Into the Blur


Why the blog?  Why "Notes"?

They are notes I use.  That's their purpose, like lab notes.  I keep up with what I'm doing and refer to them.  They do everything from making me sit down every day to focus on what I'm doing to reminding me of ideas I want to work on and develop.  They are all part of the same whole, so I can look at them in that sense, I can look at notes made on any number of dates and they tie together as a train for thought.

They are not really meant for an audience or a readership.  They are working notes.  Someone who listens to what we do, which is the result of the way my wife and I think together, might find some of them interesting.  They are very straight forward.  There's nothing difficult to understand about them that a little simple analysis won't clarify.  I'm not going to burden my thinking with a lot of overwrought semantic claptrap.

As notes, a record of process and development, they are useful.  And they're creative themselves, suggestive of things that lead to other things.

But you are talking about aesthetics, perception, expansion of consciousness, and some things that are fairly distant from the everyday.

 Aesthetics is an approach to things that are beautiful, and sensory impressions inform that.  It's easy to get wound up and muddled up in other things, so I think it does expand awareness to take conscious notice of those things that are intrinsically good and see the beauty of them.  Most of the time it's self-evident, but you do have to pause and look.  And listen... and think.

And the photographs?

Examples of just that, taking the time to take in aesthetic experiences.  Soak up the beauty, observe things that are interesting, otherwise they escape notice.  Everyone who works hard knows what I'm talking about. We go out for a few hours whenever we can with our cameras, so the photos are by both of us.  Everything we do is a collaboration.

But I'll either find a photo and use it as an illustration of a note, or something in the photo will suggest the idea I write about.  It's a kind of a connection between things, an objective correlative.  There's always some connection.

So what is the extent of the collaboration between you and your wife?  How much does it impact the work?

The Ghost Radio Orchestra albums are the result of kicking around ideas with my friend Al Graham, "ghost radio" being all about the mythology of tragedy in pop and rock music.  After playing around with it for a while, it took on a life and sound of its own, so I decided to do a project with what I had developed in terms of studio composition and production.  So that's an entirely separate project from Black Mountain School, but there's a third album in the works to go with the other two at some point.

With Black Mountain School, my wife is completely co-creator.  The first album (Elevation) is entirely her idea.  The same with The Celestial Way and Night Traffic.  Her input and ideas made those happen.  We would not have been in China, conceived either of those pieces, and she would not have done the field recordings or suggested the themes of both albums.  She's an artist, teaches art, and she understands how the principles of composition can be applied to sound the same way they are done on canvas, in collage, with color, light, and shadow, an so forth.

She's essential.  We each bring something to the work, and her aesthetic sensibility and sense of balance is formidable.

William Burroughs suggested that the end result of collaboration is the product of a "third mind", a synthesis of perspectives and sensibilities.  That's what we have with Black Mountain School.

So how much of the Black Mountain School project relates to the original Black Mountain College?

Not much.  I like the regional reference, the association with the avant-garde.  Not everything connected to Appalachia is hillbilly music and moonshine, of course.  The old campus is nearby. What's left of it is part of Camp Rockmont, a summer camp.  And there is a Black Mountain College Museum with cultural arts events and so on, looking back at the time of John Cage and Buckminster Fuller... and looking ahead as well.  It was a forward-thinking art school, while it lasted, and it left an impression on the area.  I probably would have applied to go there, in fact I know I would have, but who can say what it would have been like by the early seventies.  Probably ruined by politics. Culture changes, you know, not necessarily for the better.  But it does not just mysteriously appear out of nothingness, and historical forces have their effects.

Do you think music expands consciousness in that way, through culture?

Sometimes.  Mostly it reflects the culture of the times.  I think sounds can expand consciousness, extend and intensify awareness, give a greater sense of being and meaning, you might say.  For example, throughout history there are reports of mystical events and incidents, things not fully understood. People say they come into contact with unearthly realms or experience uncanny perceptions and presences.  A common thread throughout many of these tales, whether their origins lie in ancient Asia, Medieval Europe, or the New World, is the percipience of "otherworldly music".

Fictional narratives are replete with supernatural music.  Odysseus's encounter with the Sirens, for example, or the fairy music of Celtic folklore.  But there are purportedly genuine tales, some of them enchanting and some of them terrifying, and a common element is that the sound, or the music, beggars description and is unforgettably beautiful, but that it is impossible to remember or compare to any other. It's haunting. It can not be reproduced. Not like Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and similar works inspired by these stories can be reproduced.  The idea of such music is itself haunting.

You might say it haunted me for twenty five years.  That's how long it took to develop the ways and means to apply that "otherworldly" paradigm to the process or creating these kinds of sound constructions successfully.  That's my sense of it, in any event.

Do you think you've had some kind of paranormal experience?

It's hard to say. Probably not. If I had to articulate my experience, I have to say that immersion in sound completely changed my awareness a very long time ago.

My parents bought an old upright piano and put in the back room of our house, so there it sat, taking up space, and of course I had to play around with it, mostly to soak up the beauty of the sound with the sustain pedal.  When I was about sixteen I took lessons for a year or so from a great lady.  Myrtle Mashburn was her name, and she was a wise and gifted woman.  Even for a teenage punk like me it was a pleasure, and I knew it was a privilege, to sit at the keys with her.

So I learned the rudimentary things, and after a few months she said to me, "You really enjoy playing, don't you?"  I told her I did, and it was true. I played for hours, especially when nobody was at home but me.  And I showed her some of the little basso ostinato bits I had put together, and she showed me how to do variations and come up with bridges and so forth.  Then she said to me, "But you aren't really interested in performing on the piano, are you?  You want to use it as a creative tool for your own interests".

I had to admit that was so, and it wasn't difficult, because she obviously understood exactly what I wanted, and that's what she said I should do.  She said it was very rare in her experience that someone wanted to do that, and that I should be encouraged to go wherever that led me.  Then she asked me if I liked any particular composers, and I told her I listened to Debussy more than any others, and I liked Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue.  "Always listen to what you like and play whatever you want and you will be just as happy as any of my other students.  You never know what that might come to mean for you".

Those were her exact words, "what that might come to mean".  That really impressed me.  I remember driving home and repeating it to myself so I wouldn't forget it.

After that we set up lessons once a month, and mostly we'd just talk about music and improvise together on the keys.  It was really something I enjoyed tremendously, doing what I did at the old piano at home when I'd sit for three or four hours at a time improvising without structures.  That was what really carried me away.  I'd lose track of time, feel like I was drifting over the fields.  I don't think you can call that paranormal, but it does not seem far removed from the out-of-body feeling.  More like a trance-state, though.

I took these kind of casual lessons from her for about another year and then it was off to college.  I really missed doing that.

But if you were sixteen...

Yeah, I graduated just before I turned eighteen.  Anyway, Mrs. Mashburn lived to be ninety-nine years old, and every time I saw her over the next thirty years I told her how much she meant to me, and how any real accomplishment I'd had with music was because of her.  I'm sure scores of people felt that way about her. What she did for me can't be measured, especially in terms of creativity and persistence.
                       Photo: Allison Flynn / Daily Courier

She played piano in churches and at weddings and so on until she was ninety-five.  She understood modernism.  She told me about minimalism.  She told me to listen to John Cage, and I bought his recordings because of her.
I think of her now as possessing a kind of genius that embodied the the musical knowledge of the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century.  She was an artist, and insightful, and generous. Knowing her was a gift.  It was Providence, I'd definitely call it that.

Your degree is in literature, though, not music.

Right.  I took a lot of different courses, some art, some music.  Literature was my weak area, so I thought that was what I needed most.  I rounded out the B.A later with a teacher's license.

No M.A.?

I just didn't want it, the academic politics and all that.  I've stayed busy enough with the credentials I have.

But you were with bands in college, and afterwards.  What were they like?

Club bands.  Not so much the bar scene, entertainment bands that play cover tunes, but the grubby little hipster- type clubs. College gigs once in a while when we could take advantage of good press reviews. We played our own songs, but the audiences didn't like us much.  We played Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop songs and they didn't like those either.  I was in a group that opened for John Cale once, though, and that was the high water mark for me.  And we were always recording as well as doing gigs, so that was productive.  That sort of thing comes and goes, though.  The whole situation is pretty ephemeral.  For a while there will be a lot of really good bands, then things seem to die out, later to come back.  It can be a good thing to take advantage of if it's a creative opportunity, like it was for me, but you have to move beyond it, either by becoming very popular and in demand, turning it into a full-time career, or taking it in a different direction.

Who is John Cale?

He was with the Velvet Underground, he's a solo artist and producer.  Worked with Patti Smith and Terry Riley, does a lot of experimental and solo work.  A great artist and human being is who he is.

How about the sound?  I guess I'm asking for a description regarding genre and style.

Oh, well, it was long jams, stretching things out, lots of improvising.  Kind of punkish on the one hand and jazzy on the other, some blues-based stuff and some slow, gloomy things.  Like I said, we weren't very popular, but the newspaper critics would say some good things about us because we were pretty unconventional in the context of eighties rock, so we could get out into that club circuit a little, for a while.  We weren't trendy and did not fit in with that early MTV sort of thing and build a following and become popstars.  Man, think of how dated that sounds now. But we didn't sound like pop music sounded, or look the part of video stars, and most of the time there was never a specific set of players, just a lot of different people, guitarists and instrumentalists and drummers, passing through around the bass player and me.  Yeah, we were unconventional, if nothing else.  We probably never sounded the same from one show to another.

That all led up to putting my own studio together, ultimately, since we were always recording. That was on the old analog equipment, eight and sixteen tracks. Then I got a four track for making demos and moved pretty quickly into digital recording, just as the programs like Cakewalk and the Sonic Foundry workstations were making that possible. It's held my interest ever since.

All this over a period of, what, twenty years?

More like thirty five, really.  I had done some small recordings and performances with piano and synthesizer players before I worked with any full combos, and met my wife about then. We've always shared a lot of different interests, particularly with the arts, traveling, going to museums and shows. We've seen Stan Getz and Gilberto, Gerry Mulligan, Buddy Rich, Lou Reed, the Stones, Blue Man Group. We went to Brian Eno's Illustrated Talk and it was amazing and enlightening for both of us. We've always been wrapped up together in the same ideas, and they've always involved the arts and music.  In the last few years it's all become a single expression between us, a kind of combination of the visual and intuitive with the auditory and theoretical creative impulses, you might say.

You realize this sort of talk might be considered pretentious or elitist.

Yeah, but by whom?  Am I supposed to apply to those who think that way for some kind of avant-garde credentials?  That's just a way of saying, "I don't like you and I don't like what you're doing".

It's inconsequential.

In the course of things I've developed processes and perspectives that are completely my own, and I've never released anything that's completely derivative or an imitation of someone else's work, whether by Eno or Wendy Carlos or anyone else.  I never released anything, in fact, until these works were exactly as I envisioned them, and thoroughly original in style, manner, method and technique- though I grant you it took a long time to be satisfied of that.

How did you keep your focus on that?  I mean, through the years.

It's important to have other interests, for one thing. Stay busy.  Reading, writing, teaching.  I like to work with my hands. We live on ten acres we maintain as a habitat that's recognized by the National Wildlife Federation, and that's enjoyable, seeing the deer, wild turkeys, hawks and all the creatures.  Keeps you busy, out of trouble.  As far as anything goes in the arts, very few things happen overnight.

Prolonged processes have waiting periods, and sometimes they involve learning new things. Even then there will be times to stop pursuing particular learning curves and have the judgment to know what works and what is no longer necessary- just because technology develops at a rapid pace does not make every new instance of it useful.

Any listener knows the difference between a piece that was dashed off in an afternoon using some cute program or other and a work that holds up over time and repeated listening. I knew back in the mid-nineties it would be a daunting task to simply create basic, elementary ambient music.  There is nothing simple about it, and it takes a great deal of patience.  So patience is a virtue over the long term, particularly when you look at a goal and see that it will only happen over a long period of time.

I'll tell you one thing I did that might seem odd.  I turned off the radio, turned off the music in my car.  I don't know the exact date, except it was in the fall, probably around 1979 or 1980, and I just broke the habit. That's when I started listening to my surroundings all the time, wherever I was, and thinking about sound as its perceived rather than just its musical aspects.  Sound engages consciousness and consciousness responds, sometimes expanding.  Sometimes not, sometimes becoming less focused, less receptive.  That's true with traditional music and the musical genres.  I was aware of that in those days, looking to give expression to the idea of sound altering perception. It's that "otherworldly" aspect of sound.  Once I could bring sounds together for that purpose, I had come a long way.  But I'm where I want to be.  What we do is all independent and self-sufficient, from initial concept to finished work.

The music business is incapable of making that kind of commitment to an artist, and that makes for a serious downturn in viability for both artist and industry. It's plainly evident, and I'm not sure there is a solution.  But change is always inevitable.

So what's next?

We keep on doing what works.  There appears to be a great deal of decline coming in the short term as far as music culture goes.  Creative people devote too much of their lives to their work to just give it away to streaming media, and they won't accept that in the long term. They will rebel. They won't do it.

I do see music becoming something different that what it has always been in the past-- there are only so many ways to repeat variations on the same arrangements over and over.  But, looking ahead, I'm confident about the work we do.  As to being able to know what the future holds for anything else related to music... as far as I can see, it's only a blur.

Cliffside, NC, October 2, 2013, 6:20 P.M.