I have never been much of a focuser. This may seem funny, coming from someone known for investigating the subtlest granularities of sound. But, truth be told, during my most successful outward projections, quite often my mind is wandering far and wide. And when I ultimately circle back to the matter at hand, that’s in fact when the potential for something less than optimal occurs — when my clumsier, conscious mind attempts to take the wheel. I’ve done my share of meditating with mantras and practiced techniques, whereby one is supposed to fix one’s attention on a physical point in space, or — with eyes closed — on a sainted guru’s beneficent smile. It never goes all that well.
But starting in the wee hours of November 9th, and for the next couple of weeks afterward, I could not get an image out of my head: the image of that guy’s face. It’s like it was tattooed there, right where my third eye ostensibly resides. From the moment I woke up till the time I shut my eyes at night, trying for much needed sleep. Apparently he had burrowed more deeply into my consciousness than any person, deity, or creative pursuit had been able to previously. I needn’t go into the bloody details, but suffice it to say, the stress levels resulting from it all were beginning to affect my emotional well-being as well as my physical health in strange and disturbing ways. It was an untenable situation. People like him thrive on vampiric zero-sum games of winners and losers, and it was becoming increasingly clear that he and his coterie were inexorably moving into positions of merciless power. I knew I had to find real ways to fortify my position — or I wouldn’t be of much good to myself or anyone else.
The initial steps I took were reflexive and immediate. I needed to cut out the noise, at least temporarily, in order to even begin to get my bearings. I suspended all social media activity for a time and stopped listening to my favorite progressive talk radio station — something that had been a constant beacon during dark times past, and a welcome companion even during better days. Just could not take all the rehashing and gnashing of teeth, the finger-pointing and the dramatic apocalyptic prognostications. I also quit watching any TV news or political talking-head programs, and vowed to never watch again. I’d trusted what these corporate shills had been telling me; at best, they’d all been terribly wrong and at worst, they’d helped facilitate this horrible nightmare. Who will ever believe a pollster or pundit again?
Further complicating things was that during the same week I was also set to prepare my ensemble for its first performance in more than two years. Not only did I have to get my head on straight, I had to be inspired – and inspiring. I hadn’t seen much of the players since our last show, because I’d committed myself to a period of relative isolation learning a few new instruments I’d acquired. Prior to 11/9, I had eagerly anticipated a joyous and creative family reunion. It was essential that I rally, lest the reunion take on a depressed, desultory tone.
The rehearsals soon began — one on one with each player, then in groupings, as ideas took hold and the mid-month date drew nearer. I was determined to do all new music for this concert, including incorporating my new instruments. A little apocalypse wasn’t gonna change the plan. Since I never work with anyone I don’t completely love and respect, it seemed right to spend as much time as necessary processing, discussing, checking in on feelings, catching up, etc., before we even played a note. With these kindred spirits in my home again, my desire to press on was only bolstered, energized through our shared effort. I realized more than ever how supremely lucky we here in NYC are to live in an area of the country — and to be in an artistic community — where, for the most part, we are all going through the same damned thing together.
The concert itself, by all accounts, went very well. The band played marvelously, the sound in the hall (Roulette) was terrific, and the audience responses were genuine and gratifying. A number of people told me how much the music expressed exactly how they’d been feeling for the past week and what a release it had been for them to hear it.
O.K. – it was a special night, but what is to be, going forward? That show had already been scheduled, and happened to occur at an opportune time to test our connective tissue. Now what? What do I, what do we, as artists, do with ourselves and our skills as the ominous gathering clouds grow even darker? Of course, we have the same duties and responsibilities as all citizens opposing this monumental mistake: to read any and all reliable media, engage in exchanges of information and opinions with decent, thoughtful people of all stripes, sign petitions, call elected representatives and hold their feet to the fire, and, yes, put our bodies on the line in whatever ways we see fit in protesting injustices we may witness or experience. We must not be cowed or allow ourselves to be bribed, tricked, or hypnotized into moving the goal line.
Our community isn’t perfect — there are constant fights even amongst ourselves about directions to take, whom to believe. At the same time we are all aware of those whose struggles certainly predate anything written about here by years/decades/centuries. We also cannot forget that many are wandering the planet currently, no doubt envying our dilemma while searching for basic safety, security, dignity. We are fortunate to have the luxury of even discussing our problems in this manner. Still, having said that, there are in fact monsters in our midst, and they don’t recognize these distinctions. We are all — from one end to the other of every measurable spectrum — in their way, and imperiled. And we must be just as monolithic in our response to them. Divided we fall, right?
As this is notably a music forum, though, I would like to get back to specifically what I consider the artist’s role to be in this looming crisis. As far as I’m concerned, presenting something meaningful and beautiful that has enough immediacy to address and express peoples’ hopes, fears, anxieties, etc., is always a good thing. It’s nothing less than a measured, subversive counterbalance to the outside world’s sinister forces. Does it do much to change things on a grand scale? Probably not. But as I said to a fellow musician the other day, shoemakers make shoes. We do what we do.
However, I do think we must begin to take things on with a greater understanding than ever that every sound must help. Every gesture, every composition, every improvisation must be as free as humanly possible of facile cleverness, egotistical displays, pompous posturing, craven commercial aspirations, etc. Yes, of course, this should always be the case, but especially now. I think we have to begin treating the situation as though we are entertaining the troops in some theater of war or another – because, not to be too glib, I think we all kind of are.
There can be many earnest ways to go about this — from seeking to soothe shattered nerves to creating extreme environments for blowing off steam. Those who have a way with language will come out with uplifting anthems and brilliant satirical critiques. Bring it all on! My personal desire is to create work that will give me strength — and strengthen those who come to hear me. A righteous, loving, and supportive strength. Strength that helps fend off the kinds of vibrations meant to corrupt our higher natures. Strength that gives us the stamina to continue dissenting against inequity and feeds us as we stand up for our humanity. I want to counteract their horrible, putrid thoughts and deeds with medicinal sounds that heal our bodies and protect our souls.
To that end, acupuncturist Isobeau Trybula and I are already implementing a plan to step up the frequency of our long-standing collaborations at Worksong Chinese Medicine in Greenpoint. Ka Baird & Camilla Padgitt-Coles have recently begun a performance series with a similar intention at their Pineapple Reality space, also in Greenpoint. I’ve written elsewhere about how I see the secret-sacred-hidden-harmonic world as key to future sound art exploration. It would be very exciting to see more endeavors of this type spring up!
Ultimately, my hope is to make use of this crisis — to treat it as an opportunity to dig into the core of what REALLY IMPORTANT is. That may sound judgmental or elitist, but, to quote a recent Nobel laureate, “There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’.” Even the best of us has perhaps been spending too much time dabbling in trivial distractions online and off. I know I have. But we are all shareholders in a grand collective venture. I think this is a chance for a lot of us to make a renewed commitment to compassionate actions and a purification of intentions that could lead to a real spiritual and societal growth spurt.
This is what I’m referring to when I use the word “profit.” I say there are other ways to win, as well as other ways to define what winning means. It doesn’t have to mean “heads I win, tails you lose.” The game doesn’t have to be rigged. It doesn’t even have to be a game. I would like for us to seize the word profit and rebrand it to mean taking the hand you’ve been dealt in life, and using it to make the world better than you found it.
Like you, I cannot believe that this is where we find ourselves at this point in our history. Where so many millions of people no longer can — or care to — distinguish between solid facts and dangerous fictions. Where we are no longer talking about improvements and refinements to our civilization and are instead snapped back to worrying about its survival altogether. For sure, basic survival is a necessary component for creating a better world. But rather than settling for that, why not aim higher? If they want to fight us over our values, we must fight back. And not merely fight to retain the rights we have, or reinstate those that have been eroded. We have to fight to add new and stronger guarantees of equality for all, or we’re just going to be here again sooner than we’d like.
We also must continue to protect those organizations that are perennially on the front lines defending us. They will need it more than ever, as defunding and de-legitimizing efforts designed to destroy them are inevitably stepped up in the coming days and years. Raising money and awareness at benefit shows we produce and perform at is a fantastic way to do this. Already, more venues than I can list have put on shows for Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, various legal defense organizations, New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth, RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), Planned Parenthood, NoDAPL, and others. It would be great to see even more of this happening.
I realize that many spaces, both DIY and more established locations, are forever running on tight budgets with serious expenses to consider. And their situations will only get more dire if the economy worsens. But imagine the impact if each space was able to donate its resources to one cause, just once a month. House concerts, where costs are automatically low, can also be a valuable alternative for supporting causes. All this would not only raise money, but morale as well. Both will be needed. As might some attempt at coordination. There could easily be an online location — a Facebook page, perhaps — where all artists and promoters who are inclined toward putting on benefits can share ideas and information and availability. Just a thought…
Let’s face it, the next few years are going to be a challenge. It’s up to us as to whether we want to close our eyes, cover our ears and hide, stare paralyzed in dismay, or find a way to limit the damage and refuse to accept the ugly status quo we’re handed. So many significant voices who might’ve lent their energy to the fray — Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, and now our own Pauline Oliveros — left us just in this past year. So many other giants who spoke out and sang out bravely or forcefully played their hearts out in former dark times have been gone even longer. But their examples are stamped on all of us who heard them. We humbly bear their influences. And we now are left to set our own high bar.
David First has recently released Solomonos for Analog Synthesizer, the second volume of his ongoing Same Animal, Different Cages series of solo albums; The World Casio Quartet—The Complete Gramavision Sessions; and Songs and Jams Vol. 1 by his band, Notekillers. Upcoming performances include Live Drone & Acupuncture Procedures, with Isobeau Trybula, MS, LAc, at Worksong Chinese Medicine on January 14; a solo performance for ebow guitar and laptop at Pineapple Reality on January 29; and a performance of Phill Niblock’s First Out (written for First) at the Tate Modern (London) on March 26.