Words of Wisdom from the Chairman

[9/18/09 One more added paragraph!]
[7/13/09 Updated with two bonus paragraphs!  Can you find them all?]

Before I left for China in August 2004, I went down to the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle’s Pioneer Square district and, on the recommendation of my good friend and former fellow Lemur Celia Chavez, bought a nice, hand bound journal.  I’d always thought that, in the course of my life’s many sojourns, it’s kind of a shame I’ve never kept a journal to record my experiences, and I vowed to make amends on this subsequent venture.

When I first arrived I wrote fairly diligently, documenting my acclimation to life in China.  That lasted about a month.  Entries grew further and further apart, culminating in the lengthy gap between November 22, 2004, and April 9, 2005, before breaking off altogether.

When I started studying Chinese characters a while later, I realized that the only way these things were going to stick in my head was if I wrote with them regularly, and the journal effort recommenced, this time in Mandarin.  Since June 4, 2006 I’ve been keeping a Chinese journal, with much greater success than the English version.  There have been a few dips in frequency, especially earlier this year, as I focused on trying to read my first Chinese book (Lang Lang’s 郎朗 autobiography, and boy, will I have a lot to say about that when I finally finish it!), but now I’m back up to about once per week.  One of my simple pleasures is to go hang out in a bar on an off night, or occasionally one of those all you can eat sushi joints, find a quiet corner, and catch up on my journal for an hour or two.

It’s good for reinforcing characters, but there are drawbacks to a Chinese journal.  It lacks the immediacy of writing in my mother tongue, and my means of expression are drastically reduced to more or less recounting the bare facts.  I write less, I write more slowly, and I hardly ever go back and skim over what I’ve already written (one of the primary joys of journaling, I believe), since I read so slowly.  And due to its personal nature, I rarely have anyone proofreading it, so I tend to reinforce the same dumb mistakes over and over.

So I’d been wanting to write for a while about Mike and Liza Min’s recent honeymoon visit to Shanghai, but I eventually realized it simply wasn’t journal material.  Therefore I have decided to take it to the blog and get all gushy on you for a minute.

As Mike put it on the webpage for the Bike Bin Project, I’ve known him for forever and a half.  That would put our first meeting at the Bauhaus Café in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, where he, me, Korby Sears, and Erik Aho had arranged to go see Harry Partch acolyte Phillip Arnautoff’s homemade string instruments in just intonation.  From there, Mike joined me, Korby, and Geoff Ogle to found the Sound Currents concert series, and Mike assembled the Seattle School composers collective (him, me, Korby, Erik, and Guy Whitmore at its inception) to perform Mike’s piece “Folding” at the first Sound Currents show.  Seattle School went on to conquer the Seattle new music scene with confounding, confrontational pieces, culminating in the hugely successful Iron Composer songwriting competition/obstacle course/drinking game/audience participation/performance extravaganza (in which Mike went by the moniker “Chairman Min”).  I’m not going to tell the whole, crazy story; you can read about it on the Seattle School web site (though even that doesn’t really do it justice).

Unquestionably, my Seattle School cohorts are what I’ve missed the most about Seattle (well, them and good beer).  So when Mike announced that he was marrying Liza Keckler (whom I’d had the pleasure to meet on my last visit to Seattle in 2006), and that they were stopping by Shanghai on their honeymoon, I was ecstatic.  They were here for just 3 days, about a month ago, and it was so awesome to see them that I didn’t even want to waste time Twittering about it.  Jutta and I picked them up at the airport in a car with champagne and fresh fruit, and did our best to show them the best of our fair city of Shanghai in the limited time they had.

It went by super fast; it felt like there wasn’t nearly enough time to talk about all the important stuff, the kind of things that Mike, Korby, and I would stay up late drinking bourbon and dissecting, the inscrutable calculus of composer, performer, audience, expectation, sympathy, structure, innovation, tradition, all the factors that are at the core of any serious art.  I realized that in some ways we’d grown in different directions, but in the important ways, those directions were pretty much parallel. 

I consider Mike one of the wisest people I know, and in retrospect, I realized that I was kind of looking for Mike’s approval on my work and activities in the five years since I left Seattle, and especially in this last year, as my sabbatical is starting to wind to a close.  So the day after they left, I took out a sheet of paper and tried to capture all of Mike’s morsels of admonition.  My memory’s already going fuzzy on the details, but here were the salient points as I captured them then.

Chairman Min says:

I should find a theater guy to consult/collaborate with me on shows.
I can do a lot in two months (approximately what remains of my sabbatical)
I’m getting upset about the wrong things (I think he meant when I’m complaining about loops and peoples’ misapprehension of non-linear or algorithmic structures)
Prebound” is “sweet,” but “口口口口口口口口” should be the single for my new album.
I should curate my own art show; I know enough people to pull it off, and it would be incredible, or amazing, or awesome, I forget which.
When I said I don’t like most people (I think I actually said “anyone”), he said, “Yes you do; you’re just a big Ben bear.”
He digs my three big non-linear spectacle ideas: the opera, the symphony, and the restaurant piece (must get these realized, stay tuned!).
Again I said I didn’t really like anything, and he said that probably the problem was that, like him, I’ve been so overwhelmed by something truly excellent in the past that I’m disappointed when things fall short of that standard.
In the current economic climate, I should feel no remorse whatsoever about selling my downtown Seattle condo when I moved to China (which I had previously described as one of the big regrets of my life).  Mike has an MBA, so I trust him on such things.  What a relief!

Mike also completely disagreed with my frequent observation about how artists have an obligation to know their materials. I’m still thinking it over, but I trot that one out less frequently these days.

Another conversation stuck with me.  I mentioned a poet friend of mine that Jutta and I had gone bowling with a few weeks prior.  She’s since left Shanghai to pursue a graduate degree, which involves picking a new language to learn (you need four).  So we got to talking about career prospects for poets, and thinking about what poets really want out of life.  Mike said, “I think poets just want to be left alone.  Like composers!” 

So true.  That’s all I’m looking for.  I wish I could set my Facebook “looking for” field to “solitude.”  Perhaps as a composer I fetishize time a bit, but it’s really the only thing I need to do good work; I’ve got everything else.  My original plan for this sabbatical year was to move to another city where I didn’t know anybody and just be a hermit, focusing on my work.  As my sabbatical is starting to wind down (less than 2 months remaining!) I’m starting to think that wouldn’t have been such a bad idea.  I mean, I’ve gotten a fair amount done, but I always feel like I could be doing more.  So many opportunities in Shanghai, but, oh, so many distractions…

Other things I observed about Mike, which I think have always been pretty much true, and which I should really take to heart and emulate.

Mike is empathetic; he’s not over eager to talk about his own stuff, but is very receptive to what other people have to say.
Mike keeps his cool.
Mike doesn’t get hung up on insignificant details.
Mike seems to drink a bit less than he used to.
He looks a little older (a reminder that I’m sure I look much older than I did when I moved here), but he looks really happy. I mean, it’s his honeymoon and all, so I’d hope so, but in general he seems really happy with where he is in life.

So anyway, thanks to Mike and Liza for stopping by; your presence here was a tremendous joy and encouragement to me.  Accept my heartiest congratulations on your nuptials, and may you have every success with your impending projects (like that iPhone app).  Sorry for sending you to the beach with cupping bruises on your backs.  I love you guys.  You’re welcome back anytime.

Oh, Yoko…

Let me say first that I’m coming at you as a Yoko Ono 小野洋子 fan. Back in Seattle, the composers collective of which I was a member, Seattle School, did a tribute show to her and other Fluxus artists, named for her 1964 book Grapefruits. One of my pal Korby’s prized possessions is the letter from Yoko Ono’s people authorizing us to use her image in promotion of the show. Check out this article that ran in the Seattle Weekly.

I think a lot of the poetic little text pieces that comprise Grapefruits, notwithstanding a strand of dark deadpan humor, evince a certain optimism, the idea that by simply unhinging your brain a bit, you can see the world with fresh wonder. So I headed out to the Ke Center to catch her Fly show opening last weekend with this mindset, in a spirit of goodwill and hope—hope that was mercilessly dashed almost upon arrival.

As we entered the compound, we were engulfed by a huge sea of people waiting to enter. Evidently we had missed a formal welcoming address from Ms. Ono, delivered to the throng from on high in a makeshift podium erected on the gallery’s third floor balcony. But the gist was reiterated in a video that played repeatedly on the side of the building as we waited to be granted admission. The concept was simple: “I love you, Shanghai.”

To transmit this simple phrase, Ms. Ono employed an algorithm of her own devising to encode her message of love into an abstract sequence of flashing lights. She adroitly counted the number of words in the expression “I love you” (there are three), and assigned each word a number corresponding to its position in the sequence of words that comprise this short phrase. Using this system, “I love you,” can be rendered on a flashlight as, “flash,” “flash flash,” “flash flash flash.” In case you didn’t bring a flashlight with you, small souvenir “Onochord” keychain flashlights were distributed to certain lucky attendees.

It’s hard to explain why this is so dumb, but let me try. First of all, the act of encoding this message in lights does nothing to increase its potency or tweak its meaning, so there’s really no reason to do it in the first place. I mean, you could imagine using flashing lights to suggest some kind of emergency message or beacon or whatever, but she didn’t do anything to develop the idea along those lines; she was just flashing lights at people she could just as easily have been talking to. An even bigger problem is that there’s no coherence (let alone elegance or robustness) in the method of encoding she employed; it’s simply a blunt, arbitrary assignation. If you want a binary, human intelligible, time-based encoding system, either do the work to develop a complete and meaningful system yourself (and accept the fact that no one will take the time to learn it), or adopt an existing system, such as Morse code, so you’re at least deferring to other on matters in which you yourself lack competence.

This system belies a fundamental lack of understanding about how language works. Further, it actually erects an artificial barrier between people, because who, outside of the small subset of humanity who crammed into this show, will recognize a sequence of 1-2-3 as meaning “I love you?” (By contrast, you would touch a significantly larger percentage of humanity by simply speaking the words in English, or Mandarin or Spanish or Hindi, for that matter.) It serves only to obfuscate what is apparently intended to be a very sincere and meaningful message. And on top of that, what is the need for this kind of communication in today’s environment of high speed digital communications, when a voice can be relayed vast distances on a laser?

I suppose that what Ms. Ono was trying to achieve with her light code is related to a story she recounted in the video being screened to the impatient masses outside the museum. She talked of how John Lennon once invited her back to his home in rural England and requested a piece she had listed among her works in “Ono’s Sales List,” a catalogue raisonné from 1965 that was appended to the 1970 expanded edition of Grapefruits. In category E, “Architectural Works (priced according to contractors’ arrangements and cost of property),” type A is listed as,

LIGHT HOUSE-a house constructed of light from prisms, which exists in accordance with the changes of the day.

A footnote informs readers that, “Patents applied for, machines, and models for Architectural Works, may be viewed by appointment, only written requests accepted.” Of course, there were no plans, and when John Lennon asked her to build one in his backyard, she responded, as she said in the video, that she had no idea how to build a lighthouse.

The video then flashed us forward to the 21st century, and the LIGHT HOUSE has finally been constructed on Viðey Island, Reykjavik, Iceland. (I don’t know the details of construction, but at a certain point it strikes me as goofy to claim authorship for a work in which all you said was “build a lighthouse,” and someone builds one for you.) It’s clear from the video that Ms. Ono views this as a way of finally granting Mr. Lennon his request. Throughout the video, “Imagine” played over archival footage of the doting couple (raising the uncomfortable suggestion that Ms. Ono’s work couldn’t stand on its own without invoking the music and likeness of the great rock star), suffusing the whole endeavor in a nostalgic and completely backwards-looking sentimentality. Here she was in Iceland, 2006, flashing her coded “I love you” into the sky, hoping that the man who wrote “Imagine there’s no heaven” will hear and smile down on us.

(And let me say for the record that I wouldn’t mind if I never hear that stupid song again. Give me “Glass Onion” any day.)

It’s clearly a very lopsided kind of love that Ms. Ono is promulgating. Nothing about the show suggested equality between lovers; instead the very architecture of the show enforced power relationships, as when Ms. Ono delivered her opening speech from a pedestal high above the crowd, or when the selective bouncers in the third floor lounge limited entry to her performance to VIP’s only. But most egregious was the 1-2-3 encoding that was also the crux of the show. Instead of promoting free love for all, Ms. Ono was saying that we could only love her on her own terms by adopting her goofy and arbitrary code, and she even had the audacity, as an artist in a position of privilege and power, to suggest that we should use this same meaningless code to express our love to each other, as if the love of others required her mediation in any way.

In any event, the message of love was clearly lost on the crowd gathered at the entrance, where the scene was less like a 60’s love-in and more like the frenzied mob scene that erupted when Comme des Garçons launched their fashion line at H&M a week or so prior. There were flashes of anger, name-calling, and pushing as the guards attempted to regulate the flow of people into the gallery. And when she made her hurried exit later on, a crowd pressed upon her all the way from the elevator to the waiting car outside.

(And let me pause to ask at this juncture, What is up with you fickle people? Prior to her arrival in Shanghai, I didn’t know a single person who would voluntarily go on the record, as I did above, as a Yoko Ono fan. I, for one, think the Beatles ruined Yoko as much as the opposite may have been true. But in general conversation, if her name comes up, it’s usually with a mocking grin and a rolled eye; she’s blamed for the Beatles’s demise, decried as the queen of caterwaulers, and made to embody the disconnected capriciousness of “avant-garde art.” Yet on the night of her opening, the place was thronged with people. I can only attribute this to Shanghai’s insatiable obsession with celebrity in all its guises.)

And once the antsy crowd was inside, what spectacle greeted them? A sparse and cursory retrospective show. Photographs of women’s breasts with the caption “My Mommy Is Beautiful.” A wall on which people could write about how much they love their mommies. A tree on which people could hang their wishes. Selected works from Grapefruits enshrined in frames on the wall (which strikes me as somewhat contrary to the spirit in which they were meant to be experienced, but maybe that’s just me). As for her performance, I didn’t make it into the third floor VIP area to see it for myself, but Jutta did, and what she demonstrated to me later was a kind of half-hearted Chicken Dance.

Just inside the door was a new instruction piece entitled “Mend Piece for Shanghai,” which looked disappointingly as though it could have been torn right from the pages of Grapefruits. I really can’t be bothered to go back to the gallery to copy it down verbatim, but it was something along the lines of

Mend piece for Shanghai
Mend.
While mending, think of all the people in the world.
Think of how much you love them.
Mend the world.

Or some such fluff.

And the fact that this piece sounds fresh plucked from Grapefruits illustrates the biggest problem with Yoko Ono’s work. There’s none of the depth or maturity that you would expect from a renowned 60-year-old artist. It seems she’s been living in a bubble since the 60’s. Since her catapult to celebrity, her youthful efforts have been alternately enshrined and reviled, and she never grew beyond them. As often happens with celebrities, the very fact of fame costs them the frisson of interaction with peers that can hone great ideas, for who dares to argue with an established star? But the price is great, for it is this contact with people (as equals), the experience of the quotidian, where real love (I’m tempted to add, “the John Lennon kind,” in reference to that song from the Beatles Anthology, but that would probably come off as a bit hokey) truly springs.