My music release pace slowed down and I stopped writing text entirely for a few years. I have been trying to figure out why. I think I have a few answers in the form of four mini-crises.
Mini-Crisis 1: What Even Is Writing/Art/Music Dude
I stopped posting text and releasing music because I have been confused about what form my output should take. The word blog always put me off; too cute, not serious enough. The word memoir always put me off; arrogant, delusional. I stopped even thinking about writing as such, and just exported thoughts into .TXT files and saved them into a catch-all folder on my desktop without any specific intention.
Similarly, I had a hard time finishing the feverish bouts of song-trances recorded into a voice memo app or 4-track cassettes or .RPP session files. The ideas kept coming, but for a few years I had a harder time completing them. This was fine for awhile, but the pile of material eventually hits an overwhelming critical mass. “Okay, I have 400,000 words and about 8 hours of songs, and most of it’s probably bad but 5-10% of it is probably great, ughhhhhhhhh who carrrrrres….” A few months ago I snapped out of it and felt an urge to hack through it, but for many years it was a massive lodestone that pushed me away with an overwhelming repellent psychological force. Progress in any creative project requires that the force exerted by the urge-to-hack-through drive must exceed the force exerted by the ugh-who-cares repellent lodestone, and that took a lot longer in the late 2010s and early 2020s for me than it did previously. I wondered why. Perhaps Mini-Crises 2-4 can explain further.
Mini-Crisis 2: Social Media Brain Injury
Secondly, I stopped writing in deliberate long form because the tweet and the FB post seduced me and absorbed my energy, not only through their unassuming, accessible form but also by flooding me with immediate positive feedback. It was easy and it felt good to get a few dozen likes a couple times a week. (That this was deliberate social engineering that I and all of us fall victim to is a topic for another post.) It also provided the illusion that I was participating in democratic discourse. I ignored the fact that I never persuaded anyone in a reply thread, nor had anyone ever persuaded me. “They’ll remember what I said some day,” I said to comfort myself. But even I forgot what I’d written a few hours later.
For the past few years most non-private statements I made in text form, some of them at first quite long and heartfelt and composed lovingly for hours like this post, were later boiled down to fit inside 280 characters, or threaded (1/87), or twisted to fit into whatever the character limit is for those stupid neon backgrounds with B I G T E X T, and in all cases I gave rights to my statement over to monopolistic data hoarding orgs whose aesthetic and ethos I despise.
These habits formed a pattern of thought that led me to conclusions like this: “What do I have to say that’s any more interesting or relevant than what everyone else is saying? We’re all just posting cringe into the abyss. Writing is stupid.” And writing is the closest exercise we have to bulk export of thought itself, so it’s not a long jump from there to “Thinking is stupid.” I never believed that consciously, and never quite stopped trying to think or communicate clearly, but I certainly started to doubt whether thinking or communicating clearly had any point. The nihilism of that despair-circle got to me. I gradually stopped writing in arcs that required more than two minutes of attention from a reader.
Mini-Crisis 3: But Shutting Up Is Also Good Sometimes Actually
Third — and rightly! — I became more aware of being a middle-aged petit bourgeois white guy from comfy suburban Florida living in comfy cooltropolis Berlin. At least in my social circles, I’ve seen over the past few years the beginning of a long-needed signal boosting of the voices and music of people who usually don’t get listened to enough. Black and brown people, women, queer people, indigenous people, people fighting the metastasizing remnants of patriarchal colonialism, etc. all deserve more attention than they receive. It made sense to me to pause for a bit and focus on listening. I still talked to people, both in person and online, and I never lost the habit of saying what I thought. I also continued to put out some music occasionally. But for a time it seemed appropriate to keep the noise down and focus on what others were saying, especially others whose voices sometimes get drowned out by people like me.
Put another way: I didn’t have anything to say that I found more legitimately interesting than what a lot of other people were saying. And though I now again feel the urge to make more public-facing text and music of my own, I aim to keep my signal boosting/shutting up skills sharper than they were in the past.
But alone that’s no reason for any artist to go as silent as I went for several years. One more long, calm crisis combined with the above three and kept me more incognito than usual.
Mini-Crisis 4: Thousands of Euros and Hundreds of Subversive PDFs
All of the above coincided with a return to teaching for the first time in a few years, starting in late 2017. I took a freelance but often nearly full-time position at a university to solve the problems described in “€30,000“, a sum that at the time of this post I longer owe to anyone, thanks largely to the extra money I earned there. My work as an educator acted as a reservoir for thoughts that were stuck in creative limbo due to Mini-Crises 1 through 3. The ecstatic yelling that previously found voice in my text posts and in my songs was for a time diverted into my lecture slides, which were weird minimalist PDFs that served as link repositories, conversational hand grenades, and (I hoped) skill-transfer aides.
The institution I served was a B.A. degree-granting pop music/audio engineering academy, a European equivalent of Berklee College of Music or Full Sail. Despite the good intentions of most of those who work at these kinds of institutions, for-profit hybrid business/arts education usually underperform against community colleges (Dening et al., 2013) and siphon student money and public resources to private investment funds (Ahlburg, 2019). I never let myself forget that I was, for a few years, working in an organization with whose ethos I could never align. I was not alone in feeling this way; I heard similar concerns from people at all levels of the organization. I had three things in common with many of my fellow idealistic artist colleagues: a determination to deliver quality education to students, a mistrust of private for-profit music colleges in general, and economic precarity that forced us to choose between poverty and seeking ancillary employment at an institution whose function is to convert the artistic energy of students into an exploitable commodity.
I did my best to encourage rigor and curiosity in the students. Inspired by other teachers, I did my best to make my classes Temporary Autonomous Zones (Bey, 1985) in the belly of the beast. Drawing on my distant physics background and my experience as an audio engineer and venue owner, I said yes and poured my soul into any class the academy threw at me (fundamentals of acoustics, composition for video, mixing/mastering, management, research methods, writing workshops, etc. etc. etc.) I re-learned what I was teaching and provided many alternative texts alongside the diluted received ideas in the university course guide. I emphasized critical thinking, respectfully highlighted and buttressed weak points in the existing curriculum, and encouraged skepticism of exploitative culture industry norms. I tried to convince every student that they deserved the power and the autonomy to build their own, better, more beautiful systems. I will never know if I got through to anyone — no teacher ever does. But after four years and €30,000 of debt paid off, I felt very tired, very proud of my work, and very justified in resigning.
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Those four mini-crises superimposed into a state in which I needed to shut up for a bit. It’s perfectly sensible for anyone to go cave diving for awhile as long as they come out of the cave with something new. I’m not sure what that is for me, but I know I have learned more in the past four years than I have in my entire life previously about music, about philosophy, about psychology, about economics, about writing, about history, about learning itself, about the (non-)purpose(lessness) of art and music and text, about all that and more.
This ongoing series of text/audio/video posts and corresponding citations will showcase me bashing out some of what I learned and, hopefully, forging it into new text and music. I invite anyone who is interested to kick ideas around with me in the Comms room.
This series is beginning now because I am about to unleash an arsenal of new music. As I mention above, I have been creating steadily during this period, sometimes feverishly, but holding fire, not finalizing it or releasing it until I could weld it together into forms that made sense. That welding work is happening now with the help of some friends. The next few months will see the release of a ton of new Emperor X tracks and other collaborative music. Plague willing, I also might tour again in late 2022.