Day 182: Excavation

How strange to see that I don't want to be the person that I want to be.

— Amanda Palmer

That stark moment when you realize there is no making art until you square up to who you are, and square up to not knowing who you are, and then square up to the task of excavating—from layer after layer of pretense, anxiety, distaste, outright fear, education, indoctrination, expectations of family and society and management and tribe, market pressures and the lure of cashing in and then cashing out, politeness, niceness, laziness, and useless advice—your true self. And that stark moment when you understand that you will have to accept whatever you find to be your true self. And that stark moment when you take a step and start something that will be hard to quit. And then that stark moment when you see clearly that you are so in over your head. And finally, that stark moment when you say, Fuck it, I'm making this thing anyway because while you can't see what I'm about to do or how I'm going to do it, I can.

Day 181: Terrific Teffi

I’ve just finished Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi. Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya was born in St. Petersburg in 1872 and became a writer of note in pre-revolution Russia, writing as Teffi. She was a satirist who fled for Paris when the Russian Revolution turned bad for writers of barbed, skeptical commentary. Along the way she met Rasputin and Tolstoy and Lenin and a fascinating array of intellectuals and writers and artists. New York Review Books has issued two collections of her work; the other is titled Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea.

Her acute intelligence, sly rejection of bullshit whatever the source, and dexterity with language make her one of those writers I want to read regardless of her subject. On the Bolsheviks:

Those Bolsheviks in the Smolny are a crafty lot. They’ve decreed that every woman under forty must report for snow-shoveling duty. What woman is fool enough to tell the whole world she’s over forty? So far, not a single one has owned up. Instead, they’ve all been throwing themselves into the fray.

Bits of conversation:

And I was reminded of a sweet lady from Petersburg who said of a friend, “There’s nothing this woman won’t stoop to if she thinks she’ll gain by it. You can take my word for it—I’m her best friend.

This utterly superb description:

The end of a Petersburg winter. Neurasthenia.

Rather than starting a new day, morning merely continues the grey, long-draw-out evening of the day before.

Through the plate glass of the large bay window I can see out onto the street, where a warrant officer is teaching new recruits to poke bayonets into a scarecrow. The recruits have grey, damp-chilled faces. A despondent-looking woman with a sck stops and stares at them.

No improving that.

Day 180: Marriage of convenience

Diane Ackerman:

Deep down, we know our devotion to reality is just a marriage of convenience, and we leave it to the seers, the shamans, the ascetics, the religious teachers, the artists among us to reach a higher state of awareness, from which they transcend our rigorous but routinely analyzing senses and become closer to the raw experience of nature that pours into the unconscious, the world of dreams, the source of myth.

… The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.

Day 176: Brian Eno

I am not at all comfortable with how right this is. Brian Eno, from about five years ago:

Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague… Is this because we feel that politics isn’t where anything significant happens? Or because we’re too taken up with what we’re doing, be it Quantum Physics or Statistical Ge-nomics or Generative Music? Or because we’re too polite to get into arguments with people? Or because we just think that things will work out fine if we let them be—that The Invisible Hand or The Technosphere will mysteriously sort them out?

Whatever the reasons for our quiescence, politics is still being done—just not by us. It’s politics that gave us Iraq and Afghanistan and a few hundred thousand casualties. It’s politics that’s bleeding the poorer nations for the debts of their former dictators. It’s politics that allows special interests to run the country. It’s politics that helped the banks wreck the economy. It’s politics that prohibits gay marriage and stem cell research but nurtures Gaza and Guantanamo.

But we don’t do politics. We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we’re as laissez-faire as we can get away with.

What worries me is that while we’re laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing.

Day 175: "You've never received an icy glare…"

Click for a better look

Celebrating 175 straight days of blogging with another glance at The Man Who Signed the City: an excerpt of the chapter on Drew Daniel, English professor, half of the electronic band Matmos, veteran of world tours with Bjork. (And yes, that's a new cover mockup, ovr there on the right.)

Of the 1,000 copies of Quasi-Objects, they consigned five to a record shop in London called Rough Trade. Rough Trade’s customers included, on at least one occasion, Bjork, and she bought Quasi-Objects. She liked it so much she gave Daniel and Schmidt a call from Iceland. Would they like to remix a song of hers titled “Alarm Call”? “At first we thought it was a prank or something, one of our friends winding us up,” Daniel remembers. “It was a shock. Then, when she started thinking about making her album Vespertine, she approached us to make some rhythms for one song. Then we made a few more, and it started to snowball.” She came to San Francisco to work on the album with them at their house. The first day, Daniel’s computer crashed and he had to call a friend to fix it. “That was pretty embarrassing, but she proved patient with the way we operate.”

Then came the real stunner. “I was working at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles on my dissertation, in the archives looking for visual representations of melancholy, and I got a phone call from Bjork.” She was standing on a cliff in Iceland where, Daniel says, she goes to make big decisions, and she was inviting Matmos to join the backing musicians for her upcoming tour. The tour would be huge, traversing Europe, the United States, and Japan, and it would take a commitment of up to two years. Daniel was in the middle of his dissertation, and had to approach his adviser, Richard Halpern (now one of his colleagues in the Johns Hopkins English Department), and announce that he would be taking a few years off to go on the road. Halpern agreed to let him take a break. “He didn’t have to do that,” Daniel says. “Most people would have been, like, ‘Later, loser,’ but Richard knew I was serious.”

Daniel and Schmidt had to learn Bjork’s full tour repertory and figure out how to perform everything live. One song, “Aurora,” included the sound of Bjork walking through snow. “We couldn’t do snow on stage, though we looked into it,” Daniel recalls. “Martin had this idea to walk on rock salt on a contact-mic platform. So the rhythm of the song was Martin walking. It’s actually a challenge to walk at the right pace for a whole band.” They spent six months in rehearsal and preparation. Says Daniel, “I was scared at the idea that we were really going to do this. But Bjork said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got a lot of people to work with you and make this bullet proof.”

The touring ensemble included a 13-piece orchestra, a choir, a harpist, and Matmos. The first performance was in Paris. “We couldn’t believe what the audience for a pop star sounds like on stage,” Daniel says. “You know, we get good applause when we finish a show, but as soon as she walked onstage, the roar of the French fans was really frightening.” His parents were backstage. So was Catherine Deneuve. “We actually met her at the Dancer in the Dark premiere”—Deneuve and Bjork both had roles in the Lars von Trier film—“and Martin tried to bum a cigarette from her. You’ve never received an icy glare until you’ve tried to bum a cigarette from Catherine Deneuve.”