big ears


         There was a moment last Wednesday, while drawing, where I felt like I had powered through the recent frustrations and lack of direction. Returning to basics, just drawing, strips it all down and allows you to focus on the core of what you want to do with your hand. I made 10 ink drawings in an hour and it set up a visual language that looked like the beginning of something substantial. The drawings weren’t the solution. They were what looked to be the first step forward- the bottom layer of a structure for future parts to rest. The problem is that I made the drawings and then immediately had to leave the studio and take care of the rest of my life, then go teach and then leave on a trip. So here I sit, 5 days later where I should have been 4 days ago. Fortunately, the work still looks like how it felt last week. I want to make 10 more. Once I have a critical mass, I will probably know what comes next. So much of the creative process is building something up just so you can tear it down again at a later date. I think about singer-songwriters in that way. I get committed to a recording. Bob Dylan should only play “Tangled Up In Blue” the one way it exists on Blood on the Tracks. Bob would tell me to shut up. It’s his song. He can play it however he wants. He hasn’t listened to Blood on the Tracks since 1975 and that’s only because he had band practice for a tour and forgot something in a verse. He’ll tear that song down and build it up a different way, thank you very much. I’m the same way with my work and I forget to extend that courtesy to other artists sometimes.

         My desk area is littered with notecards of ideas, etc. I think Pinterest people call these “vision boards” or something. Sometime in January, I wrote down “develop a drawing language for painting, a new form of abstraction (for me). Consider Byzantine and medieval ideas.” I wanted something divorced from the somewhat untrained version of academic language that I use in drawing: the endless hatching, cross-hatching, stippling that, in reality, anyone that ever cared about what I did would rather that I still be doing. Looking at work spanning the “Middle Ages” is way of divorcing ego from the process. Making work in service of something greater with no concern whether or not your name is registered. Creating work for the purposes of edification and joy. Whatever I did last week is that step on the notecard. There are 10 other notecards that have to get addressed now. Once all of those cards are either conquered or dismissed, then I’ll probably be back up to speed. All of that said, I have a lot that will keep me busy this week so I will not make much progress.

         I went to the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville this weekend. If memory serves me correctly, this is my 5th time. I don’t know that I go hoping for inspiration more than I go to get out of my own head for a few days. It is the perfect music festival for middle-aged people like me because you get to sit down for a lot of it, you don’t have to camp, and it’s contained in the heart of a city that I do really love. You can take a trolley from one event to another, but I walked the whole time, which was also good for me. According to my watch, I walked 10 miles a day. The festival focuses on contemporary composition, be it jazz, ambient, atonal, drone, dance, etc. This year featured a focus on Harold Budd and, separately, the ECM record label and their 50th anniversary. I didn’t get within 400 yards of Harold Budd. The crowds were too big for his events, so I always had to opt for a different performance. Some acts are deeply committed to their craft. Their joy is not obvious, but I assume under that sober veneer is someone dedicated and happy. Others are all in and want you to know that they are still up onstage for the reason they started piano or saxophone lessons 20 years ago or bought a copy of Ableton. Jlin performs like she hit the lottery. So gracious. So happy to not be working whatever factory job she had.

Nils Frahm dances around his equipment and when he speaks. It is casual and inviting. He feels no obligation to set the tone. You like it? Like it for why you like it. You don’t have to meet him in his place. No explanation required. Others? Man, they want you to know what was happening during the gestation of the piece. They need the story. I get that. If you have any doubts about that, check my last show. That’s the stuff I’m trying to burn out of my work now. It puts too much on the audience to almost demand that they come to it on your terms. You’re not George Lucas in 1977 at that point. You’re George Lucas tweaking Star Wars in 1997, demanding you accept his vision.

         I know I’m old(er) but what the weekend reinforced for me is a bias I hold towards my generation and the two that follow me. Vulnerability, now, is saying a lot of words that came out of a diary entry. It’s a digital post-blog world. Putting yourself out there with the safety of a screen. Post a photo and type how you feel. Younger people’s vulnerability is words. People have been taught to type out, “I really need some love right now” and try to survive on the random thumbs-up and “You can do it!”s that come back in return. No one has risked anything. Not the person seeking help and not the person thinking that they provided any comfort. You gave someone a dopamine fix and that’s it.

         I get that this is the new emotional currency, but it is safe and, to me, relatively risk-free. You have to be willing to physically embarrass yourself in a performance in some ways. The first time I got “onstage” to perform music, I had a simultaneously crippling and liberating thought: “I am here for an hour no matter what happens.” It would either be a personal disaster or a chance to grow. I had a student last semester say, “I hope I can teach in a way like you one day.” My response was, “You have to be willing to make a total jackass of yourself, everyday, in front of 30 people.” Jlin flat out said she felt like she was giving something to the crowd because she was throwing stuff in her mix that she had never done before because she wanted to know what would happen. It could have tanked but she put it out there. Some of these other people probably aced their Tutorial on the Postmodern Condition class in college. They had taken something born out of risk and failure 60-70 years ago and reduced it to a calculated event where nothing could go wrong unless the power got cut to the club. Vulnerability is of the body as much as it is of the mind. Nirvana’s songs still seem to have an audience with teenagers. It’s not just the words. It’s the scream. That survives. When we were younger, it was the scream, but it was Cobain diving into the drum set or even Krist Novoselic throwing his bass up in the air and accidentally having it hit him in the face. I say this, but I never listen to them anymore. I listen to Big Star’s “Thirteen” and think, “I would never have let myself write that song because I would have thought it was corny, but I am so glad he had the courage to write it and sing and play it so purely.” The reduction of teenage love to something that sweet only makes sense to me now. Chilton was on another plane to write that in his 20s.

         That risk has to be there, but it has to be backed up. I saw one act that was nothing but emotion, and it was as wrong as anything clinical that I witnessed. She might as well have banged on a gong for 45 minutes and yelled the same sentence over and over again because that’s how hit felt. She had one thing to say, at one volume for 45 minutes. It was like reading the same sentence in a novel for an hour if the sentence was written in all caps. There was no fear but there was little art as well. It was just anger and at the end of it, she just screamed her diary at me while something that sounded like a track Trent Reznor put out in the trash hammered away in the background.


         Onward towards joy. Up in the air with your bass:

Quote for the week: 

“God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together


Lyric for the week:

“Scientists and engineers will only amplify your fears”

Chris Stamey “Geometry”


Currently reading:

In Xanadu- William Dalrymple

St. Augustine: City of God

The Book of Mark