Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: 2007

26 December 2007

The Soundtrack To Your Funeral, Part IV: Cake's 4 Noble Truths


From here on out, each installment of this column will feature at least one (and occasionally several) songs that I would put on my own funeral playlist. The first two go together - both on the album (where they appear back to back), and thematically (because they articulate complimentary forms of wisdom).

Cake - End of the Movie
People you love
Will turn their backs on you
You'll lose your hair
Your teeth
Your knife will fall out of its sheath
But you still don't like to leave before the end of the movie
People you hate will get their hooks into you
They'll pull you down
You'll frown
They'll tar you and drag you through town
But you still don't like to leave before the end of the movie
No you still don't like to leave before the end of the show
People you hate will get their hooks into you
They'll pull you down
You'll frown
They'll tar you and drag you through town
But you still don't like to leave before the end of the movie
No you still don't like to leave before the end of the show


Cake - Tougher Than It Is
Well there is no such thing as you
It doesn't matter what you do
The more you try to qualify
The more it all will pass you by
Some people like to make life a little tougher than it is
Some people like to make life a little tougher than it is
Well the more you try to shake the cat
The more the thing will bite and scratch
It's best I think to leave its fur and to listen to its silky purr
Some people like to make life a little tougher than it is
Some people like to make life a little tougher than it is
Well there is no such thing as you
It doesn't matter what you do
The more you try to qualify
The more it all will pass you by
Some people like to make life a little tougher than it is
Some people like to make life a little tougher than it is
Some people like to make life a little tougher than it is


It's a little weird to hear something so profound from Cake, those kings of swinger kitsch and self-conscious, ironic cool, but I'm always up for such a pleasant surprise. "End of the Movie" reminds me not to bitch so much about living if, no matter how much I suffer, I never ask for the check before dessert. Contrasting John McCrea's deadpan delivery with bouncing, cartoony concertina and mandolin accompaniment, it also seems to poke fun at my clinging to a world that abuses me; I can't listen to this without a poignant laugh at the human condition. One hand slaps me around and reminding me of the gruesome truth, while the other holds me like an infant. This song states the double-bind of life with such utter simplicity, such matter-of-factness, that it leaves no room for rebuttal. There's no way to argue either point, and there's no reason to. Because: shhhh...it's okay.

And then we trade out for "Tougher Than It Is," which wakes up in bits and pieces like a stirring groovy angel and then pops without warning straight into a divine transmission along the lines of what a person might expect, were this laconic pop group temporarily possessed by the Buddha. This is Cake's version of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," suddenly and surprisingly deep and wise, after an album's worth of goofing around. Paired with "End of the Movie," this couplet is an excellent presentation of the First, Second, and Third Noble Truths of Buddhism (that we suffer, that we suffer because of craving and ignorance, and that we can transcend suffering). "Tougher Than It Is" is also kind of set of pop "pointing-out instructions" - a quick-and-easy version of the Fourth Noble Truth that reminds us how to reconnect with our enlightened awareness (through attentiveness and openness, rather than trying to push around a universe that tends to fight back).

Oh, Cake. Few other artists have rendered humanity with such ruthless acceptance. Almost none have managed to do it with such catchy tunes. These two songs would be the cathartic first play at my funeral - just tragic enough to squeeze the tears out, and just comic enough to loosen people up for the rest of the playlist.

More on that soon.

(Written for iggli.com)

25 December 2007

The Soundtrack To Your Funeral, Part III: Do It For The World


There are at least three levels of motivation for making a funeral mix. As I have mentioned, personal comfort - planning-as-insulation from an intensely impartial and unforgiving void - is one. But beyond the narrow constraints of such half-conscious, fear-motivated scrambling - the secular and self-serving penitences of our iPod culture - there are nobler reasons to leave a funeral playlist (or any artifact) that communicates something you are no longer able to say.

A moment of explanation. Back in 2005, I heard Ken Wilber speak in Denver, and he was discussing how we can't determine a person's motivation from their actions alone. This is because as we mature psychologically, our sense of self becomes more complex and extends to more and more of the world we experience; what used to be "it" becomes "me." We start in a swirl of undifferentiated experience and learn through laborious error that there is a difference between "self" and "other." Then we learn that we have a body, but are not exclusively that body; then we learn that we have thoughts, but are not exclusively our thoughts. All of these things are there the whole time, but as our inner world becomes richer, we learn to recognize them as distinct objects of our experience - and, simultaneously, learn that these things that are parts of us are not us, in the sense that "I" remain "I" without them. As a child grows, what she considers "me" (and therefore "mine") grows in an expanding concentric ring, and this passage - from "egocentric" to "ethnocentric" to "worldcentric," or concern for self, then family, then all people - offers an entire spectrum of reasons for her to do any particular thing.

Ken offered, as a mundane example, the use of makeup. Someone can wear lipstick because it makes her feel pretty (egocentric); or because it will please another person or other people, or it's "the right thing to do" (ethnocentric); or because by beautifying herself, she's making the whole world more beautiful and thus acting in service of a universal ideal (worldcentric). And you'll never know by watching someone make kissy faces in the mirror whether she's doing it for one of these reasons, and not another.

(If any of this is unclear, here's more about egocentrism, ethnocentrism, andworldcentrism.)

With that in mind:

If I'm going to make a list of songs to be played at my funeral, I want to do it for the noblest reasons I know. I'm not going to do it merely to sandbag my own fear of mortality, or to relish forcing my will on people in a moment of unique vulnerability. I want to make an offering of music that has helped me deal with mortality and bereavement, in the hope that I can bring some modicum of peace to a world defined by suffering. I want to share the sole remaining thing I will be able to give people after I die: perspective.

After all, losing someone is scary. Even when we can't completely fathom the death of our own bodies, we feel death directly in a small way when the people with whom we identify pass on. "I feel like I lost a piece of myself," we say, and the truth is that we did - even if our limited Western notion of compartmental identity doesn't acknowledge it as such.

The music playing at my funeral, then, is also the music playing at their funeral. And what would you want to hear when you're dying? A dispatch from the other side, alleviating the unbearable mystery? Loving acknowledgment and the permission to feel what you're feeling? A reminder of how this passage is what unifies you with everyone else? Music can offer all of these things in one form or another.

And peace is contagious - so if I have the means to offer it to even a few people, it can ripple outward through their thoughts and deeds and affect everyone else, people I never had the chance to meet. In fact, why wait until I'm dead? Why conserve the gift for a handful of friends and family?

From here on out, I'll use this column to examine the songs I would offer to anyone who survives me. This is the music that accomplishes (in my opinion) the highest potential of music: to connect us so deeply to the world that we are dead before we are dead, that we are unafraid of death (and thus, unafraid of life). Affirmative even in their difficult truths, these songs have given me a solace I haven't found anywhere else. Hopefully, they'll make you feel a little bit more capable of handling the grim reality of my death, and yours.

(Written for iggli.com)

13 December 2007

A Joyful Noise: Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night"

“Phil Kline’s postmodern boombox caroling walk is more than just performance art: It’s a demonstration of community.”
— Time Out New York

“A dreamy fruitcake of parts, tranquil even through its anarchy.”
— Josef Woodard, Los Angeles Times

This Friday night in Boulder, hundreds of novelty junkies and experimental students will converge on Pearl Street, the main pedestrian shopping drag, with their boom boxes and iPods, buzzing with a revolution in style. They will be meeting up to pace the mall from one end to the other, each blaring their speakers in unison (not synchrony), and stepping lightly with the elfin glee of participating in "Unsilent Night," Phil Kline's experiment in masss noise and deconstructed Christmas tidings.

"Unsilent Night" refers to both this art-intoxicated flashmob and the collection of four forty-four minute pieces that Kline composed for it - jingly, abstract, spacious and evocative music, somehow both nostalgic and kind of cubist. It never goes totally atonal, but the reverb-dripping choral voices and the funky synthetic bell tones teeter on the edge of familiar and comfortable, playing with my expectations of "Christmas Music."

It grows from the noble tradition of boombox-and-parking lot experiments conducted by Oklahmoma band The Flaming Lips, who attempted Zaireeka, an album for four synchronized CD players, before 5.1 surround sound became available to the villagers. Unsilent Night also has obvious references to both Steve Reich (fellow composer for the one-label-revolution Cantaloupe Music and minimalist patriarch) and Brian Eno (electronic experimentalist who recently fused algorithmic art with minimal electronica with the incredible 77 Million Paintings).

I imagine the "city block-long sound system" that I'll be missing while at work: a joyous discordant bricolage, the exultant noise of collegiate angels joyriding in a battery-powered mob. Each of the four pieces has a casual, sometimes meditative structure - but together, all at once, in a haphazard crossing of tempos and tones, it must sound like coming upon a flock of robot mockingbirds from over the next hill, through a frosty fog.

Not only do I love it for its emphasis on art as communal and participative, but because Kline has made this into an annual and international phenomenon. It started humbly in 1992 with one march through New York; but this year, this "boombox parade" will proceed through twenty five cities, including Vancouver, Hamburg, Sydney, and Detroit. If last year is any measure of what to expect, then there will be several hundred boomboxes and well over a thousand people at the more well-attended gatherings.

Here's a video of the parade from last year in San Francisco:


And here, on Kline's homepage, is some of the press it has received over the last fifteen years. If you can make it out the night Unsilent Night comes to your town, do it. You can download any of the four tracks for your flashmobbing pleasure here, at the University of Colorado's Experimental Music homepage...

08 December 2007

The Soundtrack To Your Funeral, Part II: Putting Death In A Box

Adowa funeral celebration

Since I started to write about DJing one's own going away party, the bark has peeled back from the tree to reveal a world much more fascinated with this subject than I knew. My first clue came casually: "Oh, like in High Fidelity!" I saw High Fidelity, andloved it - but that was a few years ago, long enough to totally forget that Rob Gordon, Nick Hornsby's playlist-obsessed protagonist, had already popularized the funeral mixtape game. Then, I discovered that a mysterious British organization, the Bereavement Register, polled U.K. citizens about this very question, as well - to discover that 79 percent of them were already thinking about it. Apparently James Blunt is well-regarded as a deliverer of dirges; he topped the pre-funeral charts (which is funny, because Brits also voted him one of the most annoying things about their country - insert bagpipe analogy here):

01. "Goodbye My Lover" - James Blunt
02. "Angels" - Robbie Williams
03. "I've Had the Time of My Life" - Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medley
04. "Wind Beneath My Wings" - Bette Midler
05. "Pie Jesu" - Requiem
06. "Candle in the Wind" - Elton John
07. "With or Without You" - U2
08. "Tears in Heaven" - Eric Clapton
09. "Every Breath You Take" - The Police
10. "Unchained Melody" - Righteous Brothers

Wow. "Unchained Melody" is only number ten? What an outrage. Actually, I'm pretty aghast at most of these. (Speaking of aghast: Interestingly but trivially, both Hornsby and this poll came from the U.K., a decidedly morbid patch of land.)

People have been playing music for as long as they've been burying their dead, and so I'm sure that people - for as long as we have understood our mortality and could be called people - have been requesting certain songs be played at their graveside. While I can't find any recorded history of the funeral mix, I think it's safe to assume that we started requesting recorded music at our funerals as soon as it was available. Compared to the modesty of flowers and dirt that they used to be, most modern funerals are technological spectacles. We take every opportunity to upgrade even our most ancient ceremonies. We are accomplices to a universal current of crystallizing self-reflexion, embracing every novelty, jumping on every chance to compensate for Death by replicating and disseminating our favorite ideas.

We make a religion of anything that will outlive us. Since there are no carry-ons or checked luggage allowed on that particular flight (the weight limit is zero), we have to cash in at the gates of eternity by ceding eternal life to the living. We hand down the right to endure to someone or something else - our children and our stories, an ideal, or a joke, or a song. We finally find immortality by investing our living and dying breaths in the worship of those things we consider to be beautiful, or good, or true.

To put it another way, we know we end, and so we are obsessed with legacy. And whenever something increases our capacity to leave our legacy - when we invent writing, or the printing press, or genetic engineering, or the internet - we feed it as much as it can eat. Even ourselves.

And so we began investing in fossils, identifying with particular recordings, and not the living music to which they referred - the abstract and elusive, nimble and ephemeral music that characterized being human before the Age of Recording, never the same twice, mischievous and seductive. In a way, we have paved the way for Death by even agreeing to recorded music, by unemploying the spontaneous expression of grief we find only in the music of the bereaved. Postmodern composer John Cage:

"A finished work is exactly that, requires resurrection."

If playing recorded music at a funeral does in fact squelch some balance of living response, then we end up not just dead but having managed to pull the funeral down with us, as well. What, then, is the point of coming up with a funeral mix? I think so many people delight at the prospect because making playlists is the fashionable modern way for us to to contain the tremendous, terrifying mystery of the unknown.

A UCLA study led by Matthew Lieberman recently concluded that identifying emotions allows people a degree of immunity from them. By even recognizing and naming our anger, sadness, or fear, we move ourselves to a safe and impassive distance. (Of course, the same is true for pleasurable emotions, as should be obvious to anyone who has ever watched a joke die by dissection.) Not only did they finally find a physiological basis for the benefits of mindfulness meditation - evidence that learning to watch the mind does actually lift people over the thunder and lightning of the limbic system - but they also unwittingly explained why it's so useful for us to write or sing or paint out our troubling experiences.

The emerging model is one of subject-object relations, where describing grief allows us to loosen our identification with it. By speaking about "the" grief, or even "my" grief, we move our pain into the third person - where we have it, rather than it having us. By codifying our lives and deaths, we remove ourselves from them, and no longer suffer total immersion in an unconquerable wash of feeling.

We benefit from funeral playlists because they pin down the most salient metaphors so we can study them, because "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Like good naturalists, we capture our experiences and embalm them behind a glass case, the boundless fury of Nature Red In Tooth And Claw miniaturized and mediated by a guided audio-tour. Our playlists reflect the edges of a giant, hidden shape. They allow us to tame Death by conceiving of it, by relating to it in a way our minds can manage (although, looking through the cage bars into this tiger exhibit, we forget that the tiger is actually still loose in the zoo).

It is precisely because having a funeral playlist somehow kills the living expression of grief - because recorded music offers, in its death, the illusion of persistence and of fathomability - that it is so popular. And the luxury of capturing our whole holographic experience in a single posthumous album is that we can close the books on a truth more grand and intricate than any of us can bear.

But that may also be why, as consoling as they may be, funeral mixes offer no ultimate solace - because keeping Death at arm's length doesn't allow the intimacy of direct experience. Sooner or later, each of us will have to move into Death, instead of away from it, and practicing one won't ready us for the other.

On the other hand, all technology seems capable of supporting both our desperate illusions of security and enabling our unflinching self-transcendence. Could a funeral playlist prepare people for Death, rather than merely offering us distractions and false promises? I certainly think so. In the next installment, I'll discuss the funeral playlist as not just a coping mechanism, but a tool for skillful compassion, and I'll continue to explore the songs on the soundtrack to my funeral.

In the meantime, here's an hors d'ouevre, Stuart Davis' spectacularly irreverent and lucid song, "Practice Dying." If any song can capture the subtlest essence of why to make a funeral playlist, this is it:


Get high on ether when there's no one in the house
Pretend it's the big one at the moment you pass out
That's just rehearsal, but it's comforting somehow
To practice dying now

Hang out in funeral homes and make an honest bid
Lay in your casket, let them close the lid
Abra cadaver, roll your eyes back in your head
Practice being dead

Don't feel stupid; we're all scared
No one wants to go to hell
There's still time to get prepared
Start out now and finish well

Try painting tunnels on the ceiling in your room
Imagine your birth backwards with a bigger, better womb
Take little trips out of your body now and then
And if the rapture comes, maybe you'll ascend
You know the saying, "Once you learn to ride a bike..."
Well, that's what dying's like

Get high on ether when there's no one in the house
Pretend it's the big one at the moment you pass out
It's just rehearsal, 'cause that's all that life allows
So practice dying
Cuz you're almost dead
Practice dying now


(Written for iggli.com.)

03 December 2007

The Soundtrack To Your Funeral, I: Playing DJ To The Bereaved


My roommate recently told me that his friends were playing a game for which everyone had to come up with their funeral mix - the playlist that they'd hypothetically force their friends and family to hear at the funeral. I'm familiar with the concept of a "pre-need" - an in-character euphemism for the pre-mortem arrangements people make with their undertakers - but besides the offhanded and oft-forgotten request ("I want you to play 'Comfortably Numb;'" "I want you to play 'Solsbury Hill'"), I've never heard of anyone ever providing a complete program of material to guide people through their earliest hours of public grief.

I didn't keep with it while they were putting their playlists together, but most of the decisions I heard seemed crude or bizarre - unreflexive or sardonic or lugubrious, insensitive to the likely moods of the bereaved. I was reminded of a fellow I met in college who intended to dose the punch at his going-away party; I remember him laughing on the porch of our dormitory in the face of my objections and the image of his dilated, weeping parents. All the saxophonists I know have a mischievous streak that frequently spills over into the sinister.

But anyway, it got me thinking. This is a sensitive issue! Do I know enough about the relationship of sound to emotional response that I can trust my choices and guide my loved ones through their upheaval? Is it safe to have a whole album playing, instead of the easier single song? Give them something small and sweet, not a protracted journey through my whim, whims, and whimsy. Let them get out of the cemetery and on with their lives as soon as possible. Spoil as few songs as necessary. Sink into the soil and off the playing field of the living at a fair and considerate speed. One breakup song is enough to process the feeling, to attach it to something manageably small. A whole breakup mix is torture, meted wave after wave, while we steal our breaths in the baited silence between tracks in order to survive the next song's regathered dive into convolution.

It could be handled skillfully, giving people a tapering massage out and sliding into a clean break. But the appropriate isn't always so simple to predict, and I do care about not making things harder on everyone than I have to. I don't play un-befitting music in life (it's one of the few ways I choose not to upset people, so many others being out of my control). So why should I risk leaving a bad taste in everyone's mouth?

It's the last moment of a thing that people use as a handle, an anchor, in memory. We leave the theater feeling according to the film's end, not its middle - and that's not simply advice for the departing, to make sure that your final moment is the one you want stamped into the quantum hologram forever and ever, that you're sufficiently present and lucid to survive the dissolution of everything you consider yourself and make some reasonable decisions as you sink back through the densities of embodiment and betwixt the legs of some handsome couple. It's also the motive for making up our dead so as to disguise their wounds, their bloodlessness, their odor.

And it's why I have been thinking about this on and off for weeks, and have yet to settle on more than a handful of songs that would go into the soundtrack to my funeral. The certainties include Aphex Twin's "Avril 14th," a gorgeous and wistful solo piano piece, played with a light but determined touch that evokes in me a precious and miniature sentiment, like looking at a dollhouse of my childhood home. As staunch as the vow of a child, and as pure and naïve. It's one of those rare songs that so successfully leaves a person emptier and quieter, listening for an echo of its solemn but smiling strains in the wind and trees as the end credits roll up over the rest of the day.

Aphex Twin - Avril 14th

Another is Peter Gabriel's "I Grieve," which has a funky, almost heroic bridge that soars momentarily above the incredible tenderness of the rest of the song, reaffirming the persistence of life, before floating respectfully back into a dirge.

Peter Gabriel - I Grieve

It was only one hour ago
It was all so different then
There's nothing yet has really sunk in
Looks like it always did
This flesh and bone
It's just the way that you were tied in
Now theres no-one home

I grieve for you
You leave me
So hard to move on
Still loving what's gone
They say life carries on
Carries on and on and on and on

The news that truly shocks is the empty empty page
While the final rattle rocks its empty empty cage
And I cant handle this

I grieve for you
You leave me
Let it out and move on
Missing what's gone
They say life carries on
They say life carries on and on and on

Life carries on
In the people I meet
In everyone that's out on the street
In all the dogs and cats
In the flies and rats
In the rot and the rust
In the ashes and the dust
Life carries on and on and on and on
Life carries on and on and on

It's just the car that we ride in
A home we reside in
The face that we hide in
The way we are tied in
And life carries on and on and on and on
Life carries on and on and on

Did I dream this belief?
Or did I believe this dream?
Now I can find relief
I grieve...


But maybe I'd switch it out for "Washing of the Water," which is more humble and earnest - and so, strangely, more honest to the yearning that death evokes in me, in spite of it being less specifically and certainly about death and more diffusedly being about passages in general. Less explicit, it's more comforting. Which to me seems more considerate. More of a hymn, taking on a bigger meaning when sung by the whole town.

Peter Gabriel - Washing of the Water

River, river carry me on
Living river carry me on
River, river carry me on
To the place where I come from

So deep, so wide, will you take me on your back for a ride
If I should fall, would you swallow me deep inside

River, show me how to float
I feel like Im sinking down
Thought that I could get along
But here in this water
My feet won't touch the ground
I need something to turn myself around

Going away, away towards the sea
River deep, can you lift up and carry me?
Oh roll on through the heartland
'Til the sun has left the sky
River, river carry me high
'Til the washing of the water make it all alright
Let your waters reach me like she reached me tonight

Letting go, it's so hard
The way it's hurting now
To get this love untied
So tough to stay with thing
Cos if I follow through
I'll face what I denied
I'll get those hooks out of me
And I take out the hooks that I sunk deep in your side
Kill that fear of emptiness, and the loneliness I hide

River, oh river, river running deep
Bring me something that will let me get to sleep
In the washing of the water will you take it all away
Bring me something to take this pain away


Another moment of direct contemplation about it, and maybe I'd add Boards of Canada's "Peacock Tail," a kind of sultry swagger covered in ferns, a wordless exposé of self-justifying groundless bounty, swooning in luxurious patience, swaying back and forth, the radiant masculine yin. Just discordant enough to slow down expectancy, but consistent enough to reward. It flushes me with purples and greens and blues, the most appropriately-named instrumental piece I know - the cool colors not of death and decay, but of a mist-enshrouded and seductively distant beckoning forest promise, the living iridescence of an unthreatening fantasy just beyond reach. A lush riven mirage, confident and tender, noble and sly, good music for lovemaking and therapy. Relaxing and major while being untouchable and time-forgotten enough to mean something at a funeral.

Boards of Canada - Peacock Tail


In fact, the more I think about it, the more I do actually feel like I could provide something heartfelt and meaningful without being cruel about it. Besides, do I really want someone else to pick the music for my funeral? Of course not. Nor, for that matter, do I want someone else picking the music for my wake...so I'll be revisiting this topic with the next entry, when I'll discuss in detail my own happy and sad "I'm Dead" playlists.

(Written for iggli.com.)

26 November 2007

"Making It All Click!" interviews Michael Garfield

So I was interviewed for the first time, legitimately, a few weeks ago, by Bryan Flournoy (host of the podcast "Making It All Click!"). Bryan is a self-proclaimed intuitive and uses said guidance to find some wonderful interviewees. He's also an incredibly nice guy (and, though he's slow to admit it, a talented lifelong musician). For these reasons, it was an honor and a pleasure to talk with him about the history and future of Zaadz Visionary Music in this interview:

Bryan Flournoy interviews Michael Garfield

You can read more about the interview (which focuses on The Dream Is Valid, the new Kiva.org benefit compilation we just put out) on Bryan's blog, here:

Bryan Flournoy: Today's Thought

I spend most of the hour elaborating on my "putting play to work" manifesto - the philosophical foundation for my love's labor at ZVM and the ideological underpinnings ofThe Dream Is Valid. How I think music can sneak social responsibility under the radar and make it a powerful element of commerce. Why I believe that the business of music can be just as important an engine of global benefit as conventional forms of service - if not more so.

I rattle on about other cool stuff, too - although I'm not sure what (Admittedly, I haven't listened to the interview yet, so don't know what he edited out), so you'll just have to listen to it yourself. Enjoy!

(Written for iggli.com)

12 November 2007

Visionary Instruments: Tenori-on and Monome

Hopefully I don't have to do much convincing to establish with the readers of this blog that the computer is indeed a legit instrument. In fact, by some accounts, the computer might be the first global folk instrument. Those who still disagree probably do so because so much of contemporary electronic music is composed in sequencers and "performed" by pressing "play." Pre-recorded accompaniment is more like a painting than a dance - pretty passé, in an age when ubiquitous recording technology has restored the novelty of a live performance (thus the boom of live painting by artists such as Kris D on stage at concerts).

But this is the exception, not the rule. The first true electronic instrument, the theremin, requires just as much performance nuance as any other member of the orchestra - and for decades, conducters flirted with it as a worthy replacement for the first violin. In many ways, analog synthesizers require more instrumental expertise than the piano, not less. And today, there is a whole new generation of musical controllers that offer artists a more intimate and organic relationship with computer music software.

One such instrument is Toshio Iwai's Tenori-on, a kooky little sequencer grid that lets its user get inside the beats while they are playing (Toshio might be most renowned for designing the super-cool Nintendo Gameboy DS music game Electroplankton). Like with so many new instruments, it's a little difficult to find the words that describe exactly how it works; but basically, the Tenori-on is a 16-track musical control and display surface... See if this example doesn't stretch your powers of inference:



Thankfully, Toshio is gracious enough to give an in-depth explanation of its workings here (part one) and here (part two). And here's a video of the inventor himself delivering a solo performance on his adorable new device (notice how cool it is that you can see the blinking buttons through the open backplate of the machine):



Tenori-on has six different programs, which means six different ways to relate to its 216-button grid. Here's an artist painting sound onto the grid in "score mode," which isn't as euphemistic as it seems (although it does allow for Beavis & Butthead moves like this one):



Yeah, pretty cool. And notice that it a free-standing device - you don't have to plug it into a computer or a wall. Which is to say, it'd make a delightful travel companion (like theukulele I bought on a lark in Hawaii - or the kalimba I bought after torturous delibaration in the Ozarks, of all places). But before you rush out to buy one (and good luck, anyway: they're currently only for sale in the UK), make sure to check out the even-handed reviewshere and here.

...And consider that the Tenori-on has direct competition from (some might say, "is a rip-off of") the Monome - an earlier controller, designed by Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain, that is superficially similar in that it is a blinky little music box, but significantly different in several important ways. Foremost among them is that while the Tenori-on carries all of its own sounds and programming, the Monome is a total blank slate. It is not a standalone musical device and contains no sounds or code of its own - which is bad if you don't likelugging around your laptop, but good if you like using your own sounds or exploiting open source software to do goofy stuff like run Conway's Game of Life (demo on the Monome homepage, here). Brian and Kelli's "about us" page reads like a design manifesto:

"we aim to refine the way people consider interface. we seek less complex, more versatile tools: accessible, yet fundamentally adaptable. we believe these parameters are most directly achieved through minimalistic design, enabling users to more quickly discover new ways to work, play, and connect. we see flexibility not as a feature, but as a foundation."

The kind of minimalism that extends to refusing the decadence of capital letters, apparently, but also enables a musical revolution. After Brian explains a bit about its history (and before Kelli talks about their cool packaging and weirdo felt-calculator-pillow-instrument) check out how he uses it to live-sample and remix a keyboard loop (!):



Here're a few demos of the Monome at work (at play):





The designers work out of their loft and can't possibly make enough of them to meet demand, so they do most of their sales through kits. With this "you build it, you hack it" mentality, people like Sound Tribe Sector 9's David Phipps end up creating their own custom models (good story about that here), such as this one:



Cool as hell. Too bad about the cheesy guitar riff, but otherwise a magnificent proof of principle. Notice how he's split off a piece of the board as a meta-control region, while the rest of it remains a step sequencer. I love blinky things. Especially when they make music.

Again, one thing that sets the Monome apart from the Tenori-on in a good way is that it will work with whatever wacky software you design for it. Open source being the way of the future (at least, according to the present - open source social networking platforms, open source music, and even open source biology), techno-prophet Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine argued in his excellent book New Rules For The New Economy that it's the most flexible products that will succeed. Which is why I so enjoy seeing cool unanticipated applications people find for the Monome like these:



(And you can simulate the Monome on your Gameboy.)

Lastly, you can ditch the fancy sequencing and play it like an "instrument," believe it or not. Its isomorphic button field liberates musicians from what the after-market innovator in this next video calls "the comforting tyranny of the keyboard" - basically, a major shortcut to learning music theory and exploring new tonal spaces:



So there you have it. Regardless of whether you prefer a pricey but immersive toy or a demanding but illimitable canvas, both Tenori-on and Monome deserve a place in the pantheon of visionary instruments. Both are changing the way we think and act about composition and performance. Both open new realms of electronic sound manipulation, and - at least for me - both provide a strong enough argument that just because something looks like a Speak and Spell (or maybe a Lite Brite) doesn't mean it isn't a legitimate substrate for groundbreaking musical expression.

If you're still not convinced (ahem), however, this might be your anthem:


(Written for
iggli.com.)

28 October 2007

Finding The Music In Noise

As should now be apparent from my essays on the Light Harp and on Tantric Listening, if I am a seeker of anything, it is of music in what is considered nonmusical. Consequently, I am a huge fan of music that draws its inspiration from environmental sounds. Clyde Stubblefield, "the world's most sampled drummer" for his work with James Brown (and thus himself something of an environmental phenomenon), had some great stuff to say about this in his essay on time for the September 2007 issue Modern Drummer Magazine:

"I learned to keep time when I was a kid by focusing on my walking. I really listened to all the sounds around me and always heard rhythm in them. Whatever the leg and foot patterns of my walking may be, that's the time I focus on. Those are my timekeepers.

I lived in Chattanooga, Tennesee as a child, and there was a big factory where they made cardboard boxes. The factory had a big smoke stack. Every morning it would start puffing smoke out, and you could hear it all over the city. So From early in the morning until about 4:00 p.m., you heard this smock stack going PUFF-puff-PUFF-puff-PUFF-puff all around you. I also remember the sound of the old washing machine at home going slish-slosh-slish-slosh all the time. And hearing that tick-tock of our big clock - it all stuck in my head. I would fall asleep to the sound of that clock. I feel that all of these things helped develop my time as a drummer."

Yes indeed, internalizing our environment is the evolutionary process itself (more on that here). So we are taking a more active role in evolution when we groove to the sounds around us, whatever they may be. Peter Gabriel, in his infinite wisdom, has of course already written a song about this:


Listening with headphones, you can hear the scratchy percussion track come in when he's singing about the burnt brown toast, and the dull repeating thud when he talks about his neighbor hammering something...it's a gorgeous song.

In the same vein, Björk made a whole movie, Dancer in the Dark, about the musical fantasies that take over a woman's imagination as she goes blind. Increasingly forced to rely on her hearing to escape her suffering, she fancies herself the star in a series of outlandish interludes:


Electronic sampling has helped us make sense of our busy industrial world for decades. When I got my computer, I was most excited about the little built-in microphone - suddenly I had a mobile recording studio! The first thing I did was go record the oh-so-melodic sound of rotors and computation that the ATM makes before spitting out cash (I'd been waiting to do it for weeks). That sample, and a synth flute I made from blowing a Tanqueray bottle, were prominently featured in my first electronic composition:


In my next piece, I carried it a bit further into Björk territory and made almost the entire song from random noises - including a soda fountain, wind chimes, a shaken box full of old toys, and the rustling pages of a book (Osho's Tantric Transformations)


In the works are another song that grooves to the University of Kansas Herpetology Department's printer; one that squeezes anthemic glory out of a rusty dishwasher door; and a kind of tribal thing that features me drumming on the computer itself (oooh, how recursive!). Tonight, I'm playing a show with a electronic drum kits composed of little chimey things I found lying around at my old job in the candle shop. I'm sure that sooner or later the novelty of saying, "That gorgeous synthesizer tone is me dragging a chair across the floor" will wear off, but in the meantime it's a game I'm playing with the universe to find cool new textures and rhythms where I wouldn't normally pay attention.

The more I listen, the more intimate I become with the various properties of my surroundings - learning to anticipate how this table might sound if I struck it with that magazine, wondering whether my laptop mic is sensitive enough to pick up the sound of me rubbing two leaves together (and if so, what part of the drum kit would that be?).

It's a great game. But it tickles me when artists are not only paying attention to this stuff, but lending their creative ear to music that ends up doing something important. Tim and Chris Bran, aka the Vapour Brothers, showed me up with this gorgeous little cut-up ditty they created for SOS Live Earth ("Concerts For A Climate In Crisis"):


...Just in case you were wondering how to make cool music, commune with the kosmos, and help save the planet all at the same time. But don't think you need expensive recording equipment to start crafting your own found sound masterworks. The Freesound Project is a massive collaborate effort that collects and archives all kinds of cool environmental samples under a Creative Commons license for anyone to use. Thanks, guys!

And there you have it. Maybe now that jackhammer outside your window will put a little swing in your step. Why not? The world sings for us.

(Written for iggli.com.)

18 October 2007

The Fullness of Emptiness: Riffing on Arvo Pärt

With this entry, I'll be commenting on the sage wisdom of visionary composer Arvo Pärt. Pärt's minimalist soundscapes are a major feature of the Twentieth Century's musical terrain; his is a particularly windblown and barren, starkly beautiful land, with grand vistas and time-carved expanses. It's rare that an artist evokes such obvious and linear geographic metaphors for me, but I love Pärt's music for the exact same reason that I love the badlands of Wyoming. Both are vast and open and take ages to cross. Both are dotted by the miniature embellishments of dry and rugged plants or the occasional orchestral flourish, and are riven by the traces of scarce water's seasonal flow or a change of key, equally sudden and embraced.

The hugeness of the American West has inspired countless poets and cowboy philosophers, and I count myself among them. So it is little wonder that I experience the same hugeness in Pärt's symphonies as a giant sky, into which my attention spills and spills, a beckoning horizon just faint enough to yield to my conjectures. He demonstrates in human craft what being in such a place will tell you: that emptiness makes room for form. Absence is suggestive. All sound arises from silence.

What follows are quotes from Pärt I found in the liner notes to a collection of his recordings (Pärt: Tabula rasa/Fratres/Symphony No. 3a, 1999 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Hamburg) - and, in the tradition of the commentators on Sun Tzu's Art of War or Lao Tzu's Book of Changes, my own embellishments on what he has to say. I think his musings and those of the Eastern sages are equally profound. Hopefully some of you will find my contributions worthwhile, as well.

(Arvo Pärt - Tabula Rasa: I. Ludus, Tabula Rasa: II. Silentium)

"I need to withdraw in order to depict something objective. The greater our ability to stand back and feel the wing-beat of time, the more powerful will be the impact of the work of art. Time's beating wing affects us in two ways: on the one hand creating uncertainty, endless complications, chaos; on the other hand, order. It is the simultaneity of life and death." (p.3)

Creativity requires a balance between detachment and immersion - the forest and the trees. In the moment of inspiration, the composer is not separate from the composition. Improvisation requires one to be completely within the music, but this is balanced with a period of revision, of review. If you are to make a transparent offering with your music, you cannot criticize yourself while you are writing, but neither can you be open to every idea that comes to you when the time comes to redraft your work. Great creativity is a balance between the art and the craft (or the science). We as limited creatures are usually incapable of both at once, so these are taken in turn, serially.

This is one way in which "the wing-beat of time" appears in music. The finished piece is like the channel of a river, starting with a blanket of rain and gathering into the sweeping curve of the earth, summer after summer, one storm after another. Discernment and discrimination determine the final artifact left by a wash of emotion. The clarity of our messages are determined by our ability to ride the ebb and flow of growth and paring, intimacy and perspective, passion and choice, as these things arise naturally. The feminine provides and the masculine decides.

A more complex environment - a rich imagination, or a diverse ecosystem - provides more raw material with which to sculpt new meaning. Consequently, the most complicated music in the world is written in response to the most complicated times. The more chaos there is in the system, the more structure appears to make sense of it.

Add enough heat to wood and you get the living crystal of flame - directionality, current, and contour. Ilya Prigogine called this a "dissipative structure": a pattern that forms to best bear the strain of additional energy in a system. Add a thousand things for people to talk about, and mere words no longer suffice. Sooner or later, you get syntactic language; "it's how the cookie crumbles." Water forms hexagonal cells right before it boils. Force people into chains and you get rhythm and blues. Force infinity into people and you get musicians.

And for the record, randomness is defined by mathematicians as our inability to discern the order in a pattern. Neither exists without the other; neither is more foundational. They are reciprocal, and great musicians are aware of this. Mature creativity is walking the shoreline of an island of reality that rises from a sea of potential. The shore is always being redrawn, both by the waves and by our footsteps. On our next pass, we'll have to draw a different map. Life and death are in love with each other, and together they conceive each new moment as a variation on the theme of the last - even in the tiniest gesture, in some improvised flourish, or the serendipitous recording of studio banter.

"You have to limit yourself and cut back a lot, both within yourself and in terms of what is around you. And this is also reflected in the music. If I know nothing about something, it is not right that I should say anything about it either. But if I have discovered something, even if it is very little, I say so: very briefly and as directly and as concentratedly as I can, since I, too, am concentrating on the thing in question. That's why the notes that I write may be no more than cues." (p.5)

First, a musician must have an idea. But then, as Ken Wilber said, "Part of being a good writer is selecting words that have a minimum number of alternative meanings, so you can communicate a coherent message." We can not be honest with ourselves and expect our music to fully describe our inner experience. The first-person world and the third-person world are lovers, but they are ultimately incommensurable. There is no valid way to measure one in the language of another. Magritte said, "Every painting starts as a romance and ends as a rape." We can succumb to this cynicism, or we can accept that no quantity will ever replace a quality. All of our words are "no more than cues."

In embracing this, however, we can be playful with our language. Knowing that no single song will ever satisfy, I am liberated from the burden of writing the perfect song. The song I am now writing shows something beautiful and unique, and anyway, there will be more. I know there is no such thing as the Great American Novel, so I can get on with writing my story. I am free to write about the "very little," because I am no longer chained to the task of capturing Everything in Something. And the less I try to do so, the more space I leave for the listener to notice that indeed, every thing does lead home to Everything.

"I have discovered that it is enough if a single note is played beautifully. This single note, the sense of peace or silence have a calming effect on me." (p.4)

One word suggests more than two ever could. Candlelights will always be sexier than floodlights. Emptiness yields. The blank page tells every story, which is why writer's block is so overwhelming: we tremble before the mystery of our own omnipotence. Lao Tzu: "The Master says nothing, and leaves nothing unsaid."

"My music was always written after I had long been silent in the most literal sense of the word. When I speak of silence, I mean the 'nothingness' out of which God created the world. That is why, ideally, musical silence is sacred. Silence is not simply given to us, but in order that we may draw sustenance from it. This sustenance is no less valuable to me than the air I breathe. There's an expression: to live on air and love. I'd like to rephrase this: if you approach silence with love, music may result. A composer often has to wait a long time for this music. It is this reverent sense of expectation that constitutes the brief silence of which I am so fond." (p.5)

I have studied a little bit of neuroscience, enough to know that we do not experience things, but the differences between things. We see boundaries, and our brains conserve resources by assuming the rest. So when I say that no sound exists without silence, I mean it in the least metaphysical, most flesh-and-blood way possible. To experience is to compare. We owe all of our music to silence, even if we never stop to thank it. The single piece of advice common to every musician, no matter the instrument, is to play the rests. Play the rests.

There is also, however, a silence beneath silence. The rests emerge in this openness, the deeper silence in which we make our comparisons. Needless to say, you cannot hear it. But maybe you should try.

(Written for iggli.com)

12 October 2007

An Ode To The Chapman Stick

Unlike with previous instruments in this column, I have a long-standing and personal relationship with the invention I'll be discussing this week. It's called the Chapman Stick, and it was one of the most radical developments in music from the second half of the Twentieth Century (the first half goes to the electric guitar). Created by Emmett Chapman in 1969, the Stick is a wild redesign of the guitar that opened a new realm of musical expression - one that has only begun to be explored.

Forty years ago, Chapman was struggling to fill the anemic sound of solo jazz guitar with a richer bass end and started adding lower strings to his instruments. It wasn't long before six strings became nine. Soon after, he realized that his magnetic pickups were sensitive enough to register even the slightest tapping of strings to frets. He had found a way to make sounds in a much more direct and percussive fashion than by plucking and strumming, liberating his right hand from having to sound the efforts of his left.

Thus, the Stick was born. Chapman had discovered a musical space similar to the one occupied by pianists, in which interweaving voices, multiple melodic lines, and free-winging improvisation with chordal accompaniment is standard fare. Each hand can be playing in a different meter, or - thanks to its split pickups and a stereo output - through a different effects chain.

Here's an example - a gorgeous pastoral piece by Rob Martino:



By the 1980s, he was installing MIDI pickups on them, and suddenly each string could trigger a separate synthesizer. The Stick effortlessly spread its wings into the burgeoning fantasia of electronic music. There are now Stickists performing in bands all over the world in the stead of guitar, bass, keyboards, and even drums (thanks, again, to MIDI).

Glenn Poorman has taken fantastic advantage of this, using MIDI and live looping to create a one-man live electronic act:


I first heard the Stick played by Greg Howard on "The Dreaming Tree," the deep sylvan sojourn holding up the back end of Dave Matthews Band's 1998 album Before These Crowded Streets. (So yeah, I got acquainted with the Stick through a song about a tree. How appropriate! The further I go with this instrument, the more cosmically symmetrical everything about it becomes. More on that in a minute.)

Greg Howard is a virtuoso, very much the heir apparent to Emmett Chapman. He covers Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" in this video:


After years of hopeless dreaming, I finally got my own Stick last spring - and laying eyes on it for the first time, I reeled at the incredible potential this thing contains. This bizarre instrument with its five octave range sat sleeping in its open case like the only visible body part of a transparent orchestra. It occupies a terrain somewhere between the guitar, piano, bass, drums, and synthesizer - a giant fretboard, played as a part of the body, with the nuance of acoustic and the teeth of electric. It's operated - if one can even use such a vulgar word - with the amplifier turned up loud, so that the player can use as little force as possible. It's the paradoxical junction of grace and grit - at once the stupidly obvious logical conclusion of stringed instruments, and yet exotic enough to appear as an artifact of the unimaginably distant future, in the David Lynch's adaptation of Dune.

Here's the clip of Patrick Stewart faking it on an embellished Stick:


The Stick is a magical object, glowing with alchemical significance. Literally: Chapman, who invented not just the Stick and its method of parallel tapping, but also a powerful ambidextrous tennis technique and a significant breakthrough in brewing coffee, also happens to be a master astrologist in his few remaining hobby hours. He sees the grand and deeper patterns of the universe. He is a Libra - you know, "The Scales" - and the fact that this beautiful thing found its way into the world through Libra - a sign reknowned for its symmetry, balance, and sense of order - has not been lost on me. It has ten strings - for ten fingers - and is tuned reciprocally, so that the same fingering produces a chord in the treble strings and the inversion of that chord in the bass. Chapman even created a new modal system for it based on his personal birth chart. Seriously.

The geometric perfection of it all is too much for my limited cognition. Several people claim that playing this instrument has actually alleviated their carpal tunnel or other serious chronic hand issues and allowed them to make music again. (It's because of the Stick's ergonomics, how it's held upright and how you reach across the fretboard to play, thus opening your hand - rather than the cramped positions that most instruments require of their players.)

My own Stick is one of the later models, woven from graphite fiber like other futuristic things - including that space elevator we'll be getting any day now. It was never a living wood - no sentient beings were harmed in the making of this musical revolution. I bought it on the 8th of April, a day that is celebrated in Japan as the birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha, with a festival of countless fluttering blossoms. There's something about its crystalline construction, the ludicrous abundance of Japanese festival culture, and the Buddha's "do no harm" injunction that requires me to use this as an instrument of peace.

It arrived in the mail on Good Friday, which is appropriate because I cannot think about it without being swept up in angelic metaphor. I am not alone among Stick players in my conviction that this is a sacred instrument. Even as a die-hard guitarist, one of the minority who have taken up the Stick without abandoning my mother tongue, I cannot imagine the guitar evoking exactly the same intensity of nerd-monk reverence. There's something about it that inspires an otherworldly devotion and wonderment that is rare with other instruments, an elegance that puts it in the same category as relativity theory and the Cartesian plane. I mean this in the strictest sense: Einstein attested relativity theory to a spontaneous peak experience he had while riding a train, and Descartes said that his mathematical revolution was delivered at night by angelic vision.

In this video, Trevor (the only Stickist in Kansas?) peppers footage of his excellent playing with a bit of discourse on his spiritual relationship with his instrument:


The Stick is a rare physical object in the pantheon with these luminous abstractions; it stands unpretentiously as a gift from on high. It's a burning bush, the impossible clue that we give ourselves to wake into a lucid dream: by all reason, it should only be a fantasy, and yet I can feel it underneath my fingers. I don't claim to understand.

Many of my favorite musicians have communicated the importance of favoring the message over the medium. To whatever degree you can, forget the instrument that you play and focus on the music you are trying to express. Victor Wooten - probably the most influential bassist alive - is fond of saying that he is a musician, not a bassist. That paying attention to your instrument while you play can trip you up in the same way that paying attention to your tongue makes it more difficult to speak.

Try as I might, though, it's hard to make the Stick totally transparent to the music (although earlier, literally transparent lucite models do exist as a kind of joke attempt). If there's one thing I've learned from postmodernism, it's that the message is never really separate from its medium. Although the Stick can liberate a solo artist to perform stupendously rich compositions, it simultaneously transforms the same artist into a Swiss Army knife in band contexts. Agency and communion. The drum and the harp. Masculine and feminine. I open the case and suddenly I am voyeur to the spectacular orgy of every archetype as they make love in the space of an overhead compartment.

Nor can I, no matter how poetic I wax, truly describe the weird beauty of the Chapman Stick with words alone. Here are some other good videos of this masterpiece in action.

A cover of the cantina band theme from Star wars:


The Stick with a proper European lightshow:


A truly excellent Stick and african percussion jam:


Additional audio/video, and more information than you could ever fully digest, is available online at www.stick.com. Enjoy!

(Written for iggli.com)