Zeitgeist & Sound

Really loved this newsletter entry (post? Edition? What are we calling these things in this Newsletter Golden Age?) from Damon Krukowski. He’s a musician, critic, deep listener/thinker, and he tackles the thirtieth anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind from the perspective of a working musician who was on the road at the same time as Nirvana in the fall of 1991. Two things were happening simultaneously in Krukowski’s life at the time: Nirvana and alternative rock were climbing to the top of the pop charts; and jazz, classical, and “world” music were entering his life (and public consciousness) on a bigger scale. He explains how CD technology—with its uninterrupted, generous running time—and globalization worked together to put less-popular genres into stores alongside all those Nevermind copies. So for Krukowski, the “sound” of 1991 is Nirvana and Qawwali, Mozart, and improvisatory music.

I’m fascinated by these limits to defining the zeitgeist. Yes, Nirvana was immensely popular (or well on its way to becoming popular) in the fall of 1991, but other strands of music were just as alive. They’re hidden from view now for two reasons. The first I’ll call the hindsight reason: Nirvana undoubtedly influenced a whole generation of music and we can still feel the ripples, so we keep repeating the Nirvana Was Important tale to explain its colossal impact, to explain where we are today. It’s simple, it’s tidy, it helps us feel a shared history, even if you weren’t/aren’t a Nirvana fan.

The second reason is related to this simplification, and I’ll call it the blindsight reason: it’s hard—though Krukowski tries—to trace the impact all of this newfound access to jazz, classical, and world music had on the public. To the best of my knowledge, not too many Qawwali-influenced bands rose up in early ‘90s America. Teenage music fans didn’t start dressing in wigs and tights in homage to Mozart. We don’t explicitly see the impact, so we write it off as an untidy anomaly, a footnote to Nirvana’s royal reign. If Nirvana was an asteroid smashing into the Pacific Ocean, this newfound access to jazz, classical, and world music made a pebble-sized splash. You could see it in the early ‘90s, but you can only feel it now if you actually experienced it.

Yet jazz, classical, and world music were just different strands of a larger 1991 musical tapestry. I’m interested in these personalized, weirder pockets of music history because they can make an era feel much more lived and alive than just rehashing the same Nirvana Was King history. Life, in any era, is much weirder and more surprising than we can possibly imagine from our vantage point.

And it gets weirder the further you zoom in. There’s the culture you live in, then there’s your culture, the hyperspecific way you curate or are curated by different forces. You’re constantly discovering artists/genres outside of their particular zeitgeist, playing catch-up with a vast wealth of music history, and this can coincide with the dominant “sound” you live through. In 2008-2009, I discovered and got obsessed with ‘70s krautrock, so for me that sound reminds me of that era, just as much as Beyonce, Kanye, and Daft Punk do. This is why I don’t lament the supposed end of the monoculture. I think it was an artificial myth to begin with. Plus, monocultures—like monoculture farming—are probably inherently unhealthy. Give me the wilder forests of personal zeitgeist.


Krukowski also includes a 1991 documentary about improvised music in his remembrance. In the beginning of the video clip, jazz musician Douglas R. Ewart teaches a Chicago grade school class about improvisation. The lesson starts off chaotic: Ewart blows into a didgeridoo, the kids bang randomly on peanut tins and desks with drum sticks, there are a lot of confused and bored faces. Then the music starts to congeal into a rhythmic pulse. Ewart starts shouting nonsense phrases, the students respond, the pulse quickens and slows, the music moves with a life of its own. Everyone is having fun.

Ewart, in voice over: “Usually I say nothing to them. I come in and I begin playing and then they begin playing, and we experiment from there…in most subjects in school, students individually synthesize the lesson. Here, they have to work together…it doesn’t matter if they’re the A student or the D student to me.”

Compare this with your own experience of early musical education: if you went to an American public school like me, you were immediately taught what was a wrong note. You were taught compliance and competition. You were taught there is a hierarchy, between first chair and last chair, between “noise” and music.

Doesn’t music education need to start from Ewart’s position? We should teach sound first as an infinite possibility—the basic building block of music—before we teach the correct notes to play. Sound and music start with the body: how we perceive, how we listen, how we play, how we interact.

Teach noisemaking because it’s fun. Teach past the boundaries of instruments. Teach the unique personal expression of everyone, and the way those expressions can combine into something bigger. Sound is a marvelous, miraculous thing, and we shouldn’t be afraid of using all of it.

The Garden Of Failure

Leaffooted bugs on an unripe orange picnic pepper

When I built out my garden last fall, failure terrified me. Any wilting leaf, any pest, any problem filled me with such dread. When you have a garden, you’re suddenly responsible for living creatures and the delicate, utterly mysterious balance between them. There’s also that old human bias that rears up in your gut: the anxiety around anything disorderly or on the downward slope of a life cycle. It all felt so intensely personal.

The motion of the seasons strips away that personalized garden anxiety, simply because there is so much going on, you cannot possibly be responsible for everything. And isn’t that an immense relief? Any attempt to overly control, any attempt at perfection ruins relationships, between the soil and the plants, the plants and the creatures, between yourself and the garden.

Right now, hornworms and leaffooted bugs are munching on the tomatoes and peppers in the garden. They aren’t in huge numbers, so it’s mostly manageable. Picking off the leaffooted bugs is a slapstick crime caper: they’re just a fingernail faster than the end of my fingers, scrambling to the other side of a leaf in their clever disguise (they’ll write songs about these Bonnies & Clydes). I’ve figured out a pincer technique—using two sticks or sharp pieces of mulch—to trap and kill them. I’ve become a General Patton of the garden, yet a loving one. I’m a general who sets about his murderous task not with enjoyment but with curiosity.

Tomato hornworms, though, are aliens from some hellish caterpillar galaxy. Because of their pale green color and bulbous shape, my eyes move past them quickly before my brain catches up: “hey, those aren’t cucumbers, those are bugs. Bugs that can crawl. Bugs that can crawl on my skin and infect my nightmares.” They have a single horn protruding from their forehead, an H.R. Giger-esque adaptation that allows them to easily pierce the skin of an unripe tomato, as well as the skin of my own deepest fears. They disgust me. My “technique” for getting rid of tomato hornworms is decidedly the opposite of what General Patton would do: I clip off the tomato branch they’re clinging to and fling the entire scene over the fence into the parking lot next door. I’m not proud of this. But putting as much distance between me and the hornworm seems to work on some primal level. Plus, they’re leaving the tomatoes alone now, perhaps frightened by the lunatic that would catapult them into the hornworm-equivalent of the stratosphere.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned pesticides until now. There’s a reason for this, deeper than my commitment to all-organic gardening (though that’s an important reason on its own). A pesticide changes your relationship with a garden, sometimes irrevocably. It prizes unthinking, uncaring, and big solutions over smaller ones. Above all, a pesticide is predicated on the erroneous belief that speed and efficiency are the greatest things in the world and must be pursued by any means necessary.

But you always pay for efficiency, even if you don’t realize it. Efficiency makes you believe that failure is unacceptable. That death is a mistake and is avoidable. That plant yield must be held on a pedestal. That your garden needs protection like some medieval fortress. That there are “bad” forces out to get you and your hard work. That it’s all about you, and everything else is an antagonist trying to personally prevent you from succeeding. Efficiency makes you believe that there is no time to learn and learning is not a good enough reason to do anything.

By not using a pesticide, I’m choosing to come face-to-face with failure. I’m choosing to allow failure and problems to slow me down so that I can begin to understand leaffooted bugs and tomato hornworms. I can begin to question my own dislike and disgust of some insects—is that my belief or somebody else’s? (Progress report: I’m still disgusted by hornworms.) By observing these pests, I can learn that there is an entire universe of things that eat them: ladybugs, spiders, green lacewings, wasps, and birds. And to invite those things into the garden, I can learn that I need to plant more calendula, chives, dill, cilantro, marigold, fennel, and much, much more. And each of those plants has likes and dislikes—as well as culinary uses for me—opening up other fascinating paths to venture down. Suddenly, the idea, the very possibility of my garden has expanded. There are more solutions than I could’ve imagined if I’d just chosen the efficient route. A pesticide now is a shortcut that cuts off your own knees.

There is the possibility that pests take over my garden and destroy my prized work. I say, let it happen. This is the only way to learn. Nature isn’t my enemy; it doesn’t give a shit about me. Isn’t that another relief?

Death and life in the garden live beyond our narrow understanding of failure and success. Things die and come back and die and come back; failure and success flow into one another and cannot be neatly contained like crop rows. They feed and depend on each other, living as something bigger than just binaries. Failure and success change into something whole, not disintegrated.

Drift

Earlier this week, I released Drift, under the name Vinespeed. This album is a souvenir of the pandemic, a way to bracket off this time: for me, this is what it felt like to live, 2020-2021. A drifting, murky experience, punctuated by both intensity and strange slowness.

These songs came about accidentally and awkwardly across the span of about six months. I struggle with knowing when to work hard and when to ease up. Drift was an escape from another recording project that I was working on, offering a place to experiment with chance, randomness, ambience, texture, and letting go. All of the songs were recorded with a guitar and some effects pedals, then later edited into shape while still trying to retain that initial naturalness.

During this time, I was inspired by the 12k roster; the texture of Pole; the expressiveness of Huerco S. and Aphex Twin; the ghostliness of dub music; and the concept of wabi-sabi. I’m still working on making peace with my perfectionistic tendencies, which really prevent me from finishing anything and always leave me second-guessing intuition. But these songs sound beautifully unfinished to me, emotional but with a “letting go” quality. I don’t want to guide anybody to the emotions in the songs. I want them to naturally arise.

Em heard the nautical sounds in the songs, which led to the titles. These are messages in bottles, sailing strange seas.

Thank you for listening.

////

released May 16, 2021

Art Levy: guitars, effects, recording, mixing, cover art.

Mastered by Cory Allen at Altered Ear in Austin, TX.

100% of proceeds will be donated to the Sustainable Food Center. They do great work.

Thank you to Em for her ears, eyes, and heart.

Paths

There are many different times nested within the general COVID Time, like some bizarre temporal Russian doll. Days of anxiety and rage and fear and sadness have slowly given way to “I can handle this alright,” which has then given way to sheer and utter burnout. Not much is really grabbing me these days; I can hardly focus on my stack of seemingly interesting books, and never in my life did I think I’d get totally sick of Great Films and Great Albums. Big, Important Things have become too much to handle. We wait between the couch cushions for something new.

But hey, at least it’s spring. The sun is shining, the temperatures are swinging wildly from cold to hot. The season itself is indecisive but knows it must do something, anything, after a long, tough winter. There’s a light on the horizon, but we’re not there yet. It’s a good time to think about what to leave behind and what to carry forward.

How will this time be marked? Discarded masks will litter the gutters for a few years I imagine. Maybe some sort of somber marble monument will be built in D.C. We live across the street from a park with some trails through fields of wildflowers and native grasses, and I’ve noticed odder, more relatable monuments to this past year, which I’ve dubbed “Pandemic Paths.” These are paths that branch off the main trails, created by humans trying to avoid each other’s potentially dangerous breath. They’re medically-recommended desire lines, trampling some beautiful plants but also saying something about the past year: a desire to be alone, together. A desire to get away from death and statistics and money and masks to find something new, to keep walking. They are writing an unintentional story in the dirt.

A few weeks ago, I accidentally rediscovered a guide to Texas wildflowers that I bought on a whim at Half Price Books years ago. Paired with the iNaturalist app, I’ve been traipsing out into the park everyday like it’s the distant wilderness, on the hunt for a new wildflower. The mix of analog (book) and digital (app) is also refreshing, having spent so much of the past year firmly in the digital fever dream. The app gives the sober, clinical view of nature—the facts, the science, the stern, tsk-tsking Latin names—while the book gives the human spark. There are all the various folk names for the same plant: cloth-of-gold is also Fendler bladderpod and it’s also also popweed. Each name represents a different experiential, historical path. You can imagine someone seeing a whole field clothed in gold and deciding on a poetic name. Another person stoops closer to notice the plant’s pods look like bladders. And a curiouser soul (probably a kid) figures out that if you step or pinch those pods, they pop.

Occasionally, the authors’ own absurd humanity peaks through the pages of the guide. In the introduction, they describe waiting for the perfect photo under the merciless Texas sun, a task that requires “all of one’s patience and half one’s religion to maintain equanimity.” The guide was originally published in 1984; if the authors made it to our day, they’d be uniquely prepared for our moment.

With these two guides, I’ve become attuned to the details, like how a lawn of April grass is unbelievably crowded with color and texture and species diversity if you take the time to look. Spotting blue-eyed grass or Engelmann’s daisy or greenthread or the impossibly-small field madder has turned into a simple game, something to focus on as the days inch closer to opening up. There’s a unique, orchestrated rhythm to spring now, the cluster of flowers changing week-to-week: henbit dead-nettle is pale and dying, now come the spiderworts and primrose, then it’s prairie verbena and Texas vervain’s turn. I’ve lived in Texas my entire life and I’m finally seeing the way spring moves, ebbing and flowing at my feet, in front of my eyes, under my nose.

This is a time for questioning and treading lightly. This is also a time for noticing, for witnessing. This is how things rebuild.

Henbit Dead-Nettle

My first favorite thing about henbit dead-nettle: the name, my god, that name. A name that requires an “excuse me, did you just say ‘henbit dead-nettle?’” You can imagine the name rolling effortlessly out of some ancient British botanist’s mouth like pipe smoke, watching his chickens feast on the plant’s tiny seeds. You can play the name on a piano: one TWO three fourfive. Henbit dead-nettle. Say it out loud like an incantation, like the wheeziest epithet, roll it around in your mouth, let it soundtrack your sweeping, your dishwashing, your walking down the street, so that passing strangers are forced to consider: did that person just call me a henbit dead-nettle under their breath?

My second favorite thing about henbit dead-nettle: it’s look. It is hairy. It looks like it has slyly wandered into our universe from a Dr. Seuss landscape, a Whoville tree shrunk to the size of a common weed. It is a kid’s idea of a plant: draw a straight line for a stem, scribble a ring of leaves like a lily pad, leave an inch of space, repeat scribbled ring of leaves and empty space until you reach the top. There, pinkish flowers explode out, the world’s smallest, proudest trumpets.

My third favorite thing about henbit dead-nettle: it is a “weed.” “Weed” is human for “we cannot control it,” and boy, henbit dead-nettle sure loves to rub that in our collective face. An ocean of concrete cannot stop it. It springs from cracks, from concrete’s failure. It is a green fist, a tiny wry smile trying desperately to beautify our unthinking ugliness. Meanwhile, we try desperately to erode every inch of soil on this planet. Henbit dead-nettle, like other weeds, holds the land in place. It casually points out, cooly smoking a cigarette, that you may have a problem in your garden, buddy. Too much bare soil. Not enough nutrients. I might know more than you do, it says in a glowing whisper.

My fourth favorite thing about henbit dead-nettle: its importance. It first appears in that no-man’s land between winter and spring, adding a quiet shock of green to brown fields. This little plant, so easily trampled and sat upon, helps bees survive winter and gather enough energy for spring. Birds eat the seeds. Voles and turtles eat the tender leaves. As the days get warmer, it attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. And in a pinch, you can eat it, raw or cooked. It tastes like peppery celery. It tastes like spring, toughened by the roughness of winter and sweetened by steadily increasing days.

This week in Austin, the warmer temperatures will fall away. A massive cold front will chase us from the parks and gardens and into our homes, these too-familiar places we’re desperate to escape. Spring will be swallowed by a winter that will not leave, and it will feel like we’re now cursed by reversing seasons, the latest curse in a cursed time. Outside, henbit dead-nettle will hold on. It will keep moving the clock forward. It will keep holding the land for us until we return.

Our Band Could (Not) Be Your Life

Does being in a band make any financial, cultural, or artistic sense anymore?

Across the last decade, I’ve noticed how less and less bands have been driving music culture. Instead, solo artists have become the norm. At KUTX, the vast majority of music we receive comes from solo artists. Mike Sniper, head of Brooklyn indie label Captured Tracks, laments this fact in a recent interview with Aquarium Drunkard. For him, solo-produced music doesn’t have the same frictional, propulsive power as a rock band. “We just have Brian Wilsons now,” he says. “We don’t have Rolling Stones anymore.”

Sniper suggests that this band-less present is a function of taste and fashion and maybe people not wanting to deal with internal criticism within a band structure (i.e., the bassist telling you your songs are shit). I think that’s a lazy, “the kids are too sensitive” argument. The lack of bands is a deeper reflection of economic and cultural trends. Having a band is expensive, from practicing to recording to touring, and the costs all go up the more band members there are. Let’s start with the most basic infrastructure needed as a band: a practice space. Once upon a time, every mid-sized city in America featured all sorts of cheap practice spaces to rent or squat, from dingy warehouses in industrial parts of town to the drummer’s mom’s basement. But these days that kind of urban real estate is either nonexistent, turned into Air BnBs, or prohibitively expensive (as Ian Svenonius puts it, “there aren’t garage bands anymore because who can afford a place with a garage?”). In Austin, it was recently announced that Music Lab—a gigantic rehearsal space that I used pretty regularly with various bands during the 2010s—will now be “developed” into a Tesla showroom. This is the most Austin-in-2021 thing I’ve heard in awhile.

Does having a band even make sense to a younger generation anymore? Let’s set aside the fact that you can’t possibly have a band if you’re only able to practice in an apartment bedroom (unless it’s a really, really quiet rock band…which might be the most punk rock thing you could make right now). I just think the rigid structure of a rock band doesn’t have the same appeal. First of all, the guitar/bass/drums setup is now 70 years old! Imagine music fans in the 1970s pining for the good old days of oompah bands and turn-of-the-century vaudevillians. Also, the ubiquity of easy-to-learn technology means that a kid’s first instrument is probably not a guitar or drum kit. Music making might start through a computerized interface: a sampler, a synthesizer, or editing software. These are instruments that do not lend themselves well to a band format.

Electronic pop, rap, and R&B are much more individual-focused than rock music, and as these genres have risen in popularity, I think the band as a unit has worked against it because it is inherently inflexible. Yes, there’s a risk of solo musicians retreating into boring comfort zones because of a lack of outside input, as Sniper suggests. But as a solo musician, I think there’s a bigger opportunity and ease to collaborate with more people than in a band. In the rap world, every song can feature a different producer and guest MC. As a solo artist of any genre, you can quickly change your sound and explore further and deeper than you could in a band setting. Complaining that there aren’t enough rock bands now is like complaining there aren’t enough bebop bands now. It doesn’t make sense from a cultural perspective anymore, because the band format (and rock as a genre) isn’t the leading edge it once was.

Our individualized music-making is not as individualized as it seems at first glance, but it does broadly reflect a hyper-individualized society. Maybe the pandemic will lead to a thirst for more collective art-making, but I don’t think it will be in the form of the old band model. It will be something new and hybridized, because that’s the only direction that art inevitably heads towards.

More Precious Time

I’ve noticed a strange paradox hidden in these past 10+ months of the pandemic: with more time on my hands, I feel time to be even more precious to me. I’ve dropped a lot of old habits, reassessing what I pay attention to or care about. A lot of these old habits and interests seem like leftovers from college or childhood that I somehow kept dragging around without noticing. Others were unwillingly but subtly dumped on to me by my surroundings or society. I slowly realized I don’t care about sports anymore. I don’t care about keeping up with the hottest television shows or podcasts anymore. There’s nothing wrong with those interests, they’re just not for me.

There’s incredible freedom in that negative self-definition. There are only so many hours in a day, and I’m keenly aware of that now. Maybe it’s a sense of mortality, but I think it’s more like a truer sense of time: how it can lull you into a state where time just happens to you, rather than you deciding what to do with the time that is given. It doesn’t help that most of society is optimized to capture your attention, which is another way of saying stealing your time without your consent or awareness.

In his newsletter The Art Of Noticing, Rob Walker recently proposed a tidy equation: pay attention to what you care about, and care about what you pay attention to. He elaborates:

This thing I am paying attention to, do I actually care about it? Did I notice it for reasons of my own, or was I forced to notice it?

This other thing I really do care about — am I giving it the attention I should? (Does it, perhaps, need mending?) Am I noticing what I want to notice?

It’s increasingly easy to mislead yourself into liking or caring about something that you don’t actually have an interest in. News and social media organizations are incredibly adept at this, keeping your attention in an endless loop of related content and new updates. Your attention is turned into money, but your time is permanently gone. It’s worth paying attention to what you pay attention to, as writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal once put it.

Today my wife shared with me this interesting interview with Ruth Chang on decision-making. I love her emphasis on commitment: no matter what you decide, by committing to your decision, you are creating “value for yourself in your life instead of being a passive recipient.” Your commitment makes the decision the “right” choice because you give it extra value (and you start to see it with that added value). And I think there’s such a thing as negative commitment: by choosing not to do something, you can create value too. This morning, I recorded a piece of music, and after spending time away from it, I realized the initial idea behind the music wasn’t that good. Instead of spending hours, days, weeks trying to improve that so-so idea–which I’ve been so guilty of for years–I’ve committed to throwing that idea into the trash and starting with another idea. I think there’s also an interesting relationship between acceptance and commitment–the former is couched in passive terms, but I think it’s a required step towards commitment. In the Yamabushi culture of Japan, there’s the concept of uketamō: radical, full-body acceptance. It’s a much more active idea than simple acceptance, less fatalistic and more total commitment. Acceptance leads to commitment, which maybe feeds back into acceptance and starts the cycle over again.

But the eternal question: what, in this moment, should I commit myself to? For time-consuming artistic projects, I just came across this great decision matrix used by Brian Eno:

Will it be fun?

Will I learn anything from it?

Will it make the world a better place?

Will it earn enough money to pay for the first three?

Maybe not the most helpful when deciding between another glass of wine or writing a blog post, but both of these things are certainly worth my time and attention.

Broken Words, In Four Parts

‘The Tower Of Babel,’ Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“He discovers that words do not necessarily work, that it is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say.” Paul Auster, Ghosts

The dark joke at the heart of the Harry Potter series is the fact that an eleven-year-old boy is more willing and able to name evil than the adults that are sworn to protect him from it. He’s routinely castigated for daring to utter the name “Voldemort,” and the grown-up placeholders for Voldemort are comically murky: He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, You-Know-Who. Even when Voldemort unequivocally returns and kills a Hogwarts student in front of Harry, he is not believed. He is ignored, even silenced by adults (specifically by the politicians—author J.K. Rowling makes a magical world that nonetheless functions much like our own).

The Harry Potter series subtly echoes “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, swindlers dress the emperor in imaginary, unseeable clothes, and his subjects ignore this fact even though they can see the “clothes” are false. Finally, a child speaks up, pointing out to a crowd that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. That’s where I remembered the story ending, illustrating the bravery and intelligence of children. But the original text ends on a sadder note: after being called out, the emperor walks “more proudly than ever” in his invisible clothes.

At the end of the Harry Potter series, Professor Dumbledore reminds Harry that “words are… our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” Spells, after all, are conjured through words, and across the books, misspoken spells have a habit of inflicting harm on the speaker themselves. But broken words—words used to misinform, obscure, or degrade meaning—are still incredibly powerful. Over time, they erode tongues, minds, and hearts. They can fracture societies. The once-sturdy foundation sinks into quicksand, into a routine of recrimination, half-truths, and lies.

It is staggering how normalized this kind of spellbound discourse has become in American life. You feel crazy for seeing so much craziness in everyday communication, and speaking out against so much craziness starts to feel even crazier. You get to a point where you can’t even trust your own words anymore.


“To what extent would people tolerate blasphemies if they gave them amusement? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? To any extent.” Paul Auster, City Of Glass

In his poem “Big Grab,” Tony Hoagland points to the way the meanings of words are subtly eroded over time, not just through common speech but through advertising, commerce, and politics. A corn chip bag intentionally contains a few less chips than before but it’s still called ‘The Big Grab.’ An absurd billboard sells “a beautiful girl / covered with melted cheese.” It feels like such an American poem, until Hoagland zooms out:

Confucius said this would happen:
that language would be hijacked and twisted
by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department
 
and from then on words would get crookeder and crookeder
until no one would know how to build a staircase,
or to look at the teeth of a horse,
or when it is best to shut up.

Does Hoagland include himself as a “trickster”? Does making art give artists cover to deny their involvement in this crooked situation? Are advertisers, businessmen, and politicians the ultimate artists, toying with language until it breaks apart? Imagination is not a benign thing.


still from La Antena

“The present is no less dark than the past, and its mystery is equal to anything the future might hold.” Paul Auster, Ghosts

In La Antena, an Argentinian silent film, the voices of an entire city’s people are stolen by a malignant media mogul named Mr. TV. The people can still talk, but their words are spelled out above their heads, like text messages. Mr. TV doesn’t stop at stealing voices. In the final act of the film, he steals the words themselves as the people are lulled into a kind of hypnotized stupor by his television broadcasts. Random words flood the screen, floating into the air like let-go balloons.

La Antena was released in 2007, just before Twitter debuted, but it nonetheless feels like an early glimpse of social media’s cancerous growth on society. Social media advertises itself as giving “voice” to everyone, but it is a new Tower of Babel where context collapses under the weight of so many voices: a cat meme, followed by a police brutality video, followed by a photo of your friend’s delicious brunch, followed by an advertisement, followed by a political half-truth, followed by a link to an Article You Have To Read Right Now, ad infinitum. In this world, so many voices and words are rendered meaningless, which is the same as stealing voices and words.


City Of Glass, Paul Auster’s first story in his New York Trilogy, is nominally a detective novel, but one interested in the mystery of language. His characters are trapped by words and definitions, every dawning truth leading to another room in an endless, onion-like maze. At one point, Peter Stillman, the foil to the writer-turned-detective Daniel Quinn, declares that “unless we can begin to embody the notion of change in the words we use, we will continue to be lost.” He asks, can a broken umbrella still be named an “umbrella,” or does it need a new name to describe it? Stillman, by the way, is also an insane, religious quasi-criminal, hell-bent on tearing down the Tower of Babel that invisibly surrounds all of our speech and spirituality. He later commits suicide, but it’s offscreen, and you’re not sure if you can trust that information.

How do we repair broken words? Is an umbrella still called an umbrella if it lets in the rain? Auster repeatedly points to the Old Testament command to name all the animals and plants in the world; the very act of naming gives them life. It appears that it is up to us to rename the world.

Word Music

Calm, collected, collage

MF DOOM died on October 31, but in true mysterious MF DOOM fashion, the news didn’t break until December 31. He always cloaked himself in a shroud: the metal mask, the consistently inconsistent release dates, the obtuse art-rap. But that shroud drew a lot of people–myself included–closer. Just the cover of Madvillainy is enough of a black hole. “DOOM barricaded behind the iron mask, eyes like arrowheads, weight of the world in his retinas,” as Jeff Weiss describes it. “The color scheme is sepulchral grey; the mask is scarred and battered, but stolidly intact.”

DOOM’s dreamworld wasn’t just looks. It was built around the very sound of words themselves. We’re trained to look only for meaning in language, but the musicality of certain words together can trascend meaning, opening up new spaces, new possibilities through rhythm and friction. It bypasses your rational brain; you can feel it before you notice it. DOOM was a master at this, cramming every nook and cranny with references to the Bible, cartoons, pop culture odds-and-ends, and literary villains, the words carefully chosen not just for what they convey, but for the sounds they’re masked in. On Madvillainy, his verses mirror Madlib’s chopped-up beats and samples. It’s a total soundworld, a comic book made for the ears, so fast and so deep you just have to let it wash over you. If you stand still, it’s already gone.

On “Rhinestone Cowboy,” he cycles through vowel sounds, savoring them and spitting them out like a sommelier:

“Hold the cold one like he hold a old gun
Like he hold the microphone and stole the show for fun
Or a foe for ransom, flows is handsome
O’s in tandem, anthem, random tantrum
Phantom of the Grand Ole Opry, ask the dumb hottie
Masked, pump-shotty—somebody stop me
Hardly come sloppy on a retarded hard copy
After rockin’ parties he departed in a jalopy
Watch the droptop papi”

DOOM turns language into another instrument, and it almost doesn’t matter what he’s saying. It’s how he says it and how it hits with the rhythm, the keening Brazilian pop sample egging him on in the background.

It makes me think of other songs and artists that are attuned to the music of language. There’s Bob Dylan, of course, unleashing the proto-rap of “Subterranean Homesick Blues:” “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine / I’m on the pavement thinkin’ ’bout the government.” It clatters downhill like a locomotive, or maybe the rhythm comes from living around noisy New York subways for so many years. The specific words are just as barbed as the twangy guitar: when you string together basement/mixing/medicine and pavement/thinking/government, you can’t help but sound spiky.

More spike, but in an unlikely place: Tame Impala’s “Elephant.” “He pulled the mirrors off his Cadillac / Cause he doesn’t like it looking like he looks back.” “Elephant” lurches like a Cadillac, and all those “k” sounds in the second line could be the sound of shattering glass, those mirrors hitting the ground.

For Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, his lyrics often start with “mumble tracks,” just singing nonsense over a rhythm and chord progression. Those mumbles work their way into language, blurring the line between dream and reality, nonsense and direct language. “Poor Places”–off an album that explores miscommunication and crossed wires, both lyrically and sonically–feels like a hallucination, and the words sound suitably ghostly: “It’s my father’s voice trailing off / Sailors sailing off in the morning / For the air-conditioned rooms at the top of the stairs.” Tweedy often points out that our brains are hardwired to find and create sense out of information. His lyrics stretch the limits of this, and part of the fun is the construction of meaning in your own mind. You finish the song, depending on how you make sense of it.

Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins is another master of senseless sense. There comes a time in every Cocteau Twins fan’s life when they look up the actual lyrics and see how relentlessly wrong they’ve been singing their songs all these years. But again, it doesn’t matter. The rounded, reverberous words on “Lorelai” are so emotionally charged by Fraser’s voice, your body knows what the song’s “about” even if your brain doesn’t.

There’s such a finality to Nick Cave’s “Push The Sky Away,” a kind of bleak, beautiful stubborness that’s his artistic wheelhouse. “I’ve got a feeling that I just can’t shake / I got a feeling that just won’t go away / You got to just keep on pushing it / Keep on pushing it / Push the sky away.” The short, simple words seem to stumble over themselves, dragging their feet but moving forward one step at a time. “Got,” “shake,” “keep,” “it,” all clipped, sudden sounds. They are birds unwilling to leave the nest without a push, but that gravity makes the song soar.

Be Released

Virginia Wing’s zine-like liner notes

A great New Year’s Day song: Virginia Wing’s “Be Released.” It starts with a question, a self-interrogation:

“Tell me: where do you go from here?”

The chorus:

“Progress is slow / But it will be easier, it’s easier now to say / I’m home, four doors and all the furniture I own / Dissolved / I choose to be released from all of this.”

Release the last year. Walk into the new year.