Saturday, December 31, 2011

Phenomenology of Music

I had the pleasure of studying with Dr. David Haney during my M.A. program. He was the head of the English Department when I was there. Dave Haney's office made me certain that I was in the right place because his bookshelf looked a lot like mine. When I was introduced I saw Gadamer's Truth and Method and Heidegger's Being and Time and I'm sure there were volumes of Levinas that I didn't see at the time. And what was really great, and I didn't understand the full scope of this until later, Dr. Haney played music.

See as a musician you hear a lot of people talking about playing music and you don't really know what they mean by it. But Dave Haney was a serious - well is a serious - bluegrass player.

And so one day I wondered into his office and asked him if anybody had ever written a Phenomenology of Music. He said that somebody probably had but he thought I could do it better. He liked me, but he was also being nice.

But somebody, and hell why not me, must do this. There are a couple poets that have approached music from the direction I'd like to. Specifically, Rilke's poem On Music is a great place to start.

Okay, so what would this look like. What does it mean to talk about the way one experiences music. I think a place to start would be the way music makes the body move. Music makes dance. Ever see someone dance or spasm or move funny without music? Ridiculous. With music? Acceptable at worst. At best it's another art form.

Music also related to the divine. Almost all cultures - I think (I'm unqualified to make this statement) call out to their deities through music. Something about music calls man to experience that which is beyond him. I like this a lot, even though I'm not religious in any classical sense.

Music is also like smell in the sense that smell was explained to me in this Psychology class I took in college. Smell, according to what I learned, bypasses certain neurological stuff and transports one quickly to a time when that smell was smelled, back to a place of familiarity. Now I don't really know anything about the sense of smell, but I do know that when I hear songs I haven't heard in a while, I become nostalgic. I immediately get transported - like Quantum Leap Style- back to when I was listening. That's the phenomenon of music. That's the experience.

Studying music in college, I can attest that you learn about everything but the experience. You talk about modes and harmonies and history and all the "guts" of music, but you never talk about how it makes you feel in your guts.

I think this is for a logical reason - they are training you as a player, not as an appreciator of music. The latter is taken for granted. But the most interesting thing about music is how it takes one up - owns one. But even though it's "logical" it's a mistake. The two relate. Certainly as a player you'd want to think about what draws an audience in - that thing that transcends the notes you play.

A lot of my friends give hip hop a hard time. And I get it. But what they don't seem to get is that a lot (I'm being general, obviously) of hip hop isn't meant for your radio. It's meant for that ubiquitously mentioned "club." See in "the club" a hard, low rolling bassline grabs you and forces you to move. I mean I have spent very few hours of my life in anything approaching "the club" but in the few experiences I've had, I really got it. I remember being in college in the early 2000's and hearing things like Nelly's first album or even, forgive this, DMX and being totally pumped, grabbed, made to move. The music just needed its context.

In the same sense, when I first went to Boone I wasn't a Bluegrass fan. But then I started hearing it live, in the right place, at the right time. Now, I love Bluegrass, but I prefer it live. I don't think Bluegrass records well. For some reason Jazz can. That would be interesting to think about.

To go on needlessly, Heavy Metal - which my last Heavy Metal album purchase was Pantera's Far Beyond Driven, so maybe I'm not a good spokesperson here - can't be played quietly. The music must be too loud and it must make you want to jump aimlessly around. That's what it does.

So Music is related to Kairos. It needs to be heard at "the right time." Everything can't be appreciated everywhere. Music is related to place. There of course is the exception of a certain kind of pop music that doesn't seem to come from anywhere. Perhaps I'll take that up later. But, again, in general, I like music that feels like it comes out of the dirt - that's built up from the souls of the dead that have played it before. Blues does this really well.

Anyhow, this is all over the place as I'm just sort of thinking "out loud." Perhaps tomorrow or the next day I'll try to keep this going. As usual, I have more questions than answers.

Happy New Years.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Holidays and What Not

So Holidays are weird for me. Have been for a while. Some of this is because my parents have never been huge holiday-people, which means me, as growing up like an only child also was never introduced to the idea that holidays were huge. Now I have a wonderful half-sister, who I would never consider as such. She's just my sister - full blown sister, not a fractional relationship, but she's 10 years older than me so I grew up by myself. I am thankful for this. I learned to deal with myself, which has been useful in post-adolescent living.

Okay but where is this going. Here's what I'm thinking. Holidays have lost meaning because they don't have the "pull" they used to have. This actually, surprisingly, has something to do with the War on Christmas conversation, just not the way people who talk this nonsense think.

The terror that comes into the Christian's gut is not from nowhere. They are correct that we no longer live in a unified religious world. The world is "post-modern" and you are in it too - like it or not. But that world is complex and plural and most importantly it's constantly "deferred."

So Post-Modernism, as Jonathan Lethem pointed out in his wonderful essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence, is more like an environment - in fact it is an environment - than it is a mode of thinking.

Here's an example - most of my understanding of other places is mediated through a screen. And then I relay my information over another screen (this one) and then someone else looks it up on their screen. Blah blah. So the point is that we're never getting to "The Real." Real go poof. What we have is the Derridian Trace.

Okay but what in the hell does this have to do with Holidays. Well in a postmodern world Christmas is constituted not by an overall sense of "being." It's constituted by a mostly capital-economic need. Not believing in Jesus or Santa Clause as being supernatural would crash our economy if the result was that people who stopped believing stopped buying.

So the holidays don't pull me in - and they didn't pull my parents in. I think they think that the world does its thing everyday. So it's more meaningful in a sense to invite friends over for a random Wednesday for a meal and talking. That has a solid center. Everyone there is there for the "event." Holidays, Christmas especially, doesn't feel unified at all. And that's what the "war on Christmas" people are correct about. They feel the fear and trembling that comes with the loss of the kind of meaning they want. What they don't get is that it's just gone - and you can kick and scream, but it aint coming back. One must dwell in the world one has. And that world is mediated and complicated and constituted by "play" and therefore wonderful. If you can accept that.

Living meaningfully in a post-modern world is the big question for our time. The fact that it's not constantly talked about shows the depth of the anxiety, in my opinion. Embrace the play. It's a lot of fun.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On the Cat

This one is long overdue. Everyone that knows me knows that I love cats. Growing up at my parents place there were always cats. For a long time my dad acted like he didn't like them, but he did - we all knew it. He'd pretend to throw rocks at them, but magically none ever, ever got hit.

We've had Frisky, North, Lucy, Worthless, Squirrely, and several others. Recently my cats had to be relocated because of stupid apartment rules about me having critters. So now there is a Himalayan named Max the Ashtray and a dumpster kitty named Mickey Doorknobs. And they are awesome.

It's no accident that in some cultures they think cats ward off evil spirits. I realized that Mickey had this potential when he kept chasing light around my apartment. At first I thought he was just stupid. But I realize now he's operating on a quantum level that I can't fathom.

And so the thing about the cat is that you don't own them. You exist with them. If I played gigs all weekend, I'd leave food and water and come back on Sunday. They'd be happy to see me, but they weren't distressed. Put a dog in that situation and he'd shit everywhere and be in the midst of an emotional breakdown.

People like dogs because dogs are needy and people like to feel needed. Here's an analogy I've made before: you are to your cat as your dog is to you. You want your cat to want your presence the way your dog wants you to want his presence. This is almost a Cheap Trick song.

The cats world is amazing - they love levels. The cat is a ninja. He's always around, but you might not notice him. Because he's always on a different level. Exclamation mark.

It turns out - I saw this on the Discovery Channel, but I learned about it first hand - Himalayans are different kinds of cats. They actually like to do what you're doing. So me and Max have both seen all 60 episodes of The Wire and we both enjoy cooking shows, especially Top Chef.

Since Max has moved from an apartment kitty to a Nursery kitty he has ridden on Kawasaki Mules and even once on a front lifting loader. Apparently he was not so into the latter.

The cat goes in amazing ways. He metabolizes the world both faster and slower than we do. There are lessons to be learned from these creatures. The cat is existential.

Oh and I learned that the cat is the only animal that kills for the sake of killing. Other animals kill and eat. The cat just terrorizes and swats and makes death and then brings you death as a present. The cat is a ninja. I'm glad I exist in a world with them.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


So today I was watching an interview with Hunter Thompson on Charlie Rose. And I became excited - hanging on every word. I teach Hunter to my students to talk about style. He's one of the only people recognized and known by his first name - that shows you a lot. Well, maybe not - his last name is pretty common, but the point sounds nice doesn't it?

The thing about Hunter is this: he's like Lynard Skynard. Bear with me. see Skynard is not a bad band. In fact, they are great. But their greatness is outshined by a particular idea of them; by a popularity of a few songs; by a backwards idea of the South. Similarly, most people that I know know Hunter by way of Johnny Depp. So they think Hunter is cool because he did drugs. Most people who relate to Hunter would be about like someone thinking they relate to Marco Pierre White because they like to eat pheasant.

If you read Hunter's journalism, you quickly understand that he's not reducible to a drug addled writer. In fact, the drugs he does are the least interesting thing about his writing. What's interesting about his writing is that he locates him self in the muck. He is like an archeologist of muck - digging, exploring, putting pieces together to give us a theory of the muck. But see Hunter isn't a nihilist - he's a modernist - at the end of the day a believer in the possibility of the American Dream.

My two favorite pieces by him are his essay on the Kentucky Derby and a particular Super Bowl involving the Dolphins and somebody else. In both of the essays Hunter blows apart the idea of objective journalism. What is real is the muck and the best that can be done is to explain what it feels like - how it cakes on the skin. Hunter dissolves muck with booze and amphetamines, but only after cataloging it. A literary scientist; a grammatical pharmacologist.

When HST sits at a table during an interview he's always drinking. The man loved booze. But booze fuels him. He's not less articulate - he's more intense. But he's never a caricature in real life - only in films. He's like Bob Dylan. Dylan actually is still walking around, but you'd never guess given the amount of documentaries on the guy.

Sometimes Matt Taibbi is referred to as the modern HST. And I don't think is a terrible comparison. Taibbi has talked about this. He claims that he's considered Gonzo because he used to do drugs and he writes in first person. In fact one time Taibbi had to call Hunter because he (Taibbi) was asked to edit a collection of Gonzo journalism. Hunter asked him "Do you need the dough?" Taibbi said, "yep," and Hunter said "well do it."

I love that story and I love Matt Taibbi, but the modern version of Hunter seems to me to be David Foster Wallace. Well let me be clear. DFW is not a copy or a 2.0 version of Hunter, what he is is the next logical step. David Foster Wallace not only put himself in the middle of all his essays, he basically made the reader experience the subject through him. What better way to show that reality is reliant on perspective.

When I read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, I'm reminded a lot of Hunter - this persona of filterlessness. And I wonder if their endings connect them in some other, more profound way. I cannot speculate on this and I don't want to. But I miss them both.

Monday, December 12, 2011


The first essay by Heidegger that I ever read was when I was about 20. And let's just say I was unprepared. He had sayings like "the world worlds." And well, it turns out that language isn't much different: "language languages."

Now that doesn't sound great to my ear. Heidegger isn't as poetic as his favorite poets. But the move he's making is great. Language is doing its business - just like the world.

Now if that's true, then it means that language isn't something that we use only. It's also something that uses us. When I talk the word actually makes my mouth move in a certain way. Try thinking about that next time you talk. It's an exercise in weirdness - sort of like saying one word over and over and over and over and over and over until that word becomes dissociated from anything.

Heidegger says "language is the house of Being." Now I don't exactly know what the hell that means. But I think it has something to do with the fact that as humans we bring the world out of the void by words and then the world is able to work us over, affect us, and so forth.

Daniel Coffeen recently wrote about this on his blog An Emphatic Umph and he referenced a great quote by Merleau-Ponty: you reach for a word like you reach for an itch. The word and the itch are not different. The are gestures. With the notion of gestures all distinctions can collapse in a beautiful way.

Okay, well not ALL distinctions. But follow me: my cat gestures for food. A dog gestures with his nose much like I gesture with my hand. We use these parts of us to bring the world to us. When we thought that there was a difference between language and action - you know people say things like "Are you going to keep talking or do something about it" - it was easy to think language was passive. But people use language to change the world. I mean when I say "my beer is empty," I'm not describing reality - well I'm doing that too - but my goal is change. Please make this not the case.

To oversimplify: most 20th century philosophers thought either people were really, really different and used language to articulate similarities or they thought people were very similar and thought we used language to articulate differences. I'm closer to the latter. For example, if someone runs by me screaming, I have a question or two. Maybe I should be running too. Point being, language is used because it's useful. It's not "about" the world, it "is" the world. Now the world is more than language, but language is not just adding to it. It's like Spinal Tap - every time you talk you make the world one louder.

I remember one of my favorite professors saying that action in motions goal is action at rest. So why does the lion eat the antelope? According to him, so the lion can go back to sleep in the sun. Well, I don't know that I completely agree, but there's a point. Language is used to change the world, to fix problems - even if that problem is boredom. Now this doesn't encompass it - you can't do that - hell remember what we're using here: more language.

So here's to more language.

Monday, December 5, 2011


This one has been hard to write. I've thrown away many drafts. Many people that know me know that one of my absolute best friends passed away recently. And I have certainly not taken it very well. I don't think it's the kind of thing one should take well. Being sad is not always to be avoided.

And well, I've been trying to figure out how to write about it on this blog - still working this event into a philosophical framework, while still honoring my friend. That's not so easy.

So what I was thinking is that nobody has written about - well maybe someone has, but I don't know them - a phenomenology of friendship. And what my friend Phillip really taught me - well no, showed me - is how a friendship that is genuine can go.

I know how a friendship feels by walking into my local pub and being excited upon seeing someone that draws me in. Phillip could do that as well as anybody. We learned each others habits. I am unforgivably talkative - I monopolize conversations when I'm not thinking about it - and he was the best listener and had the most wonderfully insane hand gestures. Phillip had a sort of sign language. I knew the sign for typing on the internet - I knew the sign for beer - I knew the sign for smoke - I knew the sign for man-you're-being a dick. And I loved them all. Still do. (And he never had to forgive me for talking too much - he just accepted it - which is remarkable. Anybody that knows me will attest to this)

Phillip was the first person I really got to know when I moved back that I didn't already know. We used to inhabit the same bar. And I would sit at one seat - I'm a creature of habit - and finally one day we struck up a conversation about films. We both loved David Lynch and Woody Allen. His favorite film was Star Wars - he would claim that all 6 are one film and asking him to pick one was patently unfair. So I used to give him hell that Annie Hall beat Star Wars out for best picture.

So in about 2008 we started going to movies together - we talked many times about having a Siskel and Ebert type show. See I am far more critical than Phillip. He could take a film that was bad - I mean really bad - and find a moment in it that was beautiful. Even if that one moment was just a moment, literally. He had the same kind of generosity in all his ventures - especially towards his friends.

I guess in that way Phillip made me believe in an authentic way to be a friend. He was always directed to you when you were talking - he was always invested - he was honest. Now this isn't just about me eulogizing my friend, though I'm happy to say these things that are nice. But I am saying them because they are true.

The only time I saw Phillip be "dishonest" was when a person who he didn't know very well - usually someone he just met at the bar - asked about the wheelchair. I heard stories told from a Trapeze Artist accident to saving-burning-baby accident. But these stories were actually authentic - wonderfully so because they were playful. They were a moment of creativity and a friendly way to be dismissive - a way to say - you don't know me well enough yet to ask this question. Or something like that. It's not fair for me to speak for him.

Okay, but so what is the phenomenon of friendship. Well, I know this. It involves commitment. A passionate commitment. It also involves play. Friendships should be endlessly innovative - full of constant moments of renewal.

Early in our relationship - and I'm proud to say this - I literally quit seeing Phillip as someone who was "handicapped." Now, maybe lots of people better than me do this often and quicker, but I had never had a close friend in a wheelchair. Now the thing is that I never didn't see the wheelchair (well this is complicated. In another way I was always forgetting about the wheelchair and rarely saw it. I'll have to think about how to explain this.) - it would be a lie to say that I thought my friend was walking - I still remember carrying him up the stairs to my apartment with a buddy. And I remember carrying him back down after we all drank enough to probably float his tires. I remember constantly loading and unloading the chair in my car on the way to and from movies and I remember the way he could unload this awkward and heavy device out the backseat of his car with one hand and a turn of the pelvis.

But what the phenomenon of his friendship taught me was that there is a bond that is transcendent - I saw the body - I knew the body was a huge part of his world - and I also felt something that went beyond. Now the beyond wasn't vertical; it was horizontal. It moved from him to me and hopefully vice versa. So the moving-through that happens in friendship is both bodily and spiritual. Not spiritual in a godly way necessarily - though it could be, but spirit in the sense that people are spirited beings - they move beyond their bodies, but also always through their bodies. This contradiction - I think - is at the heart of friendship.

Friendship has to be the most fundamental place of meaning in today's world. I don't mean to overstate the problems of communication and technology, but in lots of ways we are living in boxes, through devices like this one, often in ways that are less than the potential for the medium offers. (At least hopefully)

I mean it's just a truism these days that meaning has broken down. Institutions that used to be meaning-bearing have become meaning-barren: The Church; the government; the family; education systems and so forth. So what do we have. Well, not to be too romantic, but what we have is each other - we have our friends. Our friends constitute us and we them. Our friends make life meaningful. And while I obviously - believe me I understand where I'm writing this - understand the internet is not necessarily an impediment, it certainly can be. (and face-to-face doesn't ensure authenticity to be sure) We need the intermingling that occurs with face-to-face interaction.

So I think I am at a stopping place, but I want to continue thinking about the phenomenology of Friendship. I really do think that Friendship is an event, born both bodily and spiritually. This event is intimately singular as all friendships are unique, but it also moves beyond the singular - as we've all had moments when friends meet other friends and the group grows. Now the group, of course, is also singular - so maybe it moves through singularities - hell I don't know - this is all really complicated.

But I do know that thinking about friendship seems like the most worthwhile topic in these days - days that move so fast and feel somehow lonelier and also somehow maybe more hopeful. Maybe.