Soundscapes: Music to Wake Up, Not Fall Asleep, to

(I was encouraged to make this a “page” so here it is)

When I was constructing soundscapes with more rapidity, still working out the technical complications of generative and algorithmic composition, I spoke a lot more openly about my desire to challenge preconceptions about “ambient” music. There may have been a misperception by those reading (implying anyone was reading) that this desire was purely academic in the way that many middle-aged musicians find themselves rankling against some boundary, rule or structure in some way.

However, for me, there is much more to it than that, and it has occurred to me that because I am now composing soundscapes within the framework of an explicitly religious, explicitly Christian, explicitly Orthodox Christian nature, it may be wise to elaborate more specifically on what it is I want to challenge, and why.

In a very real sense, this desire stems from something that has nothing to do with music. I live in a Western culture that is currently pretending it wants to become Eastern. I say pretending because this same culture also currently has military troops over most of “The East” and we’re very busy blowing up Eastern culture and people rather than embracing it and becoming one with it. But, the 20th Century made us realize that Western society, which is to say (bluntly) Protestant Christian society, has more or less imploded under the ever growing weight of moral hypocrisy and that the secular, natural materialism we replaced it with results in either nihilism or psychopathy. Consequently, we have, perhaps rather desperately, turned to “The East” for a (typically Western style) quick fix solution to our problem.

As someone who grew up in this imploding culture and who put in very real (and often painful) work to find a way out from under the rubble with my soul and sanity intact, I admit freely that I find it rather offensive to suddenly be surrounded by people in very expensive, immodest clothing at the grocery store thumbing through the latest of some pseudo-Buddhist periodical while waiting to pay for their sprouted tofu in between classes at the local hot yoga studio. Why offended? Because I found my way out of the rubble and into the safety of “The East” without abandoning everything of value left behind me still under the rubble. So many people are so busy being smug about how enlightened they are to have cast off the shackles of patriarchal, imperialist Christian culture that they’ve completely failed to notice that (a) the culture they have fled to has birthed some of the most misogynistic and militaristic cultures in human history and (b) by reducing Jesus of Nazareth to just a Jewish yogi you do an enormous disservice not only to the great and powerful gifts that Christianity has given to humanity through Western culture over the centuries, but also to the millions of genuine, honest, peaceful and pious people who have lived, suffered and died for their faith at the hands of those who vehemently disagreed.

You don’t have to become a spiritualist to denounce The Crusades.

You don’t have to learn Sanskrit chants to distance yourself from Fred Phelps.

You don’t have to adopt techniques and practices (without having any of the actual faith in) the religions of India, Tibet and Japan to reduce your stress, your carbon foot print, your white guilt or your lower back pain. You don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water to find a religion that fully articulates and embraces the centrality of interconnected relationships of all life and the burning necessity to infuse those relationships with genuinely compassionate love.

What you do have to do, however, is to recognize that at the end of the day, studying yoga, meditating, chanting mantras, or sending your kids to mindful awareness camp is deeply and inherently selfish and self serving (typically Western) if the reason you do it is for what you will get out of it rather than what the cosmos will get out of you.

Being an Eastern Christian is hard work. Standing on a stone floor listening to a semi-tone deaf priest for three hours isn’t nearly as aesthetically or sensationally pleasant as going to a weekend retreat centered around floor cushions, lithe scantily clad figures and the gentle intoning of bronze bowls. Accepting that you have an obligation to correct the errors in your own culture, rather than replace them with something foreign is a lot less convenient than simply turning your back on the problem (and the damage). 

But this isn’t just a cultural diatribe. The point is this. Most people in this country have a really lousy conception of what meditation is. Most people have this sense that its a kind of relaxing that, basically, puts you to sleep while remaining awake — or perhaps more correctly they mistake meditating for a kind of wakeful dreaming. Some people even think meditation is the practice of thinking about nothing (try that sometime, if you can think about nothing for more than 5 seconds, you should check your pulse, you may be dead).

This is not meditation. Meditation, mindful awareness, presence, is actually a fierce kind of concentration, alertness, attentiveness or focus. You don’t think about nothing you think about one thing and you think about it exclusively until it changes your awareness. First and foremost, the awareness that has to change is your sense that your conscious, dialectic self-talk is you. Not only is it not you, it isn’t even really your mind. It is just one part of your mind, and that part of your mind is broken and the whole reason you need this fierce attentiveness is so you can fix it.

Eastern Christianity is deeply interested in this process. Our attentiveness is on God and our relationship to God. While we vehemently assert (and agree with those who assert) the inter-connected relationship of all things, unlike most other Eastern articulations, we do not go so far as to say that the truest reality of this integration is that there is in fact really only one thing, and our sense of self/other is an illusion to be overcome. I am god, you are god, this laptop is god, and god is all of us and everything else, and if we could all just realize this, life would be very groovy. No. God is three persons in an infinitely, endlessly loving relationship with one another. And we are persons, intended to be in endlessly loving relationship with God and each other. We are integrated, but we are distinct persons. When we pray, when we practice our alert awareness, our one thing is our relationship to God, and our free will desire to make that relationship one of genuine love.

And this is a truly significant point of departure between these faiths. On the one hand we have a love that is ultimately understood as an obliteration of the person into a One which somehow loves itself (narcissism, no wonder Western people love it?), and on the other hand we have a love that is ultimately understood as the fulfillment of the person which comes to love The Other freely and completely and without interruption. Love is not an emotion, or a sentiment, or a feeling. Love is a relationship, and relationships require an Other to relate to.

Dude, talk about music already.

Right.

About fifteen years ago I happened to see a composer of ambient music debut some of his recordings at an event at Brown University. Due to some substantial trauma in his younger years, he was unable to tolerate almost any kind of music other than what we now call “ambient” music and because at that time this music was almost exclusively the purview of the new age movement, he strove explicitly to create works for the purposes to which that movement put music. Consequently, his music was derivative, insipid, heavily constrained to a very narrow collection of sounds, dynamics, intervals, harmonies and tempos and in a word, boring. Perfect for the kind of people who need music to drone them into that wakeful dreaming.

I found his music not only boring, but offensive. Here was a man whose work would likely spend its arc supposedly facilitating the process of enlightening people to their endlessly unfolding inter-connected relationship and yet his attitudes about his own very work excluded the possibility of any kind of relationship to almost any other composer or musician.

Christians, even Eastern Christians, have no use for wakeful dreaming. We’re too busy being beheaded, boiled, drowned, fed to animals, exiled to Siberia and nerve gassed by “revolutionaries” for dreaming.

Now, what I am definitely not saying is that my music is “music to pray to”. Insofar as you pray without ceasing, pray while listening to my music. But this is not background sonic wall paper to help you meet God.

But what I am saying is that mindfulness music shouldn’t drone you to the brink of sleep. It should heighten your focus and awareness. It should take you somewhere specific, show you something specific, and encourage you to be in that place with that thing and experience it in real time.

And that is why I produce soundscapes which, during a twenty minute selection of jazz intervals on a Rhodes piano, interjects digitally distorted and clipped percussion burst. It is why I ensure that the kind of long pad drone piece one might expect from a soundscape composer ends up driving into ringing harmonic feedback echo chambers more likely to evoke thoughts of electrified sheet metal than slowly rolling blue whales.

This is not music for wakeful dreamers. This is music for those who are trying to cultivate the capacity to look reality square in the face and to love it unflinchingly, no matter how ugly, shocking, unsettling, disturbing, rotten or needy it may turn out to be.

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