Michael Garfield's Love Without End Tour Newsletter: May 2009

28 May 2009

Luke Redfield's Folk Mysticism and Mystic Folk

I've always been ambivalent to folk music, because for so many it's a shelter in the comforting conventions of the past – an escape from the buzzing confusion of modern life in the platitudes and tired imagery of yesteryear. Folk is too frequently a narrow answer to broader questions, the musical equivalent of quoting Scripture to someone asking for advice on open relationships.

On the one hand, I too feel in over my head, and admire the urge to return to something simpler, something most of us understand as "behind" us in time. On the other hand, we can't turn this car around – in the words of Winston Churchill, "When you're going through Hell, keep going." The way out isn't back, it's through. The big questions deserve equally big answers – or, at least, an honest admission of their tremendous and terrifying unansweredness. The mystery of life isn't going away...and more and more, I find deeper solace in acknowledging this than by burying my head in familiar sand.

Broadly speaking, folk music's recent evolutions haven't brought the genre any closer – neo-folk and anti-folk drape themselves in old clothes but either indulge in absurd over-the-top romanticism, wooly pagan freakishness, or insensible deconstructed hipster chic.

Anyway, folk music, like every other genre, is merely a vehicle. If Matisyahu can use rap and reggae to preach the principles of his Jewish Orthodoxy, and Ween can write country tunes that spin out into vulgar surrealism, there is no reason why someone can't offer real depth through the idioms of folk music. And every once in a while, I get to rejoice at finding someone who does just that.

Luke Redfield is one such artist. His earnest, half-broken voice and slow-jangling acoustic guitar nestle quite naturally into the crook of folk's timeless and popular constitution. The plodding, mellow roll of a trap kit doesn't exactly herald visionary songwriting. If I hadn't read the words before I'd heard the music, I might have missed it. But there it is: a wonder at the immeasurable grandeur of it all, a blushing laugh at impermanence and the silly expectations of our brief human lives, even a few daring moments when capital-M Mystery gets called out into the street for a staring contest.

Luke Redfield

Co-author of a guru-themed cookbook, Cooking With Sages – in which vegetarian recipes are paired with paintings and cocktail napkin bios of various 20th Century enlightened masters – Redfield's a committed scholar-practitioner of the world's wisdom traditions. And it shows in the music; as a songwriter, he's has taken folk's humble yearning for transcendence and ridden it to the stars. Fire Mountain, 2008's rehearsal album for this summer's forthcoming LP, opens with the unyielding-yet-empathetic "Silent Afternoon," practically a tract from the missing Folk Sutra, in which listeners are challenged to "strip that which defines you...an illusion, like the setting sun," and asked, "Would the guitar make a sound if I was not here to strum?"

Excuse me, what? Zen koans in a four-chord rambler? I want to take a minute here to reprint the lyrics from this number verbatim, just to be clear:

There’s no finger, there’s no moon
No whale, no harpoon
Can you hear the voices calling on a silent afternoon?
There’s no hand, there’s no gun
No slayer, no slayed one
Would the guitar make a sound if I was not here to strum?
There’s no body, there’s no soul
No candidate, no poll
No presidency, no kingship – for there’s nothing to control
There’s no death, there’s no birth
No countries, no earth
There is no fence around the universe

As you watch your life pass by
With what do you identify?
Can you strip that which defines you?
The attachments that bind you
An illusion, like the setting sun
Somewhere, the day has just begun

There’s no you, there’s no me
No two, no three
There is no one, but none, for eternity
There’s no time, there’s no space
No Original Face
No mathematical answer and no point of grace
There’s no wine, there’s no glass
No prayer, no fast
There is no religion and all of them will pass
No success, no fame
No winners, no game
The rat race exists only in your brain
There’s no mind, there’s no thought
No self, no want
There’s nothing that you need you haven’t already got

He manages to tear down the icons of just about every other folk song in five minutes – country, religion, desire, death, even music. I'd probably prickle if Redfield were just horny for turning folk music's innate rebelliousness on its own sacred cows, but he's clearly affectionate, even reverent, for the horse he's riding in on. Elsewhere on the album, he revels in a mysticism of the road that stands on the shoulders of masterpieces like Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, relishing the transparent sameness of the world that only a thousand diners and endless stretches of asphalt can instill. No self but the appearance of self, no wandering but the appearance of wandering.

Luke Redfield is speaking a language that anyone weaned on the mythos of the American Highway can understand...but crafts with it a bigger story, one beyond smaller and more recognizable concerns. In "Grateful Man," he leads us through the usual:

You came from down the road, you came right off the train
You have nowhere to go, ‘cause everywhere is the same
If I were a hobo, I’d roam this world with you
If I were a hobo, that’s what I’d do

Heard it before – until all of a sudden, he's nailing us with cowboy cosmology:

You came from the cosmos, you came from emptiness
You came from the bang that made this big ol’ mess
If I were a mystic, I’d be just passing thru
If I were a mystic, that’s what I’d do

One whole song is a reminder that "we've all got to lose this flesh." Another speaks of "how darkness came from light," and invites Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Taoists, and Hindus to a common table at which "Truth is a pathless land."

In Concert

This is the kind of music I'd expect Conor Oberst to write, if he could ever get his head out of the bottle – comfortable in its limits, but what limits? After all, "Life...is just a bed to dream away what's in your head." This is the kind of music I wish I'd found in high school, when I was more impressionable and sensitive to simple wisdom. This is the kind of music I want played in bars and folk festivals, where – God willing – it might enlighten a few people by osmosis. It makes me reconsider my opinions about folk music, maybe even want to go back and give a few dismissed artists a second listen. It kindles my inner vagabond mystic, burning to live the adventure of synchronous Spirit's wandering whim.

After all, if folk music is about tradition (both keeping it and bucking it), then Luke Redfield has upped the ante: next to the perennial knowledge of ancient societies the world over, acoustic guitars and road anthems look baby fresh. Dropping folk's clichés into a far bigger context, he's cast new light on music that I long considered stale, reminding me that soul takes any – and every – form.

(Written for Colorado Music Board.)

18 May 2009

Biomimicry: Breathing New Life Into Design

One of the oldest truisms in design has to be, “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” And yet, the wheel itself was a reinvention – a microscopic, electromagnetic motor, complete with hub, spokes, and axle, is fundamental machinery deep within every cell of your body. When human beings stumbled on the relationship between a round disc and a flat surface, we were only recapitulating the “discovery” of these principles by evolution over three billion years before. If fact, the history of human ingenuity can be read as a book of rediscovery (and in many cases, direct plagiarism).

It should come as no surprise. Human beings, after all, have only had about 100,000 years to figure out what we know; the planet Earth is almost five billion years older than our species. All things considered, we’ve done an admirable job of arriving at what we know in the time we’ve had. However, most world-shaking inventions didn’t appear through mere trial and error, but through a careful study and imitation of natural form and function. It was common sense, to give one example, for us to solve the mystery of flight by first “hacking” the avian wing and feather.

On the other hand, the world is full of good ideas that appeared independently of one another in both the human and nonhuman world. The camera, with its lens, aperture, film, and theatre is nearly identical to the mammalian eye – and even its development and elaboration over the ages mirrors the eye’s evolution. In the wild world, the eye evolved from a patch of cells that change color when exposed to light, to a cup of these cells that collect light more efficiently, to the emergence of a pinhole through which the light is focused, to the appearance of a lens and iris that can adjust focal length. In the human world, our understanding of light capture proceeded similarly, from bleaching/tanning/pigmentation, to the camera obscure, and finally to the modern camera with its adjustable lens and aperture.

The difference between these two examples isn’t in the end product – a superb fit between form and function – but in how long and gradually it took our species to figure it out. The principle of lift and the curvature of a wing emerged rapidly and holistically into human culture – as opposed to the intricate design of a camera, which was developed gradually and laboriously over hundreds of years. Had early scientists paid closer attention to the ways that nature has already accomplished what were then unimaginable tasks, we might be living in a world where both optics and air travel are ancient technologies. Everyone knows that it’s far quicker to copy someone else’s work than to arrive at the same conclusions from square one.

(Both of these instances, however, are noteworthy in that they have historically called into question the division between design and accident. The wing and eye are common examples in arguments for “Intelligent Design,” whose proponents mistakenly claim that these organs of “insurmountable complexity” could not possibly have emerged through natural selection. To the contrary, very thorough and rigorous arguments by evolutionary biologists have demonstrated how these features probably came into being through the gradual modification of the arm and skin, respectively. But it is noteworthy how thin the line really is between conscious and deliberate innovation, and the slow dumb grind of biological change over eons. This is especially true when we consider how some forms of natural selection, such as sexual selection, necessarily include conscious choice in the evolutionary process – and how no one really knows where ideas come from, except that the unconscious mind is a superb collator of information we normally ignore.)

The incredible effectiveness of copying nature’s “handiwork” has inspired scientists in every field to take a new interest in physiology and evolution, searching the natural world for answers to our most intractable design dilemmas. The 20th Century saw as much technological development as the ten thousand years before it – due in no small part to how Darwin’s theory of evolution by mutation and natural selection gave us a vivid and fruitful analog to our own process of creative discovery. Now, there is an explicit return to natural form as inspiration by researchers from all over the globe, in once-segregated disciplines like ecology and cybernetics, sociology and computing, civil engineering and advertising. This new integrative science, known as biomimicry or biomimetics (from the Greek worlds for “life” and “imitation”), is breathing novelty into applications as far-reaching as the development of new materials and surfaces, to the construction of more efficient transportation and communication, to the design of artificial intelligence and more humane economic and political systems.

Biomimicry studies nature at all levels – from the function and form of biological molecules, to the structure and process of tissues and organs, to the behavior and gross anatomy of entire organisms, to the dynamics of swarms and hives, to complex interrelations between the numerous species of an ecosystem. Every order of magnitude has something to teach us. Investigating the iridescent pigments in butterfly wings yields a new understanding of color and pushes the frontier of fashion design. Analyzing the behavior of bees and termites offers computer scientists clues about how to build self-organizing information networks and search engine algorithms. Puzzling over the bumpy nodes on the flipper of a humpback whale forces engineers to reconsider everything they know about turbulence and aerodynamics.

There is poetry in the popularity of biomimicry. As 21st Century human problems push us ever closer toward the specter of global catastrophe, we have opened our minds to what some people would call “natural wisdom” and found our greatest hope for a compassionate and sensible future in the incredible practicality of a world we long considered dumb and brutal. We are beginning to erode ancient and obsolete distinctions between “human” and “nature,” “intentional” and “accidental.” And in so doing, we are awakening to the incredible cumulative intelligence of the evolutionary process, allowing it to inform our quest for knowledge in every human endeavor.

Thanks to biomimicry, the very idea of design is being reimagined, and our place in “the grand design” radically revised. Much of the history of human design – especially over the last several hundred years, during which time we were incorrigibly isolated from our natural origins – has been one reinvented wheel after another. From here on out, however, the story of design looks like one of humility in light of something greater – at least older and wiser – than our selves.
(Written for d/visible magazine.)

15 May 2009

As We Approach My End In Phoenix

Before I go any further, if you happen to be in Los Angeles this weekend, come see me! I'm playing a few wonderful gigs out here and would love to meet up. If you know people out here whom I should meet, get ahold of me and say so!

FRI 5/15, 5:00 - 8:00 PM at Acoustic Set @ Euphoria Loves Rawvolution Café
2301 Main Street, Santa Monica - FREE

SAT 5/16, 7:00 - 9:00 PM – Acoustic/Electronic Set @ Cinespace
(a battle of the bands benefit for pediatric spinal trauma)
6356 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles - $10 recommended donation

SAT 5/16, 10:30 PM - 1:30 AM – Live Art @ El Cid
for Carousel Galaxy, Terraplane Sun, & DJ Azmyth
4212 W Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles - $10, 21+

> Imagery

available - 2009 05 08 The Rhythm Room (That 1 Guy) - 16"x24"
If you haven't seen That 1 Guy, make it a priority. Best (non-guitar) one man band ever. I started with purple paint stripes on this one and to my surprise they ended up pretty wormy. Appropriate accompaniment for an act that talks about Weasel Pot Pies and a Buttmachine. Yet there are those silent sentient gazing orbs...calling the worms up out of the ground like snake charmers, the sacred and the profane. Here's a detail of the centerpiece:

available - 2009 05 06 & 13 Sail Inn (The Sugarthieves, BCBC String Band, Black Carl) - 15"x30"
It's been a while since I had time to work on a two-nighter...thankfully The Sugarthieves have a weekly Wednesdays residency at Sail Inn and I got to spend all of last week's gig working on the orbs and hourglasses that make up the background matrix of this piece. Everything here derived directly from a flower of life grid I'd thrown on the board a few weeks ago, waiting for a prime moment. It was my first attempt at covering the entire board with a grid and since I hadn't used a ruler it came out somewhat lopsided. But the imbalance of the piece is held in a wonderful, delicate tension with the formal, measured aspects of it. I got the best of both worlds, I think: careful and deliberate harmonic relationships, but the off-kilter organic sway of my earlier freehand pieces. As is usually the case with two-nighters, this was a troublesome work until it was actually complete; longer pieces are just as improvisational, but often feel like I'm trying to lift a heavier fish out of the waters of the imagination (I usually don't know it's a two-nighter until it's too late). Major successes in this piece include my first satisfying execution of a transparent "glass" overlay, pleasing use of gold paint, and a solid contrapuntal relationship between warm and cool colors, crystalline and fluid forms, visual overtones and undertones. And a nice fractal cube figure. Details of the "yin" and "yang" central elements:

09 May 2009

Live From Zero Point

> Music

Forty minutes of new live recordings from my adventures in Arizona. These highlights from shows all over Phoenix and Flagstaff show off a few new songs as well as solid performances of old standards...and my first-ever foray into electronic dance music for acoustic guitar. Not to mention rambling interludes regarding quantum biology, the origins of Bicycle Day, and my solemn vow to give that girl in the audience a dance party before the night is through.

And it's all totally free for you to share and remix to your heart's content, courtesy of a Creative Commons Noncommercial Attribution License and the good people at Archive.org. (If you feel like throwing me a tip, though, it won't go unnoticed.) Enjoy!