SYMBOLIC: ADVENTURES IN TEXT
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January 31, 2005
111. Seeking the Center of Noise and Rhythm
I'm half asleep on the train this morning, letting Darrin Verhagen's power noise record scour the inside of my skull. Verhagen is an Australian musician whose music has been used at art installations, opera houses, theater pieces, and as musical accompaniment to choreographed dance. (Though I'm not exactly sure how one "dances" to white noise.) His work covers a wide range of styles and sounds, building cinematic landscapes in your brain that are (for me because I aspire to live a synesthetic life) highly textured and multi-hued. My pediatrician pointed out to me a while back that one of the ways that children learn the language of their parents is through its rhythmic aspect. Very early on, children recognize their "home" tongue because of its lilt and its texture. They may not understand the words, but they know when someone is speaking their "language." Everything else is just...noise? No, everything else is just rhythm.
So, other than the fact that I think I've hurt myself with e.p.a's Black Ice, I wonder about how the brain interprets language, how it learns to distinguish and apply meaning to sounds. The brain is a marvelous little engine and it builds an entire system of communication on identifying meaning with sound. We work as a society because we all agree on the same meanings. My son Solomon's first word was "Abumb'da!" which, at the time, had no meaning to me but since I've shared it with co-workers, we have accepted it into our lexicons as "Hey, it's time for coffee. You wanna get a coffee?" [I live in Seattle -- all conversations include coffee.] In fact, as the week wore on, there are varying inflections to "Abumb'da!" that express a wide range of discourse. Language wasn't a means to communicate, it was a tool to communicate more effectively, to more concretely express un-concrete things. We made language so that we could talk about imaginary objects, unreal constructs, and illusionary concepts. We made language for the expression of ideas.
I'm working on a musical project for Opi8 and am using a number of sourced sounds -- dialogue and sound effects from non-English speaking soundtracks -- in an effort to add texture to the pieces. I'm not attempting to communicate through the language (though if you happen to know Polish, French, or Japanese, it'll been our little secret) but rather applying rhythm to the sonic landscape. The application of rhythm makes the difference between the ornate language of, say, K. J. Bishop's The Etched City versus the unremarkable workmanlike prose of Michael Crichton (or any other airport-reading ready novelist).
I'm still circling around the core idea of the BOOK OF LIES, wondering if I haven't made things too difficult with my structure, if I haven't inadvertently made things obscure and overwrought by getting away from the discussion of language and texture. Maybe it needs to be an exploration of magic and rhythm and not so much a heavy-handed pseudo-spy thriller. Maybe.
Posted by Teppo at 09:07 AM
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January 19, 2005
110: The Medium and the Message
I spent most of the weekend doing page layout for the first volume of the Misfit Library Journal, cutting and pasting and placing text on the page. At some point, the words vanished and it became an exercise in moving blocks of text around in an effort to create sequences that maintained a flow. If the reader can't dive into the text -- if there are too many rocky protrusions near the edge of the deep water -- they'll be less likely to submerge themselves in the work. They'll skim, they'll wade, they'll look for other places to swim. How much of our discourse is bent around presenting information in a palatable format? How tightly is our communication wrapped around our pleasure principle?
Suffering through a full Catholic Mass in Latin, notwithstanding. Some activities are all about penitence.
I recognize that I'm not the target audience of such a discourse and that, for those who want to partake of such an event, there is pleasure to be had from the extensive ceremony. For them, the message and the medium both stroke the same happy spots in their cortex. For me, not so much, but that reflects more on what I find useful in communication than on any intrinsic quality of the liturgy.
Sure, Marshall McLuhan famously opined that the "medium was the message" and several generations of advertising executives and pop culture jockies held onto their jobs because of the perception that HOW you said something was just as important as WHAT you said. And, unfortunately, discourse has become even more skewed in this time of ten second sound bytes and 24-hour newscasts: HOW you say something is everything, WHAT you are saying is irrelevant.
How hollow have we become? Aye, stuffed with static and saliva-stained junk mail.
One of McLuhan's other observations was the idea of "amputations," where an "extension" -- a piece of technology allows for us to extend our normal human reach in some way -- contributes to the amputation of some previous extension. The telephone, for example, alleviated the need for penmanship because it was easier to speak on the phone than it was to write a letter. E-mail, in turn, resurrected the functionality of letter writing but it traded mass communication for clarity and brevity. The Internet and its ready connectivity has made us global citizens, but at what cost? What have we given up in return for the flood of information that is now available to us?
I think it comes back to that ten percent argument -- the "we only use 10% of our brains" argument. We're still only working with that fraction, filtering out everything else. The struggle for that small slice of our attention has become fierce and we've tunnel-visioned ourselves down to That Which Catches Our Eye. We've become magpies, our fancies caught by the shiny things.
I'm reading K. J. Bishop's The Etched City right now and I find myself having to make an effort to read carefully. She is very florid, yet very precise in her language and it is easy for my magpie eyes to start skimming the words. Not much happen in any given paragraph, but part of the enjoyment of the work comes in watching how she says things. I've been reading too superficially over the last few years, cottoning to the Michael Crichton style of writing (the "if I string together enough dialogue and stage directions, it'll be a book" school of putting text on the page), and have neglected the sheer act of reading, of enjoying the construction of the language.
It takes time, you know. Who has time any more? Too much TV to watch, too many films to see, too much music to hear, too many words to read. My language is being amputated. That's the trade I'm making in return for global connectivity. Have I made the right choice?
Posted by Teppo at 02:56 PM
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January 07, 2005
109: The Tyranny of Projects
I've been referring to creative projects as "objects of tyranny" a lot this week as a reaction to their sudden presence on my tickler list. It's funny how we are never busy when we've got nothing to do, but as soon as one little creative outing pushes its way through the door, others -- lemming-like -- follow. And, if you are eager to please (or just plain eager to have these sorts of endeavors in your life), you tend to not say "No!" Projects, then. More than can fit in a breadbox. You start (well, I do) spending more time planning and trying to figure out how you're going to accomplish everything and less time actually doing, wondering why there is never enough time to finish everything that is on your plate.
Tyranny, I tell you.
Anyway, the first of the year is always that time when we take stock of things, when we figure out what went wrong last time and what we can do to make it work this time. That's the delightful thing about recreating the world every year: you can fix mistakes. The cycle of renewal is more than just a rebirth of the world from sleep and death; it's another opportunity to Get It Right. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. January 1 is our cultural symbol to try again; it's the one day where we get to absolve ourselves of all the stupid shit we did last year and reset the clock for another year. Maybe this one will be different. Maybe this time we won't fuck things up.
I promised last year to not eat another maple bar. I think I survived two months on that promise. It made for a nice bit in something I wrote, but my words were stronger than my willpower. Funny, that: we can always talk better than we can walk. One of those delightful functions of language: words are cheap and easy.
So, no cheap and easy words about finishing the BOOK OF LIES. It's not an albatross -- "names are albatrosses" -- yet, but it is a project that gets shoved off the plate fairly easily for other more alluring things. The allure of the shiny things is that they have quick turn-around times and the ratio of effort to completion is much smaller.
I am, after all, a whore for the quick and dirty adulation. Who isn't? Who doesn't like hearing nice words right on the tail of finishing a project. Ah, yes, the tyranny of language. Words are cheap and easy.
Welcome to 2005. We are all slaves to language, our chains nothing more than the linked letters of our discourse.
Posted by Teppo at 07:44 AM
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