playing the field | words from the week (v)

Poem by Nayyirah Waheed in her anthology, salt:

“in our own ways we all break. it is okay to hold your heart outside of your body for days. months. years. at a time.

– heal”

An extract from the East Folk newsletter:

“Our hands do a lot for us. More than any other body part, our hands work. They wash our bodies, hold our loved ones, build houses, cut vegetables, pick flowers, button shirts, take photos, write, caress, push, press, and touch. We use them to communicate. We wave them to say goodbye, put two fingers up for peace, and one for the opposite.”

Poem by Mary Oliver in her anthology, Felicity: (a lot of poetry was needed this week)

Nothing Is Too Small Not To Be Wondered About

“The cricket doesn’t wonder
if there’s a heaven
or, if there is, if there’s room for him.

It’s fall. Romance is over. Still, he sings.
If he can, he enters a house
through the tiniest crack under the door.
Then the house grows colder.

He sings slower and slower.
Then, nothing.

This must mean something, I don’t know what.
But certainly it doesn’t mean
he hasn’t been an excellent cricket
all his life.”

playing the field | words from the week (iv)

Anne Truitt on vulnerability, via Brain Pickings:

"I am always, and always will be, vulnerable to my own work, because by making visible what is most intimate to me I endow it with the objectivity that forces me to see it with utter, distinct clarity. A strange fate. I make a home for myself in my work, yet when I enter that home I know how flimsy a shelter I have wrought for my spirit. My vulnerability to my own life is irrefutable. Nor do I wish it to be otherwise, as vulnerability is a guardian of integrity."

From Alain De Botton's The Course of Love:

"We believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity. We are looking to re-create, within our adult relationships, the very feelings we knew so well in childhood and which were rarely limited to just tenderness and care. The love most of us will have tasted early on came entwined with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his or her anger, or of not feeling secure enough to communicate our trickier wishes.

How logical, then, that we should as adults find ourselves rejecting certain candidates not because they are wrong but because they are a little too right—in the sense of seeming somehow excessively balanced, mature, understanding, and reliable—given that, in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign and unlearnt. We chase after more exciting others, not in the belief that life with them will be more harmonious, but out of an unconscious sense that it will be reassuringly familiar in its patterns of frustration.”

Singer, writer and artist Claire Evans on "a new way of looking at things or something to attempt in the future", via Moonlists:

"I learned that fire alarms don’t signal that a fire is happening; they signal that it’s socially appropriate to react. People will stay in a room as it fills with smoke, if nobody else moves — they don’t want to lose face. The alarm gives everyone a shared context, something to point to and say, “this is really happening.” It strikes me that art serves the same purpose." 

playing the field | words from the week (iii)

Eileen Myles on writing and the impact of social media:

“I feel like so much of contemporary loneliness in motion is this compulsion to share my web browser. It’s like there’s a way of aesthetically stating your browser, which is kind of where you move and how you look and what you see. Even just breaking it up into close shots and long shots, and like what’s at the center. It’s not about a golden mean, but it’s a signature as poetry—which is how I see and how I move and what stops me—and putting them together.”

"Fury Is a Political Weapon. And Women Need to Wield It." in the New York Times by Rebecca Traister:

“Many of the women shouting now are women who have not previously yelled publicly before, many of them white middle-class women newly awakened to political fury and protest. Part of the process of becoming mad must be recognizing that they are not the first to be furious, and that there is much to learn from the stories and histories of the livid women — many of them not white or middle class — who have never had reason not to be mad. 

If you are angry today, or if you have been angry for a while, and you’re wondering whether you’re allowed to be as angry as you feel, let me say: Yes. Yes, you are allowed. You are, in fact, compelled. 

If you’ve been feeling a new rage at the flaws of this country, and if your anger is making you want to change your life in order to change the world, then I have something incredibly important to say: Don’t forget how this feels. 

Tell a friend, write it down, explain it to your children now, so they will remember. And don’t let anyone persuade you it wasn’t right, or it was weird, or it was some quirky stage in your life when you went all political — remember that, honey, that year you went crazy? No. No. Don’t let it ever become that. Because people will try.”

Su Wu on an encounter for Moonlists:

"I’m pregnant, my best friend said into the phone without hello, and I yelled, holy fuck, on the street in another country. Some guy turned, rushed over and asked, are you okay?, and it was a new kind of joy for me, a whole joy running headlong into kindness, and I said, I’m okay, and really, more than ever this month, I was."

in September, things that are new

I called you as I paced, full of nerves and caffeine, back and forth in front of the building that belonged to a man who would become my employer. I wasn't ready yesterday, I told you, but today, perhaps, I am. It was a Monday - you were at work in your teaching job, shimmying out of the classroom when my call flashed up on your mobile. I should have been at home preparing for another day of my own nine-to-five, but instead I was in an unknown city, negotiating a contract for a position I was both unsure of, yet intoxicated by. The day prior - a Sunday - I was inconsolable in my hotel room; the world of possibility crumbling around me amongst hotel-room soaps and worn-out passions. I had no idea what I wanted, and there was no one around to tell me otherwise. I wallowed and threw myself around, lazily picking objects up and admiring their solitude, wondering if I could take up as a woman who simply exists. The constant go-go-go of the city and the job and the life were getting to me, too deep in my veins and I was burning myself to the ground chasing something I wasn't sure I wanted. I slept fitfully, angrily, and then I was there, calling you on the street on Monday morning, perhaps readier than I ever had been. Maybe it was you, an anchor, a weight, that helped me leap. You heard the surety in my voice, the clarity saying yes, yes, now I am ready, now I am strong enough, now I have arrived. Write it down, you said, because you won't believe me when I tell you how ready you were, next time you believe it wasn't right after all. You have to remember, right now, that you can. Read it back, tell me you still believe it. I never wrote it down, I'm sorry to say, but I have never stopped thinking that I should have. What I wrote somewhere in the back of my memory is the way I stood, after you said those words, shoulders back, head high, attack-ready, (I suppose). I leapt.

---

I've been making tea on autopilot - finishing one cup, or noticing the cold remains at the bottom and immediately padding back out to the kitchen to put the kettle on again. As it burrs in anticipation of bursting, my mind wanders. There are tangelos on the table, a habit I picked up from my father ("if they're in season, buy a few") and staling bread rests on the counter. It's always mine, because I always leave it there. My housemate is not so forgetful as to leave her bread about the way I do - nonchalantly, uncaring. Cars whir past without pause and a bird whistles incessantly. Any other week I would linger to hear it, but this week I just wish it would go away. I close the window in a hurry, pour my tea, head back to the desk.

---

Places I am not comfortable: grocery stores, waiting rooms, hospital beds, foyers, some gift shops, and occasionally, home.

---

If you laid out an entire life in blocks of activity, it is said that you will have spent 67 days purely experiencing heartbreak. I spend fourteen minutes considering how long this really is. Is it enough? Is it too much? How does one classify heartbreak, anyway? Does it account for all the small times your heart breaks for things you have no control over - the acts that you witness but cannot leap into, the stories that are not your own? Or does it only consider the personal miseries and longings, the wrong things said and the deceit received and given? How many of my waking hours have already been chipping away at that number? Is there a right time to stop being heartbroken?

---

Spring has arrived, with not so much a bang as a whimper. I welcome it with old favourites: roast vegetables, stewed apples, Melancholia on the DVD player and books; Helen Garner, Julian Barnes. It is still cold outside, though around lunch the weather breaks and the sun warms the one specific part of the living room carpet that I can sit within and bask under for at least a quarter of an hour before it retreats again. There is music from the cars underneath the window - mainly radio hits, but occasionally, Wagner's Prelude from Tristan and Isolde. I only recognise it because of the film that's been playing on repeat; I am notoriously bad at holding tunes in my head if I have not recently heard them. The melodies almost always seem familiar, but I can never recall from where I recognise them. The Prelude though, from the film; it sits heavily on my chest; too heavily for Spring. I've closed all the windows now, because the chill has returned to the bones of my apartment. I choose to listen to new music, new words; melodies that I couldn't recognise even if I tried to. I like this; that if you focus on the new, there is no matter if you forget the old. You have no reason to remember it now.

---

I walked towards the train station the other day, collar up against the chill, eyes pressed tight together leaving just a glint to see where I was going, the wind whistling through the tree-lined streets around me. I noticed a man walking hurriedly in my direction, looking ahead sternly, but eating an ice cream. I gaped at him; surely it was too cold to be enjoying a treat like that on a wintery day? He saw me looking and cracked his fierce exterior; grinned. As we bumped shoulders on passing - the streets not quite wide enough to walk two abreast - he winked and said, "some afternoons require  sweetness", not breaking eye contact. I stumble a little, as I'm known to do, knocked around by disappointment and beauty and the fact that some afternoons do, in fact, require sweetness.

every month, an essay. editing by Madi Chwasta.

playing the field | words from the week (II)

Examination for Capable Assistant by Jesse Ball:

+ Which month is best and why?

+ Take the overland route or a ship around? And (2) if possibility of bandits in mountain pass / pirates in straits — then which?

+ Shorthand: sad it has no use these days, or, it has a use! or never mind, it stinks.

+ Someone doesn’t like the great jazz singers of the mid twentieth century. How do we behave with/ trust such a person?

+ What book are you reading?

+ Do you occasionally put stones in your pocket? Why?

+ Why must we be friendly only to a point?

+ Which personal items should be of best quality?

+ Draw a map of your life, somehow.

+ If you had to appear in a photograph, would you want to be wearing a raincoat in 1948 or getting off a motorcycle in Cyprus in 1964 or standing on a Korean fishing boat in 1979 or sleeping under a bridge in Moscow this morning?

+ Someone of low quality wants to borrow something of yours, say, a book or a paring knife. Do you (1) let them borrow it, (2) give it them for good (it shall not be the same after they’ve had it), or (3) simply say no. What if you know it will get them out of a pinch?

+ Someone attempts to put you in his/her debt through purchasing you something without your permission (a drink, a coat, a roast chicken, a transit card, etcetera). Do you accept or not? What form would your analysis take?

+ Write a short plan for a bank heist.

(This is the written exam I give to prospective personal assistants. It generally allows me to determine whether a person would be suitable or not.  There are many ways to go wrong.  I’d say it is a test of discretion and imagination. - Jesse Ball)

Nicholson Baker on copying out passages of your favourite books by hand via Austin Kleon:

“Copy out things that you really love. Any book. Put the quotation marks around it, put the date that you’re doing the copying out, and then copy it out. You’ll find that you just soak into that prose, and you’ll find that the comma means something, that it’s there for a reason, and that that adjective is there for a reason, because the copying out, the handwriting, the becoming an apprentice—or in a way, a servant—to that passage in the book makes you see things in it that you wouldn’t see if you just moved your eyes over it, or even if you typed it. If your verbal mind isn’t working, then stop trying to make it work by pushing, and instead, open that spiral notebook, find a book that you like, and copy out a couple paragraphs.”

Margaux Williamson on how to act in real life:

“I set up a small red carpet in the dead center of the museum. Being dead center made me feel less cornered. Sheila and I sat there and I gave her these “acting lessons.” I’m not such a good teacher or a good student, but I understand having friends. So I gave Sheila some lessons, and she gave me some too. We made it up as we went along. The brochure was on a podium in front of us. When people picked up the brochure, they knew we were thinking of them and aware of them, but that we didn’t have to talk to them. It solved my problems. It was also surprisingly intimate and intense.”

make the ordinary come alive

Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is a way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and animals die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.

- William Martin

playing the field | words from the week (i)

Teacher Hauna Zaich via Shoko Wanger's Non-Career Advice series:

Sometimes, all they need is love. "On my desk, I keep two written reminders that I like to reference if my patience is being tested. One of them says, the student who needs the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways. I think back, and there are so many instances in my life where I wish I'd known that. I could have really used it. When I was younger, I took rudeness personally. I had a hard time seeing past a person's words. Now, especially with my students — but also in my friendships, relationships, and family life — I try to think, you must really be hurting. How can I help you through that pain? Some of the people I've loved the most deeply have also been some the hardest to love — but they need that acceptance more than anyone else. They just may not know how to ask for it."

Mervyn Rothstein on Tennessee Williams, from the New York Times Archive:  

"Sometimes he would be able to work, and sometimes he wouldn't. He was tired. But he still was so courageous. He was so disciplined. His feeling about life was always positive. One must go on. 'En avant, en avant.' It was his cry."

Emma Rathbone's 'Before the Internet', in The New Yorker last year:

"It was a heady time! 

You’d be in some kind of arts center, wearing roomy overalls, looking at a tray of precious gems, and you’d say, “That’s cat’s-eye,” and your friend would say, “Nope. That’s opal.” And you’d say, “That’s definitely cat’s-eye.” And there would be no way to look it up, no way to prove who was right, except if someone had a little booklet. 'Anyone got a little booklet?” you’d ask, looking around. “Is there a booklet on this shit?' 

Then you’d walk outside and squint at the sky, just you in your body, not tethered to any network, adrift by yourself in a world of strangers in the sunlight."

darmstädter ferienkurse | new music

All The Things I Haven’t Learnt About New Music

I don’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions, for the most part because I’m lazy and have no follow-through. Also because formulating two or three major commitments at the beginning of the year gives me too easy a get-out to avoid self-reinvention once April rolls around. It’s too late by then; the boat has sailed, and I have yet again allowed myself to not go to the gym, not learn to cook an adult meal, not purchase a computer that stays awake for more than 45-minutes at a time. It’s too much effort, too disappointing. It makes me too aware of my failings. And yet, this year I broke my rule, allowing myself one conceptual resolution to get me through to December. The grand intention? Learn to be okay asking the stupid questions.

When I made it, this resolution felt broad enough to steer my year-long ship to safe-harbour, whilst giving me room to grow and adapt and fail. Of course, since leaving the comfortable womb of study and entering the unchartered territory that is arts practice I had already failed in plenty of colourful ways, but actively chasing failure? I hadn’t yet been bold enough to try that. Now, armed with naive courage and an open (read: empty) mind, I set off into the year ready to acknowledge my lack of knowledge.

First mission was to get a grip on the weird and wonderful land of contemporary art music. My ears full to the brim with Beethoven’s piano works and pop music from the 1980s – one inherited from my mother, the other absorbed through 18 years of keyboard studies – I was ready for something new, something unusual, something challenging. I was fascinated by the idea of a music that constantly chases innovation: in new music, that notion is written into the title.

“New music.” An obscenely broad term that, for the purpose of this essay, I’m going to define as works written since the mid-1970s and that don’t fit the stereotyped “classical music” orchestral sound, but which aren’t really electronic music either. New music borrows bits of both, and far more besides. It’s built on the foundations of old-school classical music, but propelled forward with new sounds, technologies and ideologies. Melody is not completely forbidden, but, granted, there is a distinct lack of earworms in the repertoire. There are multiple sub-genres to explore, but for the uninitiated listener, sci-fi film scores might be a good place to start. “Find a film by Stanley Kubrick,” a wonderful arts writer advised when I asked how to begin my listening, “and turn away from the screen. Listen for texture and unusual effects. It won’t explain everything, but it’ll give you a starting point.”

I should probably tell you at this point that I’m a full-time artist manager and a part-time music journalist – and that means I am no stranger to a) music that you don’t hear on commercial radio and b) spending time at performances that don’t make immediate sense. And yet, prior to my sci-fi initiation, I was only aware of these sound-worlds by reputation. I certainly didn’t know them well enough to construct a firm thesis when asked for my opinion. Like other music graduates, I had been thrust into the world of Boulez and Stockhausen thanks to classes in theory and music history, but back then my bleary-eyed, 19-year-old self was more preoccupied with getting to the pub after class than with the development of the avant-garde.

“How hard can it be?”

“How hard can it be?” I asked myself, not realising how far off the mark I really was. My days were already full of music: as well as my day job, I spent my nights listening to records and going to chamber music concerts. I was, I thought, “high brow”. I could talk about Schubert for hours, and knew quite a bit about Bach and a little of the Renaissance. I owned a coat that was assigned specifically for wearing to The Opera. Full of false confidence, I coasted to the library and armed myself with books on everything from mysticism and eroticism in contemporary sound-art to queer dialects in electronic music. I googled composer after composer until my knees burnt from an overheating laptop. I bought tickets to performances in public toilets and swimming pools and parks to get a feel for new-discipline theatre and post-genre composition. I was committed. I was confused. I asked generous and knowledgeable friends to explain jargon to me: “what’s a split tone?” I would yell, jogging after amiable brass players. “Can you explain isorhythm?” I’d ask unsuspecting composers who accidentally stood still for too long.

But following the final note of any given performance, I’d still scamper away immediately, terrified of being asked what I thought about the works I’d just heard. Sure, I had opinions, but did I have the right opinions? The right conceptual language? The right facial expression that says, “yes, I do understand your point about solipsism and post-Adorno discourse”? I did not – but what I did have was questions. Loads of them. And yet I couldn’t voice them. I would sit on my queries and misunderstandings, promising myself I’d speak up next time, consoling myself that this hadn’t been quite the right time. Then again, would there ever be a right time? Turns out, the right time was the last place I imagined: Darmstadt International Summer Course, the most renowned, widely-intimidating new music festival on the globe.

For more than 70 years now, performers, composers, thinkers and curators from around the world have descended upon an unsuspecting town in southwest Germany to talk high art philosophy and contemporary music. For many participants, getting to Darmstadt is a long time coming: they’ve done the work, they’ve written the theses, they’ve mastered the aesthetic. Composers have poured over the works of Brian Ferneyhough and Helmut Lachenmann until they’re memorised. Performers have grappled with extended techniques and perfected circular breathing, sampling, subharmonics. To attend Darmstadt is to follow in the footsteps of contemporary music’s forefathers (as my colleague aptly pointed out, there are no mothers in this story) and to etch your name into a rich history that – for better or worse – continues to write the new music rules not only for Europe but for the world.

The more I spoke with my fellow participants, the more I understood what I had wandered into. Without thinking, I had skipped those preparatory years, hopping on a plane with my questions and my lack of academic rigour, simply deciding that if I wanted to learn a thing or two about new music, I might as well go to the source. And so I found myself floundering about in a sound-world and a country that were foreign to me, without the language to describe what I was hearing or seeing or feeling. I was in over my head. During the first few days, haphazardly attending concerts, lectures and sound installations, I counted the word “dichotomy” used seventeen times in relaxed conversation. I was hit with thoughts on temporality and spectral analysis, pointillism and the arrière-garde. In a lecture on Nietzsche’s philosophy and its relation to contemporary art music, I scrawled notes that I did not fully understand in a bid to feel engaged and look intelligent. Revisiting those notes, I found I had written only four legible words: “affirmative”, “religion”, “knowledge” and “structure”. Was I not smart enough for this kind of conversation? Was I not good enough to be here?

“Not today!”

For a long time, I’ve struggled with where to put myself. Working in the arts throws you myriad skillsets and possible pathways; if you’re lucky, you end up with an exciting and multi-faceted job, but you can often feel like a jack of all trades. This feeling of imposter syndrome is not unique to me, nor is it unique to new music. The concept was first coined in 1978 as part of an article by American psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who defined the phenomenon as “an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness” felt by high-powered professional women. The syndrome turns up regularly in the arts, where measuring yourself against your peers and colleagues is impossible, yet we do it all the time. The challenge is recognising your own feelings of inadequacy and pushing on regardless of the hurdles thrown into your path. Sometimes you’ll trip over and go flying off-track, but allowing yourself a moment of recovery is the key lesson. The suspicion that I might genuinely be an imposter might never go away, but giving myself permission to look that feeling square in the eye and say “not today!” has allowed me to accept what I don’t know as a positive part of myself.

What I’m learning, then, thanks to time and practice and open conversation, is the validity of asking stupid questions. That as I nervously roll the words around in my head, those same words are circling in someone else’s mind, too. Sometimes their language sounds flashier than mine, but the ideas are often similar, and by stepping forward and owning the bits I don’t know, I allow the people around me to acknowledge their confusions. My questions don’t paint me as ignorant; they make my voice an important part of what should be an ever-expanding conversation.

In new music, as in all forms of shape-shifting and boundary-pushing art, audience involvement is essential. Artists, writers and thinkers need to leave the door open at least a crack to invite in inquisitive outsiders. Entry points should be a requisite part of the art, and questions should be a valued part of the conversation. Over the last two weeks at Darmstadt, I’ve learnt a huge amount: more than I ever thought I’d need to know about the hinterlands of acousmatic practice and the dodecaphonic works of Pierre Boulez. More importantly, I’ve learned that the world of new music is only made stronger by the variety of backgrounds, personal experiences and creativity of all its members. The best way to further art is to further the conversation around it – so here’s to the people who ask the questions and to the people who answer them. Here’s to those who are confused, and to those who shed light.

For the Darmstädter Ferienkurse

not that bad

“I honestly believe that before you crash and burn in a show, you will never truly be a fearless performer,” she said in an interview. “You spend so long trying not to embarrass yourself. Once you have the worst show of your life and survive, you know it’s not that bad. Then, you become this fearless, shameless weirdo version of yourself that turns out to be who you really are.”
―Amber Ruffin