Portrait: Seth Johnson

So today is Seth Johnson’s birthday. He means a lot of things to a lot of people, and I thought I would take this opportunity to tell you about this dude, share some stories, and wax poetic about what he has meant to me as I’ve made my home in this city.

In late summer, or maybe early fall, of 2014 I had been in Indianapolis just a short time, and was still trying to make some friends around my neighborhood. I was planning on heading up to a show at the erstwhile record store Vibes, and noticed a guy named Joe had posted in the event page looking for a ride up from Fountain Square. I ended up writing back to say I could get him up there, and we set a time to meet before the show. On my way to pick up Joe and “his friend”, which would end up being Seth, I remember being nervous like I was going on some sort of first date. I was having thoughts like, “Should I change the music?” and “Should I clean my car?” I ultimately decided that if these dudes who were headed up to the same weird show I was were going to get upset by the other weird music I was playing, then the issues at play were already out of my control. On the way up to the show, I don’t remember exactly what the three of us talked about, but I remember feeling like I was in my element before we had really gotten very far.

I remember that show being good, but the only artist I remember seeing specifically was John Flannelly, who is another one of my favorite people in the world, although that’s a story for another time. After the show, Joe mentioned he had other plans, and Seth had caught wind of a house show just picking up. I offered to go with Seth and we set out on what became our first adventure in the city.

When Seth and I set out, we were in the car, and he gave me the address of the house. I put it in my phone and then handed it to him and said, “Mind manning the GPS?” His response in that moment was a pretty pointed, “I can’t do that!” which to me, I took to be him feeling anxious about holding my phone or something. It was actually endearing, even though I misunderstood the situation. I ended up navigating to  a pocket universe of a neighborhood whose street shapes didn’t give a shit about the nice grid of most of the city and instead took their directions from Fall Creek. I still have no earthly idea where that house was, and I probably never will. The house itself was trippy as hell too, with at least one wall covered in a mirror, and a main door that led you to almost directly behind the performer, or, in layman’s terms, exactly where I didn’t want to be as a newcomer to a scene on my second stop populated mostly by people I had never met.

That second show ended up being one of the strangest experiences of my early time in Indianapolis and included an interrogation over beer that I assumed was fair game (Look, my house show etiquette was developed in Bloomington, where anything goes is mostly an understatement, and any beer left unattended is for the common good.), seeing Sirius Blvck rapping over one of those 5-CD changer systems that I had as a kid in my bedroom, his vocals louder than the beats themselves, and a general feeling that what I was experiencing that just had to be weird by all standards, and would have been if I had already lived in Indy a lot longer. I don’t remember the details of what happened after we left to the letter, but I do remember having a feeling of camaraderie with Seth that I hoped would lead to us hanging out more.

Some other moments from that first year or so that I got to know Seth:

My brother thinking Seth was weird for using his magnifier on his phone, maybe assuming Seth just really liked to see the individual pixels of his phone’s screen.

Seth correcting my direction one night when we were making a cigarette run in a neighborhood I was unfamiliar with, saving me a long walk to nowhere.

Learning that he hates to be yelled at from across the street, even if you’re being nice.

Sitting on my porch for several hours while my brother Brandon basked in one of those pools you can get at Family Dollar, and cracking what felt like endless jokes.

Over the course of the five years that I’ve gotten to know Seth, what I’ve seen is the development of a fixture in our community and music scene. This guy can talk to anyone and listen with an open ear, and pull stories from their words that cast a bright light on myriad things to love about our city, and people in general. His enthusiasm about things in the city ranging from Public Transit, the Pacers, resources for the visually impaired, to music of all kinds has given him a voice that rails against the typical angst and ironic detachment that often comes with living in the Midwest. He has the kind of voice that improves the quality of life for everyone here by making you feel good for doing just that.

The person you will meet if you run into this guy in the wild is something to behold. Seth is the kind of person who will listen generously, but also fails to take any unnecessary shit from people who are careless with their words and thoughts. He is the kind of person who will keep you believing he can see the world clearer than you, even though a lot of his life is based around his inability to do just that. In short, he’s a person who can make you appreciate the fact that you are here and alive, and that what you care about matters. We need more Seths in the world right now to keep us in line and help us see all of the amazing things happening right under our noses in our community.

Right now, Seth and I are sitting ten feet apart in my yard, having a beer and listening to music. He has no idea what I’m working on. He’ll probably be a little pissed when he reads this.

Happy birthday buddy.

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.

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.