I’m a fervent enthusiast of audio media, from old radio drama to modern radio drama and audiobooks of all stripes, and despite being a voracious reader of tattered paper books in my youth (and still, though more on digital readers lately), I’m increasingly of the opinion that, in contrast to the nostalgic claims that books are the grand tradition of literacy and stories told aloud on tape/disc/data are the brash upstart, oral storytelling is innate to humans (obviously with allowances to be made for reasons of hearing/neurodivergence) and has been for a hundred thousand years, while books available on scale to the masses are more or less a mostly post-20th century phenomenon.Continue reading A voice, telling a tale
One of the things I truly lament about the social-mediafication of the internet is how I’m stuck looking at an endless thread of posts about political creeps, bible-waving hysterics, celebrities I’ve never heard of and care even less about, and other things that have no direct impact on my life that I can do anything about, and that all that AI horsepower producing billowing clouds of atmospheric carbon in competition with digital mining for moronic fake money can’t seem to recognize the things I *do* care about (probably because few of them result in online purchases), and it’s because of this that I only just found out this week that one of my all-time favorite composers, Stephen Scott, died a year ago.
I’ll share this video to illustrate his amazing, lush, and satisfying work (as well as the craftsmanship and astonishing precision of the people in his ensemble), but will it get the same traction as me bewailing or ironically demeaning some random crime of taste? I post videos and links to amazing things I love all the time and they get zero traction, because the AI sees they don’t get the endless arguments that descend into the mudpits of prog and kitchen appliances and pulls them out of everyone’s feeds.
Stephen Scott was amazing and I wish more people knew his work, and even further, I wish there was more work to come, but his catalog is closed now, and that’s terribly sad. I’d have liked to meet the guy, if for no other reason than to say “thanks for the inspiration and all the time I’ve escaped from the world into your musical realm.”
Honor thy error as a hidden intention.—Brian Eno & Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies deck
There was an unwanted punctuation mark in my day yesterday when I managed to knock over the nice stainless double-walled tumbler I keep on my desk for water. Being freshly filled, I caused a tsunami, inasmuch as roughly 600cc of water constitutes a tsunami as the scale of a desk, that managed to soak literally every bit of clutter on my desk before pouring down one side into a rather nice art book of military nude photography from World War II, my gratitude journal, the review copy of my book manuscript, and a pocket copy of the Le Guin essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” and a few effects pedals in a shoebox.
There was a panicked evacuation of the desktop clutter to the bed on the other side of my room, a great sopping with a beach towel, and the utterance of a surprisingly restrained series of adult words, phrases, and concepts, followed by some amount of wallowing in feelings of grim exasperation, as I stood there, playing a hairdryer over the splayed pages of a rather nice art book of military nude photography from World War II, that my books all seem destined to eventually die in floods.
When everything was dried out, I paused to reflect, letting the bare desk speak to me, and noticed that my monitor speakers actually sound considerably better when placed more widely and at a distance, with the wall to enhance the bass response from the rear-facing ports, and that my desk, when not loaded with clutter, is an inviting and emotionally cool space where things can happen, and I resolved to revise how I work to combat my tendency to load up horizontal surfaces with the multitude of little things that, as the stacks get taller and less stable, inhibit my desire to work, either creatively or in pursuit of a paycheck.
When the water flows away, the shape of its passing is left behind like a dry riverbed, to remind us that it will return in its own time, without warning or opportunity for preparation, and what happens next comes down to how we live in the meantime.
I replaced my nice stainless double-walled tumbler with a smaller teacup with a lower center of gravity and less capacity, and now I will have to get up more frequently to fill it, and this, too, is a useful lesson learned in a flood.
@2022 Joe Belknap Wall
Snow days, birthdays, and other holidays and observances are special days for me, and on special days, I like to make special breakfasts, usually including my favorite breakfast dish in the whole entire universe (scrapple being a very, very close second) — daisy eggs.
They’re a bit of work, but make the rest of the day seem like something more than it might be, another chance to be here—all here, all now, just me and my breakfast against the forces of gloom in the world.
I find it a little funny that a new Thanksgiving tradition seems to have come into being in which news outlets of varying degrees of quality and political bent tackle the red-hot anxiety-producing question of how to avoid those tricky holiday conversations with family.Continue reading Those difficult holidays
The tail end of COVID in my region means my social life can go back to being casual but sophisticated dinner parties, rollicking house concerts, nights at the bijou, and playful country drives in ridiculous old French cars, but even more, it means I can start edging towards the exit of the various manipulative, cynical, and life-diminishing social media platforms we’ve all depended on for the past year.
Here’s to a return to real life—surprisingly, I’ve come to miss it.
[2022 update: Alas, the antivax/antimaskers kept us in it for a while longer, with the Omicron variant heating up and set (supposedly) to peak this month. Still, we have vaccines, quick tests, and smart people to hang out with on small scales while the rest of the crowd gets their act together.]
The full video of my live stream of an improvised score and off-the-cuff telling of several stories about the anxieties of youth, as originally broadcast on 4 December 2020 via Nick’s International Virtual Garage 2020, an excellent Twitch channel for the work of electronic and electro-acoustic musicians.
If you’re interested in an audio recording of the performance, it’s available on Bandcamp on a choose-your-own-price basis [and I’m content with zero as the price as long as you let people know about it].
I was once “mangled” (by my recounting) whilst unwisely exploring the underside of a push-carousel at a nearby playground, and used that largely imaginary injury to affect a rakish manner with a cane for roughly a year, to my family’s extreme irritation. Of course, it was not so much a proper cane as it was a croquet mallet that I inexplicably carried at all times while struggling to pose with it in a nonchalant manner whenever the potential for glamorous disability arose.
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.—Guy Debord, 1967
On my shelf, I have a book.
It is a handmade book that I made myself in a workshop hosted by a friend, and it is not a great book, by any means, though, of the two handmade books I have made in my life, it is far better than one I attempted in a class thirty-five or so years prior, when patience and attention to detail were less important for me.
It looks like a book, and feels, in the hand, like a book.
It sits on a table more like a wedge than the lovely foursquare block of materials that a better book would be; the edge binding being a little wider than the number of bound sections of papers, called “signatures,” would justify, but it looks and feels like it has some of the portent of a book, and carries some of the magical feeling a book carries for those who have a visceral sense of the old Arabic proverb that “a book is like a garden carried in the pocket.”
I made it and it sat and rested and waited for what I thought would be the perfect first idea to add to it.
The trouble with portent is that it creates doubt.
But one day, I decided, when I was in one of those cloudy moods where I felt like something was wrong, but I couldn’t identify either what the something or the wrong was, to start writing.
On the first morning, I woke up, rubbed the night out of my eyes, and carefully copied the first chapter of the Taoist book, the Tao Te Ching, onto the fifth page of my book using a fountain pen that I felt conveyed a sense of import to the process. Then, I made a cup of tea and enjoyed a sense of beginning, and of accomplishment.
On the next morning, I woke up, rubbed the night out of my eyes, and felt like my previous penmanship was poor and that I hadn’t properly incorporated the sense of the moment with my handwriting, and I pondered cutting out that first page with a razor blade to start over, but didn’t, for reasons of discipline or some understanding of history that was more clear to me at the age I was when starting out.
I carefully copied the second chapter of the Tao Te Ching into my book with the same pen with a sense of import, after which I made a cup of tea and enjoyed a sense of continuation and contentment.
I did the same the next day, and the next after that, eventually completing the task of transcribing one of the eighty-one chapters of the book on the morning of the eighty-first day, after which I made a cup of tea, fanned through the book, and enjoyed a sense of having started a project, persevered, and reached the inevitable ending.
My handwriting varies throughout. Some days, it’s tight and meticulous, as regular and uniform as I could make it, and others, it’s loose and rangy and rushed, because I’d almost forgotten my task until later in the morning, or because I wasn’t feeling it that day and just wanted to be done.
I’d stopped using only the fountain pen, sometimes because I’d misplaced it and sometimes as rebellion against my need for repetition and the surety of following the same paths over and over. When I made a mistake, I sat with a moment of insecurity and a razor blade, knowing how easily I could excise that day from the record and start over, but I resisted my temptation to do so. Sometimes, I would artfully correct errors with added ink, and sometimes I would just cross things out.
I shelved the book and there it was, hand-stitched binding on display like a museum exhibit of my history.
At some point, I was reminded of a quote by Colin Chapman, the architect of Lotus sports cars, who held the maxim “simplify, then add lightness,” and it was a fitting notion, so I added it to my book. I added quotes by Fred Rogers and Ursula Le Guin and bits from the Bible and Rumi. It occurred to me, too, that if I pasted in things here and there along the way, it would eventually level out the book so that it would lie flat on a table like the lovely foursquare block of materials that a better book would be, and that thought made me feel curiously settled and comfortable, even though I have yet to paste anything in there.
When I die, the book may be found in my things and recognized by someone as a sacred object once loved by a person, and taken up for the residual energy left when someone who’s no longer around leaves behind things that were rare and valuable to them for reasons other than the intrinsic value of the thing as a material object in the world. For a time, it will carry that energy, the slight sense of fizzy carbonation in the air like the happy aftermath of a beloved song that’s just ended, but eventually someone will be picking through a stack of books, sorting out what’s worth keeping and what isn’t, and it’ll just be a notebook full of scrawled notes important to someone they never knew.
They may see that, of all the notes and quotes and copied wisdom in the book, only one sentence is written in pencil, erasable and subject to being worn away just from the process of opening and closing the book over decades, and smile at the bit of ironic humor I enjoyed as I changed my writing implement for that line and considered, just as a joke told to myself, writing it and then erasing it incompletely, but they probably will miss that in the chaos of clearing out an estate or sorting through boxes of unwanted books donated to somewhere that might take them.
It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.—Thich Nhat Hanh
I think, often enough, of lines I mean to add to my book, and because it is not near, they come into my head, make a tracery of blue-grey lines in the air the way my grandmother’s menthol cigarettes would fill the room with atmospheric handwriting as she’d tell me stories in her Baltimore rowhouse kitchen, before they’d slowly drift and merge into strata and fade.
Like most books that we look to for deeper meaning, my book is full of contradictions, momentary fixations, and ideas that I breezed past at first, then circled back to revisit, adding little footnotes and ornamentation.
I haven’t added anything to the book in a while, and I look at it on the shelf and have a little pang of guilt, as though I’m neglecting a living thing, which it, of course, isn’t…not really. It is a handmade book I made myself in a workshop hosted by a friend, filling up with things I’ve read or heard somewhere, bound into a volume that is like everything around me—finite and enclosed by constraints that have been defined largely by what’s happened after its construction, as resistant to a satisfying or informative summation as real stories are, and it’s no different from anything else in that it, too, might just s t o p
©2021 Joe Belknap Wall