolution of belief go hand-in-hand, as we can see from a progression of three songs in the band’s third album, Brother, Sister.

Brother, Sister

Brother, Sister

Three songs about spiders split the album into thirds. The first, “Yellow Spider,” ends with the lines “Yellow spider, yellow leaf/ Confirms my deepest held belief,” which is then paralleled by “Orange Spider’s” identical ending. However, the third spider song, “Brownish Spider,” goes in a quite different direction: “Brownish spider, brownish leaf/ confirms my deepest held belief…/ no more spider, no more leaf/ no more me, no more belief.” This final line illuminates the development throughout the three songs: From clear yellow, to darker orange, to a muted brown whose edges appear hazy: “brownish” spider. Paralleling the dissolution of the self and belief, then, is a new experience of the world itself.

What might this dissolution of world, self, and belief amount to? Sheer negation or deconstruction? Not so, and the climactic track of It’s All Crazy, “The King Beetle on a Coconut Estate,” shows why. One of the band’s most beloved and brilliant songs, “The King Beetle” presents the clearest picture of the apophatic theology in mwY’s music. Weiss sings the tale of a colony of beetles who regularly wonder in amazement at the fire burned on their estate every year, the “Great Mystery,” as the beetles call it. The Beetle King offers generous rewards for any citizen who can carry back the Great Mystery to the King, and a professor and an army lieutenant volunteer for the task. Both fail; the former due to presumption that his knowledge qualified him for contact with the fire, and the latter because of the delusion that his strength could prepare him to face the great unknown. The King’s wrath toward the lieutenant appears in one of the band’s most dramatic lines: “The Beetle King slammed down his fist,/  ‘Your flowery description’s no better than his/ We sent for the Great Light and you bring us this./ We didn’t ask what it seems like—/ we asked what it is.’” With these words, the Beetle King takes leave of his family and kingdom to fly straight into that Great Light, the “blazing unknown,” as Weiss calls it. The result is a chorus from his subjects, proclaiming, “Our Beloved’s not dead, but His Highness instead/ has been utterly changed into fire.” The chorus continues its chant, “Why not be utterly changed into fire?” until the final, hushed note of the song.

This is the apophatic vision of God championed by the great religious traditions: to strip the self of concepts which hinder the attainment of mystical union with the One whose very being cannot be touched without the complete loss—or transformation—of self. The chorus’ final cry comes from the collection of Sayings of the Desert Fathers, specifically from the counsel of early Christian desert father Abba Joseph to Abba Lot. Lot inquires of Joseph what else he can do to further his monastic vocation, and Abba Joseph responds by raising his hands to heaven, his fingers becoming like ten lamps of fire. He then asks Abba Lot the very question Weiss poses to his listeners at the end of “The King Beetle.” Seen in this light, the apophatic extremism of mwY is a necessary purgation before encountering the greater mystery of God.

One final look at the lyrics of a song from Foxes, this time from the closing track, “Son of a Widow,” will paint a picture of the process and results of such a mystical union. The song begins with Weiss plaintively singing, “I’ll ring your doorbell/ until you let me in./ I can no longer tell/ where You end and I begin.” The main guitar begins its slide downward just as Weiss finishes the word ‘doorbell,’ coming in at such a similar pitch that the listener can easily mistake the guitar for a continuation of Weiss’ voice. The same effect occurs again in the next line, but this time the guitar comes in as Weiss sings “tell,” creating the same continuing effect, but also effecting a union between voice and guitar which parallels the union of human and divine Weiss sings of.

Aaron Weiss

Aaron Weiss

This union is accomplished through incessant supplication (“ring your doorbell until you let me in”), an allusion to Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge in Luke 18 (which itself connects with the title of the song). Like a lone grape on a vine, longing for the company of the other grapes that have been already plucked, Weiss suggests this union can only be accomplished by being pressed into wine. Here the band plays with Jesus’ statement in John 15 that he is the “true Vine” in which his disciples live. To know the life of that vine, to truly become one with it, the grape must lose itself, its form, and its life: it must be crushed. And that—to let go of ideas, of the world, and selves in order to become one with the One, “Alone to the Alone”—is the apophatic theology of mwY’s music.

In the end, apophatic theology only makes sense within a religious tradition: it is the negative side of what we say about God, a purgative for the positive affirmations of what religious believers trust to be true. MwY’s music pushes listeners to examine again and again what they say and what they believe, not so that they might dispense with faith, but that they might not let their theological language and beliefs solidify into the idols humans relentlessly construct in the place of the true God. “What picture holds us now?” Weiss asks in the Pale Horses song “Red Cow,” and that is the question mwY’s apophatic theology puts to us: what pictures hold us now and keep us from the transformative union hoped for in the heart of genuine faith? Religious belief and apophaticism, affirmation and negation—these go together, for they both, through construction and deconstruction, lead believers to God. This dual movement of the life of faith is best expressed in the final lines of “Four Word Letter, (Pt. Two),” where Weiss shouts to God:

“We have all our beliefs, but we don’t want our beliefs. / God of peace, we want You.”

Beyond Shuffle Play

My all-time favorite radio listening experience was on the University of Massachusetts’ FM station, WMUA. It was a weekly four-hour radio show called Dadavision, after the art movement which it attempted to imitate. I listened faithfully every Sunday night, even during the school year when it went well past my bedtime. My mother would come in my bedroom and shut off the radio, but of course I was only pretending to be asleep, and would resume listening again after she left. The hosts of the show weren’t playing music; they were playing, period. What originally hooked me was the humor: a “top ten” countdown of local garage band 45s hosted by a guy pretending to be a psychiatrist, providing a bewildered but hilariously deadpan psychoanalysis of the lyrics. It was absurdist comedy gold, which they did often and very well. But they might follow up that bit with a haunting hour long mashup of classical piano and NASA Apollo landing audio. From absurdity to profundity! And then they might burn the last fifteen minutes of airtime by playing B-movie horror flick trailers.

But what was going on? Were these guys jokers or sound poets? When they wanted to entertain, they were focused and relentlessly creative. Other times it was an aimless mess, as if they literally forgot they had an audience. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference.

One week when I was looking especially forward to hearing some radio silliness, the host instead served up an hour of straight-up Frank Sinatra. But even Ol’ Blue Eyes, in this context, became thrilling to me. It’s possible that it was because I didn’t want to miss what might be next, but more likely it was because I surrendered completely to the DJ. When my parents played Sinatra, it was predictable and meaningless to me. When a performance art-punk played Sinatra it was countercultural and thrilling. Radio wasn’t just an advertising platform. It felt like an adventure.

You choose the curator, the curator chooses the tunes. Isn’t this the most satisfying way for us to experience music? For years it was the only way: we chose the DJ or the station, and they chose the rotation of singles we would hear. The iPod enabled each of us to be the sole creator—and listener—of our own private radio stations for a while, but the desire for communal experience seems to be experiencing a revival. “Internet-savvy people have fallen head over heels for old-school monoculture,” Billboard wrote recently. It makes sense. For a while now, DJs have been occupying the concert territory once owned by rock bands: Calvin Harris is the new U2. And Apple is now placing its bets on Beats, a familiar “one-to-many” broadcasting format. Looks like radio, smells like radio, you get the picture.

And yet the album, or at least the album-length format, retains a powerful sway over the music community, if only because our attention spans don’t often endure past the 45-minute mark (we never knew ye, Stadium Arcadium). Is there a way to integrate the best of both approaches? Pitchfork recently described the future of music as the album-length playlist, curated by an individual. In other words: a mixtape! But if this is the future, then it’s gotten a good head start on itself, because it exists now. And it’s thriving all over the web, from Beats prototypes like Dublab, to retailer-sponsored mix series like Oki-Ni, to individual knob-twiddlers like Electric Adolescence.

I love experiencing music this way. A good mixtape reminds me of what I loved about college radio: the “you had to be there” quality of it, the unique experience that can’t be replicated on Spotify. A good playlist is as satisfying to me as Kind of Blue, as Sgt. Peppers’, as Kid A. It’s literally a format you can fall in love with; when you’ve got a crush you don’t give them a copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, you make them a mixtape. The industry is finally getting hip to our habits.

I’m not just a listener. I  frequently make mixes myself. Here is one from earlier this summer, having vaguely to do with the silly idea that summer should be fun, but not too much fun, because it’s so hot. As a love note to our readers, here are a few of my favorite curated mixes. Some of them nail a particular mood, some reflect a theme, some are just a fresh take on familiar sounds. We encourage you to listen, but also to explore, and to post your own favorites in the comments. 

 

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Pinchy & friends: Sleepy Bedtime Mix For Young Ones by Henry Chinaski

This mix is allegedly credited to a pseudonymous member of The Avalanches, posted on a mysterious mixtape-only site called Pinchy and Friends. The Avalanches’ only full-length, released in 2000, was a modern masterpiece that relied almost solely on samples, so it’s no surprise that the’d have a deep vinyl collection to play with. What makes this an interesting listen is how he includes familiar songs, but not the versions that you’re used to hearing. It plays like a dreamy, idealized version of late-night 1960s radio – bossa nova classics and lounge pop float in the ether with folk harpist Joanna Newsom, blanketed with the comforting crackle of vinyl and dialogue snippets from Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep. This mix is the epitome of the singular listening experience – if you can stay awake through the whole thing.

Favorite moment: Mia Farrow’s “Lullaby” from Rosemary’s Baby and the Beach Boys’ narrative piece “Radio King Dom”

 

The Disney Nightmade Playlist

The Disney Nightmare Playlist

Ever wonder what would happen if you removed all the chipper songs from Disney soundtracks? The Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat assembled a nightmarish journey through the creepier, more melancholy material from classics like as Peter Pan and The Jungle Book – as well as some tracks that were left off for being “too dark.” I love this purely as a concept, but it’s also brilliantly executed. Sandwiched amid the gloom, even a harmless ditty such as “Scales and Arpeggios” (from The Aristocrats) makes me anxious, as if it is being sung to ward off ghosts. This is a room in the Magic Kingdom that you’ve probably never visited before.

Favorite moment: Moffat’s spacey treatment of “Oh Tink,” from Peter Pan

 

List by Tom Krell

FACT magazine is a UK-based online publication which has featured terrific weekly DJ mixes for more than half a decade now. Not being a proper clubgoer I struggle to connect with the dance-oriented rave-ups, but otherwise there’s plenty to like. I enjoy the collaboration between the Orb and reggae icon Lee “Scratch” Perry, but even better is the mix by How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell. This mix is a perfect example of that genre jokingly dubbed PBR&B: contemporary R&B filtered through a hipster’s lens of longing, heartbreak, lofty ambitions, and echoey lo-fi electronics. Like the Sleepy Time mix, what’s interesting to me is the mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar, as in the inclusion of the raw-ish demo of Beyonce’s “Halo.”

Favorite moment: When the climactic guitar solo from Prince’s “Purple Rain” suddenly materializes out of nowhere.

 

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Solid Steel Radio Show Part 3 + 4 – DJ Food – Kraftwerk Kover Kollection 8

Kraftwerk is an easy band to like: they’re acknowledged as the fathers of modern electronic dance music, but their strong sense of melody and their relatively uncluttered sound mean that they’re perfect raw material for DJs to pilfer from. Kraftwerk’s thumbprint on popular music is so large that, in 2004, DJ Food started regularly releasing Kraftwerk-themed mixes containing samples, covers, spoken word snippets, and all kinds of “bits and bobs” from the German music pioneers. They’re all pretty fantastic, but the most recent mix – volume 8! – expands the palette well beyond electronic and hip-hop music: Jazz covers! Bell choirs! Bollywood Kraftwerk! So many different ways to nerd out!

Favorite moment: The sweet violin on Saito Tetsuya’s version of “Computer Love”

 

Cold_Splinters_Aquarium_Drunkard

If you’re looking for crate-diggers who focus on folk, psychedelia, soul, and Americana, then Aquarium Drunkard is a reliable place to start. I’m partial to the beautiful Blue August Moon mixtape, but at almost two and a half hours, it might take you until winter to get through it. The themes in this Cold Splinters mix hold together well – going walking, returning home, doing right by your lover, things that just make you slow down and go “aaaah.” And at only 39 minutes it’s refreshingly brief – just like Indian Summer.

Favorite moment: The sweeping guitar on Phil Cook’s “The Jensens”

Tom Waits’ Carnivalesque

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of a paper that was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.

Julie Hamilton’s piece is well-paired with Joe Kickasola’s piece published last week. 

 

“Boney’s high on china white, Shorty found a punk,
Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk,
Well this stuff will probably kill you,
Let’s do another line, what you say we meet down on Heartattack and Vine.” —”Heartattack and Vine”

Tom Waits, a preacher of the “dysangelion” (bad news), rhapsodizes the depravity of the world as normative, showing us not to take for granted the surprise of something not going wrong. As a beatnik, Waits’s lyrics testify to a life from skid row in form of a brawling psalter. His musical genres evolve alongside his own vagabond drifting from nightclub jazz and growling blues in vaudeville theatres and seedy dive bars, continually innovating and reinventing harmony and rhythm. From early barfly tales of heartbreak to his guttural nightmares of apocalyptic doom, Waits uses transgression and disruption to unmask societal hierarchies and pretentious bourgeoisie charades.

If Kerouac’s On the Road could narrate the biography of one American musician, it would be Tom Waits. As Kerouac’s biographer Ann Charters writes, the Beat genre that defined a cultural era meant more than “a state of exalted exhaustion”, it also referenced the ‘Beatific Vision’ which Catholics describe as the celestial vision of God by the saints and the blessed.[1] Both terms could arguably characterize the persona and the music of Waits—the itinerant, vagabond drifter, stumbling down seedy alleys to the back door of heaven.

Born in the back of a taxicab in 1949, Tom began early as a nomadic traveler, leaving high school at fifteen. Living between his car and the Live Tropicana Motel in Santa Monica (with the likes of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin), his early albums Closing Time (1973) and Heart of a Saturday Night (1974) portray a lonely barfly, drowning his sorrows in whiskey, while chain-smoking a pack of unfiltered cigarettes. His drunken cabaret combines blues with jazz in wistful and tender melodies narrating his meandering jaunt from gig to gig. Often occupying nightclub stage corners as the evening storytelling bard with his piano and jazz set, in his early music, Waits is a troubadour of hangovers and one-night stands. His alcoholic ode to loneliness is perhaps best captured in his nod to American painter Edward Hopper in the title of his live third album Nighthawks at the Diner (1977), the namesake of Hopper’s seminal work from 1942. Hopper’s iconic portrait of noir Americana captures loneliness and desolation within the urban landscape that parallels Waits musically in his early career.

"Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942" by Edward Hopper - email. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.jpg#/media/File:Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.jpg

“Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942” by Edward Hopper Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

Throughout Weaits’ discography, his proletariat characters evolve, but so does his musical innovation as he turns common, household objects into rhythmically complex sounds. From folksy singer-songwriter melodies and lyrics, to his experimental junkyard orchestra of bagpipes and toilet seats, Waits’ rhythms and textures mature, creating an imaginative mood and tangible atmosphere, sculpting sound with unorthodox materials.

However, the entrance of Kathleen Brennan into his life affected Waits in a two-fold manner: not only did he marry her, but she also became the precursor to Waits’ significant aesthetic transformation, breaking with his producers and record label to reinvent his artistic persona. He credits her for not only saving his career from cliché and stagnation, but also from meeting the same fate of his many miserable drunken characters. Meeting onset in Francis Ford Coppella’s film One From the Heart and marrying shortly after, Brennan introduced Waits to experimental European avant-garde music and collaborated with him as a songwriter and producer, leading to his seminal musical trilogy: Swordfishtrombone (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Frank’s Wild Years (1987). The theatrical trilogy establishes Waits’ working class portraits that are enslaved to their circumstances, incorporating memoirs of the dark and damaged—lives that are smoked down to the filter before they are discarded. His methodological and thematic metamorphosis leads him to play with opposites, pairing gothic lyrics with familiar melodies (such as the waltz or nursery rhyme), creatively reconfiguring his deconstructed, global sounds into cemetery polkas and obituary mambos. Transitioning from Beatnik Americana to grotesque avant-garde, a recurring carnival motif structures Waits’ storytelling, both as a central theme and his form of narration.

Tom’s Carnivalesque: Bakhtin and the World of the Grotesque

The 20th century philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin helps consider the thematic significance of the carnival as a rhetorical and political hermeneutic through his complex analysis of polyphony and dialogical techniques–a mode of symbolic storytelling that employs perspectives from a variety of characters–utilized by Waits. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin argues the medieval marketplace and folk culture’s carnival are the ideal socio-political assembly for subverting normative hierarchical systems of power through means of anarchy.[2] The carnival was a seasonal festival where parodies of Christmas and Pascal laughter were allowed—namely, the Feast of Fools, where hyperbole and chaos sought to unmask societal mores by means of transgression and disruption (e.g. Mardi Gras).

Bakhtin explains: “During the carnival, there is a temporary suspension of all hierarchic distinctions and barriers among men and of certain norms and prohibitions of usual life”, the emperor becomes the “slave” or jester and vice versa.[3] The carnival functions to create freedom in society by violating the architecture of established normative politics through parody and caricature, opening the door to a fresh vision and new order of the world.[4] Here the odd, the freak, and the misfit have an egalitarian place in this temporary, utopian counter-society, hospitable to the outcasts and underdogs. This paradigmatically alters the normative standards of the healthy, wealthy, and beautiful. The carnival vision is unsettling and destabilizing in its reorienting perspective and eschatological vision for humanity.

Bakhtin’s world-upside-down ‘carnivalesque’ trope of inversion is drawn from classical satire, specifically Menippean satire and the Socratic dialogues. Menippean satire is the form of the ‘carnivalesque’ as a genre or world, allowing a unique perspective on reality through an inverted, fantastic, and unconventional viewpoint. Working with an organized chaos of moving viewpoints and different voices, mocking various ideologies, modern examples of Menippean satire include Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Voltaire’s Candide, Groucho Marx, and Monty Python. It often employs the grotesque as a trope of inversion and paradox in its’ allegorical narratives, where characters communally perform towards a utopic reality.

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The ‘carnivalesque’ form within Menippean satire, utilizes Socratic dialogism, where the function of the speaker and listener change places. Differing from monologism’s single voice, Socratic dialogism is truth born between two or more voices collectively searching for it.[5] This occurs between Waits’ many characters collectively, and between Waits’ characters and his audience. Bakhtin helps us to understand the polyphony of Waits’ characters as distinct voices from Waits the songwriter. Utilizing polyphony as his rhetorical trope of “many voices,” Waits ensures distance between the tarnished portraits he creates and his own autobiographical realism (save perhaps the drunken piano player from his early career). Rather, his anarchical claptrap of characters exist within his crafted world of the ‘carnivalesque,’ a world more concerned with the narrative and rhythmic authenticity of his character’s stories and his ability to incarnate these stories through performances. Waits has noted that the process of starring in nearly thirty film roles has allowed him the freedom to embody fictional characters without them being mimetic of his own life. Thus, Waits as both writer and performer, reveals and conceals himself within and through his polyphonic lyrics.

In his theatrical play-turned-album The Black Rider (1993), Waits collaborated with William S. Burroughs in the 19th century German-Expressionist influenced Faustus legend, where a file clerk makes a pact with the devil, cloaked in the guise of a parasitic carnival ringmaster: “Lay down in the web of the black spider/I’ll drink your blood like wine.” Funnel cake pageantries and cotton candy confections have no place in the dark imagination of the German play, but rather the grotesque carnival, with its “chamber of horrors” and “morbid curiosity” subverting moral standards through the world of a circus.[6] Waits heightens the effect of the circus by playing the steam engine run calliope, in all its farcical and noisy, yet whimsical atmosphere. The circus barker in the opening track “Lucky Day (Overture)” roars into a megaphone announcing “Harry’s Harbor Bizarre for Human Oddities,” including the Three Headed Baby, Hitler’s brain, the German midget, the monkey woman, the dog face boy, and the mule-faced woman. We are given a strange cast of clowns, people that are rejects in a world of privilege, education, and pedigree. They are spectacles, selling their skills as malformed monsters to willing gawkers. There is a place for every voice in the polyphony of the ‘carnivalesque’ – a counter-community, a society of outcasts, a family of freaks. Waits shows us the irony, or rather disparity between the place of amusements— Midway Ferris wheels, balloon-popping, prize-winning, corndog frenzy— is actually a mask hiding the suffering of the overlooked and disposed.

Bakhtin considers the employment of the medieval carnival’s grotesque realism in order to conflate and unsettle bourgeoisie standards of decorum, chivalry and symmetry, especially in their equivocation with piety and godliness. Folk culture championed folly, subverting and lowering lofty, spiritual and abstract dynamics to the body, in all its’ humanity and physicality. We might be reminded of the bawdy and the crude characterization of the Miller from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with “his mouth like a furnace door/ He was a jester and could poetize, /
But mostly all of sin and ribaldries.”[7]

Bakhtin contends that the grotesque offers us paradoxical imagery, utilizing a kind of exaggerated, disproportionate symbolism to illustrate humanity’s incompleteness, subject to transformation. Likewise, Waits employs hyperbole as a critical descriptive trope, aggrandizing details for illustrative purposes, depicting an expansive landscape in which his characters inhabit. The short story author and novelist Flannery O’Connor, whose writing genre was paradigmatic of the grotesque, understood the intrinsic need for embellishment, admitting that one has to scream at deaf people: “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.”[8] We might say that Waits is attempting something similar in both his mythmaking lyrics and visceral rhythms.

Grotesque as sermon of the ‘Dysangelion’

The grotesque portrays the spiritualized and contradictory, ranging in Waits’ music from gypsy folk caravans to demonic nightmares, in the voices of his circus ringmasters, outlaws, chain gang hollerins’, apocalyptic prophets, and unjust Pharisaical magistrates. His handicapped, freakish humans (e.g. “Tabletop Joe”, “Eyeball Kid”, “Scar-faced Ron”, the Camel Girl) are token “grotesque” caricatures, seasoning his surrealist storytelling. Taking on the role of the joker or jester from the carnival, Waits employs the grotesque thematically as a dialogical rhetorical technique to invert our perception of the world and its scumbag humdrum creatures. We might call him the preacher of the dysangelion, or the “bad news”, a prophet of doom, which should signal our connection to Menippean satire, since the very concept of preaching a Gospel seems counterintuitive to be “bad news.” For Waits, however, the grotesque is a normative attribute, if not liturgical formation, of the carnival.

Tom Waits Bone Machine (1992, FLAC)

Tom Waits Bone Machine (1992, FLAC)

The grotesque reaches toxic levels in his 1992 album Bone Machine, a Kafkaesque surrealist nightmare. A seminal record of bone-shaking rhythms, demonic cackles and bellowing roar portrays characters that range from the end time preacher on the side corner, the desperado and the macabre. “The Earth Died Screaming” employs absurd and incredulous wonders for apocalyptic dimensions of eschatology. Waits’ allusion to the biblical plagues of Exodus (“it rained mackerel, it rained trout”) imply the connection between the Scripture’s narrative scope of the fantastic, and the mythological aspects of the condemned being swallowed by Tartarus.

Blood Money (2002) is the music accompanying the tragic play of Woyzeck, a perverse true tale of jealousy-enraged murder told in stomp-and-growl marches, interspersed by soothing carnivalesque lullabies, such as “Coney Island Baby.“God’s Away on Business” was aptly included on the soundtrack to Enron: The Smartest Men in the Room, where Waits’ lacerated vocal cords bark about the injustice of bureaucratic exploitation and oppression of “the poor, the lame, the blind.” His misanthropic fatalism sees the world going to hell in a handbasket from the authorities and corrosive powers left in charge— “killers, thieves, and lawyers,” to be precise. In a miasma of Hobbesian self-preservation, Waits concludes that this systemic damage is too great: God must be away on business because the atrocities are too deafening for God to remain silent. Who will save those that cannot help themselves from the exploitation of the powerful?

“Misery’s the River of the World” is a metronomic chant of humanity’s enslavement to perversity and self-interest, and the devil’s half-step behind God in cunning masquerades: “if there’s one thing you can say about mankind, /there’s nothing kind about man/…God builds the church, the devil builds a chapel/…the devil knows the world like the back of his hand.” Waits’ laryngitis croaks as he preaches on human culpability—we all have blood on our hands. “Starving in the Belly of a Whale” is nihilistic resignation to the tune of Halloween horror: “Life’s a mistake all day long. /Tell me, who gives a good goddamn, /you never get out alive/…If you live in hope you are dancing to a terrible tune.” This Jonah-themed descent into the inferno of humanity’s hellish realities, are a contemporary nod to Dante’s inscription above the gates of hell: “Abandon all hope you who enter here.” In what might be considered his darkest album, Tom’s descent into hell does not end with the macabre as his last word, as he employs a gospel of inversion to get our attention.

Nevertheless, how precisely is Waits’ grotesque actually the shock of grace? Since Waits has given us a normative where there is no docile God and no Deus ex machina to save his characters from the damage they inflicted on each other, the rare occurrences of grace appear as a disruption—a shock. Illogical in the enclosed system that Waits has provided for his audience, the presence of grace emerges de profundis (out of the depths)— as a trope of the carnivalesque. Theologian Ben Myer has suggested that grace itself is part of the grotesque in Tom Waits’s dysangelion:

“One of Waits’ most astonishing theological pronouncements, for example, is the gleeful hiss: Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk.’ Or on another occasion he wonders: ‘Did the devil make the world while God was sleeping?’ In such songs, God burst onto the stage not as the benevolent projection of our wishes and desires, but as the one who overturns our expectations and shatters our projections of what ‘God’ should be.[9]

Grace, in Myers’ interpretation of Waits, is a perversion of the world’s depravity. Its extravagance is excessive in the context of impoverished and broken systems. This unnecessary and undeserved gift of reprieve from suffering is strangely offered to all who desire it, regardless of the crimes they have committed—heinous or minor. Waits engages the grotesque to distort our own expectations of a just God through his rhetorical trope of conversion.

Joker Turned Unlikely Saint: The ‘Holy Fool’ of Inversion

Beyond the jester, joker and clown in the ‘carnivalesque,’ there is the ‘Holy Fool.’ Drawing from Dostoevsky and Orthodox theology, Bakhtin considers this marginal holy figure who utilizes inversion and reversal in order to lead the community to conversion or salvation. The Holy Fool reconstructs our vision to see the saint concealed in rags. As a marginal prophet shouting from the sidelines, the Holy Fool acts in odd ways to get our attention, by inverting societal norms. Bakhtin scholar Harriet Murav states: “They are understood by the hagiographers to be practitioners of asceticism, yet their behavior, even to hagiographers, is anti-ascetic.”[10]Holy Fools are considered saints whose unholy and impious actions unveil deeper truths.

Tom-Waits-tom-waits-dysangelion

This trope of the Holy Fool allows the degenerate figures to transcend themselves, revealing “man to man” as Bakhtin relates. By affirming the divine image in the human, the Holy Fool seeks to convey and reestablish the divinity of the human in all their brokenness, lack of education and depravity. We are misled if we judge Tom Waits as a frequenter of strip clubs and trashy bars to advocate their objectification and consumption. Rather, Waits risks being scandalized by his association with these places, seeking to humanize its occupants, rather than exploit them. Like one of Georges Rouault’s clowns in a Fellini circus, he hopes to unmask our pious criticisms and holier-than-thou sense of self-righteousness by telling their stories (e.g. “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” “Heartattack and Vine”). In this way, Waits is an exorcist of our own prejudice, showing the listeners back to ourselves in the dialogical engagement with his cabaret of characters. An unlikely saint, Waits illuminates a path of suffering to sainthood, attending to the beauty in the gutter over whitewashed sepulchers, disarming our securities by making us uncomfortable through the foreign and unfamiliar.

For Tom Waits, narrative strategies and rhetorical structures of dialogical polyphony are theology. Waits’ theatricality represents both God and the most unholy humans. By taking on folly, he represents the human that is furthest away from God, like the Holy Fool takes on homelessness and wandering like Jesus. As Murav notes:

“Polyphony is understood to be a Christ-like self-effacement. Bakhtin’s reading of Christ as a figure in whom dialogue and carnival are central are from two Russian traditions of venerating Christ as a human being and venerating holy fools who perform disgusting and frequently obscene acts as Christ-like.”[11]

We catch glimpses of this hope in a handful of Waits’ rare, but poignant tunes. Despite the hellish universe and despicable crimes that his characters have committed, Waits gives us “Down There By the Train” and “Come On Up to the House.” As his earlier lyrics depict the lowest common denominator for every human is death, this depiction of hope and radical grace transfigures Waits’s grotesque. Off his Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (2006) collection, “Down There By The Train” describes a kind of universal redemption open to the likes of Cain, Judas Iscariot, John Wilkes Booth, and even the soldier that pierced Christ’s side—murderers of the most innocent victims. Giving the recipe for a maximally damaged life, Waits assures that salvation is spendthrift, available for even those unable to believe:

“There’s a place I know where the train goes slow/
where sinners can be washed in the blood of the lamb/
there’s a river by the trestle down by sinner’s grove/
down where the willow and the dogwood grow/
you can hear the whistle, you can hear the bell/
from the halls of heaven to the gates of hell/
and sinner there’s room for the forsaken if you’re there on time. / You’ll be washed of all your sins and all your crimes…

If you’ve lost all your hope and if you’ve lost all your faith.
I know you can be cared for and I know you can be safe.”

It is a hymn of profligate grace, for those crawling to the train track crossroads in life’s final moments.

Waits continues in “Come on Up to the House” from Mule Variations (1999). No fuller act of mercy or magnanimity can be shown than the hospitality of welcoming every sinner through the door, a homecoming to all the wandering nomads we find littering Waits’ music. Waits acts like the Prodigal father, receiving his sons and daughters with open arms in their long-awaited nostos. The pilgrims are invited to come down off their crosses, their suffering is over at long last, and the wood will be put to better use. Waits insists that Hobbes’s view of nature is worth leaving behind: “does life seem nasty, brutish and short?/…The world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ thru/ You gotta come up to the house.” As the Holy Fool, the maximal inversion and world-upside-down action possible is offering mercy and grace in place of judgment and condemnation. If Christ, the archetype of holy fools does this for prostitutes and thieves, who is beyond the fold of grace’s reach? Are we not called to do the same?

Jesus’ Love Never Failed Me Yet

In the 1970s, Gavin Bryers was shooting footage for a documentary on the homeless in the city of London. Providentially, he unintentionally captured a recording of a homeless man, feebly, yet hopefully singing a simple tune: “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” After looping the tune to play over 74 long minutes, Bryers overlade the tramp’s humble hymn with a gradual accompaniment of strings, culminating in a full orchestra. Tom Waits happened to hear this song playing on the radio one night on Kathleen’s birthday, and it became one of his favorite tapes. In 1993, Bryers asked if Waits would record the tune to create a duet of sorts. Waits’ gravelly, whisky-aged leathered voice enters alongside the unnamed man, undergirds him in their harmony—and carries him home. For Waits, it is type of confession. He sees himself among the homeless wanderers from his early life and the lives he continues to pen stories about and the end he might have had. Music critic Stephen Webb pushes the symbolism of the overlaid harmony further:

“Waits is the acoustical shape of the Son, lifting the tramp with his low voice, and thus showing us how Jesus can take our discordant souls and make them whole… Bryar’s composition, like all great music, I suppose, gives us a sonic foretaste of what it might mean to enter—with the dispossessed at our side—into heaven.[12]

This last irony of the world-upside-down from the carnivalesque is that the low will be brought high, and the homeless will be brought home: “Jesus’s love never failed me yet,/ Jesus love never failed me yet, Jesus love never failed me yet; /its one thing I know, he loves me so.”

 

Citations

[1]Kerouac, Jack, and Ann Charters. On the Road. New York: Penguin, 2003.
[2]Bakhtin, M. M. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T., 1968.
[3] Ibid, 15.
[4] Ibid, 34.
[5]Ibid, 107.
[6] Kessel, Corinne. The Words and Music of Tom Waits. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
[7] Chaucer, Geoffrey, and Nevill Coghill. The Canterbury Tales. London: Penguin, 2003, 559-561.
[8] O’Connor, Flannery, and Sally Fitzgerald. The Habit of Being: Letters. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988.
[9] Myer, Ben. “Faith and Theology: Tom Waits: Theologian of the Dysangelion.” Faith and Theology: Tom Waits: Theologian of the Dysangelion. 31 Dec. 2007. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
[10] Murav, 21.
[11] Ibid, 13.
[12] Webb, Stephen H. “A Sonic Foretaste of Heaven.” First Things. First Things, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2015

The Scar in the Sound

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of a paper that was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.

Apart from the many ways Tom Waits is a spiritually-steeped artist—his lyrics brimming with religious and biblical references, his reveling in ritualistic forms (re-forming or productively deforming them), and his posturing as a post-modern, post-religious and post-secular prophet—apart from and underneath and before all of that…there is a voice.

Hearing it for the first time is like getting slapped with a large, raw steak. The overwhelming–even punishing–quality of the voice itself poses the first challenge. It is incredible, in the purest sense of the word. It surpasses any reasonable expectation of what a human singing voice should sound like.

My ten year-old daughter’s reaction: “Oh Dad… not that guy again… I mean, I like the music, but his singing is just so… awful.” David Dark tells me his son waxed a bit more poetic: “He sounds like he’s already dead.” Or, consider the critic Daniel Durchholz: “[Waits’ voice sounds] like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.”

But therein lies its mysterious power. Like a car crash, the repulsion/attraction dynamic of it has long intrigued me, but that’s a weak analogy, as I’ve always sensed something more than spectacle and morbid curiosity at work in Waits’ voice. Aesthetically, perceptually, and theologically, this voice uniquely matters.

Scars and Sound

I think my daughter’s primary obstacles with Waits are two-fold: she hasn’t listened enough to see the nuances of what he is doing, and she hasn’t stumbled, regretted, or suffered enough. As for Waits’ sufferings, it seems his crosses have been largely of his own making, and he’s sometimes seemed a little too eager to hang on them. But, what redeems so many of those self-inflicted wounds is a brute honesty about how they came about.

A large part of the early albums were about wine, women, song, and a great deal of loneliness. With each successive recording his sound got rougher by his own choice. One only need contrast two early numbers: the lovely ballad “I Hope that I Don’t Fall in Love with You” (from the album Closing Time, 1973) which tells the story of a near romantic miss in a bar, with the “old shirt stained with blood and whiskey” referenced in “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” just three years later (from Small Change, 1976). In the latter song, the lament “I’ve lost my St. Christopher, now that I’ve kissed her, and the one-armed bandit knows….” You can see the shift toward consequence in the lyrics, but it’s really more important to hear, and engage, the damage in the voice itself. The man is desperately shoving wind through his shredded vocal folds, and they seem reluctant to move, like old, tattered, velvet curtains. The subsequent resonance is unearthly: shaking the bones, searing the viscera, embodying relentless tensions and a tortured history. Enormous symbolic and experiential freight gets hauled into the musical equation in a way that absolutely commands our attention, or forces us to turn away. There is something desperate, and prophetic, in that. You can scorn the scar in the sound, but you cannot ignore it.

closingtime

So, while he certainly romanticized the alcohol-soaked, vagabond musician image in those early years, he was generally truthful about where it could so often leave you. As he grew older, Waits typically leapfrogged the description of the party to the bitter, desolate after-party. The lyrics—in their themes, stories, and tone—continued to evolve, less concerned with late Friday nights as with the myriad hopes, disappointments, injustices, and indignities (many self-inflicted), of the everyday grind. Ballads of wanderers, real and mythic, mark his stories. He balances prophetic tirades against the abuse of power, hypocrisy, and injustice with humble refrains of confession, weakness, and regret. Between the dark clouds and cold irony, you might find a hymn to beauty, hope, forgiveness. His songs are about us for the most part, but references to God, angels, prophets, saints, apostles, martyrs, demons and devils all hang around, like a low deep fog of witness.

Voice and Grain

Voices are no ordinary sound. They are at once, and always, cultural, biological, semiotic, communicative, and relational phenomena. They demand responses from us that other sounds in the world do not, and their complexities give them an allusive quality of significance distinct from the words they deliver. It was this dimension that the critic Roland Barthes was chasing in his essay “The Grain of the Voice.”[1] Therein, he criticizes the famous tenor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as being part of the “pheno-text” tradition, where the voice is fully in submission to communication, aspiring to express something of the soul (leaving the body behind), and this annoys him. He contrasts this romantic aesthetic with the “geno-text,” to be found in other singers who don’t elide the trappings of the body:

It is in the throat, place where the phonic metal hardens and is segmented, in the mask that signifiance explodes, bringing not the soul but jouissance. With FD [Fischer-Dieskau], I seem only to hear the lungs, never the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucous membranes, the nose.

Well, as specious as Barthes’ understanding of singing technique may be, Tom fits the bill. All that fleshy stuff rattles loudly in Waits, to the point of almost extreme theatricality. Likewise, pitch, duration, intensity/dynamics, timbre—all the stuff of sound—become his playthings, as he willfully abandons anything like “perfection.” He will bend a note or sing off-key, refuse to tune his piano, beat his body into submission and drag his vocal chords through all manner of manipulation to maximize expressivity. He truly is a performance artist this way, trafficking in hyper-affectivity.

Sound as Meaningful

According to the philosopher of sound, Donald Ihde,[2] the story of Enlightenment philosophy is to stress “visualism” as the dominant sensory paradigm, as it suits itself to the sort of “objectivity” and “truth” (i.e., seeing is believing) that Enlightenment thinkers held to be central to their project. The quest to make everything subservient to human reason led to the questioning of all sensory experience, forever placing the “real” in an inaccessible realm, as Democritus presaged it long ago.[3] Ihde argues that the world, in the wake of visualism (that distancing sense, encouraging “objectivism,” autonomy, control and possessiveness), has been “de-vocalized.”[4] Visualism has reduced our relation with the world to subject – object, rather than the natural communion that sound encouraged for so many millennia, when oral cultures were the norm.

720x405-469420795

Waits, we might argue, through the pronounced quality of his voice, re-vocalizes the world by force. He grabs us by the lapels, and grounds us back into the earth. This is due, in no small part, to the power of sound as meaning, in itself. Again, Ihde argues:

The philosopher, concerned with comprehensiveness, must eventually call for attention to the word as soundful…[A]nd the philosopher, concerned with the roots of reflection in human experience, must eventually also listen to the sounds as meaningful.[5]

What he means is that the sound itself should not be undervalued in the meaning equation. We should not treat sound as merely an “envelope” in which the meaning (the words) is delivered. Sound is a tool, but not merely a tool. Words are meaningful, but not the only meaning. Together, with meaningful sound, they create an aggregate meaning, often complex and rich.

Ihde agrees with the great communication theorist Walter Ong that sound is naturally internal, immersive, and communal.[6] By virtue of the way we experience it, sound is deeply personal because resonates within our bodies (as opposed to the “distanced” sense of sight), though it nearly always necessitates a source of sound outside ourselves.

So, in the typical constitution of our sense of self, and others in relation to us, sound is critical. But beyond the relational dimension, sound also fundamentally defines our world in ways we don’t always recognize. For instance, sound gives us a sense of surfaces (think of the sound of chalk on a chalkboard). It also reveals the “invisible,” through appeal to our imaginative capacities: think of children guessing their birthday presents by shaking boxes and attentively listening.[7] Through sounds…

…the melon reveals its ripeness; the ice its thinness; the cup its half-full contents; the water reservoir, though enclosed, reveals exactly the level of the water inside in the sounding of interiors…. We hear hollows and solids as the interior spatiality of things. We hear the penetration of sound into the very depths of things, and we hear again the wisdom of Heraclitus, ‘The hidden harmony is better than the obvious.’[8]

The term “auscultation” refers to the listening of the inner workings of the throat, heart, and lungs via stethoscope, to identify illness.[9] A more radical instrument is the anechoic chamber, an acoustically manipulated room where noise is almost completely absent.[10] Here, the normally hidden noises of our body – the rasp of the breath, the “buzzing of our nervous system, the interrupted heartbeat”–are made loud. Given the tremors and impediments of the body, so prominent in Waits’ sound, we might see Waits functioning as a type of auscultation, an anechoic chamber wherein we hear the materiality of the human frame, in concert or at war with the breath.

Tom_Waits_by_calcross1

In this light, one of my favorite Waits quotes reveals a deeper meaning: “Ya know, songs are just really interesting things to be doing with the air….”

The creative power of the Hebrew God is word, which is spoken forth as power: from word comes the world. And although God may hide himself from the eyes, he reveals himself in word, which is also event in spite of the invisibility of his being. Human life, too, as the word-breath that unites the human with others and the gods is a life in sound. But if the world is devocalized, then what becomes of listening? Such has been a theological question that has also pervaded our culture.[11]

The Hebrew word for spirit, Ruach, is also the word for breath. If the spirit is breath, Waits is, very often, the death rattle, the last gasp as the body begins to collapse in on the breath. And yet–by sheer will–Waits forces it out, defiantly. In this way, he is like a warrior for messy, authentic life; for real, bodily experience in the world, amid many forces that would package and commodify it, simulate and sell it online.

He also functions in the prophetic mode, like Ezekiel wasting away on his side in the middle of square, hollering, out of his enormous discomfort, how everyone ought to turn around before it’s too late. Waits gives us the whole body, and the fragility of Being, by accentuating and foregrounding the grain of the sound, and it is by sound that he asserts material Being in an age tempted to skip the body altogether.

Just like we can rattle a box to comprehend the dimensions of the “invisible” object inside, so Waits gives us himself, but, in a mimetic/mirroring fashion, he also gives us ourselves in a type of material communion. There is nothing ethereal about this. Waits strong-arms his guts to the surface. Through listening, we absorb those sounds, and achieve a type of material recognizance of the forces (and impediments) at work in making them.

This honesty, prophetic truth, and communion in struggle make his moments of sentiment, reflection, hope and beauty all the more potent when they do appear. For me, Waits is primarily about beauty, a type of ironic, diamond-in-the-rough treasure revealed. When he sings “Ever Since I put your Picture in a Frame,” we hear his scratchy growl in counterpoint with the sweetness of the melody and the lyrical sentiment, creating an endearing portrait of a man in need of reform, who may have found redemption in love:

Sun come up it was blue and gold
Sun come up it was blue and gold
Sun come up it was blue and gold
Ever since I put your picture
In a frame.

I come calling in my Sunday best
I come calling in my Sunday best
I come calling in my Sunday best
Every since I put your picture
In a frame

And here, at the best moment of the song (the bridge), he desperately strains upward with all that he has and soars:

I’m gonna love you ‘til the wheels come off.

His voice is pressed and foundering, his pitch is messy, his breath support dying away—his wings are mangled, but, by God, he’s flying—and I really can’t imagine it any other way. Something like a miracle occurs there…materiality and ethereality mingle, like earth and heaven. This is the language, and the sound, of the imperfect vital machine: the human body pushed to the brink, to the edge of the world, existence, the body’s limit, for love, only to arrive at a most improbable grace.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Toward an Incarnational Aesthetic

For those who dare to set foot on the road of faith, all this talk of materiality, weakness, and the bodily locus of so many meanings points to the Incarnation, the uniquely Christian idea that the Divine Word has taken vulnerable flesh. It also embodies within it, historically, metaphorically, semiotically, the notion that Christ humbled himself; that there was nothing in his appearance to draw us to him. His life was hard, his death was harder, and he was brimming with sympathy for the downcast, the forgotten, the castaway. He came to commiserate, yes, but also to save.

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,

After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.

(Isaiah 53:2, 11)

“The incarnation changes everything,” wrote Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an agnostic and pre-eminent philosopher who unexpectedly found himself arguing for the relevance of Christian thought.[12] In the politically charged climate of 1950s Paris, he served as a great champion of the human body as a perceptual agent, and the locus of human meaning. As his own Marxist confidence waned and his rift with Jean-Paul Sartre widened, he saw the Incarnation in a new light: a doctrine of great power, on numerous levels, culminating in the political essay “Faith and Good Faith.” Though he was not embracing the whole of the faith, he was understanding how his love of the body and his quest for meaning, relation, and knowledge could be summed up in that image of the God-man.

But how does the Incarnation help us understand or love that god-awful sound coming out of Tom Waits? The answer, in part, runs through a redemptive ugliness; an ugliness that finds use and meaning as part of larger redemptive story. In this, Waits is in a time-honored tradition.

There is a church in Bavaria, and above the altar is this crude sculpture:

The Suffering Christ, The Weiskirche, Steingaden, Bavaria, Germany

The Suffering Christ, The Weiskirche, Steingaden, Bavaria, Germany

It is generally acknowledged that this image is not only poor craftsmanship, aesthetically, but more than a bit revolting in its horrific and gross corporeal detail: bruises, blood, scars and gaping wounds. Over the centuries, the church guides tell me, there have been numerous attempts to remove this sculpture and replace it with a more sanitary alternative, but the peasants kept revolting and forcibly hauling it back. At one point, tears had been seen upon it, and it became a pilgrimage site. It’s ugly, it’s wounded, it’s broken, it’s dilapidated, and it cries for them. In other words, it’s imperfectly perfect—a material echo of Christ’s divine life and work.

Now, the Apostle Thomas doubted, like the rest of us, and Thomas Waits is no exception: “Unless I put my fingers in his hands, and my hands in his side, I will not believe.” But in Waits’ own scars, we sense he has been doing just that:

Cold was the night, hard was the ground
They found her in a small grove of trees
Lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
She’s too young to be out
On the street.

Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there for
Georgia Lee?

Sometimes, it all seems very hopeless in Tom Waits’ world, but the astute observer will note that the first lines of this song–“Dark was the night, cold was the ground”–is actually an intertextual reference, a dialogue with a very famous, blind, abused and poor bluesman: Blind Willie Johnson.

Blind Willie Johnson

Blind Willie Johnson

As a poor, blind black man in the 1930s, Johnson really had suffered in unimaginable ways, and yet managed to hold the faith. His song – which was a version of a well known spiritual–went like this:

Dark was the night, and cold the ground
On which the Lord was laid;
His sweat like drops of blood ran down;
In agony he prayed.

”Father, remove this bitter cup,
If such Thy sacred will;
If not, content to drink it up
Thy pleasure I fulfill.

Go to the garden, sinner, see
Those precious drops that flow;
The heavy load He bore for thee;
For thee he lies so low.

Then learn of Him the cross to bear;
Thy Father’s will obey;
And when temptations press thee near,
Awake to watch and pray.

What makes Johnson’s version so special: his voice rivals Waits in its gravelly, shredded quality, and he speaks not a word of this well known spiritual. The lyrics (known and embodied in the oral culture of the African-American community) were already there, hanging in the air. As the they gesture toward the unspeakable, Johnson hums, groans, and incarnates the truths behind the words in remarkable musical interchange with his guitar. Any doubts that Tom Waits expresses in “Georgia Lee” need also to be seen in conversation with the sainted bluesmen who have gone before. In this light, Waits does not simply voice doubt, anger, and struggle, but quests for understanding through evocation of those who struggled before him. “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak,” Cornel West once said. I’m trying to convince my daughter that what I love in Tom Waits is connected to that Bavarian statue and the groans of Blind Willie Johnson.

Do we see resurrection in Tom Waits? Not quite, it seems, but we do see hope. Even the resurrected Christ–healed, perfect, victorious–bears the scars.

 

Citations

[1] Found in Image-Music-Text (Stephen Heath, trans.). London: HarperCollins, 1977.

[2] Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 7-7, 14.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Ibid., 76.

[7] Ibid., 61, 68.

[8] Ibid., 71.

[9] Rice, Tom. “Sounding Bodies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 299.

[10] Ibid., 81.

[11] Ibid., 14.

[12] “Faith and Good Faith,” in Sense-and Non-Sense (Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus, trans.). Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

On Woolf Works

In philosophy and theology, there is a lot of discussion about what a self is. We often think of it as the true kernel of a person hiding inside the body, but most now agree that the matter is not that simple. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, puts it this way:

“I desire peace, I desire to be at home with myself; but the edge and the energy of the desire, the movement involved, comes from the already experienced knowledge that I am irretrievably dispersed in a multiplicity of unstable feelings and changing relationships…The self I know is the self that is not at one with itself but is moving and changing; the self is always ‘in question,’ under criticism, a matter of thought.[1]

Williams talks about the self in terms of energy, movement, multiplicity, and change. It is not a static and identifiable object, but many different currents of movement. But what kind of movements are these and how do we understand them? Ballet is a helpful way of presenting different ideas about what it might mean for a person to be multiple movements. It has the capacity to render visible and visceral the connectivity of people who, in their confrontations with one another, form fluid, ever-changing shapes. This helps us to to visualize different ways in which people move, change, and become themselves in and through relationship to others and the surrounding environment.

In particular, Woolf Works, a ballet choreographed by Wayne McGregor and based on three novels by Virginia Woolf, is well-suited to this task. Woolf’s novels are all, in different ways, about the relationship of the self to time, and how time fragments and multiplies the self. The three novels on which the acts of the ballet are based are: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. The transposition of these novels into ballet renders visible the ways in which a person is a nexus of cosmic, personal, and societal rhythms. McGregor presents three variations of Woolf’s multiplied and moving self through different representations of the relationship of the self to time.

The first act is based on Mrs Dalloway. The Dalloway family dances together on stage to the chiming of Big Ben; however, this includes not only Mr. and Mrs. Dalloway and their daughter, but Mrs. Dalloway also brings her younger self and the lover she wishes she had married to the relationship. Of the three, this act has the form that comes closest to a narrative, but its time is not linear. Past and present characters are all on stage at the same time, relating to one another through the dance. It is remarkable to see how a relationship can be so crowded. The visualization of this dynamic powerfully represents how any relationship is more like a group of ballet dancers than a waltz, even when there are only apparently two people involved. A person brings past selves, and the others through which those selves were forged, to each subsequent relationship. The result is that the person is presented as multiple selves that are acting concurrently; the self is not fractured, but its unity is also not a given. It is more like a process, a fragile network of movements evolving through time.

virginia-woolf-las_2971827b

The second act is based on Orlando, and here the self is fractured. Rather than the ticking of Big Ben, time in this act is represented spatially by the intersection of lasers which cut across the stage, dividing it into shapes and planes. This is congruent with Woolf’s presentation of time in Orlando as a house with 365 rooms and 52 staircases. This presentation leads to a more violent fragmentation of the self, as though time were a knife that lacerates a person into multiplicity. Structures of identity such as gender, language, nationality, and class are overthrown by the protagonist Orlando. The self is fragmented across male and female, rich and poor—in obedience only to his/her whims. While there is arguably a trajectory of development in the Orlando of Woolf’s text, McGregor does not represent this dimension on stage. McGregor interprets this novel through more chaotic relations between the dancers. The dancers all appear as variations on a single persona, dancing sometimes one at a time and sometimes in legion, sometimes in synchronization and sometimes in their own isolated dances; there is little apparent structure. In contrast to the first act, the selves’ relations are more disjointed and seemingly unguided.

The final act is a presentation of The Waves, in which the inner lives of six persons, from childhood to old age, are juxtaposed with the larger cosmic cycles of a single day. In the novel, each character is presented through how he or she experiences and responds to the rhythms of the surroundings. Interestingly, these responses remain consistent throughout the characters’ lives, but they manifest as different permutations of that rhythm in response to the changing environment. In this act, McGregor represents time through the dancers themselves. Characters are depicted by several dancers, which roll forward to replace one another like waves. So, while time is portrayed externally in the first two acts, as the chiming of the clock and by visual planes, in the final act time becomes a function of the movement of the dancers themselves. Time is internalized.

What this image suggests is an interconnection with surrounding reality to the extent that the self is not a discrete object: the waves cannot be separated from the water that surrounds them. However, despite not being representable, the self is, to a degree, continuous as a history of encounters and surges, which emerge and recede in a forward-moving pattern. While the self in Orlando is fragmented and constructed according to its own choices and movements, persons in The Waves roll forward gently, changing in response to conditions beyond their control in a way that is nevertheless patterned, continuous, and coextensive with the environment. The person is not a brittle thing smashed into shards on the sharp edges of time but is fluid and responsive and, in this way, is continuous despite variation.

Woolf Works offers three different images of the self: the multiple concurrent selves of Mrs Dalloway, which work together to create ever-changing shapes; the fragmented and non-continuous self of Orlando; and The Waves’ self as patterned surges of encounter and consciousness that are co-extensive with their larger environment. What Woolf Works shows is that there are many versions of the non-unified self. While many now agree that the self is not a timeless internal core, there is still uncertainty about what to replace it with. Woolf Works presents three possibilities to the imagination. Are any of these images a better representation of the person than the others? While the presentations of Mrs Dalloway and The Waves both show something true about the nature of persons, the fragmented and non-continuous human represented by McGregor’s character, Orlando, is problematic.

Rowan Williams again lends insight when he expresses concerns about the rejection of the idea that there is some kind of continuity or cohesion of the self through time. If there is no continuity, then my self, my “I,” is just something constructed out of exchangeable identities purchased or selected at different times[2]—much like the Orlando McGregor depicts. In other words: a person in this case is not a product of time, but a will abstracted from time. The truth, however, is that I do not belong to myself and so am not a product of my own will. My actions have consequences beyond my control and thus represent me to others in ways that I do not intend.[3] I am continuous, not because I have a unified and invulnerable core or a true identity that can be reconstructed free of historical contingencies, but because my choices have internal and external consequences for the sorts of actions and responses that become available to me. I am not a timeless object, but a sequence of encounters (waves perhaps) that make a certain narration of my life, and certain future actions, possible.[4]

While Orlando’s self (or at least McGregor’s depiction of it) is problematic for these reasons, the other two acts demonstrate how one can reject the idea of the self as a static monad but retain the idea of continuity through time and relationship. The first act, the representation of Mrs Dalloway, shows how one’s representation of one’s self is always bound up with that of others and is therefore always open to being questioned by those others. It is always in motion, always changing shapes. McGregor’s representation of The Waves likewise depicts a person in motion, as the product of choices and accidents in the environment, shaped by and coextensive with what cannot be controlled or understood. Persons are a nexus of multiple movements, not because they construct or buy a variety of identities at will, but because they meet themselves through a variety of other people and environments.

Ballet as a medium is particularly helpful for making these sorts of distinctions clear, since the person is necessarily presented to the audience through the history of its movements, always in the context of time and through the space that is created through its relations to other dancers. Moreover, while these relations appear smooth to the audience, the dancers know that such unity of movement is never something unproblematically achieved,[5] but is always being negotiated in time and always at risk of going wrong. Significantly, the only way in which this risk is reduced is through practice — because it is through this practice that one experiences one’s body, and therewith one’s self, through others and through time. Ballet shows and practices what Williams expresses above: being at home with one’s self and with others is not a state attained, but the propulsion that directs how one moves through the world.

 

Featured Image: used with the kind permission of Alice Pennefather, the Royal Opera House

Citations

[1] Rowan Williams, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 145.

[2] Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 73; Rowan Williams, Lost Icons, 101.

[3] Williams, Lost Icons, 109.

[4] Williams, The Edge of Words, 79.

[5] Williams, Lost Icons, 116.

Get Free

Editor’s Note: This paper was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.

In a 1999 cover story for Rolling Stone, Lauryn Hill said about her exit from the Fugees, “But the funny thing about liberation is that once you get it, anything other feels awkward.”[1] Over the next couple of years, however, she would experience liberation of a different nature–a deep spiritual renewal. Hints of Hill’s spiritual transformation were present in her post-solo album interviews[2] and award acceptance speeches,[3] but she clearly unfolded her journey of faith in an unexpected place, via an unassuming solo acoustic guitar performance on MTV’s Time Square Studios. Her 2001 MTV Unplugged No. 2 performance was received by much of the music press at the time as a public breakdown. In an interview with Essence after the performance, the journalist indicated, “a growing concern for her vulnerability. I worry about the 27-year-old’s willingness to speak from the heart about how passionately she has rededicated her life to God.”[4] Other publications were not as gracious calling the performance a “nervous breakdown” filled with “psychobabble, self-help happy talk, ranting, and preaching”[5] and touting “a philosophy tailor-made for the tantrum-throwing, I-don’t-do-stairs world of soul divas and supermodels.”[6]

Near the beginning of the performance Hill tells her audience, “Fantasy’s what people want but reality is what they need. And I’ve just retired from the fantasy part.” According to Hill, reality begins with refusing to dress up her body or voice in the way that the music industry expects her to do. In her performance, she wears jeans and a NY Mets hat while singing with a hoarse, tired and cracking voice. Furthermore, Hill uses performative techniques akin to leading a church service with the understated vulnerability of her unaccompanied acoustic guitar. She utilizes testimony, preaching and singing songs of worship, all in a hip-hop folk style to witness to her audience a message of liberation through the gospel. A gospel she believes, in the words of Jesus, proclaims good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and the oppressed, and recovers the sight of those blinded by the system.

In a 2012 paper titled, “’The People Inside My Head, Too’: Madness, Black Womanhood, and the Radical Performance of Lauryn Hill,” La Marr Jurelle Bruce argues that Hill purposely aligns herself with the trope of mad, black woman in the vein of other female vocalists such as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.[7] Hillis not trying to destabilize her audience’s gendered and racial expectations but works in a performance mode perceived by listeners as someone who has gone crazy, when, in fact, she has not. Though she refers to herself throughout this performance as “crazy”, “deranged” and “emotionally unstable”[8], she is operating in a different mode, as a modern day prophet. Hill is prophetically speaking against “the system.”

She identifies enslavement to materialism, celebrity worship and self-centeredness as aspects of this system, which she names as part of late-capitalist American culture and people’s inner lives. But most notably, she opposes the historic and present racial discrimination against African Americans and uses her personal gospel transformation as a guide to speak up for those oppressed by the American justice system. The liberation Hill sings of is both physical and spiritual. Through this comprehensive sense of the gospel, Hill addresses the issues that lie at the center of both the oppressors and oppressed, a sinful heart in need of grace.

The beginning song tryptic of “Adam Lives in Theory,” “Oh Jerusalem” and “War in the Mind (Freedom Time)” outlines Hill’s belief on the source of personal and cultural oppression. Hill drops her strongest critique of the sinful world in “War in the Mind (Freedom Time).”

According to Hill, in her extended forceful raps, reminiscent of the delivery of African-American preachers, people’s minds are splintered realities in Western post-modernist cultures. She deconstructs any and all -isms–religions, televangelists, and academia–in broad strokes. These systems Hill describes as depraved and sinfully disordered but also acknowledges that individual human hearts are implicated. All of humanity is so wrapped up in these realities, Hill sings, that when “Truth comes, we can’t hear it/When you’ve been programmed to fear it.” At this point, a tonal shift occurs which becomes the foundation for the rest of the performance. Hill in her gritty, sandpaper-toned preaching rap tells her audience, “Where there’s no repentance there can be no admission/And that sentence, more serious than Vietnam/The atom bomb and Saddam and Minister Farrakhan.” The audience applauds in response to Hill’s call for repentance and then she goes on to explain, “His word has nailed/Everything to the tree/Severing all of me/From all I used to be.” Referencing the transformative power of the gospel on her life and as the vehicle through which freedom is obtained.

Thus far in the performance, Hill has spoken against oppressive systems and hinted at the gospel as a liberating force. These themes are then injected into real world struggles experienced by African-Americans in “The Mystery of Iniquity”, “So Much Things to Say” and “I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel).” In “I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel),” Hill humanizes the problem of systemic racism by retelling the story of the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man, by four plainclothes NYPD officers with forty-one bullets. At trial it was discovered that Amadou was reaching for his wallet in his pocket (and not a gun as the officers believed) when he was shot[9]. Prefacing the song, Hill explains the difficulty she encountered writing this song and how God intervened, providing her a direction: “Now I realize that this song is about freedom. You see. We can look at one human being but it’s about the spirit of freedom being taken out. And how it’s taken out in all of us.”[10] Tragically set using flowing arpeggiated minor chords in the lower register of her acoustic guitar, she sings about how black lives are thought of as “cheap,” “easy to be wasted” and views the shooting as history repeating itself. In her devastation over Amadou’s death, she finds comfort in Psalm 37:1, “Fret not thyself I say, against these laws of man” and subscribes what Pilate said in response to the Jews at Jesus’ trial to Amadou, “His blood is on their hands.” Singing desperately and pleadingly she loses her voice asking her audience to wake up from their sleep regarding tragic deaths like these and from now on to “choose well,” “rebel,” and repent.

Prophetically uncovering sinful hearts, which create and sustain these unjust systems, Hill reveals God’s heart for liberation of the oppressed but then in “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” she identifies as one of the oppressed, vulnerably singing about her own need for gospel liberation.

In the simple narrative, Hill details her internal struggle between Satan, who tells her peace of mind is not possible, and God, who says it is impossible without him. She sincerely seeks God’s truth, loving embrace, and longs to repent of her past, leaving her old self behind. Shifting from smoothly strummed chords to a heavy-laden reggae beat, Hill repeats over and over again that it is possible to find peace of mind with God’s gift of freedom. Here justice and peace are intrinsically linked by Hill, in the sense that justice will bring about a peace that “means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight.”[11] In that space of acceptance of God’s freedom and rest she can sing softly, “What a joy it is to be alive/To get another chance,” and then overwhelmed by God’s grace in her life she tearfully sings about the peace she has found.

Following this emotional unloading is a twelve minute interlude, that functions like a sermon on sin, total depravity, materialism, pursuing God-given passion, gospel transformation, spiritual warfare, and marriage, with the goal of weaving into her audience a picture of personal and societal peace. Within this sermon, she also provides the framework for her performance and the gospel of liberation:

And that’s what all these songs about. Problem, cause and solution. Free your mind. Yeah. It’s like we all think that the gospel is join a church building and that’s deception. You know, the real gospel is repent. Which means let go of all that crap that’s killing you. Life is supposed be a pleasurable experience not this torment.[12]

Hill’s powerful prophetic words for gospel justice within a broken system were not well received beyond MTV’s Time Square studio by critics or consumers. She still continues to be viewed, as she testified to in this performance, as “crazy”, “deranged” and “emotionally unstable” and is comfortable with accepting those labels. Her intent as a musical prophet is to wake up her audience from the slumber of consumerism, self-centeredness and racism of late-capitalist American culture. As Dr. Claudette Carr writes in a January 2014 post at Afritorial, “Lauryn Hill, is positioning herself in the tradition of Old Testament Prophets, as an outcast… a Concious [sic] Pariah.”[13] Like Jeremiah, she weeps over the injustices in this world and like John the Baptist, she is preparing the way for her audience to see and accept the liberating freedom of the gospel. Hill’s performance, then, captures the love of God for each individual sinner and his love of justice, in this case, particularly for African-Americans suffering under systemic racism. And her prophetic call is for all of humanity to respond by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with their God. Hill’s final words echo what the Apostle Paul wrote in the Book of Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free, stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” she proclaims:

God is saying, “Get free. Confess, man. Understand that. Look everybody is going through the same stuff. Same issues it’s just a bunch of repression.” And I’m sayin’, “Man, life it’s too, too valuable, man, for us to sit here in these boxes all repressed, you know, afraid to admit what we really going through.” You know what I’m sayin’? I’m tired of that.[14]

 

[1] Touré. “Lady Soul”, Rolling Stone. February 18, 1999. Accessed February 3, 2015.

[2] See Ibid. and Pearl Cleage, “Looking for Lauryn”, Essence, July 1, 2002, 89-94.

[3] See Lauryn Hill, “Album of the Year Acceptance Speech”, 41st Annual Grammy Awards, CBS, aired February 24, 1999 and Lauryn Hill, “Essence Award Acceptance Speech“, 13th Annual Essence Awards, Turner Classic Movies, aired June 2, 1999.

[4] Cleage, “Looking for Lauryn”, 90.

[5] Nathan Rabin, “Lauryn Hill: MTV Unplugged Version 2.0”, The A.V. Club, May 21, 2002. Accessed January 11, 2015.

[6] Alex Petridis, “Songs from La-La Land”, The Guardian, April 26, 2002. Accessed January 11, 2015.

[7] La Marr Jurelle Bruce, “’The People Inside My Head, Too’: Madness, Black Womanhood, and the Radical Performance of Lauryn Hill”, African American Review (45, no. 3, Fall 2012), 371-89.

[8] Lauryn Hill, “Outro” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, with Lauryn Hill, Colombia Records, 2002.

[9] Jane Fritsch, “The Diallo Verdict: The Overview; 4 Officers in Diallo Shooting Are Acquitted of All Charges”, The New York Times, February 26, 2000. Accessed March 11, 2015.

[10] Hill, “Interlude 3” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.

[11] Tim Keller, “Justice”, (sermon, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City, NY, October 23, 2005)

[12] Hill, “Interlude 5” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.

[13] Claudette Carr, “Locating Lauryn Hill’s Consumerism.” Afritorial. January 14, 2014. Accessed March 11, 2015.

[14] Hill, “Outro” on MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.

Creator’s Journal

Rehearsal. Tuesday, 3:30 PM.

I have these visions, of choking, drowning, a disease, being kidnapped, being murdered, mutilation...”

There was a long pause.

“I don’t know why I’m saying this.”

Allison stops short. The white-walled studio is lit by scoop lights that point up toward the ceiling. As if on queue, the jackhammer outside starts up again to fill the silence. The director, Mikhael, pulls the lead glass windows closed and turns her attention back to Allison, an actor, and the moment at hand.

We are rehearsing a play that I wrote.  Mikhael stands next to Allison, scripts in their hands, and together they are analyzing every word, every bit of punctuation, to uncover the hidden spirit locked in the black ink.

“I understand the way… it’s overwhelming, I get that. But why am I saying it now? What is it to him?”

My heart beats more quickly. I understand her question. I wrote the scene. I wrote the whole play, and yet I don’t have an answer. I know I had to write it that way, but to articulate how it should be interpreted and performed is completely beyond me. What if it doesn’t belong here? What if it it’s getting in the way?

Mikhael, the soul of patience, steps in.

“He gave you something right before this, right? His confession? Maybe this is something you’re giving back to him?”

Allison’s eyes close. Her head tilts slightly and her lips flutter like laughing. Her forehead wrinkles in a lightning-quick frown.

“Let me try something.”

There is a thrill to making theatre because it is a communal art. No play is complete until the script is written, the director has staged it, the designers have lit the set they built, and the actors have spoken the words in front of an audience. All told, it will require thousands of hours of work from dozens of people to bring this scene to life. And at the end we will have some pictures, some reviews, and some awards, if we’re lucky. But nothing tangible will remain.

We are making something that lasts only in the memories of our audience. Our medium is our own bodies and spirits, our tools are our own thoughts and emotions and wills, and the product will be an experience that will be over within 95 minutes. And then it is left to the memories of strangers.

Moments made us. We are made of moments, not molecules.”

You start with a dream, and it ends in a memory. A fitting circle.

IMG_6978 (1)

This play is about the aftermath of a son’s tragic death. His mother and father are part of a support group for grieving parents, and we watch as they grapple with their memories and emotions. Told in a fragmented, poetic style, we don’t know who these people are at the top of the show, and as their story unfolds we discover what really happened that day.

Our production presents the support group in a tangible form as a circle of chairs. Each show is limited to 52 audience members who sit in the chairs, becoming the other members of the group. We have adopted a public school cafeteria on New York City’s Lower East Side, decamping our light trees and speakers after school hours, and when the audience enters they become part of the world of the play.

In immersive work like this, the techniques for staging the show become vital. How do we create the experience of being in the support group without eliciting responses from the audience? What if somebody starts talking? What if somebody leaves? We want to create an engaging experience, presenting the characters in their raw form, but not an interactive one. And we want the audience to feel safe, but also unavoidably close to the action.

There is no way to anticipate all the possible outcomes, and so the actors must respond in the moment to whatever impulses they encounter. One night a janitor spent an eternity jangling his keys as he tried to unlock a classroom door. Another night we spilled a cup of water. Live theatre teaches actors to concentrate on the reality of the characters and their imaginary circumstance, but immersive work demands that they also keep an eye and ear open to the real world.

This play is about parenting, and partnering. As a new parent myself, I was struck by how I related to other parents and news stories about tragedies like Sandy Hook, and other events closer to home. I shared the burden they felt. I shared the fear, the anger, the loss. And healing became a function of community.

IMG_7156

Plays, too, are raised from newborns to adulthood over the course of a few weeks. There is a balance of giving rules and providing freedom. But theatre is the art of incarnation. What starts out as an idea must find its physical form in the body and voice of an actor.

If I’m the playwright, does that make me the father? Or the mother? And the director is the midwife? This metaphor is weird.

Tech. Thursday, 10:45 PM.

Theatre has a particular form of torture known as “tech.” During this phase, the technical elements of a production – the lights, sound, costumes, and props – are integrated with the lines and movements of the actors for the first time. The stage manager and run crew work with the designers to make sure that the artful ideas behind each element are working effectively in the world of the story. At its best, it creates a new language:

“Can the lights be louder here?”

“We need a blouse that says ‘yoga mom’ but also ‘I have a professional career’”

“That coffee cup is way too emotional. Let’s try something else.”

And it takes practice to coordinate the lights and sound with the movement. The actors feed off the energy of the space and, in a sense, they can embody the technical elements too.

“Hold, please.”

“From the top of page 38.”

These are long nights. Tedious, careful nights. And we take care of each other best we can.

Writing for the theatre is to begin a journey that can only be completed by others. I am grateful for the team’s hard work, but still my heart asks, are we ready? How will the audience react? Will they get it? Are we fooling ourselves to think people will want to see this show?

I know we are well-prepared, but there is no way to control what will happen in the moment. And we have the armor of our art: the lights, sound, costumes, and props, as well as weeks of ingraining the lines and movements into our bodies. But each night is a risk. Telling this story, never gets easier.

Saturday Night. First preview.  6:15 PM.

We drove up to Connecticut for an out-of-town preview to be presented in a school gymnasium. The cavernous space could eat our tiny rehearsal studio. And the chairs! A circle large enough to accommodate 50 audience members becomes an infinite distance for an actor to cross.

“I know I need to be in the six o’clock chair.” Michael,  an actor, is mapping out his next move before the show begins. “That’s gonna take me forever.”

“Think about the breath.” Mikhael the director offers. “Inhale with the beat change, and the exhale drives you up and out of your seat.”

Michael’s face is grim. He nods, sets his jaw. He is a tireless worker. He breathes, and rises with a jolt. As the words tumble out of him I am leaning forward in my seat, hungrily listening to everything. I know these words! But here he is telling me about his life, his son, with my lines. I am transported.

Being on stage is its own form of nakedness. And being exposed to an audience surrounding you on all sides is especially intimidating. How comfortable are we in our bodies? We all have parts we would rather hide. The actors amaze me with their bravery. They stand in front of us and let their emotions out – raw, ugly, fiercely uncontrollable things – in the service of the story. Faces contort, hands writhe. Even your own breathing betrays you, and panic sets in. Is that the character? Is that me?

“Line.”

Michael’s face flickers with annoyance. He asks for help.

Hi. My name is Brian...” Kristy the stage manager prompts him in a clinical monotone.

Hi. My name is Brian. My wife told me to come here.”

He catches the rhythm again and he is off. The move to the far chair is a tightrope towards an uncertain goal. He lands in his new seat and looks around. I watch as he calculates the trajectory of his next cross, but this time I see the character Brian, too. Michael wants out of that seat. Brian wants out of that room. Brian doesn’t want to share tonight. Michael stands to go. In a shift, he delivers the next line straight to Allison, to her eyes, and waves of emotion radiate out from them, filling that basketball court, blazing up to the dark Connecticut sky.

Dean’s new play TOGETHER WE ARE MAKING A POEM IN HONOR OF LIFE runs through June 28, in an immersive workshop production at The Cafeteria of P.S. 142 / Amalia Castro Public School, on New York City’s Lower East Side. More info: http://www.inhonoroflifetheplay.com

 

Till I Collapse: From Tupac to Lecrae

Editor’s Note: This paper was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.

 

Imagine Green Day releasing a country album, or Taylor Swift releasing 1990’s emo. Imagine the sound of Johnny Cash singing with Sigor Rós. Imagine the lyrics of Coldplay in the diminished fifth of Nine Inch Nails. Imagine Lil-Wayne writing gospel. Imagine a black metal hymnal.

Unless you are “Weird Al” Yankovic, these absurd artistic decisions are unthinkable. Even before there are categories or genres, we know that music works when form and content meet. Form and content need to be in tune with one another or the audience cannot concentrate on what’s going on. Whether the rhythm of My Brightest Diamond or the a-rhythm of Math Music, the aura of Sigor Rós or the dirge of Blut Aus Nord, they make sense because, whatever the music is trying to be, it is being that clearly: a sign of clarity is being able to recognize principles holding the music together. This is as true for Bach as for John Cage. Even Cage wants his un-music to make sense as un-music. Whenever form and content coalesce, and they have a near infinite capacity for this, and there is something there to listen to.

All of this helps re-situate a question that Lecrae and others are asked without end: “How can such a thing as Christian rap exist?” This is asked in many ways, but that’s the gist. Somehow, for some reason, the intersection of Christian themes and hip-hop raises a concern over form and content.

I was fortunate to interview Lecrae, and was determined not to ask him that question. But the question began to reverse itself. So in the middle of our conversation, I asked  “So, what’s up with hip-hop? How can hip-hop sustain the company of Tupac, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang, and Lecrae? How is it so flexible a genre?” After thinking it over a moment, Lecrae replied. “Hip-hop has always been about the disenfranchised.”

I want to clarify what Lecrae and hip-hop mean by “disenfranchised,” even reconsidering the term. I’ll do that indirectly by way of the two formal distinctions that set hip-hop apart from other genres, moving from Tupac to Eminem. In part, this is an historical assessment.

What does Lecrae mean by disenfranchised? First one has to think about the voice that hip-hop speaks from, the distinct grammatical person, as in first-,  second-, or third-person it uses. Lyrics use all three personal vantages, and genres prefer one or another: first-person in pop-music; second-person in Civil War spirituals; and third-person in ballads and Arcade Fire.

With the first-person perspective, it’s significant who the person is. Think of The National’s “I need my girl.” Who is the “I” who needs his girl? Even if the The National, when writing the song, were missing their girl, the “I” is crucially distinct from Matt Berninger. The songs are not about him. But here and elsewhere, the first-person “I” works cathartically. We can all possess the “I.” An entire stadium of fans can sing along with “I need my girl,” or Coldplay’s “I will fix you,” even if at the moment they have their girl right next to them, or have already fixed the the problem. They can own the song by taking on the lyrical vantage point of “I.”

2pac

In hip-hop, the “I” is not sharable or primarily cathartic. The voice that hip-hop takes on is historical. Tupac writes about himself. He is the “I.” It is not an artistic attache through whom the listener can sing along with, having a sense of owning the song himself. Tupac is writing about himself, not so that you can sing with him, but so that you can listen to him. The first-person of hip-hop conveys a sense of the artist being a witness, telling you what he saw.You’re not meant to think that you were there as well when Tupac’s friend got shot, when Wu-Tang went to war or when Jay-Z became king. And you’re certainly not meant to think you are them. It was Tupac’s friend who got shot. Don’t pretend to be Tupac. Listen to Tupac.

Though Tupac speaks about himself, he speaks as a young black male, as in his first album’s first song, “Young Black Male.” He represents the experience of that community. But instead of the choral, plural “we,” Tupac, and hip-hop after him, decided to stand in-front and represent personally that neighborhood, ghetto, city (; e.g., Jay-Z’s Brooklyn’s Finest). Because of this, the listener often gets confused.  Should the listener sing along or is the listener being sung to/about? Hip-hop is not quick to clarify.

The second part of hip-hop is how the writer, the first-person “I,” defines himself. This is not just self-expression, and it is certainly not an impersonal, abstract “self” defining. It is fundamentally auto-biographical; it is auto-nomous, self-naming. Sometimes it looks like masculine preening. Jay-Z: “I’m the new Sinatra.” In his first album, Tupac spells out the acronym Nigga: Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished. Wu-Tang is nothing to fuck with. They’re all still # 1, still on top. In part, this names the community that the artist writes from, as when Eminem represents the 311. And sometimes this is definition by negation. Tupac writes: “Made to feel inferior, but we’re superior … Honour a man that who refuses to respect us.”

Tupac began certain self-definitions that hip-hop cannot get away from: “I’m a nightmare,” “I’m what you made me,” “They call me violent…the violent’s what I gotta be” and “You’re watching the makings of a psychopath.” In just his first album, and then in Me Against the World, he makes himself something to fear; he digs into a gun fight with police, sees brothers get shot, loves and protects his mother and threatens anyone who talks back. And like his mother taught him, he better be respected. After a while, a character develops which later hip-hop artists have taken as their prototype.

wu-tang

Tupac’s character is picked up by the Wu-Tang Clan and the Wu-Tang Clan is Tupac’s violence engorged. What is Wu-Tang all about? A friend of mine, who has studied Wu-Tang far more than I, has answered, “I – I think they are trying to say that they are nothing to mess with.” Their songs repeat this over and again. The violence that Wu-Tang describes is intricate and almost juvenile in its extravagance, aspiring for avant-garde. Tupac made threats; Wu-Tang carried out the hits.

Following the lyrical wars of Tupac and Wu-Tang Clan, a new character evolves. A new king ascends to the throne. No longer content to be a modern Billy the Kid, he’s the new Rockefeller. He’s Jay-Z. His threats are brief and subtle; he protects La Familia. Concern for mothers and hatred toward fathers has been around since Tupac. Jay-Z, however, has daughters. This introduces a new tension between family and hip-hop. He also continues to have visions of empire, even divine metamorphosis: “You in the presence of a king/Scratch that, you in the presence of a God.”

20090514_em1

These lyrics, and the tension between them, re-occur endlessly in Eminem. “Mockingbird” is a testament to both familial sorrow and visions of empire: “Cause all I ever wanted to do was just make you proud/Now I’m sitting in this empty house, just reminiscing” and “Why be a king, when you can be a god?”

Eminem writes about being a rap god with all the usual superlatives, but to all these self-definitions he gives a twist. Eminem is ambiguous about who he is talking about; for from early on, he gave an independent existence to his hip-hop personae, Slim Shady. Dating  back to Africa Bambaataa, Tupac and the rest have always had MC pseudonyms. But whenever Sean Carter spoke about Jay-Z, he was talking about himself, under a different name. The DJ handle was a mask, a fake ID, a title.

Eminem’s Slim Shady had a personality. Slim Shady speaks to Eminem and Eminem speaks back, a routine where two persons are played by one artist. Slim Shady is a separate bag of motivations, vices and threats. He is a self-sufficient ego. At times Eminem and Slim seem to converge, as in the song “Real Slim Shady.” But even there, the question is who Slim Shady is. And it ends with Eminem admitting, “Guess there’s a Slim Shady in all of us.”

In every case, Slim Shady is the enemy. “Eminem” and “Slim Shady” stand in-twine like a wretch and a tyrant. In the 1998 EP of “Slim Shady,” (not the LP), there’s an opening skit where Eminem wakes up to Slim Shady’s demonic voice telling him to look into the mirror. “You’re nothing without me,” the voice laughs. The scene approaches the disturbing mood of horror. Music screeches. Eminem screams “get out.” Slim Shady is a ghoul, a demon. Eminem finds in himself the mature schizophrenia that Tupac first confessed to in “Death around the Corner:”

“I see death around the- corner, anyday

Trying to keep it together, no one lives forever anyway

Strugglin and strivin, my destiny’s to die

Keep my finger on the trigger, no mercy in my eyes

I can’t give up although I’m hopeless/I think my mind’s gone.”

Before Eminem introduced Slim Shady, he wrote songs that spoke of rapping forever. His first album was all about him being infinite. After Slim, he writes about going in and out of rehab, in and out of relationships and on and off the stage. He threatens to quit once and for all, then promises to come back smart and cocky and then apologizes to his mom and his daughter. Phrases repeat like “I ain’t halting/Till I die of exhaustion” and “I can’t stop / Till I drop.” Somehow, he knows that what he’s doing is fatal. He wavers. Slim is the “the nightmare [in which he] fell asleep and then woke up still in.” And though the nightmare is an infinitely creative expanse, it begs to be escaped from.

Eminem (or Slim?) writes:

“Tragic portrait of an artist tortured

Trapped in his own drawings

Tap into thoughts

Blacker and darker than anything imaginable

Here goes a wild stab in the dark”

What hip-hop artist escapes this assessment? What more can rap do now, except offer darker and darker thoughts? We ask Lecrae how can you be a Christian and a hip-hop artist. Eminem asks how he can be a hip-hop artist and sane.

A sense of “disenfranchised” emerges from these lyrics. It is about far more than universal suffrage or economic poverty, though certainly those come up. There is distress over mothers & daughters, neighborhoods and empires, victory and death. With its economic tone, disenfranchised might technically be incorrect. The themes suggest dis-ease or dis-integration.

What’s more – and this theme has followed us from the start – the disenfranchised artist keeps reaching, through his auto-nomous, for enfranchisement. He fights his way out, breaks the arm of injustice, battles his own demons. And when he’s made it to the top, he realizes that somewhere along the way, he dropped his crown, forgot his family, or lost his mind. These are threads as old as Antigone, the psalter, spirituals. The beggar in tension with becoming king.

If being the victim that breaks his own chains and forges his own crown, captures the aspiration of hip-hop, the prospect for Christian hip-hop grows slender. Theologically, breaking one’s own chains is just another act of inexcusable violence, and becoming a god is the promise of the serpent. Is Christian hip-hop just another understandably charitable attempt to bring all sounds to Christ? A Christian artist has to appreciate something very complex: if, for the time being, the formal structures of a field reject the content of gospel.

Through self-definition, the artist raises himself up from disenfranchised to enfranchised. From having no father to being a father; from nothing to the kingdom; from being a wretch to being a god. This is the direction of hip-hop.

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And then we have from Lecrae’s title song, “Anomaly”:

“I didn’t know who was inside me either

Striving to be the captain, […]

Tryna get me a throne of my own so I can put my feet up

Thank God my kingdom was overthrown by The Soul Redeemer”

One cannot suppress the reaction to laugh. The overthrow of Lecrae by God is an all but comedic turn in hip-hop, an utter paradox. This happens nowhere in hip-hop; someone is rescued by being overthrown and taken captive, not by his own strength, but by another’s.

Recall the ambition of hip-hop. That through speaking about himself, and defining himself – through his auto-nomy – he may escape from, say, 8 mile and become a rap god. And here we have language that verges on a cliche of Christian evangelism.

But Lecrae keeps to the first person, and to the motif of self-definition. Though, like Eminem having to define two persons, Lecrae attributes his freedom by defining another, not himself. if Lecrae’s music sounds apologetic at times, it’s because when Lecrae defines himself, he knows that he has to define Christ. Another comedic turn: the schizophrenia of Eminem (and Slim) is re-written by Lecrae as the Christological motif of war between the Old and the New Adam.

“I’m gone get back out that dirt mayne

Not yet what I’m

Gonna be but not what I used to be

Bless his name forever who would

Chose me and start using me

Used to love my sinning fulla greed fulla

Hate

[…]

I’d

Be lustin for ya cousin if it wasn’t for his Grace

Yeah he took me outta

Nothin and he made ya boy a saint”

What does this do to hip-hop? Lecrae has changed, actually changed. There is no empty boast or materialistic hubris. Lecrae confesses that he is no longer nothing, no longer “disenfranchised.” But how long can the the theme of disenfranchisement continue when dis-enfranchisement becomes secondary, past, accidental to a real en-franchisement? If disenfranchisement principally held hip-hop together, what happens when an artist releases it? Eminem only re-situated the disenfranchisement. But from Real Talk to Gravity, and on occasion in Anomaly, Lecrae accepts disenfranchisement, accepts his fallenness and is raised up to where he can break open a new motif in hip-hop: worship. Nothing could be more heterodox to Tupac or Eminem than to have nothing to be angry at or afraid of.

Does this not, therefore, snap a necessary tension; doesn’t this end the music? Should we have been asking not how Lecrae survives in hip-hop, but “How does hip-hop survive Lecrae?” For it seems to me that when Lecrae introduces confession and worship into the genre, it must either fall into confusion or undergo a rending transformation. For while Eminem expresses the nightmare of hip-hop most exquisitely, and Kendrick Lamar wallows in the nightmare with an eerie post-violent passivity, Lecrae has woken up from the nightmare. And to those still asleep he must sound very strange.

Holy Rock and Rollers

Editor’s Note: This paper was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.

 

It is a fascinating, quintessentially American story.

A group of white and black Americans got together and crashed the racial boundaries of the time. They held ecstatic celebrations with the wildest of music. Their language was unintelligible to “outsiders.” Indeed, outsiders truly believed that these people had lost their minds.

If you think this describes the story of rock music in America, you would, of course, be right. But if you think I have just described the story of the modern Pentecostal movement in America, you would also be right.

Any short list of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll that best exemplify the crazy, and frankly, unhinged approach–both the wildest and the most joyous–to making this music starts with Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Aside from being three of rock’s most crucial and most electrifying artists, each was raised and musically formed in the Pentecostal churches of the South.

Pentecostals are sometimes known by the pejorative nickname “holy rollers,” due to parishioners being “slain in the Spirit” and literally writhing and rolling in the church aisles. The actual tenets of Pentecostalism are taken from Acts 2. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit came “like the rush of a mighty wind,” bringing charismatic experiences such as speaking in tongues, or glossolia, faith healing, and visions (Act 2:17).

Glossolia, as theologian Harvey Cox describes it, is the stream of consciousness verbalizing of “clearly discernable but incomprehensible syllables.” It is a spontaneous occurrence, sometimes frightening to the uninitiated. As he further explains, it sometimes includes “music, a polyphony of tones and vocables but with no recognizable words.” Speaking in tongues is said to be a spiritual, universal language, but one which even the speaker does not know the exact meaning of what is being said.

The Biblical passages on glossolia were generally ignored over the years, but this changed with the birth of the modern Pentecostal movement in the 20th century. In 1898, former Methodist preacher and Kansan Charles Fox Parham sparked the movement. An African-American Holiness preacher, William Joseph Seymour, heard Parham’s sermons and took the cause to Los Angeles where he started his own congregation on Azusa Street in 1905. Seymour’s first congregants were poor blacks and white domestic servants. In fact, Pentecostalism would long be known as a movement of the poor, and today it enjoys a large, worldwide following.

To the Pentecostal, charismatic experiences facilitated something beyond a rote, theoretical understanding of the Holy Spirit and represented how salvation was more than a heavenly destination. Instead, each individual could experience a deep and personal connection with God and feel this Holy Spirit in the here and now. This spirituality provided a link between the spiritual and physical.

And physically their worship did seem to be unhinged in both word and sound. There was the “polyphony of tones” that composed acts of glossolia and their music including the use of secular instrumentation such as drums and guitars and, equally shocking, strong blues and jazz influences. This would open the door so that the reverse would be true, as the secular rock and rollers would clearly be influenced by the Pentecostal experience. Yet both groups shared more than instrumentation and music, both met with similar shock and disdain.

From the beginning, fundamentalist Protestants looked down on the Pentecostals, seeing them as an embarrassment, while Pentecostals spurred the dogma and the stifling doctrines of “text driven” fundamentalists, instead focusing on a personal experience of God. Pentecostals spontaneously spoke out, sang, spoke in tongues and were otherwise “slain in Spirit.” As writer Arthur Cox put it, they were “[n]o longer praying for a revival; they were the revival.” Outsiders, however, including the Los Angeles press, called them a “Weird Babel of Tongues” and labeled them “Fanatics.”

As to rock, the 1950s establishment could not make heads nor tails of Richards’ screaming, Presley’s gyrating, nor Lewis’ banging out a wild beat on his piano. To this, The New York Times quoted a psychiatrist that branded rock and roll as “cannibalistic and tribalistic,” while pop star Frank Sinatra described “imbecilic reiterations” delivered by “cretinous goons” (this was still a few years before he embraced rock and roll and covered Beatles’ and others rock songs). America’s youth were the revival, as well.

The Pentecostal performer most responsible for this link, for bringing the “reeling and rocking” of the Pentecostal church to rock ‘n’ roll is Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe was tremendously popular in the 1940s as a gospel/R&B crossover star, though she oddly remained essentially unknown until her biography was published in 2008 and a segment on PBS’s American Masters, last year. PBS even started a petition to get Tharpe into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

As a child, Tharpe traveled performing with her evangelizing mother for COGIC (Church of God in Christ). Tharpe had strong blues and jazz influences, an independent streak, and pushed the sacred-secular line her entire career. Tharpe had hits with bouncing, up-tempo takes on gospel standards, and performed with the likes of Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman’s popular jazz orchestras. Early on, her deep and moving ability to cross and blur the boundaries of gospel, blues and jazz was unlike anything anyone had heard. Tharpe confounded the press who didn’t know how to classify her; variously describing her as a “swingcopated manipulator of loud blue tones” and a “Hymn swinging evangelist.”

Viewing videos of Tharpe’s performances today is jarring. In one black-and-white clip, a 47-year-old black woman is seen wearing a conservative, ankle-length dress playing an electric guitar in a church setting. Yet Tharpe is not simply singing the gospel, she is rocking the gospel. The footage is actually from a television show in 1962, but the black-and-white stock and the conservative dress make it seem much older.

When the rock revolution came in the mid-50s, however, the youth were looking for one of their own to lead the way—not a 47-year-old with strong ties to the church. As Tharpe had already lost much of her church-going fan base, sadly her name and music faded from the story. Yet Tharpe embodies the link between the sacred and the secular, and she was indeed a profound influence on the first wave of rock icons.

She was, in fact, both Richard and Johnny Cash’s all-time favorite singer. Carl Perkins learned the guitar on a Tharpe’s “Strange Things (Are Happening Every Day).” Perkins said of the song, “It was rockabilly, that was it—it was.” Lewis sung a Tharpe song as part of his first audition for Sam Phillips, the legendary owner of Sun Studio in Memphis. After seeing Tharpe perform live in 1957, Lewis commented, “I said, ‘Say, man, there’s a woman that can sing some rock ‘n’ roll.’ I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she is singing rock ‘n’ roll. She’s… shakin’, man…She jumps it. She’s hitting that guitar, playing that guitar and she is singing. I said, ‘Whoooo.’ Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” Through Tharpe, the Pentecostal influence is an undeniable part of rock’s genesis.

Like rock music, Pentecostalism tapped into something—a Holy Spirit—a human spirit? Whatever it was, it was deep. Pentecostalism was an antidote to rigid and stifling fundamentalist practices, while rock was bucking an oppressive life as a “square,” resisting the “rat race” in an age of anxiety. Cox, described the charismatic experience as “so total it shatters the cognitive packaging,” while rock musician Bobbie Gillespie described the “global psychic jailbreak” that was the onset of rock and roll. Both phenomena existed beyond any  known social or cultural reference points. Whatever this Holy/human spirit is, if it is something, it was exactly what many needed. The Pentecostal-rock connection is a wonder of sacred-secular relations, and nothing could be more American than that.

 

Citations

Altschuler, G. (2003). All shook up: How rock ‘n’ roll changed America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cox, Harvey (2001). Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century. DaCapo. Faupel.
Gillespie, Bobbie (2010). “Chuck Berry: hail. hail, rock ‘n’ roll.” The Guardian. Retrieved March 2, 2013.
Guralnick, P. (1994). Last train to Memphis: The rise of Elvis Presley. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Wald, Gayle F. (2008) Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Beacon Press, Boston.
WEBWIRE, (2008) “Pennsylvania Governor Rendell Proclaims Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day on January 11, 2008 to Honor the Gospel Music Legend.” 1/2/2008. Retrieved from http://www.webwire.com/ViewPressRel.asp?aId=56002.#.VAfTbvldV8E.

The Politics of Consumption

Editor’s Note: Through a partnership with Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music, The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective. 

Contrary to what you might think or assume, you are an explicit, crucial and fundamental participant in the music industry. Whether or not you play, create or work in music, you are a crucial component in the complex web of its creation. Passive participation is a myth; such understandings are either outdated or entirely illusory. Certain values and ideologies at play in our involvement with music, even at the most basic levels of our system (i.e. supply and demand) reveal that passive involvement does not exist, especially in 2015.

In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson points to these realities, writing, “Record labels are using new sources of data about our preferences to find the next stars. Every time you download a song or search for a band on Wikipedia, you help steer the music industry.” Labels themselves are looking to newly formed, vast pools of meta data reflecting our consumption of music: who are we listening to, where are we listening, how often, and when. And these labels are trying to respond accordingly; their business decisions reflect the myriad of logistics in our consumption. You and I, through our listening, consumption, curiosity, and spending, are determining what music gets made.

The manner in which we consume music is a political reality. It is political in the most basic sense of the term; our consumption is part of learning how to properly organize and conduct ourselves in the midst of life together, a life where we have ethical responsibilities to the others bodies who help constitute and determine our own subjectivities. This should serve as no real surprise, but our mode of analysis and critique has not caught up with our our politicized role in consumption. We need to shift our language and understanding to account for that political reality.

In light of those political realities (i.e. the role of connection we play in the production of music through our consumption of it), we need to shift how we analyze music and the music industry, moving away from negative/positive critiques and analyses of the content and artists in music alone. I am not saying we neglect the top-down critique or analysis. Perhaps now more than ever, the all-pervading reality of structural issues require analysis. Yet our current context requires that we implicate ourselves in the analysis of the music industry, rounding out a structural critique of music with a certain examination of the demands of the people, of the masses determining the trajectory of the music itself.

This form of analysis opens up the conversation and critiques to the values buried beneath our demands and participation in the music industry. A common example from the cultural context that tends to aim for ‘cultural engagement’ commonly criticizes certain hip-hop artists, songs, movements and the genre itself because of its ‘immoral content.’ Be it the vulgar language, the sexualized content, or the misogynistic tendencies, the critique itself deals with the production of inappropriate material. Talking through and critiquing misogyny or inappropriately sexualized ideas is crucially necessary. That being said, any criticism that aims to dismantle the production of an item or set of ideas without properly examining the telos, the cultural and economic demand that enables the production of the object in the first place, has obviously missed the point.

Another factor important for us to consider here is that this sort of critique—one that analyzes the artist alone—fails to make sense of the historical formation of music in general. Take hip-hop as an example, which exists a fundamental discourse of resistance. Any critique that fails to account for these realities in light of the plight of black bodies at the hands of systems and power in the name of whiteness is, in my opinion, a-historical and unrealistic. Hip-hop serves to meet a concrete demand, the demand for a language of protest in light of America’s historic, oppressive tendencies on black bodies. Hip-hop is no different, then, than jazz or blues. As Cornel West writes, “The black musical tradition—from the spirituals and blues to jazz and hip-hop—embodies a desire for freedom and a search for joy in the face of death-dealing forces in America.” An investigation of the black musical tradition helps to shed light on the cultural, economic and racial histories/myths that demanded the production of the music in the first place.

Imani Perry, the author of Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop, has touched on something similar. She argues that popular hip-hop has recently become a fetishized product. Hip-hop is not procured, bought, listened to, or attended by a majority black audience any more. What does it mean, then, that a massively white crowd is demanding and consuming at alarming rates, according to this political, economic schema, the fantasy of ghettoization through popular hip-hop? Shouldn’t this provide the questions of our critiques? These themes are being demanded from somewhere. And why? Such a critique is itself the inversion, the reversal of the all-too-common discomfort with inappropriate content. Rather than projecting some sort of lack of moral standing onto those producing the content, this artistic criticism turns in on itself, ultimately probing our own imaginations in a way that makes possible the admission of our own culpability and weakness.

Another way of getting at all of this is to ask: for whom are these songs being created? And are they performing well in the marketplace, if our money truly is the reflection of our values in the capitalistic system? Any critique of Tyler the Creator that does not account for his rampant success at the age of 18 is moving in the wrong direction. Rather than addressing the surely alarming, fascinating, values-laden process by which he narrates his own hatred of and violent fantasies toward Bruno Mars, what would happen if we were to ask ourselves what it means for us to have made Tyler a commercial success, particularly because of his outlandish persona and lyrics? In a fascinating interview with Larry King, Tyler speaks to his road to success through internet uploads. People simply liked it, and it spread through word of mouth. We created Tyler the Creator, both you and I.

Take, for example, the possibility of SLAYER’s (a hugely popular thrash metal band out of California that rose to rampant success in the early 80s) commercial success. All of this from the Wiki page: SLAYER has sold 3.5 million albums in the U.S. alone. Ten studio albums, two live albums, a box set, six music videos, to extended plays and a cover album. Four of those studio albums went gold. The band has received five Grammy nominations, winning Grammys in 2007 for “Eyes of the Insane” and another in 2008 for “Final Six”.

The point of bringing SLAYER up is not to vilify them or to pick the most heinous of bands. Rather, they are an extremely successful band and easily fit into this ‘inappropriate content’ trope. Commonly touching on issues of serial killers, necrophilia, Satanism, warfare, etc., many conservative groups have responded with outrage and disgust, ultimately resulting in bans, delays and lawsuits. However, instead of simply critiquing whatever unhealthy tendencies we see in the lyrics of SLAYER, what might we begin to learn about culture, about ourselves, when we realize that 3.5 million individuals bought this music? 3.5 million people demanded it, made it monetarily possible, successful even? What is it in the social consciousness, the diseased social imagination that demands the production of these things? Isn’t that a more interesting conversation and critique?

At the end of the day, a shift that analyzes the commercial demand and makes sense of our politicized participation in the industry itself is better than the top-down approach for the very fact that it implicates us as listeners. It doesn’t allow for a removed, vacuous approach in which our hands are clean.

One of the creedal affirmations, the formalized mission of the Christian church itself, is to search for life, to highlight and foster the resurrection of the dead, which only happens through the concrete behavior and actions of the redeemed community; the church is the means through which the kingdom of God is materializing. This is precisely why Wendell Berry calls for us to “practice resurrection,” to enact that which we are believing and hoping. As active participants, then, the primary mode of questioning our involvement in the music industry becomes, “What does it mean for a redeemed people to participate in the consumption of music?” Perhaps, then, we can begin to frame our consumption around the process of ‘searching for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’

This new mode of analysis and participation renders our money into our vote, our vote in the system as it currently stands. And we need to vote for that which is life giving, for that which bears witness to the grand scope of human being in the wake of the phenomenon and reality of Jesus–music that speaks honestly about being human, that fosters the fullness of life, which is to say music which operates according to the values put forward by the life-affirming, resurrection powers of Jesus. These modes of participation and analysis–this newly formed critique–are most clearly exemplified in the pop-culture criticism of David Dark and Taylor Worley. Their criticism is constantly on the search for ‘cosmic-plainspeak’–the resurrection and fulness of life breaking into the here and now through popular culture, through the truth-telling process of music itself.

Within this broader framework, our values and monetary contributions begin to align with the narratives we are aiming to participate in as people of faith, as a redeemed people. Only then can we begin to identify ourselves, as the late Will Grey brilliantly observed, as ‘the modern Medici,’ a people dedicated to the cultivation of skill, talent and art through monetary contribution in light of understanding themselves as patrons. Such a form of consumption would involve the integration of our beliefs, values, economics and practices. It is through this highly politicized form of participation in the music industry that we need to be looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

 

A Conversation with Josh Garrels

Earlier this month Charles Carman talked Josh Garrels about his new album Home, his vocation as a musician, and how he is eager to see a shift of the typical artist/father paradigm. The interview can be heard on the SoundCloud link below. We’ve also transcribed it (below) for those of you whom are headphoneless at the office.

 

Charles Carman: Could you situate this album among your other albums?

Josh Garrels: I don’t premeditate how one album’s going to build upon another. I’ve seen what I would consider an artistic pattern. I’m a lot like my sister Gala. She just starts playing around with patterns and textures, and slowly I think a picture emerges. Not that she doesn’t have anything in mind. It’s more like she’s figuring it out as she goes, like “Oh, I’m really into this theme right now.” It might be a family thing.That’s how I approach music.

My brother-in-law and my wife, who are both visual artists,  will approach art with an idea or concept in mind and it’s all about “I’m trying to get there, oh that wasn’t good enough, get rid of that one.” And then they’ll work their way towards this idea they have that they want to see fleshed out. I’ve sensed that most artists approach work seemingly in one of those two directions, and both are valid.

So this [album] isn’t necessarily building directly upon past albums. A good ways into this album are sounds about home, and being homeward bound, and homecoming, and homesteading. Intimacy was the theme.

If there was a theme I had in mind on the front end, it was some sense of joy, because I know I was searching for my own joy again, in life and faith, from the chaos of parenting and running my own business and touring. Those things which are good, but the responsibilities of the world. I’m kind of an old skate board kid. Sometimes I’m like “How did I end up with all this responsibility?” Finances and relationships. So I set out to find joy and homecoming.

 

CC: On this album, there’s this theme of being pierced or struck. “Heaven’s Knife” is such a fun song, but then if you read the lyrics, you see, “Oh, he’s hit, he’s struck, he’s down!” What are you doing with the theme of the piercing?

JG:  In “Heaven’s Knife” I’m hearkening back to Adam and Eve, when Adam had a rib taken out. This is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, she is of me. But even that has a sort of piercing, a sort of violence. A bone is taken out of him. Even in the most intimate relationship of my life, which is with my wife, there’s a piercing that comes with every good thing. There’s a piercing in every relationship, my relationship with God, with my wife, even with work and success. It’s not all joy. There has to be an acceptance of the suffering or the humility that comes along with those things.

 

CC: The Walkmen wrote a song called “Heaven” about their families, and they’ve said they “keep fighting and keep writing for our family.” I don’t know of many musicians inspired by or whom incorporate their wives and kids into their lyric and song style. Do you know of others?

JG: I’m now comfortable saying that I’m a vocational musician. I’m around enough vocational musicians to know some that are embarrassed by that set-up, like their family is something to hide. The crowd wants to see a guy on stage who’s bigger than life. But this is what provides for my family. It’s a joy that I get to do this with my life. Incorporating them into my practice has been pretty seamless. I value transparency. Call it a risk, but I hope that if I involve the things that are most intimate to me–my faith in God, my family, the lifelines of my being–hopefully it makes a better song on the front end.

With “Heaven’s Knife”, I wondered if I was going to say that the punch line of the song is “she’s my wife.” And I nixed it at first, but I had enough close friends who said not to. They said, “no one writes songs about covenant love.” I would have changed it, but it’s not too sentimental. And it’s actually for my wife. That’s the power of the song: crying and remembering my wife.

 

CC: What have you found in that balance of autobiography and art? What sort of encouragement would you give to those who have a family, or want to have a family, and want to make art?

JG: One: I think it’s something that needs to be fought for. Two: it goes against the grain of what we’ve been shown.

I know different types of people: the artist who has a wife and children and wonders how they’re going to make this work, the single artist who’s finding success and can’t reconcile how they’d have a family and preserve what they’ve made. I hope our story has given people hope that it’s possible.

When you think of the “music industry,” you think of  the established ways of doing things. There’s a track: make good art, and if the art catches on, hit that mug, get on the road for nine-months a year, because it’s working, don’t lose inertia, play as many shows as you can, write as many songs as you can. Take care of your family at the ebb of your success.

I’ve had to fight to make it work, fighting expectations or imposed expectations, things I think I should be doing. I feel passionately about the work, but in the end, I feel like I’m constantly in the battle to prioritize what is most important. I feel like I have ample time to create the work and be a present father and present husband, and know people locally where I live.

Often touring artists, they may live in a city, but they are MIA in that city. When they come home, they just don’t want to see anyone because they’ve been gone. So they may live locally in Nashville, Portland, or New York, but if they’re a touring artists, they’re not rooted locally. But to be living here in Portland and to be local and to have a presence locally is something I have to fight for. Sometimes that means saying no to touring. That’s why I generally do one tour a month. I leave for three or four days. I do three or four shows. I come home the other three weeks of the month. And that might sound absurd to some people. But that’s another way I make it work.

I had a fruitful conversation with Linnea Spransy at the Wedgwood Circle last year. In the portraits we’ve been given of the great artists–Picasso or Melville–there’s a wake of destroyed relationships. I think society gives them a pass because of their legacy of great work. But is the legacy worth the carnage of relationships?

To me, true success is if you can have people look at your life and want to emulate you.

 

CC: I hear less spoken-word/rap poetry than I did in Zion & Babylon on this album. Could you speak about how the form of your music has changed?

JG: I wanted this album be less beat-influenced. If anything, soul music took the place of what traditionally has been a heavier hip-hop beat sound to my music. I still love that stuff. It’s like Beck with Morning Phase and Strange Apparitions. He’ll have albums that are straight up beats and hip-hop, and then he’ll put out a folk album.

Without knowing exactly what they were, I knew I wanted to work within certain parameters, so it had a certain mood to it. I still love spoken word and longer Woody Guthrie-type lines, but here I wanted to explore soul music and falsetto.

I always start with the sound and write lyrics after. The lyrics attach themselves to the songs.

 

CC: Could you give an example of this, a time when the words came quickly from the sound? 

JG: A song like “Heaven’s Knife” is in 6/8 time signature, so it has this fifty’s ballad feel to it. This is like my first my dance with my wife. Or a song-like benediction. It’s this simple folk song, but this song feels like I’m on my knees blessing the next generation, blessing my children.

With “A Long Way Home”, I was creating a song about a father and son who are estranged, maybe imbued with the hope of finding some resolution before the father passes. It was asking: What does it mean to get home?  I started with that story when I began playing with the sounds. I knew it could be a soundtrack to this specific story, of needing to make it home, making amends before your father passes away.

 

CC: Is this the album you’ve been trying to write, the album that finally meets the artist’s life? 

JG: No. To liken it to a story, when an author writes a book, each one has a different focus, a different set of characters, it takes you on a different journey.  It’s another piece of this catalogue that I’ve created.

Personally, I’m at a weird place. It was one of the hardest albums I’ve ever written. Don’t ask me why, but it was a weird, hard, long journey, and I don’t know why. Because in some ways the subject matter was so simple, even the final structure is not that complicated, but emotionally and everything else, it was complicated.

I don’t know what the album’s going to do. I know there are elements of things I’ve done before that aren’t present in this one that might be a let down to some. There are new influences that might be exciting to others. I’m proud of it, but in a healthy way. It took so long and was hard enough that I learned a lot from the process, but I’m already already song-writing this week. I’ve got a whole another set in mind. My mind and my heart are invested in writing new songs. Coming out of the process of this album, strangely enough, rather than being down in the process of making albums and writing songs, I feel rather galvanized. Almost like my mandate at this point is boiled down to two things: to draw near to God and to write songs. But I want to learn how to do that. I want to be prolific and good. I want to make a plethora of music. I have a lot of sounds I want to explore, a lot of stories, for lack of a better term, colors that I still want to explore.

That’s a long answer to your question. Is its focus different from all my other albums? Yes. I think it goes to a little different place. Maybe it’s the most intimate album I’ve ever made, for what that’s worth.

 

CC: How was collaborating with Mason Jar and others? 

JG: It’s wonderful as a solo-artist to find other artists that you come closer and closer to and trust. Giving them a song, “here’s my song, can you help this thing?” Can you compliment? I’ll shop it out to friends and acquaintances. I’ll let them add stand up bass and violin, and then I’ll get these wave-files, then I’ll plug them into my session, and I’ll start mixing and messing around in the session, and in the end if something’s not working, I’ll axe it. I’ve had friends who don’t agree with the decision. But I do hold that veto power, to have sounds feel closer to how I want them to sound. In the end I’m the final curator of the sounds.

There are times when Mason Jar blew my mind with their ingenuity, and I wanted them to run with it, and there are other times when they don’t like what I’ve done to the song, and I’m like, “I’m sorry, that’s the way it is.” So that’s part of it, trusting one another, and also in the end understanding that this is their project or this is my project and there’s a certain level of responsibility. There’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but I’m deciding what spices are working.

In the future, I would love to work with a producer that I could trust so that I could go and play my music, and have them make significant creative decisions. I think that would be really fun at some point, to run more efficiently, effectively. You go in, you play your songs, and the producer sculpts the sound of the album. Up to this point, it’s been me on every album, which is a joy, but it’s taxing. It’s not just writing and recording, but you’re also spending months of post-production.

 

C:C With Small Voice Records, do you envision also being producer for others? 

JG: Maybe, if I hone my skill. It takes me a long time. I’m not a fast producer, because a lot of it I’m learning on the job. I didn’t go to school for engineering or producing. So I know what I want to hear, but sometimes the path to get there is long and awkward. I don’t want to take as long to even produce my own music. To produce others sounds almost frightening.

Maybe when I’m older. Maybe that’s the shift of focus, but I don’t sense that it is the time yet for me. I feel like I’ve got songs in me that can’t wait to work their way out.

Carrie & Lowell & Me

I married into a dysfunctional family. My own tribe has their problems, naturally; but I was raised in a pack of females—strong, emotional, spiritual, and confident that our bonds and good hearts would carry us through the world. So when I met my new family, the ones who had somehow produced the world’s kindest, whimsical, resilient, bearded boy I had ever met, I was surprised. They were closed and guarded. I whirled into the family, confident that I would be anyone’s dream daughter-in-law. I let my heart roll out of my mouth with every sentence. And when I received, in turn, scorn and dismissal, I was shocked into silence.

And silence turned out to be the end game, as it is for so many families where abuse happens. Secrets abound even in the best-intentioned: this is what Christ promised to us, that there would always be darkness within. The only cure, of course, is the light—the continually dragging out into the open those things we almost unconsciously bury. The floorboards need to be pried up. The stink and decay of the rot inside of ourselves, the secrets we have hid, are bleached clean. We become like white bones before the Lord, and then, only then, can the flesh miraculously be restored. I knew this, even then. But for awhile, I was silent.

“Tuesday night at Bible Study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens.”

When I was young and in Bible college, right before I met my husband, I saw Sufjan Stevens perform for the first time on his Illinois tour. I sat, wide-eyed and rapt, while girls in cheerleader uniforms performed behind the quiet, brown-haired boy who knew that whispers were often more powerful than shouts. I strained to catch his meaning, but nothing stuck. I cried when I heard “Casimir Pulaski Day” because I, like the people in Sufjan’s songs, read my Bible every morning, and journaled dutifully my dull and eager-to-be-right thoughts. In the morning I tried to quiet myself, tried to get right with God. Instead it had become an exercise in proving myself, to repeat what I knew I was supposed to say, to earn points and collect sound theologies, to store up enough of God so I could go out and convince others to give him a try. I was only just starting to realize that this wasn’t what I wanted my life to be. I was growing weary of trying to decide who was right and who was wrong.

When I was around my husband’s family I felt constantly off-balance. I did not trust myself, my guts or my words. I was quiet, and therefore good, for many years. But the secrets grew and transformed and reached out to others. Abuse thrives in the dark and the damp and the suffocating allure of momentary peace. As an outsider grafted in, my place was never sure, so I allowed myself to be carried for far too long in the already established patterns. Eventually, for both my husband and I, it became clear we would need to swim away. We were the rats, fleeing a sinking ship; we were the ones ruining the mirage that we were all OK. And as we started to swim with all of our might, my silence turned into something more. It began to turn into anger.

Follow those created deaths/Fortune save me from his wrath/Spaceship out the house at night/Prophet speak what’s on your mind/You know you really gotta get right with the Lord

The second time I saw Sufjan, it was two months after both my daughter and I almost died in childbirth. It was the first time my husband and I left the house together since that momentous event, our first attempt at sticking a toe back into the normal world. It did not go well. It was the Age of Adz tour, and there was a packed amphitheater of pretty, healthy young people; there were video projections with people dancing in disjointed, jerky ways; there was a lot of neon. I couldn’t stand to look at Sufjan, his tattered costumes, the bedraggled duct-tape wings, the headdresses, the falseness I felt everywhere. I wanted to shake him: just tell me what it all means. 

I looked around and thought bitter thoughts. None of these people have ever gone what I had gone through. I almost died! My body had turned on me, had decided the baby inside was a threat, and shut down everything I needed to survive: my liver, my ventricles, my heart. So two months early, our daughter was born into a world which was much too big and advanced for her. I looked around the room at people caught up in the rapture of the bizarre songs, the reverence of the fringe, outsider artists, the mashing of spiritual and secular and the unwell of mind. I thought: sure, celebrate the outsider art all you want. But that is the kind of art which comes from one solitary place, deep within. The thread of commonality among so-called outsider artists is that they never progress. They never change. They just keep producing, until the day they die, the same kind of message. A compulsion without growth. We in the audience, and even those on the stage, all seemed a little confused. Are we celebrating revelation or madness? Do we want to be in love with our own sense of righteousness?

The ship continued to go down, but it went slower than I would have liked. We watched from afar, and I would have liked to see it wrecked upon the rocks of life; I would have liked to see it splinter and burn, the book of Revelation come to life. I would have liked a little justice. My husband, now a counselor, listens to other people as they talk about their horrific pasts. He listens to the sick and the sad and the oppressed of the world. He operates in an alternate America, where pains are named and laments are voiced, where the Christ we studied for so many years is living. We found Christ, we found him, and we cannot let him go. When we go back to the places we were told he would always be we find nothing but silence; after all, he said he never came for those who thought they were well.

“Lord come with fire/Lord come with fire/Everyone’s wasting their life/Storing up treasure in vain/Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth.

My daughter was three, safely tucked into bed with a babysitter, when we went to see the Christmas show. It was beautiful and chaotic, it was an absolute mess of the holy and commercialized. Sufjan’s dad was in the audience. He was older, gray-haired, and waved when Sufjan dedicated a song to him. My husband and I sang along to every word, every song. We sang of jingle bells and hymns older than our souls and it all felt like it meant something. Everyone around us was still young and beautiful and they all had drinks in their hand. But I did not judge them for it anymore. We celebrated everything, and underneath it all our hearts ached. The light had come into the world, and the darkness had not overcome it. But why does the darkness so outnumber the light?

… 

I waken in the middle of the night. God is talking to me. God asks me if I am ready to forgive. I tell him I am not, and roll over to go back to sleep. But a small part of me is pleased. Pleased that he would even ask.

Our Christmas with my husband’s family was spent at a discount Chinese restaurant, presents exchanged across a large round table filled with soy sauce and cheap wooden chopsticks. Conversation was stilted, hyperaware. My daughter opened her gifts and in her wide-open way flirted and chatted up these people who obviously wanted her to like them. A few blunt conversations were had; a thick, controlling silence was employed. We drove away from the restaurant and felt we could breathe again. It was all so depressing, but it was closer to the truth. It felt good, in that way.

Sometimes I still read my Bible in the mornings. The Scriptures no longer tell me how to live right, how to be right. They tell me how to be unwell. They tell me that my own lack of forgiveness is a sin, a dark animal clawing up my mind, producing the same art in my life day after day. Now I am old enough and broken enough to see it—but what comes next? In the middle of the night, I hear it. Are you ready to forgive? But I can’t, not yet, because to forgive would mean that the silence wins.

“I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/And I long to be near you/But every road leads to an end/Yes, every road leads to an end.

I listen to Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan’s latest album, with tears in my eyes. Reckoning with forgiveness, it is laid bare before me. Everything has already happened; the unbearable weight of acknowledging is already here. The only thing left to do is give up on myself as high priest and high judge. Everyone who ever hurt us, shamed us, abused us, could be dead for thirty years and not know the sting of bitterness we still carry in our hearts. We forgive for ourselves. We face how unwell we have become, and we realize we might want to move on. There are other themes to explore in this life, other dimensions to add to our understanding of ourselves, our families, of God. Sufjan sings about his mother, he goes back to his guitar and his whispered voice makes us all lean in closer.

Maybe every time he plays he will get closer, closer to doing what Jesus asked of us, the most unimaginable thing of all. Maybe Sufjan will continue to feel forgiven as well, as his own fingers strum and pluck and eventually lose their grip on all the hurt that was done to him, his mother dead and buried, her sins still alive and well.

Ballet for the Young Folks

It was the second intermission at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theatre and the suspicion was audible in the second row. “Am I going to like this?” a fur-clad matron asked a younger woman, perhaps a niece. Before the younger woman could respond an usher swooped in and described the next piece as “ballet, but modern,” a description both women politely chose to accept.

The piece in question, Everywhere We Go, was something of a curiosity for some patrons of the New York City Ballet. With a score by folksinger-turned-composer Sufjan Stevens, Everywhere We Go was in its second season by the autumn of 2014. Stevens’s status as a prolific indie musician seems to have attracted a slightly younger crowd to the ballet. One could spot them scattered along the outer rings and upper balcony, or in the far flank near the front where my wife and I sat. 

This was not the first time Stevens’s music had been featured at NYCB. In 2012, Justin Peck, NYCB’s resident choreographer and all-around ballet wonder boy, wrote a ballet for Stevens’s 2001 electronic album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, which a Times reviewer admired, referring to it as “a triumph.” Peck, though only 27, has already produced six ballets for NYCB, an accomplishment that one has to Google and cross check before accepting.

Justin Peck

Justin Peck

If Peck is representative of a youth renaissance onstage at NYCB, the institution is working hard to replicate this in their audience. It is not clear whether the Stevens contingent in the crowd would produce a sustained “youth bump” for NYCB, but like many of its peers in the performing arts, NYCB has a Young Patrons Circle. The program offers various experiential and social perks to attract patrons under 40, which, it must be said, is a pretty low bar for “young.”

At a party I attended last year in a suburb of Philadelphia, a middle-aged couple spent a bit of time telling everyone how unfortunate it is that Millennials don’t attend the symphony, opera, ballet, or support the fine arts in general. They were genuinely worried about the preservation of our most treasured cultural institutions. As the only representatives of our generation, my wife and I chimed in that, actually, we were attending an opera in a couple of weeks—in a box at the Metropolitan Opera, in fact. This really pleased the middle-aged couple, and we were briefly celebrated as the best of our generation, exceptions to the norm, bravo. But then, I clarified that we had won the tickets during a raffle at my work and that we could not have otherwise afforded the experience. This news returned everyone to their drinks and their somber mood over the future of arts patronage. One has to question what would happen if this middle-aged couple arrived at an opera house and found it full of Millennials, milling about, Instagramming the architecture and each other, trying to use their credit cards at the cash-only refreshment stands.

We didn’t win box seats for the ballet, but we were quite near the stage and far enough in the flank so that our seats cost slightly less than a student loan payment. Just one seat to our right, the cost rose by almost $100. Beyond the affordability of our seats, part of the charm of our position in the flank was that it provided a useful angle for peering into the orchestra pit. Throughout the intermission, a harpist sat and practiced a complicated arpeggio, over and over. Soon, her colleagues found their seats and the intermission bell chimed. The orchestra lifted their instruments, tilted toward the maestro, and tuned in crescendo to A.

To describe it in simple terms, Everywhere We Go is a joyful ballet. The music moves gracefully among many moods, from pensive to celebratory to grim. The brass section seemed to have its number called quite often, having the effect of making the music feel more prescient, louder even. A reviewer from the Times bristled at the score’s occasional cinematic, almost soundtrack-y, choruses, referring to them as “Broadway-style manipulative.” Even if one accepts that critique, Stevens should be immediately pardoned. It was hard not to notice that the musicians, whispering to each other when their instruments were at rest, and the dancers, wearing breathless grins in the periphery, were clearly having a lot of fun.

Courtesy of NYCB | Photo © Karl Jensen

Courtesy of NYCB | Photo © Karl Jensen

Peck’s choreography matched the score’s mood and energy through its display of athleticism and the sheer number of dancers moving around the stage. An ensemble of 10 dancers might charge across the stage, leaping and lifting each other, and cross the path of another ensemble destined for another part of the stage. A Times reviewer, writing about Peck’s first collaboration with Stevens, described the choreography like this: “What is usually the frame is the picture here, and it keeps moving.” Peck’s ballet all but abandons the traditional pas de deux, a ballet trope in which a male and female dancer do a “step for two” that often serves to provide shape and narrative. Instead of two central dancers, Peck creates a choreographically dense world with many leaping bodies, none with sustained relationships to one another. This isn’t to say that Peck is operating in the avant-garde, but rather that he is widening the lens so that we can see a little more.

In the performance we took in just before Everywhere We Go, that lens was rather fixated on one ballerina. After a brilliant and exceptional thirty-year career, Wendy Whelan had just given her penultimate performance at the ballet. She would retire the following week. In Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, she and partner Craig Hall were alone on the stage. They moved both toward and away from each other, while the orchestra remained silent but for a single violin and the piano playing quietly.

At nearly fifty, Whelan’s body revealed not an ounce of anything extra, only what was necessary to sustain her work. Wearing a small, skin-toned leotard, Whelan’s length and musculature appeared raw and pure, like a grand tree without its leaves. The piece concludes with Whelan perched on the strength of her partner and suspended in the air, her arms prepared for flight.

pk-after-the-rain-wendy-whelan-craig-hall-spirit_1000

Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. © Paul Kolnik.

The chronology of these two ballets, a simple and delicate pas de deux performed by a veteran dancer followed by an energetic ensemble ballet from two younger artists, may encourage a study in contrasts. And yet, what was so inspiring about Whelan’s performance and the career that it helped to celebrate was also evident in the Peck-Stevens collaboration: the artist’s demand for innovation and evolution.

At this point in his career, Stevens’s exploration of ballet is not outside of his musical lexicon, which has grown to include genres as diverse as folk, electronica, pop, hip-hop, and classical—to name a few. Whelan’s pursuit of reinvention within the discipline of her form is perhaps more subtle and biological, exploring the limits of the body’s capabilities and defying assumptions about the arc of a dance career.

The institutions that host our artists evolve too, albeit at a different pace and with wholly different inspirations. But the value of our institutions may be in their stubborn stability as places, with roofs and walls and doors, that act as the organizing principle of art: something for the engine of creativity to push up against and create friction. As victims of the frantic pace set by life via social media, we consume art in great hyperventilating breaths: this band, this exhibit, this book, this film. The novelty of a place with seats arranged to face one stage is that it slows us down and suggests: just this for the next several hours.

What does it mean that the world’s premier ballet commissioned a score from a folksinger? Is ballet suddenly dance for the people? Hardly. And that is probably for the better. Artists of exceptional talent are rare, and seeing them is, and should remain, a privilege, but one hopes that entry is not limited to the privileged.

The Cathedral of Junk

We parked across the street from 4422 Lareina Drive, wondering what we were getting ourselves into.

“I think I see something,” I announced to my friends, craning my neck to see the enormous sculpture behind the house. A canopy of trees and a privacy fence made seeing the Cathedral of Junk from the street almost impossible. Good thing we had an appointment.

As we approached the house, the “Do not knock, baby sleeping” sign forced us around to the side where we entered the backyard through a chain-link fence. The owner Vince Hannemann,  a small, unassuming man, met us at the gate along with his dog, a part-Australian shepherd named Smoky. My friend slid a $10 bill into Vince’s hand while I reached down to scratch Smoky’s ears. The smell of a campfire hung low in the cool Austin air. It was November, but unseasonably cold.

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After a few simple instructions (“Feel free to climb on it,” “there are stairs in the back,” “take your time”), we walked past the wooden welcome shack, past the warmth of the slow-burning campfire we had smelled earlier, straight into the belly of the Cathedral of Junk, rising three stories from the grass-bare lawn.

The structure, which Hannemann began working on back in 1989 when he did seasonal construction work as his full-time job, was too much to take in all at once. Everywhere, recognizable bits of plastic, metal, rubber, and stone were pieced together with wire and rebar and concrete. A “Welcome to Fabulous *Trash* Vegas, Texas” sign welcomed us as we entered, along with a stone cherub face, a plastic rocking horse, a tin woman, and a knight’s mask and shield.

Vince Hanneman

Vince Hanneman

Though the structure was made entirely of garbage, the carefully assembled cathedral boasted rooms and sitting nooks, staircases and balconies, play areas and patios. As we explored each section, we began to see that this was not a trash heap, nor was it just thrown together. Rather, the refuse of decades was carefully collected, arranged, and repurposed into something new. The Cathedral of Junk felt like a shrine to ephemera, the excesses of our throwaway culture staring us right in the face.

“The very notion of ephemera is curious: objects of little value that weren’t meant to be preserved but whose vulnerability, I imagine, appealed to someone,” writes Nicole Rudick, in her Paris Review Paper Trail.” “Political buttons, business cards, seed packets, and train timetables—scrappy artifacts that otherwise would have been lost to the dustheap.”

While the materials comprising the cathedral are not technically ephemera—the hubcaps and ceramic tiles and metal box springs were created to last a few years, at least—nothing is safe from our changing whims and evolving tastes these days. Since everything is disposable now, everything has become curiously collectible. The difference: stamps and theater tickets and grammar school report cards would eventually—even quickly—disintegrate and disappear if not collected and protected. But the old bicycle tires and rotary telephones and glass bricks so popular in the last century are strangely enduring.

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That was the eeriest part of my tour of the cathedral. Not only had the legions of junk been collected and preserved, but the structure they created was solid and sturdy. I expect with just a little effort, it will be around for my grandchildren and their grandchildren, if they made the trip to Austin.

Hannemann didn’t start out to make a lasting structure in honor of the passing whims of his culture. In fact, he just started by hanging hubcaps along the fence in his backyard. As he had time, he expanded his creation, watching his art grow in the privacy of his own backyard. Eventually, though, when his home became a stop for tour buses and neighbors started to complain, the city got involved. Hannemann and a cadre of volunteers removed four tons of the recyclable junk. Several sections of the sculpture had to be dismantled and reassembled. Restrictions were added: the structure cannot exceed 32 feet in height, and it must remain at least five feet away from the fence. He hired two different engineers to sign off on the safety of the structure.

“And they told me, ‘no more articles in the Wall Street Journal,’” Hanneman recounted during our visit.

He continues to add to the Cathedral of Junk; it’s his full-time job now. He charges $10 per group to visit the cathedral, and people bring or send him junk to add to the collection. And though the structure currently boasts a small slide for children made out of tile, he has plans to build a larger slide for adults.

“Will you have to have the structure re-inspected when you add to it?” I asked.

“The city of Austin has never said that to me,” Hanneman replied. “My attorney said ‘go for it.’”

It seems haphazard, but he has a plan.

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I think of Hanneman’s cathedral now and then as I cart home new clothes and kitchen utensils and books and furniture. We try to buy only what we need and will use, but still, we always seem to be finding a place for or putting away our stuff.

“Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up,” writes author E.B. White in “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street.” He was reflecting on the ephemera and excesses of his own life as he prepared to move from his New York City apartment:

“Books and oddities arrive in the mail. Gifts arrive on anniversaries and fete days. Veterans send ballpoint pens. Banks send memo books. If you happen to be a writer, readers send whatever may be cluttering up their own lives; I had a man once send me a chip of wood that showed the marks of beaver’s teeth. Someone dies, and a little trickle of indestructible keepsakes appears, to swell the flood.”

To be fair, we try to get rid of things, too. Our basement serves as a staging area to organize the outgoing stuff: a box for donations, a bin for recyclables. While even this small rotation of our ephemera could produce its own monument to junk, the real problem for us, and for White, is that what comes in is not balanced by what goes out.

“Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in,” White writes.

The result? If we are not careful, the Cathedral of Junk is not just a nice place to visit. It becomes our home, three stories of junk carefully and elaborately assembled within wood and metal and stone.

I don’t know which is worse: buying and discarding an excess of stuff, or buying and keeping the excess. The simple answer, it seems, is just to avoid the excess. And maybe that’s one lesson Hanneman is trying to teach us all. But walking in and among the beauty created from rubbish, I don’t think that’s the only lesson.

I think the unassuming man in Austin would be more likely to caution us to be careful what we build in the first place, because in the end, those things last longer and draw a bigger audience than we would ever expect.

Revisiting The Age of Adz: Dysfunctional Relationships in a “Noisy Age”

January 12, 2015 was a joyous day for Sufjan Stevens fans. Asthmatic Kitty Records announced the March release of Carrie & Lowell, a new album that according to the AK website, is “ a 44 minute meditation of mortality, memory, and faith.” If the album’s trailer is any indication, Stevens will return to hushed folk form. Named after Stevens’ mother and stepfather, the new album promises contemplative respite from the: “psychic blitz of breaking news, social outrage, and millions of images and voices shrieking” that “does not cease until late at night when the last glowing screen fades to black.”

This forthcoming album will undoubtedly focus on relationships: between God and humanity, between lover and beloved, between artist and art, between reader and text, between self and community. These timeless themes are the stuff of Sufjan’s most well received offerings—Seven Swans, Michigan, and Illinoise.

As we eagerly await the next Sufjan album, this seems to be a good time to revisit his contextually perplexing last album, 2010’s The Age of Adz, as well as the tour attached to it. In fact, the disparaging descriptions of our “noisy age” from the Asthmatic Kitty website sound somewhat familiar to anyone who attended the Age of Adz tour; the “psychic blitz” and “millions of images and voices shrieking” were par for the course. Was this tour just an odd, experimental blip? Or is it an important part of a larger narrative that Stevens is crafting about the nature of relationships, some nourishing, some destructive? All of Stevens’ work seems to include autobiographical wrestling with themes of relationality—and The Age of Adz is, by far, the most overtly autobiographical.

age of adz

The Age of Adz shocked more than a few fans because of the artist’s unexpected transition from folk flourishes and biblical allusions to the use of both auto-tune and the “f word.” The album’s glossy electronic energy was also showcased during each performance as Stevens and company introduced the new material with the catchy tune “Too Much,” accompanied by a frenetic video projected on a large screen behind them. The video jerkily skipped frames and Stevens, his brother, Marzuki, and a female dancer were all entangled in brightly colored chords, donning eighties work out wear, pulling on and off masks and aluminum foil. The extreme, colorful, filled with chaotic video close-ups overpowered the actual band playing on stage, and this was initially invigorating. The main star of the video was, of course, Sufjan himself; five minutes into this self-indulgent video, the glitz wore off, and what was once seductive and exciting became grotesque in its (intended, self-critical) comic narcissism. The Age of Adz concert performances and album, duel avant-garde explorations of the psyche, navigated the murky relational themes of self-indulgence, self-delusion, and narcissism mistaken for love.

The intertwined categories of what Jewish philosopher Martin Buber calls “I-Thou” and “I-It” relationships provide a helpful framework for attempting to read the abstract, spectacular, yet intimate story of Stevens’ album and stage show.

Both Stevens’ creative chaos and Buber’s mystical reflections explore the ability of the human psyche to objectify, and even project delusions on those we supposedly love.

According to Buber, an “I-It” relationship is one in which we relate to another person based solely on what he can do for us, for how she makes us feel. An “I-Thou” relationship is one in which we appreciate, listen to, and live in a perpetual state of wonder as we encounter another person’s “otherness,” sensing the other’s inherent value and not attempting to mine their “use” value. Paradoxically, Buber argues in I and Thou that only through “my relation to the Thou” can “I become I” (11). Only through allowing space and respect for another’s being can we become more ourselves, grounded in the reality of relationship.

We see embodied examples of perpetual relational spasms—from the objectification of the other, to the act of truly cherishing the other—as Stevens’ album opens with the delicate acoustic love song “Futile Devices,” a piece that follows directly in the folk footsteps of much of Stevens’ earlier work (particularly Seven Swans and Michigan). This is a song about a nostalgic lover, longing to reunite with the object of his affection because “you are the life I needed all along.” Stevens repeatedly sings, “I do love you” but then realizes it is useless to say this because words are “futile devices.” The conventional calm of the album’s first song is short lived, and what follows is a jagged, chaotic, frenzied and beautiful mess that reflects the mind of the lover as he navigates the relationship.

Although the increasingly cryptic lyrics and frenzied electronica of the rest of the album are an aesthetic jolt after the first song, they are thematically consistent. The deceiving calm of a when lover makes another in his own image, the “life I needed all along,” is an act of both objectification and narcissism. In the next song (which happens to be the soundtrack for the garish video described above) Stevens sings, “There’s too much riding on that.” Yes, the yearning lover is banking his devotion, his identity, and ultimately, his own pleasure and sense of well being, on another, consuming her in the process.

Buber claims that “all real living is meeting”, yet the cacophony of the rest of Stevens’ album reflects the reality that the central relationship is not a “meeting” but a violent clash. When one projects himself onto another to serve his own purposes, the connection is violent, not harmonious—even if the initial euphoric, “romantic,” calm briefly disguises it.

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Royal at his home in Louisiana

As the album continues, Stevens pulls in another narrative strand from the perspective of Louisiana folk artist, Royal Robertson. Robertson’s original art provided the often ominous background art for Stevens’ performances, as well as the album’s cover. During each of the Age of Adz performances, Stevens spoke for around 10 minutes about Robertson’s life narrative and art because this life and vision of a fellow artist had become, “a very comfortable place to live and reside in.” Robertson had, Stevens explains, the “gift of prophecy, out of body experiences, visions from God and angels, spaceships, aliens.” Ultimately, Robertson’s “gifts” were responsible for, as Stevens said, “ushering him to insanity;” the gifted artist eventually became violent, and the episodes of prophetic vision were diagnosed as schizophrenia. Royal’s life became one of isolation and poverty, populated almost entirely by delusions. His relationships became strong-willed collisions rather than spaces for reflexive participation and, eventually, he was abandoned by all friends and family.

Clearly Royal’s tragic story can also be linked back to the central relational entanglement of Stevens’ album. Just as Robertson had lost any distinction between the objective world and his internal reality, Stevens’ love story asks questions about what we think is really “real” in a relationship. What is a personal projection and what is truly the “other”? How do we prevent objectifying the “other” through these projections? And how do we prevent ourselves from slipping into the quicksand of complete solipsism?

Directly after speaking about Robertson’s story on stage, Stevens then performed “Get Real, Get Right” which he deemed “my reality check song.” The song’s images mostly belong to Robertson’s artistic world: spaceships, rings of fire, prophets, etc. But a powerful, poignant bridge leads to the song’s chorus, layering instruments to provide a rich, almost painfully joyous sound that perhaps points to some reality beyond the delusions: “I know I’ve caused you trouble/ I know I’ve caused you pain/ But I must do the right thing/ I must do myself a favor and get real/ Get right with the Lord.” This bridge breaks from the delusional internal world, perhaps suggesting that only the ultimate Reality, God, can help us to distinguish between the fantasy of our own projections and the real world outside of ourselves. Only in a moment of confession, a pleading to know where he ends and an eternal reality begins, does the speaker begin to “Get Real.”

But as the album progresses, the exploration of the nightmare of self-consumption continues. Stevens tells us in one song that “I want it all for myself,” then perhaps examines the devastating effects of this greed in “I Want to be Well:” “Did I go at it wrong?/ Did I go intentionally to destroy me?/ …I could not be at rest, I could not be at peace…”

Although this song expresses an overt desire to escape the sicknesses of body, mind, and soul, Stevens also seems to ask if this wellness, this understanding of the distinction between self-projected fantasy and any sort of real reality is itself an impossibility for the human soul? Perhaps we should just abandon a quest for “health” and turn to the comfort of consumption as we “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32)?

Age of Adz’s final song, the 25 minute long “Impossible Soul,” is an artfully convoluted mixture of denial, despair, and then ultimately, confession. In his concert performances, Stevens and his band played space age dress up while a model of one of Robertson’s spaceships descended onto the stage. As the lights went up and balloons descended across the concert hall, the audience jumped to its feet, rejoicing in the fun of make believe (or happy delusion?). As Stevens used auto-tune to alter his voice while singing to his lover, the words of the song became their most dishonest: “Girl, we could be so much together.” This use of auto-tune, an inhuman, mechanized distortion, highlighted the fact that as the lover objectifies the beloved, moving more deeply into an “I-It” relationship, he becomes less human.

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But this picture of depthless inhumanity was entertaining, funny, and even more of an invitation to join the party—a laughing descent into the void. Discussing “Impossible Soul” in an interview with Drowned in Sound, Stevens explains the “joyful” tragedy of the song: “It’s like a Woody Allen film, you know, where there’s the slapstick on the surface that everyone can appreciate, but then, deeper, there’s all these original details. Maybe at the heart of a good Woody Allen film there’s some kind of universal tragedy of humanity that he’s speaking about; a much bigger thing.”

What is this “universal tragedy”? Is it the death of relationship due to a desperate clinging to counterfeit pictures of the other, pictures that are little more than self-indulgent projections? The song and album end with a complete break from glitz and glam, a reversion back to the gentle acoustic sounds of the opening track. As the auto-tune is turned off and we hear the truly organic sound of a very hushed, very humble, very human voice, we are startled by the confession:

I never meant to cause you pain

My burden is the weight of a feather

I never meant to lead you on

I only meant to please me, however

I’m nothing but a selfish man

I’m nothing but a privileged peddler

And did you think I’d stay the night?

And did you think I’d love you forever?

And then you tell me, boy, we can do much more

I got to tell you, girl, I want nothing less

Girl, I want nothing less

Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure

Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure

Does the raw honesty of this confession signify a movement from an “I-It” relationship to an “I-Thou” relationship? The lush, intimate sound of an all too human voice could indicate a re-humanization of the lover after his acts of dehumanizing self-indulgence. Can this moment of self-awareness, this attempt to “Get Real” also lead to the possibility that the relationship will “Get Right”?

Maybe.

But maybe not. The warm sounds of the album’s final few moments also ominously echo the deceptively beautiful words and music from the opening track, perhaps even implying an ongoing cycle rather than an actual transformation. Maybe these final words of confession are simply the same sort of hollow, “futile devices” that began this dishonest relationship.

We do not know if we can trust the lover’s supposed epiphany at the end of the album; but then again, he probably can’t either. He is a mystery to himself, a tangled knot of contradictions and falsehoods. Blaise Pascal’s explanation of fickle human nature summarizes the arc of Age of Adz: “What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy!…depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!”

Stevens’ album is a poignant, painfully honest depiction of the darker “symptoms” of the human condition: self-deception, inconsistency, and narcissism. If we listen closely and honestly, we may come to realize that we are left with a revealing portrait of ourselves—and with Blaise Pascal’s own desperate, yet hopeful, question: “Who will unravel this tangle?”

In this “noisy”, garish, yet artfully honest installment of the Sufjan Stevens catalogue, we see perhaps the darkest chapter in Stevens’ larger narrative of human relationality. If we listen intentionally and carefully, we will be both seduced and burned in the Age of Adz’s post-relational Wasteland. Will Carrie and Lowell provide a more redemptive picture of human relationships, perhaps a balm to begin healing the self-inflicted wounds of The Age of Adz? We will have to wait until March to see.

A Mess of Help

I remember visiting my friend Dave Zahl once when I was passing through Charlottesville, Virginia. I’d been hanging out in the Episcopal parish house, reading, while Dave was working on something for Mockingbird–the combination think tank, publisher, and conference organization that he runs. At one point, I joined him for an errand: depositing a check at the bank, I think. We rode in his car through the oak-lined streets, and his car stereo pumped a mega-cheesy layer of saxophones, a shuffle drumbeat, and slabs of bright vocal harmony: yes, it was late-stage Beach Boys. I protested, mildly; Dave defended, enthusiastically. But it wasn’t long before we found something we agreed on. Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, maybe. Or Paul Westerberg.

I don’t visit Dave just to nerd out. I know him from a Bible study he ran, which I wandered into at a snobbish time of my life. Dave’s approach to the study let me speak honestly, ask unsophisticated questions, and be clear about my confusions.

I’m telling you about this friendship because you should know I’m not an unbiased reviewer of Dave’s new book, A Mess of Help: From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll. But I’m also telling you this because the book distills, and brings out the qualities, of this treasured friendship: honesty, sincerity, and a passion for pop music in its simultaneous triviality and depth.

The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys

Let me back up a little bit. A Mess of Help is a volume of essays about rock ‘n’ roll and pop music, with a healthy dose of a kind of Lutheran theology. There are fourteen essays, not counting the introduction, and all but one explore the work of particular band or singer. Some chapters are about the megastars: Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, The Who, the Beach Boys, or the Beatles. There’s a tendency, though, to focus on what most people consider to be the fallow periods of the artists’ careers, like the weird solo projects, the flubbed reunion albums, the album finally released after far too many years of perfectionism and substance abuse have been inflicted on it. Yes, there’s a section on Axl Rose’s Chinese Democracy. Other chapters feature acts with large cult followings, Morrissey and Big Star, etc. Sprinkled among the essays are annotated playlists, too, which are basically mix CDs for the YouTube era, along with track-by-track song descriptions. The book closes with a real monster of an annotated playlist, which doubles as a way to sneak in mini-essays on some musicians who are even more obscure (Bill Fay, John Davis, and Tommy James) among tracks from more famous figures that didn’t fit elsewhere in the book.

And then there’s the theology. The book weaves discussion of theological concepts in and out of chapters structured around the artists. In this review, I’ll take the theological framework—sin, law, grace—and dress it out with examples from the book. So let’s begin at that: the condition of brokenness, failure, and imperfection common to all humanity.

“We are our own worst enemies,” Dave writes, “and suffering, both self-inflicted and otherwise, is the tie that binds our species.” He hears this condition expressed in what I’d call “cry-from-the-heart” rock songs.

Dion of “Runaround Sue” fame was pulling out of a heroin addiction when he recorded the song  “Please Make the Woman Love Me.” It’s hugely fragile, an anthemic prayer for a romantic miracle. Or there’s Pete Townshend’s self-accusing “However Much I Booze,” in which Townshend sings “the truth lies in my frustration” and “however much I booze, there ain’t no way out.” These songs acknowledge a fundamental powerlessness in their singers. And often, the first authentic response to original sin is to acknowledge your emergency, to let go of your comforting illusions of self-sufficiency. The poet of kicking away his own crutches, though, turns out to be Morrissey, the singer and lyricist for The Smiths. Morrissey has a repertoire of works that do so. But even he turns out to be a cautionary tale about the limits of mere self-awareness, untransformed, in a song.

The second concept at play is Law, which, for many Christians, means the impossible demand that we save ourselves from the first concept at play, our sin. Law is an accusatory voice, an impossible standard that generates not peaceful conformance but rebellion, anxiety, shame,  frustration. Now, for most everyone there is a fluidity and a surreptitious nature  to our burdens. In our shame, we often hide what truly bothers us. But if the burden laid on your shoulders is way out in public, on a huge album like Pet Sounds or Thriller or Abbey Road, it’s much  clearer what’s going on.

Dave discusses the pressures that the Beach Boys or Michael Jackson or Paul McCartney put on themselves as an analogy for the more shadowy laws that the rest of us struggle under. It helps that these artists’ struggles were eventually filtered through the sieve of genius. I was amazed at how directly certain songs addressed the weight of past successes. This is especially true in the cases of Brian Wilson—who, Dave observes, cataloged on Pet Sounds with brutal honesty a series of compulsive psychological evasions—and Michael Jackson, whose 90s work becomes frighteningly revealing as soon as you assume that he actually means everything he’s saying: “I can’t take it ‘cause I’m lonely,” “when you’re alone and you’re cold inside,” and “stop pressuring me!”

There are a few figures who seem to have escaped from the Law by a path of self-negation. “The tempting response to the law is redoubled self-assertion,” Dave writes at one point, “but the only honest one is humility.” So we have George Harrison, who seemed to find a good-humored way to shrug off his history as a Beatle and follow his own musical and spiritual path. We have Scott Walker, a pop star whose experimentalism derailed his career until he learned how to bury his ego and follow only his muse. And sometimes even Morrissey wanders into this category.

But it’s not clear if we can actually get to this kind of humility of our own power, which brings us to the third concept in play, Grace. Dave defines grace as “love in the midst of deserved judgment.” Apparently Stuart Murdoch of the band Belle & Sebastian wrote a movie that is nearly a thesis on grace in pop music; this book’s description of the movie is more than enough motivation to watch it. Many of our tortured pop geniuses only manage to hint at the full power of grace: The Who in the garbled last verse of “Who Are You,” or Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac singing that “love runs deeper” on a recent solo album, or David Bowie’s thankful, prayerful “Days.” There’s a lot of “vague uplift” in pop music, which can be a form of self-assertion or self-delusion, but Dave’s selections for the closing annotated playlist prove that he’s got an ear for authenticity when it comes to redemption.

Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock

Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock

I don’t mean to give the impression that the book is just a treatise. Humor and passion practically drip from the pages of A Mess of Help. Love of paradox is said to be Lutheran trait. You’ll find it here, especially in an amazing essay that rediscovers the bizarre Elvis movie Change of Habit in all its kitschy glory. Dave writes, “Elvis Presley was not ridiculous, then amazing. He was both at the same time.” Dave’s collection of bizarre Elvis anecdotes is rivaled only by his collection of bizarre Brian Wilson anecdotes, like the one where Wilson tells a reporter something amazing and profound about God’s love as the power behind the universe, and then totters off into the kitchen to squirt Reddi-Whip into his mouth.

I also don’t want to miss the theme of identity. The one essay in the collection that’s not about a specific artist is “Confessions of a Former Music Critic,” in which Dave considers how often our tastes in music are weaponized for games of social status. It’s hard to keep the things that have become part of your story from becoming standards by which you judge others. Often, what was initially joyful and freeing—finding emotionally stirring music—becomes a part of a rat race of insiderism and “cool,” in a way that’s weirdly parallel to how Axl Rose’s initial bout of creativity and joy curdled into decades of control-freak obsessiveness and paranoia.

How can we be free to enjoy good things without assuming the burden of being people who always like the Right Things?

It’s not that I wouldn’t quibble with any of what’s in this book. I have some reservations. One of the annotated playlists is all ABBA songs that didn’t make the singles collections. I listened all the way through and, well, I’m still not an ABBA fan. Lyrics that Dave describes as “slightly comical,” for example, the line “when fate reared its ugly head and took my dog Clown” in Rod Stewart’s “Blind Prayer,” I hear as unlistenably silly. The brilliant “Big Star Talks to God” essay takes a potshot at Calvinism; I’d personally want to speak up for the Reformed. But these are all things I’d much rather hash out over drinks, inconclusively, than dive into in print.

big start

Big Star

But is theology “really there” in the songs, as the book claims? You might say that Dave is reading things into the music that aren’t actually there. True, this is a danger in criticism, but it usually comes in two forms. Either someone examines something superficially, misses its ironies and subtleties, and declares it to support something they already believe, sort of like when Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s lyrically bitter “Born in the USA” as a patriotic campaign anthem. Or someone starts finding hidden meanings in something they’ve paid way too much attention to. What’s going on here is different: Dave Zahl believes something about the fundamental truth of reality, and he believes that these artists also see that reality, to various extents. One can acknowledge the partial view form a particular song, and still look through that song to the world beyond, in other words.

So when Dave looks at pop music, he can see deeper truths of suffering and struggling, and of love and forgiveness, “the tragedy of human life and its possible redemption” in the words of those singing. Pop music, on its own terms, is often an ephemeral pleasure, but A Mess of Help shows us how to look at it and then through it to things that really matter, the words that could be, in so many songs, a message from outside our narrow selves, from someone who loves us.

 

This Saturday night William & Dave had the opportunity to chat about the book in person at The Olmsted Salon. Listen to the interview here. 

CALL FOR PAPERS: Festival of Faith and Music

We’re excited to announce a new partnership with Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music to solicit academic papers that will subsequently be published on the site. Our hope is that this will bring you fresh, thoughtful music coverage and extend the conversation facilitated at the Festival to a broader online audience. We’re confident that this will benefit our readership, and we’re grateful for the partnership.

More info from Calvin below.

Call for Papers: Festival of Faith and Music
March 26-28, 2015 
Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Contact email: mmccampbell@leeuniversity.edu

Calvin College’s Festival of Faith & Music is a biennial conference that brings together musicians, journalists, academics, students and lovers of music and popular culture to discuss diverse forms of popular music and issues of faith.

Past festivals have featured performances by Emmylou Harris, Sufjan Stevens, Neko Case, The Hold Steady, Matisyahu, The Civil Wars, Lupe Fiasco, and many others. Along with a nightly concert lineup, the festival has also included keynote speakers and interactive workshop presentations from a wide range of artists, critics, and academics including Cornel West, Makoto Fujimura, Chuck Klosterman, Jessica Hopper, and Cathleen Falsani.

We are interested in discovering and celebrating popular music that can be understood as rooted in conviction and/or engaged with themes of faith broadly conceived, including justice, truth, hope, epiphany, transcendence, and redemption, and in hearing or interpreting popular music from faith perspectives. Our festival is 
not primarily concerned with the Christian music industry or limited to 
discussing only those artists who publicly embrace a specific religion.
 Rather, we hope to facilitate a broader conversation about all forms of
 popular music and our response to it as people of faith.

Proposal Information: We are seeking proposals for individual 20 minute papers or 75 minute panels (3 papers) that address issues of faith in popular music and its various social and cultural contexts; these might include works of close textual analysis, sociological analysis, theological analysis, gender studies, etc.. We are particularly interested in papers related to this year’s featured artists and speakers. Updates on confirmed artists and speakers for this year’s festival will soon be found on our website.

A selection of the accepted submissions for this year’s academic panels will be published in arts magazine The Curator. 

Please email a 300-word abstract, bibliography, and speaker bio (attached in a single Word or PDF document) to Dr. Mary McCampbell (mmccampbell@leeuniversity.edu) no later than January 15, 2015. Inquiries to the same e-mail address.

Accepted papers and workshops will be decided by January 30, 2015.

CFP Categories:
African-American
American
Cultural Studies and Historical Approaches
Gender Studies and Sexuality
General Announcements
Interdisciplinary
Popular Culture
Religion
Theory
Twentieth Century and Beyond

In Conversation with Lecrae

Ten years ago during highschool football practice, out of an old Honda Passport, I played Lecrae’s first album Real Talk. From their juiced-up stereo-systems, the defensive line played Lil’ Wayne (A Milli had just come out). Wayne’s bass was dangerous and crisp, and from my exasperated speakers came this rapper they hadn’t heard of. The defensive line came over to me and asked what I was playing. I said, “Lecrae.” They listened to the lyrics and walked away, not knowing what to do with it. This rapper could spit a million miles an hour, shout of “Jesus,” criticize rap, and ridicule lust for women and money. It was impossible to place this music.

I interviewed Lecrae on the recent Phoenix stop of his Anomaly tour, which finishes in November. To date, Lecrae has sold 1.4 million albums. He continues to perplex: he makes songs that one can listen to for the musical energy as much as for the lyrical precision.

Charles Carman: Rap is distinguished, in large part, due to its region of origin. East Coast, West Coast—Detroit claims Eminem; Brooklyn claims Jay-Z. These rappers begin their rhymes with streets and cities. What’s your street? Who’s on your street?

Lecrae: Yeah, I honestly think that there’s a conglomerate of believers and Christians around the world that feel like they have someone with whom they can identify, and then I think there’s people who really value substance in their hip-hop in a time where that’s unusual. So you have the Christians who love hip-hop and the people who love substance.

C: You have a growing number of intensely loyal fans. But its almost as if your early fan base wasn’t from any one place. How do you get streets?

L: Part of that is definitely out of my control. Similar to the guy who goes out and catches a bear, and everyone’s amazed: “How did you catch the bear?” And so he goes on a conference tour telling everyone how he caught a bear. But over the last five years he’s been telling everyone how to catch a bear, though he doesn’t catch them anymore. And then someone else catches a bear, and so then the whole mob moves over to this new guy: “How did you catch the bear?” So you have to stay in the forest catching bears for a season, and then come back and explain to people how you caught a bear, and back and forth. And I think that helps how people see me, having-fans-and-living-it-out-wise.

C: Do you find that you go back to Houston, the place where you grew up, to find a regional flavor?

L: Absolutely. I definitely have an affinity with Houston. I’m fortunate to have moved all around the country, so I’ve picked up different things from different regions, but those are definitely my roots. The South, when it comes to music, is all about the emotions, the soul, and that certainly bleeds through. As you move north, things get more into the technicality with the lyrics and the sounds, so I appreciate that as well.

C: You refuse to use the language of hip-hop, the violent metaphors and similes. That means, however, that you have to create a whole new language, which is something most hip-hop artists dont have to think about. Whats it like to create lingo from scratch?

L: So sometimes, as a cultural curator of sorts—no pun intended—you have to double speak. I’m saying things that I think my tribe would understand and resonate with personally, but I’m also trying to say something that someone outside the tribe can hold onto and understand themselves. So I could say red bottoms, and everyone outside of my tribe would think I mean an expensive pair of shoes: “Oh, yeah, everyone talks about red bottoms.” But then I could say something to the effect of “covered in the blood when I’m rockin’ these red bottoms,” you know, and it’s like “double speak” to where my tribe understands what I’m saying, but then those outside can follow along, too.

C: A lot of rap is about the rapper responding to someone with, Im gonna spin some lyrical wit and attack you with it,but that sort of personal attack isnt in your work.

L: I don’t not acknowledge human emotions. It’s what I do with them: anger, guilt, shame, fear, hurt, and loneliness, gladness—those are all real emotions that everyone experiences. Anger is good, because that means you’re passionate about something, but when anger is toxic, it might lash out violently or irrationally. So you have anger, but what am I going to do with that anger? I am angry that the child was molested or mistreated but how I respond in my anger makes all the difference.

C: There are many songs critiquing America from MIA, Del Ray, Kanye. Your song Welcome to America” controversially concludes with someone getting kicked out because they couldnt find a green card. What are you hoping that the songs says?

L: I wanted people to empathize. So often we only walk life in our own shoes, our own perspective. Very rarely do we think about how the other person sees life. I have white friends who say, “Hey, man, how come you always talk about race?” And it’s because I experience it all the time. I would love not to think about it. But that’s a paradigm I’m having to see the world through, so I’m trying to say: here’s the guy on the street corner in Chicago, who’s an American, a soldierwho fought for his country, who you walk by all the time, and he fought for your freedom.

C: It seems that in every interview youre asked, “Whats with being a Christian rapper?” Lets reverse that. Whats up with rap that allows Tupac, Jay-Z, Eminem, Wu-Tang Clan, and Lecrae to claim the same genre? No one takes seriously Christian black metal, or gangsta gospel or shoot-em-up indie folk. What about rap makes it flexible as a genre?

L: Hip-hop is all about the disenfranchised. That’s how it originated—the disenfranchised in the Bronx. It started by welcoming anyone who had been marginalized and ignored to tell their story. I think it’s evolved over the years, so now we’ll probably be a lot more accepting than a couple decades back, but the message from the world is, “We want substance, things that will last,” and that’s what I’m trying to provide.

C: What does it mean to be a rapper but also to stand outside rap, to be an anomaly in the rap world?

L: It’s almost like being in a family where you want to address your brother or your sister. You don’t want to blast them out to the world. You may challenge them, but it’s because you want the best for them. And that’s what I’m trying to do now.  I had to learn how to do that. I was kind of wagging my finger in a pious way—really wrong and ineffective, and what I had to learn to do was to challenge people to see themselves as more, that they’re falling short of what they’re created for. But how do I raise those kind of questions like, “How can I be more than what I am? What is more significant than the girls, and the money and the cars?” That’s what’s been my challenge.

C: Who do you listen to?

L: Pretty much everything—Eminem, Kanye, Neighborhood. I can appreciate form and craftsmanship, even with content that I don’t agree with. And then there are times when the content is so disturbing that I’m moved to question what I’m hearing because it’s viewed as acceptable. And that drives me and inspires me to write out of compassion. When there’s a song that thinks child molestation is acceptable, that grieves me and drives me to respond against it. At the same time I hear things about mundane, monotonous things done so well, I’m inspired to write.

C: Who are some of your favorite painters?

L: I’ve been going back to Rembrandt, just to try to understand [him]. When I was in Amsterdam I spent time in the museums observing the subtleties in his work. Every person’s worldview is communicated through their art. If you have a painter who has a cosmic explosion, it says a lot about what they think. They may think that the world is chaotic, without shape or form. But someone who takes the time to paint a shadow, the infrastructure and order and the form, that means something very different. That impresses me.

C: Theres a tendency amongst faithful artists to take something culturaland Christianize it. Christian rap is said to be like this, too. What do you think about this pattern? 

L: Christians are known for condemning, critiquing, and copying culture, and not creating it. When you begin to create culture, you’re saying that there’s another way. I’m not telling you to conform or be a separatist, but that there’s another way, to use these resources and live and express through these art forms. There’s another way.

On Good Folk, Good Land

A few weeks ago, The Curator’s Charles Carman had a chat with Ben Hardesty, the lead singer of The Last Bison, an indie folk quartet from Chesapeake Virginia. “VA,” The Last Bison’s new album will be released on September 30.

 

Charles Carman: Was music part of your community/family/neighborhood? Are you a folk band by nature (where you came from), or was it more deliberate than that?

Ben Hardesty: In my more formative years, music was a huge part of family and community life. As a child I would sit at family gatherings and watch my uncles play through Marshall Tucker songs, always hoping I could someday play along, singing and picking away with them. It’s hard to say whether the community makes the music, or music makes the community.

The band started as a group of friends and family just making music together. However, through making that music, the music formed us. It wasn’t that we were like, “Oh let’s start a folk band; that’s cool!” Acoustic instruments could be taken outside, played around fires, and in the beginning years of the band that’s where we spent lots of our time. Things were naturally happening; all we had to do was commit to it.

C: Where do you draw lyrics and concepts from—historical events, local cultures? Who do you read/listen to? Do you look at paintings? What are you celebrating with your music?

B: With this next cycle, we’re celebrating themes of freedom from bondage, in both the literal and figurative sense. The narratives of freedom in cinema, literature and the Bible have always been ones that pull at my heart strings. My lyrics are often pulled from fictitious narratives floating around my own head. A piece of some story not yet put together, a glimpse into a moment. I’m also inspired by the places I’ve been and things I’ve seen. Travel is just as good as a well written book often times, in my opinion. It leaves you with characters, plot lines, conflicts, and the resolution to those conflicts. After a trip you’re left is vivid memories of the story of that particular adventure. I’ve had many such adventures, and a gamut of my songs come from the effects those geographical journeys have had on me. Lastly love. Plain and simple. A love that strives to be selfless and transparent. Experiencing that from people, and attempting to love that way often enters the lyrics.

C: Some lyrics, for instance in “Watches and Chains,”sound like vignettes from the Civil War era or earlier. Is there a historic era that especially fascinates or influences you?

B: 19th century America, for reasons I don’t know. I spent a lot of time in school studying the Civil War. It’s complexities fascinated me and my guess is because of that, the aesthetic stuck with me.

C: What is good folk music? What’s folk trying to capture? 

B: I don’t think I have any say in what good folk music is. If I had to give an answer, I’d say anything with acoustic or ethnic instruments that comes from the heart. People want authenticity. Good folk captures that authenticity. It has a nostalgic feel about it— like somewhere you’ve been, or something you’ve seen before. It could be the the guys who don’t sing a word, but pick faster than you’ve ever heard, or the guy who knows a handful of chords and can put what your thinking into words.

C: Any funny concert stories?  

B: One of our first shows ever here in VA—I won’t name the venue—has a short, sweet story. I was stomping so hard I broke their makeshift plywood stage—cracked the board pretty well down the center. I played the rest of the show. We packed and split. I never told anyone. That was bad of me.

C: Favorite whiskey and tobacco pairing? 

B: Samuel Gawith Full Virginia Flake (FVF) with Reservoir Rye Whiskey.

In May 1607, The Virginia Company sent out three ships that landed in Virginia and founded the colony of Jamestown. They set off in search for a route to Asia to advance trade with China with hopes also to discover gold. They failed at both. The mortality rate due to starvation, disease and warfare with the natives approached 70%, and only one thing saved the remaining souls at Jamestown…

C: Tobacco.

B: This tobacco is the fullness of a Virginia blend, and is reminiscent of the same Virginia blends of the old days. When paired with Richmond’s own Reservoir Rye Whiskey, it is a real treat. I’m usually a bourbon guy, however the spice of this Virginia Rye blends well with the thick smell of fresh hay that the FVF emits. This pairing goes well with my favorite fiddle tune Ashokan Farewell.

C: On that note, thanks for your time.

 

In Celebration of Esoteric Spectacle: Operatic Observations

This piece was originally published in September of 2013. Consider reading it alongside Laura Tokie’s opera piece, also originally published last year and available for you again on the homepage. 

The only sport I can watch with any amount of interest on television is soccer and, on a good day, basketball. But golf? No. Baseball? No. Football? No. I simply can’t. I’ve tried, and I’ve been told what I’m missing, but nothin’ doin’. I watch soccer because I played for many years. I am a minimally “educated” viewer, while I know that there are skills and abilities that are invisible to me as an uninformed baseball-watcher.

Because I study modern and contemporary art, my entire life has become a struggle to justify specialized and particularized practices and argue for their wider relevance. Mine is a precarious position, defending esoteric spectacle and informed viewing while trying to stamp out the rampant privilege and elitism that so often accompany. And visual art isn’t the only realm in which I do battle—happening to love opera doesn’t help.

I used to hate opera. I mean, they sing in shrieking voices and clomp around and get all melodramatic. I could handle “opera lite”—some Bocelli pop, some Pavarotti arias—but I left the vibrato and the breastplates to rich old people. Then I spent a semester in Florence, and had to choose an elective: it was either a studio art workshop or History of Italian Opera. Since any pedestrian on the street has as much artistic talent in her pinkie finger as I do in my entire body, I chose the academic course.

Our class learned about the different voice types and periods of Italian opera. We suffered through early Baroque pieces, and zipped through the classical and Romantic ones. We attuned our ears to the new sounds of 20th century works. All along the way we tried to note as many of the myriad variables as we could about every production—the conductor, the director, the singers, the orchestra, the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the stage. And that very little survey—that introduction to the broadest of concepts in the most superficial of ways—has made all the difference.

***

A key factor of our pleasure in art is our recognition of it and in it. When you turn the second corner on the fifth floor of The Museum of Modern Art, you’ll see a crowd clustered with smartphones and digital cameras around van Gogh’s Starry Night. Starry Night is not, in my opinion, the best painting at MoMA. It’s fantastic for many reasons, but that’s not what is compelling people to photograph it. Two years ago Placido Domingo complained of exactly this effect to Stephen Colbert, of all people —how “La donna è mobile” is “so known that the whole evening the public is sitting in the auditorium, and when it comes “Ta ta ta re ta la, pum pum…’ everybody says ‘Rigoletto!’ And it is in the fourth act.” We respond more easily to what we recognize, but we can’t recognize something without exposure to it. That anticipation of the audience for “La donna è mobile,” so rightly frustrating to Domingo, is also why Rigoletto is one of the most-performed operas worldwide.

After reading Laura Tokie’s recent piece on “What’s Opera, Doc?” , I found the short online and watched it for the first time in probably 15 years. Within seconds I was cackling out loud at the send-up of Fantasia in the opening, and, in one of many nods to Wagner, Elmer’s use of “Ride of the Valkyries”. Next I recognized Siegfried’s horn call in Bugs Bunny’s first recitative, and appreciated the parodic twisting of words and pauses to make his lines fit the tune. Then the clichéd operatic reveal of the beautiful woman (Brünnhilde on her white stallion, Grane), although this time it is the horse who has junk in the trunk. Elmer and Bugs’s duet (“Oh Brünnhilde, you’re so lovely!” “Yes, I know and I can’t help it.”) mimics hundreds of love arias whose sentimentality I’ve laughed at or cried to. And the balletic interlude had me reminiscing about my annoyance at the Act I Nutcracker duet that I watched at least five years in a row at my old dance studio—the overly aestheticized “pursuit” and “submission.” I quickly remembered another classic episode—this one a parody of Il barbiere di Siviglia—and settled in to enjoy it just as much.

I’m not really a music person: I have little experience with theory, and none with composition. I know that I’m missing a lot when I watch opera, the same way I know that the intricacies of NASCAR racing technique escape me. But, at least for me, the little work I’ve done has so far been enough, and only spurred me on toward more. I have become accustomed to the singing style; I respond to the stories and the lyrics; I critique the costumes and the design. When I read reviews by Alex Ross I know I’m not perceiving a tenth of what’s there. Yet in the end that’s exactly how I know it’s so rich: even though I’m watching and listening with insufficient eyes and ill-informed ears, I am engaged.

We are in the positions of historians as well as viewers and participants when appreciating the art-ifacts of an earlier time. Sometimes they’re wrapped in funny clothes and odd singing voices, sometimes they’re mysterious sacred objects, sometimes they employ arcane language and passé literary devices. But always they are created by humans, and always they touch something human in us. And sometimes we can’t find that something until a bunny points the way.

photo by: mt 23

It’s Opera Season

This piece was originally published in September of 2013. Consider reading it alongside Kristen Gaylord’s opera piece, also originally published last year and available for you again on the homepage. 

Before attending the opera, I held an optimistic view. I could like opera. After all, I ain’t Laura of Flatbush. I met baseline criteria:

  • Likes classical music.
  • Enjoys Shakespeare.
  • Does not fear foreign languages.
  • Enjoys getting dolled up.

I thought of myself as an unshaped mass of opera-loving potential. Thus mentally armed, I attended the opera. The experience brought me into a new self-awareness: I was delusional, naive. I thought the elements of opera would enter into my existing nucleus, connect with the substances therein and expand, like two tiny amoebae, the start of (opera) life. What a maroon!

Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself. I had it partially right. The elements of opera were going to combine with something, bub, but nothing on the list.

***

Opera hours are like dog years. I learned this thanks to subtitles. The singers performed in French, and subtitles appeared on a scoreboard-like screen above the stage. The singers went on and on, trilling up and down on the same four words that hung in the air, floating along at balcony level as if under the influence of a mad scientist’s ether.

I pined for escape: the bathroom, the bar. I remembered the last time I failed to connect at a cultural event. I sat much closer for that one, so close that I can remember how the place smelled. It took hours to get there, and then I spent hours by the pit. The other patrons looked like they lived there, camping out for days. Some wore special headsets that gave them a more intimate grasp of the underlying story, but I didn’t have that kind of money. I tried to distract myself with people watching. I nicknamed one very sunburnt gentleman Lobster Man and observed his ways. Every forty seconds he stood and saluted the action with a loud “whoo-hoo” and a raised glass of Bud.

Maybe opera has something in common with NASCAR. Maybe opera needs to have more in common with NASCAR: Airstreams and headsets and copious amounts of cheap beer. Maybe opera needs more drama in the pit. Picture it: the cellist seated in the house. At the conductor’s signal, she races to the edge and hops over the wall. Will the cello clear the clarinets? We could expand the scoreboard; make room for “trombonist cam”: will he clear his tube of spit before his cue? Maybe the problem is the words themselves. Let’s eliminate the subtitles altogether and replace them with a single earbud. Give me announcers in my ear, give me Al Michaels and John Madden calling the opera:

“Here’s our first baritone of the evening, Coach.”

“He’s one of the good ones, Al. You can tell by the way he entered the stage. Shirtless. Look at those flow-y harem pants! He’s some kind of sultan or something.”

“A priest, I think, Coach, certainly of the ruling class.”

“Let’s take another look at that entrance … Watch how he comes in from stage right and then … Zap! Slam! Powee!”

In the time it takes to sing one aria, I could’ve had the whole thing telestrated. But I wanted to connect to the opera, so I stopped pining and daydreaming. I tethered myself to the physical action onstage. The soprano reclined, her arm to her forehead, and that (to paraphrase) was all, folks.

***

The caution against smoking used to go, “it’s habit-forming,” but what does that mean, exactly? It causes you to repeat a behavior, somehow, against your better judgment, against your will. I’ve never been addicted to nicotine, but this response is more than physiological, I think. It’s the process of smoking, the way it fits with food and drink, the pleasure of a break, the calm of it, all that shapes the thinking and behavior of a smoker, causing him to temporarily forget the money wasted and the lung cancer and remember smoking fondly.

If you had a habit like that, a pleasurable habit, but without the cost or cancer, a habit that wouldn’t kill you, a habit whose only downside was that it prevented you from enjoying opera, you’d keep it, right?

In the 1970s, cartoons were not on television every day. Thus, wise and sensible children got up early on Saturdays so that they could enjoy cartoons to the fullest. Rising early, eating cereal in front of the television, I became a lover of animation. My first and true love would be Bugs Bunny. His words became my words, magic words like abraca-pocus and Walla Walla, Washington.

Bugs Bunny is the world’s most popular rabbit.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a favorite writer/director team, Michael Maltese and Chuck Jones. Consider the meta-cartoon “Duck Amuck”, in which Daffy is the victim of a guest animator’s sense of humor, with whom he carries on a one-sided conversation. Or how about the singing, dancing Michigan J. Frog, who ceases performing at the most inconvenient moments? What about “Boyhood Daze”, featuring the escapist imagination of Ralph Phillips?

I loved these, and other Maltese/Jones classics. But above all of their other work I placed their second opera parody, “What’s Opera, Doc?” It was the story I waited for, the one that would drive me to gather the rest of my family and make them watch it with me. It features only two character, the hunter Elmer Fudd and his clever prey, Bugs Bunny. These roles of hunter and prey typify their cartoons, but the usual settings of woods or gardens has shifted to a highly stylized landscape suitable for Wagnerian hijinks.

It begins with Elmer, a powerful Viking hunter, preparing to ‘kill the wabbit.’ Bugs, the wabbit in question, does not want to die, and so employs many a strategy. At the last, he disguises himself as a beautiful, horse-riding Viking maiden. Elmer is smitten, singing of her beauty and his desire for her. Bugs slides down the horse to him, and then they sing a duet, “Return My Love”. Maltese wrote the lyrics:

Elmer: Weturn, my wove… a wonging burns deep inside me…
Bugs: Retoyn my love I want you always beside me.
Elmer: Wove wike ours must be…
Bugs: Made fer you and fer me…
E & B : Return, won’t you return my love… for my love is yours.

This is followed by a ballet interlude. Elmer dances in tights and a shield. Bugs continues in his disguise, a bronze brassiere, miniskirt, eyeshadow, and a helmet with trailing gold braids. The ruse ends when Elmer, after ascending an extraordinary flight of stairs, finds his love in repose on a chaise lounge. Much like the soprano in the opera I attended, Bugs goes a little too far with the reposing. The helmet with the braids falls from his head and bounces down the stairs, revealing the sad truth to Elmer–his beloved is also his enemy. Elmer enacts revenge, wrecking destruction and finally, regret.

If there was a potential opera fan deep inside me, she was crushed long ago by a fat horse carrying a rabbit in drag. How could the opera compete with a ritual hour and the most desired seven minutes on television?

photo by: Steve.M~

An Interview with Josh Garrels

Charles Carman interviewed Oregon-based Josh Garrels—American singer-songwriter, orchestral folk composer, hip-hop producer, and musician—and the two spoke briefly on Garrels’ history, the narrative nature to his music, growing up and the prominence of myth to his life, and the need for love of a city.

Charles Carman: Think back to Stone Tree, your first album. What first thought, question, or urge moved you to write a song, even if it wasn’t recorded for Stone Tree?

Josh Garrels: Earliest memories are like of [me] making little melodies. I think my personality is such that—some people like to be given (and this sounds negative) but like manuals or programs, or when it comes to music, like studying theory and composition and being in bands and orchestras and having conductors—my personality is such that sometimes that’s confining. It actually ceases to make the thing interesting to me. Music to me, still to this day, is this wide open landscape of potential sounds (and I have more words for it now as a grown person), but as a little kid I used to think, “oh, you can just make up melodies and sometimes when you make certain melodies it makes you feel a certain way.” So that was like just singing little songs.

My dad was a music teacher so there was always a pile of instruments around the house, everything from a Wurlitzer and drum sets to clarinets and old Casio keyboards. A big marker in my life was realizing you could record sound: I liked to make little recordings and then go back and listen to them.  It becomes something outside of you then and you can listen to it objectively. There is a certain pride to it, like “I did that!”. This adds this new possible objectivity to what you’re doing, and you can let yourself be influenced by what you hear. Really early I had double tape decks where you could push record/play at the same time, then slowly made that more sophisticated by adding singalodeons with single loop tapes, then eight tracks, digital eight tracks and laptops, all the way to the studio I’m in now where I’m actually learning the stuff I never wanted to learn, like real engineering.

CC: Here are some lyrics from Stone Tree, the song “Ending”

Children running around
looking for the sound
buried in the ground
some are lost and found
waiting for the crown of the King.

There is this theme of looking for the king or waiting for Him returning. How did that theme begin?

JG: Stone Tree was before The Lord of the Rings trilogy on hit the big screen, so I didn’t grab it from that! [Laughter] There is a part of me that likes things that are epic, that’s why I think a lot of my songs go to these soundscapes that are cinematic, because I really like the epic storytelling.

You read the Old Testament prophets and the Revelation of John and you get that sense of the most epic story of all time coming to fruition. In that story, there is the returning king with eyes of fire. I have always been deeply affected by all of that, the poetry and visions of those things. I wholeheartedly believe that its not just poetry for an obtuse era of time. I’m more literal:  “No man, he is coming on the clouds.”

I feed that into my lyrics because I had a radical conversion as an 19-almost-20 year-old with nothing much previous to that—there was always this sense that this is real.  I always had a sense of ” I will follow that King.” I can’t help but sing about those things knowing, at times, they have narrow appeal. When you start talking about those things, it’s distasteful for some.

CC: For most peopleKings and Kingdoms, they’re cool like fantasy is cool or myth is cool, but just a metaphor. How do you try them substantial?

JG: I think that’s what I’m trying to do: take a thing that is considered fantasy or entertainment, or it is scoffed at because of the crazy dude on the corner shouting out like “End Time’s” things—it’s the caricature of a hateful, wild-eyed dude who thinks he is a prophet but really he’s leaving a wake of hurt people around him. I can’t tell myself this isn’t real, but I’m an inclusive guy (and I actually think the story-line [of king and kingdom] is inclusive), so the challenge is: how can I put them forth in a way that is not watering down or compromising or making something less than to build it up to even greater?

CC: You tie the kingdom concepts to lyrics about earth, heaven, and resurrection. In Stone Tree’s “Going Home,” a very slow paced, slowly ascending song, we are going home to be with Christ. Then in Jacaranda you have the wonderful “Zion & Babylon” where you bring it down to a mountain, Mount Zion, and in Love & War & The Sea In Between, you have “Revelator,” where he is coming down to make war and peace with man and reign on earth. So there has been a slow bringing-down-to-the-ground of this reign. Is that something you had in mind to begin with?

JG: I never thought about that to be honest, that progression. In thinking about it now, though, I had Stone Tree, which was 11-12 years ago

CC: 2002

JG: I was in my early twenties in the middle of a radical conversion, pretty zealous with the change. It was special and innocent in a good way because I came up with all sorts of steeped counter culture: skateboarder, drug, art,  hip-hop and indie rock, which felt pretentious and hierarchical—who’s in and who’s out. To be a Christian was a totally non-cool, but life-changing event. So with Stone Tree, I really felt the freedom of it. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone, or get on a label, or be a worship pastor. When I became a believer,I think my head was still twenty-something unattached, very “everything is spiritual.” When you’re that age, you can afford to live a detached, ephemeral lifestyle. Now I’m a husband and father of three, a homeowner, and I’ve calmed down and think more of “the hope of the future”, wondering how that’s present and alive in our present wounded, hard-knocked situation? How do I find peace and contentment in an unideal situation, because I’m not going to run from this. “How do you find Him in the mist of darkness?” That seems to be the progression.

CC: “SISU” from Over Oceans [2006] goes:

By the word and command
mortal man can stand
Son of Man is manifest in the flesh
and the bone and the rocks
and the valley of the dead
the dry bones are gonna walk and talk
to the rhythm of the saints y’all
to the rhythm of the saints.

What is required of the saints today?

JG: From what I’ve seen from my generation, I think [pause] there is the real simple answer:  just to believe. To quote one of my lyrics: “holding fast to the anchor.” I think that is the simple answer. That can be pretty obtuse, though.

Because we live in time influenced by pocket-accessibility to mass media streaming in real time, I think it makes it easy to follow every word and wave of what’s happening (and really I’m talking about myself, too). We’re really distracted.

How do we hold fast and stick to the anchor, not only Christ, but also things central to our being? I’m tired of arguing about the non-essentials. I think our generation is in danger of letting go of some core doctrinal beliefs like the identity of Christ, what the Gospel actually is, which requires something of you.

CC: This is shifting gears really quickly, entirely actually.  Thank you, though, for talking about saints. In “Resistance” and “Zion and Babylon” and several other songs, there is a call to overcome through peace and love. You played “Zion and Babylon” at your New York show, which was very affecting because of all the ways NYC compares to Babylon. What does living as a saint in New York (and big cities in general) look like?

JG: One of the preachers I have been listening to quite a lot over the last few years is Tim Keller. He has a great sermon on The City. Living in Portland,  my work over the past decade was very nature oriented … people really connect to that, and it will always be present in my work. Portland is the first place I’ve actually felt called to be somewhere, and as it happens, I’m in an urban core of the city, which is much less of an urban core then New York, with Keller’s teaching is helping me think about what that means. In my heart of hearts, I would love to live on a house on a hill in the in the country with wide open expanses—that’s what I want, because I’m ministered to by it. But people are in cities. That’s where cultures are these cities like New York and LA, and to a lesser extent Portland. You get the sense there are a lot of hurt and broken things in cities, the reasons I don’t want to live one. But those are the very reasons we should be there.  During the plagues of the Medieval period,  it was the Christians who stayed in their cities, getting sick themselves. They stayed and took care those dying.

My heart and my love is in the country because something feels pure and noble and good there, but at the same time, obedience draws me to cities, which are full of cultures that are interesting and fun. I always swore I hated New York. Since having this revelation that cities are where people are, where the need is, I’m growing to love New York.

 

 

Fire In The Belly

 Arcade Fire yearns for resurrection. Each conflict that Arcade Fire raises, from the aimlessness of the lover searching the streets for his beloved to the madness of the lover who cannot behold his beloved as she walks behind him out of hell, is resolved by one and only one event.

David Bentley Hart writes in “Christ or Nothing”: As modern men and women, to the degree that we are modern, we believe in nothing. And Charles Taylor puts in his tome that we live in a “secularized world.” Before and after them, scholars, essayists, philosphers all have formed a sub-genre of cultural criticism on the two assumptions: we are nihilists and we are secularists. There is no God, and nothing after this life.

But then we listen to Arcade Fire. Things are in a different order. What we believe in does not come first because we do not first believe. First, we love. And if we believe in nothing afterwards, we do so because we are first without our beloved.

Disinterest in God and in the afterlife superficially appears in the song, from Reflektor, Here Come the Nighttime, which asks for the prolongation of darkness, the nighttime party, the neon-lit amusement. The focus is on how nothing is cared about, nothing matters:

When the sun goes down,

When the sun goes down you head inside

Because the lights don’t work,

Nothing works but you don’t mind

The missionaries tell us we will be left behind

Been left behind a thousand times, a thousand times

If you’re looking for hell, just try looking inside

When you look in the sky, just try looking inside

God knows what you might find

And yet, when we look at the Arcade Fire corpus as a whole, this rejection of an afterlife, and of the evangelized-about God who keeps heaven from us, are secretions, not causes, of the tension that moves Arcade Fire from album to album. There is a suffering prior to having lost faith in whatever they once believed in. It is the loss of those whom they desire.

Listening to the four albums are like watching four plays, all with the same tragi-comedic dilemma, none of which satisfactorily defeat it. But instead of literary analysis on Arcade Fires lyrics which, I think, would be fruitful – Arcade Fire rewards those who listen carefully. Here is one example.

Near the end of Reflektor is a pair of songs: Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and Its Never Over (Oh Orpheus). They follow Orpheus as he leads his beloved Eurydice out of Hades. Nothing more profoundly than that image conveys the mythopoetic center of Arcade Fire.

As they walk out, they try to remember something. (Which reminds me: a critique of Reflektor is that its too drawn out, songs go for too long. But this is why. It takes time, pounding repetitions of You already know, before you remember). The songs narrator sings, It seems so important now/But you will get over//And when you get over/When you get older/Then you will remember/Why it was so important then. As they walk, and as they sing, almost playfully, perhaps flirtatiously, Orpheus shouts back to his love, Hey, Eurydice!/Can you see me?, which must be a painful question, since he cannot see her. But if she can see him, theres hope. I will sing your name / Till you’re sick of me.

Arcade Fire writes two endings. In Awful Sound, the story ends as the myth does. Their desire for each other, to turn towards the other, whose love and loving requires being present before each other, swells. We cannot blame them. We can only despair for it being tried. This is the sorrowful freedom of the impatient desire. The song ends with them turning, and we know how it ends:

We know theres a price to pay for love in a reflective age

I met you up upon a stage, our love in a reflective age

Oh no, now youre gone.

With the next song, Arcade Fire gives the myth a new ending. The chorus changes. It had at first gone, And when you get over/When you get older/Then you will remember. Now it runs, When you get over/And when you get older/Then you will discover/That it’s never over. The climb out of Hades to save your beloved from death and separation never ends. In this second ending, Orpheus and Eurydice never make it out.

The Suburbs, perhaps Arcade Fires most acclaimed work, is often misunderstood (and acclaimed) as primarily a critique a condemnation of suburbia. Supposedly, Arcade Fire wants to show how bad living in the suburbs is, that its the worst metaphorically, or actually embodies the worst. Sprawl I (Flatlands) ends with a police officer asking kids late at night, [kids] do you know where you live? and the kids answering, If you only knew what the answer is worth/Been searching every corner of the earth. Though a deep critique of the convenience of suburban economy, this is construed as the look, primarily, for a place to live other than suburbia.

However the search for place in The Suburbs is never the search for place for places sake. All of place has been traveled, every corner of the earth. Place itself is not what theyve lost. Eleonore Stump, in her moving and profound theodicy the title of which is incidentally a concise expression of Arcade Fire: Wandering in Darkness suggests what is the primary desire of our hearts. We desire many things, many kinds of things. I desire this drink, or that place, or this time. I may and often would have desires for certain beliefs, going back to nihilism, secularism and religion. I desire a better understanding of God or I desire belief in something that will happen in the future. But, as Stump writes, the deepest things a person sets his heart on are persons. Though the characters of Arcade Fire are lost within a world, a myriad of things, facts, beliefs, what they have lost are not things or states of belief or knowledge. They have lost persons.

Every conflict is that of not yet having found the place where the other is.

With respect to what our culture believes in, secularism and nihilism are largely correct diagnoses. But were we to consider our age with respect to persons (i.e., not statements of belief), we may very well understand our age, vis a vis Arcade Fire, as the reflective age: the age where our beloved is not present. Our lives have become mirrors. Weve no window out of which to see another (which is an interesting reversal of what the computer screen does. Computers are not Windows, they are reflectors). There is ultimately no real Other. There is an absence of lovers except in the dream-house of our mind or the dream-world of heaven. When we think we hear a friend or a lover, its a maddening echo (a favorite leitmotif of Arcade Fire) of our own voice.

In theological terms, this age lives in the evening of Holy Saturday. Christ is beneath the earth. The disciples tremble in fear and shame. The world looms cruel and ridiculous. No matter what Christ said, his disciples must surely begin to doubt his divinity. He, like all things, has returned to the earth. That is all. We can hear the devilish whisper the disciples must have heard, in bridge of Reflektor: Thought you were praying to the resurrector/Turns out it was just a Reflektor. With Christ in the earth, death is once again the natural thing. It reenforces its certainty. The prophecy of resurrection becomes, with all religious promises and rituals, yet another comedic foil which the logic of death dissolves into absurdity. Everything is back to how its always been.

To beat the point into the ground (I almost wrote grave): epistemic doubt is caused by the death of a person, not the other way around. The death of the beloved mocks all belief. As Stump quotes Aquinas: If there were no resurrection of the dead, people wouldnt think it was a power and a glory to abandon all that gave pleasure and to bear the pains of death and dishonor; instead they would think it was stupid.

And so the world is not full of nihilists or secularists; it is full of lovers who have lost their beloved. Everything after is the paint drying. This is at least the world of Arcade Fire – where in Backseat, their sister dies in a car crash, where in Antichrist Television Blues, a father abuses his daughter, where in Wasted Time, lovers know only a consuming boredom with each other; in each case, where lovers deal with what has rolled between them. Belief in nothing, and in nothing transcendent, comes from solitary confinement. And after that, all kinds of madnesses begin. Orpheus turns around.

Stump explains in an interview that resurrection is the confirmation of the goodness of there being particular embodied souls. Resurrection is always of particulars; and our lovers are these particulars. For belief in nothing to be doubtful, its foundation needs shaking. Life must sweep away the claim of death.

When graves are emptied, any system based on graves being filled becomes deficient. The wisdom of the world becomes foolishness. 

Until then, there is the working-out of hope: to live as in the already-present and yet-to-be-unveiled Parousia, as if the stones are already in the process of being rolled away, and we, in the hush of feet walking out, are finally present.

Afternoon With the Axolotis

Do you think science and the arts have to live in their own hermetically sealed cubes? There are plenty of examples of the arts and sciences not only brushing shoulders but embracing, mingling, intertwining. For a quick and dirty example, you can look to some especially well-written science fiction, the tight bond between mathematics and music, or the work of Leonardo DaVinci. Or one of my favorite and lesser-known examples: the music of the band Hum. What follows is part history lesson, part music review, and part nostalgic reflection on a band that changed my life.

I

To set the scene, let’s take a trip back to 1995. As a young teen, I spent many late nights curled up under my tape deck/radio combo waiting for the right moment to slap the “record” button. Pittsburgh’s alternative rock radio stations usually saved the real oddball tunes for specific late-night time slots, and I often stayed up way past my school-night bed time in the hopes of catching something special.

This is how I discovered Hum: half asleep and then, five minutes later, so awake that I had a difficult time getting back to bed. “Stars,” the band’s only real commercial hit of any sort, was an anomaly on modern rock radio at the time—it didn’t sound anything like the Collective Souls or Silverchairs or Better Than Ezras of the time, and it pulled an effective bait-and-switch that probably blew out more than one set of speakers. “Stars” hypnotized me immediately; the music was loud, yet it possessed a sort of delicateness that surprised me. But there were also these lyrics, like tossed-off poetry written by an asteroid miner.

 

Hum formed in the Champaign-Urbana metroplex in 1989. After some line-up changes, a terrible self-released debut album (1991’s Fillet Show, 12 Inch Records), and the departure of the band’s initial songwriter/frontman Andy Switzky, Hum’s roster settled on singer/guitarist Matt Talbott, guitarist Tim Lash, bassist Jeff Dimpsey, and drummer Bryan St. Pere (who, as legend goes, was discovered after the rest of the band heard him drumming along to Rush songs as they passed by his home). By the time the band independently released Electra 2000 in 1993, their sound had changed significantly. With Talbott swiveling around in the songwriting seat, Hum’s songs began shifting from a riffy blur between metal and punk to something a more oblique—the post-hardcore riffage is there on Electra 2000, but an attention to sonic atmosphere and texture makes the album a huge step forward from their first record. The galactic heaviness of songs like “Firehead” and “Double Dip” helped the band’s fans label them as “space rock,” as did Talbott’s astronomically rich lyricism. I don’t think it’s a great album, but it drew the band some attention; they soon signed to RCA Records.

II

I’d wager that Hum’s fanbase grew with the release of their third album, You’d Prefer an Astronaut (1995, RCA.). That’s when I came on board, buying their album—one of my first CDs!—from a Super K-Mart after I heard “Stars” on the radio. My parents were mindful of what I listened to, so the fact that a PARENTAL ADVISORY sticker was slapped on the album gave me serious pause . This sticker was like Cerberus,  posted to keep me away from the potentially scary things within (even if, in reality, the album didn’t deserve this sticker). But I bought it, and I still have my copy—it’s almost unplayable from all of the use over the years. “Stars” was a minor radio hit, and the album was received well both critically and commercially.

You’d Prefer an Astronaut does a great job of setting up Hum as something uncategorizable. The guitars throb and buzz, a mountain of effect pedals fueling the black hole of melodic noise. Talbott’s quiet, nasally vocals occasionally surface with an elliptic line or two about flashpoints or magnetic brains. The album has the same dreamy qualities that make a lot of shoegaze bands so good, but Hum adds some “oomph” in there as well.

You’d Prefer an Astronaut works well, because while it’s certainly loud, it’s a pop album through and through. Amdist all of the distortion, feedback, and scientifically obscure imagery lurk hooks—sometimes small and subtle, but hooks nonetheless. Tunes like “I’d Like Your Hair Long” and “The Suicide Machine” are a little more straightforward; the sneakier melodies—like the outro of “Why I Like the Robins”— are the ones that get stuck in my head for days.

Hum toured relentlessly to support the release of You’d Prefer an Astronaut, got some exposure thanks to Beavis and Butthead, and gained a supporter in Howard Stern (which they not have been thrilled by, judging from their deadpan response to his fawning). Their success was modest compared to some other alternative rock bands of the mid ‘90s (250,000 albums sold), but Hum was the biggest band in the world to me.

III

It wasn’t a particularly cold or snowy January in 1998. I paced the length of my family’s living room, my nervousness kept at bay by the on-hold music piping through the phone’s receiver. I was about to be patched through to Debbie Wilde, the late-night DJ at 105.9 FM in Pittsburgh. She had just played “Comin’ Home,” the first single from Hum’s upcoming album, Downward is Heavenward. I had good reason to be nervous: in about 30 seconds, I would embarrass myself in front of thousands of listeners with a muffled, nonsensical sermon about the greatness of Hum (despite the fact that at the time I really wasn’t sure what to make of “Comin’ Home”).

Downward is Heavenward received unanimous praise upon its release, and over the past sixteen years it’s built up a reputation as one of the best albums of the 1990s. This adulation, however, didn’t extend to sales. “Comin’ Home” and follow-up single “Green to Me” didn’t even scratch the charts, and the album sold a fraction of the copies that You’d Prefer an Astronaut moved. “Stars” really was a fluke hit. To make things worse for the band, the next two years were a disaster: they missed an opportunity to include their cover of the Police’s “Invisible Sun” on the X-Files: Fight the Future soundtrack, they were eventually dropped by RCA, and they totaled their van while on tour. The toll was too much: the band threw in the towel in 2000.

Which is a shame, considering how confident and well-written Downward is Heavenward sounds: there are layers of precise instrumentation without ever become too ornate. The tunes show quite a bit of diversity in melodies and structure: sweeping prog-rock (opener “Isle of the Cheetah” and the stunning “Afternoon With the Axolotis”), straight-up indie pop (album MVP “Ms. Lazarus”), and whatever “Comin’ Home” is. The album has aged gracefully, too—if anything, I like the album more than when I got it, and it’s gained fans since 1998

Talbott’s lyrics are in top form here, too. The years of touring seemed to have taken an emotional toll on the band, and that’s telegraphed well enough. Many of the songs deal with love, longing, and loss, and the throughline of science fiction elements help emphasize the distance. Between a riff-heavy chorus and watery verses, the progatonist in “Dreamboat” pines for the woman in a water-logged future who is kind enough to pack solar-powered lungs and sub-machines for him.“If You Are To Bloom” uses opaque medical and natural imagery to hint at both yearning and loss. And despite its jaunty nature, “Ms. Lazarus” concerns a time traveler stuck in a heartbreaking situation:

And still the crosshairs rest on one, and still you rest there in the morning sun.
Still I fumble through pages of constructions on the ride.
I like the blown out sound we’ve found, I like the way it feels here coming down.
The way your headstone shines, I only wish that it was mine.

My favorite song on the album, though, is “Apollo,” one of Hum’s few quiet songs. Talbott likens the long hours on the road away from his family to an astronaut drifting in outer space:

She said you can find a place inside my heart if you will stay
and I need you back here on the ground.
It’s lift off, lift off again.
She’s pissed off, pissed off again.

Moonlight brings me back again to stay
and I know if she had a way I’d always be through.
Tethered to a glass ring she keeps beside the phone, and never ever stepping out into…

Yet another long stretch on the road, yet another long time in space.

IV

The years following Hum’s break-up were the most musically fertile of my life. I joined a Hum listserv and, through the interactions there, started a snowball of band discoveries that’s still rolling today. I became a better musician by fumbling along to Hum’s music on guitar. I learned to dig into artists’ harder-to-find material, too, since Hum’s scant b-sides are among some of the band’s best songs (like the superb “Puppets”).

Reflecting on these years makes me thankful for the weird, incredibly creative bands that not only scored record deals, but also crept onto corporate radio stations. This was something magical—maybe even preordained—about tuning in at the right moment to hear something wholly unlike what you’ve heard before. Platforms like Spotify and Rdio have countless songs immediately available, but the serendipity isn’t there. I’ve also learned to be patient over the past 16 years. Will they release any new material? I kind of doubt it, though my heart jumps when I hear about them playing some unrecorded song, like “Cloud City,” live.

The band seems content on the sidelines. Three years after their quiet break-up, the band reformed with similar stealth to play a one-off show at a festival in Alabama. Since then, Hum has played shows here and there, including some well-attended high-profile festival slots. Talbott formed a new band called Centaur, and is a professor (and football coach!) in Illinois. He also runs the excellent Earth Analog Studios. Dimpsey and Lash have kept busy with other bands (Gazelle and the excellent National Skyline for the former, Glifted and Alpha Mile for the latter), and St. Pere has a family and is working in the medical industry.

This is something that’s always made me love Hum: they’re not rock stars. Nor are they poets or astronauts. Matt, Bryan, Jeff and Tim seem like the sort of guys who’d rather watch Star Wars, play D&D, or grab a beer with some friends than be in the spotlight. Considering their music’s artful approach to the cosmos, it makes sense—sometimes the normalest folk peel back the heavens with the most grace.

photo by: Hubble Heritage

Speaking Beyond a Single Moment: An Interview with Keith Getty

Keith Getty is widely recognized as one of the premier modern Christian hymn writers. His compositions are sung in Christian congregations around the world. And one of his most well-known hymns, In Christ Alone, was featured at the enthronement of England’s Archbishop of Canterbury. Keith recently released his first live album with his wife and cowriter, Kristyn Getty, Keith & Kristyn Getty – Live at The Gospel Coalition (Modern and Traditional Hymns).

Nicholas Zork: Thanks for sitting down to talk. You recently released an album, Live at The Gospel Coalition, which was recorded live at the 2013 National Conference of that organization. I really enjoyed listening to the recording. I thought it had great effervescence and energy. Congregational song is often recorded live, but this was your first live project. So what inspired you to take that leap?

Keith Getty: Well, I think we should have done it many years earlier. We wanted to be sure we had a good partner. And The Gospel Coalition, while it doesn’t claim to embrace everyone, represents a group of young leaders—70% of whom are under 45—who are orthodox Bible Christians and looking for depth. So at that level, we share more than enough commonality that we could grow old with them. I look at songs in the same way as I look at relationships—in the same way as I look at companies that we’ve started. And that is, “Can we do this for 30 years?” And if we can, we’ll start it; and if we can’t, we won’t.

NZ: So the partnership was primary rather than the idea of making a live album?

KG: We wanted to make a live album, but we wanted to put that in the context of something else. I mean, we’re doing a concert here in New York tonight. But far more important to us is introducing our hymns to the churches and leaders who are here, which is why we hosted a lunch earlier today for local church leaders. The concert is really to give people a taste and to build for the future.

NZ: The prospect of doing a live recording—was that intimidating? Exciting? Both?

KG: Honestly, I never even noticed. My wife and I just did our usual thing, and the guys captured it. Kristyn re-recorded a few of the vocals for clarity, but almost all of what you hear is what they caught live.

NZ: We talked about the song, In Christ Alone, a little earlier. And, of course, that’s on this recording as well. Recently, it was chosen to be sung at the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury. When you heard that your hymn had been selected, what thoughts went through your mind?

KG: It was just a huge honor that it was used. But it is also an honor to know that the young church leaders we met in Detroit yesterday—who haven’t gotten their church to as many as 30 yet—are using it. That’s what it was written for. We’re thrilled that it’s used, wherever it’s used. I’m a classical musician by origin. So it was great to hear the pipe organist of the (Canterbury) Cathedral do his version, which actually was closer to how I would have arranged it. I’ve simplified my chords for contemporary band purposes. He actually played almost in the chords I would have written it. And, of course, it was a spectacular arrangement, and the acoustics were great. On the other hand, it also reminded me that the majority of people in the world who sing In Christ Alone sing it without music. The role of the song is to help people understand the Gospel. And to me that’s a greater privilege—that in China and India and South America people are singing it without any music and learning the Gospel through it.

NZ: When you write, what context do you have in mind? I suspect you’re not thinking about the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But what context do you imagine? Or, do you just write out of your personal experience?

KG: In terms of melodies, I’m always imagining a large group wanting to sing. The soundtrack of my upbringing was a classical one, not a pop one. So when I try to write a pop song or a CCM [contemporary Christian music] song or a country song, it sometimes feels like I’m trying too hard. Whereas when I write congregationally—while I know it isn’t what’s “cool” today—it comes more naturally. It’s that thing Steve Jobs articulated about creativity being the combination of your experiences. Well, I’m an Irish Presbyterian classical musician, who grew up in a home where all we listened to was church music. So however my music comes out and however out of kilter it is with what is cool today, it does work in a congregational context. That’s the good and bad of my creative DNA. [laughs]

NZ: Have you always, since you began writing music, written hymns? Was there a time at which you shifted your focus toward hymnody?

KG: I’ve written music for most of my life. But I thought I was more of an orchestral writer because that’s what I did. I studied classical guitar and flute and piano and then conducting. So my heroes were the likes of Henry Mancini, conductors who wrote and arranged music. In my 20s, my living was earned as an orchestrator. But in my spare time, my hymns were my kind of protest music. In some ways, they were a protest against where church music was going. In other ways they represented a genuine desire for something that was a companion to modern worship music. And those hymns ended up becoming my most distinctive voice. As an arranger, I think I’ll always be a bad Henry Mancini. Do you know what I mean? Whereas as a hymn writer—writing the way I wanted to write, not expecting to ever see any grand returns—out of that came my sort of original voice. Does that make sense?

NZ: [nods in agreement]

KG: I got married to Kristyn at 29, and she helped me think about life. And at 30, I quit the music industry and said, “I’m gonna write hymns and be a steward of them from here on in.”

NZ: Would it be fair to say that there’s a tension you’ve experienced between writing music as an art form—as a liturgical art form—and creating it as a commodity for the marketplace?

KG: There’s always tension for anyone. There are broad level tensions. Music and business have always been uncomfortable companions. Business and religion have been uncomfortable companions. And religion and music have been, at times, uncomfortable companions. So trying to put the three together and expecting a happy result is not very realistic. But I’ve never tried to write a worship song as a commodity. I try to write a great song for a congregation and not what the industry wants. I’ve tried to write, asking, “How can I make everyone in this room stand taller, breathe deeper, and be excited to sing, and clench their fists, and raise their hands, and sing louder?” And that’s what we’re trying to achieve in our songs.

NZ: And I suspect that the realities of the music industry are challenging not only for those who write hymns but who want to create other types of music that may or may not meet the expectations of the corporate music business.

KG: I think, ultimately, business is the organization of our priorities. Each of us has to work at what our priorities are. I don’t think any artist should try and write something they don’t believe in. We have to be excited about the art we’re producing. And then we have to find the best way to fund the rest of it.

NZ: You mentioned carving out some time to write this year. With the busyness of life, touring, new additions to your family—congratulations, by the way—

KG: Thank you

NZ:  —how to make time to create?

KG: Over the years we’ve made choices. We have a rule that we only tour a limited number of weeks a year. So that does create quite a lot of freedom. We live in Nashville, and we spend a few months in the summer in our house on the coast of Ireland.  Becoming parents has changed every part of our lives in richer, fuller and more exhausting ways! We have had to become more organized and prioritize our time more effectively. We have enjoyed how these new life experiences inspire fresh creativity as we continue our focus on writing hymns and stewarding them.

NZ: Two final questions. First, when you write, what is your starting point? Is it a biblical text, a melodic idea? Does it vary?

KG: We’re the melodic way around. So we go melody first. I know the vast majority go lyrics first, don’t they?

NZ: I’m not sure, but I know a lot do.

KG: Most of the time it seems to be that the proactive one goes first. Kristyn and Stuart [Townend]: I think they’re the real geniuses in our partnership. What they bring is a much more unique contribution to our work. But their rule is that they won’t start until I have a melody that’s worth writing to. They torture me. So I have to go through months of just writing and writing and writing. I usually have pretty strong ideas about what I want the song to be about. All the songs are co-credited, you’ll notice; they’re not word-music splits. But effectively, it’s my music and their words. I don’t have the poetic arts that they do. I sometimes write the lyric myself, but they always change the entire thing.

NZ: And finally, you mention a revision process. How do you know when a hymn is finished?

KG: How do you know? [laughs]

NZ: [shrugs] That’s why I’m asking you? [laughs]

KG: I’m asking you. I wanna know! [laughs] Well, at the end of the day, it’s just a temporal art form, isn’t it? The old joke is, “which came first, the music or the lyrics?” And the answer is, “the phone call.” I think you have to create deadlines. Some of our songs have come easily. With In Christ Alone, Stuart heard the melody and said, “I want to write this.” He wrote the lyrics and sent them to me. I thought they were OK, but they’ve worked! [laughs] With The Power of the Cross, Stuart took 15 months. He wrote 17 different verses. To my pastor friends, I say, “You’re lucky because you’ve got the privilege that Sunday’s coming. You’ve got a fixed deadline, and by lunchtime you’re done! But their art form is, for the most part, a short-term art form. It is for this moment in space, time and history. A sermon’s power is its power to speak at that moment. A song’s power is its ability to speak beyond a single moment.

photo by: GlasgowAmateur

Liszt We Forget

Recently my wife and I attended a Boston Handel and Haydn Society performance of Beethoven’s 4th symphony. Anyone who has been to such a concert in the U.S. will recognize the atmosphere: hushed elderly folks folding themselves into tiny balcony seats, the rustle of programs, mock-classical sculptures of the muses and Apollo gesticulating in butter-colored light from alcoves above the crowd. The vibe was of an elevated politeness that fit uncomfortably on a populace used to taking a predominantly casual attitude toward art. The house was crowded, and after five minutes of the oddly beautiful ambience of the tuning orchestra, the graying and tails-clad conductor gave us a few quips about Beethoven’s life and work before striking up the first movement of what the program called “a rollicking party bus of a piece, brilliantly entertaining but often neglected, given its placement between the more popular 3rd and 5th symphonies.”

The analogy struck me as hilariously out of place, a kind of reaching parallel between the layered, highbrow art before me with gratuitous twenty-something party culture which somehow seemed to reduce to dignity of both. I felt the program’s language was in violation of symphony culture rules, unspoken but universally understood: audiences must clap at the end of whole pieces, not between movements, should dress like southern churchgoers, curb any bodily needs that cause movement or make noise, and above all should take the music “seriously,” clothing themselves in a silent, emotionally-sensitive passivity that can respond to the music’s subtleties deeply, but only internally.

Yet it occurred to me that by taking offense on the 4th symphony’s behalf, I was robbing myself of the ability to accept what might be a legitimate, intended emotional register. Why was the notion that Beethoven intended to induce a “rollicking” feeling in me so absurd-sounding? Would it actually be a “truer” experience of the music if the audience clapped, head-banged, and tossed empty beer cans around like the crowd in a typical rock concert?

Many of us have read stories of historical symphony, opera, and ballet audiences that were very rollicking indeed, perhaps most famously the early twentieth-century crowd at the opening performance of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, who, the documentation tells us, responded to the jarring primality of the music at first with unrest, then with argument among themselves, and finally with rioting, jumping over the seats of Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to sock each other in the face, overpowering the police and eventually forcing Stravinsky to run for his life. That example is extreme, but what sea change in music culture transformed classical audiences from potential powder kegs to wet blankets, and is the change a positive one? The history is complicated, and scholarly opinions vary widely about whether we should try to adjust our attitude back to the rowdy, casual take on classical music that was once the industry standard.

Alex Ross, staff writer for The New Yorker and probably the present generation’s best-known popular classical music critic, is firmly critical of the monastic attitude American audiences adopt toward symphonies. He has written at least two articles that deal exclusively with the subject of audience behavior, “Applause: A Rest Is Noise Special Report,” an online essay appended in 2005 to the website associated with his seminal book The Rest is Noise, and “Why So Serious?” which appeared in The New Yorker in 2008. The essays are similarly flavored, and as a pair represent his take on the contemporary state of affairs. In “Applause” Ross opens by reminding us that history is on his side:

“Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, applause between movements and even during movements was the sign of a knowledgeable, appreciative audience, not of an ignorant one. The biographies of major composers are full of happy reports of what would now be seen as wildly inappropriate applause.”

As an example he cites the letters of Mozart, who, when riotous clapping and shouting broke out during the final Allegro of one of his compositions, was so delighted that he “went right after the Sinfonie to the Palais Royale—bought myself an ice cream, prayed a rosary as I had pledged—and went home.” Even zanier, Ross tells us in “Why So Serious?,” was the typical nineteenth-century piano recital, where crowds and composers together exercised behavior that was “by modern standards, completely nuts.” Here he points to Liszt’s habit of taking requests during his concert by drawing little notes from the audience out of an urn. Apparently, Liszt was all the happier when the crowd defied format and sent him innuendos, false requests, or any message that gave him the chance to launch a witty repartee (One read, “Is it better to marry or remain single?” to which Liszt retorted, “Whatever course one chooses, one is sure to regret it.”)

My friend Brian Gillikin, himself a composer and postgraduate scholar in the field, was able to indicate the historical moment when Western audiences began to change their behavior. In the late nineteenth century, the Romantics began to compose music with generally more dramatic volume ranges, so that while some passages were “so loud that no audience noise could ever compete,” others were extremely quiet and subtle, and therefore easily disturbed by so much as a cough. It was therefore partly the demands of the composers that lead to a “quieting down” of their audiences—shifts in compositional habits meant that a little informal background noise could cause a listener to miss significant elements of the art.

Other factors contributed as well, including changes in crowd demographic and in the size of concert venues, away from the snug parlors of the wealthy and towards large specially-built public halls. Aware of these complexities as he is, Alex Ross still concludes that our contemporary attitude is in need of rehabilitation. He argues that the current state of affairs alienates artist from listener, when it is precisely that relationship which creates the appeal of a live performance: “we are [now] spectators at a spectacle that is not ours,” he writes, “…our only power is that of consumers in general, to buy or not to buy. Is it any surprise that a lot of people aren’t buying?”

Yet as things stand, while a piece might be styled a rollicking party bus by the conductor, those of us in the audience will suffer consequences if we try contributing to that atmosphere. It would take a significant, adventurous effort on the part of performers and listeners together to change this, and the shift would involve real aesthetic sacrifices. Another musical friend eloquently pointed out to me that silence is the composer’s canvas, and blank space is understood by artists in all genres to have expressive value.

As Mr. Gillikin put it, clapping between movements might now be thought uncouth because it “…can often destroy the meaningful silence the [contemporary] composer intends between movements,” and I tend to agree. When I consider hearing a performance of a piece like Ralph Vaughn Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” which begins with more than a full minute of smoldering undertones in the strings, the thought of being surrounded by chatty, informal members of Ross’s “reformed” audience is repulsive.  Perhaps our rehabilitation should involve our musical education instead of our musical attitude: it would take crowds who fully understood the intensions of the composer to know when silence might be golden, and when uncouth, and a truly great audience to know when to throw a punch. With a little attentiveness, perhaps we can reach that place again.

The Complete Beauty of Arvo Pärt’s “Für Alina”

To hazard being hackneyed, I don’t remember the first time I heard Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina with my ears. I knew it as the piece that woke the composer from his creative slumber, as the world’s introduction to his tintinnabuli (‘bell-like’) style, and other such bits that are important to musicians and to no one else. But I do remember the first time I heard it with my eyes.

It was a Sunday evening in April, and I felt numb afterwards, like after a good cry.

The two-page score of Für Alina is an artifact of human perfectionism. Visually, it lacks the shoulder-shrugged, pianistic flair of Rachmaninoff, the rococo loop-di-loop satisfaction of Bach, or the palm-on-forehead-“So-that’s-how-he-did-it!” of reading through Beethoven or Wagner. This work is Pärt at his most naked minimalism. The notes don’t even have stems. There are no time signatures, and the tempo marking – Ruhig, erhaben, in sich hineinhorchend (“peacefully, in an elevated and introspective manner”) – seems to imply a slow tempo while politely declining to say how slow. Easy enough for a child to play, yet so delicate that performing it well requires a very skilled touch, ear, and the patience of age. Somehow, when fully beheld, Für Alina is one of the most complete and arm-tingling-ly beautiful pieces of music ever.

The work’s perfection begins with and returns to its typography; that is, how Pärt arranges the ink on the page. The stemless notes and predilection for white space are not accidental. The sonic realization of the piece is entirely informed by these typographical decisions. Pärt implies everything through the typography, except indication for how difficult simplicity can be, like an unmarked doorway into the sublime. Realizing the score at the piano enters one into the world of music where words of course no longer matter, a place of ineffable beauty.

The work’s opening notes – a pair of quixotic B-naturals two octaves apart on the lower end of the piano – resonate through the instrument and the listener’s mind. They receive one measure before the bottom stave vanishes, implied by the note ties leading into the white space that follows. These pedaled notes fade through most of the piece, disappearing first from the piano, and then from memory. As the background, they reshape the sonorities of the simple parallel lines of the foreground as it augments in length from two notes per measure to eight before diminishing back down to two, resting finally on a three-note cadencial gesture. These first two enigmatic notes are the climax of the piece, the rest a symmetrical song of denouement.

Space lies between every molecule of Für Alina. White space on the score, musical space between the note voicings, space lingering in the time between each note and measure, acoustic space resonating within the piano body, physical space between the piano and listener, and so on, like a pebble dropped in a puddle, rippling out from notation to piano to ear to mind, all instances of space analogous to one another. As each note decays, the mind tries to catch some elusive thought escaping between the ripples. Like all that is beautiful, this is a progression towards infinity, holistic, inward, and upward. Musically, Für Alina is not defined by its sequences of sound in time, but by the careful placement of sound in space. It is physical motion within eternity.

To some extent the piece is utterly infuriating. It is straightforward yet allusive, childish yet genius. As a feat of human craft, Für Alina removes all but the minimum from the page to activate the potential of natural acoustics. As a work of art, it pushes deeper into the human relationship with the mystical and the divine than some very intentional sounds and typographical decisions should be able to push. But it does, and without wasting further words, take a look and take a listen

 

 

 

A Renewing Theatrics

As a second-generation Korean immigrant to Canada, Ins Choi has many stories to tell. A versatile artist taking the roles of playwright, director, actor, poet, and musician, Choi spins his tales in creative ways. Recently, I had the privilege to conduct an online interview with the multi-talented Choi, and to experience two very different works of his—the one-act play Kim’s Convenience and his solo performance Subway Stations of the Cross.

Choi’s debut play Kim’s Convenience first appeared in the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2011, garnering the “Best New Play”, the “Patrons’ Pick Award”, and the “Best of the Fringe” honor. Since the debut, Toronto’s renowned Soulpepper Theatre had introduced the play to a wider audience, mounting it successfully in subsequent years. It was heartily received.

Choi was born in Korea, immigrated to Canada with his family when he was a year old and grew up in Scarborough, Metro Toronto. His father’s first job in Canada was in his uncle’s convenience store. In that microcosm of the family-run grocery, Choi had the first taste of the multiplicity of immigrant living, and extracting from those early experiences, he develops the story idea for Kim’s Convenience.

It is a brave move to use the setting of an immigrant family convenience store for a stage production. Further, the main character, Mr. Kim (Appa), speaks in broken English, and at times with his wife, Umma, in Korean. The novelty is audacious. How would the audience receive such an ‘ethnic’ story? To the playwright’s delight, people embrace it.  “I think what’s universal about this play is that it’s about family and the future of a family business,Choi says.

Soulpepper Theatre’s successful mounts following the play’s Fringe debut cast away the playwright’s initial doubts. Kim’s Convenience won two Toronto Theatre Critics Awards: “Best Male Actor” for Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (who plays Mr. Kim, or, Appa), and “Best New Canadian Play”. The script was published in book form by House of Anansi Press in 2012. Currently, the production is on a cross-Canada tour directed by Weyni Mengesha. The next phase is the United States and then other parts of the world. A TV comedy series based on Kim’s Convenience is also in the works.

Despite the differences in cultural background for most viewers, they soon find Mr. Kim’s family has similar issues they may face, such as generational conflicts, clashes in values, and the challenge of expressing love. Audiences can readily empathize with the pains of an estranged father/son relationship, or a daughter who is unwilling to take up the family business but wants to chart her own course as a photographer. To his daughter, Appa says:

We hope you can be doctor, lawyer, big success, but what you do? Take picture. We don’t have to come to Canada for you take picture. Even you can take picture in North Korea.”

Ah, discrepancies in expectations: no cultural barriers there, and we appreciate the laugh.

The father/daughter scuffle soon takes the form of cost-benefit accounts. We hear the supposedly loving yearning of Elizabeth Browning’s poetic line echo in a twisted, hilarious way as the qualm now becomes: “How do you owe me? Let me count the ways.” During a heated argument, Janet uses the calculator right by the till to tally up the amounts her father owes her for all the hours she has spent working in the store since her student days. In turn, Appa is quick to rebut his daughter with the room and board through the years, ski lessons, music lessons—there is no resolution in monetary terms, of course, except as an audience, we are sensitized to the notion that we are all recipients of grace.

“What’s your exit plan?” a realtor friend, Mr. Lee, a Kenyan immigrant ‘with a Korean last name’, comes into the store and asks Appa, presenting an attractive offer. Even though getting close to retirement age, it is the first time Appa is confronted with the question. The notion also carries layered meaning. Choi cleverly gives it a little twist. Appa is a quick study. He turns around and uses the same question on his daughter, who is thirty years-old and still single: “What’s your exit plan, Janet?”

When it comes to race relations, Choi is just as bold and direct. As a comedic resolution, we see Janet and a black policeman falling for each other. Appa is happy to see Janet finally has an ‘exit plan’, albeit Janet feels less urgent. So after some real arm-twisting from Appa, a promise of marriage is elicited from both lovers. In the playbill, there’s a Fight Director listed, and I can understand why.

In another scene, Appa teaches Janet customer profiling, which ones are ‘steal’, which are ‘no steal’. Listening to his instructions, Janet bursts out: “That’s racist!” She could have exclaimed: “That’s sexist!” or “That’s ageist!” It might take an ethnic minority to overtly confront these issues. Choi has utilized that key well. The ingenuity here is the subtle inference. In Appa’s hilarious stereotyping, we see our own prejudices; in his blind spots, we see our own foibles.

Kim’s Convenience is more than just a comedy;  it is also a version of the prodigal son, with Choi himself taking up the role. The play gratifies with forgiveness and reconciliation. These themes reflect another integral part of Choi’s upbringing. In the immigrant community, the Korean grocery store to a large extent intersects with the Korean Church. Often a couple would take turns minding the store and going out to attend church services. After his initial job at a convenience store, Choi’s father later became a pastor and led the Korean Bethel Church in Toronto. That was the place that first sparked the love of the theatre for young Choi:

Watching [my father] tell stories on stage every Sunday and making people laugh, moving them to tears, inspiring them to live a better life, to be more compassionate … that, I think was the biggest influence for me to pursue the arts, “ he recalls.

There is also another mentor. “My youth pastor, David Ryu, at the time, during one of those coffee houses did this very emotionally charged movement piece… The courage to do something like that … at church… stayed with me. I don’t remember a single sermon he preached over the decade he was there but I’ll never forget that performance.” That seed ultimately comes to fruition in the playwright’s recent achievements.

If Kim’s Convenience is iconoclastic, Choi’s solo, spoken word performance of Subway Stations of the Cross is audacious. He appears on stage slowly and silently as a barefoot, homeless man wearing layers of odd clothing, a headband gathering shoulder-length hair, and a tiny, old guitar hung on his neck. He places a large piece of cardboard on the floor, sets up a mike stand and looks his audience in the eyes. The house lights remain on, for this homeless man wants to see the reactions of his onlookers, who are unable to pass by as in real life situations, but are left to watch and hear him up close and personal. He begins to mutter and sing softly.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Prepare… declare… éclair…chocolate…” 

The character is inspired by a mentally ill, homeless man Choi has met and befriended on the street in Toronto. His portrayal on stage is effective and his singing voice mesmerizes.

“God is calling you to dance. He fancies you to take the chance… You’ve got nothing to prove cause God is, God is calling you to dance.”

The subway stations do not run a linear line, but the track is explicitly Jesus. This in itself is a bold act for an artist on the public stage. The homeless man takes us through his ramblings via songs, raps, rants, and poetry. We can take him for the fool on the hill. But we soon find that he is well-versed in topics from mythology to pop culture, Biblical stories to Japanese anime. His social commentaries are spot-on, his songs captivating, his insights lucid.

“I’m afraid we’re all being played. Chasing the insatiable security. Consuming, consuming, till consumed. I’m afraid we’re all being played.”

We hear him sing a song of the 1980’s sitcoms like an Oscars host. We hear him rap in Latin, Hebrew, French and Korean. We are provoked on multiple fronts. The mashed up, postmodern style speaks aptly; in our time, the words of the prophets could well be written on the subway walls.

“We’re busy with our renos, while they live in a tent.”

At a certain point, the man takes out a loaf of bread from his bag, pinches a hole and begins to carve out the inside, throwing crumbs on the floor.

“A baby in a manger… a stranger… endangered. Manger, In French means to eat. Jesus, given to be eaten.”

“How would Jesus react to the Church today?  Would he be accepted or barred due to dress code? Birkenstock or Crocs? Recycle? Resurrect Elvis?”

In the talkback after the performance, Choi stresses that he does not write with a message in mind. If there were anything he would want to leave with his audience, it would be an image rather than a message.

And what an image that is. After a sixty-minute journey, we are brought to the end station. The man tapes the loaf of bread on top of the mike stand, takes out a bottle from his bag and out pours red wine into the hole he has made in the bread. Then, he extends the mike stand up. He takes out a miniature ram’s horn, blows it while circling around the stand several times. After that, he exits the stage as quietly as he has come in. We are left with the image of the bread hung high and the sound of dripping wine onto the cardboard floor. And the stage lights dim.

“May Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest”

The composer John Tavener is dead. Known for his strikingly gaunt physical features – which resulted from the same genetic condition that eventually killed him – and strong Orthodox Christian faith, Tavener stands among the greatest British composers of the 20th and 21st centuries, and is one of the few recent composers whose works have become part of the contemporary discourse. He was only sixty-nine.

When we talk about Tavener, we usually mean the latter version. In the 1960s, the young Tavener was the British Invasion of classical music. A friend of the Beatles and on their record label, his early music was chaotic, eclectic, and hyper-modernistic. Tavener’s conversion, from weakly Presbyterian to zealously Eastern Orthodox, brought him into his second phase as a composer, in which he emphasized space, simplicity, even silence – a stark contrast to his earlier works – and the minimalist style for which he is best known today.

Tavener’s Orthodoxy was almost too Orthodox, as he flung himself fully into its mysticism and the Eastern liturgy, both of which became the primary source of all the music he wrote up to his death. His detractors point both to Tavener’s inability to compose far away from his beloved Church and to his ‘failing away’ in recent years when he began integrating other religious traditions into his music, especially Hindu and Buddhist. And rightfully so, but wrongly judged: Tavener wrote music, much like Olivier Messiaen and Arvo Pärt, with the understanding that Christian truth can be found in all things, seeing no contradiction in simultaneously holding tightly to his Church and freely exploring the world.

Being a composer (and I commit this fallacy willingly as I myself am a composer), Tavener was likely unable or unwilling to separate his inner and outer worlds, or even see them as separable. His image was reflected in his musical creations, putting him at risk of being misunderstood or too understood, and he seemed unhindered by this and kept writing music until near his death. All that is left of Tavener is memory and music. Through listening we can get glimpses of who he was and, if we listen closely and well enough, a glimpse of the truths that Tavener hoped for in life and now has in death.

I first heard Tavener’s ‘Song for Athene’ two years ago at a Compline service at Christ Church in Rochester, NY. This piece came to him while he was attending the funeral of Athene, a young half-Greek girl who had died in a cycling accident. Tavener’s spiritual guide, Mother Thekla, arranged the text – a combination of excerpts from Hamlet and the Orthodox funeral liturgy. The work is most famous for being performed at Princess Diana’s funeral.

That evening in Rochester, as the soprano section – a group that walked across the street from the Eastman School of Music each Sunday evening to sing the service – soared through the candle-lit sanctuary to the top of the work’s climactic chord, I felt emptied. And then, as the drone began again in the basses, free to be filled. Free to live in this chaotic, eclectic world. Free to have peace in life and in death. I was sung to a temporary rest as Tavener recently was sung to his eternal rest. Alleluia.

Listen to ‘Song for Athene’ by John Tavener.

 

 

 

My Pride & Prejudice

I went to see a play a few weeks back, at a fancy-ass theater just a mile away from my apartment. For months I would jog or ride my bike past this theater, famous for its architecture, award-winning plays and gigantic images of playwrights plastered on the sides, never once stopping to step inside. I would shake my head and sigh, long-forgotten dreams of the stage echoing in my ears. But that life was behind me now—I was a cash-strapped adult who was very busy with the business of trying to live out Christian community in a low-income neighborhood.

So I would jog away from my apartment—the dumpsters swarming with flies, the neighbors who all looked different from me, the supposed ghetto of my new and beloved city—and I would run towards the theater, towards the river, towards the beautiful umbrellas lining the bars. It never took very long, because that is the way it is in America. The rich and poor, side by side, like two ends of a bridge. On one end you have people just trying to survive, and on the other side are the people who go to plays.

And then one day, compelled by the relentless curiosity in my brain, I stepped into the cool and metallic-gray corridor of a world-renowned theater. An adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was being produced in conjunction with the book’s 200th anniversary. This particular adaptation, by Simon Reade, happened to star Vincent Kartheiser (of Pete Campbell from Mad Men fame) as Mr. Darcy. I walked, shoulders slumped in response to the grandeur of my surroundings, to the box office. Quietly I inquired about discounts for poor people like myself, and was told there was such a program for people under 30, that I could get the rush price at any time. Would I like a seat for that evening’s show? There was only one left, and it was the best seat in the house.

Guilt creeping up my neck like an old friend, I looked to either side before declaring with an assertiveness that I neither felt nor believed in: “Sure. I’ll take it.”

//

Once you have lived in a diverse neighborhood for a while, it can be a shock to go into homogenous situations again. The reverse is true, of course, but perhaps a bit more expected. Now that I know people who are poor, who are refugees and immigrants and mentally ill and marginalized, when I know what goes on under the shadows of the skyscrapers downtown—well, it can be a shock to sit in a sea of crushed red velvet seats and perfectly coiffed gray hair, playbills clutched in mainly Caucasian hands. I settled down in my seat, pulled the scarf I bought at the Somali mall across my shoulders, hoping it classed up my pants and t-shirt just a bit. With a hint of bitterness and longing, I looked at the people around me, the kind of people who appreciate art and have the mental capacity to think about issues beyond what crisis will happen tomorrow. Do they know my neighborhood? I thought to myself, uneasy in my perceived isolation. Do they know what goes on in the apartments just a mile to the east? Have they ever experienced what I have, in my few short years on earth? Or do they prefer to cocoon themselves in the fantasy of this place, this theater, this pinnacle of escapism which is so very close to the real tragedies and hopes of life, being played out on the streets?

The lights dim, the curtains go up, and I am whisked away to an even more fantastical and seemingly far-fetched place, the world of Jane Austen. The costumes, Grecian pillars, oddly curled hairstyles and self-conscious prattle of the actors is soothing to my soul.

The play itself stuck tight to the book, rightfully fearful of angering the hordes of women known as “Austenites”—those poor souls looking for a spot of romance in a very modern world. The heroine, Lizzie Bennett, was portrayed adequately (albeit a bit strained) by Ashley Rose Montondo, an actress in her first major stage role. Vincent Kartheiser, resplendent in his trousers and mutton-chop sideburns, portrayed a perfect haughty-indifference-turned-sizzling-attraction towards Lizzie that was both believable and understated (Pete Campbell is crushing it as Mr. Darcy, I wrote in my playbill). Mr. Bennett, Lizzie’s father and normally one of my favorite characters, played up the “women be crazy” humor a bit too much in this adaptation. Similarly, the women of the play (besides Lizzie and her boringly demure sister Jane) were scripted to be rather insufferable creatures. Mrs. Bennett and her youngest daughters Kitty and Lydia were played with such hysteria, such trilling and screaming and giggling, as to be almost unbearable. Perhaps this was some precursor to the manic pixie dream girl tropes of our current time, Austen’s clever skewering of a culture that longs to make women one-dimensional, a collection of tropes and tics and hopes pinned on one successful matrimonial match.

As the play went on, as Lizzie rebuffs marriage proposals both from her creepy rector cousin and Mr. Darcy himself, my interest began to heighten. Watching Lizzie defend her actions to both her shrill mother and logical father (tropes again!), I was overwhelmed with a sense of what this type of behavior might really have meant for someone in Elizabeth Bennett’s situation. She was so brave, I thought, clutching my seat at the realization. Even though she must have been intimately aware of what poverty looked like, she wasn’t afraid of it. She would willingly embrace the consequences of not wanting to crush the truest parts of herself, of wanting to run away from artifice and respectability. Instead, she would run towards the terrifying lands of both personal freedom and economic entrapment. She was setting herself up for a life of downward mobility, of more work and less comforts and societal suspicion and condescension, and she was determined to relish the freedom it afforded her personally. She was prepared to be single, and poor.

But before I could fully idolize the neo-feminist Lizzie Bennett, escapades and ballroom dances and character-revealing episodes ensued which completely turned both Lizzie and the audience into rabid Darcy-lovers. By the end, when he is kneeling before her, asking her yet again to marry him, the entire auditorium is holding a collective breath. And of course she says yes, she always says yes, and then they are spinning around in an embrace together, kissing each other, just a few yards away from us, the people who paid to see this happen. A voice from the back of the theater, young and feminine, breaks the spell with a loud and exuberant “YAY!” and we all erupt in nervous laughter.

I giggle too, eyeing my seatmates to see if they noticed. As the actors bow (a thousand times, it seems like, my hands hurting from the incessant clapping), I feel just a tiny bit cheated. I wanted to be lost in the moment, to be wrapped up in the improbable romance, in the soothing world and words of Jane, but I somehow feel ashamed of it all.

But really, at that moment in the theater, when Lizzie and Darcy finally find each other, I wanted to shout my happiness to the roof. Instead, I left hurriedly and rode my bike home, berating myself with questions: Why did I go to the play? Why did I spend the money? Why were none of my neighbors there? And: Why did I love it so much?

//

It is at this very moment when I realize that I am not just a casual Jane Austen fan. As I critiqued and thrilled to the play, I noticed how intimately acquainted I was with the characters and story lines of Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s world, indeed, feels like a second home to me, because I have spent so many hours there—I have read every one of her published books, many times. I have watched every terrible miniseries, every full-length movie, every made-for-TV special that involves one of Jane Austen’s works, usually multiple times. But until this very moment, I have been unable to recognize this about myself: I am one of those girls. I am an Austenite, pretending not to be one. I keep quiet in fear of what the cool, austere literati would say. I keep quiet because these books are fantasies, utter escapement literature, only for those who aren’t fit to be fully present in the now. I keep quiet, because I don’t want to be labelled a hopeless romantic. There is a very real stigma against believing in true love, both human and divine, in our world today.

In the quiet of the night, in my own little bed, I began to uncrush some of the truest parts of myself. Emboldened by a fake girl in a costume on a stage, empowered by a nameless voice with the chutzpah to scream “yay,” I made a conscious decision to be brave. To choose to believe in a very good God and a very broken world. A God who sees the pain and inequality and suffering; a God who sees the beauty and the ecstasy the joy of a crisply turned phrase. A God who gives people the best seats in the house, even if they are determined not to enjoy them.

The Beauty of Americana

I first discovered American folk music in books.

It is bedtime, and I’m curled up under Great-Grandma’s patchwork quilt as Mom reads chapters from the Little House books, comes to a part where Pa pulls out his fiddle and begins to sing the songs of the people. I’m in high school, reading Christy for the first time, and I’m so caught by the magic of the song printed before the prologue I look it up and learn the tune and sing it to children I babysit as I rock them to sleep:

Down in the valley,
valley so low
Hang your head over,
hear the wind blow.
Hear the wind blow, love,
hear the wind blow;
Hang your head over,
hear the wind blow.

My love of American folk music has nostalgic tendencies to be sure. However, as I look at the growing popularity in recent years of bands like The Civil Wars, The Avett Brothers, The Lone Bellow, The Lumineers, The Vespers, etc. (and of course the meteoric fame of the non-American-American-folk-rock band Mumford and Sons), I realize I’m not alone in my love for Americana.

There is something about American folk music that speaks to us, something in its essence that keeps us asking for more.

Here’s the thing, though. As much as I love all those bands listed above and latch on to nearly every new album that seeks to generate the Americana sound, it’s rare for me to find an album that fully captures what I found under that patchwork quilt. It’s not often contemporary musicians strike the same chords in my soul as “Down in the Valley.”

Enter Ron Block’s “Walking Song”.

Ron Block is an accomplished musician, songwriter, and producer. He has been a member of Alison Krauss & Union Station for 20 years. His music has been recorded by artists in country, bluegrass, and Christian music. He’s played with some of the most recognizable names in American music. Nobody has ever doubted Ron Block’s talent. But “Walking Song” is something new—or perhaps something old.

There is a marriage of music and lyric on Block’s album that rises above its contemporary counterparts. It’s the kind of sound you would expect to hear around an Appalachian fireplace, or sung to tunes Pa Ingalls produced from his fiddle on those chilly nights on the prairie as Laura and Mary fell asleep in the wagon.

The creators of folk songs have been lost to history. The songs themselves were passed down orally from generation to generation. We have working songs with steady rhythms that remind us of chopping wood or kneading bread. We have dancing tunes with lilting melodies that set our feet to tapping. We have ballads and lullabies with quiet, flowing strains that relax our minds and bodies. These songs came into existence in a time when people worked together, danced together, sang together. They lived together, and one would pull out an instrument and another would choose words to sing to the tune, and songs came to be. Songwriting sessions and studios weren’t a part of the picture.

Contemporary Americana’s folk roots lie primarily in Appalachian songs and bluegrass. But most of it is highly influenced by more contemporary music forms like rock and roll and pop music. I do not mean to diminish the creative process of any band, but I wonder whether the very nature of the music industry has forced the loss of those elements that make our American folk music strike our hearts.  It is, after all, an “industry”—the very word bringing with it pictures of factories and machines.

I wonder if its unique creation process is the very thing that makes “Walking Song” stand out. Ron Block didn’t partner with the big names of Nashville to write his songs. Instead, he paired up with Rebecca Reynolds, a mom, a teacher, a wife, and a poet. Ron and Rebecca met through The Rabbit Room, an online community created by singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson. The Rabbit Room is an experiment in creative community inspired by The Inklings; a place for creatives to gather, to discuss, to challenge one another, and to think together about life and art and faith.

After getting to know Ron through discussions on the site, Rebecca asked him if he would be interested in collaborating. She didn’t realize that he was that big a deal, and the invitation opened new opportunities for Ron—he was able to explore creativity without the pressure to produce. Their collaboration happened almost entirely via Skype, and as their friendship deepened, the creativity flowed. He would find the tune, she would find the words, or vice versa, or simultaneously.

“Walking Song” is the result of friends doing life together in community. It goes back to the roots of what folk music really is and strikes that chord we seem to all be seeking.

The songs on the album cover a broad variety of styles. “Sunshine Billy” brings the blues to the fore; “Jordan, Carry Me” celebrates the spirituals; “Rest, My Soul” follows the style of traditional American hymns. The album’s heart, though, is in the Appalachian and bluegrass tunes. There’s a dancing tune, “Ivy,” and ballad, “Colors.” “Nickel Tree Line,” featuring harmony vocals by Alison Krauss, is perhaps the most bluegrass of the songs with words, but is supported by Ron’s instrumental arrangements of traditional bluegrass songs “Devil in the Strawstack” and “Shortnin’ Bread.” In “Summer Lullaby” I found a new song to sing over sleeping children.

But I was struck most deeply by “Let There Be Beauty.” If my theory is correct that it was the communal aspect of the creation of this album that makes it stand out, “Let There Be Beauty” is the quiet anthem of that sort of artistic community:

So, let there be beauty,
For beauty is good,
The made and the making
And the bliss understood.
So, let there be beauty,
For beauty is free,
Come swim in the waters,
Come drink from the stream.

We live constantly in a space of tension when it comes to community in our contemporary era. We rarely sit together around fireplaces on long winter evenings. Our work “together” is done individually in cubicles each with his own screen and keyboard. Our human interaction often happens via the internet. But Block and Reynolds have leveraged the technology of today to create in a community of the past, the kind of artistic community where “The made and the making and the bliss [are] understood.”

Ron Block’s album “Walking Song” was released on July 30, 2013. It can be purchased through The Rabbit Room or other online outlets.

 

photo by: normanack

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

“I never travel far without a little Big Star.” – Alex Chilton, The Replacements

There is this moment at the end of the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, and it is perfect. The shot is a second long at most — probably less, now that I think about it — and it somehow encapsulates my fifteen-year admiration of a band that most people will never know or care about: John Fry, prolific audio engineer and record label founder, is hunched over the controls in Ardent Studios as he mixes a new cut of Big Star “September Gurls” for this documentary. He leans back in his seat a little, his arms crossed, and smiles. Cut to credits. It’s a smile that reaches back 40 years and outlines all of the joy and pain that came with his friendship with the members of Big Star. It’s the smile of someone who can’t shake off all of the sad memories attached to the Big Star story, and it’s the smile of someone still stunned by how good that song is. John Fry is integral to Big Star’s legend, a friend and peer and co-conspirator; I’m just a guy who liked their music. But it’s impossible for me not to say, “I get it.” I did my best not to tear up at that grin, and — as a quick glance around the theater proved — I wasn’t the only one.

Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012, directed by Olivia Mori and Drew DeNicola) attempts to compact the world of Big Star into two hours. The film (the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign) is quite good, especially when it comes to the je ne sais quoi that makes the influence of the band and its music so interesting.

If you’re not at all familiar with Big Star, here’s a summary. Big Star formed in Memphis, Tennessee in 1971 after four musicians got together: Chris Bell (guitar, vocals), Andy Hummel (bass), Jody Stephens (drums), and former Box Tops frontman Alex Chilton (guitar, vocals). The band seemed destined to fail from the moment they started recording: they wanted to make melodic, Beatles-indebted rock during a decade that wanted nothing of the kind. They released #1 Record in 1972 to critical acclaim, but commercial silence, due to promotional and distribution mishaps from the band’s record label. Bell left the band, and the remaining trio recorded Radio City. Again, critics raved, yet sales were abysmal—even more so than with their debut. By the time the band got together to record their third album (titled Third or Sister Lovers, depending on who you ask), Big Star was down to just Chilton and Stephens. Record labels didn’t want to touch the slow, weird album, and it never saw a proper release until 1978…four years after the band broke up. At this point, the Big Star cult was growing — young Anglophiles all over the country started to get ahold of the band’s music, many of them journalists or burgeoning musicians. As the 1980s dawned, the band’s music would help serve as a blueprint for much of the power pop, new wave, and alternative rock (however you want to define that) that was to come down the road. Big Star’s songs and albums started showing up on “Best Of” lists left and right, even though the general public still had no clue who Big Star was.

Nothing Can Hurt Me fleshes out the band’s earlier history, infusing interviews from Big Star fans. The filmmakers interviewed dozens of people, and their love of the band radiates. We hear from musicians who loved and were influenced by Big Star (Cheap Trick, the Flaming Lips, and Teenage Fanclub, to name a few). We hear from producers and engineers who worked with, and then came to admire, the band. We hear from critics and journalists who, after hearing Big Star, decided it was their mission to proselytize on the band’s behalf. We hear from friends and family. And we hear from the band — mainly Stephens and Hummel, but also a few audio recordings from Chilton. Bell tragically died in an automotive accident in 1978, and Chilton’s death in 2010 motivated the filmmakers to start this project. Even more of a blow: Hummel passed away shortly after his segments were filmed. Much of the material here won’t be revelatory to Big Star fans, though it’s great to see much of the story told through anecdotes and experiences, especially since most of the folks interviewed have such a strong tie to Big Star’s music and what it meant in their life.

It’s hard for me to write this without thinking about my own Big Star story. I knew I was supposed to be a fan of Big Star before I ever heard their music. As I was getting into more esoteric music as a young teen, I kept seeing the band’s name. Bands and artists I admired, like R.E.M. and Matthew Sweet, spoke reverently of them in interviews. Big Star was named-dropped constantly in a book on the history of rock music that I permanently borrowed from a friend in high school (sorry I still have your book, Gruber). My takeaway from all of this exposure: Big Star was unjustly ignored during the band’s short life in the 1970s. By the time I finally heard Big Star’s music when I was 16 (30-second clips of “September Gurls” and “Back of a Car” in a listening booth at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of all places), I had bought the hype. Those were 30 magic seconds, and I needed more. I quickly ordered the two-for CD combo of #1 Record and Radio City and immersed myself in its sonic wash forthe next few years.

Is Big Star the best band of all time? Probably not. Are they even my favorite band? No. But no other band has come close to putting me in this sort of emotional headlock, even when I recognize the shortcomings in their music. #1 Record, as the documentary acknowledges, is an oddly sequenced album that suffers a bit from Bell’s good-but-not-great rock tunes. Third/Sister Lovers is basically a Chilton solo album that’s as unlistenable and chaotic as it is genius. Radio City, though, is pretty much the perfect album: ragged, insanely catchy and desperately heartbreaking. It’s the template for every sad-sack power pop album that’s been released since, which is understandable considering how good it is. And even though Bell was out of the band by the time of its recording, Radio City still bears his songwriting stamp on a handful of songs. There are better albums and artists out there, but those bands and their music wouldn’t exist without Big Star.

In fact, Bell’s ghost looms the largest over the Big Star story. While Chilton often gets singled out as Big Star personified, Bell was the initial agitator for the creation of the band. His dreams of making a hugely successful British-invasion-by-way-of-Memphis act left some sort of psychic imprint on the band, even after his departure from the group. I think Nothing Can Hurt Me also handles Bell’s post-Big Star life graciously. After his stormy exit, Bell moved to Europe and tried to put his life together. The documentary interviews his brother and sister, who emotionally recall Bell trying to figure out his drug abuse, sexual inclinations, and newfound Christian beliefs. After moving back to Memphis, Bell cut an album’s worth of material (including “I am the Cosmos” and “You and Your Sister,” both heartbreakingly good tunes that tower over Bell’s material on #1 Record). It’s weird: his chug-a-lug guitar workouts on Big Star’s debut are some of my least favorite moments in the band’s catalog, but I also realize how vital he was to the mix, and the documentary accurately summarized how powerful Bell’s vision was for the band. There would be no Big Star without Chris Bell.

If Nothing Can Hurt Me falters, it’s how fast it skips over Big Star 2.0. Chilton and Stephens’ reformation of the band in the early ‘90s (with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies in tow). The quartet, which played sporadic gigs, eventually released a fourth Big Star album, In Space, in 2005. I think many fans dismiss the album outright as not really being a Big Star album, but a glorified Chilton solo album. Still, In Space has a handful of wonderful tunes, and deserves more than the three seconds the film devotes to showing the album cover. Stringfellow and Auer at least show up a bit later in the film, gushing about how much the band meant to them.

Let’s go back to John Fry’s smile. I was trying not to lose it after that final shot. It brought back a bunch of memories: checking the post-Hurricane Katrina news with dread, because Alex Chilton was among the missing in NOLA; reading about — and eventually bawling over — Chilton’s sudden death, just days before a performance at SXSW; the countless times I hit “back” on my CD or MP3 player to hear a Big Star song again; and the first time I heard the beautiful, chiming single-coil guitar tones on “September Gurls.” Thing is, everytime I hear that song is like the first time. This is a band that always hits me in the heart, and I really can’t explain why. Maybe that’s why I think Nothing Can Hurt Me really works—it manages to capture that feeling and put it on the big screen.

Paul Westerberg sang, “I never travel far without a little Big Star.” And I don’t—my iPod always has some Big Star on it, in case I need it. And I know I’ll always need it.

 

Diary of Chopin Melodies

Prélude No. 1 – Warm-up

Beautifully rich C major chords exchange conversation with chromatic harmonies. I yield with my hands the reluctant pain that accompanies the joy in Chopin’s melodies.

No. 15 “Raindrop Prélude” & No. 5 – Combatting Innocence

I was ten and naïve when the treacherous growth of leukemia consumed my sister’s life. The first time JieJie (Chinese for “older sister”) battled cancer, the experience passed like torrential rain, muddying the reality that I hesitated to face. In moments when emotional impacts brand deeper than memories, music best fills the gap that yearns to communicate.

“The Raindrop Prelude” was the first prelude I learned of Chopin’s Opus 28 for piano. I remember gingerly curling my fingers to project each note, playing a dainty and naïve melody that symbolized raindrops. Its repetitions soothed me like a nursery rhyme. I remember a resonant C-sharp minor chorus growing in the bass, interrupting a melody that was so once so near. After this thunderous section, I loved returning to the sweet, dolce motif from the beginning. It felt so secure.

The short, quirky Prélude No. 5 has expansive arpeggios that my little hands couldn’t wrap around.

Perhaps my tender age explains why I had such difficulty wrapping my head around the consequences of her illness. I trivialized everything about the hospital. Perhaps she did too, but for a different reason. With my sister’s humor and imagination, even the red, glowing pulse-measurer on her finger was just a spoof on “E.T. phone home.” It was not until I saw her baldness that I realized my superhero had clay feet. Yet, I refused to admit to seeing her future hinged between life and death. Soon, the constant IVs in JieJie’s arm prevented us from sharing our only common experience: playing music.

No. 7 & 8 – Questions Unanswered

JieJie always says she loves No. 7 for its simplicity and ephemeral beauty. To me, the simple theme also expresses confusion and curiosity. The major key dwells here and there, never settling.

Our lives continued after the first phase, Intensive Chemotherapy, though on an uneven platform with fear disturbing the balance. She spent two years of Remission at college. I found myself at ease in my Middle School days, allowing the past two years to collect dust in my memory. I was generally happy, but the strain with which I revisited those memories was like lifting a sliver of a magazine out from the huge weight of a dictionary.

No. 7 ends with a carefree cadence, an unsatisfying and ominous answer to its harrowing middle section.

Would she complete Remission? Can JieJie return to ordinary life merely donning looser-fitting clothes and a knitted cap?

Chopin was careful about the order of his preludes. Each major prelude is followed by the relative minor key. Instability in moods, as Chopin knew, is only natural in music. The F-sharp minor prelude follows No. 7. It has an urgent, breathless quality to it.

She relapsed the summer before 8th grade. Classmates fretted over carpooling to Bat Mitzvahs while I worried about getting rides to the hospital after school. I ran ahead of the irrelevant middle school culture, which rendered me isolated, but stronger. All of our personal lives were at a standstill, forced to confront another devastating blow. My parents were worn out, but I was ready to redeem myself with newfound strengths.

Understanding what was at stake, I began proactively mending the bridge across an enlarging gap between JieJie and me. I did what I could, cooking her favorite pan-fried noodles or watching movies with her. I tried to remedy her grimaces when the nurse pronounced medication names. We joked about the EKG’s obnoxious sounds and played tunes on the bedside remote buttons—we created our own prelude.

No. 19 – “Reine Freude”

A German pianist once told me this prelude’s popular name, “Pure Joy.” The staccato notes imitate children’s feet running across green lawns.

Then, the news came. “Lina!! Your bone marrow is a perfect match!!” With familiar wit, JieJie’s fatigued voice said “Lina, I guess we’re related after all.” Never was I so overjoyed to hear her teasing humor. I felt like a child again.

No. 24 & 1 – Full Circle

I easily lose myself in the intensity of the final D minor prelude. Wide arpeggios flourish effortlessly under capable hands. I forget about the notes and start to listen to fruit of my labor: music.

I never feared physical suffering as a part of the bone marrow transplant—the joy, relief, and inexplicable power I felt overshadowed any suffering I was about to endure. Pain simply wasn’t relevant to the fact that I could make my sister well again. My unique ability to be her cure was the greatest gift I could possibly receive.

I finish practicing with Prelude No. 1. Humbled by peaceful harmonies, I sit transfixed.

photo by: eflon

#GrowCurator Campaign: Introduction

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Lovely readers,

I’ll be straight: the budget under which The Curator has been working for the last five years is…jaw-dropping. That is, for those of you who know anything about what it’s like to publish a consistent and relevant journal in the world today, you’ll know that ~$3,000/annum is, uh, beyond meager.

We aren’t complaining, though. Heck, we love what we do; for us, The Curator is one of those rare places Frederick Buechner talks about where our “deep gladness” continues to meet “the world’s deep hunger.” That being said, we’ve decided The Curator deserves a better version of itself, for everyone’s sake. Our writers and editors deserve better care and compensation. (Side note: I myself have not received a penny in a year’s work). Our readers deserve more and better content and an expanded vision. Even beyond that, we’re utterly convinced there are artists and geniuses out there scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it, and they deserve more and better attention. With your help, we can continue celebrating them. And, by golly, there’s some really cool stuff you will get in return! Check out our INDIEGOGO CAMPAIGN for the special perks you’ll receive for donating, and stay tuned for updates!

Zach Terrell,
Asst. Editor
@zachterrell

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