Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Music, Photoshop, and the Burden of Perfection...

“Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labor without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves.” - Saint John Paul ll
         I remember the day my heart broke for contemporary music. I’ll preface this, first, by saying that many of my thoughts pertain to a larger, more general, set of circumstances in the music industry, and that there are certainly many heroic exceptions the code of faux-ethics by which many music salespeople live by. That is to say, too, that I am not opposed to making money performing and writing music. Anyhow, I was performing with an artist a while back who asked me to listen to a song that he had recently written. He played it for me and asked for my opinion, to which I replied, “I think its catchy and rather nice, but also, that it has been written a thousand times before and sounded like everything else I was hearing on the radio at the time. His response was simple, “Great! That means it’ll sell!” This discourse left me a little disoriented, and I haven’t performed with this artist since.
         When we sacrifice the quality of music for the fleeting promise of quick recognition, popularity, and wealth all in the name of the burden of a perception we place on our listener, then we diminish our ability to create a beautiful experience effective enough to move our audience. Further, pertaining to many practices in music production, many have redefined the practice of sacrificing quality to mean, simply, that we are “perfecting” the music. Take for example, the cover of a popular magazine…let’s use Cosmopolitan. After Cosmo picks the image of the “woman of the month” whom they choose for their publication, the image is then sent to editing. In that process, the image is often augmented, diminished, darkened, lightened, and accentuated to no end. Often, too, the headshot is taken from an entirely different photo shoot…so add decapitation to the mix. The end result is an image of a woman that may be up to 90% altered from her original state. In the eyes of the media, it is then made “perfect”. What are some of the effects of this burden of perfection? For women, when they view this image, they can fall into the trap of comparison, often asking themselves, “Why don’t I look this way?” This comparison breeds insecurities that can prove to be too hard to heal from, all in the name of perfection. I wont even try to get into what it does to men, and the devastating results of when a man places this burden on a woman.
         The point is that this is happening in modern music. The burden of certain production practices places a tremendous amount of pressure on an artist to create perfection. Employing synthesized instruments opposed to the real thing, auto-tuning the voice and piecing together a vocal track which combines many takes, recording above and beyond your ability to reproduce that sound live are all examples of the way that music is “photoshopped” in the name of a false sense of perfection. When an aspiring writer hears a song recorded at the level, they may find themselves discouraged thinking that they could never amount to anything that perfect. I have seen countless artists turn from their intended journeys because the artist had lain to them.
         We are an imperfect people meant for greatness. We achieve greatness by accepting our imperfections as opportunities to bear them to the world through our music, and make them relatable. In that way, instead of nurturing a false sense of perfection, we embrace more inclusive relationships with our listeners. 
Be blessed.

On Nashville, beauty, and the drive home...

         On August 7th, 2013, I found myself bordering restlessness and a pending panic attack whilst trying to find a spot for my fishing pole in my car, which had been packed to the brim: two cellos, three basses, three guitars, one mandolin, one banjo, one sitar, one keyboard, one pedal board, one dulcimer, and now one fishing pole. In the next nine hours, I was in my new home, and within the following twelve, I was flying to my first show. In one year’s time, I have performed 102 times in 24 states. I have put 35,000 miles on my car, and after two or three more flights, I think I may have collected enough frequent flyer miles to fly to China.
           Nashville hit me like a storm, the kind that swallows up homes and whole cities built on shotty foundations and silt. It found me starving and hesitant, but soon nourished me with the extremely palatable and exclusive sights and sounds which lead all to believe that there is no place on earth near as perfect; to which I will never deny. It is a city of titans and mice, rock face barriers and flowing streams, poets, spinsters, and robots (speaking metaphorically, figuratively, and literally in some cases). The people are kind, the industry is firm, the talent is abundant, and it has proved to be, now, the greatest decision I have ever made for myself to date.
            When I first understood what a beautiful noise was and had the power to do, I was playing my cello upright in a cramped hospice guest room in Grand Rapids, MI. I was on tour with a composer named Eric Genuis, and we had just finished a performance for a larger group of guests at this medical facility. It has never been a mystery to me that I am a perfectionists, and I experience a great deal of anxiety when I know I haven’t played up to the standards I hold myself. This day was no exception. I pouted and protested for a time following that performance because I thought I could’ve played much better than I did. Eric mentioned that we would be playing for guests in hospice, and I had no choice but to be obedient (although, if he had said lets all just pile back in the bus and not talk for 12 hours, I would’ve been less combative). We played for several guests who I am sure have moved on at this point, but one in particular stood out to me. When we exited our last room, a young woman from another room approached us in tears claiming that our music (from the other room) brought a smile to her mother’s face while she passed away. A spirit of great indebtedness and responsibility, one that I try to nurture everyday now had then chiseled my hardened heart made stone by my blindness and standards. 
             Beauty is the new goal, conversion is the mission, and healing the motivation. I have come to understand and advocate for a diminishing of counterfeits and imitations in the writing and producing facets of music and modern art. The change is critical. Music has the potential to be harmful in the long run if it is created dishonestly and with misguided intentions. We have become obese in our listening, consuming music that is full of synthesized salt and audible artificial flavors, and we have become addicts who pass up an organic, simpler taste. I will not be so bold as to accuse and condemn those whom I pray for conversions, but will instead plea that you begin a conversation with yourself about the quality of the art you have been receiving. 
             My move away from Nashville has proved to be just as unceremonious as my arrival, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I will leave the best year of my life behind, only to embrace the greatest to come. The family that I have made there will never be far from my heart, and the experiences never far from my mind. If you were to ask me if I thought that I had been successful, then I would tell you yes. Success to me has little to do with an audience count, a decibel level, an extensive little black book, or the sticker in a passport. Success is living every day in constant awe of the beauty that exists around you, and is often unseen. My sights now are not on the road or the reward, but on your hearts.
Be blessed.