What I Learn From Playing Music, Especially Because I Suck

I've been playing guitar since I was 16 when I borrowed a friend's and taught myself the chords to CSNY's "Teach Your Children." Since then, my frequency of playing has fluctuated from not touching a guitar for years to playing every day for months.

In any case, I suck. Really. That's not humility or modesty. It's reality. I am a bad guitar player. I can play the chords; I can wail a blues solo for hours (much to the chagrin of those around me). But I just don't have musical sense. I can't tell if a note goes up or down. I'm not sure if that means I'm tone deaf but I do know I couldn’t carry a tune if my life depended on it. My rhythm is, uh, not terribly rhythmic. Or is it terribly rhythmic? Anyway, I have a poor sense of rhythm, to say the least. 

I pick up my guitar and I play the same damn lick or I strum some (in my mind) Neil Youngish or Pixie-ish surf chords. Usually after that, I don't know what to do. I don't know what the guitar wants from me. I can't hear it and it can't hear me. It's pretty much how I feel when I'm in Paris (which is not very often). I know enough to sound like a moron; I understand less; and once the conversation goes past the preliminary greetings and, perhaps, one carefully construed insight, I'm at a loss. I'm not even conversant in guitar.

But unlike French, I can't learn the language of guitar by playing more. The fact is I hit a wall and it becomes a strange, unwieldy thing in my hands rather than an instrument. Still, I find my reckoning with the guitar, with making music, a constant education  — and not just about the guitar.

There are times, usually when I'm feeling loose and good (ahem), that I begin writing these little ditties. I'll feel a certain inspiration and some lick comes out of me (writing that here, I am suddenly quite taken with this word, lick — a reaching taste, tongue taking in a moment of the world). But even in these inspired moments, I hit that same wall. I don't know what to do next.

But it's not because there's a lack of things to do. The canvas is not blank. It's chock full, filled to the brim. I could do this Steven Stills thing; that VU type thingy; move into that down strum, two string new wave kinda thingy; bang away either punky or Sabbathy. 

As Deleuze says in his great book on Francis Bacon, the artist doesn't come to a blank canvas. He comes to a canvas overflowing with the already done, with cliché. The artist's job is not to create something from nothing; it's to create something new from the old. It's to slice away, take away, tear away as much as it is to add.  

I see the sign on the music store wall in "Wayne's World": No Stairway to Heaven. Because picking up a guitar, our instinct — or my instinct, at least — is to become Jimmy Page, Kurt Cobain, Johnny Marr. It's to be the rock star, the punk rocker, the folk hero. It's to be someone else, to be what's already been — and to sound just like him or, you know, more soulful. This is one of the great lessons of playing an instrument, something you learn in your very fiber as you play: cliché looms, cliché abounds, waiting for us all at every turn. (Not that this is all bad. There is something beautiful, even educational, about feeling like Jimmy Page, if only for a fleeting moment.)

So I try to put aside all those pre-packaged licks, those readymade riffs. I take to the fret like a pioneer and begin plucking here, bending there, strumming odd chords. I shift rhythms, change strum patterns, alter volume and speed. I try to break the cliché (without becoming one — after all, breaking form takes many forms that, at this point, are all too tired).  

And where do I end up? In the chaos of noise. I keep noodling, changing, shifting, alternating until whatever coherence there was has long dissipated. This is what drives children and girlfriends away, and quickly. 

It's an incredible experience that puts me face to face with the cosmos. I'm reaching, licking, for sense, for song, and can't find it. It — that elusive musical sense, a song, a score, a piece of music — refuses to come into existence. It's not that I am trying to make form from the formless. It's that I'm trying to steer all these possibilities — these notes and riffs, these songs, these histories from Beethoven to Beck — into some kind of something that won't come. 

And just when I think I have something, just when I feel there might be a there there, I realize I'm playing "Sweet Jane" only syncopated. Damn. 

I can write an ok moment now and again. But I never know what to do with that moment, where to go next, what to do next. I see nothing and I see everything and it's all just a big old jumbled mess.  

And so I try simply to lay it down. To grab onto a riff and repeat it, over and over. I want that delirium of repetition. I want to slip inside the secret beat of life, the cosmic rhythm, and be carried along its currents, grooving for eternity. 

But I can't. I try to repeat the riff. I really do. I tell myself, Just play that same stupid thing over and over. I go two, four, seven measures. And then I come in early or late; I add a beat, an upstroke, an accidental flourish that doesn’t fit. I get flustered, confused. I have no idea where I am anymore. Am I behind? Ahead? I don't know. It's humiliating. 

So I try to take lead. Maybe if I sit on top of the groove, I can ride its wave, pushing and pulling with my mad minor blues scales. And for a moment there, I’m rocking! I’m at the very crest of cosmic becoming! I am the lizard king!  And just as soon as I find it, it’s gone. I flub a note, screw the rhythm, get smothered by the wave.  Once again, humiliation.

But trying to find it, to feel it, to ride it is an education. O, to find that groove of grooves, to slide on in, to be taken in by the pull of the universe itself! To ride that wave! If only I knew how to swim.

To play an instrument is to reckon the cosmos. As you try to make sense, to get in the groove, you come up against the terrible tyranny of cliché on one hand and the terrifying abyss of chaos on the other. It is a humbling education that places your entire body and mind — your very being — in the thick and thin of it.  

Of course, some people move well with music. My friend Eugene crafts crafty songs readily and has been doing so since he was five. No joke. He speaks music; he thinks in music. Me, I think in words. I can parry clichés or embrace them and feel comfortable. This is not to say that I write well; it's only to say that I'm comfortable in the medium, with its way of operating, its set of demands. I can split infinitives, shift voice, make references and feel just fine.

But with music? Oy vey. How do I make my way amidst that torrential team of possibility, that storm of what is, what has been, what can be — all those songs, notes, moods, progressions? Can I catch a groove, if only for a spell? Can I spin the world fantastic, even if only once? How? What do I do? How do I position myself? What is my posture to be?

Even Eugene, that musical whiz, must turn and face the frenzy. Such is the task of life. We live inundated with cliché while chaos looms, relentless and merciless. Such is our fate. This is what we do as we dress, talk, kiss, write. Playing music amplifies the challenge, bringing the lesson to the fore — all the more because I suck.  

A recent track from Eugene's band, Here Are the Facts You Requested. 
Their take on cliché is to incorporate it, play with it, dj it. 


The Ideology of Focus

Emerson's transparent eye, seeing without seer.

Focus, we assume, is a good thing. It is the stuff of the driven, the smart, the aware. We laud it without thinking. Focus! we snap at our kids as they daydream, play with a stray cheerio, babble on about aliens. Often, as we ready and rush for school at some godawful hour of the morning, I'll find my 10 year old son half naked in his room, one pant leg creeping up his calf as he plays with a freshly constructed Lego concoction, Vroom vroom.....bckshssssss....boom. Inevitably, I let the door fly and bark: Focus, dude, focus. 

The assumption of focus pervades. We believe focus is a natural movement of the eye, the lens bending to account for the difference in distance of objects and light. It defines our cameras which proudly offer autofocus. And not only will the camera focus automatically, it will automatically focus on faces.

Focus, like all things, is ideological. It necessitates that one thing be clear, be the center, while the rest blur into periphery. Why do digital cameras focus on faces? Sure, it's what most people photograph. But such is the way of focus: it keeps certain things fixed in view to the detriment of everything else. We privilege faces, the human. This is the very ideology that has lead to the decimation of the planet, the tyranny of the ego. The seemingly innocuous, even useful, autofocus on faces is destroying life itself.

But focus is not just ideological. It enacts the very ideology of ideology. Ideology is the demand of certain elements over others, a focus on this or that thing and the marginalization of other things. Focus, which we ideologically assume to be biological, enacts the hierarchy of a certain kind of knowledge and a certain mode of imperialist oppression.

Focus, for a moment, on your image of focus. The eye is the center to which the world comes, the center from which we observe. The world gathers itself to a point and radiates its energy, its very being, to a single point: the human eye, that conduit to the brain and its so-called intelligence. Or else our two eyes conspire together, like marksmen, to zero in on their target.

Inbound focus
Our image of in focus is a pyramid, a hierarchy. (That's an eye, not a fish.)

Outbound focus
Our two eyes conspire, like marksmen, to zero in on their target and bring into the fold.

We believe focus is so elemental that we find it difficult to imagine not focusing. I remember the first time I saw Andreas Gursky's photographs. I couldn't put my finger on what was so strange about them. And then I realized: there is no focal point. They are not pictures of per se — not pictures of people (portraits) or nature (landscapes). They sprawl, often infinitely in all directions.

What a strange image of a soccer game! Where is the focus? Where is the center?

At some point, absolute focus — focus without center — becomes blur.

Focus is constitutive of humanist ideology that imagines humans at the center of the world, our emotional lives essential, our dominion supreme. This logic of focus — this demand of focus — defines our sense of story. Hollywood (almost) always gives us one figure we that is at the center around which everything else revolves. We focus on Nemo and his terrible plight (he's lost, it seems, and must be found). But then think of Loony Tunes. There is no focal point, no center. It's all in focus at the same time that it's all a blur of motion and mayhem. Which is to say, in Loony Tunes, we don't focus on any one element: we see it all happening, a blur of action. 

This is what we call empiricism: seeing it all, letting it all happen. What we usually do is come to the scene already focused. We see the face, we follow the ball, we root for Nemo. But there are other ways to see.

We can see without focus. This is where the scientist and the mystic meet. At their best, they come to the world unfocused, their eyes not zeroing in. On the contrary, their eyes go wide, go panorama, to take it all in. They resist focusing, resist putting any one thing at the center. A crappy scientist comes to his experiment, comes to the world, already knowing what's going to happen. He comes to the world with focus. The best scientist lets his eyes go slack, yet clear, to see what focus cannot.

And so I imagine a different architecture of vision, one not premised on hierarchy, pyramid, target, one not predicated on focus.  I come back to Emerson's transparent eyeball, an eye that is not the tool of the seer, an eye that is seeing, an eye that is not the center point but moves amidst the endless teem and flow of all things. Forget the seer who stands still to train his eye on his object. See the eye that is transparent, the world moving through it as it takes in the world as part of the world. 

The eye is not the center. Nor does it focus. It moves amidst the fray, part of the fray.


Taking Pictures: on Marc Lafia's Gowanus Showroom Exhibit, #image

Marc Lafia's show, #image, is at the Gowanus Showroom April 4 -20.

On the walls hang large prints of images. Upon closer inspection, we realize that they are screen shots of Tumblr posts, notes and all. Are they photographs? What are we looking at?

Many bristle at the idea that these could be photographs. They imagine the photographer as the master behind the lens, the soul in the machine, the author of a pure creation. So Lafia must be doing something else.  

But what is it to "take a picture"? The expression itself already suggests a posture other than creator: the photographer takes a picture, takes an image that in some sense already exists. He just puts a frame around it — which is not to belittle the act. On the contrary, all we're ever doing is framing and reframing the world. To frame and reframe is to create.

From one angle, Lafia is a realist or even naturalist photographer — only his domain is not Yosemite or the slums. It's the circulation of images through social digital proliferation. His desktop is a viewfinder onto the world of digital images; when he hits control-shift-4, he is opening and closing his shutter. He is taking the picture.

Well, doesn't everyone do that? Can't anyone do that? Yes, of course. We are all photographers, taking images and showing them off to the world — on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest. Some of us are, alas, better than others. Just as anyone and everyone can take a picture of Yosemite, some people take nice pictures of Yosemite, more interesting pictures of Yosemite. So it is with Lafia: he is a terribly keen photographer of the natural virtual landscape, giving us the emotionality and beauty and provocation that abounds. This is nothing if not an exceedingly elegant show.

Lafia is not just appropriating images he finds. (How the art world glommed on to that word, appropriation, and never let go. Oy! Appropriation has some value as a figure and function within the socio-political economy, such as when a marginal group takes a word of their oppressor and uses it differently. But in the world of images, it is bereft as all art is necessarily appropriation, a taking up of the world.) He snaps these images in their native habitat so that we see the "notes" that circulate with them. These are not just framed images from the web; these are snapshots of images making their rounds, moving through the world. Just as a nature photographer halts the cheetah's movement as it blazes across the savannah, Lafia halts the image as it streams through the virtual sphere. 

The effect is uncanny, at once familiar and unfamiliar. We look at these and think: Hey, I know this. And then, in the same breath, What the heck is it doing here hanging on this wall? It is this double take that splays the very apparatus, the very function, of photography. This tension is the very movement from everyday-everywhere images to the prescribed practice of what we call photography. Images that make their rounds so unassumingly, unceasingly, are snatched — taken — from their natural environment, blown up, framed and hung in the inevitably white cube of the gallery. Such is photography and that, as much as these images, is what Lafia is displaying. That is what is hung on the wall: photography itself. 

Meanwhile, punctuating your movement through the gallery are transparent plexiglass cubes that house what seem to be paper sculptures but upon closer inspection turn out to be books sawed, cut, (re)framed into elaborate postures and juxtaposed with other books and objects. The cubes are not just tasteful containers: they themselves frame these unbound books, creating a new kind of image.

Books, of course, were the original interweb; the printing press, the pre-digital digital. Books were the way to reproduce the same images — even if just words — and disseminate them in these discrete containers. Then along came the digital and literally blew the covers off the books, undid their binding, sent the images within every which way. (The individual book sculptures are quite elaborate, their content inflecting their arrangement, what they sit with, how they've been framed such as when stills from Antonioni's Blow Up sit with a tennis ball and an apple. Each cube is truly an exhibit unto itself. Follow them and you'll experience an entire history of the image.)

Walking around Gowanus Showroom, I kept thinking that these plexiglass books sculptures were explosions of books, of the printing press, that unloosed their images onto the walls and into the ether. The book is not dead: it's been taken up, reframed, by Tumblr. 

And then you notice on one wall a large, two-frame glass door leading outside. Frames are everywhere, taking images of you, of me, of everything. Beyond the door, you see these incredibly elegant swaths of what turns out to be colored silk, blowing more or less gently in the wind, framing and reframing the trees within the billowing cube. These swaths become digital camera filters à la Instagram or the iPhone. Walk inside the soft cube, and the world outside becomes recast, filtered, framed. This is your iPhone camera only you can walk around and through it.

The image doesn't just hang on the wall, to be looked at when you go to galleries and museums. Images are everywhere, everything, all the time (pace Henri Bergson). Images are social, circulating, morphing, constituting and reconstituting themselves always, relentlessly. Images abound. All is #image.

The Infinite & the Everyday

There are times when I'm driving through the horror of San Francisco streets with its absurd proliferation of douchebags all driving as if theirs was the only car that matters so why use turn signals or stay in a lane; with construction on every corner because these 27 year old Google douchewads need somewhere to live so why not build another 50 glass and iron live-work (ha!) lofts on every available, or not quite available, corner; with the roads torn asunder by the third world gas company (there are blackouts in SF with alarming frequency); and, of course, with all those bikers and their fragile flesh perched perfectly for accidental annihilation (not that I have anything against bikes; it's only to say that the thought of squashing a biker with my car is so so so very, unspeakably horrible — which makes driving amidst their swarm a tad stressful). Oy! 
Man, there are times I want simultaneously to punch myself in the face, bash my head against the steering wheel, and ram into every BMW-driving douchepig until we both explode in a fury of nihilistic redemption. 

But then I think: Who cares? All this here — me, my car, these glassholes, bikers, work, traffic — it's all just part of a teem that exceeds us all, an infinite cosmic flow. Does it really matter if I'm stuck in traffic? If some moron almost runs me off the road? Who cares if I'm stuck in this car an extra 45 minutes?  What's the rush, ever?

It's so easy to get wrapped up in the everyday, to have my mood shaped by the day to day banalities of existence, to get worked up into a rage or depression or, for that matter, happiness. Oh, damn, I have this annoying conference call for three hours! Oh, jeez, that girl didn't text me and now I'm feeling bad about myself! Oh, yeah, I'm cool because I published a paper! The anger, frustration, anxiety — and, yes, happiness — can be all consuming, defining how I feel, how I interact with the world. My son asks for a soda and because I'm annoyed with the driving conditions, I bark, Can you just once stop asking for things! enacting a parody of a passive aggressive asshole dad that I too often actually am. It's humiliating.

This is as true for things seemingly more profound than traffic. My sister died this past November and, after her funeral, I found it hard to do anything. I lay around in my pajamas, zoned out, bursting into hysterical, mad tears every few hours. I was all consumed by this sense of loss.

So I went in search of a shrink who wouldn't just tell me to meditate and do yoga. Well, frankly, my list of demands was higher: male, older than I, Jewish, PhD, from New York. Lo and behold, I found him. And this is what he told me: Death happens. We're not here, we're here, we're not here. So it goes. Live with it. He told me other things, of course. But mostly he just said: Detach from all this nonsense, from your day to day emotional life, from all the chatter in your head. Live through it but not as it. Live as the infinite creature you are and enjoy all this beautiful, if heart wrenching, quotidian finitude. Ok, he didn't say it exactly like that but you get the idea.

Suddenly, all my eviscerating grief seemed absurd. Grieving is good, a process of reckoning the flux of life and, well, death. But weeping for hours, being so devastated by the fact of her death, was not doing me — or anyone — any good. And was silly. Such grief is predicated on the finitude of life, as if dying were the ultimate end.

Even if my life isn't infinite per se, as part of Life, I am — we all are — infinite. The universe keeps going. In fact, the universe needs death to happen for it to do what it does. This is not cruel or indifferent. It just is. Or, better, that's just how it goes. This is Nietzsche's great, merciless, indifferent nature.

Now, mind you, I bucked at all this — and most of me still bucks. I want to be entrenched in life! I want to feel it all! I don't want to detach. No way! I want to be in it, man! 

But that's just silly ego weakness which leads to feeling insane because of traffic or a boring meeting or another latte ordering zombie yapping on his phone for all to hear. To feel completely eviscerated because someone died or a woman broke your heart; to feel so annoyed and put upon because your boss is a schmuck or your parents are morons; to become irate because of traffic and capitalism and the hegemony of idiocy: all this is to assume that my stupid little ego self matters. It's to miss the other register of existence, the grand temporality of existence, the flow that moves through us and with us and exceeds us with hardly a notice. 

OK, what I'm saying is not earth shattering. In fact, it's quite simple and been articulated by many for eons. But this doesn't make it any less profound or life altering. While all this bullshit is haranguing us, there are the stars, clouds, insects, the wind. This other register of life, this infinity, is not an abstraction. It's not out there. On the contrary, it's all right here, right now, everywhere, all the time. Look. 

Rather than identify with this or that character, rather than striving for this or that goal or living by this or that standard, I can identify with the infinite flow and flux of life. That is, rather than live through the petty, even if profound, machinations of this all-too-human life, I can identify —if that's still the right word — with this other register of existence that runs alongside and through and with this existence of traffic and girlfriends and parents and meetings and children and, yes, death: the register of the infinite flux of it all — the dust and bugs, the stars and heat and wind and leaves and stench and sadness and madness and beauty and semi-colons and gins and tropes all mixing and mashing and morphing and on it's gone and on it goes, forever. 

Refracted through the lens of the infinite, the daily mechanics of life seem so silly. This is not to say that they don't matter, that I should turn a cold shoulder to them. On the contrary! It's to say that all there is is this life. There's no goal, no ideal, no truth: just flux and flow, always and forever. So it's not worth being too identified with any one component as everything gives way, beautifully, to more, to other, to itself. It's not that infinity effaces the everyday; it's that infinity puts it in perspective. All there is is all this.  

Such is Kierkegaard's call to be a knight of faith, to walk in the infinite and the finite with every step, every gesture, however big or small.  

It's actually quite practical. I can focus on the day to day and constantly be reacting to the madness of people and traffic and the destruction of San Francisco by greed. Or I can negotiate all those things but see them all as part of an enormously bigger picture: an infinite panorama. Sometimes, all I have to do as I feel the rage of human douchedom — or the devastating loss of death — is glance up and see the flow of clouds as they bend with the ever-variegated texture of space and, suddenly, all my angst vanishes in the magnificent woosh of the universe.   


Life is Movement, Scorsese is a Square, and Pirates of the Caribbean is Brilliant

People compared American Hustle to Goodfellas. But whereas Goodfellas tracks moving bodies through stable space, American Hustle puts everything in motion. Its closest Scorsese relative is the liquid film, Casino.

Descartes is, of course, one of the great thinkers of being. And it's no coincidence that he invented (whatever that means) analytic geometry. Now, I have no doubt that the mathematicians amongst us will furrow their brows, at once singular and collective, but I want to say geometry is the study of shape in three dimensional space — you know, points and lines and tangents and polygons and such. In the more or less popular vernacular of such things, we talk of Cartesian coordinates. 

With things fixed in 3D place, it's easy to measure them, assess them, account for them. But when we introduce time, when things start moving, well, it all gets a tad messy. In mathematics, this is called calculus and it has such wacky things as infinite limits. Infinite limits! What's more beautiful than that, I ask?

Calculus is movement, change.
Geometry, while beautiful, is fixed in place.

Structural linguists (de Saussure) — not to mention structuralists (Levi Strauss) — consider things as existing in three dimensions. They claim language has two components, langue and parole. Langue is the structure of language as it exists outside and beyond all of us, outside and beyond actual use. It's the abstract system of language, its rules and laws and such. Parole, meanwhile, is the instantiation(s) of language, its use, its written and spoken form. They considered parole messy, too complicated, impossible to map and so they focused on langue, on the general rules of linguistic behavior.

And then along comes Derrida and says (and I paraphrase), Well, uh, wait. How would we know what langue is if it's not first parole? How could we ever know language except in its written and spoken form? What other form is there? It seems to me that the very structure of langue is predicated on something outside of it and something that is always changing and moving (that is, parole). So the very structure of a structure is the undoing of that very structure. And such is what we like to call poststructuralism. 
Matthew Ritchie paints the calculus of life.

But years before Derrida, there was Bergson who said movement cannot be reduced to plots or points in space. (And long before Bergson were the sophists for whom truth and propriety are circumstantial, in time rather than eternal.) Movement is not the sum of the quantity of space between points A, B, and C. No, movement is a quality that happens behind our backs, as it were — or at least behind the backs of those who would plot and measure it.

Movement, Bergson maintains, is not something added to matter but is immanent to matter, is of matter. Things are not three dimensional but four dimensional (at least): length, width, depth, and time. Time is not something added to the world. Each thing endures as it endures; that is its time. Time in general is all the different times of endurance of all the different things, the world happening at all times at once (or not, as the case may be).

Reading reviews of American Hustle, it was hard not to notice all the references to Scorsese, as if David O. Russell was just re-doing Goodfellas. But that missed what was happening all together. Scorsese, and especially Goodfellas, is about filming bodies moving through 3D space, as if the world were a stable background to the transience of human life. Scorsese's Casino is a different film, a liquid film, with three narrators projecting different images across the plane of the screen. In American Hustle, David O. Russell gives us just such a calculus of life in which everything is in motion all the time.

These are very different approaches to film, to life, to love, to the image. It's not a matter of  judgement, as if one were better than the other (Goodfellas is a brilliant, excellent film). But it is a matter of a certain kind of assessment, an assessment of will, of what world this or that filmmaker, artist, person wills in life: What cosmos do you live in? What cosmos do you want to live in? 

This is one reason I loved the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films. Gore Verbinski gives us a vision of the world in which everything — yes, everything — is moving. These are not just characters on a boat as if the boar were a stage. No, the boat itself becomes a character. And it's not just a boat full of characters on the ocean. Here, the ocean itself comes alive. This makes those movies difficult to watch, a visual cacophony as everything is in flux.

But such is life. It just keeps moving, often creating blur. One day, one year, one decade you love Chinese food or a girl named Diane or the books of Milan Kundera only to find, later, that you don't care for any of those things. You're changing, always; the world is changing, always; your relationship with the world is changing, always. There is no stability, no ground, no home. We are nomads. Home is anywhere you hang your head (pace Elvis — Costello, that is). And I can't help but feel that it's not a question of stopping it — with ideas, philosophy, reason, with art — but of moving with it. So don't be a square. Be a differential equation.