Conditioning, or Taking a Vacation from Identity

The last month or so has been weird for just about everyone, and I find that I’ve been reacting to the new pace of things in my own idiosyncratic way that has involved, up until tonight, a certain denial of parts of my identity for reasons relating to points of stress and false circumspection that I’m going to try to lay out below. This entry is neither balm nor agitator, solution nor alarm. If anything, what I’m going to talk about is a sort of second-order coming to terms with aspects of my identity that have felt wholly irrelevant in the preceding few weeks, and why returning to them tonight has been important for me.

So for one thing, the quarantine has brought a dizzying network of old and new issues to the fore in my everyday thought, while also bringing some much needed breathing room to the arc of the year. Really, the last few years have felt like being shot out of a cannon, without any significantly long break from productivity and social interaction that didn’t itself involve some sort of mitigating factor, such as the concentration needed for travel. But I digress. As to the old issues: I used to work from home, and having to do so again was both comforting, because I got to fast forward in the course of a week or so through the phases of circadian dysfunction that comes along with a certain loosening of the absolute necessity to put on pants every day, and also thoroughly grating, as I am now tied to a desk more than I like to be. (This latter is an extremely privileged complaint, but I’ll get to why I think it’s form is a valid thought to have.) Second, and, more complicated, is the helplessness one feels when they are of no practical use to society in any meaningful way. I am wired almost to a fault to try to be useful, but that part of the brain is not quite satiated when the most useful thing to do is stay home and stay out of the way.

Now without diving too far into some sort of territory that smacks of a capitalist critique of the function of art in times when it doesn’t actually make money for anyone, I have been questioning the long term implications of being an artist and my responsibility during a time when, in some very non-trivial senses, my art seems to be reduced to little more than a temporary distraction from the plight we are in as a society. This is something that I have thought about off an on for years, but have more capably dismissed in the face of simply being too busy and productive to question it too deeply. In a certain sense, this time has allowed me to really and deeply consider the question “Should I even be making work anymore or should I figure out a different path that can help me mitigate or even help prevent in some small way situations like the one we’re in now?” It all stems back to these little dreams of a well-lived and morally defensible life as some sort of steward of the earth, perhaps a trail maintenance worker, ready to put the small comforts of life behind in order to help preserve some small part of the planet. The fantasy, in my mind, has always smacked of some sort of martyr-dream, which is why I’m probably not cut out for this kind of work in the first place. I’ll come back to this.

New things that have cropped up are varied, and range from the banal and practical to the deeply existential. On the banal and practical side, I have had to reorient my shopping and eating habits to make things last, and remain relatively healthy during this period without feeling like I’m veering into ascetic practices unnecessarily. Furthermore, I’ve had to reorient my physical training to make up for the fact that my job no longer requires or allows for me to be on my feet all that much. This means that I’m now running instead of always walking, and doing whatever else I can inside of my own home without any facilities to speak of. Pushups, situps, you know the drill. (I could, and very well may, write a whole post on the problem of running addiction, but we’ll leave that for now.)

On the existential side, I’m trying to buy a house through all of this mess, and have over the last week or so been in the dark on an actual closing date, which is a second order feeling of helplessness on top of the default level we’re all feeling stuck at home, or working and feeling at heightened risk. As part of this problem, I’m also now living out of boxes, and my usual playground of instruments and books has been pared down to well below the minimum for comfort. I also need to figure out furniture, but that seems like small potatoes.  A lot of the creative projects I was working on before all of this came down ground to a halt, and I had to reckon with the fact that, in a lot of ways, my vision of 2020 has been obliterated.

I’ve slowly been gathering some new projects that will start to bear fruit in the coming months, but the feel of time right now makes that seem like some hypothetical eternity from now.

What this brings me to is tonight. Tonight, for the first time since, honestly, a couple of months before the quarantine hit, I put on a pot of coffee at 7 PM, grabbed a difficult book, picked some intricate chamber music, and got to work. Tonight I gave myself permission to revisit the things that have come to form parts of my identity: ethical responsibility, social ties, current situation, and hesitation at thoughts of the problems of American individualism be damned. Because the truth for me is, if I had felt compelled to go live somewhere remote and fix parks, or go into life on the run as an activist or some sort of anarcho-idealist, I would have done it years ago. Tonight, a little over a month removed from the gentle life of extroverted comfort I have here in Indy, I returned to the space of absorption and creation that has been the one space I have ever felt true purpose in. I read and wrote, listened and composed, and was reminded that maybe the one thing I have control over long term is whether or not I will do these things in a manner that does justice to the purpose I feel doing them. If I could imagine doing anything else and feeling the same way, I would already be doing it.

Tonight was also reminding myself that the brain needs workouts just as much, if not more at times, than the body alone. Sitting up at 1:00 AM, it is hilarious to me that in the last few weeks I’ve spent more time running than making music. Global disasters will do that to you.

Below is the piece I wrote tonight. It’s not flashy, nor especially sophisticated, but it will work for now.

 

Out of Our Control: WMV 7

This has been a long week on both a personal and global level. Personally, I have been finding myself in situations that have tested my emotional limits and forced me to build a level of trust in others that I didn’t really think was possible for me to find. Necessity and motivation will do that. And then the news on Thursday, where things started to domino into fun being cancelled on a national scale for some time, I started to reflect on my personal life and realized that my social habits would make me a particularly chaotic carrier of this new bug. For me, it was an easy decision but hard reality that for the near and probably medium future, I will need to be more intentional about who I share space with and avoid the kinds of spaces I like to go to in order to enjoy random encounters and conversations.

On the other hand, this will probably be an introvert’s dream.

One thing that, for now, doesn’t seem necessary to change will be my habit of walking outside. So it seems like a good time to release Walking Music Volume 7, Slow Motion Trust Fall. The title came earlier this week, before things started ramping up on a national scale, but it seems to fit the feelings I’ve been having from both angles. In a certain sense, the next weeks and months will be a new exercise in trusting the good of humanity on a large scale, and the gentleness of others in our little communities.

Now is a good time to revive the art of talking on the phone, catch up on some books that you’ve been meaning to read, and get some more practice in. In some sense, I am excited at the prospect of the scene having a sort of collective hibernation, and coming back a few weeks or months later and having a lot of things to catch up on, as long as we all don’t go flat broke in the meantime. For me, as long as work is open, my days will be filled with Clorox wipes, Lysol, regular repetitions of the Litany Against Fear, as well as all of the other routines of the day, sans random social movement. The part of me that wanted to be a monk long ago will probably be satisfied to an extent.

The music this week is derived from a piece I wrote for CISUM Percussion in NYC, Monochrome. The original piece was written for nine tuned pipes, but in Slow Motion Trust Fall, it is recontextualized over several timescales and registers to create an hour long meditation on being still. Honestly, I’ve been wondering whether or not there is a point to writing long-form pieces in such frequency, but for the near future, it seems like there might be more time for it.

Tomorrow I will be releasing the music video for Reflect and Release and will be plugging away at new projects with a renewed fervor as I step out of the emotional slump of the last few days and back into work mode.

Reflecting on Reflect and Release Pt.1

Next week, my first music video will be dropping, so ahead of this I want to give some insight into the creation of the piece and the people surrounding it.

In mid-2017 I was approached by Forward Motion, a Pierrot ensemble here in Indianapolis to formally begin work on a project we had been considering for a long time, and which would eventually become Reflect and Release. In the following paragraphs, I’m going to be a little too honest about how foundational procrastination and self-doubt have been to my compositional process in the past, and give some idea of how this piece came to be. For background on where the narrative of where the emotional arc of this piece began, between firming up the commission with Forward Motion, and the original due date, I won a chance to work with the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet and was forced to squeeze a piece into my schedule in a time where there really was none. So as 2017 was fading to 2018, Reflect and Release was more of a slowly brewing idea than a real collection of notes on the page.

On January 10, 2018, I was in San Diego with my family for a vacation and was woken up by my mom. Ostensibly, I was being beckoned to get ready for the plane, but as it comes to find out, I was also to learn of the passing of my cousin Deb. Looking back, the tone of voice my Mom used was heartbreaking, she was telling me as if it was some little piece of news that wouldn’t be important to me, but that I would need to know, even though for her is was almost certainly pretty concretely devastating.

Now Deb and I were never exactly cl0se. Growing up, we lived in different cities, and interacted only occasionally throughout the years. But she had always occupied a guidestar role in my view of how I fit in with my family. She felt like a kindred spirit with her love of classical music, her fearless and varied intellect, and her deep devotion to her craft. She also gave me a camera when I was in high school. A gesture I appreciated, and that could have sparked an interest in photography much earlier in my life, but ultimately something I didn’t capitalize on enough at the time. The camera became symbolic to me for a few years growing up of something I would definitely do someday. And in a sense cultivating a relationship with Deb felt the same way, I would get around to it when the time was right. (Now, all of that said, even when I moved to Indianapolis there were practical barriers to me ever spending time with her. She had at least three cats as far as I could tell, so talks of visits to her darkroom or listening to classical music were always stunted by the practical reality of the low probability of survival on my part in that environment.)

When she died, I was faced with the reality that things in life, even things that feel important, timeless, and in some sense inevitable don’t always work out. This pleasant abstract possibility of cultivating this relationship was at that moment turned into a very concrete failure on my part to ever do so. Two weeks later, while making last minute edits on the LAPQ piece before heading to the airport, I had my first panic attack. There is something very funny about it now, looking back, I was walking through the airport, with the distinct feeling I was going to die at any moment and walking through the TSA line like nothing was wrong. I remember this one moment where the agent said, “Have a nice trip!” and I was very tempted to respond “Thanks, I’m dying!” Only the first part made it out. The trip to LA was a nice four days of warmth in the midst of some of the coldest weather in Indiana of the last few years, and ended up being positive at the time.

Upon returning to Indiana, I knew I had some work to do, in a few senses. Work on Reflect and Release started in earnest, and, at about the same time, I started writing a lot of tunes for a music box my brother had given me. Often when I am under the gun on a project, I will vent some frustration with waning concrete progress by working on things that seem more fun and frivolous as long as it is tangentially related. For me at the time, the fun project became the music box. I wrote a series of pieces fairly quickly that felt pretty natural and were free of the pressure that sometimes comes with putting notes to the page.  It took me a full month to realize that by avoiding R&R, I was actually writing the piece.

During the two months I was working (and not working) on this piece in earnest the panic attacks continued, my job changed from part time to full time, and death was almost constantly on my mind. Building this piece for me was a direct offensive against the nagging feeling that I was letting life slip away, and me trying to remind myself that thinking about what you’re not doing is actually not doing anything. It was also an argument against this newfound anxious voice that had crept into my head begging me to just give up because by giving up on your own terms, I could have at least had some control. In some ways, it was also a test of my ability to work out my own issues and, to a passable extent, actually take care of myself. This was not unique to the time period, but was definitely a step up in difficulty. For me, I often work through times of crisis by mentally picking the part of myself that is struggling up, and fireman carrying him over the finish line.

Reflect and Release ended up becoming a haven for me and a document of creation-as-catharsis that I had not quite experienced as an adult at the time. After what I’ve been talking about, one might expect to hear a piece full of death and gloom, but what came out of it was a love letter to life, surviving change, and to the people in my life who were making this kind of music possible for me to make.

The movements of the piece are as follows:

Kaleidoscope 1: Wherein I have everyone except the cellist playing percussion.

In a Garden: Named for one of the spaces I desired to be during that cold winter.

A Note on Suffering: A canon-laden movement that might have been a bit of suffering to learn!

Sliding Scale: This movement, unlike the others, did not originate from the music box, but was an abstraction of patterns that would usually serve at the backbone of the music box pieces themselves. In all honesty, it is also a nod to some of the post-rock I used to listen to, and features a lot of pulsed swells and a fully irresponsible use of the sustain pedal on the piano.

Kaleidoscope 2: In this one, everyone is playing percussion and propping up a simple melody that was originally written as part of a piece I wrote to get over my fear of reading music in public.

All of the material in the piece came from distinct angles of musical reflection that don’t necessarily directly translate to the emotional narrative I went through above. Chief in the musical forces at work were the developing love of my music box as a vehicle for composition and performance, the desire to write a playfully experimental piece that would not fall into the category of weird music that I often found myself in, and my love of canons and musical displacement.

By the time the first performance of the piece came in June, the panic attacks had not subsided yet, but had become more manageable, and, although I didn’t have the courage at the time to explain the emotional origins, I got to share the music with a large group of family and friends. In a sense, that premiere was the eponymous release of the whole process. Almost two years later, this piece is about to see the world in a wider way, and I get to revisit it with fondness and gratitude. There will always be things that I would like to see happen that will not come to pass, but I am learning to be more present and make things I can make happen, happen.

Here is a preview of the piece in the form of a recording I took at the premiere. I remember as the piece closed I had this rush of relief and gratitude that I will not soon forget. Next week, I will talk about the people I worked with to make this happen, and show the video we’ve made of the piece.

 

Fighting for Self Through Performance: WM V 6

At this point my life feels like a multidimensional struggle to actualize the version of myself that can look at almost any situation and handle it with a relatively low amount of metacognition about the meaning of things I’m doing or their long term implications. In other words, I am striving to be better in most practical respects and, more importantly, to be more present in my daily activities, art, and my relationships with others. For me, being present and getting out of my own head is a constant project that involves forcing myself repeatedly out of my comfort zone, which in turn usually expands the boundaries of said zone, which forces me to adopt greater discipline and venture further, and so on and so forth ad lassitudinem. It’s been a weird, intense way to live life recently, but it does have benefits. In the last nine months, I’ve lost fifty pounds, collaborated with some of my favorite musicians in Indianapolis on a bevy of projects, found new wells of intellectual and emotional growth from revived hobbies and interests, and am currently in the process of buying a house. This recent period of self-work was long-overdue, and at times life feels very much like I’m trying to catch up to myself.

I’ve also ground down any social anonymity in my neighborhood to a fine dust and often find myself paradoxically experiencing both deep loneliness and a strong desire for true solitude in the world. Don’t get me wrong, the community I’ve found myself in, from my roommates and outward into the neighborhood, is something I deeply cherish and count myself lucky to be part of. That doesn’t stop me from fantasizing about the possibilities of remote existence, in a yurt somewhere, perhaps.

For me, performance has become one of the few things that allows me to feel well and truly alone, present, and alive, even though it tends to happen in front of a bunch of people. In fact, it is that very aspect that I think separates performance from rehearsal in the sense that I get a built in buffer against the outside world, as well as a chunk of time that simply doesn’t have room for me to overthink things to death. I’ve made it part of my performance practice to leave almost every decision to the absolute last minute, everything from instrument choice to computer setup happens in the moment as much as possible.

Sunday night I played a concert in Chicago at Century Mallet, which is housed in the old Deagan factory. I brought a sl0ugh of instruments with me and no particular plan. Emotionally, I’ve been riding waves of indecision, cold feet in the face of my impending house purchase, and a general feeling of uneasiness with how much I’ve been asking of myself in all aspects of my life. (Honestly, if I was a more rational, understanding person in regards to myself, all of these areas of self improvement would have happened piecemeal over the course of many years, not all at once, but here I am, working on writing, a passion that laid dormant for the better part of a decade in the wake of the particular hangover that comes with studying philosophy.) In getting ready for the performance, I was struck by the fact that I hadn’t played to an audience in two months, and started to wonder whether or not I had anything left to say musically. (This was a profoundly stupid thought, but I think acknowledging these moments of insecurity is key to showing how I move through the world.)

And this brings us to Battle, Chicago. Aside from the sentiments above, the moments leading up to a performance often feels like preparing for a fight. In this case, having not performed for such a gap, the fight seemed to be to prove to myself that I know what the hell I’m doing. The first few moments of performance were definitely me getting my sea-legs back, but once the the boat was moving, I couldn’t help but to start captaining the damn thing. For me, the performance was a stark reminder of why I love performing at all, and brought about moments of discovery, recontextualization of certain instruments, and a feeling of peace that I can’t really find quite the same way anywhere else these days. The arc and language of the piece is suffused with the intense emotions I’ve been grappling with, and seems to me to be a slow push through areas of sonic discomfort.

The next few posts are going to get a little more granular about the instruments I’m using and a little less diary-adjacent. On this recording, though, is a music box, metal tongue drum, a clock coil box/kalimba, the stupid thing, and my trusty tuning forks.

 

So where did you think you would end up? (WM V 5: Emergent Identity)

Ok, I’m going to keep this one brief! For this volume of Walking Music, I journeyed back to some of my musical roots, and came back to a space that has been a theme in my life as of late, namely continuity of identity. Making a conscious effort to be present in your life and embrace the barrage of change and challenge that comes with reconciling your current life against the life you want to live or, at times, the life you project to others, can be a daunting task. For me, as the weight of others’ expectations of me from youth has lightened, I feel more room to really look at myself and see how things are going from my own standards. Emergent Identity is a direct result of that in a musical sense.

The music below was composed and performed in the realm of the space between my ears, with relatively little expectation or ambition to how it will react in other situations. This is how I used to compose music before I shared it with other people, and is in some senses a report card to my former self. The piece itself follows a loose formula I used to exploit to death: long drone, intermittent events on top. There are several layers of a recording I made with a metal tongue drum as well as some vibraphone and synthesizer. The compositional methods employed involve using the same recording several times, time-stretched to different scales, and a gesture at the end that is simply a fancy way of presenting a slowly ascending scale over a drone, which is one of my favorites.

As for what my former self would have thought about this music, I imagine he would ask me lots of questions, which is a good thing.