Image © Sarah McMahon, 2015
Putting this particular pair of pieces out into the world has become, to me, much less about the compositions I made and much more about documenting the process of coming together, in community, to create the sonic and visual artifacts themselves. Moments like the ones strung together to make this work feel absolutely magical, synergy between performer and composer and videographer and visual artist now as meaningful to me as the sounds or gestures encoded on staff paper in the first place.
I wonder if it’s always like this with bands or ensembles or members of any thriving, vibrant musical community. Does it feel like we document “the work” as a closed off entity, or like the work’s boundaries are porous and the efforts we make to realize it, the relationships forged as a result, are actually sucked up into what it is you are representing in the first place, a lizard eating its tail, a recursive function? And how can that be communicated alongside the tunes and the moving images? I don’t mean that we read enthusiasm or energy or “it sounds like they’re having fun!” in the artifact, that it’s inflected or flavored with the backstory. I mean that the “backstory,” the human hands that shaped the thing, take the foreground.
That’s what it feels like to me right now, that the evening that Evan and Andrea and I worked together in the Greenwich House Music school in that incredible setting sun was the reason I wrote the piece in the first place, to get to have that experience together. Or that making Monobot for this release has somehow become more about saying goodbye to a dear friend before moving halfway across the country than about whatever rhythmic cleverness I imagined I’d placed front and center.
I have/had an idea that music isn’t about secret meanings or punchlines, that it does a kind of formal work over time, pushes and pulls, recontextualizes our relationship to it, sets up rules and follows and breaks them. But another idea feels intoxicating as a possibility: the work is a tiny byproduct of the efforts of real people with real stories on real days. Or, rather, that the old idea of the work is tiny, that the more accurate idea of the work acknowledges its ability to absorb an absolutely massive amount of human effort, and to reflect back to us the community that forms in its service. And that it serves.
"la voiture, detroit" by Katie Parks
I'm thinking more and more of this particular release as the laying of track, the building of infrastructure, a model for how these things can work going forward, as the Future Sevens idea grows and changes.
Dylan, of Willo Collective, whom I met this summer at the So Percussion Summer Institute, reached out to ask if I'd do some treatments of their work, and laid out the terms with real generosity: "chop it up, rearrange it, effect it, flip it, add things. Ya, use it how you like. Feel good about doing what seems right to you, what moves you," he wrote to me. Total freedom.
Total transparency, too. We worked through everything to do with this release. Is it right for Future Sevens? Do we charge for it? How do we divide proceeds? How do we pay Katie for her artwork, which, again with real generosity, consisted of many images from which to choose?
It was tempting to "whatever" the answers to these questions, especially since Future Sevens has grossed a total of four dollars thus far. (Thanks, Jascha,) But it felt important to me, and to Willo, too, I gather, to set this up in a way that felt fair. Which is not to say "industry standard" or "a reasonable hourly rate." It felt more like we were making the decisions aesthetically, allowing the way we approached the music to saturate the way we approached the logistics around getting the music out into the world. Total freedom and total transparency. The Model Congress effect, in which, because there's no real money on the table, we can actually, you know, talk to each other and value fairness and kindness over hoarding the cookies.
Dividing monopoly money has something in common with the practice of making things, at least at a certain level of obscurity. For me there are hardly any consequences to writing lazily or, for that matter, to writing at all, at least not according to the usual dollars-and-cents metrics. And as frustrating as it sometimes feels to be a tree falling in the forest, I'm starting to see what the good of this condition might be. Total freedom, total transparency, and an imperative to do things well simply for the sake of doing things well.
Paradoxically, and perhaps irrationally, I think that once we internalize that imperative, the world starts to respond in some way. Suddenly someone is there to hear the tree fall. So too with this release method. Once the infrastructure is in place, once a model for honest, dynamic, and fair collaboration is set, something will happen. It's not that we need to be ready when it does, it's that being ready itself brings about the shift.
Original Collage © Paige S. Spangler, 2011
Granted, no one really asks in that way. But still the question hangs in the air at parties and during moments of intense self-scrutiny, which coincidentally often strike at parties. Are you a _____er, a ______er, or a ____er? asks someone at the punch bowl, real or in my head. The short answer is that I've stopped caring, the longer answer is that I've stopped knowing. (Maybe vice-versa.)
This is mostly the fault of the faculty at Princeton, who never seemed to sympathize with the writer vs composer question framed as identity crisis. There Is No Problem Here, their bewilderment seemed to say. Work at the intersection of word and sound, or work with word as sound, or don't. No boxes for what you do. Boxes shut the process down.
I love imagining a post-compartmentalized creative life for myself. Write the words, write the music. That's nothing new in popular music but in "Art Music," more often than not, we "set text" because composers and writers are specialists and you have to pick a thing to do or you won't get good enough at it to survive bla bla bla. My work straddles a divide between "pop" and "art," (and by that I don't know what I mean,) so the approach to text feels particularly vulnerable to contestation and its attendant anxiety. Especially when you start speaking it instead of singing it. It's weird enough to sing your own song if you're a capital-C Composer, weirder still if your voice is dull-sounding and your intonation questionable, but what is going on with this speech, this talking? Further, what about this "accompaniment," which is how we often describe the not-text: it's…pop-y?
I started down this road in what we might think of as a "safe space": I read the texts and then messed with them, made them sound brutal or fractured, played with legibility, thought of institutionally acceptable ways to think of the project, like "using speech-rhythm to generate musical events," or "mapping text fragments to samples to reconstruct narrative through performance." But I'm not doing that in these pieces. I wrote some lines. Poems (I'll say it). And then I read them, and under and around the reading there is song. The result is that I don't know what these things are, I don't know how to describe them in a tweet or on a job application. But they exist, and you could listen to them if you wanted to. Thanks.
Wall on Rampart Street, New Orleans. Elegant decay is a beautiful thing. (Photo and caption by James A. Reeves)
I played these songs for Dan (Trueman. Adviser, Mentor, Friend, Fiddler, Composer, Programmer, Professor, Et Cetera), hijacking him away from the coding help he'd generously offered. I opened with "Things As They Are," and the kick drum through his studio monitors sounded more alive than I was used to. I was taken aback, kind of worried about the kick drum, to be honest, but Dan was in his listening zone. This is my favorite thing about playing music for musicians or music lovers. They listen reverentially over the space of the work, no matter the ultimate verdict when the sound stops coming. It's an act of generosity to listen that way. The music is speaking without the context of a halfassed elevator pitch. "Yeah, it's kind of a bent blues, I don't know." I don't say that. Even before his assessment I feel I've already won: his eyes are closed and he occasionally smiles or chuckles or nods.
Because ultimately this is a battle for attention, we presume, a way to make it through the noise, through the clutter. Will Someone Please REALLY Listen?
Put a more generous way, music has never been so abundant and readily available. Those of us who make it wring our hands over this, because we're thinking like economists, thinking about supply and demand. But what if we spun our heads around and saw it as some kind of grand collective move towards everyone becoming an artist? Supply and demand break down and we're left with conversation, contribution--and finally, celebration.
That's the word that does it for me. Dan asks "what's the plan for these recordings?"
It sits in the air between us for a beat or two.
Then I wonder aloud, What Does It Even Mean To Release Music Today?
And he's off. One of his projects, Sideband, is doing a kind of monthly release thing: music, software, other collateral, an answer to a new question:
"How do we celebrate the creation of new music?"
He doesn't italicize it, just rolls right through it, like it's a perfectly obvious concept that making things ought to be celebrated. But it's not immediately obvious, not to me, and so the word hits hard and reframes some big questions that I've always, I realize, couched in wholly inadequate terms. It's not really a question of standing out, of buzz, of how many cookies I can get into my jar. Maybe it looks like cookie-collection, retweets and likes and downloads and riches beyond our wildest dreams. But I think those metrics are signals, symptomatic of something larger: making a generous and genuine contribution to a larger conversation, and being comfortable enough in our own skin to subsequently throw a party, to say that there ought to be a ritual around this effort, that this occasion ought to be marked.
I remember when Radiohead released Amnesiac. At midnight on Tuesday morning of release day the little store in Ann Arbor that is probably now out of business started playing the record over the sound system. All of us who had gathered in line to buy our limited editions heard it together for the first time. It was a school night but there was other work to do, a pursuit in which to engage. This year m b v fell out of the digital sky and it felt the same way. Something had happened. I want something to happen around this release. I want to throw a party.
Building this page felt a little like hanging streamers. Especially when I got into the html, which I do not speak at all, and successfully erased the navigation menu that Christine (Williams. Writer, Planner, Thinker, Listener, Co-conspirator, Bright Light,) felt was cramping her style. I reached out to James (Reeves. Former Writing Partner, Agitator, Author, "Motorist.") and he gave me access to hundreds of photographs. Dan sent a New York Times article about Rabbit Rabbit Radio, a subscription release model, and I suggested we have a race to our own novel methods of getting the music out. "You will win that race," he declares, but I am not so sure.
or, "Statement of Purpose"
Future sevens are the digital versions of Seven Inch Records That Do Not Exist.
The 7" is the template: A side, B side, image, text, delivered in celebratory fashion once there is something to deliver. Inspired by rejections from an impressive number and range of record labels.
After my most recent round of pitch letters and demo submissions--or more accurately, right in the middle of my most recent round of pitch letters and demo submissions--my prescient and given-to-provocation brother-in-law asked me why I even wanted to be on a label. This was an irritating question, mostly because it required me actually to question a long-standing assumption, or even a way of viewing the world: that gatekeepers must be appeased, roadblocks removed en route to success, defined loosely as making things for a living.
Which means I've been framing my work all along in terms of a breakout record or a star on the rise, in terms of being put on the map, reaching farther and wider than my circle of family and friends, my twitter followers, and those who have liked my page on Facebook and signed up to receive email updates. This impulse, as I continue to reduce it, comes down to something like: I want my work to matter to people I don't know. I presume that Being Discovered initiates this process, which upon brother-in-law-inspired reconsideration strikes me as a particularly well-behaved, deferential, and ultimately self-effacing way to look at the world. I have no agency, it says, no vision of my own. Someone has to pluck me out of my inadequate present circumstance. Maybe it's not Being Discovered as much as Being Rescued.
I think that the prevalence of this sort of view is at the heart of our anxiety about new ways of making, distributing, and paying for art. We look at the beginnings of an artistic life as a hostage situation or a penance, as a practice that requires liberation in order retroactively to redeem it. Then we find out that the gatekeepers are scrambling too, that our heroes are mad at Spotify, that sales are down and sales are down and sales are down. No one is going to help us out of this.
There is transformative power in this realization. Once we've accepted that the kind of help we think we want isn't coming, we can have a pair of related revelations. First: we don't need "help." Making things is not a punishment for naiveté; it's a reward for living an ethical life. Second: the canvas on which we work can be extended to a whole host of sharing practices, that might look like "networking" but that are actually efforts to build community.
For me these were seismic shifts in thinking about what I do, and I wanted to mark the transformation with an initiation, an instigation, a statement of intent: upon accumulating 7" of vinyl worth of original work, a new Future Seven will appear. Tracks, cover image, liner notes, and an essay on a hopefully-but-not-necessarily-related topic. Tracks stream free, downloads are $1. And we'll just see what happens. Brick by brick.