It’s Monday today. Last Friday afternoon I was home waiting for a call from WORT radio in Madison WI, to do an interview about music, specifically about my latest release “Superfluity”. The phone rang and it was my wife who was walking through downtown Stockholm on her way home from work and ran into a ton of people running away from a tragedy where some person had stolen a beer delivery truck and ran down several people on a walking-mall on his way to try to blow up a department store. She was stuck at this point, walking with all of the other stunned people westward to our area of town since they had shut down the subways as soon as this happened. I listened to her in shock but had to get off the phone to get the other call and do an interview, now with that same empty feeling in my solar plexus that I had felt for days after the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland last winter.
I had to talk about music now. How could that possibly be important? And I got my wife off the phone for that. And it’s especially ironic because one of the underlying concepts on my album is that of just how superfluous music is, indeed how superfluous human beings are, life itself is, compared to the rocks and water of the earth or the solar system. A little overflow in an system otherwise heading toward equilibrium.
So I was a little shell-shocked myself, and started on the air talking about what just happened, and a little about international politics, but the Disc Jockey managed to change the subject so that we did actually get onto the topic of the album and of Camper Van Beethoven and so forth. I wasn’t brought on for news analysis, after all! I tried to shift gears and explain things like “what I bring to CVB and is it present on my solo records or what?” and “what’s it like these days?” I have no idea what I said. One thing I do remember is talking about how music is so devalued now that many people that make music (by habit or compulsion or whatever) have even less incentive to try to be commercially successful, so many just make the albums that they want to make, and fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. I’m certainly that way these days, “Superfluity” is a huge project—I was hoping to make a followup to my very first solo album from late 1988, the one that was called “a double album art-rock horror.” Several other musicians I know seem to just be going for it (like Nathan Hubbard’s Skeleton Key Orchestra album), trying to create whatever the farthest reaches of their imaginations come up with, or maybe just diving back into their roots to dredge up all the things that gave them meaning as a musician (like Nels Cline’s “Lovers”).
Can they get meaning from doing this? I wrote an awful lot about this sort of dilemma in this blog a couple years back now, one of the main lines of thinking that ended up with me making this album (and the Sista Maj album). Yes, it’s true: for me, making and recording music, mixing it and sculpting it into some final recorded piece, is important to me, I have spent most of my adult life in the pursuit of spending the maximum amount of time doing exactly that. So it must give meaning to my life. But music itself, is it even necessary? People are killing other people for some reason or another, surely the fact that violence is happening at all is more important than making something that will be enjoyed ephemerally by few people, and isn’t even an absolutely necessary thing for them. There’s already a plethora of digital files available to everybody to excite their cochleas and get some sympathetic vibrations going in the nervous system.
Let’s look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, (as disabused as the idea may be) and we can see that it’s unlikely that art or music—both the creating of and the enjoyment of—are gonna be way in that top bit of self-actualization or self-transcendence, so they’re not gonna be so necessary if we’re not taken care of, safe, loved, respected and self-respecting people. In other words, music is superfluous. And it’s just sounds, anyway, right? What are you even saying when you play music? What are you even hearing? Surely you could live without it.
Now, I can hear many people, including some aspects of myself, saying: No! Life without music is unbearable, it’s important for the mind and the soul and without it life would not be worth living.
Well, ok, but tell that to the people down on the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid, those struggling to survive at all, or struggling to be safe in a war zone. Even moving up in this hierarchy, people in relatively safe societies disenfranchised from their fellow humans by a lack of love or bonding or an entire lack of respect by some group within that society…and even in our relatively safe societies, these things are falling apart. People are less safe, there is more blatant racism, sexism, etc. What’s the purpose of that?
Some percentage of people in the USA seem to be in favor of their current president and his entire cabinet of corporate fascists. And their actions are causing more and more problems for more and more people, and yet, still, they continue and there still exist people who want them to continue. Why? What are they seeing as the end game? What is the racist’s end game, for example—a world where there’s only one skin color? How is that possibly a good thing? And how is causing pain and/or killing people a good thing, at all, ever? (also, if you just wait a few hundred years, to take the “Superfluity” long-view, maybe all the human races might get genetically blended together anyway. I don’t even get the “white” thing to begin with, white skin seems like a such a genetic dead end!)
I mean‚ I can sort of see the corporate fascist’s end game, but it’s usually just greedily gaining as much as they can before they die, fuck everybody else. In fact that seems to be the root motivation for most libertarianism or republicanism to begin with, personal greed. It seems idiotically obvious that most of the US/Russia/Middle East politics and war is just about making money on oil or natural gas. It’s hard to believe that anybody thinks that is a good thing. So why don’t we fix it? I guess we love our oil, need to drive them cars. Because deep down when you try to back it up with religion or creed, the entire rationale falls apart.
The search for meaning in making music must be even worse for some people.
If you have time, read this article from Feb 2016 by RFK Jr. And this article on why some points he made might be wrong (although it doesn’t really matter in the larger scheme of things, RFK Jr still mostly right.) Why is it that I, a musician, would want to know about oil politics? Is it just because I live in the same physical world as this and would prefer to survive, right there at the bottom of the needs-pyramid? Have you read “This Changes Everything”, Naomi Klein’s book on the extraction-based corporate world and its impact on our globe, our species, our lives? Are we in fact doomed now by these idiots who seem to be attempting to die with the most toys, all the while making it more and more uncomfortable and dangerous for the rest of us? How is this good for anybody…unless human people are simply in the way of the planet doing something else. Maybe we will realize our entirely superfluous nature and go extinct leaving the way wide open for a race of intelligent dragonflies hundreds of millions of years down the road. Or not. Maybe just rocks and water.
Meanwhile, we destroy our garden and turn it into an empty yard, as I sing in “Cat & Mouse”. If that’s not what you wanted, then—what? Oh did you want something else? Because there are old rich white guys out there who seem to not give a shit so long as they can get some more dollars. Let’s make sure that Europe’s heating gas is being sold by x. Or y. But we need to make sure those sources stay in our wheelhouse, and somebody is gassing civilians, let’s break something with missiles (so that the missile maker makes us some money, at least) and the next day some distraught person sees no other alternative but to kill innocent people with a truck or something. Because all of this is totally necessary, right?
People are dead. How is that good? Stockholm responded by having a “Love manifestation” where thousands of people gathered this weekend to proclaim that love was more powerful than hate. Which is great. And they believe it, which is also great. Though, cynically, I could say that they can afford to. Most of the needs of a person are indeed taken care of here. That’s good! That’s why people wanted to make a society like this in the first place. The only thing that fucks it up is when people think they should be making more money and they try to privatize something like medical treatment or the post office (both of which have been severely screwed up by several years of “moderate” government—why would you ever want things that serve the citizenry to be obligated to be profitable? That makes no sense at all, the “customer,” i.e., citizen, is then devalued in order to raise the bottom line. That defeats the purpose of having a health service, or a postal service, or whatever, to begin with.)
Like I said, I’m not here to talk about news analysis, am I? I’m here to talk about music. Yet music is overflow, superfluity, from simply being alive. Just like being alive at all is just a slight overflow of chemicals and electricity in the physical world. It doesn’t really matter. The entire physical universe would exist just fine without either. So if you’re going to overflow, my humble opinion is that it’s gonna be better to do so with something beneficial to the people around you rather than detrimental. I’m just hoping that music is indeed still beneficial. I worry about that due to the fact that it seems like fewer people care at all about music, many can’t even be bothered these days. Many of my friends seem to listen to podcasts nowadays instead of spending those precious minutes listening to music. (It’s as if they really just would rather watch TV, but their eyes are involved in something else. How can that be good?)
…nevertheless, she persisted, as we say to ourselves these days.
Can music even say anything to people? My friend Steed Cowart, a composer whom I met when he was the only grad student in the music department at UCSC back in the early 1980s, just posted a quote from Stravinsky on FB: “For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.” From ‘Igor Stravinsky (1936). An Autobiography, p. 53-54.’ I think what he’s actually saying is “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” in so many words. Music may or may not be a language, either way it has no inherent semantics, there is no signified in a note. Nothing specific is conveyed by some arrangement of sounds. And as John Cage composed to prove, and as Pauline Oliveros lived, sound becomes music in the listening.
I’ve always been fascinated by “political music,” especially where it’s not obvious by means of lyric. How can that work? While making “Superfluity,” one of the things I got back into was late 1960s Jefferson Airplane—Baxter’s, Volunteers, Crown. Very political lyrics, very cynical as well, must have been a bad trip for some listeners. I remember being a child and listening to my mom’s copy of “Crown of Creation” and being scared of Grace Slick’s voice. But the things they said/sung were extremely incendiary in many instances, especially on Volunteers. No rock band is saying anything like that now, are they? I’m certainly not at that level of anarchism these days, even when I feel like I’ve been going for that same sound with the dual male-female vocal thing that existed here, through John and Exene in X, (and then all through Game Theory and later Loud Family, to the New Pornographers, …who are saying what, exactly?) But in the case of JA, even they themselves became disillusioned during the 1970s and the rise of the Me Generation paving its way toward libertarianism and neo-liberalism, and they just went for it themselves by the 1980s.
When I was at Mills College (2001-03) I started making a documentary film about political avant-garde music, from Cornelius Cardew, who abandoned art music for communist anthems when he thought that the entire milieu of western art music was bourgeoise and would not help ‘the people’ (as essentially Ruth Crawford Seeger had done 40 years earlier,) to groups like AMM (acronym for nothing, actually) and MEV (Musica Electronica Viva), both began in the 1960s trying to break their music free of the clutches of the universities and class systems that held “classical” music. AMM tried to improvise with no stylistic ties, to break out of genre. MEV had free-form happenings that broke the proscenium that separated performer from audience. These groups contained musicians and composers who were ostensibly trying to better the world, to bring awareness to the problems they were addressing in order to make things better for all classes and divisions of people. By making sounds.
I interviewed many people, including Fredrick Rzewski, the composer and pianist. We met in Brussels and talked, and he invited us over to the studio where he was recording a Cardew piece called “We Sing For the Future” (that I had never heard of because it was written toward the end of his life when he was supposedly not composing such music. Rzewski queried me on it, as a test I think—he probably would have gotten rid of us if I had said, “oh yeah, I know that one!”) Anyway, in the course of the conversation, I asked him how he could possibly believe that creating music based on political ideas would change anything, let alone anyone’s mind and he answered: “It’s like magic, if you believe it, it seems to work.” Soon thereafter I abandoned the entire project. He was right. I’m not much of a believer, in the end. For me, the entire idea of “soul” is firmly the same as “self” and “mind” and exists simply due to being alive. Oh, it’s amazing all right, but it’s not holy. Even that soul that cannot thrive without music.
So what am I trying to say, what’s the big idea? Superfluity, the album, has a path that it takes, from the framing songs—Equilibrium parts 1 and 2, ensconced in the physical world from which we living things are just overflow—through the human-condition psych-folk songs of “Mouse” and “Cat & Mouse,” the political in “Imply it, Deny It,” and to the frustration of just wanting to go back to bed until people can get their shit together in “Sleep for a Hundred Years” with its quotes and references to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Dorothy Parker, the Clash, and how did that make a difference anyway? Then it takes off, trying to illustrate (oh, right, music cannot actually express anything, right…) the view from a great distance in time with the gigantic instrumental sections of “Silent Notes,” “Like Mercury, It Slips Through Your Fingers” and the collage “Phenomenon and On”. When we get back we have the beauty of “The Luxury of Living” and its by-products, “Strawberry Sun” and explanations of that luxury in “Superfluity”—what difference does it make? The cat is a living thing, aren’t you amazed!? And on out with “The Luxury of Dying,” good that we’re impermanent, actually, to where it all leads with “No Backup Plan,” a sort of Doctor Who-type take on stumbling your way through [eternal] life, the universe and everything, until it’s all on its way out. “The Dying Stars” is instrumental, and “Equilibrium Part 2” bookends it. So there you have it. Get it?
Simply being alive in the world at large caused me to make this collection of sounds, vibrations in the air that tickle your eardrum into producing nerve responses in the cilia in your cochlea, some overflow byproduct of existing. Big deal. Elsewhere somebody is still wanting to take something from someone else, or is hurting or killing them.
In the end, I’m proud of the thing I made. I think it’s good, I thought it was the best way for me to do something good in the world, that maybe listening to this might help somebody to make good decisions regarding what they themselves do in this world. That’s all I can do. And it doesn’t really matter at all, in the long run. In the short run, maybe you can listen to it and decide for yourself.
here’s some reviews of these recent albums from this week:
Sista Maj on on DPRP, the Dutch Progressive Rock Page