What is improvisation? How do you define improvisation? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then improvisation is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. And that’s when epiphany comes! Not from the front, but from the combination of ideas that you didn’t even know were there. But I digress.

What is improvisation? To start, improvisation is always contextual. It needs a framework of experience in order to exist. To successfully improvise on the guitar, for example, you must first know how to play it. You must study the scales, melodies, and other patterns that have been identified in the past by other players of the guitar. Then, with the vicarious experiences of giants safely tucked under your musical belt, you leave it all behind, and trust your subconscious to know what to play. Improvisation is a paradox because only daily training and attention to rigor and detail can possibly prepare oneself thoroughly enough to throw all that training to the wind. As Thelonious Monk said, “Practice, then practice some more. Then forget all of it and just PLAY.”

What is improvisation? For it can be said that an improvisational mind, an extemporaneous mind, is no mind at all. For just as athletes can use their bodies to fluidly touch epiphany, they are equally limited by language to aid them in explaining it. This is because there is no ego at the moment of improvisation to be aware of itself. There is only first-level thinking. There is no you, there is only the baseball and the bat. There is no you, there is only the piano and the audience. There is no you, there is only the road, the car, the shiftless will of the traveler without destination.

Art being improvised has a will of its own; it has temporarily abducted the will of its artist. Many people report that it is as if their art is not really being created by conscious choice, but rather revealed to them from a third party, a distinct source at once apart from their training and one with it. This is the sacred state of flow, the secret samadhi, the moment of moksha, the illusion of creative power, the acceptance of otherness, the zone, on fire, in the pocket, in the groove, with it, at one, at peace, existence without awareness. The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao. The Tao that *can* be named is experience, training, order, formal structure, the basis upon which our fruitless attempts at imagining must inevitably emerge. As for the eternal Tao…. well, what else can be said? You just have to be there. Or rather, because there is no experience of you to categorize the infinite moment of the present, one just has to be there. And then, because there is no “there” there, as all of the past training and future goal-worship condenses into the next now, and the next now, and the next now, one just has to be. But and now of course one just doesn’t *have* to be anything. Existence is not a “have to”. It’s not even a “must” or a “should”. Existence is. As is improvisation. For all attempts to explain the state of flow do naught but fall away to the infinity of the light looking at itself and the infinity of the sound listening to itself.

Fair enough. How about this: when is improvisation? It can be said that improvisation exists outside of time. Our daily lives are structured by the clock, by horizontal time, by workdays and alarm clocks. One minute follows the next, as one lifetime follows the next. Similarly our logic is based on linearity, a constant of horizontal time. But this is only one type of time, and only one type of logic. There is a second type of time, the time of experience, what Taoists sometimes refer to as the “infinite now”. What we might call Zen Time, the time of truth. We are all fleetingly familiar with this type of time. It’s the infinity of the first kiss. The moment of epiphany when puzzling out a deep philosophical problem. And history is rife with stories of second time: Archimedes’ Eureka, Newton’s apple, Watson and Crick’s double helix. This is the ever-present, vertical sense of time. It extends forever, yet it is only right now that it exists. It is the time of the Imaginal world, the time of symbolism itself.

The past is but a form for the improvisation of the present to dance within. Improvisation exists in the same time that free will does. You can control the future with dreams, and the past with rationalization, but there is no control of this moment. It’s the moment when all decisions made and all words spoken and all notes played speak only of themselves, and are free in the true and complete sense of the word. It is the unfolding of the lotus flower, forsaking plans and systems and structure and training, although simultaneously reliant on them in order to look and sound just the way that things look and sound. Improvisation is formless free will. The will of no one. The freedom of everyone.

What is improvisation? It’s a cat playing with a ball of string. It’s a bird flying in the air. It’s a book that reads itself and a violin that plays its own melody. It is a self-told story; a self-made man. It is nothing, the air of the moment imposing its will on our memories.

A Song By Any Other Name

March 3rd, 2012

Prelude: watch this first! (I can’t embed videos without paying for the video upgrade.)

Secret Chiefs 3: The 3 (live)

Seeing Secret Chiefs 3 was revelatory in a couple different ways. There is of course the surface-level revelation that “wow, they can actually pull off these tunes live!”. Going below that, there’s the realization that in spite of (not because of) their technical virtuosity, the parts and notes they choose somehow “serve” the song, instead of merely stroking their own egos. This is an ultra-common pitfall in technical music, as in basically every guitar-based prog rock band (Dream Theater, Steve Vai, Nile) the “solo section” is clearly labeled in both the performers’ and listeners’ minds. “This is the part where they show off.” Or in the chorus: “This is the part where there is a singable, catchy melody that repeats a multiple of 2 (but not more than 8) times.” What’s apparent is that these musicians’ virtuosity lies in technique only. There’s no realization of what the point of the song should be, apart from highlighting their skill. The telos of a song doesn’t live on the level of abstraction where the song resides, but moves up/down a level to where we are aware that the song is being played by a person, and this is who we focus on/idolize/despise. We could say that the ego of the band gets in the way of the song, somehow. We cease to hear the song, to appreciate it freely. We hear it in the context of the virtuosity of the players, and the song fails, because it doesn’t engage us the way the players do. It’s like the song is the full moon, and the band is pointing to the moon, saying “look at the moon”, but because their voice is so pretty and their hand is so shapely, we look at their finger that points, instead of to what it is pointing.

Traditionally the crux of going to a show (in many peoples’ minds) is to see the band as people, to revel in the personality and skill of the players. You want to get to know them. You get their autograph, fawn over their devil-may-care social attitude, go backstage and have a beer with them. And the other stereotype here is the modest musician who can’t take a compliment. This is because she knows that it’s not about her. The fans, in her mind, are experiencing the show on the wrong level. The show’s telos is the display of personality, to the common fan.

And then SC3 comes out, dressed in robes and masks that obscure the personality. There are no lyrics, and they don’t speak to the crowd between songs, and don’t bow at the end of their set. They are very good musicians, technically speaking, but that’s besides the point. What they are doing is transcending the telos of the “show/musician as idol” gestalt. To play in service to the song, instead of having the song service your playing — this is transcending musical telos. Each song has a goal which is defined by the structure of that song. They might play a surf-rock version of the theme to the movie “Exodus”, in which case a trumpet gets the powerful brass lead, while the drums and guitar hold back and maintain a steady, Californian 4/4. Or they might play in a tuning based on the harmonic ratios of Pythagoras, in which case the song may have a highly mathematical structure, which hands off a melody between different harmonic modes and different instruments, which are all tuned to just intonation, an old non-equal-temperament method of tuning instruments, based on simple whole-number ratios (E.g. the just intonation ratio between a note and its fifth is 2:3). There’s something going on here which can’t be explained in terms of “the goal of the music”. It’s like each song is a hidden dark-matter shape, which lies out of bounds, and its shape is elucidated over time by each instrument probing at this shape — sometimes the shape pushes back, sometimes it yields. Gradually the shape of the song is further realized or further obscured. It would not be an exaggeration to say that for the first time at a live show, I felt like I experienced the songs directly, not through the filter of the band’s personality. In this way, the best compliment I could possibly give to SC3 is that they are transparent. The form of the songs are self-generated, and the generation itself is worn on the band’s faces, obscuring their eyes and heads.

Intermission: Secret Chiefs 3 – Zulfiqar III

This is exactly why I think Trey Spruance, the creative force behind SC3, will not explain his systems that he designs that ultimately lead to songs. He doesn’t want you to know, because you’d be missing the point. The point, the goal, the meaning of the songs is not in how they are written. And my apparent idolization of Spruance is anything but: I’m interested in the moon, not Spruance’s plans for a rocketship. I’m intentionally using the moon as in Zen cosmology it is a metaphor for enlightenment. The lesson from this show is not to look at the finger.

And I’m still circling around the central point I want to make. Perhaps that’s best. I’ve been interested in “serving the song” for a long time now — my electronic moniker, scion eidolon, means “servant/heir to the spirit”. Darshan Pulse, the name of my current project, references this idea as well — Darshan is a Hindi term that roughly translates to “divine seeing”. It’s used to refer to the idea that worship and experience of the divine can only happen when one is physically standing in front of a representation of a Hindi deity. That’s why there are so many temples and bas reliefs throughout India. They are *not* idols. They are pointers towards truth. And Pulse refers to the fact that physical presence is required. You have to be there. You have to see. Tu dois servir.

So I have to move past the Verse Chorus Paradigm. I can’t use it, and I can’t refer to it through its absence. It’s a form that allows egos to be stroked, because everyone understands it. You listen to the singer sing the chorus and you love them. Or, you note that their approach defies the VCP and you love them for their “out-of-the-box” thinking. Either way, you’re not hearing the song.

I don’t pretend to speak for the movement, but here’s my two cents on the “why” of this burgeoning community, after being a part of it in Missoula for the past week:

As evidenced by the growing community and its supporting infrastructure, Occupy Missoula (and all the occupations) is much more than a protest. Some might even argue that it’s not a protest at all. I, for one, refuse to accept the current power structure in this country as a legitimate one — so it follows that any list of “demands” I make would ultimately imply that that the corporate hegemony has the power to listen to the protests and fulfill those demands. But they don’t. Only empowered citizens, both individually and as a larger community, have that power. This is more than a laundry list of complaints. This is more than public negativity towards the powers that be. This is a positive movement, where we show by example what is right. We want to grow our own food and live on the land that is ours by birthright. We want to become part of the ecosystem again; not a system of consumption, but a system of sustainable production. We want to produce our own goods, and give back what we can to the earth and the small communities that have given us our bodies, our minds, our voice, and our inalienable human rights. Someone said once, “be the change you want to see in the world.” He wasn’t talking about reform. He wasn’t talking about fighting, or war, or breaking down the world into categories of “us” and “them”. He was talking about inclusion, respect, peace, understanding, love, transcendence, humility — there are many words for it, this feeling of being a part of something, of finally being able to give instead of take. I think we all know this feeling, deep down in the basement of our minds, past the boundaries of words and arguments and explanations. Viva la Occupy!

Bardos

September 28th, 2009

Wake up, on the edge of a forgotten town. Weathered houses, fences, green grass overgrown. Silent except for the wind whistling through trees. A rusty hinge creaking softly on the edge of memory.

Step outside the front door, walking down the sidewalk. Avoiding cracks and potholes, stepping over long-lost tricycles. The fluorescent paint of childhood toys faded to pastel. Walk quickly, then jog, then run. Houses turn into a white and grey and brown blur, whizzing past. Looking for something, anything. Jump and don’t hit the ground. Take flight.

Up and out, past the town’s edge, growing even now distant in the green and brown. Water below. Traveling far and fast. Wind pushing up and in. Eyes squint against the whiteness of the wind. Majesty spread out, the vision unfolds. Forested and forbidden peaks, whitened cliffs. Pushing jagged against the broken horizon. Gliding past stormclouds, black heads of purpose tunneling past. Scattered drops of rain dampen hair, clothes, skin.

Moving towards distant land. The ice of wind’s current against the cheeks, the upper arms. One thousand pinpricks of sudden cold. And yet, joy. A smile forms, rising up from terror. From uncertainty. From underwater blue with sopping horror. Flying vibrantly, a whirl of bright color. Life in the honest wind and rain and brown and green. Rushing away, and up, and towards a distant shore. Below, miles below, shadows of clouds whisper past the ocean’s blue carpet. Soft and undulant, past the earth’s curve. Past everything.

Where? Here — a long and verdant coast, lined with maples and pine. Land and rest and recover. The soil warm against the soles of feet.

Climbing inland, uphill, pushing past vines and tall grass.  Over the last hill, a ridge towers above the trees. And the horror of what waits on the ridge!  A meeting of beings. Creatures. Things unknown, things secret and solemn. Hidden by crags and rocky spires. Obscured by inland fog. Bicycles and fences could never imagine. Electricity, no. Gasoline, computers, pianos and hotels, shopping carts and indoor pools, no!

Birdlike. Tall and red and black. Legs like blackened birch trees. They stare forward, resolute. Clutching elephantine fruit, apple-like, brown with dried humus.

Faces coated in black feathers. White eyes. Oh, the secret shore. Oh, these tall and terrible cliffs. This ridge.

But what lies past? What purpose?

Guardians. Keepers of a shelter past recall. A place of peace. Pushing forward quickly, on foot, rising up to meet the blackened things. Scared, yet purposeful, long strides pregnant with primal lust. They rise and stare. One of them upturns a long, black wing, coated in feather and tar. Points. Two others crouch, pick up a large woven basket. The rest pull the brown and red fruit from the basket and stare forward. Throwing the fruit like weapons.

Crashing sounds surround the ridge. Running faster, from branch to branch. Jumping, leaping on tree tops, each tree destroyed by the brown fruit. Sprinting now, dancing atop the highest leaves. A burning bridge left behind on the distant and grassy ground. One piece whizzes so close. The sound of it unearthly, the fruit somehow screaming of its own accord. Alive, insectile, swollen with black desire. The keepers howl from the ridge, closer still. Baying like dark wolves at some unknown satellite. The shrieking fills the world with sound. The void, the light of day, all things shut out with piercing cries. They say:

“You are awash in a vast sunless sky.

A bubble drifting through the air.

Your surface is endless, without flaw.

But you will pop and be gone all the same.”

At last! Gain the ridge and look down at what is there. The keepers turn away, forgotten, yielding to the rain and fog. Look down into the valley before the ridge. A deep bowl of slumbering green, sloping away to the deepest point. A calm pool sleeps there, sky blue with mineral and water wet. Surrounded by the tallest trees and sloping hills. Silent like the first day. Tiny drops of rain echo in the bowl of verdant green. Walk down. Slowly, do not fly or run. Feel the wet and damp between the toes. Connected. Feel the leaves and branches against the skin. Connected. The taste of rain against the nose and mouth. The smell of dirt and salt and rotten bark. The sight of ants making their home, of caterpillars munching on leaves. The sound of deer clomping in the soil. Sit at the pool and wait. Become.

A humming fills the valley’s bowl. Soft and sweet, filling every pore. Sing with it, sing deep and full. The valley’s song swells and soars. The trees and deer and ants all sing in key. The water hums a soft blue tune. The leaves cry and swoon and plead. The sun serenades the crescent moon. Join the song, forget the words. Life is but a dream. Float unseen, untouched, unheard. Gently down the stream.

Pop!

Wake up, on the edge of a forgotten town.

Distant Roar

September 22nd, 2009

This is a semi-final draft of lyrics for a ballad. This is for my prog-rock project, album due out sometime this fall. I was thinking that I censor myself too often, and don’t share any poetry/lyrics/stories anymore. I’m going to ignore my perfectionist streak and look past tiny errors and fucking post shit.

—-

Distant Roar

sitting on the water’s edge
I watch the tide pushing in, rolling out
thoughts like seaweed floating by
not much to think about
the house behind me heavy
the recollection of a man
things I find and buy and bring
and need and save and love
that’s all I am

oh the siren’s call
the haunting rise and fall
sliding up to greet you
when you haven’t moved at all
lying prone, desiring sleep
daydreaming dark, the silent deep
waters overhead a crystal sky
so blue it makes me cry
oh, what promise past the shore
distant roar

rainclouds curl off the coast
sand whipped on the wind
storm surge pushing up and in
threat’ning what I treasure most
dear to me, this earth, this clay
spare no expense for gilded dust
the earth dissolves, the armor rusts
and it falls away

oh the siren’s call
the haunting rise and fall
sliding up to greet you
when you haven’t moved at all
lying prone, desiring sleep
daydreaming dark, the silent deep
waters overhead a crystal sky
so blue it makes me cry
oh, that promise past the shore
distant roar

am I dreaming now?
am I thinking out loud?
undertow, hear me out
riptide, hear me out
oh the siren’s call
the haunting rise and fall
oh what promises past my door
distant roar

Disclaimer: this post is about music theory. It will be somewhat dry. A reasonable understanding of basic musical scales and notation is presupposed.

Ed: this post includes Part 1, edited for clarity and grammar.

Read the rest of this entry »

Disclaimer: this post is about music theory. It will be somewhat dry. A reasonable understanding of basic musical scales and notation is presupposed.

Most popular music is written in either a major scale or a minor scale. Major scales sound happy and jubilant; minor scales are dark, stratospheric, melancholy. It is instructive to understand, however, that minor is simply a mode of major; for instance, C major and A minor both consist of the white notes on a piano. No flats, no sharps. Even though the keys used are identical, if the all-white-keys song is played with C as “home base”, it will sound happy, whereas if A is used as the “base”, it will sound sad.

In this way I can say that minor, or Aeolian (the original Greek term), is the sixth mode of the major scale. The major mode (Ionian in Greek) is the first mode of the major scale. And by the major scale I mean this specific sequence of seven notes, selected from the Western idiom of twelve possible notes:

C (C#) D (D#) E F (F#) G (G#) A (A#) B

The bolded notes represent the scale of C major. The notes in parentheses are the black notes on a piano; the notes that are not in the C major scale. Note that the major scale follows the pattern of two steps from C to D (skipping C#), two steps from D to E (skipping D#), one step from E to F, two steps from F to G (skipping F#), and so on. [Aside: I don’t mean to be needlessly confusing, but traditionally a single step is referred to in most music notation as a “half step”, and two steps as a “whole step”, so I will use this terminology as I continue. Quick e.g.: C to D is a whole step. E to F is a half step.] Written out in this way, the major scale is simply whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half, or WWHWWWH for shorthand. This pattern is consistent regardless of the note one begins on: G major is simply G A B C D E F# G, for example, and E major is E F# G# A B C# D# E. It is left as an exercise to the reader to verify these scales’ patterns.

Now if I keep the scale the same, but start my step-counting on A, I get the universal pattern of the minor mode (Aeolian): WHWWHWW. It is a mode of the major scale because the beginning point of the scale is simply shifted over, but the underlying pattern is the same. The astute reader will wonder: “what about the other modes? Doesn’t the major scale theoretically have seven beginning-points, and thus seven modes?” This is exactly the case. In order, the seven modes of the major scale are called: Ionian (major), Dorian, Phyrgian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian (minor), and Locrian. They are all distinctly different in mood; some are darker, some are light and airy. They are related laterally, in that their step patterns are all derived from the major scale; for example, in a given melody, I could shift from C Ionian (C D E F G A B C) up to D Dorian (D E F G A B C D), and then to G Mixolydian (G A B C D E F G), and so forth and so on. This requires changing the home base of my song, though. The listener will clearly note the song “moving” from a home base of C, to D, to G. What about shifting around within a given tonal center? What if I want to add color and flavor to a melody, but keep it strictly in C?

There is a second way that the modes are related; it is a melodic relationship, in that the underlying “home base” does not change. For example, I can shift from C Ionian (WWHWWWH) to C Mixolydian (WWHWWHW). The step-patterns make it less clear as to what is going on, so I will write it out:

C Ionian (C D E F G A B C) —-> C Mixolydian (C D E F G A Bb C)

I would recommend mapping the step-patterns to the actual piano notes as a useful exercise. What’s the difference between Phrygian and Locrian, for example? What notes change? What notes stay the same?

Also, note that the shift from C Ionian to C Mixolydian is quite subtle; only a single note changes, and only by a half-step at that. It is the smallest possible melodic change. This is a useful concept; it provides color without the listener consciously pulling away from the song and thinking “well, that was obvious.” For those taught in traditional harmonic counterpoint, it is like shifting from C major to G major; only one tiny thing is changing. Here on out I will refer to this concept as SPMC (Smallest Possible Melodic Change). All of the modes of major are related by SPMC, which is spelled out in exhaustive detail below.

C Lydian (C D E F# G A B C) <—-> C Ionian [major] (C D E F G A B C)

C Ionian [major] (C D E F G A B C) <—-> C Mixolydian (C D E F G A Bb C)

C Mixolydian (C D E F G A Bb C) <—-> C Dorian (C D Eb F G A Bb C)

C Dorian (C D Eb F G A Bb C) <—-> C Aeolian [minor] (C D Eb F G Ab Bb C)

C Aeolian [minor] (C D Eb F G Ab Bb C) <—-> C Phrygian (C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C)

C Phrygian (C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C) <—-> C Locrian (C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C)

There are a few interesting epiphenomena that arise out of SPMC. Lydian is the “lightest” of the seven modes of major; it is very airy and carefree-sounding. Locrian, on the other hand, is the “darkest”, very sinister and primordial. The closer a mode is to Lydian, the lighter in mood; the closer a mode to Locrian, the darker the mood. (Dorian is centralized and is neutral in color.) Also note that when “traveling” from Lydian to Locrian via SPMC, the note that changes always descends, never ascends.

Additionally, every note of the scale descends by one half-step at some point in this system, except for home base, the C. While it is technically possible to “move” from C Locrian to B Lydian, the note that changes in this shift is the tonic itself (C moves down a half step to B). By SPMC rules, this isn’t allowed, as moving the tonic has a jarring effect on the listener, and is not considered to be a melodic shift, but rather a harmonic one. And we have to draw the line somewhere, otherwise bestiality and pedophilia will become commonplace. And we don’t want that, do we?

See if you can follow me a little further. The sharp/flat system has been primarily designed for use in the major/minor system; when speaking modally, it’s a lotta look, to quote a famous fashion designer. All the flats and sharps tend to obscure the simplicity of SPMC. If C is assigned the number 0, C# the number 1, all the way up to B = 11, we can study the system numerically, and also universally, as any home base can be assumed.  0 can just as easily be G#, or E. Also, since the home base can never change by definition, it’s not necessary to include it. Here’s an example to show what I’m talking about.

C Mixolydian is C D E F G A Bb C. If we assume that C = 0, and continue from there, then C Mixolydian can also be described as 0 2 4 5 7 9 10 12. Then simply note that by SPMC rules, the note C will never change, so the numbers 0 and 12 can be omitted, which leaves us with a nice universal way to describe all Mixolydian modes. Mixolydian is (2 4 5 7 9 10). Reread this paragraph, then prove to yourself that Aeolian (minor) is represented by (2 3 5 7 8 10).

Here’s the SPMC major mode order, in this new easier-to-look-at (hopefully) format:

( 2 4 6 7 9 11) Lydian

(2 4 5 7 9 11) Ionian (major)

(2 4 5 7 9 10) Mixolydian

(2 3 5 7 9 10) Dorian

(2 3 5 7 8 10) Aeolian (minor)

(1 3 5 7 8 10) Phrygian

(1 3 5 6 8 10) Locrian

Look at how only one number changes between each set of modes. Think about this for a little while, shifting from mode to mode. The really fun stuff is just around the bend.

16 June 2007, 12 am EDT, Revere MA

And we race past downtown Boston, tunneling underneath skyscraper and street, barreling eastward towards the Atlantic without breath wasted or moment savored.

And the smell of that sad and salty air! Fresh off the ocean vast and vacant! The distant streetlights of suburbs twinkle in the urban dark, not points of light so much as stars that spell out human constellation. Past Charlestown, past Everett, past Winthrop and Malden; old streets I’ve not seen in fifty weeks move towards me like adoring fans, pushing up for a rockstar’s smile and signature, and then flittering off again, ne’er to be known or remembered.

And at last the road that has been my guide for the past three thousand miles, dear Interstate 90, the vital eastern artery, shuffles off its concrete coil, ended. From Missoula past Boston, three days, seventy hours. Ever east. Godlike in perfect attainment, we pull over and park and catch our breath and look at each other, Sean and I, just lock eyes for the briefest of seconds, and know, and look calmly ahead, blankly into the dark street, human and vulnerable at last, some kind of simultaneous exhalation of the world’s breath, and just fucking know.

We step out of the car. We grab a few bags each. We walk, maybe two blocks to the apartment. Boyd is outside and he starts to get up to help us. The street and sky hang motionless. It’s that post-midnight softness of Revere, MA, my one-time home, that old and sacred humidity, the sad damp trees and the thick sidewalk, the silent flat street, the high buzz of the clustered power lines overhead, the sound and sight of the things I know and knew, the thin echo of indoor voices waiting for our late late late arrival, the orange glow of Boyd’s cigarette as he sits on the downstairs porch and smiles broadly, goddammit, all of this, this nostalgia, this tightness in the chest, this impending release, this bitter pill. Makes me feel like I have never left; I’m still living there, up on the second floor, my computer’s white cerebral glow giving the crimson red of the old bedroom that sweet vespertine pallor of long days and longer nights, those claustrophobic winter weeks when all five of us, Evan and Boyd and Alex and Beth and I, would sit and wait for the day to happen, those screaming summer soirees of drunken valor and terrible poker playing and midnight cigarette runs, all memories just buzzing through me now, torn in half, fucked, consumed, living both in past and present, oh yes. It is good to be back.

So we move all the necessities up into the apartment and make our appearance. The place is packed. Boyd, Evan, Alex, Gwen, Jess, to be sure, but also Raju and Pevner and Beth2, newer friends from the last two years I was at MIT, and Dmax, a good old friend of mine who spins DnB, and has these impossibly arcane insights about the modern world and its trappings, and is otherwise grudgingly pursuing what some would call a career at the time of this writing. I miss them all so much.

Everyone is impatient to get this party started, but I insist on distributing the gifts first. They are unwrapped to a combination of hysterical giggling and general awe. Lists are boring so I’ll just mention a few of the presents: I got Jess one of those Playskool basketball hoops that stands about four feet tall and comes with a rubber basketball about the size of a cantaloupe. Ages 3-7. Boyd got a baseball cap embroidered with the words “Living Legend”. And so on. The energy in the room at this point is starting to become viscous. People start floating, drifting around the room aimlessly, chatting and screaming and alive with this terrible powerful force. Elastic friendships, pulled apart only to snap back together tonight. Conversations between seperate beings that are so idiolectic and personal and revelatory and pregnant with multiple meanings that it’s like twins meeting for the first time. Fuck soul mates: this is a jigsaw puzzle of soul, complete in one flashing instant, the complete picture so intimidating and electric that it can’t possibly be described, only witnessed. An apartment of deities bursting at the seams. Plus like half of the people there are high, and Sean and I are running on sleep deprivation, and it’s warm and sweaty in the main room with eleven people and one cat all circling around, and it’s pretty late at night so people are starting to get the crazies, and there are six or seven bottles of liquor sitting there on the central coffee table, mocking and taunting and waiting to be opened and consumed. So we get to it.

This is a party that I have held annually in various locations, once a year, since 2004. Like all good parties, it has a theme, a theme which is pretty much necessarily a little self-loathing and -deprecatory and -aggrandizing. Also it’s flat out a great idea. To wit:

The Fifteen Minute Drinking Party

1. One cannot drink before the party begins.

2. One cannot drink after the party is concluded.

A few people get out stopwatches and keep track of the time. Normally the party is held in the smallest room available, but this year there are too many people in attendance. There’s a countdown in seconds, beginning with ten. The bottles are uncapped and uncorked, glasses are readied like musket shot. A handful of us preload. Exuding smiles. Vodka and Hpnotiq and Jager. Silence. Anticipation. Rum and gin and Crown Royal. Ssssh. Total glee, of a sort. That instantaneous moment right as you jump off the diving board, before your feet have left ground, but after you’ve pushed your center of gravity out past the board, your fate somehow both sealed and open to whatever may come. And then:

Splash!

I take four shots of vodka in as many minutes, and then wait for a moment for the stomach to regroup. Sweat is pouring out of the walls almost. Someone breaks out a shot glass that stands eight inches tall. This does not end well. I lock eyes with various friends. After the first five minutes people start to talk, the pained grunts grow sparse. Unwritten rule: if you drink so much that you vomit, you lose. It’s a fine line. Fast music catalyzes the continued debauchery. I get into a brief but serious conversation with Raju and then Dmax about plans for visiting Montana. There is some screaming somewhere. I am hailed by someone as a king. A girl tries to get up but can’t. It takes about ten minutes for the effects to kick in. It’s very warm inside. No air conditioning. The main table starts to get caked with a thin layer of 80-proof resin. People knock shit over, things are upended. And just like that, the party is over. We all shout: “One minute!”  “Thirty seconds!” “Five, four, three, two, one, stop!”

Of course most people forget to stop drinking. I’m sipping on a beer, but with no drunken intent; I’m thirsty and I haven’t thought it out. A metaphysical line is crossed. Pevner damages my shoes with long distance stomach acid; fortunately I took them off earlier. Someone leaves and falls down the stairs in lieu of walking. Sean and I get into a beer fight. People’s socks are sticky. A cake, which appears out of nowhere, is partially devoured and the rest smeared on various people and objects. Shit gets acausal. The tension built up from coast-to-coast car travel is partially responsible. Fury unleashed. Things don’t wind down; they collapse. I lived here for fifteen months in 2005 and 2006, and the poster that we original five taped to the door is still there, drawn crudely on a sheet of computer paper, albeit sticky and dusty: Welcome To The CDF: Competitive Drinking Fortress. Ah, youth.

I come to, knocked out of a coma, just like that. Asleep and then not. Somehow resting in my sleeping bag. Sprawled out on a futon, headaching, uneasy, but together and undamaged. The floor is littered with cans, bottles, colored liquids, food, dinnerware, clothes. I sit up and immediately regret it. Everyone has left except for Sean and the people that live here. My T-shirt is stained pink for some reason. The place slowly comes to life as we compare notes and clean up. It’s about noon. Alex cleans some cake out of his ear. I change socks and put on my backup pair of shoes. Four of us – Evan, myself, Sean, Boyd – go out to lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant and linger over our food like alcoholics in their fifties, heads down, burping and groaning, old clocks rusty with age. I could wax philosophical about the human need to alter consciousness at this point, or justify my bizarre and self-damaging choices as paneceatic, a treatment for my own personal ills accumulated through Western isolation and three days of endless gazing into the horizon’s maw. I won’t. There’s no need. This and all parties, regardless or in spite of their objective immaturity, are brought into being by a secret contract of camaraderie. The rules are personal, the societies veiled. The fact that I am not ashamed but proud of my stories, the way that we all relish our “this one time” and “I can’t believe that I” narratives, is so very vitally important. Book clubs, bar friends, best friends, bands. Community. Be all, end all.

Some other irrelevant things happen. We shop for CDs, play some strategic board games, indulge in a little beer pong. We eat at a Brazilian restaurant where the waiters bring out just-cooked meat, skewered on swords. A brief nod or motion tablewards grants the user endless chicken hearts, garlic pork, kielbasa. Evan chauffers us around Boston in my trusted Subaru for a whole day before realizing that the emergency brake is still activated. Sean meets up with a good friend of his, Black Metal Justin. BMJ and his girl live on a boat at the harbor, having sold most of their possessions. A subletted house pays the food and gasoline bills. We gaze across the harbor from his boat, watch the sun set, listen to Motorhead, drink shitty beers. I meet up with Chris for a little while, and we hang out in Central Square. Eat some Ethiopian food. Walk around Cambridge. And all of a sudden, two days have gone by. I have done nothing, it’s 6 am, I’m groggy from razor-thin sleep, Sean is still awake, the car needs to be packed, I need a shower, my clothes are dirty, the car needs gas, we haven’t packed any food; yet I can hear the low moan of the road just below us. I am on old time once again. The sweet siren beckons. We can’t resist. We head out into the summer dawn, Pennsylvania-bound.

an ongoing celebration, part two

November 17th, 2008

15 June 2007, 9 am EDT, Novi MI

So I wake up all of a sudden, red bleating alarm, bleary-eyed on a couch, not really knowing how I got there. A dog walks over from an adjacent room and starts slobbering on my face, and then it hits me: I’m in fucking Detroit. Kind of. Novi, MI is a distant suburb, thick with million-dollar houses and luxury SUVs, hot off the lot both, the downtown qualia of carbon monoxide and cramped alley a world away. My 20th century car looks strangely out of place here, its caked-on dirt and bug-smeared windshield a soiled and depraved antithesis to this sterile and silent designer town. Not to mention my own shall I say bedraggled appearance: driver’s clothes, slept-in jeans, a faded gray tee that was born black… I am anti-Novi.

I make small talk with Sean’s parents as the suspension on the car sinks lower and lower with new accoutrements. Bagged clothes, CDs burned, a blue cooler stacked with snack; the attainment of all things road. I am impatient to be off but remain polite, my fervent glances at the whitening sky the only giveaway. This is not the West. It is hot, HOT, hot, a preheated oven flat with white heat. Sweat rolls without motion caused. It isn’t quite ninety degrees when we at long last depart, but it is close. A/C, so frivolous in the Mountain West, is here a stark necessity.

I follow Sean’s wise-man local directions to the freeway, and we put on some thrash metal. The first song of the day is the travelers’ morning joe, as powerful as coffee. Wake up. Be real. Music is a catalyst for true understanding of the abstract concept of freedom. Even if you are not a musician, there is a song somewhere that was written for you, that will release you, that will make you free. It makes you not you, it makes you the only thing that matters. It makes you the only thing. It tells a story that only you can hear. So we agree on the rule to abstain from music before rolling on to the wide blue shield highways, the Interstate. It is a totem of freedom, this first song, a morning prayer to safe travel. A fine song wishes in the day with splendor. Ah, and the Eisenhower System, glorious in its web-like connectivity and fluid motion, the true blue highways, the speed corridors of America. The relationship of the words Interstate and Internet is not lost on me. If a Sunday drive on your local byway is a delicate waltz, each moment seen and fully realized, then blue travel is a mosh pit, in some ways predetermined but chaotic, whizzing by, unseen in its power of primal connection. We travel without moving.

It is between 10 and 11 am. We are to arrive in Boston this very evening. Sean drives most of the way to Boston; I take over at a Mass Pike rest stop just outside of Worcester, MA to do my own personal navigating on the home stretch. A fine high speed burn, the day passing like water under our stolid feet. Partially cloudy and bespeckled with sun. A rainbow greets our New England arrival, a harbinger of endless perfection to come. Not much else happens in the interim between MI and MA; we jam out to tunes, we tell jokes, we act like idiots. Exempli gratia:

“Ooh I like that part where the drummer is like dadakaBAMkaBAM!”

“Is that in five?”

*drumming on parts of car ensues*

“Dream Theater is always interrupting their own riffs to be progressive.”

“We should write a letter to Dream Theater about that….”

“…but interrupt ourselves in the letter to prove like a meta-point!”

” ‘Dear Dream Theater, Why do you always inter-Dear Dream Theater, Why do you Dear Dream Theater…’ ”

” ‘Dear Dream Theater, Why do Dream Theater, why do Theater, Theater?'”

*laughing to the point where it’s technically impairing the driver*

There’s a special kind of humor here which is hard to explain. Maybe it’s simply sheer delight at the world and all its strange idiosyncrasies. I don’t know. It’s like we’re children or very old people, wise and recursive, laughing just because we can. Related: there’s a game called Color Or Country which is played by a group of people, who take turns naming either a color or a country. The point of the game is to NOT name a country. If you do, you lose. The meta-point being that unless you intentionally lose, you can’t lose. So it’s not really a game, per se. But the intentionality of the game is the very thing that makes it fun. In some confusing and analogy-stretching way, the small kernel of truth that Sean and I manifest when together is the same truth that makes this game worthwhile. It’s the same truth that makes anything worthwhile. What it is I’m not sure I can express. It’s a feeling, a sense of things, something overwhelming. What it is not is a thing, an idea, an action expressed.

So earlier I briefly mentioned the intent to buy presents for some old friends I will be meeting at the apartment I used to live in in Boston. Five people, two presents each, one permanent and the second temporary. (I’ll also be throwing a special kind of party when I arrive, so just remember that fact and I’ll fill in those juicy details when the time comes.) The people are:

Evan. My brother, glorious in a dark and powerful way. He listens to exclusively metal and is a walking metal encyclopedia. I’d bet money that he could rattle off 200 metal bands as an involuntary reflex. He is the tightest rhythm guitarist I am aware of. Although fledging at the time, his taste for fine beers has since flourished and he prefers (when the $$$ is available) fine meads and ales over PBR. Also he likes obscure strategy games, talking in falsetto to kitties, and just being purposefully and intensely offensive. I love him. He got the short end of the stick when my parents divorced, and I hope that the rift between him and my mom will eventually close. Words can be sticks and stones sometimes. We can finish each others sentences and laugh at invisible jokes.

Gwen. His girlfriend. I hadn’t met her at the time, and had only briefly spoken to her previously. Gwen and Evan are two pieces in a 2-piece jigsaw puzzle; my s/o Beth treats Gwen like a sister-in-law, and I’m sure it won’t be too long until that legally comes to pass. She wears a lot of black and at the time, lived upstairs in the same apartment. Now they live together in a small cottage by the seashore, and simultaneously raise cats and try not to get so intoxicated that they (not the cats) forget how to eat. Beth knows her better than I do – I hope to remedy that.

Alex. When I was living in the dorms he became Alex2, one of four Alexi in the building at the time. Most persons still or at one point affiliated with that dorm (Senior Haus) still call him this. He’s the quirkiest person I know; his speaking voice varies between a lilting murmur and passionate screaming, ne’er to be averaged. He’s got this Pokemon thing. He likes video games the same way I like video games: an intersection of the mindless perfect attainment of high scores and cruelly sadistic difficulty. At one point we were best friends but distance is beginning to split us apart. Dammit.

Jess. Alex’s girlfriend, and Evan’s ex-girlfriend. She tends to be very silent, so I know her the least well. She, like Evan, also appreciates offensiveness for its own sake. She also likes creepy Japanese things like Alex does. I don’t know much else about her, but the fact that she can continue to be chill in the presence of an ex-bf speaks volumes, in what language I am uncertain. Suffice it to say.

Boyd. Boyd is a good friend of both myself and Evan, but mostly Evan. Evan and Boyd act like a married couple when together, always bitching and moaning. It’s indicative of deep empathy whose value cannot be overstated. Boyd moved up to Boston to get this apartment sight unseen, a decision which I both respect and fear. People tend to like Boyd; moreso than all of us, he is a people person. Between his easy-going nature and his empathy for all, he’ll be the most successful of us yet, just you wait. Like myself, many people have never seen Boyd angry. We both also share a hesitation to express our deepest of deeps.

Sean and Chris are the other heroes of this tale. They are novels unto themselves; I will crack that nut when I come to it.

So we’re outside of Worcester, Sean has just given the wheel to me. We plug in the new Slayer album and floor it, forced to maintain cruising speed of like 65 on this damned Eastern coast. Loud, luxuriant, windows down, Red Bull in hand. Metaphorically screaming at the night sky. It is 11 pm, pushing on midnight. The skyscrapers loom towards us, the city swells with white sparkling force. We are the great ones who choose all paths. We are the dreaming giants who exist only as percolating thoughts of the world-at-large, bubbling up for a brief second then floating back down to the vast sunless sea. We are, we become, we breathe as one.

Welcome to the city, it’s going to get crazy.

From Wikipedia:

“Those who look upon road trips not as a method of travel but rather a hobby frequently describe themselves as Road Enthusiasts or Professional Road Trippers. These motorists take the concept of road trips very seriously, some have devoted time and resources to the pursuit of the hobby. Although there are many personalities in the Road Tripping Community, many road enthusiasts advocate sharing the roadways, preservation of historic places and natural spaces, and safe driving… The goal of road trip enthusiasts is to experience the culture, nature and history of the route, and to celebrate the open road.”

Celebration of the open road. What does that mean?

Every time I glimpse the interstate, which runs through the north of town, I feel this crazy pent-up desire within me to get on it and just go, not to escape but to revel in the unknown landscapes beyond the road’s bend. Whenever I stop at a gas station, especially around sunset or after dark, I can’t help but take a deep breath and imagine that I’m in South Dakota, or Arizona, or Iowa, or Tennessee, and that I have six more hours to go until it’s time to pull over and check in at the first motel I see, unannounced. I have this impulse within me to check the route between my house and faraway places that I hear mentioned in conversation or on the news, just to see what roads I’d need to take and how long the journey would last, sleeping breaks notwithstanding. My father is a cartographer and as long as I can remember there have been maps on my bedroom walls. The strange placenames of cities unknown. Duluth. Winnipeg. Tulsa. Mobile. El Paso. The rolling Midwestern fields at dawn, the fog just beginning to lift. The cool alpine air of a mountain pass allowing snow to lay even in September. The glistening of the city’s skyscrapers, peeking over the horizon against the racing sky. The treeline stretching against ranges unnamed, brown dirt mounds uprooted from earth’s ancient center defying the erosive desert wind. The neon blink of a twenty-four hour diner reflected in wet blacktop. The smell of gasoline. The biting cold of Wyoming’s winter dark. The hush puppies and fried catfish of southern Appalachia. The road. The ever winding and endless road.

—–

13 June 2007, 10 am MDT, Missoula MT

Was going to leave at 7 am to make a good long day out of it but finished packing at 3 am and decided that a good night of sleep was the key to maintaining a consistent 12+ hour a day driving schedule. I roll the car over to the Cenex gas station that abuts I-90 and clean the windshield, fill up, grab a liter of Gatorade. My goal here is a < 10 minute break every three hours at the most, a little foolhardy but not inconceivable, as for now I am the sole traveler. I glance over the packing job as I fill up the car manually. Don’t like to leave the car filling on its own as I have a superstitious belief that the gas won’t turn off automatically and the tank’ll overflow. The presents I’ve prepared are wrapped and I’ve brought a bit of wrapping paper with me, as I’m not quite finished shopping for the eventual recipients. I figure that I’ll pick up the remainder on the way.

The first taste of the road is always a little harsh, much like that first shot of Beam or glass of cabernet. Thoughts race: Am I really doing this? Can I do this? What if something happens? What’s going to happen? Won’t this get a little boring? The new Rush album is in the player, an upbeat choice, a throwback to an old high school conversation that Rush’s Fly By Night is truly the be-all and end-all to starting any journey:

Start a new chapter
Find what I’m after
It’s changing every day
The change of a season
Is enough of a reason
To want to get away

Quiet and pensive
My thoughts apprehensive
The hours drift away
Leaving my homeland
Playing a lone hand
My life begins today

The car purrs eastward past hilly coniferous distant peaks and grassy valleys, and soon I’m stopping for a quick bite to eat at a Subway at the Virginia City exit just half an hour past Butte. It’s still morning in the mountain west so the temperature hovers below 80. I eat in the car and am eager to keep time, not normally preferring interstates but on a schedule that defies mention. I’ve been listening to Kerouac’s On The Road on CD, and it mirrors my emotional state, my thirst and desire to almost be ahead of myself, to be moving so relentlessly that I turn around and see my own body just trying to catch up. The road, although prosaic in physical form, is something that you can lose, something that you can find. It’s as if you physically become your unreachable desires, if only for an instant, the very fleeting nature of their glorious attainment inherent in their power. You reach for it. You fail, you succeed, you move on. You are not a thing. You are an action.

Alone in my thoughts, I fill up the car, eat, and relieve myself at each stop, in order to lessen their irritating frequency. Billings in Montana, Sundance in Wyoming, Wall in South Dakota; I follow I-90’s relentless track east as the sun races past overhead. The rolling western peaks gradually flatten out, becoming rolling brushland with the occasional reddened butte or exposed rock jutting up into the sky. Sagebrush is ubiquitous and trees only exist in the front yards of small town ranch houses. Hot and cloudless, the Oregon Trail in reverse. Such a thing as traffic has never graced this lonely stretch of road. Stripped tires lay across the road in places, clean-up crews being only slightly more frequent than accidents. As if on a stimulant binge, I drink little and eat less. I live only to move.

The sun sets right as I past into Central Time, my day shifting forward an hour into midnight. The road is my lullaby, I lurch at the wheel. A sudden downpour is a sign that my day is over. I pull into the first town I see, Murdo, SD, which is surprisingly vacancy-free given its nominal population, and check into a Motel 6, exhausted and vacant. A routine begins that I wish persisted to this day – I check the atlas to see how far I’ve come and set tomorrow’s goal; I check the weather on the motel’s TV; I call Beth and others to verify my progress and health; I set the alarm for an early start. I sleep hard, as if I’ve been swimming all day instead of sitting and staring into the constant and shifting horizon.

14 June 2007, 6 am CDT, Murdo SD

This isn’t really the perfect road trip, if only because I know so many people along the way. I don’t consider myself a social butterfly, but the friends I make are friends for life, and I won’t drive past a potential rendezvous, as limited as it makes my route and my timing. Yes, the perfect road trip is solitary and open, both in scope and in meaning. Another time, perhaps. I haven’t seen my friend Sean in more than a year, and to make this long journey financially and emotionally viable, he and another will join forces with me and run the road together. Not to mention that he’s one of the best people ever.

I wake up gradually, around 6:15 in the morning. I don’t really remember sleeping. Even my subconscious is rapt in anticipation. Get moving. Get up and get out there. I dawdle over continental breakfast but see nothing worth the effort; it’s time to begin the day’s momentum. I’ll get breakfast on the road. Outside a panorama of soft fog and rolling green farmland spreads before me. The day is beautifully silent, holding its breath, wishing for something from a dream. The guttural chug of my car’s engine is a crime, gasping to life against the sleepy wordless rhythm of the morning, but I feel the road’s call. It is urgent. Plus, I don’t want to be late. Damn destinations!

Within a half hour I find my place on the road, cruising at 75 mph. The fog is burned away by the rising sun, and the last wisps of mountain coolness evaporate with it. It’s the summer, after all, and my childhood experience tells me that today and the rest of these road days will be hot, sizzling, scorchers all. Farm silos, barns, wheat fields, exit signs, eighteen wheelers, construction signs; they all fade into the mile-after-mile grind. Excepting a hurried check to make sure that the fluid leaking from my engine is condensed water from the air conditioner, the horizon rolls out smoothly, effortlessly. I feel the line between the present and the future start to blur, I’m moving so fast. I exist a little after you do. Not late but prescient. Moving eastward at this rate I feel the power to predict, to transcend, to know. I take I-29 south to just north of Omaha then continue towards the east coast on I-80. I stop occasionally for snacks and to stretch my legs. I’m tired, I’m exhausted, the day runs before me; yet I unquestioningly push onwards. East of Des Moines I run into civilization – there is traffic on the road now, the speed limit slows to a stately 65. The flat sprawling cornfields and straight roads grow dull over time. That and the inability to push past the thrall of fellow travelers angers me, and it just gets worse and worse as I approach Chicago.

Fuck Chicago. I still have never been there and seeing as I can’t get within an hour of it without hitting bumper to bumper four-lane gridlock, I never will. Oh well. It’s clearly my fault; I should have picked a better route. Yes, you’ll agree, it’s very boring, the analysis of the best route to take and making good time, but I assure you that my dad and I have spent hours poring over this very issue. Fact: My children will have maps on their bedroom walls.

Somehow I make way past Chicago and northern Indiana, over to I-94, now in western Michigan, right as the last thread of dusky orange fades to the west. I’ve lost another hour to time zones, which is pushing back my arrival time considerably. I must’ve forgotten to take it into account. Night driving does little for the soul. The machine-like truck traffic lumbering on towards Detroit does nothing to help. I’m delirious, sick with exhaustion and the endless road. The last two hours are the hardest I’ve ever driven. No more road trips, I swear. This is inhuman. I’m doing it, I’m almost there, yet I’m somehow failing. I’m hungover from driving. I’ll never drive again.

Three in the morning, I roll off the interstate a little west of Detroit follow printed out directions to Novi, an upscale suburb near Ann Arbor. The road is wet with night, humid in the eastern air, steamy dark humidity that I’ve forgotten. The trees looming over the road are thick with life and I’ve forgotten them in my single year living in arid Montana. It’s still warm, at least eighty. I idle quietly down the last street, mansions on either side. I pull over and rest for a minute, marveling in my own power. 36 hours ago I was in Missoula, Montana, on the west side of the Rockies. Now I’m within sight of the city lights of Detroit.

I go and knock on the door, my friend Sean answers. We embrace and are awkward for a moment as it’s been a couple years, but barriers fall quickly as we listen to music and jam out to some proto-metal in his computer room. I feel like the time spent apart has fallen away, nonexistent. We chat, we reminisce, we laugh. I manage to last about an hour before I wander off to a spare bed, happy in my ability to do what on the face of it seems impossible. I am proud of myself, my car, my world. I set the alarm and fade. This is only the beginning.

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