A squirrel hops into a field of grass after a rainstorm, most of the ground around it covered in fallen leaves, the whole still wet from the storm. I relax with potted cacti and other indoor succulents, all of us reaching toward windows wanting sunlight. Honoring this demand shared across ages, Sarah and I rouse ourselves for our walk. Along the way, we converse with neighbors, some of them with dogs, one couple expecting like us, plus a woman I know from a sangha that used to meet here in town. A weird record turned up in the bins today: Harry Partch and His Strange Musical Instruments.
A recent book features an essay by music scholar Mina Yang calling Partch a “Hobo Orientalist.” He composed music that was to be played upon unique instruments, using scales of unequal intervals. Partch was one of the first twentieth-century composers in the West to work systematically with microtonal scales. An interesting find — but not where my head is at. I’d rather be licking bits of cranberry curd.
We’re ready for a new one. Little one on the way. I feel like leaning back and releasing wild exclamations, loud laughter, cries of animation and joy. Birds fill the air with song. After a walk through our neighborhood, Sarah and I sit at the counter at our favorite fried chicken joint, dining on breasts and sides. The owner recommends that we play music to entice the little one to rotate. I start thinking song possibilities: Yo La Tengo’s “Big Day Coming,” Fairport Convention’s “Come All Ye,” Apollo 100’s “Joy.”
Perhaps, as Maria Montessori might say, those sounds are too loud, “displeasing to the ear of one who has known the pleasure of silence, and has discovered the world of delicate sounds” (121). Perhaps we should try at a variety of volumes a variety of timbres and tones.
Like a needle dropped gently atop an LP, or an iron pressed briefly upon the arm of a shirt, so I happen upon The Soul of Mbira, an album in the Nonesuch Explorer Series.
Deep stuff. Afterwards, the rain upon my window. An mbira is an ancient African instrument consisting of keys mounted over a bridge on a hardwood sound-board. Thank you, fellow Explorers, for beaming this my way, like music from another galaxy, gourds and voices resonating across space and time. Nonesuch released the albums of field recordings in the Explorer Series from 1967 to 1984. That in mind, I agree to see a movie with some friends. Get out and explore a bit, I tell myself. Watch Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and then stand on a sidewalk in front of a bar debating its merits with friends.
If reality is a conversation, how would one get with it? With whom would one speak? Upon what platform? With what language? What would one say? Classrooms are one such platform, papers and comments another. Most of the hours of my days involve papers and books, with occasional musical accompaniment: albums like The Soul of Mbira and Gene Clark’s No Other. “Is it possible,” I wonder, after hearing the latter, “can we really be all alone and still part of one another? How do we find the right direction, we would-be pilots of the mind, pilots of the General Intellect?”
A colleague of mine who has become a friend over the years, both of us members of a shared reading group, donated some of his books to a local thrift store, whereupon I scooped them up as if the cosmos had willed them toward me. All of this happened several years ago; yet as I sat today, mind churning with topics recommended or observed, my thoughts wandered from a counterfactual, alternate-history version of Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, starring not Gary Lockwood but Demy’s original choice for the lead, a then-unknown Harrison Ford. There I was imagining imaginary stills from the imaginary LA of this imaginary film, when with a wash of emotion I happened upon one of these books I’d scored from my friend: a Beacon Press trade paperback of Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization. It’s a book I should read, given what I teach. “Beyond the Reality Principle” is where it’s at, as is “Political Preface 1966,” written a decade after the book’s initial appearance. For Marcuse, a successful revolution would be one that makes the human body “an instrument of pleasure rather than labor” (xv), transforming work into play. Attempting to do my part, I pull an LP from the shelves in my basement and bask in the choir, percussion, and wolfsong of tracks like Paul Winter’s “Kyrie.”
William Irwin Thompson interjects, speaking on behalf of coming together as a mass of music rather than matter. Ecology appears here as it should, a science not of scarcity but of sacred geometry. Gary Snyder delivers his “Prayer for the Great Family,” a poem from his book Turtle Island. Let animals and plants once again be our teachers and guides.
Songs play in my mind as if echoing down a long corridor or hallway. An auditory memory, some imaginary or half-remembered AM gold, retro in the way of Ariel Pink. Lo-fi, hypnagogic, like a band practice heard from the street. After the sixties, we land in Philip K. Dick’s drug-war dystopia A Scanner Darkly, reading the book’s critique of McDonalds hamburgers while eating McDonalds french fries. Dick’s observations about the spread of capitalist reality appear beside the buy-sell calculations of the book’s drug-addict protagonist, capitalism thus glimpsed and understood as a system that compels us to think and behave like addicts hooked on “product.” It’s a bleak book, its cop characters as stunted and debased as its dopers — the two ultimately the same, in fact, in the case of the protagonist, an undercover narcotics officer who also uses and deals a drug called Substance D.
NYC producer Cofaxx’s “Isles” sets the scene.
I read around a bit as clouds roll in. A book passed briefly through my lifeworld today: The Complete Van Book, filled with images and descriptions of shag-carpeted nomadic 70s utopias on wheels. Vans with names like The Sun and the Moon, with instructions in back for how to custom-build your own. Time to sit at a red table eating Chinese takeout. Time to revive myths and legends. “What we are seeing as we look straight ahead to the back wall,” writes Frances A. Yates as if she were Socrates speaking to those who live in the Cave, “is the tiring house wall at the Globe, not the whole of it but only the two lower levels; the ground level with the three entrances; the second level with the terrace and the chamber. We do not see the third level because we are under the heavens which are projecting invisibly above us from below the third tier of the tiring house wall” (The Art of Memory, p. 347). How’s that for a cognitive map!