Hidden Meanings

-another conversation.

...should we do an introduction?

"What, one of those, 'this is the artist and this is his claim to fame' and all that?

Yeah.

Hmmmm.  What would you say?

Oh, you know, something about the albums, the live shows, the North Carolina scene in the late seventies thorough the early nineties, then the progress through the instrumental works now.

No need.  It's pretty irrelevant.  Besides, you just established that I'm very old, ancient, and decrepit.

Mooresboro, NC, 12/29/13

(laughter)

Well surely it means something.

We can talk about it, but there's not much to say, you know, it can't mean much to anybody who might read this.  The whole Carolina pop thing got some critical press around the same time as MTV was focused on Seattle rock, but what had been called rock culture was already dying out even then.  Lots of bands around here at the time, many truly outstanding, but nothing really took hold nationally. The record labels ignored it all.  Their A&R reps were stupid and corrupt, no surprise, but I'll say that, having dealt with a few.  There were only a few.  The companies just were not interested. That's quite a loss, really.  All the artists knew each other and we had some fun, but it's not like I can say I was anything special or I had much to do with it. And I liked rock culture, for a while it was a good way of individualistic expression-- defiant, anti-conformity.  You could speak your mind, even though political correctness had begun to take hold, to take precedence over everything in a real serious way.

But, just to think about it, I really am getting closer to closing time.  I've been clear of cancer for seven years, and glaucoma hasn't blinded me yet, but little things like that do put you on the Reaper's radar.

A lot of the old guard classic rockers are...

Dying out? And so it goes. I miss Lou Reed being around, though. Anyway, that's all above my head.


Hawkhaven Farm, Cliffside, NC, 2/8/14

But you started out with rock 'n' roll, and somehow that turned into experimental music.

Even doing the rock stuff I was always more interested in the experimental.  I liked doing the spoken word and poetry things and the... I'd call it non-linear stuff.  But that would be generous.  It was definitely experimental, in the sense that I had no clear idea of what I was doing.  I just did not want to do the same old thing all the time.  And rock 'n' roll is a lot of the same old thing over and over, mainly guitar, not much variation.  When it comes to that sort of energy and emotion I prefer the hard blues.  Doesn't matter if it's acoustic or electric.  John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins. I love those guys.  But more to the point I got more and more interested in electronics and recording and other directions altogether, like the way sound effects the listener, not emotionally, but perceptually and other ways. Intellectual and spiritual.  There's nothing wrong with that, it's just not the popular thing, not an area many people consider important.  But I do.

What were you listening to, in terms of bands and artists, that moved you in that direction?

The usual suspects, you might say.  I've always listened to anything that holds my attention.  It seems like... it's not so much particular groups or artists, but specific albums and tracks that have those qualities, those imaginative qualities that go beyond the expected.  Lou Reed and John Cale recordings always have tracks that never cease to amaze me.  Pink Floyd has a lot of pieces that transport the listener, and for me those are the early seventies tracks like Meddle.  There was a point, I would guess between nineteen sixty-six and seventy-six, when there was a lot of improvisational rock-- most likely that's the Beatles and Stones influence.  Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Frank Zappa, Steppenwolf, Santana, Bowie.  Tommy James created amazing sounds, and Creedence Clearwater Revival did highly imaginative things.  So did a Canadian group called the Guess Who, and a British band named Traffic.  The first Black Sabbath album was genuinely otherworldly.  Still is.  Who's Next is in that category.  Same with Deja Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young- that particular title track. Jethro Tull's Benefit album. Parliament's Mothership Connection.  P. Funk. That is genius, George Clinton. All these albums have sounds that go beyond their narrative structures, that reach a kind of metaphysical place.  At least in my consciousness.

 I listened to the Easy Rider soundtrack a lot,  that's an extremely diverse collection of tracks, but they all come together seamlessly, even though they go in completely different directions throughout.  I have eclectic tastes, I suppose, so it's natural I was listening to Roxy Music and Brian Eno.  And I always took a very, very serious interest in how these sounds were developed and what made them so unique.  That's turned out to be a good thing for me, because it has been a long time since anything new held my attention.  Everything, right now at least, is generic. It all sounds like it's stepped on, as George Clinton might say.  But I'm old, so I'm jaded, even though I know everything sounds new to somebody. I just have to go my way. But enough with that.

Environs, 12/1/2013

So your way is ambient music, these days.

It seems that way, but it's not exactly that.  That's how it begins, but then it seems to morph into something else I can't quite put my finger on.  That's one reason I keep writing this blog, because the work my wife and I are doing seems to keep changing somehow.  It's not strictly ambient, it's not strictly minimal, it's not strictly anything.  It emerges, expands, dissolves, and events continue from piece to piece.  My hand is in the developments and they happen in certain ways accordingly, but it's not about me in the way you might think of a composer's ego as playing a big role.  I have a way of doing things with sounds, and the sounds have a way of their own.  I'm trying to continually come to grips with that, but there are a number of things I've taken hold of that I have no doubt are significant.

Do you really think of yourself as a composer, in the traditional sense of the word?

Not like Shostakovich or Mozart.  Not like Phillip Glass.  These are people who meet some kind of musical criteria.  I know Glass drove a cab and all that, but he didn't establish himself without knowing the business.  What I have done is write songs and arrange them, in a very primitive way, arranging them out of necessity in basic forms like building blocks.  I'm not a musician.  Now, I take those primitive forms and manipulate them according to various aesthetic ideas and my own methods, developed with time and experience.  They could be transcribed, of course, but they could hardly be written as compositions first, as the traditional composer would do.  That implies a kind of non-linear thinking that would be unnatural for a musician or composer.  The mind might work that way, on a stream-of-consciousness level, but that's not going to translate into musical language that works very well.  It's more like composing a photograph, or a film shot.  A little like a collage, but one done with synthesizers.  Musical composers would probably condemn it as infantile and stupid. Maybe not Glass, I don't know.  But how can that matter?  It's what I'm doing. I trust my wife when it comes to the art of it. That's all.

What do you mean about Glass knowing the business?

Everything is a business.  It's just like Andy Warhol saying making money is art and good business is the best art.  Of course it is.  I'm an artist.  So what.  Everybody's an artist.  But the business of an artist is the business of providing things that are desirable, useful, necessary, not just for survival, but for living well.  If all people like Phillip Glass do is make music without considering that, they keep driving cabs.  I don't know anything about Mr. Glass, but it's absurd to think he did not know the value of hard work, the necessity of being in the right place at the right time, the need to discriminate between people who talk a big game and those who actually make the decisions, financial and artistic.      My wife and I have complete control over our work, our property, our business. No compromises. I don't work for free.  The CDs cost a bit more than some, but they come straight from my studio and label, exactly as produced, the same thing I listen to at home and spend a year at a time, sometimes, putting in their final form.  You are not going to hear this on iTunes or Pandora or whatever else, mixed in with some pseudo-ambient new age fluff, because I'm not giving it out to streaming media, begging for listeners with "likes" on Facebook, or thinking it's going to be discovered.  That is a fool's errand.  We create and we sell.  What we own is small, but it's completely real and taxed like every business. That makes it the right time and place for any opportunity, and opportunity leads to serious profitability, followed by greater and greater work.  There's no reason to think otherwise.
    
 Real art is highly, highly valuable.  Anything else is a myth.



Some would say art and music should be free.

Let them create it and give it away. Find out what it's worth.  No artist or musician should sign a contract that puts their work on streaming media for nothing, and I would say to anyone who is in that position to let that contract expire and do not, under any circumstances, renew it.  Don't listen to me, just look at Billboard magazine's math, where they figure fifteen thousand streaming plays equals one album sale.  Absurd.  That is not existentially viable for a musician or composer, singer-songwriter or what have you.  But until we all refuse to participate in it, refuse to sign, take a stand that demands the real value of the work, that's the way it will be.  The industry should go begging for artists.  It does not have to be the other way around.

So what's so special about what you're doing  that makes anyone want to pay you for it?

That's exactly it.  Anyone can listen to our work and enjoy it, and be changed by it.  All you have to do is play it and go about whatever you're doing, ignore it- then it takes hold and changes your atmosphere and attitude.  It's a complete reversal of musical norms. That's music with a completely different purpose than people know and are used to, but it serves the same function as leaving the television or the radio on, or studying with the volume of a piece of music turned down low.  Except it's operating on a level far above and beyond that, and its effects are much more pleasurable and interesting.  Leaving the radio or TV on is junk food.  Play these albums instead.  That's a full menu of just what you want.  Literally everyone can get something good out of these albums, and they should immediately go out and buy the whole catalog.  It'll change your way of listening and your life.  You'll thank me for it.  That's cheap at ten times the price.  Sounds ridiculous, of course, but that's not taking into account the profound and comprehensive differences between what these tracks mean to the whole idea of listening and what we generally consider the purposes of music to be.

Do I really believe that?  I know it's true from personal experience and the intensive, extended conceptualization that made these works possible.  I'll point that out as being the direct result of writing this blog.  Anybody who takes a look at it knows it's not one of those "I stubbed my toe today" or "I went to see this or that movie" kind of thing.  All these notes contribute to peculiar, real, extraordinary developments in these sound compositions that I've worked on since the first post.  Prior to that I was moving in a direction completely independent of making music, per se, setting aside songwriting and genre music as such, and manipulating sounds for ambient effect.  I wanted to create some long-form pieces like Brian Eno's Neroli and Thursday Afternoon, just to play in my classroom for the ambient influence, the sound conducive to thought, to reading and writing. Then I started discovering a number of very small things that had very large consequences for listening and organizing sounds. Some of them are purely extensions of the Eno method and tradition, exactly like I wanted them to be, and that's difficult enough, but some of them are entirely unique as a result of experimentation, thinking speculatively, postulating theories.

Such as?  It's not that I'm completely skeptical, but like a lot of people I'm an Eno fan, so you can't just claim you have something he doesn't, if you get what I'm saying.


77 Million Paintings, Moogfest, Asheville NC, 10/29/11
In conjunction with Brian Eno's Illustrated Talk 

The 77 Million Paintings art installment created by Brian Eno incorporates video and sound to construct “a constantly evolving sound and image scape” that “encourages the viewer to slow down and enter a contemplative state, reflecting on the uniqueness of a passing moment that has almost certainly never existed before.” This exhibition marked the first installation of 77 Million Paintings in the United States, outside of San Francisco and Los Angeles. It has been selectively shown and housed at the Venice Biennale, the Milan Triennale, and the Sydney Opera House.


Brian Eno coined the term "ambient music".  He's written about his ideas and theories thoroughly, in his album liner notes and elsewhere.  His reasoning is very clear and straightforward, and so are his explanations of his methods.  You can literally follow his directions and replicate his steps to use recordings and manipulate them in certain ways to get similar results.  Some of it might be interesting, but most of it won't be, because those steps and methods are not what makes experimental music work.  Brian Eno is an artist, and his productions are successful because of his sensibilities about sound and its purposes and the ways sounds and notes and tones can be configured and processed to create works of musical art.  It's reasonable to infer that all these processes inform all his work, whether it's in music production for a band like U2 or his own songwriting, or his visual art works.  And none of it has anything to do with me whatsoever, except that I understand the concepts and methods, even though I don't actually apply any of them for specific, technical purposes. I have experimented with them, seen how they work and sound, and that led me to other ideas and processes.  I hear how they inform the end results, but I work for particular end results of my own, according to my own artistic perspective, using different approaches and techniques.

The essential nature of ambient music, by Brian Eno's definition  is that, in his words, it is "music that is as listenable as it is ignorable".  That goes back to his first ambient album Discreet Music in 1975, and that's the outcome he wanted as a result of his background and experience. It's common knowledge. You know the details, or you can look them up easily.  Now, almost forty years later, a lot of artists have made that concept somewhat integral to the things they do.  It's mixed in with a lot of musical genres, as well, but I'm not interested in that.  What I'm interested in is music, or a combination of sounds, if you look at it that way, that creates two environments that merge together, an inner and outer experience, one that forms an atmosphere that's both physical and mental. Listening is happening on a combination of active and passive levels of attention.  It can engage, but it does not dominate. I know as a performer you want undivided attention, but that's not the nature of listening perception, and neither is listening to one thing to the exclusion of everything else.  The auditory senses are far more subtle and wider in range than that.  If we allow them to be.  That's the caveat.

Brian Eno: Illustrated Talk  10/29/2011

     So far I'm in complete accord with everything Mr. Eno discusses, but here is where I start to diverge.  I'm no longer thinking in terms of objective sounds in musical forms, but of their perception in the context of the setting and the state of mind of the listener.  I'm thinking of the sonic environment and its effects, and also of the way of nature, the ways sounds happen in the course of the day.  I have techniques for placing sounds apart and bringing them together, combining them into a smooth flow and setting them against each other in juxtaposition and contrast. That makes a difference in the dynamic evolution of the piece that's unlike musical arrangements. Rather than moving through time with contrived developments of tension and resolution, there is expansion and diffusion, ebb and flow, rise and fall, just like what you can hear in a walk through the woods.  So now I'm going to entirely different places than those in, say, Eno's Music for Airports or Lux, and I'm going about it in different ways,  but I'm not so far afield that I'm doing something totally alien to the ambient idea. In the course of things, that's only natural.  Does that ease your skepticism somewhat?

Somewhat.  Give me an example of what you call "thinking speculatively".

Suppose what we call music developed, as far back as, let's say, the Iron Age, not as a combination of rhythmic expressions, but as... maybe it was fully embraced for religious or ceremonial purposes, but it developed strictly as a reflection of the sounds of nature, the sounds of earth and air, fire and water, animals and people too, in all their irregular as well as regular processes and activities.  Would rhythm and percussion dominate?  I don't know, but it's possible they would not, though they would still be in play, possibly as longer, less insistent forces, like the rhythms of rain and waves.  Like some of the old English ballads, pieces would last longer than just a few minutes, and things like tempo would probably be so flexible it would be hard to recognize to our ears.  Lots of call and response in vocals. Definitely things like instrumentation would be different, because it would have developed for different purposes. And music would serve different functions, though no doubt it would still fit... somehow fit in with dance, and it would be used for entertainment and diversion too.

Is there a theory you might postulate with that?  Or whatever you want.

Go ahead and mock me if that's what you like.  That's what makes music what it is today.

(edit)


Environs, 11/6/13

Oh I'd just say that if you sat down to compose a piece with those possibilities in mind, it might lead to something interesting.  And that, as you came up with ways to make sounds work in such and such a manner, you could hold on to those techniques and replicate them in the compositional and production processes, instead of simply improvising and forgetting about them.  But what I'm interested in, as far as composing, goes, is composing with sound as a visual artist does, with painting or collage or photography, not in the way of a musical composer, beyond hearing certain sounds and combinations, then coming up with ways to express them.  I mean I rarely make that happen exactly as I want, and run into something that I like better instead, whereas the musical composer can write the score immediately.

So really, what you're talking about here is what you do.  Method, technique, style.

Some of that, yeah, but things are always happening in the process going forward, so different perspectives develop that bring about new ways and means of doing this, putting sounds together, trying different approaches.  Things do happen as a result of accidents, but more important are those things that happen as a result of being involved in the process and taking an extemporaneous or unexpected turn.  Because it's a conscious process, the things that work can be held onto, and analyzed, and utilized as methods and techniques. I'm using variations on William Burroughs' cut-up techniques constantly as well.  Those are the real keys to the processes, but that's all too esoteric to go into here.

Sounds like it really is experimental.  In the sense that you can screw it up.

Oh yeah,  Royally.  All the time.  These things don't come together overnight-- more like months and months.  That's a good thing, though.  Gives them character.  When they're finished, I want them to sound like they just happened the moment you listened to them, and I want that to happen every time you do listen.  If that succeeds, it probably has something to do with the fact that they're not effortless works of pure inspiration.  They're pure inspiration, but effortless?  No.  Not at all.

Let's go back to what you said about what these tracks mean to the idea of listening and the purposes of music.

The reason they mean something in relation to the idea of listening is because each track contains events that are nothing like what common knowledge understands as music, but they are just as interesting. And, unlike a lot of the avant-garde material of the modern era, these works are meant to be enjoyed.  They have an aesthetic purpose, not a didactic one.  I don't think anyone needs to be "taught" how to appreciate non-linear sounds anymore, so there's no point in incorporating noises that jar the sensibilities just for shock value.  That sort of thing has evolved into a kind of stupid, nugatory grandstanding that's just laughable.  You see it in practically every instance of what this or that group decides to call "sound art".  And it's neither, it's nothing but contrived noise in a convenient, usually academic context.  I say it's without merit, but as always there will be those who have vested interests in such things.  Music has various purposes, and I suppose these bits are among them. Mostly, though, music is wrapped up in rituals of community.  That's everything from church music to clubbing. Then you listen to music at work, you play music at home for atmosphere and entertainment, it has emotional meaning for you there just the same as it does in public places.  But you also put it in your digital playlist and have whatever you want in your ears anytime.  Does that expand your horizons or isolate you?  It might do both.
     But there you have the general idea or what music is, and what it's for, and that's all well and good, for what it is.  But it does not take into account that sound itself is a language that communicates more that that.  As an art, it can be contemplative in purpose, and fix the mind and spirit on higher, clearer levels of consciousness.  In order for that to happen, the listeners and the composers need to have that in mind as a goal and outcome.  If I can do that, and if listeners want that, or even if they don't, that's what I have in mind. Sooner, rather than later, actually, that's the direction sound composition will take, and how it will be received.  You'll still have hymns and symphonies and jazz and dance music, but a contemplative sound will be just as important.  It's something that people need, whether they realize it or not. People are not merely animals, and they're not machines. There is a need for a glimpse of a greater reality.

Environs: Arizona, 6/24/14

That was a more interesting talk than I was expecting.

That was good, it went in some good directions. I appreciate you sitting down with me to do this. I know it tried your patience a bit, but I'm just a slow talker.  It can be hard to articulate some things.

No, not at all. Anything else?

Well... one thing I've discovered, in writing the Ambimusica blog, is that hidden throughout the thing are various points that, together and separately, offer meaningful, kind of... strange implications... that came to me unexpectedly when looking over the notes.
     There's a theme running through them, and from it, it can be inferred that, in a cultural sense, people only tend to know each other by means of the limited perspectives that are shared across the common culture, and that, in doing so, we fail to bring to light the uniqueness of each other as genuine individuals. If you consider that as having a factual basis, it becomes clear that by doing the one but neglecting the other, we further limit our own individuality and unique importance to the world.  That's a hard consequence.

We connect, with more means than ever, but if I follow you correctly, only insofar as our own interests go.  Then we drop it, don't go any further, and that's all, that's it. There is too much going on, and we're spread too thin.  I can see that.

Yeah.  People are always talking about "reaching out", but it's not really communicating. That's in the blog, that comes out, looking over these notes, and you'd think it would be different, culturally, and on a personal level too.  There's connection in a shallow, abstract kind of way, but not much in the way of growth, whether intellectually or emotionally. People did a better job of that just writing letters on paper in the nineteenth, eighteenth centuries.  It's a problem that calls for attention. I don't know what to think of it. It's a problem that's more critical and pressing than issues of music and art, but maybe music and art can help put a clearer perspective on it.

The Pine Breeze Inn, Bellemont, Arizona, June 2014