On one of my favorite styles of music…

One genre of music that I have been hooked on for years now is post-rock.  I am not a true music enthusiast, so I will not attempt to make an exhaustive list of the best post-rock bands, or attempt informed commentary on the qualities of the genre, etc.  But post-rock is for me the ultimate music to drift away on my thoughts or to listen to on a neighborhood walk.

Post-rock developed out of shoegaze, and is, conventionally, without lyrics.  It features walls of guitars, rhythmic variations, LOTS of reverb, and most often conveys a sense of open spaces and isolation.  Some of my personal favorites as far as post-rock bands are Hammock, This Will Destroy You, Caspian, and Explosions in the Sky.  I have listened to many others, and many others are also fantastic to listen to.  Hammock is quite possibly my all-time favorite, and they may perfectly typify the genre with their long, flowery song titles, soaring riffs, and simple melodic motifs.

About eight or nine years ago my friend, at the time living in Seattle, introduced me to the genre, and I realized that this was a sound that I had always longed for.  To me, listening to post-rock is like hearing the soundtrack to a slice of life.  Complex, recursive guitars roll like waves of emotion over picked-out basslines that feel like the daily grind.  It is probably no coincidence that most post-rock bands come from the Midwest and Texas, with the premiere European examples coming from the plains of the former Warsaw Pact.  For example, Everything is Made in China… their song “after rock” has one of the most haunting uses of sampled dialogue I have ever heard.)

I recommend listening to post rock when you can give it your full attention, and yet also when you are in a position to let your mind wander and think about other things.  For me, the inspiration it gives is not so much about plots, or acute emotions, so much as a sensation of living a large amount of time in fast-forward, like a music video that makes the mundane into a work of art through montage, or a film sequence that shows the passage of time over a place impersonally and without a lot of cuts or camera movement.  There is a reason that post-rock has been used for soundtracks recently (one example being the indie Prince Sultan, which I have not seen, but has a phenomenal soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky.)

Hopefully this has been an enticing introduction to post-rock.  If you have gone through the Wikipedia article, it has lists of many other bands that represent the genre.  If you swing by this post, feel free to share any band names or songs in this style that you recommend or no, especially if I have not mentioned it here.

Back to the Woods

On an idyllic childhood and the desire to shape the world…

On a break today, I talked with one of my fellow American coworkers and, as conversations are wont to wend, we got onto the topic of treehouses.  When I stop and play back the mental films I have of my childhood, some of the fondest memories I have are of times spent in the forests around my homes and my friends’ homes.  When I would read fantasy novels, the smells of leaves, of vineflowers in the evening, of moldering leaves, of a fresh creek were pervasive and real for me, because I could close the pages and go out to experience them firsthand.

But what struck me today more than the bucolic nostalgia of the rambling paths and rays of leafy sunlight dappling buzzing Virginia afternoons was something that my coworker pointed out.  I had described to him how even as a very small boy, my biggest dream was not to mystically melt into the trees and live like a forest spirit, or to preserve the stately trunks for all time.  Instead, my friends and I would endlessly talk of building things – creating a kingdom in the wood of forts, treehouses, platforms, stone walls, crayfish weirs, catapults, clifftop towers, bridges, tunnels, and every conceivable other architectural feature we could think of, besides houses, schools, or shops.  What struck me today was my friend’s comment that “it’s in man’s nature to homestead.”

That was really, at the core, what we all wanted to do as kids.  It is a different instinct than “playing house” or simply wanting to go on adventures.  There was this almost fundamental drive to enjoy the landscape, to be sure – I could and did wax poetic about the beauties of nature.  But what I most loved was mapping the creeks and paths, forts and rock cairns, and naming things.  There is a kind of plant, fern-like, that I have never learned the name of, but it carpeted the forest floor in a wide swath in the woods with broad, star-shaped fronds.  That area I named “the Valley of the Stars.”  The small cascades that bubbled with drifting sticks each got a name, as did the earthworks we dug into the creek banks.  It was thrilling to give names to these landforms and imagine that they were part of a larger world we could build and inhabit without authorities and without the sense of overweening responsibility that crept in as we got older.

Again, I am not writing a long enough piece tonight to go into all of the likely significances of this drive to tame the wilds and make a frontier, but it still pervades my life and my imagination, even after long journeys through the halls of college and the streets of hundreds of cities and towns.  The world has shrunk for me even as the possibilities within it continue to multiply, and I am not sure what all I have lost in growing up and growing old.  Somewhere under the new subdivision that they built on that vast swath of forest there is still the land that used to be the Valley of the Stars.  Somewhere in those leafy afternoons there is a world that I will search for a way back to for the rest of my life.

Worldbuilding with Schiller

On writing and music…

The very first compact disc I ever bought was Schiller’s Voyage, the Anglophone market vesion of his album Weltreise.  I would listen to that album on my Christmas Sanyo portable CD player over and over again, savoring each song like a jawbreaker candy, tonguing and hearing through layer after layer.  With a yard-sale VHS recorder camera, I tried to make videos of the farmland vistas and low mountains that spread out in a beautiful rippling patchwork behind our exurban neighborhood to accompany the music.  I was entranced by that Trance album to where I could ascend in my imagination into these worlds and places that I had never, as a boy in Virginia, been even remotely near.

I sometimes wonder if it was fate that I found that CD, colored circles and round-edged jewel case, at the record store near the library my mother always took us to.  There had always been music to listen to on the radio, and my parents had vinyl and cassettes of all sorts of music.  But this was my first album, that I paid for and owned.  I still vividly remember putting on the ungainly large sampling headphones from the receiver at the store and jumping through the beginnings of several tracks, to “try before I bought” well before the mp3 and streaming brought music down to the status of a utility.

Since that time, more than a decade ago, I have listened to that album so many times as to have lost count only a few months into having it.  The lesson it taught me, to use music as a tool to nudge my mind, has become an ever important part of my life of the mind.  I may not be a great writer, pouring out captivating prose and poetry as quickly as a bird molts off great gouts of shimmering feathers only to grow them anew.  But I have harnessed that discovery to at least make attempts at capturing some of the stories and films that I have concocted in my head on paper and even, tentatively, on video.

Similar to finding the perfect runner’s high I have found that if you need to write particular sorts of things, the right soundtrack or music is marvelously powerful.  When I was in middle and high school, I would put on a lot of new agey-type music to work on the grand fantasy novel I had begun without much plan, relying instead on imagery and setting to carry a plot of only the vaguest dimensions atop.  I think that remains one of my greatest problems is that more than wanting to tell stories I want to take people on journeys like a helicopter pilot through my imagination, shouting out the names of fantastic places and buzzing the snowy heights of mountains in worlds without end.  What happens in those worlds is, to me, unfortunately secondary to their simple existence to be mapped, explored, named, and elucidated.

One of my goals while I have free time here in Qatar has been to work on the mechanics of writing more of that sort of detail – the things that readers are really looking for, as they are not filmgoers looking to watch a travel documentary about a made-up country, but require characters, deeds, and a comprehensible story arc.  To be sure, there are plenty of literary creations that have very little in the way of such things – Wittgenstein’s Mistress is one, for a particularly erudite example (and one I found by way of a David Foster Wallace biography.)  I am not, however, attempting to write about philosophical constructs wrapped in prose-poetry.

To sum up this somewhat meandering blog entry, I have found that using music ccan allow you to find the right words to capture a given place or time, whether you are attempting to pin down a dreamlike otherworld or to write a piece grounded firmly in the last several hundred years of history.  Music, perhaps uniquely among the aesthetic creations of humanity, can open waking gateways into the part of the brain that dreams without the cumbersome need for sleep. Music can send you soaring across landscapes that have no earthly counterpart for good or ill, and for me that first real musical takeoff came from Schiller (named, appropriately, for the German Romantic poet.)

Outsider Inside Out

On Perdido Street Station and the flow of reading…

For anyone who has read China Miéville’s fiction, it can almost feel like a cliché to talk about his portrayal of the outsider and those outside of “polite society.”  It is in many ways a mandatory manifestation of his personal politics, to the point that it becomes a meta-theme among his collected works, whatever their subject matter.  In his visions of strange and often horror-inducing things, the only thing that can redeem someone is their lack of participation in any part of ordinary society.  Their outsider status is like a step down the path towards a kind of half-possible redemption.

The idea of the outsider from “polite society” is, of course, a staple in most speculative fiction.  It is a trope that echoes through fantasy, with nearly every protagonist somehow cut off from the approval and embrace of the people, institutions, and world around them in some form or fashion.  Where that drives the plot is, of course, where variation runs the gamut.  Some stories feature the quest to create normality and to find a place in the world – this is particularly a trope of bildungsroman/coming-of-age stories.  Others rely on the outsider status as a kind of savior figure requirement – one could even argue that this is a feature of religious belief in the idea of Jesus’ being a prophet in his own town that could never be appreciated by it, Gautama Buddha becoming a castaway from his royal birthplace, or the idea of Mohammed wandering off into the desert, a failed merchant of Mecca, and returning wild-eyed and filled with bloodlust to build an empire out of the synergy of Abrahamic and traditional South Arabian religious and cultural products.

I find myself often identifying with this outsider trope, to the degree that when I come across a protagonist like, say, Quentin Coldwater of The Magicians I am initially unsure if I can sympathize enough with him to inveigle myself into his upbringing among the comfortable world of elite northeastern education and tradition.  But even he, despite his social and intellectual success, is inevitably cast as an outsider almost unto himself.  Reconciling that feeling of alienation becomes critical to developing characters and plots, whether revolutionary or reactionary in their natures.

Something that differentiates authors of speculative fiction especially is their portrayal of an understanding of what it feels like to be an outsider, the longing for approval and acceptance, the bitter embrace of the self for what it is, or the redemptive reconciliation of finding a place in the world.  I posit that this most often comes from the way that authors often picture themselves – not integral to their worlds, but rather in many ways exiles from whatever notion of normality pervades the times and places they inhabit.  What authors, then, do differently is instead of simply rebelling, destroying, reforming, or effecting control and change, is to tell stories that soothe that desire through the intellectual comfort of words.  Most fantasy offers at least a glimmer of hope, even Miéville’s dark and largely unrelenting works designed to unsettle and evoke a desire to fix a broken system.

Chasing those glimmers of hope has been a passion of mine as a reader since I was very small.  At this point, thirty-one years into my life, I read almost compulsively.  When I stop reading and have to consider my own place within the world and “the system” and nearly any sociopolitical landscape, I find that I am dissatisfied and frustrated by the way that no matter what frame I choose to look through, I can never quite climb through that frame and find a pattern of life that feels gratifying and meaningful.  I know I am not alone in that sense.

So, instead, like the gamblers in Addiction by Design, I seek out the flow-state of speed-reading, where the words blur together into images like Muybridge kinetic photograpy spun at a rate that blurs the individual shots too much to be clear, but enough to be discernable.  I devour books, slide across the lumpy lines of letters like a slug escaping the sun of social disavowal and a sense of near-constant dislocation from my surroundings.  This flow state of reading and consuming books instead of merely reading them slowly and thoughtfully has been both rewarding and disturbing by turns.  Sometimes it leads me to miss details and mis-remember things from non-fiction or fiction alike.  Other times it means that I can comprehend the feelings and intentions of the works more acutely than if I were to read out loud, approaching each word as a separate symbol demanding detailed decoding.  I often wonder what it feels like for other people to read books, or to read my own words, and I know that that gets into ideas of qualia and perception and individuality, and passes out of the realm of vocabulary and precise words and into art, poetry, and empathy.

What has always driven me to imagine and create things is a desire to share that way that I experience things like music, good writing, and ideas with other people.  I want to show them the good parts of my mind and explore the wild vistas of my dreams and imaginings.  On the one hand, it feels quite selfish. On the other, it feels very generous.  It underlies a lot of the way that I spend days overanalyzing how others interact with me, or I with them, in hopes that I have somehow managed to find common ground with their own perspective or experience.

I was speaking with one of my coworkers today about this whole topic.  I brought up how I experience film and how it generates, mysteriously, this kind of heightened sensation of the world around me from sounds to textures to the edges of objects.  My mind becomes a cinemtographer of reality for a few minutes or hours, and I enjoy reality much more than when I am slogging through an ordinary day of work or listless boredom on a day off.  Sometimes good books, read intensely, can generate that same heightened perception, and I imagine that it has to do with sets of neurotransmitters that people attempt to harness through illicit drug use.  But what frustrated me was that I had a very limited ability to explain the sensation in a way that made sense to him through shared experience, and he did not find that he had ever experienced that sensation himself, at least in a way that lined up with my choices of words to describe it.  All the more reason to keep writing, I suppose, to reifne my ability to express things that seem at first blush to be inexpressible and weird, outsider thoughts from an outsider to every community he has moved amidst.