I’ve been re-reading Muriel Rukeyser’s *The Life of Poetry* the last few nights. It’s not an easy book by any stretch, its density matched only by her elusive biography of *Willard Gibbs*. But there are numerous passages of immediate moral if not linguistic clarity, the following of which struck me last night:
[I]f communication has broken down, then it is time to tap the roots of communication. Poetry is written from these depths; in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source. And it is deep at these levels that the questions lie. They come up again and again during these years, when under all the surface shouting, there is silence about those things we need to hear.
Later, in a somewhat different context, she writes, “The gestures of the individuals are not history; but they are the images of history.”
Rukeyser’s insistent humanism reminds me of Hayden Carruth’s, but not as individualist as his, and though her prose can, as I said, be cumbersome, her position is clear. Against the dominant strains of violence, imperialism, and inequality, she defines poetry as the center of healing, peace, community, and learning, as a measure of progress. Whether or not she’s right in this assertion might be open to debate (I’m pretty sure she is, for what it’s worth) but she remains, in any case, an active and productive source of inspiration as we approach election-times and face a seemingly neverending war.
Further thinking about slow movies1 has brought me to both a more general and a more specific idea about the distinction of slow culture, inspired in part by this insightful piece by Matt LeMay.
Slow media 2 are not necessarily the same thing as slow culture, though they are certainly related. The term *slow media* as I’m using it here refers to a direct, physical contact with a medium’s material; *slow culture*, on the other hand, is not so limited and refers to a culture which produces reflective, meditative, deliberate, and/or restful gaps in its material. Mainstream culture’s works bear revisiting because we look forward to the known satisfaction of their resolution; how we get there is less important than that we know it’s coming, and, for the most part, the sooner the better. Slow culture’s payoff comes generally in the works’ process. That is, slow culture gives its participans and audience members a chance to think about what they’re participating in while they’re participating in it. This thoughtfulness is essentially creative and mutual, an investment by the artist in the audience as well as an investment by the audience in the work.
Though the formats and modes suggested by the *slow* terms are generally appreciated by many people, they exist outside the main channels of production, exhibition, performance, broadcast, and spectatorship: it’s cool to know they’re there but they’re not the money-makers of their fields.
They remain, nonetheless, characteristic of a kind of hipness that is less obsolete than it might seem.3
I’ve digressed from my original intention but not irrelevantly. We’ve grown accustomed to the speed of not only cultural works themselves but also their accessibility. Even though the ideas here can probably be applied to any aspect of artistic or cultural life, for the purpose of this piece, I’ll stick to music.
The last decade has yielded an exponential increase in the number of musicians and musical artists and a subsequent increase in recorded and performed output. And yet there has been little *new* music in this period.4 We’ve seen new ways of getting it, new ways of making it, storing it, and distributing it; new places to discuss it, new places to see it, new places to bring it. But the music itself tends toward retro/nostaglic styles 5 whose chief asset is described according to the artists’ *authenticity*.
So from the soulful voices, hard or smooth MCs, sassy cheerleaders, brooding journeymen, laptop-toting maestros, cool popsters, forthright post-punkers, and whoever else has shown up in the last ten years, we learn that many of these artists write their own songs, or that their talent first emerged in early youth; that they heard the call of G-d to sing out in His name. Yet none of these experiences is unique to them or artists in general.
Let me be clear: I do not mistake the experiences of these artists for pretense. On the contrary, I believe we have all been moved by our faith, our youth, our need to find or build a community around what we fear separates us from everybody else or might, however tenuously, connect us. But for these expressions and performances to be meaningful takes time, and what’s been increasingly absent is a culture willing to take the time to think while it listens.
Observed from a different and more pointed angle, the artists, captivated by the availability of recorded music’s entire history, give or take, are deliberately making derivative music. This is not simply the case of punk bands sounding like their predecessors or tenor players adopting the modes of post-war heavies, which practices are rooted in identity-formation, alignment, alliance, homage, tribute; in most such cases, the younger artists anticipate finding their own voice through inspiration. What I’m trying to get at is the widespread assumption that copping styles from older music is good enough. It is not. The standard for original playing has unfortunately been replaced by a standard of authentic fandom, which is fine for fans but diminishes the prospect of hearing anything new when held to by the people who make the music.
e.g. LPs, a preference for movies in which people who don’t say very much don’t do very much, books as opposed to magazines or the internet, live performances in small venues↩
That is, hipness to the kinds of material described above; knowing that vinyl is cool, for example, does not mean that one is buying any. To be *Old School* is, a surprising amount of the time and somewhat paradoxically, to be hip.↩
Jaron Lanier discusses this subject with great intelligence in his book, *You Are Not a Gadget*, a terrific if sometimes opaque manifesto on life online, its evolving homogeneity, corporate control, and a host of other relevant cultural and economic stuff. Worth a look.↩
e.g. the last-several-years’preponderence of so-called *psych* music; the americana boom at the turn of the century; hip-hop’s relative stasis compared to its evolution from, say, 1980-2000; the odd mini-boom of British soul singers highlighted by Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Duffy; the mostly-Madonna-derived successes of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Other genres present their own examples, which are surely known to their constituents. This note sticks to the well-known to avoid confusion.↩
My experience as an artist is more or less divided into two spheres: on the one hand, I’m a musician, a practice which has always involved public performance and the explicit realization of a community. On the other hand, I’m a poet, a practice which has been, until the last year or so, an almost entirely private practice, one I shared with a handful of people, whose publication was limited to a couple of poems published several years ago (including, as it happens, the same poem twice). By and large, the two spheres remain separate, though, decreasingly so. I have tried to model my life as a poet on what I learned in the Rochester, NY and DC punk scenes from roughly 1989-2000: that artists, regardless of their art, carry with them a responsibility to the world in which they create and exhibit their work (it is, after all, created and exhibited in the same world).
The Jim Saah photograph above is from a Jawbox show at the Black Cat in DC; I think the year was 1994 and it might have even been the show advertised in the poster next to it. I have kept a print of the photograph on my refrigerator since that time to remind me of several things, chief among which has become the best-integrated art/politics scene in which I have been an active member. It was the reason I moved back to the area in 1991, and found it to be an invigorating and inspiring time and place to be as both writer and musician (I had, when I left Rochester, decided to give up music entirely, in favor of literature; thankfully my mind was changed nine months later when I joined Jawbox). There was a near-constant air of protest, of seeking out materials and economies that abandoned convention in favor of defiant humanism and concern for essentially leftist values. This took place mostly among bands and show-attendees, who were gathering anyway for music and new ideas. There were frequent benefit shows, protests, and a network of people around the world whose contact with each other depended on touring bands. The link was inherently political: we were doing our thing, not the mainstream thing. It worked, too.
By 1994, several of us (by which I mean bands) had signed to major labels, in hopes, variously, of reaching larger audiences, or at the very least, having more time and money with which to make records. I think Jawbox was more concerned with writing better songs than we were with fame. The jump to the majors allowed us to practice more, tour more, and record under better circumstances.
The ramifications were obvious enough then as now: we were selling out. For my part — I can’t speak for J., Bill, or Kim — I’ve always thought of it as *cashing in*, though there wasn’t really much cash and I’m not certain that the distinction even matters anymore. For what it’s worth, I didn’t feel like we were wrecking anything by signing to Atlantic; that is, the decision was ours, the consequences were ours, and it didn’t reflect on any other bands, labels, or fans. I was wrong.
The scene from which we’d come felt, in some circles, betrayed, and the mainstream rarely has the patience required for unconventional art. We were ignored by our label within nine months of our first release and completely pushed aside within a year. Our story is not at all unusual except perhaps for the degree to which we continued to practice a DIY-based method, regardless of being on a major label. We knew what we were getting ourselves into (most of the time). I don’t know that this recounting requires much elaboration at this late date so I’ll just say that if I was in that situation today, I’d probably handle it differently, though this remark is qualified by knowing that the circumstances that made Jawbox possible at all no longer exist for me.
In the end, I can’t say I regret our deal with Atlantic. Kim and Bill even bought our tapes back from the label and are planning to re-release both *For Your Own Special Sweetheart* and *Jawbox* online. The fact remains that we made our most challenging music under those conditions, and my experience in that band has positively served my consciousness as much as anything else I’ve done, before or since.
It’s a defense I rarely have the patience to make anymore, that of so-called slow movies, which are, of course, only slow relative to to current movie-pace conventions, whatever era’s taste might be represented in a given movie.
I think it’s worth noting, however, that slow movies are not necessarily long.1 When I first got into film, the chief examples of slow-movies were largely limited to European pictures from the 1970s. My personal choices for best-of-the-genre ((We could call it the Real-Time Domestic genre, allowing that “domestic” describes wherever the characters hang their hat(s), a location that might well be nowhere in particular. Other directors whose work fits or has fit into this genre are, off the top of my head, Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Margurite Duras, Robert Altman, Yvonne Rainer, Takeshi Kitano, Tsai-Ming Liang, Horikazu Kore-Eda. There are dozens of others from all parts of the world and the entire history of cinema.)) are probably still Wim Wender’s *Kings of the Road* (1976, 175 minutes) and Chantal Akerman’s *Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles* (1975, 201 minutes), both long movies by any measure.
Suffice it to say that from one vantage, these are movies in which nothing happens, yet from another point of view they are movies in which the characters’ stakes are simply measured in smaller increments than mainstream fare.
Sometimes, as in the case of Kelly Reichardt’s middle pictures, we only learn what we need to about the characters to get us effectively through the scenario at hand: a kind of awkward effort to reconnect in *Old Joy* and a desperate couple of days (and the inevitably of reliance on other people) in *Wendy and Lucy*. Movies of such provision are frequently short by industry standards, preferring to dwell on their scenes rather than hustle viewers on to the next one.
Another current filmmaker who eschews contemporary pacing is Andrew Bujalski, whose directorial work2 takes a privileged look at a largely privileged class of young adults, hipsters, and students. It is not Mr. Bujalski’s aim to make boring movies but he does aim to make movies about boring people, or people made boring by their selfishness and self-consciousness.
For my part, I determined several years ago that:
Falling asleep during a movie doesn’t mean I’m bored. It means I’m tired. I don’t sleep when I’m bored, I smoke cigarettes (though I also smoke when I’m not bored). I would rather doze off during a movie that tries something new than remain alert throughout a movie that doesn’t.
By and large, I enjoy movies that challenge accepted practice on any level more than those that don’t.
Exceptional movies are exceptional for all kinds of reasons. Unexeceptional movies are usually unexceptional for the same reasons.
I prefer filmmakers that presume their audience to be a community, if only by virtue of the fact that all of its members will have seen their film(s).
Kelly Reichardt’s work, known for its real-time event structure, breaks down as follows: *River of Grass, 1994*, 100 minutes; *Old Joy*, 2006, 76 minutes; *Wendy and Lucy*, 2008, 80 minutes; *Meek’s Cutoff*, 2010, 104 minutes. The oldest and most recent of Ms. Reichardt’s films, which I have not yet seen, are the two that are of conventional feature-length. I’ll guess that compared to the middle two, both of which are favorites of mine, *River of Grass* and *Meek’s Cutoff* unfold like Jason Bourne or Harry Potter pictures, and therefore require the extended duration. If I’m wrong about this, no matter.↩
Before cable television and VCRs, to say nothing of the internet, music was, at the very least, a primary source of entertainment. In my home, the radio was frequently on, playing NPR or Top 40 AM radio, or else there were records being played. 1
From my father’s record collection, I heard jazz: Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis (especially the latter’s Gil Evans sessions) were handy in our house.
Miles Davis, “Summertime,” Porgy and Bess, 1958.
My mother brought singer-songwriters and popular music to the scene: Arlo Guthrie, Melanie, Ray Charles, John Denver, James Taylor, and Jim Croce were favorites of mine when I was young. 2
James Taylor, “Fire and Rain,” Sweet Baby James, 1970.
It is impossible for me to diminish the importance of my mother’s listening habits, which consisted, at times, of bringing home a 45rpm single of a song she liked and playing it, more or less, over and over again. Which is to say I grew up in an environment which supported broad listening as well as the cultivation of favorite songs. Though the music from my father’s collection has perhaps proven to be more enduring for me as a musician, my mother taught me how to listen to music.
Growing up in Rochester, NY provided unique listening opportunities: the Eastman School of Music and the musicians in its orbit brought consistent classical and jazz performances, as well as a variety of dance and dance-related performances, sometimes in conventional halls and auditoriums, sometimes in public parks, sometimes on visits to schools. I grew up in an environment that not only embraced music as a cultural, social, and/or popular phenomenon but also from which I came to understand it as a thing people attended and attend to, a thing people do.↩
John Denver’s “Black Box,” an irritant in adult life, still lingers in the back of my head as a piece that frightened me but which I could not resist; Melanie’s “Lay Down” paved the way, no doubt, for my ongoing alliance with fervor. Such examples are among the countless shadowy presences in my crowded music-memory.↩
To reiterate: the problem is not generating the energy but rather managing it. Taking a moment from a drum-centric view, I think it’s worth considering how energy is presented in songs which handle it more or less the same way, though to different ends.
In the case of early Hardcore, for example, there are two conditions under which the energy is maintained. First, the tempos are unusually fast. Second, the songs in this style generally contain all the same elements as conventional popular songs, they just occur more rapidly. So there are verses, choruses, bridges, solos, or codas, all occurring in the space of under two minutes instead of the usual three or four.
Minor Threat, “Out of Step,” Out of Step, 1983.
The aim of the accelerated tempos is clear: manage the energy by forcing a burst of it and nothing else. A limitation to the style is that each song must be short. The aggression and compression makes longer songs unthinkable.
A variation on this style appears in a certain vein of popular folk-derived music (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Mark Kozolek, et al.) . In these songs, pace and duration are determined by the song’s lyrics and the singer’s style; that is, the manner in which s/he sings and how long it takes to sing everything. Gillian Welch’s “Dream a Highway” is an example of this practice, as is her “My Morphine,” whose yodel might be the slowest such call ever recorded. It is aloof, nostalgic, self-absorbed, slow, sweet, remorseful.
Gillian Welch, “I Dream a Highway,” Time (The Revelator), 2001.
Gillian Welch, “My Morphine,” Hell among the Yearlings, 1998.
Both the folk-derived mode and that of Hardcore, however much they swing to extremes of tempo and duration, still stay close to the form, if not the structure of conventional songs. I suspect this is due, in large part, to their reliance on singers. In the above cases, the vocals and music reflect each other mutually: the first voice can’t keep up (or thinks he can’t), the second dreams at her own pace, the third sings from the depths of a dope habit. The music is frantic, contemplative, and stoned, respectively.
In any case, I think this mutual reflection is a sign of the quality of songwriting — the high level of craft — at work here. Each of these songs continues to resonate with its fans, even after many years and with no obvious distinction from its peers. 1
Most of the time, if someone in a conversation about music brings the term “craft” to bear, they’re talking about singers and popular music. I suspect further that what they’re responding to is the fact that they are moved in some notable way by the music in question even though they know precisely where the tune is headed. This notion of craft, then, describes to me the effectiveness of a song’s distribution of energy according to its conventions: if the song does precisely what we expect in an unexpected way, we praise its craft.
I contend that craft is defined by its unique relevance to an established practice. Once one abandons the parameters of a given practice, one must establish, from the outset, the parameters of the new practice. These parameters will result in a new definition of craft.
e.g. most Hardcore fans like several bands in their preferred genre, which all sound identical to the uninitiated ear — one has to learn to hear it; the same is true for slow, long, Americana or roots music: get hip or get lost, which is further true, upon reflection, of most things worth knowing. But I digress…↩
Listening the other morning to McCoy Tyner’s Expansions, I was reminded of an aspect of my playing that defies, much of the time, a basic tenet of jazz. Bill Evans once said that jazz is defined by the following equation: it is music in which one minute of composition equals one minute of performance. For my part, I have never, according to Evans’ or any other definition, been a jazz drummer. My playing is too loud, my strokes too discrete, my approach too aggressive to flourish in an environment that requires the high level of trust I admire in jazz.
There is, however, an element of jazz to which I cling and from which I derive a fundamental quality of my practice. I mentally refer to this quality as banking, and it works something like this: any piece of music, however worked-over or spontaneous, should have as its goal the creation of energy. The goal of this energy might vary but its presence must be assured by the performers. So if I set out to provide a beat for my bandmates, my aim is twofold. On the one hand, my beat is additive, complementary to the existing parts, confirming their energy and directing it with my own. On the other hand, I’m exerting my energy to overwhelm the other parts, not to bury them but rather to contain them, to mete the energy we create together. This containment, this reserve, amounts to a banking of energy; that is, if you will indulge an analogy, the energy is held in escrow until such time as the deal is closed.
One obvious way to handle this reserve is dynamic, the loud-quiet-loud mode, for example, that many of us practiced through the 90s. It continues to be a useful approach, though I sometimes think it exhausts itself too quickly, expressing its energy before there’s been sufficient time to build it in the first place.
I have come to better appreciate duration as a banking means. There was a stretch several years ago when I held to a belief that a given tune should only be as long as was required to express a single kind of energy. So if it took two minutes to perform a piece into a recognizable state, then the tune would be limited to a two minute duration. Since that time, mostly after working with my friend, the guitarist Joel Wickard, I have learned to work out longer ideas, to accept the unwinding of ideas, and to engage energies that might take longer than a couple of minutes to take effect. Lessons learned from film and video artists (Chantal Akerman, Bill Viola, Tsai Ming-Liang, et al.), to say nothing of the musicians and composers who have captivated me in their durational or repetitive studies (Philip Glass, Peter Gabriel, The Eternals, Do Make Say Think, David Grubbs, McCoy Tyner, et al.), I strive to keep the available energies in proper reserve, in scale with the group’s intention. So if it takes several minutes to manage the energy of a given piece, the duration is only prohibitive if a) the banking and meting of energy is poorly paced; and/or b) there is some proscriptive limitation on the piece’s duration (e.g. commercial radio).
I do not accept as axiomatic that all musical performances and recordings that are for sale are part of the music industry, or what my friend J. calls the Competitive Music Industry. I do not believe that all performances and recordings are in competition with each other, nor that any performances and recordings are in competition with each other unless they opt into the Industry.
In contrast, opting out of the industry provides musicians and their music the opportunity to be heard by a community who shares aesthetic, social, cultural, and political ideals. The fact of the performers and the fact of the audience are literally in concert, qualitatively equal.