I’m starting a group with Matt Carder and Lindsay Hotmire here in Muncie exploring connections between faith and art. The information below is for group members, but I am planning on recording the meetings if people are interested. This will be updated with other media alluded to in the group. Email me if you’re in the Muncie area and interested in joining (and are over 21 as it takes place at Elm St.) or if you would be interested in listening to our conversation.
Homework for week 2 includes:
Phoning It In
We’ve all done it on a production that didn’t demand much of us. There can be any number of constraints*: the script doesn’t leave much room, the budget is non-existent, the director is controlling or unpleasant. Within the context of education or no/low budget theatre, maybe this isn’t a big deal and we move on. However, when a theatre is compensating you well for your time phoning it in feels corrosive and dishonest.
So what do we do? We have to take the constraints as they truly are. We can’t ignore the limitations, and it won’t serve us well or the production well to live in a fantasy land. However, what we can do, what no one can take away from us, is specificity. To travel more deeply into the environment as it is, accept it, and continue to work. For me as a sound designer, that means spending more time thinking about whether a fade needs to be two seconds longer, whether I need to ride the dynamics (changes in volume) in a piece a little bit more, adjusting the quality of a reverb, tweaking timbre (quality of a sound).
It is a game of inches and it is likely work that no one else will ever acknowledge. However, this is an important and quiet work you are doing for yourself as an artist and technician. This is a shift from operating from a place of poverty to operating from a place of infinite wealth. If we have the will to look closely, we will realize that we have been given everything we need, we have all the raw materials on hand. It is work that you can see value in and recognize, the production will be better for it, and it will nourish you.
*not a comment on my current work–this came out of a response to a class project, fwiw.
What a dangerous blessing to be so certain of life, to be so sure. So much evil comes holding the train of blind certainty. Our brains discard the noise, re-labels the things that don’t agree with what we hold to be true. That certainty is a salve to some. It soothes the itchiness of existence. To have a life unexamined means not having to explore your own bullshit, not having to own the farm that you’ve bought.
It leaves no place for nuance, for a gradient of meaning. It leaves no room for “I don’t know.” I grew up firmly on the verse extolling us to always have an answer for the hope that we have: read through the entire Bible, memorize, Bible quizzing, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. Accruing knowledge, reading the Bible as history, science, philosophy, and theology was the key to staying firm. Scripture was a scalpel dividing us and them, right and wrong, the certain and the lost. I had to find out on my own that the war we wage is against the polarities of meaninglessness and certainty, apathy and unquestioning action.
How can we be confident in anything beyond the vasty ocean of what we do not know, The Question? Some of us stay on the shore, the terra firma underneath our feet pulled out with the tide, and we remain unknowing, unseeing, thinking that we are safe when we are not. Some of us get too far out, terrorized by the undulating, infinite waves, not knowing when we are going under. The middle way is playing in the breaks, feeling the sand beneath our feet but knowing that everything is constantly in motion, buoyant, moving our bodies as it pushes and pulls.
Faith is not a wall. It is the music dancing on the edge of our brain we can’t quite recall. It is the word we can visualize but can’t get our lips to utter. It is both in us and beyond us.
Naming Before Knowing
We are so quick to label and categorize. I won’t rail against our information-saturated world (which is about as useful as Lear screaming into the storm); there’s a need for this immediate processing of information in our work-a-day reality. We need to move quickly, to be nimble.
However, we need to keep our hand on the switch, flipping this skill off when it’s unnecessary. I think of it in the same way I’ve heard Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) address her anxiety: “Thank you for your help. You are incredibly useful at times, but I don’t need you in this moment. You are dismissed.” We need to have that kind of control over our sorting/labeling brains. It is essential for us to have that part of our brain stand down if we’re to reach toward a painting, a film, a piece of music. Rilke wrote:
“Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.”
We need to approach a work deliberately, as if it’s a wild animal. Look it in the eye, hand outstretched, hunker down, and sit with it. The alternative is positively clinical: capture it, name it, pin it to a board, and categorize it. With that course of action, while we can hold it, something has been lost as well, the ineffable, the life stuff.
As I get older, I don’t want to calcify, I want to flow. I don’t want to shore up my boundaries, I want to merge, to bleed into other stories, other lives, and other scenes. Shaw said something to the effect of: “when I die I want to be all used up.” I want that.
My life has been a journey of coming to a state where I laugh more easily and cry more easily, where I am able and eager to express a richness to others that I aspire to but at times feel bereft of.* I have been reminded the past three weeks of how rich I am in Love, in Joy, in good Work to do, and all these things deserve capital letters. I am rich and you all are my secret, quiet wealth. Thank you for the conversations, the long-form emails, the stops in the hallway and making me remember. May we spur one another forward.
*idea wholly stolen from M.D. Herter Norton’s translator note at the beginning of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet which I haven’t re-read in a while and it is still WONDERFUL.
I was thinking this week about how to talk about design inspiration, where it comes from, how maybe to stack the deck in our favor, how to prime the engine. The most apt metaphor didn’t hit me until I was actually in class.
We need to be like coral. Wherever we are, we have these tides of stimulus and information continually washing over us, moving through us. Whether it be Netflix, class, Spotify, nature, or silly memes (see below), all of us are submerged, awash in a glut of stimuli. The things that are of use to us, the organic material of inspiration, is all around us. We need to sift through the majority of it, the dull popular consumer culture that permeates everything, and extract the bits that are of value to us, those things in which we see the potential for beauty and meaning. We don’t need to yet know the how or end result. We just need to collect and trust that it’ll be valuable.
So what’s our responsibility? Stick ourselves somewhere nourishing, right in the middle of the current, and grab ahold of what floats by. Feed on it, nourish yourself with it, convert it into energy, expand your reach, deepen your hue. Surround yourself with others who may look different, feed on different things, but are kindred in the pursuit. Diversify your creative biome. The design metabolism has the potential to start cannibalizing if we leave it too hungry. Go where you can be fed and grab it!
Our Nuclear Reactor
From a particularly great analogy in Dr. Maisel’s The Van Gogh Blues about turning on our creative switch, our energy, in spite of the daily grind:
“It is as if we had a nuclear reactor within us, but saw nothing on the horizon but a lightbulb to light. Who would be motivated to put a nuclear plant on-line for such a paltry reward?”
“Are you willing to turn yourself into a fiery person, someone who burns hotter than her neighbors?…all you can do is make a sincere effort in the desired direction.”
Burn brightly, friends, more so than your neighbors, your families, your contemporaries. I will make a sincere effort to do likewise.
I’ve been reading a book titled The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path through Depression by Dr. Eric Maisel. I’ll let you do the math. However, before you break out into a cold sweat and this gets awkward, let me assure you, dear reader, that things are pretty okay. I’m not going to cut my ear off anytime soon–no one wants a one-eared sound designer.
I’ve found in my time with many of you that there is no one definition or type for artists and people with the creative impulse. A lot of different things make us tick. However, I know some of you–because I’ve talked with you–experience the sads. I think of us like oceans: sometimes the tide is high, sometimes the tide is low, but it’s dynamic. Insert joke about artists being a salty bunch. The call to action is when it seems like a low tide settles in, our harbor is empty, and we’re stagnating. Ideas just sink, there’s nothing buoyant in our day-to-day experience. Maisel purports that these low times stem from a deficit of meaning, and that creative people are fueled by real, authentic meaning.
Maisel challenges us to be the makers of our own authentic meaning. While it’s always in flux and available for revision, that we need to anchor ourselves to a conclusion that satisfactorily answers the Big Why. The first step is developing (one might say designing) a personal creed, which sounds hokey, but I’m going to try.
I would never encourage anyone to change their therapy regimen or medication without supervision. I will tell you that I’ve found what I’ve read so far challenging and encouraging. If this strikes a chord with you, if you think that you could improve on your Big Why, I’ll be exploring this a bit further and it might be worth you checking out The Van Gogh Blues. I wish you all (and am myself pursuing), as Maisel puts it, a “meaningful life, meaningful work, and meaningful days.” Love and joy to you.
Still Trying to be Dangerous.
So I’ve struggled to post in the last couple weeks and needed to do a bit of an inventory about that (and a lot of house projects). Turns out I’m in a very different space than I was on April 12 when I started this journey. I’m going to avoid writing more about how hard it is to write (boring, amiright?), but the next 50 posts are going to be more free-form and not slavishly adhere to the construct I put on the beginning of this project. I am certain I will still falter several more times before I finish this project 100 days late and a 1,000 dollars short. The back fifty starts now, dear reader.
Effective vs. Ineffective
Effectiveness comes with time and repetition. To wit, I can slap a basic sound design together pretty damn quickly now if I want to. I don’t do that because I want something true and extraordinary and I enjoy the process, but I could deliver you a competent sound design over a weekend.
Stepping back, however, what I’m really talking about is efficiency. A conceptually half-baked, slap-dash (and overly-hyphenated) sound design, even if it suits the production, might be effective for a wide swath of the audience but I know the deficit, the poverty of true meaning in it. It is like a McMansion: pleasing enough, generic enough, but hollow.
To be truly effective, I have to wrestle, I have to stew. I’m great at stewing. I as creator have to assign meaning. I have to pin it to the ground and name it. And as some of us know from naming a child, a book, a website or anything else we’ve had a hand in creating, the name is everything.