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.

 

Reflecting on Reflect and Release Pt. 2

In part 1 of this couplet of posts, I explored the very immediate emotional reality of the space of time in which I composed the piece. In this second part, I am going to talk about Indianapolis, why this all feels worth it, and how this effort was an outpouring of love and faith in the community of people I’ve found myself surrounded by in my time here.

I met Corey Denham shortly after I moved to Indianapolis while playing Terry Riley’s In C at the HiFi in Fountain Square with a rag-tag group of musicians of all stripes, most of whom would become my friends as time went on. Corey and I hit it off because of a shared love of percussion chamber music and the desire to see more of it happen in the city. One of the first times we hung out that summer, we ended up making a set of tuned pipes for his trio, 10-Can Percussion. Over the course of the years, Corey has become one of my closest friends, surviving my own intermittently chaotic way of working several times over, and forgiving a long period at the beginning of things where I failed to catch about 500 jokes thrown my way.

About a year later, I believe while in my second year of grad school, Eric Salazar arrived in Indianapolis with a monumental work ethic and, not only a desire to make more classical music happen in the city, but plans to make it happen. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, we were all seeing each other on a regular basis, starting to put on more regular events, and Eric and Corey were forming the ensemble that would become Forward Motion. From the beginning, the ensemble was hugely exciting to me, as it represented a step forward for independent classical music in Indianapolis.

I think we all had plans to work together from the beginning, but I will never forget when it started to come together. We had a plan, I had a commission I didn’t need to travel for, and we were forming what would become in many ways our small community’s first at-bat making a professional piece intended to have a long life. Don’t get me wrong, we’re nowhere near the only game in town as far as experimental or new classical music goes, but for us everything seemed to be coalescing at the right time. In the two years since I initially finished Reflect and Release, that coalescence has continued and blossomed into a functioning community of musicians that are bringing music to the city in unexpected places and times. I’ve had the honor of writing for Fort Harrison State Park, consulting on a new classical magazine in the city, and have continued to work with a deeply talented and passionate base of talent here.

This impending video/ep release feels like tying a bow on what has been one of the most rewarding creative streams that has developed while in Indianapolis. It also makes me feel a little less weird for advocating for this kind of music in a city that doesn’t have it as part of its inherent identity.

In another sense, the release of this project is coming during one of the most creatively productive periods of my recent life, and almost feels par for the course. Not that I’m taking it for granted, but there is a certain feeling of cruise control that comes with having a lot of projects at various stages of completion, and some confidence that something is always coming down the pipe. It is really because of the period in which Reflect and Release was written, that I can even feel this way about my output. Growing with the other artists involved in the project and the community we’ve formed together has been a literal dream come true, and is one of the main launching points for getting to the version of my life that I want to build long term.

The music that follows could have only been written here in Indianapolis, with the original performers in mind, and with the love and understanding that comes not only in working with people I respect as artists, but that I have come to love as people in their own right. To Corey, Eric, and the rest of Forward Motion, Thank You. To everyone else, we are here, and we are building something that we hope will enrich the cultural and musical landscape of Indianapolis.

You can find more about Classical Music Indy, and organization that has been pivotal in helping the recent surge of projects and performances of classical music outside of traditional venues here.

*Author’s note: I originally drafted this post before the current situation surrounding the COVID-19 started to show how it would affect musical performances for the near future around the country. In a certain sense, it is nice to be able to show this work in a time where people will be unable to attend as many live performances as they would like. I hope that this small offering of music will offer a bit of solace in these trying times.

Rituals Pt. 2

Tappers

So the ritual is this:

It is evening. I walk to Tappers. I order one beer that I will sip on for as long as the session lasts. Or, more accurately, I do not sip more than once or twice until the session ends.

I make my way to the Asteroids machine. It is the only game I actually care about. It is the perfect video game in some respects, brutal in its execution and subtle in its controls. The machine at Tappers is the real deal, it uses a vector display which predates the implementation of CRT monitors that most games use. The concept of hit boxes seems crude and unnecessary in the face of this display. You can turn that ship and avoid these space rocks and have them skate right past the window. It is a thing of beauty.

I put on my headphones and turn on Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony every single time. In some respects, the piece matches the game in its simple premise and elegant design, it is a conglomeration of square waves that are heard as a myriad of textures and tones.

I crack my knuckles (almost entirely for a sense of determined nostalgia, I have seen the movies), do a quick body scan, and RELAX. I lean my forehead against the lip of the machine, and at that point I am sufficiently immersed to blow some rocks to hell.

The irony of Asteroids is that the asteroids are very rarely the cause of death. The causes of death in Asteroids are hubris, inaccuracy, and those fucking little UFOs that want to kill you. UFOs aside, most of the time, you will see your death coming from a mile away. You can fire in four shot bursts, and if you just burned your quartet a second before one of those little bastards runs into you, its already over. Trigger discipline is everything.

I play the same way every time. I refuse to move until I absolutely have to. (This is almost certainly mappable to other dimensions of my life, but that’s for another day.) But, in all honesty, that first move is when the fun actually begins. Everything starts to click. That hunter part of my brain starts to actually fire. I have thoughts like: The reason game hunting is so unappealing from an intellectual perspective is that you don’t fucking MOVE. Once movement is happening in two dimensions, parts of the mind start to light up in a new way. All of those science fiction movies I watched as a kid start to kick in. I know what it’s like to thrust and drift. I was never destined to be an astronaut, but I’ll be damned if all those documentaries and books covering the mechanics of spacewalks and navigating zero-g is going to go to waste. Thrust and drift, thrust and drift.

Let’s talk about those fucking UFOs. So there are two types: 1) The big ones that are just asking to get destroyed and more or less shoot at random, just baiting you to panic. 2) These little bastards that use a totally different algorithm and can see your movements. In the case of the latter, the progress through the game becomes a zen experience. You have to be the person who stays calm while people are yelling in your face. Thrust and drift. Thrust and drift. You have to starve those little fuckers of data. If you try to decidedly evade them, they will fucking kill you every single time. What you do is tap the thruster and gently glide while frantically shooting everything you have at them. They can see you try to move in a direction but can’t tell which way you’re facing. Fuck those dudes. Their frequency, which is determined by some prankster demigod living in the machine, is often what determines the length of a run.

I don’t know how often the score gets reset on that particular machine, but I do know that I’m back up on the top ten for now. My score in a long term sense is weak sauce, but I did knock some dummy off the scoreboard tonight and I’m going to enjoy that for the moment.

High score.

Rituals Pt. 1

(So for this post, I’m going to begin talking about some routines I’ve picked up and how I experience daily life and how it folds into my mindset and artistic output.)

Morning

So the ritual is this:

I wake up, am usually in one of a few mental states: 1) Well slept and continuing thoughts that were forming as I was closing my eyes the night before. 2) Unrested, emotionally exhausted, unsure of how of which thoughts to listen to. 3) Hungover. Survival mode. Assuming thoughts will come.

Assuming I have woken up on time, I roll out of bed (literally, it’s fun and gives me some mechanical momentum that prevents the dreaded second sleep), pull some clothes out of the closet, walk down the hall and shower. Regardless of how late or early I am, I try to do this quickly, like an athlete before a game.

After the shower, I walk quickly or slowly downstairs, put on a jacket and possibly a heated vest, grab a boiled egg from the fridge, sling my bag on and exit the house at the briskest pace I can manage. I will listen to one of the following: my brother’s podcast, my latest project in progress, some new music, silence.

I begin walking to work, and stop at the first coffee shop on the way. I have been permitted to pour my own espresso. I drop my bag and, depending on the timing, my jacket and step behind the bar. I grind the coffee, start the shot pouring, turn to the register and pay while the shot is filling up. If I have done my job right, I can get everything into the POS system and turn around just in time to stop the pour. I do this partly because it’s fun, and partly to test my motor skills for the day. If everything goes smoothly, I know things are going to be fine the rest of the day. If not, I know I have another mile and a half to figure it out.

If the person working is having a bad day, I will usually leave a tip.

I leave the shop and turn northwest toward the center of town. I drink the espresso within one to three blocks, depending on how cold it is. Within the next mile, I dispose of the cup, and begin the process of peeling the boiled egg on the move without dropping shell everywhere. I’m getting good at it.

Eventually I get to work. The day starts.

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.