Sunday, 15 February 2015

Human/Being: Soundtrack for Thinkers and Thinking

If you know anything of me at all, you will know by now that I both make electronic music and also like to think (and talk) about things. I am one of those people burdened with thoughts. I have said before that when I make music I am not actually making music - I am doing philosophy with sound. This has very much proved to be true in my first major series of 2015, the Human/Being project. This project, which grew to 7 parts, started off as thinking about humanity after reading stories of the Nazi concentration camps in World War 2 and after watching the film "Under The Skin" starring Scarlett Johansson. This lead me to create 2 albums that felt like some kind of science fiction soundtrack (in my mind, at least) as I mused on these ideas. But, as has become common in the last 12 months, I did not end up stopping there. Human/Being expanded, spread its wings, both sonically and philosophically, and other ideas were explored besides those with which I began (which you can read about in the last blog I made on this site). I want to take a few paragraphs now to explain (to myself if nobody else) what I have been doing.

What is the idea behind Human/Being? Well, it began as me thinking about what it means to be human. I did this by setting us and our planet in some kind of cosmic context and also by thinking about examples of human behaviour and then asking myself what I learned about our species in the light of the example I had chosen. Very many, if not most, human beings are VERY anthropocentric. I tried to be neither anthropocentric nor misanthropic in thinking about our species but the thing is, when you do that, its quite easy to think of us as specks of dust on an insignificant planet that is placed nowhere special in the universe. That IS a useful insight. But it can't be the beginning and end of the discussion. I wanted to ask what it MEANS to be human, not just how significant or not we may be in universal terms (which remains "not very").

My project was not planned out intellectually from the start with a road map of the ideological territory I wanted to survey. As is normal for me when making music, I allowed myself to roam where I wanted to. This, of course, does not promote any unity of thought but it does have the benefit of being honest in that nothing is set up here. I thought as honestly and openly as I could about the subjects that came up and allowed the thoughts I had to inspire the music. The music is and remains a soundtrack to my thoughts. It always was that and I can't imagine it ever being anything else. I wrote and recorded the music to this series in a deliberate "Berlin School" style. This style, popularised in the 1970s, is based on multiple synthesizers playing sequences or drones and is often completely devoid of explicit rhythm instruments such as drums. The idea is to create a sound field (as I call them) and this fits in perfectly with the idea that the music here should be a soundtrack for thinking (and thinkers, I hope).

Human/Being ended up being divided into 7 unequal parts. They are:


A: Jedem Das Seine
B: Arbeit Macht Frei

Human/Being 2

Human/Being 3

Human/Being 4

A: This Doesn't Exist
B: in Absentia

Human/Being 5

Human/Being 6

Human/Being 7

Its worth pointing out here that I definitely do see these albums as a connected series. Ideally, they should be listened to as one giant narrative. But I appreciate that at 9 hours and 28 minutes long that is a major undertaking for anyone. They should at least, I hope, be listened to as self contained albums. I consider myself an album artist. I tell multi-part stories and the tracks are meant to be complimentary. I don't make single track or quick music. My work is to be taken time with and absorbed. I'm working with ideas as much as sounds and that needs TIME. This is one reason that here I have consciously tried to lengthen the pieces. Not only is this a harder musical challenge (musicians always need to be stretching their wings in my philosophy of music), but it forces the listener into either listening properly or ignoring it altogether. This aspect of making music that challenges listeners to take the music seriously is something that appeals to me. I'm not after just any old listener. Listeners have to prove themselves worthy of listening! And that means being open to being changed or influenced by the music.

I have written about part one and its concentration camp and science fiction film origins elsewhere on this blog and so I won't regurgitate what I said about that part here. In retrospect, though, those first two albums do have a very "science fiction soundtrack" feel to them and I'm glad about this. Aspects of that sound crop up again as you go through the series but other flavours crop up too, salting the meal with new tastes. This begins as early as Human/Being 2 which takes as its point of departure the death of Tangerine Dream creator, Edgar Froese. I wrote this album just as the news of his death came through. I was not a Tangerine Dream fan. This is, to be honest, because I have really only begun to dig into the history of German electronic music in the last 6 months. This is now a cause of shame and horror to me because there is so much there I never realised. This shows me, yet again, that we each have our own individual journeys through life to make. Things will happen to us in our time and not according to some pre-determined plan. What one person learns aged 20, another only learns aged 50. And so it was that in the latter part of 2014 I came to dig through the early 1970s of German electronic music and found... wonders untold!

Human/Being 2, in a musical sense, is perhaps the most thoughtful and dramatic album of the whole series. It starts with Froesen, my tribute to the prolific Berliner Froese, and winds its way through 3 further tracks that were written in the depths of one long night when I never went to sleep. Like every album in the series, but archetypally so here, this is an album fundamentally about SYNTHESIS. This is a SYNTHESIZER album and I used the controls of the synthesizers to manufacture sounds. You may wonder why I am emphasizing that. Its because I have this sense that that is not what a lot of people do. They smile and wonder at all these knobs, sliders and buttons but don't actually use them to see what they do. Here, I did. Thematically, its all a bit of a mess on this leg of the project. You have to understand that by 5 or 6am I was firmly in the throes of sleep deprivation and started to muse on if humanity as a whole was awake or asleep (and what the difference is) and how easy it would be to drive a human being mad. (Recent reports of American torture of their prisoners takes hold of my mind here.) I ended up musing on human beings as enslaved in so many different ways (and, of course, in varying degrees). It should enlighten us that it is very, very easy to be pessimistic about the human race.

Human/Being 3 exhibited more philosophical unity. Here I have one connected theme running through the music and inspiring a soundtrack. It is the twin ideas of "being" and "time" - and how those two ideas intersect. Originally, this was suggested to me by German philosopher Martin Heidegger's book but I thought about it in my own sweet ways rather than by reading that weighty and often incomprehensible tome. My thoughts concerned the nature of human beings as beings who exist within time, a concept which is so important in informing us about everything from our identity (identity is very time-bound, a timeline we tell ourselves and reflect upon constantly, informing and reconfiguring that same timeline in the process) to our place in the world. Without the concept of time we just would not be who we are as human beings. Time intimately and necessarily informs us who we are and what that means.

I also considered the concept of how we all come to be. Time is an eternity - infinitely before us and infinitely after us. We cannot comprehend or imagine it. Within that a billion billion random events occur and some of those random events result in us. I considered the idea that each of us is the outcome of a sexual act that might never have happened. And, if it didn't - at that precise time and place - then none of us would exist. Imagine your mother and father, instead of having sex that night, had just gone to sleep. You wouldn't exist. This is what I refer to as "Point Zero", the point at which your existence was decided. The last two tracks on this album coalesce around a common theme. That theme is that we exist constantly in the present. We never live either in the past or the future. One is always behind us, one always in front. But we are never in either. I reflect musically on what that means to always live NOW, watched over by two shadows and their influence. Human/Being 3 has a more stark and clinical sound than either parts 1 or 2.

Human/Being 4 is a second part of the project that comes in two halves after the opening part. Philosophically speaking, this part is the "post-structuralist" part. If you aren't sure what that means feel free to either look it up or skip over it. My hunch is that if you are in sympathy with such thought then you will already know what that line of thinking is about and, if not, then you likely won't be anyway. If you are aware of the post-structuralist conversation then the song titles used in part 4, things such as "Nothing Outside The Text", "Open Space Where An Author Should Be", "Non-Realist" and "The Insufficiency of Presence" should be poking you in all the right places.

What I am getting at with part 4 is the idea that our images of ourselves as human beings, as a race and as people, are always at least a fiction, always incomplete. They are not an "is the case". They are a becoming. We are constantly being created and recreated but we never reach the target. Our ideas about ourselves aren't solid immovable objects but warm plastic that is constantly malleable. We leave traces of what we are but the full, filled in outline never becomes visible. Human beings and humanity are things you try to grasp but, like air, you always end up grasping nothing. This whole idea lies behind the track "Keyser Soze", the character from Bryan Singer's 1995 film, "The Usual Suspects". As Kevin Spacey (who plays the character in the film) says "...and like that, he was gone". Thus, the two halves of part 4 are titled "This Doesn't Exist" and "in Absentia". Whatever you say is there is at least false.

Musically, I love part 4 very much. This is because we get some of that old "science fiction soundtrack" vibe back from earlier in the series but with other different ideas too. Its a part of the project that is different but fits together nevertheless. I've been thinking a lot about all the very many ways we humans find to divide ourselves today and, it seems to me, we often go out of our way to do so. We find pleasure in dividing ourselves in as many (often facile) ways as possible and emphasize what sets us apart and not what should bring us together. This leads me back to thinking about the opening part of the series and how people could essentially farm death in concentration camps. Empathy really is the beginning and end of it. If you see a person as less than you then it opens your mind up to treating them worse than you would expect in return. The model of this part of my project here, the idea that difference is complimentary and makes the whole stronger, may be thought of as naive but, to me at least, it is no less compelling for that.

Human/Being 5 is about motivation. Human beings seem capable of creating motives for anything they can think of. Often these may be deluded or simply ill-judged. Sometimes we would say the motives are right but the actions end up wrong. Its quite difficult to be a human being. There is also a whole industry (particularly, it seems, in the USA) devoted to motivating people. There is also the reverse side of the coin though: demotivation. There have never been as many people on this planet as there are now. And there have never been so many just doing nothing. In the age when there was more to do in or with life than ever before there is a plague of boredom. This should give us pause for thought. The music here is two parts slightly unsettling and one part poignant and thoughtful. I love it when I can zone in on the warm, fuzzy feeling from time to time. The track "Rather Keep Nothing" on Human/Being 5 is one such time. Just simple, pure, honest music that communicates a very naive feeling. I never know when it will happen but, when it does, I think I get more in touch with something beyond myself, something timeless that resonates through my being the way a sunset on a beach might do for some other people. We all need these moments, I think, when the noise of the world goes away and purer, deeper, more innocent things, things that really matter, come to the fore.

Human/Being 6 looks at "the human condition" in the round and in a way influenced by the reading of actual philosophers. In reading and thinking philosophically, I came across the statement of Sartre's that we are "condemned to be free". This was in reading Nietzsche's discussions in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science) about how human beings came to value truth and knowledge and reason. His argument there was based in human beings as at one time a definite social grouping, a herd, which found certain forms of life necessary. Expulsion from this herd, the freedom to think and act individually, something we now value and prize greatly, was at that time, in pre-modern societies, a terrible punishment, an exclusion from the comfort and well-being that the hive mind brought. Nietzsche called that being "condemned to be an individual". Later, Sartre talked in his existential context of being "condemned to be free", a sense in which you have no choice but to live and to choose and to act and to think if you want to live. You have no choice in this matter. It goes hand in hand with being alive. In that sense, the burden of living is all on you. In these modern times its a burden that takes a heavy mental toll on many.

On a parallel stream to this thought I had been thinking recently about logic and its development in the context of a universe some 13.8 billion years old and so vast and unexplored and unexplained that it literally overwhelms us. It is a source of constant bafflement to me that this universe created sentient life. If you accept that there is no sort of mind or intelligence behind all that then it really is quite a question to ask why we came to be, a product of random and complex actions and reactions in the vast emptiness of space that forms worlds and whole systems of worlds and then, just as easily, wipes them away and starts again. Indeed, there have already been several great extinction events, as they are called, on our own planet. And, in this context, I thought about humans, many of whom like to think of themselves as ordered and logical, whatever that last term might mean. I suspect it actually means something very fabricated and humanistic. But, I ask myself, if there is such a thing as logic, then surely it came from the illogic, the chaos, of the universe? Is it really logic? Is it not just human beings seeing the world in a certain way? I find it funny that beings on some tiny, insignificant planet, would pride themselves on a "logic" that chaos created. By chance.

The third track of this album ("Cause and Effect/Flux") leads us back to my reading of Nietzsche. One of his great points is that humans, not least scientific humans, falsify the universe to make it useful for themselves and for us. We are counters, measurers, quantifiers. None of this means anything for ultimate truth or for questions such as if we are right or wrong about anything. They are, in fact, strictly speaking not concerned with either thing at all. For human beings, it is what is of use that counts. (Nietzsche says elsewhere that humans don't so much care about being right or wrong as being harmed as a result of being right or wrong. Spot the difference.) One such error Nietzsche sees is in the doctrine of cause and effect. As Nietzsche sees things, the universe is in constant flux, a stream of events. Only by abstracting two points, and calling them a cause and an effect, does that doctrine even make sense. But Nietzsche sees that as unfaithful to the stream of events and says that calling something a cause and an effect is to arbitrarily focus on some points and arbitrarily ignore others. Its merely an arbitrary choice fitted to the purposes of people who want to explain things in a certain way. And so this says something about human beings, a species that take things from their constant experience and order them in ways that are of use to them.

A word now on the music here. I continue in the style I have adopted for this series which is adopted from the Berlin School of synthesizer music, popularised primarily in the 1970s. But I've upped the game - and the pace - particularly with the second track, "Logic from Unlogic", which is very rhythmically based. Rhythm is a natural impulse in any music I make (hence the "disco" in an old moniker of mine, Geeky Disco) and its been hard in this series to try and restrain it - although I think I've had some success with it. Here I wanted the sound to be noticeably synthesized again but not go over old ground. The challenge to create in a given style but add variation and make it different was very much to the fore in this part of the project. Here I have used some discordant tones to convey a sense of not quite being in control. My music often seeks to perform a mood or emotion and be related instinctively and intuitively to the track title. Hence, here you can expect some sense of being uncontrollably free, some unlogic and some flux.

And so we come to the finale, the 7th and final part. As I write, this is the only part of the project not yet published. This is because listeners to the first 6 parts used up the 200 free downloads that Bandcamp allocate to their users per month. Thereafter, the site forces you to charge for your music, something I do not want to do. A big "thank you" at this point to anyone who has downloaded one of those 200 albums in only 18 days. I certainly never expected that. But that also adds pressure on me to make part 7 worthy of the 6 previous parts people seem to have found so enjoyable. That is a good pressure and I welcome it. And I think I have done it. Human/Being 7 is to be subtitled "The Infinite Sea" and, although I have already completed it, it will be available when I get my 200 free downloads back on 24th February.  That subtitle is again taken from my reading of Nietzsche.

In paragraph 124 of Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science) Nietzsche writes:

"In the horizon of the infinite. - We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us - indeed, we have gone further and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the walls of his cage! Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom - and there is no longer any land."

What is there to say about this? Well, that I see it as a comment on the human condition, the human situation. The land behind us is gone. There is no turning back in life, no safe refuge behind us. The past is literally a place you can never go. As Nietzsche writes, "the land is gone". Every day of life ends with a burning of the bridge and a no way back. There is only one direction in life and that is forwards, forwards on an infinite sea. And the sea is not something you can master although it may be sometimes something you can navigate. Tides will take you this way and that, storms will send you off course to either disaster or to as yet unknown wonder. But this sea is infinite. It is your lot, your form of life, your place. It is both your infinite playground and your infinite prison. And that is the metaphor that I want to give as the lasting thought of this somewhat eccentric series of albums on Human/Being. I don't claim that is has been a philosophically coherent series. Indeed, it has, frankly, been fragmentary. But it has been honest.

Musically, I have enjoyed my wanderings with "The Berlin School". Of course, I did it in my own way. That is what every musician should do. They should leave THEIR stamp on things. In part 7 you are to imagine yourself the captain of your very own schooner on the high seas. The music will lead you on a journey out across the ocean, an ocean that never ends. You must sail. You must navigate. You can do no other, wherever the ocean leads. Life is often pictured as a journey - and for good reason. The metaphor of the journey is, in the end, the most powerful one I have for this musical voyage I have taken through Human/Being. And for life itself.....

You can hear the first 6 parts of Human/Being exclusively at Elektronische Existenz right now.

Part 7, The Infinite Sea, will be added there on 24th February 2015.

The music is currently priced at 50 cents per album but should anyone make any payment you may rest assured that I will never collect it and it will return to you after 21 days or so automatically. It is important to me that my music is, and always remains, free of charge.

PS Longer term followers of my music might notice that the pylons have made a comeback in the artwork that accompanies my music. I find them an enduring metaphor for myself in so many ways.

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