Something to Say “Yes” To: how I’m learning to like music again

I have a confession to make. I don’t like music.

I stopped listening to music and I stopped playing music when I decided to write about the meaning of it. The challenge of putting into words something I’ve only wordlessly known has been invigorating. But lately I have felt lethargic, frustrated and resistant about my project. This is perhaps a character trait or maybe a station in life.

I experienced something similar at my fight gym. I was doing great in beginner class. I knew I was the oldest person in the gym yet was starting at the bottom. I found the contrast amusing, motivating. After about 18 months a coach informed me I was to no longer attend beginner classes but was to move to “Advanced”. I was proud of my gold star. But in the months following, I felt a creeping realization come over me. There was never going to be anything beyond advanced class for me. I’m in my forties. I’ll never be a fighter. Competitive combat presents a risk of injury that I can not afford to take. The grind is an unavoidable plateau for me. I know that continuing to learn is its own reward. And I have had the pleasure of helping others new to the sport. Despite this, there is something in me that craves more. I remain frustrated with my martial arts practice.

I used to wonder why pro fighters don’t retire once they’ve reach the top. Why so many of them keep fighting past their prime. It’s not an isolated thing. Fighters retiring at their peak is a rare exception. Most keep showing up to take beatings. Each one worse than the previous. These fighters could have careers as trainers, some as pundits. But they want to fight. I no longer wonder why.

What little bit of sparring I’ve done has taught me that there’s ecstasy in violent exchanges. Even when you don’t get the better of them. Once you get a taste of it, you want more. Imagine that multiplied by having dedicated your entire life to this pursuit. The soul doesn’t age. Eternity is set in the heart. The body may disagree but the soul is ever a fighter.

One time mixed martial arts superstar Chuck Lidell (48 years old) getting knocked out by long time rival, Tito Ortiz (43 years old). Liddell had been retired for 8 years.

A Tough Lesson

I accomplished some of the deepest dreams that I conjured up as a teenaged guitar novice. I grew up in a small town; population 2000. But I managed to get myself to a city 1000 times bigger. I formed a band. I played stages. I made albums. But most importantly, I innovated a kind of music never before heard. I do not have the tendency to give myself accolades. That’s for others to do. But in lucid moments, I see how much my parents accomplished despite their starting position. And I give myself a pat on the back for pulling off a similar feat. Still, my heart yearns for more. And when suddenly I was separated from my band and had all my gear stolen I was faced with a new set of challenges. I had to sit with the pain and listen.

These days I practice singing every day. Except when I play hooky. The only music listening I do is in grocery stores. I have been looking for ways outside my research to make music alive for me. But listening to music, I mean really listening, continues to be painful. I am not in a band. I struggle with music practice. And I don’t really listen to music. Can I even call myself a musician?

There is a particularly poignant moment in the documentary, “Jodorowsky’s Dune”. Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky talks about the incredible amount of effort he and his collaborators put into a storyboard (video below) only to get cockblocked by Hollywood’s bean counters. Jodorowsky’s vision died on the vine: “This money, this shit”, he says,This paper who have(sic) nothing inside! Movies have heart. Boom! Boom! Boom! Have mind. Have power. Have ambition. I wanted to do something like that… Why not? Why not indeed. Hits me right in the feels!

Jodorowsky created a bold body of work. He knows this. But he didn’t get to do Dune. And that’s a thorn in his flesh. Alejandro’s love was dammed off from flowing freely. Betrayal is an inevitable life experience. It teaches us lessons difficult to learn. My band had heart, mind, power, ambition. I wanted to do something like that… Why not?

Genre As Faith Tribe

Recently, some internet acquaintances invited me to a “Music League”. This is a music playlist game. It is a simple game. A prompt is provided; such as “Be Not Afraid” or “Bitchcraft”. Players then submit songs they deem to be an appropriate response to the prompt. This makes a playlist. Then, each player has ten points to assign to the submitted songs. The points are accumulated, a winner is determined and the rounds continue. It’s a game where the points don’t matter except as a form of incentive. At first I didn’t understand the game and took a cynical posture towards it. I participated only because I felt like I had to. I’m supposed to be the “music, meaning, mystery” guy, right? By round three I was engaged in how in how others interpret the prompts. What was their angle of approach? Did the playlist resonate the prompt’s meaning? Or better still, how did the music influence my sense of the prompt’s meaning? This game invited me to playfulness. I briefly forgot my broken relationship to music. The relief allowed me space to be with music again. And I got to thinking about genres.

A genre is a kind of faith tribe. We are prone to tribalism. We cling to several and varied forms of it, some very strange like vaccination status. I reflexively dislike tribalism. But I know that boundaries, edges, rules, structure and dogma are useful. How else could we functionally navigate the paralyzing reality that everything is inexhaustibly complex? Without any edges, everything is everything, always. So tribes happen.

When radio was a thing there were rivalries between station listeners. We bickered and negotiated over FM frequencies on the car stereo. My high school was split along musical lines. The metalheads didn’t mix with the country fans. Both partook of the musical sacrament of course, but the vestments differed. As did the social rituals. The metalheads occupied tucked away wings near seldom used exits which facilitated sneaking out for a toke.

The country fans were integrated into the school spirit because the teaching staff knew and liked the songs. Their insider status granted these kids more leeway in their inebriation. They could brag in the open about their drunken escapades and tobacco habit. They owned the main hallways and were hip to what brands were cool. They were proud bearers of the school colors and of the escutcheon of small town normativity. They ate their food in the main lunchroom and their songs could be sung there. And they sometimes were. The Thunder Rolled in the cafeteria; more than once. Reign in Blood is an attractive expression of brutality but Slayer can’t be accused of targeting the 9th grade math teacher demo. In the end, humans are gonna human. Take away creed and nation and we’ll tribe around 96.9 FM.

I never could find a genre tribe of my own. To me it was all music and adhering to a single option didn’t feel natural. I remember hearing Brave New Waves on CBC radio late at night in the late 90s. It had music I never realized were in the spectrum of possibility. In my estimation the show transcended genre. It was too strange to label. I immediately requested to be given the graveyard shift at the local gas station so I could listen to Brave New Waves which aired from midnight to 4am. Music was not so easy to access in the pre-internet age. There was an effort required to achieve a discovery. The limitations have since been obliterated. There is infinite access to infinite music; every genre all the time. This is a plateau. And I am frustrated with it. Music listening for me has lost a sense of mystery and discovery. So I focus on doing my research and making the podcast about the meaning and mystery of music. All the while harboring this terrible secret: I don’t like music anymore.

Patti Schmidt, pictured in the 1990s, led Brave New Waves from 1995 to 2006. 
(CBC Archives)

A More Playful Approach

Genre tribalism remains something I can’t integrate into. I see separation, I want to build a bridge. Music League is such a bridge. The playlists are eclectic due to being made up of blind song submissions. This heals genre tribalism. Playlist prompts that I thought would attract submissions of a certain kind end up leaning heavily in another direction. This turns the act of listening to music into a game and makes music listening playful, exploratory. Instead of genre, it is prompts which define the boundaries.

These prompts remind me of the almighty Question in a tarot reading. The Question funnels the infinite field of future possibilities and makes this field investigatable; the infinite becomes coherent. Music League’s prompts are like this question. A prompt such as Making Love to the Apocalypse is as well expressed by Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” as it is by Mark Pritchard’s “Come Let Us”. But Music League prompts make those contrasting styles make sense together. It unifies these seeming opposites. This, I believe, is a hint as to how humans unite.

Through my research and experience I’ve come to believe that medicine is what unites. Etymology indicates that ‘heal’ means ‘to make whole’. Music League is a little bit of that medicine for me. Playlist games heal genre gaps and heal me personally by bringing me back in good relation to music listening.

My research project is about making a case for the importance of music. I didn’t realize that this was different than making a case for its personal importance to me. Similar to my journey in martial arts, I struggle with the fact that it I will never have a money earning career making music. I know that money isn’t the only currency which measures value, but I struggle with embodying this knowledge. Like Jodorowsky, I feel cockblocked. “I wanted to to do that”. But in Music League’s playfulness, I let go of all these wants and refresh myself with play.

If I Fail, It’s Not Important

I’m grateful to Brian Cotnoir’s appearance on the podcast. I asked him: “what makes you an alchemist?” and he replied playfully: “I’m alchemist because I do alchemy”. A musician isn’t exclusively a profession, it is a pilgrimage, a calling, a medicine. Those who make music are musicians. So can I call myself a musician? I do so, but with a thorn in the flesh.

In the rest of the Jodorowsky video linked above, Alejandro discusses the influence his vision had on movies. His storyboard for Dune never made it to film but it changed science fiction forever. The documentary is worth watching for understanding how without Jodorowsky’s Dune we would not have such strange wonders as Giger’s Alien. Jodo’s dead vision of Dune breathed life into sci fi filmmaking. Alejandro concludes with a life lesson: “In the life, thing come, you say ‘yes’. Thing go away, you say ‘yes’. (…) If you fail it’s not important. We need to try.”

Things went away. I lost my band. I lost my gear. I lost my sense of direction in music. These losses, these beatings if you will, caused me to fundamentally question what music is and why it matters. A question was thrust unto my life, a mission, something worth saying “yes” to. I accept this challenge. If I fail, it’s not important. “We need to try”.

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2 responses to “Something to Say “Yes” To: how I’m learning to like music again

  1. Drew Minaker

    Great post here, thank you for sharing from your heart about your journey. Related to your point about genres, you might be interested in ethnomusicologist John Blacking’s definition of music in the book “How Musical is Man?” He progresses from our starting point, culturally, as “humanly organized sound” and over a series of transformations ends with the inverted definition: “soundly organized humanity.”

    • I love those sorts of inversions which help us see the “right side up” version more clearly. Like a mirror.

      Thanks for the recommendation. I will soon be studying your first recommendation to me (Sylvan) and then look into Blacking.

      Also, pardon the delay in approving this comment. I was in the middle of a move which just completed and was quite busy. Now I am in the new location and will be able to focus properly on this project again.

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