1. "Human understanding progresses in response to paradoxes."
    — Jonathan Kvanvig

  2. A small spark of encouragement

    Today I got an email from a friend who is much smarter and more creative and more experienced in music than I am. He was giving me some feedback on my music, and he didn’t just say “this was good” or “this could’ve been better.” He did that a bit, but mostly he just described it. He described it in terms of technical choices, and more importantly, in terms of the emotions it impressed on him. To hear a guy like that talk about my stuff like it’s just some random, legitimate art we were discussing was so encouraging. It’s like he was saying, “I don’t like this stuff because it’s yours, I just like it. I don’t want to talk about things in terms of what needs correcting…this art is complete and legitimate. I don’t see it in terms of correction, but in terms of quality or lack thereof. You don’t get a special measuring stick anymore, because your stuff is real music.” The relief of being taken seriously by someone you respect is truly inexpressible. It means I have reason to keep working.


  3. the calm before yet another inevitable storm

    I’m doing a bit of pleasure reading, since I may not get to do that again for a long time. That’s because the most difficult semester of my life is starting tomorrow. And here’s what I’m reading:

    "The empirical rendering of the question [does God exist] may continue to interest the philosopher, and it is no doubt a fascinating conversation to have with friends over a drink. But it is not a specifically theological question when taken in this way. For the believer who passes through the Christian experience, God is no longer related to as an object *out there*. Rather, God is affirmed only through a passionate participation in life itself. This means that we can no longer claim that we know God while hating our neighbor. Those who have taken part in the event of Conversion (participation in Crucifixion and Resurrection) cannot claim to believe in God except insofar as love emanates from them, transforming the world within which they are embedded."
    -Peter Rollins

    And this:
    "The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us."

    -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

    What these guys are proposing sounds like heresy. In fact, Rollins agrees. He calls it “the type of heresy that brings us close to the very heart of orthodox Christianity.” It’s heresy in the sense that it defies the idea of doctrine. It defies the idea that we can engage directly with God. It is the idea that we come in contact with God only in the act of loving. He is there “when two or three are gathered together,” not because they summon him, but because he is ever present in their love for each other. The old line “ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est,” or “where charity and love are, God is there” refers not to a God who seeks out the places where people are charitable or loving, but that God is known by us only in those moments when we exercise our capacity for love. What a thought to cling to as I embark on a new semester, in which there will be little time to slow down and think deeply. I only hope I can begin to embody such a view of God.


  4. I’ve just had a long day with a lot of conversations and lectures and experiences,

    and if I could sum up what I’m taking away from today, here would be the summary:

    1. We don’t really discuss beliefs often. We discuss intellectual positions. We defend them as if they are our own, but we maintain some sort of subconscious disconnect that allows us to recover from having those positions challenged.

    2. Understanding the origin of things really does help us relate to them, solve them, improve them, etc. depending on the nature of the thing. However, I’m beginning to think the whole obsession with the context of things has a lot to do with my personal nature, and is not particularly universal.

    3. We spend a ton of our time in denial of truths. In general, this denial is detrimental, even though it is often a supportive structure for our world. Sometimes being aware of the denial is more important than “solving” it.

    4. Dodgeball is fun, and my mental blocks about competitive sports are often derived from an overactive sense of shame that I developed in early childhood and never dealt with.

    5. Performancism is in fact a word, and a kickass one at that.

    6. Loving allows us the freedom to experience God in truth without apprehending God. This duality is central to attaining the deepest sort of satisfaction, because of our nature (in the sense that satisfaction comes in the chase rather than the attainment of the thing being chased, but only when the thing being chased is legitimately within the reach of our abilities).

    7. There is an inverse relationship between the amount of phone battery I use up and my contentment with life. Not sure which way the causation points, but I’d guess it goes from contentment to battery life.

    That and much more. Sad to think that it’ll all be fuzzy in a few days’ time.


  5. Hope.

    I mean, that’s basically it. It’s all worth the rare moments when hope swoops down on you and carries you away, like a bird of prey that appears out of nowhere. There’s no choice in it, but that’s the magic of it, really. Let me not forget this in all of the dark gritty moments.


  6. Hard day

    I just wrote a song for my dead dog, and again I’m reminded about the power art has to express sadness. I think that, more often than not, that is the healing power of art: it helps us to express our sorrow. It’s not magic.

    One of my greatest encouragers told me yesterday that writing is almost always elbow grease, and almost never divine inspiration. I think the same is true of happiness. We get there in short, difficult shuffles, pressing on through the ten-foot-deep snow of sorrow. Art is almost never the summer, come all at once. More often, art is a shovel. It is enough.


  7. Two things, at the moment.

    1. Grant Wood landscapes.
    2. Sleep.

    One for emotional exhaustion, the other, physical exhaustion.


  8. If life is a series of interwoven narratives,

    (and I’m inclined to believe that it is, at least in part) then I think that, right now, I’m living a big part of my origin story. No doubt, I’m already engaged in several important, compelling, beautiful stories. But if I had to guess, I’d say that all of this, all my life up to this point, has really just been a part of the setup. The defining conflict in the overarching narrative of my life has not yet arrived. In a way, that makes me really excited. The best and worst have both yet to come. There’s still so much life left to live. So many things to create, so many battles to be fought, so much love to give, that I can truly say I’ve just barely begun. And I suppose that the way I live my origin story now will have a lot to do with the way the main plot unfolds in the future. There’s hope in that, and also a bit of fear and a little pressure. If I squint my eyes, I can just barely make out the upward slope that’s in front of me. And that’s all I need right now.


  9. Thoughts on the new Lorde album

    I recently bought the new Lorde album, Pure Heroine, on a bit of a hunch. I hadn’t listened through the whole thing, but I have been familiar with her music since this summer, and I had been hearing remarkably positive reactions from across the board. After listening through the album a few times, I really am struck by how good it is. I tend to be skeptical of albums that I enjoy the first time through, because I almost invariably get tired of them before long. That being said, while I enjoyed the first listen a lot, I found plenty of justification to keep listening, and I’ve yet to be disappointed by a subsequent listen. The first time through, I was mostly struck by the aesthetics. She’s definitely not one-dimensional, which I appreciate. As far as vocal production and melody go, I definitely hear Lana Del Rey, Metric, Kimbra, and Coco Sumner to name a few. Those are all good sounds, and the mix makes all the elements infinitely better. More than just the vocals though, her beats and her mixing are immaculate. The only exception I can come up with is Team: I think the beat on that song is really underdeveloped. It feels a little bit like she just phoned it in (although, apart from the beat, the overall production of the track is exceptionally good). Maybe the most striking element of the album (aesthetically) is the dynamics of the tracks, especially the transitions between the typically minimal verses and typically thick, saturated hooks. There’s not a single track of the ten that stays in the quiet, nor a single one that fails to provide lulls between the heavy-handed hooks that drive the album. And the transitions themselves are really well-worked. They are often sudden (think Tennis Courts or A World Alone) which gives them a power that is often missing in this kind of music. However, they are also graceful and complex. The brilliance of Ribs is that the verses and the choruses are almost identical lyrically, but the choruses are rephrased with a force and precision that counters the meandering of the verse melody. White Teeth Teens introduces multiple melodic fragments that are all equally qualified to be main hooks, and the trick of the song is the seamless transitions between the fragments (and, eventually, overlapping them). I suppose that, in describing the aesthetic elements of the album, I’ve really strayed into song construction. So much of writing electronic music is about throwing away the grid and introducing musicality into songs that are fundamentally based on structure (I am making the controversial claim that good music inherently contains imperfection or disorder, but I’ll assume that most people can go with me on that thought). Point being: she does this extremely well. At no point do these songs become boring. They are exactly as long as they need to be. If there is a minute left in the song, there is some musical element that has not yet been introduced. She saves a shift in the base beat until the final minute of the song several times on the album (notably on White Teeth Teens, where she brings in a sample that cuts the time in half, and then takes it away after four bars). The slow reveal does so much for development within songs, which in turn makes the whole album feel more developed. I truly think that, even though comparisons to contemporary female electronic artists are easier to make, Lorde might be more rightly compared to somebody like James Blake. Obviously it’s not a perfect comparison, because she’s much more pop-sensible, but her level of craftsmanship surpasses that of Lana Del Rey or Ellie Goulding. She doesn’t write really good hooks. She writes really good songs, which contain really good hooks. That’s where I see comparisons to the true geniuses of electronic music rather than this whole electro-pop movement.

    However, none of that stuff is really the reason I like the album. I like the album because of the intangibles. There’s honesty and hope and, yes, attention to detail. By ‘honesty’, I’m partially referring to the immaturity of the music. She’s not trying to be thirty, and that’s refreshing. There are lines about a boy seeming grown up because he can drive, lines about the drama of being in high school. Even more than that, there’s a line, “I’m kind of older than I was when I reveled without a care,” seemingly claiming that she’s all grown up…and she clearly isn’t. That in itself says so much about the maturity of the music. It’s not yet all grown up, and that’s fine. She consistently fails to keep her meaning as close to her chest as most artists do. Many of the songs can be taken at face value. Much of the imagery is obvious, and there are times when she simply skirts meaning in favor of an easy rhyme. But the thing is, the immaturity doesn’t take away. There’s growth in the album. The most compelling development of the album is how the central concept of the album (which I might label “aloofness”) is reinterpreted. At the beginning, the aloofness described (especially in the first three tracks) seems to be derived from self-consciousness. It’s the appearance of aloofness that is important. The first message of the album is self-interested: “never not chasing a million things I want.” By the end of the album, the aloofness is not an end in itself, nor is the central concept self-interested. The pivotal line of the final song is, “you’re my best friend, and we’re dancing in a world alone.” The album ends with the lines, “people are talking, people are talking, let ‘em talk.” The aloofness is still there, but it’s not an end in itself; it’s simply a result of a deep affection. Then, if you’re listening on a CD player like I am, the album starts over, and it begins with the line, “don’t you think it’s boring how people talk?” The album isn’t set up as a circular album; rather, it’s set up with book-ends. At the beginning, the judgement of others is an object of derision, and it’s also a point of concern. At the end, it’s no longer relevant. It’s a much more blatant sort of theme than most, and I love its simplicity. Pure Heroine contains a ton of gaudy imagery and boasting, but it also contains a level of vulnerability that makes the whole thing work. As an album, it’s complex enough to yield new insights with every listen, but it’s also limited enough to be cogent and compelling. Hopefully it’s the first of many well-formed albums from Lorde. Perhaps she says it best herself in the album notes: “I poured my brain and heart into this, and maybe I’ll hate it in two years, because that’s the nature of being my age, but for now, it’s the most powerful thing I can give.”

    One note: I’ve treated Lorde as the solo project of Ella O’Connor, but the producer, Joel Little, probably deserves just as much credit. He is responsible for much of the instrumentation, as well as a fair amount of the artistic direction.


  10. I was listening to music with the most amazing girl the other day,

    and she pointed out how great this one line is in Andrew Bird’s song, Near Death Experience. “And we’ll dance like cancer survivors/ like we’re grateful simply to be alive.” It is a really great line, in a great song, on a great album.


  11. A good example.

    I always find myself defending the view that music really ought to be listened to in albums. My usual line of reasoning is that (good) music can only be understood in context. Then, if whoever I’m talking with actually engages the conversation, I usually have to come up with some examples. The problem is, my examples tend to be albums that only make sense as a unit. And most people never really listen to albums like that. So, this is where my new example comes in. It’s the song You Can Call Me Al, which is a huge fixture of 20th Century American pop music, almost inarguably. Here’s the thing: it’s on Paul Simon’s groundbreaking album Graceland. That album is a fusion of American folk-country and South African township jive music. Every track on the album has an element of both strands of music (usually, the vocal and subject matter tend towards the American, and the rhythm and instrumentation tend towards the African). You Can Call Me Al is actually a really strong example of the fusion element of the album. However, without the rest of the album, a lot of the obviously African elements don’t stand out from the American pop music of the time. To understand the song, in its truest meaning, the listener needs the rest of the album. I don’t really want to break the whole thing down at the moment, but I think the general point stands. The real point I want to make is that, while this is a famous and fairly well-understood example, a ton of music fits into the context-specific model. And that alone should be an argument for listening to music in its most natural units (which, for most music recorded between the 60s and now, is the album).


  12. I have a particular friend

    whose friendship is somewhat sporadic. Today, we “talked” for the first time in months. I was describing how my life has been lately, and I typed,

    "I’m learning to be happy with who and where I am (never losing sight of where I’m headed) and I’ve decided that the purpose of my college education is to become a better person, so if a class isn’t making me better, I won’t take it. It’s working wonderfully. I’m getting better at handling myself. My calling is to make things and to love people, and maybe to teach them stuff sometimes. I would love to have a family of my own. I know God but I don’t know him all that well. I’m not worried about it, I’m just excited to see where the years take us. He’s not worried either. I’m better when I am focused on a task, or when I’m too busy caring about other people to remember that I’m scared of them. I have never been happier, but I think I will be. I am not scared of sadness, and I’m not scared of happiness either. They are both my friends. That’s me."

    It’s all rather idealistic, but I can’t poke holes in it at the moment.


  13. It’s been too long

    I need to make some meaningful art. Creation is a practice that fades when neglected, and it’s been entirely too long.


  14. The power of individual experience

    I was talking to a good friend the other day, and he made the claim that the crux of postmodernism is the secondhand experience. That is to say, many times we do things simply to be able to say we did them. We’re too busy taking a vine of a concert to actually be present at the concert. We’re thinking of the best way to tell the story of the time we went on a spontaneous road trip instead of actually being engaged in the experience of going on the road trip. We live in the secondary experience. 

    I definitely see myself doing this a lot. Of course, one of my first instincts was to try and apply this idea to music. I think concerts and even recorded music are often “consumed” for the sake of having experienced them. They fall prey to the secondhand experience, and thus they lose some of their value. When I think about the times that I experienced music for the music’s sake, rather than for the sake of the experience, I realize that those times were much more formative to me. We can’t be changed by experiences that we have passively for the sake of experience.


  15. In Honor of Seamus Heaney

    He swore that he would dig with his pen,

    and he did, page by page,

    year by year, ‘til one day

    he stood in my Town, breathed my air,

    and left me changed.

    His words, penned so many years past,

    came down upon me, and even the most tenuous spaces,

    the little pin-hole inside a lowercase e,

    the slow breath at the end of a page,

    dug up those deepest parts of me,

    buried under all the ashen mulch so lately fallen on my life.

    That was, I think, his art.

    He brought the long-buried fossils of the spirit up to the air,

    fashioned them into tools.

    And now he is gone.

    Now he breaks ground one final time, his body the spade.

    As he enters the sod, his Creator looks down,

    proud of his son, the latest in a long line of creators.

    The world shall shake itself quick and carry on,

    yet it is better for having heard such a man speak his word.