Monday, December 1, 2008

Against the Virtues of Classification

In the spring of 2008 I took a long walk with my friend the poet Keith Taylor at the headwaters of the Huron river. It was a magical place, and I was so grateful to him for taking me there. I ended up writing a piece about it.

But we had a little gentle disagreement about the virtues of naming–here’s my side, in verse:

Against the Virtues of Classification
(for Keith Taylor)

If I were a better person, I would know the name of that…” KT

It should be no great shame to bear.
I can’t name maidenhair,
cinnamon, or fiddlehead.
I rhyme slough with enough,
consistently failing
to distinguish marsh from fen,
shagbark from hophornbeam.

I can’t tell my alders from my elders,
and my maples may be muddled,
but in the Spring,
when both eyes turn on the strings of one furry spiral,
and my mind floods
with that singular moment of uncurling,
what I know
is not called fern.

Emotion Permitted/Emotion Reduced

Some time ago I participated in a worthy musicological experiment undertaken by Judith Becker titled Emotion permitted/Emotion reduced. Subjects were chosen who self-reported strong emotional responses to music; they were asked to pick out two recordings they found especially moving and listen to them while having their galvanic skin response monitored. This is like taking a lie detector test, only there are no grilling questions, and you get to listen to music. Subjects were asked to let their emotions flow in one listening, and to try to turn off their emotional responses in a second instance.

I love listening to music, and was happy to do so, even with electrodes placed on my fingertips. But I was nervous.

I was pretty sure I could manage the emotion permitted part. I believe that I am extremely fluent in permitting feeling to arise; as a creative artist it is my stock-in-trade to preserve the outlines of emotional experience within myself in order to call them up again and again over the long course of creating a work. I am a composer, and I have come to believe that the emotional play of forces created by sound is the real content of music, and that this play of emotional energies is (even more than sound) the material that I am working with. I subscribe to the idea that musical art is indeed the act of “creating magic through emotion.” (Damasio 1999: 50).

Capturing a feeling and exploring the dimensions of it over time requires a level of skill with emotive experience that does require a certain distance, but I was absolutely convinced that I was not equipped to complete the second part of the experiment: emotion reduced. Reflection upon an experienced emotional state is not the same thing as willful reduction of it by any means.

Even though I wasn’t sure I could do it, I had little doubt that it would be easy to find many subjects with tremendous expertise in the reduction of emotional response.

Can you do it?

When emotion arises in you, can you shut it off? Can you tell your skin not to become charged and hot when you see the child mangled on TV? Or feel no sense of dread when you sense the explosion approaching because the ominous underscoring comes up in the war movie?

I began to wonder:

Haven’t we as a society all been preparing for the second half of this experiment for decades by learning how to shut ourselves off from emotionally-charged stimuli? Popular music presents us with an aggressive wall of sound that we practice ignoring—anything that requires engaged attention hasn’t got a chance of generating a spark of feeling in the vast majority of us Americans. (A rap song I heard on network television once describes a brutally murdered dismembered female body in the trunk of a car; it seems we are not horrified enough by this to recognize and reject a play to our most odious violent impulses being used as a cheap thrill.) It is no surprise to me that we can make ourselves immune to the emotional pull of music if we practice not-responding so assiduously to murder, war, and all kinds of numbing violence every night as we watch TV.

No, no surprise there. We see all these horrible things happen to our fellow humans every day on television, and bathe ourselves in noisy environments that require us to tune out, a rigorous training in callousness and lack of feeling. Our senses have been dulled, our feeling blunted, and our compassion stunted by the onslaught of our cruel entertainments. I guess that is why classical music is useless to most of us now—it does not quite get up to the thrill level we expect; the dynamic range of its emotional life, (to say nothing of the sustained attention it requires) cannot begin to approximate the quick brutality of our cinema and the law-enforcement morality plays we daily ingest on television.

In a society where the routine exposure to graphic representations of murder, rape and violent death of all kinds is taken as the norm, it is abnormal to be sensitive. The quality of sensitivity becomes stigmatized as an intolerable weakness, especially in males, who above all are supposed to be “tough” (which translates as inured to all suffering). So according to this logic, anyone who is emotionally sensitive to another’s suffering is abnormal: sensitivity comes to be seen as un-American.

But without sensitivity, there can be no interoception: the ability to sense our own internal mental and physical states. And without interoception, there can be no compassion. In other words, we cannot feel for others unless we can feel for ourselves. If there is no compassion, we are lost in self-referential childish grabbing at rewards without any thought of our companions on this planet, or any regard for the consequences of our selfish or even violent actions.

Sometimes it seems that large swaths of our popular culture have come to constitute a kind of abuse we subject ourselves to in order to hold down natural emotional responses and “toughen ourselves up.” Over-exposure to media sex and violence doesn’t make us stronger or sexier, but it certainly does make us less sensitive and makes violence more present to us, more easily imaginable. By these means we are engaging in a mass exercise aimed at squashing our humanity. I believe that the collective weight of our suppressed emotional responses is beginning to come out as rage and disease, as violence expressed in so many ways as to be uncountable.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Last Night at Yaddo

Bathroom/Yaddo/Spring 2006
(a meditation on the eve of departure)

I imagine in the summertime
when these grooved wall boards were painted white
that the wood was pressed in close at the joints,
swollen with wet heat.

But now it’s late March.

After three dry months the panels
are pulling apart right next to the toilet paper roll
leaving a translucent skin stretched across the void,
as if it were trying to hold on,
clinging to the part of itself that is departing.

It’s almost irresistible, like fresh ice on puddles,
and I can’t believe no one else
has yet sliced along that edge with the tip of a fingernail
as they sat here

just to have the satisfaction of that brittle tearing sound–
rending those last few tendrils of attachment to what is shrinking so slowly away.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Here's a simple slow air I wrote a couple years ago; it's a farewell for a friend's last night at Yaddo, the artist's colony in Saratoga NY...


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

two thoughts on winter

The cold has descended. The first snow has piled itself on the steps and the ground has frozen. Here are two thoughts about winter: a poem I wrote a few years ago, and a new fiddle tune called "The Early Dark."


Winter, 2006

One degree costs fifty dollars this year:
that’s the price to raise the thermostat
for thirty short days
up to 64,
where it seems
I live surrounded by a comfort
unknown to me at 63.

It’s only a temporary corrective.
The truth is
we belong to the cold.
We are its subjects,
and must eventually render unto it
what has always been due.

I believe that this is how it goes:
everything growing colder and colder,
each notch of heat in turn
becoming too dear–
until all the toasting of walnuts,
and all those steaming cups of tea
finally offer us no relief–
then at last
we fall to room temperature ourselves
and can’t buy even one degree of warmth anymore forever.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

choose the means, not the ends

As Americans, we are constantly being trained to be driven by desire--so many of us believe that in order to exist in the world, we must strive to get ahead: to decide what it is we want and lock our attention on the goal of winning the object of our desire. We are encouraged to use whatever means are necessary to get what we want.

As a result, many venerated successes have been achieved in this world through destructive means. Sometimes it seems like we are so addicted to getting what we want that we only see the getting, and close our eyes to the trail of destruction our grasping leaves behind. Even achieving something good is marred if it is reached by what Buddhists call "unskillful means." I would say that even spiritual enlightenment is darkened and stained if it is reached through cruelty and violence, either to others or to the sad old bag of bones that was its vehicle.

Let use choose our means before our ends. We will serve ourselves and others far better in the long run if we first decide on how we are going to go about living as a matter of informed principle, and then accept what comes of it. Instead of latching onto desire and allowing it to push us toward unethical actions, let us first choose moral, compassionate caring, even loving means, and then follow them where they take us.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Gesture of Meaning

When I was younger, I believed that the act of creating meaning would save us. There was relief in the movement toward beauty, and a sense of completeness in following the urge to voice longing and hurt. I had a physical sense of sacredness rising up behind those upwellings of emotion, illuminating the world around me. It seemed clear that by practicing that movement of release and rising beneficence in my creative work, I might be able to learn to live in accordance with it. I hoped others (someone, somewhere) could receive the beam I was sending out, and undertake to enact the gesture of meaning that had filled me by following the trace left in my music.

As I got older, though, I found a mercenary strain abiding in the professional music world working to convince me that it was more important to be eminent than to be honest, more important to have wide distribution than to communicate meaning, and far more important to generate measurable prestige than to reach for some kind of truth. Within that worldview, it follows that creating an image to push over on the crowd is primary, and connecting with individual human hearts is a secondary pursuit at best, something that has been devalued almost to the point of being worthless.

But in that worthlessness is another kind of salvation. To be worthless is to be beyond value, to exist outside of the system of economic objects, in which everything is collapsed down to its exchange value, it’s media fizz or institutional rank. We rank every single person at my university music school every year from most important to least, and let me assure you, those rankings are based almost exclusively on external validation and prestige. In such a climate, it starts to feel like a radical challenge to the prevailing moral landscape to believe in art as anything more than a means toward self-aggrandizement. Yet only if our art is born from compassion, from the recognition that every single soul is equally important will we be enlightening our society instead of putting it to sleep with illusions.

If moral values can be communicated through behavior, then they can be communicated through art, and artists can therefore influence us in our own moral convictions. It is by participating in the root assumptions presented in a work of art that we are altered–by tracing the source and the qualities of its gestures, and by turning our attention to that which it is gesturing toward. Every act, every attempt at communication is generated from a ground of assumptions about what matters. Every artistic statement puts forth a stream of actions and associations that flow from that field, and serve to represent it in the experience of the creator as well as the receiver. Meaning is something we do. The world invites us to burn up our attachment to our own importance and to dissolve into a state in which everyone and everything shines with sacredness. This is the gesture of meaning.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Cost of Prosperity

In spring 2006, I was staying at the artist’s colony Yaddo, which is on the estate of the 19th-century venture-capitalist and railroad baron Spencer Trask. On the shelf in his wife Katrina's room, I found some prophetic words about our current cultural situation in an old book titled Our Business Civilization: Some Aspects of American Culture, by James Truslow Adams. I was a little shocked to find such a clear-thinking criticism of the extent to which American society is driven by business concerns there in the study of the wife of a great industrialist! I felt deep sympathy with the writer’s sentiments, and found it remarkable how current the ideas seemed, in spite of the fact that it was published in 1929. Here is a sampling:

Overwhelmed by the material advance made in the past five decades or so, and by the vast amount of Pollyanna literature with which we are flooded by politicians and business executives with axes to grind, we are apt to lose sight of the law of compensation and to think of all change as unalloyed improvement.”

Change may or may not be “progress” but whether it is nor not it is bound to involve compensatory losses.” p 35

“It is obvious that with a national income of even ninety billions, a hundred and twenty million people cannot buy everything. Some things have to go if we are to have new things constantly and pay double or treble for the old.” p48

In a chapter entitled To ‘Be’ and To ‘Do,’Adams quotes Matthew Arnold’s description of culture as “a harmonious expansion of all the powers which make the beauty and worth of human nature.” He goes on to say: “This is far removed from giving the degree of Bachelor of Arts to a student who has learned how to truss and dress poultry or has compassed the mysteries of how to sell real estate and run an apartment house. Of course, life is short, and getting rich is long–or may be. Many people who go to college to-day, aside from their lack of desire for education, have no time for it, because it does not lead immediately to ‘power’…”


Adams also cites a foreign critic of American life who says “ one feeling he always had here was that all our goods were in our shop windows and there was nothing behind.” Adams writes in response” “We are so busy doing that we have no time to be. …at present what we need above all else in America is education–not the infinitely variegated supply of courses that make a college catalogue look like Sears, Roebucks, but a liberal education that will enable us to create a scale of values for our experiences and to take a philosophical attitude toward the complex reality about us.” …is it not time that we stopped marking down all our spiritual goods to the price that the lowest in the cultural scale can pay?

We’ve had ample opportunity in the eighty years since those words were written to see many of the other costs of our prosperity: a citizenry disenfranchised and apathetic, our political process reduced to the lowest fear-mongering and the basest manipulation of the electorate, the concentration of power in the hands of large corporations, the privileging of profit above all human values, and the celebration of unchecked greed as the motive force of capitalist democracy. This is not to mention the continuing destruction of the planet upon which we live, and the countless lives destroyed in our wars. These are the real costs of our prosperity.

Our own integrity as humans has been tossed aside as an encumbrance in the race to get more money, more fame, more prestige, more stuff. We have gutted our culture and our civil society and our human relationship to each other in order to get more. Now, we are in the midst of yet another global economic crisis triggered by our own desperate unprincipled grasping and denial. It is not so dissimilar from the one that loomed when James Truslow Adams was writing, and we find that we have forgotten the hard lessons that the great depression taught us.

In spite of the campaign-slogan Hope offered by president-elect Obama, I can’t help thinking it will be hard to undo the damage: we’ve had over thirty years worth of dismantling society in favor of an “every man for himself” business model. In our business civilization, we don’t see fellow citizens and neighbors around us, only competitors to be defeated. But when everyone is driven only by their own hunger, blindly pursuing selfish short-term gain, they end up eating the system that sustains us all. If there is any real hope for us out there, we will have to compost the corporate marketplace nightmare worldview that has been driving our society for a long, long time now, and rebuild our values and our connections to each other based on something other than money and commerce.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Map of Lost Waters

As children, we mapped our world with creeks. We knew where they flowed—to the frog pond, into ditches beside the old railroad bed, north toward the Stillwater River. One ran all the way to the Mall. We followed them as far as we dared, walking alongside, wading in. Sometimes the banks were so slippery with viscous mud and clay that we could barely walk. We scooped up crawdads and tramped down stair-steps of sedimentary rock full of fossils. We knew where the vines were strong enough to swing out over the streambed. We knew which creeks ran all summer, and which ones were dry by late July, turned into reedy gullies at the edge of the cornfields. We knew where they ran fast (good for racing sticks) and we knew where they pooled around the fine red roots of the willow trees. We memorized their great stones, and their bars of gravel. We named the places near the water that held magic for us (Witches Lair, Glenwood, The Toy Fort, Warlock’s Will), but we did not name the creeks.

A mysterious series of fires around our area led to rumors that those who wouldn’t sell their land would be driven out. Then, there were bulldozers, massive earth-movers and backhoes leveling everything: they just plowed it all under. They knocked down farmhouses with the furniture still inside and trees that had stood for a century. We were still boys, and we got very excited by the thunderous power of those machines, which seemed like Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel on steroids. More often, though, we saw the workmen as our enemies, and we sat on the margins of the carnage mourning and bemoaning. They left no tree standing upright, and no sign of our subtle network of streams, just hard orange clay.

Once, a heavy rain hit, and the whole wasteland flooded. A temporary lake formed, four feet deep at the center. We dubbed it “Pond Superior,” in a burst of childish irony. We waded through it too, but it was featureless except for the name we gave it and the deep tread marks of the heavy equipment that we could feel with our feet. It was lifeless, full of muddy, brown, opaque water. Later, they gouged out a deep, straight ditch nearby, lined it with cement, and drained off the stagnant pool. For a time we scrambled over the eroding sides above the apron, building dams out of the clay for fun, trying to block the mini-gorges that formed. From this I learned definitively that nothing will stop water from finding its way down-hill.

Even in that stripped expanse, we children always sought the water, and knew instinctively that it was important to understand where it went, how it was all connected. When they laid the sewers and covered them over, we followed the streams underground, walking in the dark maze of pipes for what seemed like miles. We were following again the path of the flow, just a polluted trickle, among the raccoons and rats and cobwebs. This is a sad thing.

Our childhood stream-world was a paradise, a living web that included both our streams and our imaginations. I watched them bulldoze it, bury it, and encase it in concrete. I remember feeling that I had lost a friend. To this day, it is rather like a phantom limb, this thing that was part of me, that was severed.

There is an often remarked-upon naming practice whereby we call our housing developments and shopping malls after what was destroyed in order to build them. This is how unrelieved expanses of blacktop dotted with anonymous, air-conditioned boxes come to be called “Walnut Creek,” or “Greenbriar” or “Willowbrook Estates.” We name our “developments” after what used to be there, after what we have lost. It’s a last nod to the felt power of an actual place, and an attempt to convert that faint flash of recognition, that vestigial magic, into marketing. It’s an attempt to activate our sense of what we have been cut off from, to make us feel our phantom limb, and then to associate the ghostly tingling of remembered completeness with the knife that cut us.

“Development,” is a kind of name too, one that perpetrates a similar lie. “Development,” as it is currently practiced, is not the organic result of natural processes as the word (and its cousin term “growth”) insidiously suggests. “Development” is not inevitable and it is not usually necessary, no matter what insinuation the name might be asking you to accept. There is always another way.

We can have streams flowing through our towns, and in our backyards, with farms behind them. It is possible for us to live in places that are not all unnatural concentrations of near-identical houses, surrounded by close-cropped green-green-green fertilized faux-pastures, grass that no animal can safely walk on, let alone eat. In the place where I grew up, and all places like it (plats, subdivisions, suburbs) no one knows where the creeks go anymore. Or where they went. Or that there ever were any creeks there at all.

When we live like that, we are impoverished.

This is a sad thing.


I believe that musical art should be like poetry.

To make good poetry you have to go spelunking beneath habitual mind and seek out our treasure: the invisible connections between things. It's a practice of finding the hidden light that secretly illuminates the world.

We do not need more celebrations of ego to reflect back to us from their shiny surfaces the sad fact that our outward-manifesting lust is driven by money and prestige. For God's sake already, if we know one thing it is that ego will not save us. Not ours, and not anybody else's. All ego ever does is churn up the surface of the water like a motor boat.

What we do in fact desperately need is an art that can reach into our shadow places and show us what is hidden there. We need artists who go down deep, who are more like pearl divers than they are like media personalities or world-dominating corporations. We need artists who can offer us the wonder of touching those small, improbable by-products of irritation: the precious stone of hurt turned into beauty, brought up at great risk from the depths. A pearl-diver's art would say: see--this radiance is hidden in your dark waters too, down in the muck and in that hard, rough, unbeautiful shell. Just look: it is a beauty that might redeem us all if only we can find it.

What is music for? What does it mean to listen?

In defense of the feeling listener:
“Art is a hammer to shatter the frozen sea within us” Franz Kafka

What does it mean to really listen? To listen means to take sound into both your body and your mind. To internalize the shapes, the motion, the feeling, communication, and the intention carried with it. Music is so much more than a mere entertainment—even when it is supremely entertaining. It is almost as if we are caging it, restraining it, hiding it under frivolous uses to see it as mere entertainment.

I’m only interested in music that reaches for something, in which the effort to bridge the gap between humans, between pain and understanding is made audible. I want to take that effort, all the ache and feel of it into my body and learn it, let it ring, let it purify me and teach me to release. Our lives are an urgent matter here on this earth–I’m told that some Buddhist temples in Korea have large clock faces on the walls as a reminder of how fast and continuous is the flight of time. (be wise in time, eternity is near!)

Music that is not trying to break through into something emotionally true is useless to me. I cannot waste time on music that is self-aggrandizing, ego-driven, vapid, creepy, or bland. I need the messages from wisdom that we all have in us. I need to hear the voice of wisdom channeled through sound. I want to hear 2 seconds of the music and know (and I mean know) that the composer or the singer or the musicians have sat long and quietly, have stilled themselves and listened for the knowledge of the world to speak to them through their bodies about what is urgent, what is essential, what is in the interests of our very best selves. I want to know that having done so, they have then labored selflessly to realize their moment of clarity, however small or large, that they have struggled to make a poem of it, distilled and concentrated it down to pill form (or exploded it out to journey form) so that I can take it into my spiritual DNA and be transformed. It absolutely MUST have some urgent message other than “dig me!” It must not be ingratiating, slimy, manipulative, or pushy. It must not be merely artful—that will not suffice. The music has to find a way to edge into the cracks of my emotional life and break its way in, past the usual, constructed, defended consciousness that wants to be safe, to be closed off from feeling, separate.

There is an urgent need (on my part, and for our society at large, I believe) to get into those cracks we all have in everyday consciousness and to force them wider apart. As Leonard Cohen's song famously points out: “There’s a crack in everything/that’s where the light gets in.” We all need the light to get into our small, constricted selves, and open us up to the big mind, the shattered world in which we are as wide as the sea, and everything flows. The crust on us modern folks is something to behold, I tell you. Our culture has made a life’s work out of cultivating the frozen sea Kafka was so desperate to shatter, and you can bet it will be a life’s work for any single one of us to undo that making. We are all living with an unprecedented storehouse of unprocessed feeling these days, a direct result of the vast array of numbing strategies that have come to obscure the real work and presence of a human life. I’m not big on idealizing traditional societies, but we have at least come to understand that all those scruffy rituals came about in a search for efficacy, transformation, and as a way to deal with the terrible and joyous things that arise as a result of an human consciousness strapped to an animal corporeality. The extent to which we look away from the facts of those myriad arisings is the extent to which we are in denial, suffering from restriction, walled off from the true energies of our lives. If we ignore our feelings, they will surely kill us.

So the practice of sympathetic listening is one of feeling with. If we can attune our responses to the music, if we can internalize its state, and feel its movement, its tensions and releases, we are building the capacity for compassion. I believe in music that invites us to feel with it. Anything in our feeling lives that does not increase compassion is killing us a little bit. Anything that seals us up in our comfortable expectations and rewards us for being what we already are in isolation helps to close us off from others, from love, from the true nature of our interconnectedness and interdependence. In the end, this move even isolates us from ourselves, in that it helps us to keep walled off whole areas of our own denied emotional experience.

If art encourages us to rest in complacency by being itself so slick and polished as to be a product, if it organizes itself toward merely presenting attractive surfaces in order to manipulate us into an economic transaction, if it exists primarily as an egotistical foisting of Self onto the world, then it harms us, it isolates us, turns us into consumers, it shuts us down when we desperately need to be opened up. Art should open doors to understanding of the non-verbal ground of our existence, to the natural world, the big “what-is.” It's not sufficient for our art merely to open the door to the gift shop or the record store. Listen to the music and ask yourself: what door is this person trying to open? Like as not you’ll find it is usually the door to fame and fortune, to approval, to some sentimentalized posture, or the pose of profundity. All too often what we hear in the depths of our musical art is the sound of the desire for personal gain on the part of the composer. This idea of gaining will kill us. Let us substitute the idea of opening: to wisdom, to joy, to compassion, to peace, to free feeling, to release.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Fred's Guide to Life

"There are three ways to ultimate success.
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind."

Fred Rogers

Monday, January 14, 2008

What is music [not] for?

I believe we can trust our emotions. I believe music has the power to release the flow of emotional experience, to restore the natural flow of feeling that our lives by necessity restrict. We have practiced the halt of feeling so long that the reaction-chemicals provided by media entertainments come to substitute for true feeling.

We say we “feel” excited upon watching the brutal murder in the suspense thriller on TV, but it would be more accurate to say we're registering the chemical responses that precede fear—activations of our fight or flight response that do not constitute emotion. This is the same reactive state we enter on roller-coaster rides: our instincts are engaged to make us sense that we are in danger, and our conscious mind constantly overrides this cascade of chemical reactions, intervening to stay our conditioned flight. A kind of feed back loop is created that leaves us buzzing, charged, and giddy.

If we engaged with the emotional tenor of such violence, however, we would be crushed, horrified, and traumatized. Our emotional self experiences the representation of violence as real violence—if you were to shake loose emotion, it would be overwhelming. Writers and directors of action movies are smart: instead of engaging with the emotional consequences of violence, they give us one or two short bursts of fight-or-flight chemicals every seven minutes or so. They push our buttons with short blasts of violence and keep emotional reactions marginalized so as to keep us thrilled, without the consequences of violence becoming real to us.

This is no substitute for what art provides. Ideally, art would offer us opportunities for genuine feeling, it would offer us a hammer with which to shatter our frozen sea.