Distant Music

Issue 2 // 2014
// feature editor Sam Swasey

Table of Contents

  1. A Place Beyond Language

    Diana Seo Hyung Lee
  2. Words Cannot

    Lee Ann Norman
  3. Real Dogs Run True

    Thomas Martinez
  4. Child Is Father Of The Man

    Nathan Townes-Anderson
  5. A Sound-Word Diptych

    Kyra Kordoski
  6. Here is Nowhere

    Kareem Estefan
  7. American Yeezus

    Sam Swasey
  8. Everybody Have a Good Day Today

    Jessica Holmes
  9. Untitled

    Nan Becker
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A Place Beyond Language

by Diana Seo Hyung Lee

 

My first memory of the Korean musical form of pansori comes from the time I watched a film called Seopyeonje (1993), directed by celebrated South Korean director Im Kwon-Taek, which depicts the lives of a broken, nomadic musician family in postwar Korea. Im’s film was instrumental in re-contextualizing the art of pansori to a contemporary audience, for it was considered dated, even tacky, having little to no mainstream appeal. The pansori artists in Seopyeonje struggling to keep their art form relevant in a time of heavy Western and Japanese influence—feeling like outsiders in their own country—resonated with me as our family’s financial struggles strained family relationships, as well as our status in our community. 1993 is an important year for me since it was the year before my family left Korea due to my father’s business collapse. I do not remember too many details of my life there—for instance, the names of my friends, the name of my town, what I spent my days doing: none of these things really took root in my memory. However, I can clearly recall the films and soap operas I watched in the final years before I left. Certain scenes from movies are burned into my memory as if they happened to me—overly dramatic, simplified narratives which overrode the comparatively mundane and inexplicable experiences of my day-to-day life.

Growing up in Seoul as the youngest daughter of a well-to-do businessman, I was treasured in the community. With a small build, big eyes and straight black hair, in a country where people understood me, or just liked me, there was nothing to keep me away from this reality. This was my shelter, this was where I belonged and where I was loved. I expected praise walking into any room. It was not something I understood or chose—it wasn’t even narcissism. But it was something I grew accustomed to and felt was natural. And if any inkling of doubt or self-consciousness ever arose, with a strong attachment to my then-reality, I would have deflected all philosophical considerations in preference for a more stable and constant world, which was a path that I felt destined to have.

 

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A scene from “Seopyeonje” (1993), directed by Im Kwon-taek.

 

In South Korea, rote memory trumps critical thinking, obeying elders and respecting hierarchy is required, and beauty is not varied but standardized. When one meets these expectations, the reward is great and flattery is endless. Straight and narrow is the path to success, but superstition and mysticism still have a strong foothold in the culture. Some are born with taboos no amount of effort could undo, while some are born with fortune that will afford excuse for any misdemeanor. Such is the case with physical appearance in South Korea. Many sociologists attribute the phenomenon in South Korea of widespread plastic surgery to a desire to look Western, whereas others conclude that South Korean women suffer from inherent vanity. Perhaps both arguments have some validity, but they fail to recognize the mysticism behind such devotion, or belief in the way things look, especially the beauty of a woman. Girls were given to marriage at a young age not even a hundred years ago in Korea. The beauty of a woman was then determined in youth. She was adored and given away like a prize: a beautiful girl was the pride of her father, he would speak of her merits highly and would arrange a marriage for her to a suitable family. She would be the matriarch to later bear children and continue the family lineage, a sacred and essential being.

However, just as I began second grade, I witnessed a business going bankrupt, a family breaking apart, a strong father becoming weak. I lost my place as the youngest to a younger sister, was then forced to leave my home with nothing but one book bag and sent to divide my time between the homes of different relatives. Then finally, there was the loss of my country, my language, and everything I knew as reality.

Unable to express myself adequately to anyone except my family for several years, I could not help but begin thinking for myself. I no longer had much physical evidence of my existence—photographs, a house, an audience to see me, or listen to me—so where else would I have dwelled but in ideas and memories? Also, when an object lost its name and I did not know it as I did before, all that remained was the image of this object and an unfiltered experience without a linguistic label. Crossing a ‘street’ in America was not the same as walking across a gil (길) in Korea. Though I knew that a street in America and a gil in Korea served the same function, it was not a directly translatable experience. My longing for Korea was a linguistic one—a longing for a place where a gil was indeed a gil, rather than a longing for the way streets ‘look’ there. It was also a longing for the time when there was no separation between the word and my encounter with it—when the word was equivalent to the thing itself.

 

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A scene from “Seopyeonje” (1993), directed by Im Kwon-taek

 

Fast forward twenty years, I can still speak, read and write in Korean, but I no longer think in Korean as I did in my childhood, and the language I speak in my dreams is English. Therefore, past ideas contained within language and the memories that could only be properly remembered in Korean are things that I relate to with distance. About five years ago, when I went to visit Korea for the first time in over fifteen years, it occurred to me how cousins who are my age remember events from our childhood much better than I do, since the conversations we had back then were in Korean, a language I no longer speak with total confidence. They could recall verbatim things that I had told them, while I could not construct sentences as fluidly in Korean as my seven-year-old self. I wonder what would have happened if my mind was not split between two languages. I am grateful to be bilingual (though I wince using that word since it always sounded to me like euphemism for a linguistic disability), but I find that I am still trying to work backwards to a time when I was uni-lingual.

In Seopyeonje, a pansori artist named Yu-Bong takes in two orphans, Dong-Ho and Song-Hwa, and raises them as his own children. He trains them in the art of pansori from a young age while traveling around the country performing. Dong-Ho and Song-Hwa are equally trained in the vocal arts of pansori, but Dong-Ho’s lack of vocal talent in comparison to Song-Hwa’s beautiful voice has Yu-Bong training Dong-Ho to drum in support of Song-Hwa’s performance. The audience loves Song-Hwa for her beauty and her voice, but Yu-Bong is not satisfied and continues to impose upon her even more gruesome training while their poverty keeps them from ever having a consistent home or meals to fuel their practice. Yu-Bong believes that to become a master pansori artist, one must have experienced hardship and pain that takes root inside, so that through pansori one could simultaneously manifest that pain and overcome it. Sick of Yu-Bong’s maniacal behavior and obsession with pansori, Dong-Ho abandons the family, leaving Song-Hwa alone to train and perform with Yu-Bong.

Pan (판) means a place where many people gather and sori (소리) means sound. The word sori is used as a verb and a noun. One can do sori or hear sori. The one who performs pansori is called sorikkun (소리꾼), kkun (꾼) meaning “the one who does.” The idea that the popular vocal performances of ancient Korea were referred to as ‘sound’ is illustrative of the oral culture in place at that time. Pansori is not quite a song but not quite a poem. The sorikkun always performs with a drummer. The drummer’s beat guides the sori and it is a performance that is most appropriately responded with a phenomenon called heung (흥). In English, there is no adequate way to describe or define it, but heung is comparable to when Americans say something like “feeling the beat” or “feeling the music.” If “feeling the beat” is expressed physiologically by tapping one’s foot, or bobbing one’s head, in Korea, heung is physically manifested by the subtle up and down movement of the shoulders. Heung is discussed as being akin to a spiritual experience, as if it is an external spirit that takes a hold of someone and awakens a part of their soul that is not directly within one’s realm of control. As heung spreads over one’s body and completely dominates it, the up and down movement of the shoulders then causes one’s arms to move up and down while bending and stretching out. The legs then follow with gentle kicks, as the knees straighten and bend. While Yu-Bong stressed the importance of hardship within the sorikkun, ultimately, the goal of the sorikkun is to bring out heung in the viewer and listener through strong resonance and empathy. The ability to feel heung is described as an essence of being Korean. A foreigner can witness heung and recognize it but they cannot have heung, for that is intrinsic to the physical and spiritual makeup of Koreans. Therefore, to be a Korean means a capacity for complete absorption that manifests itself physically.

 

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A scene from “Seopyeonje” (1993), directed by Im Kwon-taek.

 

While it is difficult for me to wholeheartedly accept heung and while it seems like a myth concocted to conjure up a sense of nationalism, the idea of it grips me because it speaks of the kind of absorption I desire, yet seldom experience. It also gives me hope for an absorption that could be achieved beyond language.

I strive to not think for myself so much—this is the goal of my life. I don’t want to create for myself a place from which I cannot exit, but wish to be able to dwell better on this earth while I’m here. To be able to dwell, and not to escape from this world and its people. Although I often find myself disengaged, what I want is to be absorbed. Perhaps this is mere cowardice, the fear of being alone. Whether you feel this way, whether “everyone” feels this way, I honestly don’t know, but I have an enormous fear of having thoughts that no one will understand. I fear that people will understand them only partially, and I will be unable to communicate them completely. I have quite a tense and bitter relationship with the idea of “thinking for myself” and also the idea of “independence” because, for me, what others perceived as creativity and independence was not a choice but a consequence of not knowing how to communicate and relate with people.

I want to speak the way another bursts out in laughter.

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Words Cannot

by Lee Ann Norman

 

I chose the clarinet even though I could slide my arm out to 7th position on the trombone, make a sound on the flute by pretending I was blowing over the top of a coke bottle, and could not be bothered with the violin and the piano. I don’t know how I knew, but somehow, I understood that the clarinet was all I ever wanted. For nearly 15 years, I studied and practiced, learned the instrument, the repertoire, and the context. I grew to love the labor inherent in a Brahms sonata after I learned that composition was not an easy task for him; he was no Mozart, no genius, just passionate. And Mozart—although a fashionable target for serious music-student loathing—often layered beautiful complexities on deceptively simple sounding scores. I loved the heft of my model R-13 and took pride in the deformity that became a signifier of the strength of my hands. I loved the Gigliotti mouthpiece I used and the handmade model to which I would graduate mid-way through college. I collected ligatures and barrels; I doctored reeds by sanding them finely to perfection and sealing them with the oil from my nose, forehead, and spit. Creating sound with this carved hunk of granadilla connected me to thoughts, feelings, expressions, and experiences that seemed impossible to access otherwise. Everything would be made right again once the instrument surrendered to my touch, my body and breath.

Performance—more specifically music and dance—has always felt deeply personal and precious to me. There’s something about sound and movement that appeals to my hidden places. It allows me to say all that I’ve ever wanted without speaking. Music kept my inner life secure and my soul protected. Sound allowed me to live completely and fully—in and out of my body.

As a child growing up near a Midwestern college town, at the crossroads of high and low; rural and urban; the complex and the simple, I dabbled in a variety of arts practices to much success, but music took precedence and became my favorite. Music made sense when everything else couldn’t. While I could interpret masterworks and convey a bevy of emotions by altering the speed of my breath, I always struggled with the concept of “playing” while I played. I felt such a strong need to follow all of the rules, if only I could learn them. In college I took a jazz improvisation class because I “should,” and learned the mechanics of composition because I “needed to,” but I always struggled to reconcile my training with my listening experience. Studying other musical traditions from around the world in ethnomusicology courses helped me put the guilt, shame, and conflict that I carried about my love for particular kinds of popular music to rest. Ethno studies helped me understand the connection between music, culture, context, and everyday life in ways that I always felt, but never quite knew how to articulate. Making connections between the rhythmic styles of the Haitian processional music Rara and the gamelan sparked something in me. Their interlocking hocket patterns that create rhythms and sounds equally reminiscent of French motets, funk, and fusion invigorated my sense of play, or perhaps it was just the challenge of hearing Kreyol lyrics I did not understand, the sound of the guïras, maracas, and metal trumpets, or the combination of gongs, drums, tuned pots and metalaphones that make up the gamelan. The political and social themes that permeate Raï, and Pungmul made me recall the American blues. These sounds changed my life back then. I began to understand something about the role of music and dance in my life.

 

​Shades Disco, Manor House, London, UK, 1978. ©Jill Furmanovsky/PYMCA

​Shades Disco, Manor House, London, UK, 1978. ©Jill Furmanovsky/PYMCA

 

Disco, funk, boogie, and house became popular forms of dance music in the 1970s after the counterculture movements of the decade before began to simmer down and their social, cultural, political, and economic residue began to manifest. The roots of those genres were deep in soul music—the gospel, work songs, and blues of African American traditions—making it a prime candidate to back lyrics filled with ruminations on love, freedom, happiness, acceptance, and otherworldliness. Its lush arrangements of soaring, reverberated vocals; syncopated, darting bass lines; scratchy “wah-wah” guitars; Afro-Latin percussion, and other oddities for pop songs like Fender Rhodes piano, harp, and other orchestral instruments complimented the defining feature of disco: a steady drum beat and double entendre known as “four on the floor,” which is accompanied by a shimmery hi-hat cymbal on the off-beats.

Just a generation before, Rock and Roll music had become symbolic for youth who were determined to be everything their parents and grandparents were not. This music—also heavily influenced by gospel, country, and the blues—would carry the voice of a generation who wanted to see themselves, but Rock and Roll didn’t have a place for everybody or everyone’s unique expression. Finally, dance music filled a space and provided the soundtrack for all of the Others to become visible.

There were hints that marginalized youth in the U.S. would soon carve a niche for themselves: Motown’s sound was changing; the Supremes released You Keep Me Hangin’ On (1966), which included multi-track vocal, guitar, and drum arrangements—a decidedly edgier sound compared to their last gospel-tinged number one hit. Soon Marvin Gaye would sing about societal ills that made him “wanna holler” and throw up his hands. Jimmy Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys were singing Message to Love (1969), which similarly featured multi-track arrangements; Sly and the Family Stone were subverting the status quo in ways ranging from who was in the band, to the costumes they wore, and the sounds they made. As the genre gained momentum, Michael Jackson first danced the robot on “Soul Train,” the “black American Bandstand,” and sang disco songs like Dancing Machine (1974), Blame it on the Boogie (1978) and Can You Feel It (1980) with his brothers; later he would go on to sing hits like Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough (1979) and Workin’ Day and Night (1979) on his own. In 1976, former Supreme Diana Ross got in on the act with her influential release Love Hangover, which rocked an unmistakable—and very un-Motown-like—funky bass line.

 

The Daily Note, a free daily newspaper distributed in New York during the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy. All photos: Krisanne Johnson.

The Daily Note, a free daily newspaper distributed in New York during the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy. All photos: Krisanne Johnson.

 

The music and the club became a safe space for the colored and queer misfits to be themselves. Donna Summer could be a queen despite her gender and skin color; straight men who liked to dance could still be seen as masculine, while queer men could reveal their own version of masculinity with a bit less trepidation. Going to the club became a place of escape where people could put on their fancy shoes and nice clothes, and present their best selves. For once, everyone could be equally visible. Dancing to the music and being around the people at the discotheque was about a heightened experience: sex, music, dance, cocaine, amphetamines, and Quaaludes took away all of the boring, harsh reality of everyday life and replaced it with an irresistible hope for transcendence that unfortunately would disappoint and fail once the drugs wore off, the DJ played the last record, the lights came on, and the dawn crept in.

For someone who is classically trained in the Western tradition, to find deep pleasure in music that uses simple time signatures and standard rhythms, chord progressions, and orchestration is seemingly shameful—a disgrace to serious musicians everywhere. As a student, I would write tentatively about the context and purpose of popular music with disclaimers like “I am not a musical snob” to justify why I was speaking of such things in the conservatory. After walking away from a disconnected and sterile version of music education I had internalized, I began to realize why I was drawn to such seemingly silly sounds and things. Everything is nothing without the how and why and what for. All history is social history. Suddenly, I understood the raw power of the expression that comes from and is created by the body. While I couldn’t explain what it felt like to be enveloped by a wall of sound when it is heard or made, I could describe the situation in which it happens. I could trace the stories the music held; I could write them, conveying the tangible expression of things for which there are no words.

 


 

Lee Ann Norman is curious about how others read the world and how their readings influence everything. She writes about the intersection of culture, politics, and aesthetics and reclaiming art for the everyday. She lives and works in New York.

 

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Child Is Father Of The Man

by Nathan Townes-Anderson

 

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Visitors at the grave of Jim Morrison, Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, 1985. Photograph by Phil Guest, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

Drove downtown in the rain

Nine-thirty on a Tuesday night,

Just to check out the late-night record shop.

Call it impulsive, call it compulsive, call it insane;

But when I’m surrounded I just can’t stop.

— “Brian Wilson,” Barenaked Ladies, 1992 1

 I couldn’t calm down enough to sleep. I kept hearing music in my head, “Surf’s Up” and this other Smile song called “Child Is Father Of The Man.” The title is the only lyric, repeated over and over…

Glimpses, Lewis Shiner, 1993 2

In her 1992 book on post-traumatic stress disorder, Trauma and Recovery, clinical psychiatrist Dr. Judith Herman describes the altered temporality of the traumatized: they “relive the [traumatic] event as though it were continually recurring in the present. They cannot resume the normal course of their lives, for the trauma repeatedly interrupts. It is as if time stops at the moment of the trauma.” 3 This phenomenon has several names. In Herman’s book it falls under “Intrusion,” one of the three main symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In psychoanalytic theory (and in this writing) it is usually referred to as “repetition compulsion.” Regardless of the name, Herman follows Freud by recognizing in the traumatized a tendency to compulsively reenact their traumatic experience in subsequent behavior. 4 This behavior ranges from recurring nightmares to waking action that reprises the event in literal or disguised forms. 5 One explanation for this phenomenon posits a desire to retroactively master the traumatic event and change its outcome. “Helplessness constitutes the essential insult of trauma,” Herman tells us, and repetition compulsion may thus represent an attempt to restore “a sense of efficacy and power.6

This fantasy of altering the past and erasing the trauma is in contrast to psychotherapy’s recounting of the trauma story. The goal of such therapy is to empower the victim via the anti-repressive practice of “truth-telling,” making the trauma “more present and more real.” 7 This concreteness is achieved through a painstaking reconstruction of the event, transforming the fragmented images and sensations of traumatic memory into a verbal, linear narrative that is fully integrated into the patient’s life story. 8 Only then, Herman argues, is the victim in a position to “incorporate the lessons of her traumatic experience” and “take concrete steps to increase her sense of power and control.” 9 From this perspective, which sees “integration” as essential to recovery, repetition compulsion’s fantasy of erasing the trauma is bound to fail. 10 Hence its repetitive nature and its categorization as a symptom.

Lewis Shiner’s fantasy novel Glimpses, first published in 1993 but set in the late 80s, transposes the concept of repetition compulsion into the register of rock and roll fandom. It is about a time-traveling rock fan named Ray Shackleford who returns to the 60s of his youth to save unrealized albums by The Beach Boys, The Doors, and Jimi Hendrix. Within fan circles these lost albums are legendary, both for their unheard, visionary music and for their harrowing stories of mental illness, substance abuse, and death. Thus, Glimpses is also about trauma and loss. In this novel—its title a reference to both repressed memories and an early 80s compilation of obscure psychedelic rock—fictional and historical characters are victims of disabling physical injury, incest, rape, domestic abuse, and child abuse.

The story is put into motion by and revolves around the unexpected death of the protagonist’s abusive father. This death, which may be a suicide, forces 37-year-old Ray to look back on his many losses: a childhood taken from him by abuse, his breakup with his first love Alex, and his dismissal from his college band, The Duotones. Now, his “Hollywood love affair” of a marriage is falling apart. 11 Ray begins having violent, recurring nightmares about his father and increasingly elaborate waking hallucinations. One afternoon, while fantasizing about The Beatles’ aborted Get Back album, he has a vision of the band recording their song “The Long and Winding Road” at Abbey Road Studios. Suddenly, he finds himself inside the control room of Studio 2 with their producer George Martin, watching the needles in the console’s VU meters bounce back and forth. “The air smells of hair oil and cigarette smoke.” 12 The band’s performance is stunning and unlike any version Ray has ever heard. In fact, The Beatles never got to work on the song at Abbey Road. The extant version is a rough take, filled with flubbed bass notes, recorded in a temporary basement studio in early 1969 shortly before the band broke up. Nevertheless, as Studio 2 transforms back into the modest rooms of Ray’s two-story home, this lost recording continues to play through the speakers in his workshop.

 

The Beach Boys Historic Landmark and its caretaker, Hawthorne, California, 2011. Erected in 2005, this land- mark stands at the approximate location of the Wilson brothers’ childhood home. The house was demolished in the 1980s during the construction of Interstate 105. Photograph by Robert Casillas

The Beach Boys Historic Landmark and its caretaker, Hawthorne, California, 2011. Erected in 2005, this landmark stands at the approximate location of the Wilson brothers’ childhood home. The house was demolished in the 1980s during the construction of Interstate 105. Photograph by Robert Casillas.

 

From a psychiatric perspective, this breakdown and its symptoms are not remarkable. Herman tells us that child abuse victims in midlife who suffer a “change in the equilibrium of close relationships,” such as a divorce or death of a parent, are often subject to such breaks. 13 What is remarkable is that when Ray’s hallucination recedes, he is still able to conjure the lost recording. He even manages to capture it on a cassette tape. As Ray puts it, “My father is dead, and Alex is married with two kids somewhere in Austin. But there is this other lost thing, this Beatles song, and maybe I can have that back.” 14 Here we see a fantastic portrayal of the temporality of repetition compulsion as time travel: a past event repeats as if it were “recurring in the present,” only this time the outcome has been mastered and changed for the better. Furthermore, in this fantasy, the unresolved childhood abuse that Ray wishes to master is disguised as an unresolved Beatles song from his youth.

Predictably, Ray is not satisfied with just a single song. He returns again and again to the past, bringing back recordings of The Doors’ Celebration of the Lizard and The Beach Boys’ Smile. His choice of albums is not coincidental. Ray elects to rescue only albums by artists who had domineering fathers or were victims of child abuse. He carefully studies their histories through old photographs, period articles, tell-all biographies, and bootleg recordings of live concerts and studio outtakes. This historical research is ostensibly preparation for his travels, but Ray also uses it as a vehicle to return to his own past. We are told that Jim Morrison’s famous, taunting confrontations with police were caused by Jim’s aversion to his dad, “career Navy, the kind of guy people just naturally call ‘the Commander.'” 15 This insight triggers an intrusive memory in Ray of “the times I had taunted my father […] daring him, needling him. Knowing he was mad, watching it build up, being scared and still I couldn’t back down, because I was so little and he was so powerful and made me feel so helpless.” 16 Other, more coherent memories are just as devastating. Like Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who also had an abusive father who loved music, Ray retroactively understands his childhood interest in music was only the “most reliable way to win his father’s love, or at least a respite from his rage.17

Ray may share symptoms with his author. Lewis Shiner has confirmed that much of Ray’s story and searing memories are his own. 18 In an author’s note appended to the 2010 edition of Glimpses, he writes of creating fictionalized versions of family, friends, and lovers for the book. Their dialogue is often taken verbatim from private conversations. His therapists’ “many crucial insights” are also included. 19 Thus, Shiner’s association of lost albums with a childhood lost to abuse may be more than just a clever literary invention. Recently, he has said of writing Glimpses, “I knew that it was totally unhealthy to be that obsessed with the past. On the other hand, I was being obsessive myself, so part of the reason for writing [the story] was to talk myself out of my own obsession.” 20  Following his final journey through the past, Ray, too, chooses the “talking cure.”

 

Lewis Shiner with his parents in Laredo, Texas, c. 1956. A version of this photo appeared on the cover of the 2010 edition of Glimpses. Photograph courtesy of Lewis Shiner.

Lewis Shiner with his parents in Laredo, Texas, c. 1956. A version of this photo appeared on the cover of the 2010 edition of Glimpses. Photograph courtesy of Lewis Shiner.

 

Trauma and Recovery and Glimpses were published within a year of each other, in 1992 and 1993, respectively. They might be companion volumes. In his passage from trauma to recovery, Ray seems to illustrate Herman’s text, like one of the fictionalized subjects in the case vignettes she cites. Conversely, Glimpses can also be understood as a diagnostic text. It documents a compulsion that may be familiar to those rock and roll fanatics who haunt Morrison’s gravesite in Paris or who piece together Smile from its myriad fragments. What loss do these fans associate with those lost albums and lost lives? Whatever it is, it need not be the result of child abuse, nor any of the other traumas visited upon Glimpses’ characters. Still, they would do well to heed the words of the book’s fictional psychiatrist Dr. Steve Lang: “Loss is inevitable, you know, you can’t change that.21

 


 

Nathan Townes-Anderson is an artist and writer. He lives in Long Island City.

 

 

 

  1. Steven Page, “Brian Wilson,” Barenaked Ladies, on Gordon, Sire Records 9 26956-2, 1992, compact disc.
  2. Lewis Shiner, Glimpses (Burton: Subterranean Press, 2010), 82-83.
  3. Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 37.
  4. Ibid., 41.
  5. Ibid., 39
  6. Ibid., 41.
  7. Ibid., 181.
  8. Ibid., 177.
  9. Ibid., 197.
  10. Ibid., 181.
  11. Shiner, Glimpses, 12.
  12. Ibid., 5.
  13. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 114.
  14. Shiner, Glimpses, 9.
  15. Ibid., 44.
  16. Ibid., 44-45. 
  17. Peter Ames Carlin, Catch A Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson (Emmaus: Rodale Books, 2006), 12.
  18. Lewis Shiner, “Lewis Shiner autobiography,” Lewis Shiner website, accessed October 30, 2013, http://www.lewisshiner.com/autobio.html.
  19. Shiner, Glimpses (2010), 300.
  20. Lewis Shiner, “A Long Talk with Lewis Shiner,” interview by Joe Milazzo, Black Clock Blog, July 19, 2010, http://blackclock.org/blog/interviews/2010/a-long-talk-with-lewis-shiner/.
  21. Shiner, Glimpses (2010), 161.
Back to Issue

A Sound-Word Diptych

by Kyra Kordoski

 

Written in response to Haefest by Chris Watson, from the album, In St Cuthbert’s Time, selected for me by a musical friend. This is an overview of the album from the label, Touch:

“To celebrate the exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels at Durham Cathedral from July to September 2013, award-winning wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson has researched the sonic environment of the holy island as it might have been experienced by St. Cuthbert in 700 A.D. Throughout human history, artists have been influenced by their surroundings and the sounds of the landscape they inhabit. When Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, was writing and illustrating the Lindisfarne Gospels on that island during the late seventh century and early eighth century, he would have been immersed in the sounds of the holy island while he created this remarkable work.”

 

 

Ode to Syrinx

 

The air is thick with birds, wings sifting the currents, throats all open and streaming. There is no land, only water perforated with tall grasses. Because there is no land, the birds nest in the sky. They fly in a tight circle, a whorl of feathers and calling. Their eggs roll and roll around on their backs and when their chicks hatch in early spring they roll as well, until they can fly by themselves. At any given time during peak nesting season there are a hundred or so birds holding over three hundred eggs aloft. While they are rolling, the chicks in the eggs and the chicks outside of the eggs are listening, and throughout the summer while the air swells with warmth they practice. While the young birds are copying, small generational amendments to their parents’ calls are introduced. By the following spring their own songs will have crystallized.

 

Bird vocalizations are shaped partly by DNA and partly by learning. Hatchlings’ early calls can be compared to the babble of human toddlers. At this early stage of development, the FOXP2 protein is upregulated in the region of the avian brain that is responsible for song learning; when the FOXP2 genetic sequence is broken or mutated in humans, it impairs our facility with language.

 

In September, while the adolescent birds are practicing, the days and nights are filled with fog and rain. The distinction between air and water is almost meaningless. In the chilled, unfolding atmosphere a rough architectural sketch is almost visible. Grey stone walls, grey light floating in on tufts of grey fog, dark grey silhouettes of wings dipping and circling outside. Soft scratching on vellum mixes with grey turbulence below, and the pages grow brighter. Fish and loaves multiply, bare feet walk over liquid, wounds stream, weave, and tangle red: “Madder Lake Red” from wild Italian madder root; “Vermillion Red” from the steam of heated mercury; “Dragons Blood Red” from the sap of dracaena draco (the dragon tree), or, from the commingled blood of elephants and dragons that have killed each other in battle.

 

In place of a larynx strung with vocal chords, birds have a syrinx. Their sound is produced where the vibrating trachea bifurcates on its way to becoming lungs. To the ancient Greeks, Syrinx was a nymph pursued by Pan; the gods changed her into reeds to save her from his advances. Laboring from the chase, Pan’s heavy breath blew over these new plants and they answered with strange harmonies. He cut the reeds down and turned them into the flute that he has been associated with ever since: the instrument of stories that have been told and retold.

 


 

 

Kyra Kordoski completed a BA Hons in English, History and Philosophy at the University of Toronto and an MA in Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. She studied postgraduate Art Criticism and Writing at the School of Visual Arts, New York, and is currently an MFA candidate in Art Writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She’s most recently written for BOMBlog (New York), Paperwork Magazine (London), and has most recently performed work at Whitechapel Gallery (London), ART 13 for Hidde Van Seggeden (London), and The Diving School (Bristol).

Back to Issue

Here is Nowhere

by Kareem Estefan

 

GCC. Inaugural Summit, Morschach 2013 5. 2013. Digital C-print. Courtesy Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler Gallery, Berlin.

GCC. Inaugural Summit, Morschach 2013 5. 2013. Digital C-print. Courtesy Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler Gallery, Berlin.

 

“Only cannibalism unites us. Socially. Economically. Philosophically.” The opening salvo of Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 “Manifesto Antropófago” (Cannibal Manifesto) still reverberates as a vigorous, if ambivalent embrace of cross-cultural consumption in the wake of colonialist encounter. Its echoes can be heard clearly in the MP3, which has enabled the rapid and all-but-unlimited circulation of music across the world’s digital networks, and thereby amplified conversations about sampling historically othered cultural expressions. If “Tupí or not Tupí” was the question, for the Brazilian modernist, today’s cannibalistic DJ vacillates in like fashion between the poles of Bakhtinian dialogue and colonialist appropriation.

Perhaps for this reason, de Andrade finds a place in artist Daniel Perlin’s “Sound of Rio de Janeiro” mixtape, which addresses both Rio’s internal divisions and the DJ’s place as a gringo outsider in an essay woven into the mix itself. In a remix of sorts, below, I have pilfered and reordered Perlin’s words, and imposed on them imagined sources and tags—a kind of fictional metadata—that reflect on the media environment in which this mix circulates. (Think of it as a modest attempt to trouble the touristy desire for “authenticity” that afflicts the city-specific mixtape, the regional art exhibition, the war correspondent.) As the curator of the Domus mixtape series to which his Rio mix is a contribution, Perlin has pushed the genre of the city-specific mix forward admirably. The series provides an important model for publications considering how to curate regional music without dissolving its cultural context and local political stakes into a bland category like “world” (a world from which the United States, as the presumed origin of the tourist’s gaze, is excluded).

The mixes considered here have distinct and complex relations to the specificity of site as it adheres to, or fades away from, sound. In addition to Perlin’s Rio mix, there is DJ/rupture’s simultaneously hyper-local and transnational Sunset Park Rent Strike Speakout Mix, which features cumbia sonidera that has traveled a path similar to many of the immigrant residents of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood whose voices it showcases. On the other side of the spectrum, Fatima Al Qadiri’s Muslim Trance “mini-mix,” a compilation of sacred Sunni and Shi’ite a capella tracks found online and set to dance beats, points nowhere in particular—except to the technological Mecca of .mp3 or .wav formats heralded in the title of the DJ’s DIS column, “Global .Wav.” Novelist Teju Cole’s two recent mixes for the Dubai-based publication The State, meanwhile, establish an expansive soundscape for the “world as battlefield” by spotlighting responses to today’s “war on terror” from a number of the subjective positions drawn into its wide orbit of suffering. In Cole’s Capacity Mix, the armed drone emerges as a terrifying symbol of the divide between virtual and real: the dislocated operator of the unmanned aerial vehicle never hears, as the victim of remote assassination will, the incessant buzz that gives his Predator or Reaper a family name.

 

Domus Mixtape #12: The Sound of Rio de Janeiro

Daniel Perlin vs. DJ N-RON for Domus

//click here//

DOMUS Rio, of course, does not exist, as no single city exists.

AL JAZEERA is defined geographically by divisions between its largely working-class Zona Norte and its smaller, wealthier, iconic Zona Sul.

CNN “At first impression, its appearance from the ground…”

TRIPLE CANOPY is conflicted, its favelas inescapable from view, requiring a double-consciousness annexing the often-gated zones of Barra de Tijuca, Jacaerepagua.

LONELY PLANET “any attempt to define a homogeneous sound of this city becomes even more remote, even more absurd.”

 a serious problem is

so many Gringos have left its mark:

devoured me

invaded me

consumed the idea of Rio

Tupí or not Tupí goes the cannibalist

TIME OUT & so at any moment / walking down its streets // eyes closed or open / you will hear music.

SOUNDCLOUD #pagode #samba #bailefunk #forró #black #sertanejo #bossanova #novabossa #frevo #côco #evangélico #jazz #techno #brega #chorinho #sambadoraiz #maracatu #rock #pop

BIDOUN cross-genres perform themselves in the windows, on the camelô carts, on the radios, in the houses, and on PA systems.

@intifada “Despite institutional efforts at control (at one point in the nineties, Rio’s government banned Baile Funk)…”

THE STATE Its unifying force is its inability to be nailed down, to be articulated. It must be heard, consumed and regurgitated to perform its invasive power.

 

Capacity Mix and Mushtaq Mix

Teju Cole for The State

 

James Bridle, Dronestagram. March 7 2014: 15 people killed by drones in Mahfed, a district of some 27,000 in southern Abyan, Shaker al Ghadeer, a Yemeni soldier stationed in Abyan, told the Yemen Times. Other sources stated that several more strikes had gone unreported.

James Bridle, Dronestagram. March 7 2014: 15 people killed by drones in Mahfed, a district of some 27,000 in southern Abyan, Shaker al Ghadeer, a Yemeni soldier stationed in Abyan, told the Yemen Times. Other sources stated that several more strikes had gone unreported.

The drone has become the iconic figure of today’s U.S.-led wars without borders, a spectacular device that revises (and racializes) sci-fi scenarios of killer robots run amok through the terrible reality of remote-control assassination. “We kill [brown] people based on metadata,” as General Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and CIA, recently admitted. Predators and Reapers hover above some of the world’s least developed regions, from the mountainous tribal territory of Waziristan to the besieged open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip, while their human operators stare at computer monitors on military bases near Las Vegas or Tel Aviv. This asymmetry, both technological and topological, has challenged artists to find new means to visualize violence that would otherwise be relegated to a distant elsewhere—or, in the colonial imagination that structures the “war on terror,” nowhere at all.

Among many artistic responses to the infra-visibility of drone warfare, a few stand out as particularly forceful. Omer Fast’s video 5,000 Feet Is the Best takes a U.S. drone pilot’s reflections on his daily duties as source material for stylized scenes that inject an intimate sense of physical proximity and bodily vulnerability into a discourse too often reliant on statistics and their technocratic frames. Similarly, James Bridle has concretely situated the “virtual” violence of drones in physical space with haunting “Drone Shadows” drawn on the streets of cities like London and Washington, while also bringing distant localities into highly trafficked virtual space with Dronestagram, an Instagram account that generates close-up cartographical views of sites in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia just after the U.S. or U.K. has bombed them. Yet perhaps most effective in jostling people to outrage, through a disarmingly humorous path, have been writer and photographer Teju Cole’s seven short stories about drones, which riff on the opening lines of classic novels to convey the tragedy and contingency of so-called “signature strikes”—bombings based solely on patterns of behavior, not individual targeting—in the length of a tweet. (“5. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.”)

It’s wit like this that makes Cole’s Capacity Mix, a “soundtrack for the Global War on Terror” commissioned by The State, much more compelling than its ponderous mission might suggest. Take his selection of “Soup Boys (Pretty Drones),” by Das Racist’s Heems, a jaunty rap about a day in the life of a Queens resident in which the heartbroken narrator tries to score a gram of coke and “a pretty drone to take home tonight.” The track turns on the narrator’s incapacity to grapple with the racial violence directed at his community—because he’s too high (“They’re throwing stones at the mosque / I’m in tune with the goons that’s stoned at the mosque”). Paranoid, he directs his anger and desire into the fetishistic object of the drone-woman: “like, that drone modest, but that drone flaunt / all of them drones do what them drones want / drones want to fire, then drones want to kill / drones want your dome and your bone and your grill.” In Heems’s emasculated haze, drones morph into a 21st-century vagina dentata.

The Capacity Mix takes its name from the more sobering narrative of a Bronx woman who operated drones and realized she has “a capacity for war…a capacity for hate.” Lynn Hill, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, shares her nightmares about having killed (at a distance of roughly 7,500 miles), in this selection from Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project, a collaboration between jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and poet Mike Ladd that features veterans of color reflecting on their wartime experiences. Over the spare, haunting plod of piano keys, Maurice Decaul, a writer who served in the Marines, asks Hill what she thought about each day and dreamt about each night after she “left Predator.” Hill replies, “when I was in bed the last thing I would think about was the families of these other people, and how they look like me, and that I could have been on the other side of those crosshairs, and why was I the one who was able to be here.” Her testimony ends with the description of a dark cloud that recurs in her dreams, “like Predator,” and the tragic avowal that “you can’t really shake it?—because a part of this is kind of your fault.”

Cole followed up the Capacity Mix with another contribution to The State that shifts the mood from melancholia, guilt, and paranoia to yearning, sumud, and resistance, with tracks from Iraqi-Canadian rapper the Narcicyst, Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, and a ‘60s Yemeni duet, “Mushtaq” (by Bobol al-Hejaz and Sohni Ahmed), after which the mix is named.

 

Muslim Trance

Ayshay (aka Fatima Al Qadiri) for DIS Magazine

A versatile DJ and composer, Fatima Al Qadiri fashions moody synth melodies drawing on genres from grime to trance to Gregorian chants for those species of experience so raw they can, perhaps, only be represented through extreme stylization: namely, the devotional and the traumatic.

Born in Kuwait in 1981, Al Qadiri’s earliest memories revolve around Iraq’s invasion of the suburbs where she grew up, watching dubbed Japanese cartoons—until one day they were interrupted by emergency broadcasts of Saddam Hussein’s face—and playing video games with her younger sister and sometimes collaborator, the artist Monira Al Qadiri. One of these games, Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, sensationalized the aerial bombings and oil fires she had just witnessed in the form of an ostensibly based-on-reality first-person shooter. Al Qadiri’s 2012 EP Desert Strike equally processes the traumatic shock of the war and the adventure motifs (and “reload” sound effects) of the game, expertly skirting the edges of kitsch to evoke a distant melancholia.

Did the first Gulf War, disguised as “virtual” after its real devastation confounded and terrified, leave in its wake a capacity to mediate varieties of suffering into precise sonic iterations of affect (i.e., Genre Specific Xperience, as Al Qadiri titled another EP)? Or has Al Qadiri simply assimilated every musical genre that has been filtered into digital file formats to date—as her extraordinary DIS column, “Global .Wav,” would suggest?

Continuing Al Qadiri’s exploration of religious music (previously seen from “Vatican Vibes” to an earlier Ayshay mix for FACT magazine), “Muslim Trance” samples a capella tracks for sacred songs, Shi’ite and Sunni, the artist found online. Like most of the music she’s featured on Global .Wav, from the Ivory Coast’s DJ Arafat to Kurdish Rural Rave, it’s surprisingly danceable.

 

Sunset Park Speakout Mix

DJ/rupture for Creative Time Reports

I first fell for Argentine cumbia, Moroccan chaabi, and other ever-evolving regional genres that are so much more than their sum—the imperially arrogant category of “world” music—through the mixes of DJ/rupture. Minesweeper Suite (2002) and Special Gunpowder (2004), two early favorites, struck me as utopian meeting places: dialogic soundscapes where Nubian drums rub up against Timbaland rhythms and get soaked in Jamaican patois, mutually amplifying one another in defiance of colonialist legacies of appropriation (American pop star snags beat from Rio favela for authentically gritty backdrop). As insistently as Jace Clayton takes us elsewhere as DJ/rupture, there is no there in his mixes—only one here shot through with another, and another, in continually shifting collocations.

Rent strike in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Photo by Joe Lustri, July 19, 2012.

Rent strike in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Photo by Joe Lustri, July 19, 2012.

Still, it took me several years of listening to DJ/rupture to realize that his mixes were local in a much more literal sense: Jace lives just a few subway stops south of my own Brooklyn apartment, in Sunset Park. A rent strike had taken root in the neighborhood, and DJ/rupture spun a set in support of the strike—aimed at forcing a slumlord to clear out the asbestos and fix the heat, among other things, in three buildings he owned—at a party with local artists, activists, and community organizations.

Politics doesn’t get more local than a rent strike, in which the tenants’ very home is the site of struggle. But in a neighborhood where most of the inhabitants are recent immigrants, each home, bodega, and restaurant also evokes a distant counterpart. The Sunset Park Speakout Mix features music Jace purchased on the shelves of local bodegas that has the same roots as the residents who testify to the meaning of home, the need for affordable housing, and the reasons they’re striking (in Spanish and English).

With the mix I thought: let’s have people talking about their living conditions, who determines them and what they want to do about it—the essentials of politics—embedded in the Mexican media format of cumbia sonidera. One of the things I find so fascinating about cumbia in general and cumbia sonidera in particular is that it has existed across the Americas for so long but has remained beneath the radar because people look down on it as a lower-class phenomenon, and the genre itself is not particularly interested in narratives of progress, choosing instead to emphasize presence. Cumbia moves slowly. Novelty fuels much music appreciation, but cumbia sidesteps that. The music champions resilience and sustainability, which makes it a potent sonic counterpart to the daily struggles of a working-class neighborhood. [Read more at Creative Time Reports]


 


 

 

Kareem Estefan is a Brooklyn-based writer and the associate editor of Creative Time Reports. He writes about contemporary art and culture for publications including Art in America, Art-Agenda, BOMB, The New Inquiry and T Magazine. Previously, he co-curated the Segue Series at the Bowery Poetry Club and hosted a WNYU radio show for conceptually innovative poetry, Ceptuetics, which is now archived at PennSound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to Issue

American Yeezus

by Sam Swasey

 

As is so often the case with new technologies, the impetus for the Internet can be found in warfare. In late 1960’s America, it was the Cold War that inspired the US Government’s research to develop a network of communication between computers. As the saying goes, “information is power,” and the party that informs most efficiently is most powerful.

While its origins are certain, today it would be inaccurate to conceive of a center point within the international web of communication that this earlier technology became. And although the researchers who developed this technology could not have fathomed what their invention would become, it nonetheless seems inevitable that the Internet would have its beginnings in America. Aside from the country’s wealth and the emphasis it puts on technological research, as well as the many developments made in other countries—developments this international web is contingent upon—it is as if the internet has an almost direct relationship with an ideological conception of freedom attributable to the American landscape.

Through the Great Plains of the Midwest we travel impeded only by our engines’ capabilities, speed limits, and the gas in the tank. Past weathered homes, American flags, and grand billboards of Jesus Christ that appear small in the vast landscape. On an impossibly flat road we drive, a fractal suspended in motion, within an immense network of interconnected roads and interstates. Past plots of houses of a very different kind—vacant, but fully furnished and adorned with manicured lawns—and on into the Rockies that rise abruptly from the Plains’ sleepy bed. We divide these peaks on roads that swerve and shake, rise and descend between crumbling heights.

As if held in an extended and controlled freefall we escape the mountains’ embrace, dropping into the desert below. Motels linger on its precipice, scatter and sometimes survive in its great interior. They offer their amenities to the night with colorful lights. These neon signs that boast “We Have Color TV” are reminiscent of, but perfectly unlike, those stuck to the café windows in our cities that exclaim “We Have Wi-Fi.” In both cases these declarations serve to verify our previous assumption. But whereas our expectations give that Wi-Fi sign an air of tackiness, it is this same privileged expectation that gives that “Color TV” a look of quaintness. Both sensations stem from the same: “ah, just as it should be.” Because in these motels there are always color TVs. They, like the neon signs that advertise them, the headlights of American cars, and the lights on buildings of American cities, seem always to be on. As with the saying we use if someone is inattentive or absentminded—“the lights are on but no-one’s home”—the air-conditioning cools these vacant rooms and the televisions light the walls and furniture with single-circuit information. Like the habitual, absentminded American smile, it makes no difference if anyone is home, so long as the visitor gets what he expects when he arrives. Infinite artifice—like a landscape behind a veneer of heat waves or the picture on an old TV set—America and its image quiver and lose themselves within each other.

Our bodies seem almost to disappear in the desert. Nearly devoid of any man-made objects or anything suggestive of the human mind, we, like sweat, begin to spread outward in infinite space. Perhaps one needs only to travel to the desert, or see it in an old Western, to understand why the harmonica imbedded itself so deeply in American music. Its dragging whine seems to fill us with the joy of suffering and, like the desert, reminds us of the loneliness of liberation.

 

Aerial View of Los Angeles

Aerial View of Los Angeles

 

It is no wonder that Los Angeles, located near the desert’s edge, spreads out horizontally in every direction. At night, from a distance, the city’s lights seem to embarrass the sky. Its freeway system is nothing short of prolific—an immense network of on and off ramps and interweaving roads subdivided by a multiplicity of lanes. Thousands of humans in motion within an arms reach of one another, but dissuaded from contact by looming catastrophe. All of them are travelling between different locations with differing thoughts of where they were and where it is they are going. So while they sit side-by-side they are rarely in the same place at the same time. Trucks carry supplies to businesses and, if not already immersed in telephone discussions, these drivers carry messages of their day home to their loved ones. Did Los Angeles grow up to become the Internet? It might just be the best tangible example of a location that preceded our visual conception of the Internet’s architecture.

 

Map of the Internet

Map of the Internet

 

In 1954 American dance critic Edwin Denby wrote an essay he intended to deliver to the dance students at the Juilliard School. In it he noted that

Americans occupy a much larger space than their actual bodies do…This annoys many Europeans…But it has a beauty of its own, which a few of them appreciate. It has so to speak an intellectual appeal; it has because it refers to an imaginary space, an imaginary volume, not to a real and visible one.1

Denby, who lived and wrote in New York, made these observations in a city composed of narrow streets and profound verticality, as opposed to horizontal and spacious L.A. Whether an American has ever travelled across the U.S. is perhaps irrelevant. No matter in what part of the country he lives, he is at least subconsciously aware of American space. It is imbedded in the national aesthetic, in its customs and daily life. From the certain way an American moves according to Denby, to our great love for all that is gigantic—from buildings, to engines, to Abstract Expressionist paintings, cheese burgers, and homes. It can be found in our music and the way we speak. American accents, albeit diverse, all drawl and spread words like some sort of paste of varying consistencies.

The sense of freedom that the American landscape inspires, and the one that shares a relationship with the liberation of mobility associated with the Internet, relates not to the filling of space with things grandiose and immense—this might be a purely American phenomenon—rather, it relates to our perception of ourselves within this space, and, space traversed. Unlike Europe, which has been divided by wars into bordered lands, the borders separating American states are connected vaguely by a united national ideology. Even when we consider the lingering disparity between North and South solidified during the American Civil War, these differences in opinions can hardly be conceived of as a geometric and timeless split on a map. Though a divide, not unlike one that existed in the 1860’s, can still be observed in the political leanings of, for instance, Massachusetts and Mississippi, this division gets hazier at the geographic point directly between these locations. In his essay “Up In Arms,” journalist and historian, Colin Woodard delves into the socio-historical past of various regions within America in order to conceive of a map which is a better representative of the country’s varying political beliefs. The country, in his opinion, is not exactly composed of 50 autonomous lands and cannot be divided easily into quadrants, but rather it is composed of 11 different “nations” all slightly amorphous, but held together by their respective political views. Between the far North, or “Yankeedom,” and the “Deep South” is an area he calls “Greater Appalachia” composed of Kentucky, Tennessee, and even the northern most regions of Georgia and Alabama (amongst others). He reminds us that most states within this region sided with the Union during the Civil War, but “since Reconstruction, and especially since the upheavals of the 1960’s, it has joined with the Deep South to counter federal overrides of local preference.”2

Furthermore, there are often no natural borders to indicate when we enter a new state: it is flat from Kansas to Nebraska and the Rockies divide Colorado—a single state—in half. Though, on occasion, there are some social disparities indicative of a divide within or between these bordered states. In the case of Colorado more recently, an ideological split has formed that can almost be drawn like a line down the Rocky Mountains’ border and the state’s flat farmlands to the east. It is here in the agrarian east that the mostly right-wing citizens have voiced a desire to secede—to become the 51st state, or to join with Wyoming—because they’re feeling that their opinion is no longer relevant in a state politically controlled by the large, mostly left-leaning, populations in cities such as Denver and Aspen.

Aside from these seemingly rare occurrences though, this is why the EU faces certain migratory dilemmas the US generally does not. If Montana, for example, is doing economically poorly we have a greater potential to migrate south—our location changes but we are geographically and politically still Americans. This is of course an unemotional simplification of the economic and social travails associated with such a move. But it nonetheless would seem to be simpler than, for instance, in Europe where when Greece is suffering, a move to the economically prosperous Germany is discomforting because of a warring past and two divergent languages and ideologies. This is not to say we necessarily migrate more, but that to exist in America is perhaps to be evermore cognizant of the possibility.

America is not without lines of separation though. Within America these lines have less to do with geographic borders and more to do with social divisions of wealth and race, which, more often than not, cannot be thought of separately. In his essay, To Be Unsettled, One First Has to Be Settled, philosopher, social theorist, and self-proclaimed nomad Vilém Flusser wrote:

The fact that there are expellees presupposes that there are expellers, people who think of themselves as vegetables (as native) but behave like rats. They expel anyone who does not accord with their putative point of view, so that it will not become apparent that it is no point of view at all but rather an empty refuge in which the same pups are whelped over and over again. They expel the rejects [Auswurf] so that their spawn [Wurf] always remain the same. Those who are expelled are always the rejects of the identical spawn; they are an elite created by those who expel them.3

In the case of the black population in America, and more specifically for this discussion, the African American population in New Orleans during the time that Jazz was invented in the early part of the 20th Century, it was in most cases a double expulsion. Buddy Bolden, the mythical figure who is widely considered to be the inventor of Jazz, born in New Orleans in 1877, was, as with many of his contemporaries, a part of the first generation of blacks born free in America. Forced to live in the all-black section and certainly lacking the privileges of the city’s white population, he was a citizen of what can only be trivially considered a homeland—too far removed from his ancestral Africa and socially expelled from participating fully in America.

 

Buddy Bolden’s Band, around 1900-1906

Buddy Bolden’s Band, around 1900-1906

 

Since this point in history, racial segregation has in many ways improved. The practical implication of the country’s ideological glue—that we all have the right to life and liberty—has been more fully realized. Yet today, when racial equality in America still exists largely as an ideal to aspire to, it is pertinent to keep in mind what comedian and social critic, George Carlin, once said: “rights aren’t rights if someone can take them away—they’re privileges. That’s all we’ve ever had in this country: a bill of temporary privileges. And if you read the news, even badly, you know that the list gets shorter and shorter.”4 The one who neglects this is, more often than not, a member of the privileged few who likewise might believe that the TV and air-conditioning were turned on just for him upon his arrival and that the smile of the passerby was inspired by a conscious feeling of camaraderie.

It might be that the inspiration for the invention of Jazz came in part from Buddy Bolden’s and others’ double expulsion and their nomadic existence. It would seem that such a movement as Jazz, which is so seemingly free, could only be created by an individual who lacked political liberty, but was in a sense ideologically nomadic. Jazz, like any form of music or information, is based upon a structure, but the freedom expressed in its jam session-like quality hinges upon the fact that it conceals this structure. Jazz existed in liberating opposition to the lives of those who created it.

Perhaps Jazz is not unlike early Hollywood films that relied upon the rapidity of the individual frames’ movement through the projector to instill a sense of continuity and to maintain in the viewer a “suspension of disbelief.” It is only by neglecting the filmic structure that we, while immobile in cinema-seats, feel moved by the spectacle on the screen. This willful acceptance of the artifice might be symptomatic of America, and while it can be liberating at times, this freedom comes at a cost. Consider America’s great love affair with conspiracy theories, which are, in certain ways, investigative attempts to find truth, but are in fact more often than not, deceptive narratives composed of a rearranged sequence of the same old tricks. We are obsessed with the artifice and, as if into a vast Infinity Pool, we dive repeatedly.

As Vilém Flusser wrote about the predicament of expellees, the African American population in New Orleans, and for our purposes, the male population, became “an elite created by those who [expelled] them.” It is evident that the black male population did not benefit from such social elitism though—in fact, quite the opposite. From the white perspective, black men were to be regarded as a threat. They were, so it was believed, immoral and driven by innate physical and sexual prowess (it is worth mentioning, that sadly such beliefs have not been entirely removed from our culture). Which is why, it has been argued, Louis Armstrong—one of the musicians most responsible for bringing Jazz into the lives of the country’s white citizens—was forced, in a sense, to play the part of the Sambo when performing. By fulfilling this stereotype of subservience he compelled his white audience to momentarily forget the other.

However, “when Buddy Bolden was part of the music scene in New Orleans Jazz simply meant sex”5 wrote trumpeter and cultural theorist Krin Gabbard in his book Hotter than that: The Trumpet, Jazz, and American Culture. Black men in New Orleans, who were prevented by laws and social taboos from ever expressing an inkling of sexuality in public—and most certainly not around white women—were for the first time, and through Jazz, given the opportunity to express this facet of life innate to all humans. The city’s white population began to migrate by night to black clubs to hear the new sound. Inside, they were compelled to sway, shake, and move to the music emanating from polished brass horns played by well-dressed black men. They performed songs like “Funky Butt” and “All the Whores Like the Way I Ride,” which while certainly misogynistic by today’s standards, nonetheless created an experience on par with the ecstasy of late-night lust. Becoming pure movement guided by Jazz, social interaction normally inhibited by ignorant prejudice, for a moment, broke down and the mixed-race audience carried by this sexy sound migrated outside their own consciousness—an orgasmic experience, a collective liberation. In this way Jazz was a movement of humanization.

The birth of Jazz coincided with the development, popularization, and domestication of radio. Fairly early in the music’s history it was being recorded and broadcasted, soon thereafter internationally (unfortunately Bolden’s cornet was never recorded). The radio—a tool used at times for propaganda and war—became the device with which this Jazzy freedom was sent all over the world. With it America finally claimed, and with international recognition, an art form that was uniquely their own.

The invention of the radio presented the world with the potential for information to transcend space, or, at least to traverse it more efficiently. We no longer needed to be in the presence of the musician to hear him play. When music was prerecorded then broadcasted, it likewise altered information’s relationship with time. In 1966, an article was published in High Fidelity magazine in which Canadian Classical pianist, Glenn Gould, applauded the technology of sound recording. He wrote that “the inclination of electronic media is to extract their content [the recorded music] from historical date.”6 We can listen to a recording pretty much anywhere at any time. A sort of a mutual migration—the recording meets us in the present and we travel temporally back to the time when it was recorded, but not without our conception of where we are in the present. In opposition to the general consensus at the time, and especially in regards to Classical music, Gould argued that music’s revelatory arena could no longer be found in the concert hall. In fact it was the music industry that fetishized live performance. (Gould’s optimism was not only theoretical; it was pragmatic. He had at this time already left the stage in 1964 and never toured again). He championed the tape-splice and thereby declared the post-production editor to be as vital to the composition as the performer.

While its origins cannot be located in Gould’s argument, it was soon thereafter within popular music of the 1970’s, that the editor had become the performer. Hip hop DJs began making music composed of samples of differing artists’ music, all juxtaposed and flowing together, mixed live on two turntables. With this sampling they had, in a sense, created a communication of sorts between divergent musical genres, both past and present, that would have rarely or never made contact before. If we return to the analogy of cinema, this music, for the most part, was still quite unlike montage film within which the structure is laid bare. Apart from the visual component of two records being mixed side-by-side, the sounds were compelled to blend and inform, rhythmically cohere and contrast like scenes in a Hollywood narrative. It was a self-reflexive musical phenomenon in which recorded voices and beats—like ghosts from our past—were cut up, rearranged, and juxtaposed to create something entirely new.

The old recordings of Jazz musicians or Classical performances, like the Radio broadcasts or that flickering color TV, are sources of single circuit information—we cannot speak back. But the Internet, perhaps vaguely similar to music composed of samples, is a platform for communication. Web designers work hard to eliminate glitches and delays because they remind us of the process of the site’s construction and steal from us a feeling of liberation (and this feeling is good for any economy). When we are confronted with such a glitch we do not smack the side of our computers as we might our radio or TV, because we generally do not believe it is the device’s mechanics which are to blame for some sort of informational disturbance. On the contrary, it is breakdown in communication—our voice is not being heard.

In regards to contemporary music, we are now at a time when sampling has continued for some forty years and songs both past and present have been digitized and converted into files and stored in vast databases. Now that these music files are so often and so easily selected and juxtaposed, no longer with tape splices or analog mixing boards, but with computer programs, the sound of their historically divergent parts blend evermore seamlessly together, not unlike a borderless slide from Kansas to Nebraska. When music is on occasion an arrangement of sampled samples it is at times unclear whom or what is being sampled anymore. Musical genres—remnants of past eras—blur and spread outward in an infinite, borderless sound-space. When history is seemingly flattened in this way and origins of genre and culture are compressed, it is at times unclear what exactly is being communicated.

Kanye West’s Album, Yeezus

Kanye West’s Album, Yeezus

On June 8th, 2013 hip-hop artist Kanye West released his sixth album, Yeezus. Critically acclaimed, and while it is said to have received mixed reactions from the public, it was certified gold by the RIAA in less than two months. Its sound has almost unanimously been described as aggressive, and is said to have been inspired by varying musical genres from Industrial and Acid House to Chicago Drill. It was recorded in five different cities and three different countries including France, the US, and England, produced in collaboration with an assortment of artists of diverse musical backgrounds, and composed of an eclectic borage of samples from 1970’s Hungarian metal group, Omega, to the choral arrangement, “Sermon (He’ll Give Us What We Really Need),” sung by the Holy Name of Mary Choral Family.

It is an album that is interlaced with themes that seem inevitably tied to race, and both inter and intra race relations. His message is expressed through his own voice, and seemingly at times through his godly alter ego, “Yeezus.” By way of lyrical references and musical samples the album’s discussion of the contemporary situation of black Americans is grounded historically in the famous Jazz song “Strange Fruit,” first recorded in 1939 with vocals by Billie Holiday. It was not only that Holiday’s voice was the first associated with the melody, but also that the song’s tragic message seems so well suited to her style, that it, although covered by many others, is undoubtedly thought of in relation to her till this day. She, like her contemporaries and the female Blues and Jazz singers that preceded her, was, because of her race and gender, regarded in the dimmest light in a white-male dominated society. Having even less political liberty than her black-male contemporaries, her voice—its wavering hum and delicate touch, finding refuge in the offbeat—has an effect not unlike the harmonica. Her delivery fills us with the joy of suffering and, like the desert, reminds us of the loneliness of liberation.

The lyrics of “Strange Fruit” were originally composed as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, about the lynching of blacks in the American South. In it we find only suffering. But, Holiday’s voice sways and creaks like the mournful tree she sings of, and at times sinks rapidly as if oppressed by southern humidity. The song’s message enters the world through an upsurge from deep within her—it is liberated, and it fills us accordingly.

On the fourth track on Yeezus, “New Slaves,” West references “Strange Fruit” with the line, “I know that we the new slaves, I see the blood on the leaves,” and most directly on the seventh track, “Blood On the Leaves,” where a cover of the song by Nina Simone is sampled throughout. Apart from her voice, which has a deeper, more forceful thrust than Holiday’s and may have seemed a more melodious fit with the dark rhythms of the album and song, it is perhaps Simone’s persona that likewise sounds more in harmony with Yeezus. She emerged as a performer in the mid-50’s and her popularity continued to grow throughout the 60’s and 70’s during a time of great social unrest when both women and African Americans were protesting for equal rights. Simone was an icon of both African American and feminine strength. Her songs, such as “Mississippi Goddam,” and her performances were charged with profound passion and, on occasion, aggression. Ironically it is her rendition of “Strange Fruit” that begins the seventh track immediately following the most misogynistic song on the album, “I’m In It.”

Soon after “Blood On the Leaves” begins the voice of West slides into the song between the folds of rhythm and history. His voice is auto-tuned—which at this point is less of a sound effect than a musical phenomenon suggestive of our dependence on soft technologies and a progressive computerization of human beings. He sings about an unrequited love affair, the first party the couple went to together, which was likewise the first time they took Molly (MDMA). He announces that they “could have been some body” and reminisces about the time the molly “came out of” his partner’s body and likewise when “it came out of their body.” Meanwhile Simone’s voice is interspersed throughout, singing the refrain “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” This famous and horrific line, which originally addressed the lifeless swing of lynched black Americans hanging from trees during the first half of the 1900’s is satirically re-contextualized to sound like this swing refers to the bodily movements of a black couple commenced in a drug-induced dance sometime in the 21st century.

It is not insignificant that the drug of choice is Molly, which might be, at least in the metropolises of America and Europe, the chosen drug of our time. It is referenced often in popular music, including songs by Jay-Z, Rick Ross, and Miley Cyrus. Taken at parties as West tells us and taken at clubs, but undoubtedly taken somewhere with music. While people most likely remain dancing for the duration of the drug in a single enclosed venue (perhaps a club or a barricaded field), they are moved by a sensation of ultimate liberation. It is not without reason that West sings “it came out of their body [singular]” because at these parties it is as if everyone “rolls” together. While there are some with talent and others with none, and though their dancing styles vary, they all are moved by the same electronic sounds emanating from gigantic speakers. They unabashedly invade each other’s personal-spaces, and, as if the music “comes out of their body,” they move together like a single throbbing organ. It is a profound blur of individual psyches—a mass grouping of human lives becoming electronic, blended and rolling together.

Although West’s song, “Blood on the Leaves,” is most likely an intentional re-contextualization and radical alteration in meaning of Holiday’s original work, it is also attributable to forty years of sampling and an ever-expansive database from which to retrieve these sound bytes. Not unlike the molly-induced dance floor, boundaries break down between the songs’ individual parts and the significance of the historically and culturally relevant juxtapositions get compressed and lost. They no longer communicate. They revert to single circuit information.

Yeezus, like a lot of music right now, is influenced by many genres—it would seem difficult, if not even at times negligent, to deny an entire world that sits at our fingertips. In the case of Yeezus these differing sounds often harmonize and flow, but at others they battle for space. The second track and first single off the album, “Black Skinhead,” for instance, has a beat which is militaristic and almost undeniably reminiscent of the 1996 single, “The Beautiful People,” by the popular industrial metal band, Marilyn Manson. On most tracks though, the rhythm is much less like that of a machine-gun.

While the beat of most songs has a sound of digital industry, the melodic voice-over—whether it be West’s or another’s—seems at times to drag on, as if it were slowed down. It is reminiscent of the “chopped and screwed” hip-hop remixes begun in Houston in the early 90’s, in which previously recorded tracks are slowed to the point where the song becomes almost unidentifiable from its source. The effect this has on sound is perhaps best visualized in “Swangin’ and Bangin,’” both a song by the Houston based rapper ESG, and a style of driving performed by the genre’s listeners. Cars are driven slowly down the road while swerving side to side as if to make contact with as much of the street as is physically possible. As with “Swangin’ and Bangin,” screwed rap seems intent on both slowing time and, more importantly, filling space. On Yeezus, this sound is coupled by abrupt stoppages in the beat and sudden inclusions of new elements. It is as if these cars intent on “Swangin’ and Bangin’” began to stutter in the street, jumping forward or backward at unexpected intervals, before they or the street itself disappears entirely from the scene.

This is not the first or the only album on which this glitch seems to occur. Another example, though not the only one, can be heard in the music of the English producer Evian Christ, who worked with West on the sixth track of Yeezus, “I’m In It.” Evian Christ’s sound is likewise influenced by a borage of genres and, quite often, the music stutters. Sometimes a new element enters that seems out of place or strange noises scatter like marbles across the top of the track. The seamless flow of rhythms and intermix of divergent genres is perhaps becoming generic—the artifice is being exposed. It is perhaps visualized best in one of the most recent styles of Dubstep dancing called “glitch.” While it recalls the dance movements of the “pop-and lockers” of the past, “glitch” has eliminated much of the fluidity that typified its predecessor. Watching a “glitch” performance is like watching someone dance on Skype or Facetime; complete with dropouts and stutters, it would seem that the dance’s function is to malfunction.

For most, all of Yeezus might at first come as a shock, but in regards to the glitch, there are two moments on the album that seem most striking. On the first track, “On Sight,” and the Fourth, “New Slaves,” the most apparent examples occur. The beat for “On Sight” is fast, aggressive and industrial, reminiscent of certain types of EDM (Electronic Dance Music). Its flow is consistent, but at around one minute and fifteen seconds into the song something happens. Everything stops abruptly. As if someone by mistake had twisted a knob on an old transistor radio, we hear something entirely new: The Holy Name of Mary Choral Family singing “Sermon (He’ll Give Us What We Really Need).” Although it was recorded at the time of the album’s production, the sound is muffled and grainy as if recorded over 50 years ago. Like the initial sensation of falling that overcomes us when getting on an out-of-service escalator and are forced to take our first awkward step to make the stairs connect, this sudden and arrhythmic transition in song forces us to connect the divided parts. While we must forget the beat of the previous section in order to make sense of the rhythm in the next, we are compelled to assess the words of the following section in relation to the former if we are to find a correlation. Through us these fragments communicate.

On the fourth track, “New Slaves,” something like this glitch occurs again. Whether it be a satirical and insincere assertion, West professes his understanding that “we”—he and all black Americans—are “the new slaves” because of an obsession with material items, derived from a social condition imposed on them by corporate white America. African Americans buy into their enslavement West argues, while assumedly (corporate) white America “confuse us [blacks] with some bullshit about a New World Order.” This described condition of enslavement is propagated by deceit—lies about a better, though unlikely, future when social inequalities will be removed, or, at the very least, that these injustices are being considered at present.

While addressing systems of control that cannot be separated from monetary profit, West’s argument is not limited to a dialectic focused solely on the distribution of material goods. He asserts that any discussion of change is “bullshit” because “meanwhile the DEA/ Teamed up with the CCA/ They tryna lock niggas up/ Tryna make new slaves/ See that’s that private owned prison/ Get your piece today.” With these lines West alludes to the fact that it is not coincidental that there are, by far, more black men incarcerated in American prisons (and, not to mention, serving on average significantly longer sentences for the same crimes committed by whites). The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is a private, for-profit, organization that controls the lives of tens of thousands of inmates throughout the country. Because an increase in profit is directly attributable to an increase in incarcerations West, who is certainly not foreign to matters of business, suggests that it is all too probable that they worked out a profitable arrangement with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Whether or not this accusation holds weight is certainly relevant. But, while it could be inaccurate, West’s argument, even if only suggestive of the social injustice that these prison statistics imply, is without a doubt one of great concern.

At around two minutes and forty seconds into the song there is a break. The sound changes, but the beat remains the same. Instead of West’s, we now hear a high-pitched computerized voice singing something which is seemingly indiscernible. Then, as if because of some defect, the beat stops abruptly, an escalating drum roll enters and we are carried into a section of the song that is perfectly unlike everything that came before. While what we hear are the singing voices of West and Frank Ocean recorded at the time of production, the sound is muffled (like the section of “On Sight”), like a recording from long ago discovered somewhere collecting dust. Their voices are heard over music suggestive of stringed instruments that have lost their autonomy because of poor recording techniques or the compression of time. As before, this transition is abrupt, reminiscent of the surprise of radio now dwindling from most of our lives.

It is a nostalgic sound, perhaps even one of mourning. Like some sort of interference in audio waves, we are hearing a radio broadcast from the past—one smack to the side of our computer or iPod and we might hear the quivering voice of Billie Holiday on the next station. As with West’s previous reference to “Strange Fruit” earlier in the song—“I see the blood on the leaves”—this alteration in sound likewise acts as a metaphor for all that has, or has not, transpired since Holiday’s original recording. It is a past coming to terms with the present (and vice versa). This glitch compels us to reflect upon the artifice. It is like a good-natured American who refuses to smile and thereby exposes the disconnect between the gesture and the significance of its message. It reminds us of a muted suffering and the many voices that go unheard. There is nothing left, but to smack the side of our own illusion.

Historian and black civil rights activist W.E. B. Du Bois famously stated that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line”.7 This prediction, though correct, is sadly limiting for the problem has continued into the 21st. As before, it still remains that one’s perception of this line is directly related to the side on which they find themselves. The lasting effect of such landmark moments as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954,8 or, Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech in 1963 is twofold. These moments are significant in part because they held the nation accountable for its blatant injustices and inspired a social awareness that can be felt to this day. They likewise inspired many Americans to question for the first time the relevance of race and the cultural and historical make-up of one’s personal identity.

But today, to be racially privileged is not only to be the possessor of greater freedom and the one with a better opportunity for monetary success. It is to be born on a side afforded the privilege to disacknowledge that there is a side at all. In a self-reflexive culture; an American culture; a culture of infinite databases, samples, and the Internet; where our understanding of culture seems to be typified by a process of retrieval, in which we reconfigure older concepts, juxtapose social statistics, historical narratives and cross-cultural beliefs in the hopes of ascertaining a new vision of who we are now by way of a reconstructed vision of the past, these prolific moments that mark the beginnings of movements are all too easily condensed into marks alone, and are referred to by those who are privileged as the time when racism was expunged—when the sides flowed together and the line was blurred.

Crimes of racism are rationalized by their perpetrators through the denial that their beliefs are racist. In a culture of political correctness, the outright-racist knows of racism’s contemporary relationship to incorrectness, and thus refrains from calling his actions racist in order to maintain a semantically logical correctness. It is likewise America’s reliance on this political correctness that puts a smiling face on continued injustice because racism, as always, works by denying the presence of race. To be privileged is to entertain illusions of color blindness. It is to neglect that in schools and elsewhere, people of differing races are to this day, not only quite often separate, but always unequal. The existence of these illusions is ultimately what made the Trayvon Martin case so much more tragic. President Barack Obama’s reminder that we do not live in a post-racial society was sadly intended for, and shocked, only one group of people.

It is probably only when we consider the glitch in relation to Kanye West’s new album that it has such racially significant depth. It is certainly only when we consider our conception of the Internet’s space and the way in which we move through it, or it through us, that it relates at all to the American Landscape. Its content and formation is international, but its seeming borderless flow is on par with the land of artifice.

Musically, the intentional incorporation of such a glitch suggests that this flow might have become too smooth and the artifice too thick to have left very much in terms of content in its wake—it has become too repetitious and all too superficial. On albums like Yeezus, the structure is being exposed and between the gaps we are left to wonder where exactly it is we are going. As with the Internet, the musical glitch is suggestive of a breakdown in communication. It reminds us of a voice—perhaps our own—that has been lost. But, as it becomes popularized and then normalized, these previously unheard voices resounding from deep within the glitch might once again be muted. In this case, it will not be by force, but because we chose no longer to hear them. If this occurs the act of listening to our contemporary score will be hardly an act of listening at all.

 


 

Sam Swasey is an associate editor of The Forgetory.

 

 

 

  1. Edwin Denby, “Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets,” Denby Dance Writings and Poetry, ed Robert Cornfield (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 257.
  2. Colin Woodard, “Up In Arms,” The Tufts University Magazine, (Fall 2013), http://www.tufts.edu/alumni/magazine/fall2013/up-in-arms.html, (accessed December 20, 2013).
  3. Vilém Flusser, “To Be Unsettled, One First Has to Be Settled,” in The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism, ed. Anke K. Finger, trans. Kenneth Kronenberg (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 26.
  4. George Carlin, It’s Bad for Ya!, directed by Rocco Urbisci, (Santa Rosa, California: Cable Stuff Productions and Home Box Office (HBO), 2008).
  5. Krin Gabbard, Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and American Culture, (New York: Faber and Faber, 2008), 8.
  6. Glenn Gould, “The Prospects of Recording,” High Fidelity, vol. 16, no. 4, April 1966, pp. 46-63, http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/glenngould/028010-4020.01-e.html, (accessed January 4, 2014).
  7. W.E. Burghardt Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, 1903.
  8. The Supreme Court decision to de-segregate public schools in the US.
Back to Issue

Everybody Have a Good Day Today

by Jessica Holmes

 

When I lived in London, I used to take the Tube from my flat off Baker Street to the South Kensington stop three days a week. From there, I walked to my internship in the Furniture & Woodworking Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I sat in a high-ceilinged room lined with oak bookcases, and cut pictures of antique furniture from auction catalogues, which I then filed away for a good-hearted but batty curator who carried on elaborate conversations with himself all day long. It was the first time I had ever lived in a city that thrummed, and I fell into the London rhythm with gusto.

The fastest way to reach the museum was by walking through a long underground tunnel that disgorged commuters onto the street a couple of blocks away. The tunnel was dank and dim, not a place to linger. And yet, nearly every morning, someone did.

Are you go-ing to Scar-borough Fair?

She stood at the midway point of the tunnel in an ankle-grazing trench coat. The coat was big and she seemed too thin. She kept her hands in her pockets, always. An impressive pouf of frizzy black hair framed her angular face, and she only sang one song: “Scarborough Fair,” by Simon and Garfunkel.

Pars-ley, SAGE, rose-ma-ry and thyme….

The busker’s voice wasn’t that good. It was high-pitched and nasal, with a reedy quality, like wind blowing through cattails. But she sang in key, and her voice reverberated in the air like hummingbirds. I could always hear her before I saw her on my approach, and her voice followed me as I passed by, making my way through the tunnel.

In the beginning, I scoffed privately each time I passed her. Can’t she do any other song? I thought to myself. Not going to win any friends doing the same thing over and over every day. But as the weeks went by, I grew accustomed to her sound. My footfall, as I trudged through the tunnel, began to match her rhythm. Every time she finished the song, the busker would briefly pause before she began all over again. I began counting the beats of her pause, and when she started up again, “Scarborough Fair” also started up again in my head at the same moment.

Re-mem-ber me to one who lives therrre…

I’ve forgotten a lot of things about living in London, a city that once meant so much to me. But when I think of her fifteen years later, the busker’s tinny voice still echoes clearly in my head.

Today, I have a different commute, in a different city, but one that also involves a daily trek through a dim, gray tunnel. On many days, there sits a slight man in a Kangol cap, right in the middle of the passageway. He’s got a warm smile, and a twangy, old guitar. The busker only does one song, and it is clearly his own composition. He only has one chord, and the words are few, sung in a lilting Hispanic accent:

Everybody have a good day, todayyyy…

Or sometimes, he’ll sing it in Spanish:

Todo el mundo tiene un buen día hoyyyy

Occasionally, he’ll throw in the Hebrew:

Sha-lom, shalom! Sha-lom, shalom!

And rarely (but magically, when you catch it), there is the addition of a second “verse”:

Hard-work-ing people day by day! That’s why I wish you have a good DAY!

I have grown very fond of the busker over these last couple of years, and I like to think he has grown fond of me. I seek to catch his eye as I scuttle past, toting my oversize purse and spilling my coffee. He winks and smiles; sometimes I get a little tip of the cap. I pitch a dollar into his open guitar case; I worry when too many weeks have gone by and he hasn’t showed up in the tunnel, playing his song. I hope that he hasn’t been mugged, or harassed, or arrested. But the busker always returns, sooner or later. He contributes to the thrum of a different city, a small but crucial artery in a complex body. My day is a little lighter when I hear his voice resounding through the dank tunnel, and it lingers in my head long after I’ve passed by.

Everybody have a good day, today.

 


 

Jessica Holmes is a New York-based writer and editor.

Back to Issue

Untitled

by Nan Becker

 

There you are, without reason, a thing unexplained,

woe or hello, the same the same farring away voice,

counterfactual in the habit of living, cupping loved

and ill-loved.  What to do with this moment? It is

skeptical knowledge of what happened as what will.

This unconceived dangling present abides in-between.

Elusive as they are, what are memories for?  Evolved

to survive shorter lives, the attachments to another,

require suffering.  Our endurance begins with grief

unforeseen.  The sum of years here —useful and useless,

with all the peculiarities of me, my want of understanding

amid absences wonderful.  The past, what was once so

long before me, doesn’t stay now, yet doesn’t leave.

Nothing I see can answer me.  I am here by accident,

weighted by gentle agonies, the undue joys long past

stone-turning.  There, pooled in silent-softened memories

—meaning shrinks back.  You are gone as I am.  Left

is the sun skating off the lake while landing geese pleat

waves.  They swerve as if bumped.  Quarrels ricochet

back and forth the way talking never stops, then does.1

 

 


 

Nan Becker’s first book of poems is After Rain (Elephant Tree House, 2011 www.elaphanttreehouse.com).  Poems are forthcoming or have appeared in The Meadow, The Innisfree Poetry Journal, Redivider, Cloudbank 2, Red Rock Review, Nimrod, New Millennium Writing, Salamander and elsewhere. She lives in Stillwater, NJ

 

 

  1. from The Fiction of Things, Courtesy of: The Innisfree Poetry Journal – (Summer 2014)