Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: December 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.)