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.


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.