Sunday, February 13, 2011

Toward a Unified Music Theory

It is clear that an event you have attended has been a success when you leave with more questions than answers.  I have just spent well over 20 hours with a group of people madly passionate about the pursuit of meaning in sound and music- people who agree that the deeper one travels into music's inner workings, the more deftly it eludes one's grasp.  I find it akin to those strange star clusters that you can only see in the night sky if you avert your gaze.  Look slightly to the left and there it is; look at it directly and it vanishes into the deep black of the surrounding space.

I have chosen (or perhaps "it" has chosen me) to begin an exploration that might ground music in the field of philosophy in such a way that may grant entry, for the non-musician, into the vexing realms of modern composition, improvisation, sound design, etc. etc. etc.  These etc.'s are not simply lazy avoidance but truly reflect the infinite genres we face in modern music.  But why the infinite genres?  Why the uncontrollable urge to divide, to separate, to atomize the myriad expressions of the human experience through the medium of sound?  This is the problem to which I've been called to present possible solutions, possible integrations - a philosophy that unifies al music under one, highly complex yet beautifully simple, umbrella, whilst still respecting vast differences in approach. My multi-thousand dollar Phd and dissertation will most likely  cover but one messy slice of this great pie.  What I hope I might accomplish though, is creating a field of inquiry that unites rather than divides modes of musical expression.

{So the questions:
~How might we begin a definition of the "sound object"?  further can sound be objectified?  Its transitory nature seems to defy it.
~ Why, as Ken Hollings so beautifully put it, is it possible that "music is the mistake"?
~Why have composers, like Pierre Schaeffer, who have struggled to divest music of the imposed meaning of 500+ years of history, resorted in the end to imposing their own meaning on sound?
~Why have artists, dedicated to ultimate freedom of expression, chosen venues whose nature is ultimately restricting?  The Dada artists for instance in the cabaret, Varese in Corbusier's massive architecture?}

These questions may never be adequately answered, but they need to be posed, dialogued, explored.  Music may possibly be the least discussed of all forms of human expression.  By "discussion" I do not mean the vapid, subjective drivel that passes for most "reviews".  By "discussion" I mean a deeper exploration of what it means to be human, and what it means to express that humanness through the medium of sound.  The questions will surely lead to more questions, but perhaps we will be a bit closer to the truth - asymptotic and elusive, but the goal nonetheless.  Every attempt at an "answer" will inevitably be shot down, but questions are immortal.  Questions like, "Maybe music is the mistake", need to be asked.  Even though it will piss people off.  Even though it is dangerous.  Perhaps, because it is dangerous.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Where Do We Keep Our Loved Ones?

Every couple of months I grab my guitar (and sometimes the banjo) and lead a "sing-a-long' with the residents at my father's assisted living facility.  It is always a sweet hour, watching the faces of many who have lost large portions of their memories to dementia and Alzheimers, be brought back to happier times through these old folk songs.  Music has a way of retaining its integrity in the soul that seems more durable than events with no rhythm or melody.  

There was one woman in particular who, today, seemed particularly touched by my songs.  She would smile, shake her head, and say, "I wish my son were here!  He used to play all of these songs!  I'll have to tell him to come down here and listen to this.  He used to know all of these songs."  I asked her if there was one in particular that she would like to hear in honor of her son.  She replied, "No, no, it is just all of them.  He'd play all of them."  So we did Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" in his honor.  

After getting my dad settled back in his room, I just happened to run into this woman on her way to the dining room... with her son.  I shook his hand and asked him if he was still playing music.  He glanced down at his mother, with so much love it was palpable, and said, "No, that was my dad.  My dad used to play the guitar and the banjo and the harmonica, and even the squeezebox.  He used to know all of those old folk songs."  Mom didn't seem to notice that there was any discrepancy in the story.  She was still smiling and remembering. Remembering those folk songs.

I wondered in that moment where we keep our loved ones.  For this woman, her son and her husband occupied the same space in her heart.  They were the same.  They were simply loved.  I am well aware that at a certain point, even those memories fade; leaving a person with no memories.  But I think that we can rest assured that we are still there, in the soul; that behind those eyes that no longer recognize, there are loved ones - playing, smiling, laughing, crying, perhaps singing a folk song, linked forever in that part of us that is all too human; the part of us that loves.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Dignity and Immutability

This is my father. His name is also Paul, though our middle names are different. So too was his father's name Paul. Born in 1919 in rural southeastern Pennsylvania, in a small town near Butler called North Washington, he never knew his own father. As much as I have uncovered reveals that Paul Sr. left his wife and three children to move West due to asthma. I have a distinct feeling that the reality was more complex than the story. What I do know is that my grandfather's legacy haunts my small family. I am my father's only child, born when he was 45 years old and, most likely, resigned to a life without children. Surprise. Like many fathers and sons our relationship was not without struggle, but we have grown, over the years, to love and accept one another. As a matter of fact, there are times when the love I feel for my father literally hurts my heart. Though his expression of it was hard won over the years, I now know that he loves me too. My family was small - three. In 1991 it was reduced to two. I am now watching it fade to one.

Our culture is ill equipped to deal with death. As a result, its citizens are ill equipped to deal with death. Few wish to talk about it; fewer still address personal mortality in any real and meaningful way. It is something that will occur “later”. So when the time comes, as it inevitably will for each and every one of us, that we lose a loved one or face our own demise, we find that even the strongest faith or belief in some transcendent reality can be shaken to its core.

In my own journey witnessing my father’s decline (which appears to be accelerating towards its zenith) I find that the dualities of my belief system stand in stark relief to the transcendent quality of his passage. Prior to being put on hospice care, days and weeks were spent in hospitals and doctors’ offices where any number if indignities were imposed upon my father. Anyone who has spent any time at all in the hands of the allopathic medicine community can attest to the fragmentation, disintegration, and brokenness of western medicine. My father tolerated the poking and prodding, the uncleanliness, the dispassionate treatment of a myriad of doctors, nurses, technicians, caretakers, etc. that paraded through his room with a level of dignity that is impossible to capture in words. This is why I began documenting what I saw as visual representations of this perception. His hands, though riddled with tubes, tape, and needles rested placidly in his lap.

Though too weak to stand, he sat in his chair gazing out at the street scene under his window, periodically asking questions I had answered not five minutes before. In his gown and blanket he reminded me of yogis I had seen photographed. Through the indignities of his situation, his intrinsic dignity remained. I wondered, is this the soul?

Therein lies another strong dualism: though the body decays, something palpable remains that is immutable. One can feel it in the presence of any individual, but in the dying it is particularly strong. I can think about my father merely three months ago, when he was walking, dancing, alert, and active and trace his decline to the present moment where he is weak, small, retracted, and incoherent. I can visualize this as a senseless and cruel set of circumstances reducing what I formerly knew as my father to a mere shadow of his former self or I can visualize this as a series of moments against the backdrop of an unchanging soul – a rising and falling of cosmic manifestation within the trajectory of divinity.

Though I struggle each and every day with the immanent loss of my last remaining parent, I also know that I am in the presence of the most sacred and universal of cycles – a cycle that gives value to existence and can serve as the deepest of reminders of that from which we are born and that to which we return – spirit.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Happiness

Three weeks prior to leaving for Costa Rica, on the last day of my graduate school courses, a week before graduation, I watched my father get hauled into an ambulance - unable to speak, a huge abrasion on his face from where he hit the floor, and barely conscious. It was the first time I had been in the presence of the aftermath of a stroke, and it was horrifying. The next days were spent in the hospital where he seemed to have somewhat recovered. It seems to be one of our more difficult tasks as humans to understand that we have very little control over the fate of others, that we really have very little control over anything. It is perhaps even more difficult to be happy despite our situation.

I, like many in my community, have been sickened by the catastrophe in the Gulf. I have felt as though the hole in the ocean floor literally extended to my heart, but it was my powerlessness that darkened my soul - even more than the destruction of habitat, more than the innocent lives taken by our greed and consumption, more than the flippant, smug attitudes taken by the powers that be, more than the fact that even a catastrophe of this magnitude may not wake up humanity to the perils of a fossil fuel economy. I felt this same powerlessness as I sat by my father's side in the emergency room; watching as he suffered, unable to to anything except keep him covered and lift his head when he choked on his own saliva.

I realized, though, as I flew with my beautiful wife over thousands of miles of pristine landscape - mountains, desert, plains, steppes, woodland, forest - on our way to Central America, that, yes, human impact upon our planet is stupefying in its hubris; and yet by focusing my attention only upon the ugliness I do a horrible disservice to the beauty. Legend has it that if humans stop believing in the Gods, the Gods will disappear; they will be replaced by whatever we worship in their stead. Even science has realized that strict empiricism is impossible - that our observation affects the observed. So is it not in the best interest of the cosmos to be appreciated? We mourn our planet's passing yet it has not yet passed. Was it not the same with my father? I spent my time worrying about his death while he sat next to me breathing in the same air as I. I began to ponder: What if our only purpose on this planet were to be happy? What if it were as simple as that? I am blessed with this life - around me miracles abound. Is not the sheer fact of existence enough to fill a soul to brimming...if one were to allow oneself to truly take it in? I realized that I was tired. Tired of living my life in fear of the future and regret of the past. I can no more predict the future than I can change the past. My greatest contribution may be how I live this very moment: Will I sit, despondent, with my head in my hands, fearful of what tomorrow may bring and ignore the flock of finches playing in the cordyline tree? Will I walk down the street immersed in regret about yesterday and refuse to smile at a little boy and his mother walking their unruly little dog?

How much power is there in a smile, in taking an interest in another human being, in feeling love and gratitude for what we have rather than fear of what we may be losing? A star gave its life so that we may have it - so is it not our duty to shine as brightly? It took 13.5 billion years for the cosmos to create self-reflective consciousness. Even if the human moment is merely a flash in that timeline, I believe that we owe it to the universe to look back in wonder. We are one of only a few species on the planet that has the capability to smile. I find it hard to believe that this was an accident.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ondrej Smeykal: Didj from Another Dimension

I am reviewing the best didgeridoo player you have never heard of. On his second cd "Didgeridoo Solo II" the music drifts in like an archaic wave of consciousness, from a time before an egoic sense of self divided us from all that is, lulling us into a womb-like, but false, sense of security. I remember his tricking me like this at his show as well, waiting for my consciousness to drift back to the Dreamtime, before abruptly transporting me back to the 21st century with music shifting back and forth between duple and triple meter, but relaxed and natural as if were an 'of course' kind of an event. I know now that this was no trick, just infinite compassion on his part - he knew that if the cap were too soon blown off of my consciousness, that the rest of the show would be a wash.

Smeykal plays with the sonic dimensions of consciousness: small bits of melody are created which take up residence in the mind's ear even after they are no longer present in the sound structure itself. Close your eyes and you can imagine that something of a more modern ilk is occurring on the stage: house, drum and bass, Reich, Stockhausen... It seems impossible that this music, this soundscape is being created real-time on an instrument whose roots trace back over 10,000 years.

Impossible polyrhythms and molodies emerge from a primal drone. Smeykal mics his nose, so the breath can be used as another sound source - percussive and syncopated. Barks, growls, hoots - ancient didgeridoo language - are layered within complex rhythmic structures and laid skillfully within the overlying bed of sound whose relationship only multiple listenings can reveal.

I spoke with Ondrej after his last show here in the Bay Area. (I actually wanted him to sign his beautifully packaged, handmade [by Smeykal himself], embossed, woodcut adorned, cd's for me.) He is a humble, approachable, young man, endearing Czech accent, very sincere and appreciative. In the short time I had, I asked him about one of the pieces he played - one with long phrases in 7/4 and smaller phrases embedded within it, also in 7. (A mind-boggling feat in any musical medium, but on a didg, unbelievable.) His answer was simple. "It is simply breath," he said. "Every structure that emerges is based within natural cycles of breathing."

Smeykal embodies what I would see as a truly integral approach to music: complex layers of modernity which are transparent to an art form still in touch with the Dreamtime. Complex music theory and magical trance walk side by side, merging with one another, respectful of one another, and sharing each others' strengths, creating a music which transcends genre, place, even time. Seeing Smeykal is an opportunity which should not be missed. Alan Tower, a local didg master (, describes him as "a didg player from another planet". I would whole-heartedly agree and add that this music points to a mutation of consciousness which is the collective destiny - Integrality: a consciousness transparent to the Archaic, the Mythic, the Magical, and the Rational. Each held with equal weight in a sphere of timelessness. See him, listen to him, and be treated to the flavors of what is to come. (

Monday, January 4, 2010

Dixie Chicken on Mofi

I came into Little Feat late, at least too late to see the original line-up live. Lowell George died in June of 1979 and his band had entered my aural space around 1980 or so. (St. Louis was not exactly a high traffic town for bands that were a bit off the beaten path). I owe a debt to my next-door neighbor - a year or so older than me - for my long friendship with Little Feat. I was one of those hungry record collectors, who could be propelled to near orgasm by a fresh sound, a new idea, a turn of phrase that bent my consciousness into some new configuration. (Thousands of recordings later, I can say truthfully that this fetish has remained unchanged; the eargasms are just harder to come by -as it were.)
Most likely I was busy de-seeding some crappy weed from the dealer in the big white two-story down the street when that song came blasting out of Andy's parent's stereo. "Dixie Chicken" was the obvious hit on the record. Hits usually met with my disdain. If it's popular, it can't be good was my paradigm at the time. My resistance meter went sky high. This was way too commercial for me. But the pot was still filled with seeds and hulls so I remained a captive audience. The rest of side 1 was excellent rock & roll, beautifully played, meticulously arranged. And then ... and then..."Kiss it Off" oozed out into the room. Like some thick, dangerous swamp, it crawled across the floor, up my pant leg and began to do its work. You could tell Lowell meant it when he sang: "You were holy and you made me wonder how/But you looked like a devil who would seize and shake you down/On the hopes of a tyrant/No one makes it over".

I was hooked. Maybe it was the pot, but by the time "Fat Man in the Bathtub" came on, my head was doing the white-man-bob, my fingers air-instruments galore and my imagination was basking in the dusky streetlamps of New Orleans - boozy and destructive. This was completely intoxicating music. I was way too young then to truly appreciate the complexity of this masterpiece. I think I may still be too young - because each and every time I listen to this album something new and beautiful reaches out of the speakers and opens my eyes to some new possibility. Andy claimed that Little Feat was his "all time favorite band". I balked at the time but I think I understand now... sorry Andy.

I now have the brand new, remastered, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab version of Dixie Chicken in its third rotation of the day. I can practically smell that cheap Mexican pot now, a casserole stewing alchemically in the oven, because it is like hearing it all for the first time. Lowell George's scruffy face right here in my California living room weaving his voodoo music - that indescribable depth, humor, sincerity, and soul. Thanks Andy for opening my ears. Thanks Mofi for restoring this masterpiece to a sound that once again crawls across the floor and up my pant leg.

Buy it here:

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Journey (a fictional tale)

The Journey
by: Paul McNees

Part I.
Thurston picked up his satchel and moved on. He had grown tired of the sounds of crickets and birds. But… Perhaps one more stop. Yes, here in this small thicket. The woods had grown extremely thick and dark (quite unlike his small florescent cubicle back in the city). Even though it was only mid-day he could feel the pressing presence of nighttime all around him. He glanced at his watch, yes, only mid-day. He gently set down his satchel upon a patch of moss and hid himself in the small thicket.
A small tunnel had formed at one end, which he only had to bend slightly at the hips to move his body through. He turned around and glanced back to whence he had come. His satchel sat cold and lonely, possibly shivering slightly, upon the small patch of moss. Thurston was suddenly filled with a deep sense of sorrow and pity at the sight of such a sad spectacle. It brought to mind a bitter memory, which he had lovingly stored away for future vindictiveness against some foe unawares.

File cabinet B: in all likelihood stored under T for Trauma. Subset C: childhood trauma.

Camera focuses on satchel. Move to extreme close-up. Satchel fills the screen. Camera fades back revealing braided rug, fine antique furniture. The pacifying sounds of ticking clocks swells but something overrides: Mother taunting child.

“Well if you’re gonna go, go!”
“Mamma I don’t really wanna go! I don’t wanna run away!”
“C’mon let’s go pack a bag for you…Let’s see, you’ll need socks, underwear…”
Child is throwing articles out of the satchel as fast as Momma can pack them. Momma wins out. Bag is packed and Momma takes child by the hand and leads him to the front door.
Child is in hysterics.
Door opens.
“Momma, NO!”
Satchel is set out on a dimly lit porch. Child is shoved out after it.
“Give us a call when you get settled in, OK?”
Momma closes door. Child begins to whimper.

Camera closes in on satchel. Fade to file cabinet where Childhood Trauma #106 is confidently stored away. File drawer is closed and Thurston peers out through a tangle of branches.

He feels safe in here. That ever-comforting womb-like appeal. He knows, however, as he did even then in progressive fetal stages, that he cannot stay in here forever. His satchel is waiting patiently for him as he exits the thicket. Thurston doesn’t think it was really afraid. He doesn’t believe that inanimate objects are capable of deep feelings such as fear. Fear is an emotion far too complex for a satchel. Yet he lifted it and cradled it in his arms like a newborn infant. Just like Momma held him when he was a little boy. Especially after Daddy had just beat him with the switch for being bad. That was when Momma held him the tightest. She would hold him until the bleeding on the backs of his legs stopped. It would always take a few days though for the welts to go away.
Thurston stood at the edge of the thicket and gazed down at the path he had chosen to follow. He rested his chin on his newborn satchel. That path was teeming with life. He could hear it and feel it. So much different from the city. The city did not contain so much life as much as it did just movement. Just people bustling here and there, to and fro. Carrying their little file cabinets in their heads. Their handy storage bins. Thurston grinned. When he grinned, his cheeks dimpled. He didn’t care to remember how many times in his 29 years someone had stuck a finger in those dimples. Uncle Tom had to have been the most frequent offender. Uncle
Tom always came to the house bearing gifts and laughter. The gift was usually liquor and the laughter – slightly hysterical. A certain look resided in his eyes that revealed something other than sanity. His brackish hysterics could turn to violent anger in the blink of an eye. And he always had his finger in Thurston’s dimple. Even when Uncle Tom molested Thurston, he commented about his dimples. “Don’t frown, Thursty!” he would say, and he would kiss Thurston’s little lips and fondle Thurston’s penis and buttox. Then Thurston would have to do the same thing to Uncle Tom until Uncle Tom would squirt his pearly white jism all over Thurston’s hand.
The thicket was behind him now.


I am Thurston’s father. Call me Leamish. My first name is of Armenian descent on my mother’s side. A grandmother of mine was raped, beaten and taken as a slave during the wars with the Turks. Her name, too, was Leamish. She was bought again by a wealthy English sailor who eventually fell in love with and married her. He became my grandfather. When I was a child I went by the name of Lee because of the embarrassment my female name caused me. I have raised my son, Thurston. as best I could. I gave him a man’s name.

Part II.

Mid-day broke unevenly into evening and, reaching his destination from a slightly circuitous route, Thurston knocked humbly upon the rotting wooden door. The woman, Thurston’s mother (aged, pathetic, rasping from years of cigarette aggravated emphysema) cautiously squeaked open the door and extended her withered arms in a declined invitation for a hug. Thurston had found this to be the best method for establishing the power structure immediately. Momma’s eyes swum in her head like opaque bubbles stuck in some peculiar, quite uninhabitable surroundings.
“You’re late”, she said – before hello, before how-have-you-been.
Power structure shifts.
Thurston recovers.
“Your expectations about my time of arrival were skewed mother. Not unlike the many other bizarre perceptions of your surroundings.”
Never give excuses. Always shift blame. Rule of power maintenance #1.
Thurston peruses the room.
Mother: So how have you been?
Power remains stable
Thurston: Fine mother, fine. Missed you at the funeral.
Mother: Has that happened already? Note of surprise in voice, sardonic.
Thurston: Well…he died last week you know. We had to get him buried sometime now, didn’t we? We didn’t want him to just lie around and decompose. That would lack a certain nobility that I think he rather deserved.
Mother: Oh yes! Suicide is a terribly noble method of bringing a close to one’s life isn’t it. There is no question mark .
Thurston: Well it certainly ranks far above slowly rotting away in some stinking hovel out in the middle of nowhere with the sole purpose of providing one more disruptive odor to this already rather pungent world. All this said with the greatest calm and forced eye contact.


I am Thurston’s father. Call me Ichabod. My mother was a prostitute, my father a sharecropper in eastern Prague. Both moved to England in 1945 at the end of the Great War. Five girls were born preceding myself. My mother died in childbirth whilst bringing me into the world. This saddens me. Afflicted with sclerosis of the liver and bad teeth, my father fled to the city to live the rest of his meager days in the accompaniment of other alcoholics and general failures. This also saddens me. I was raised by my oldest sister, who is, to this day unmarried. She sacrificed her life and her beauty for five waif siblings. This saddens me most of all. When I met Thurston’s mother, she was a seamstress in a clothing factory. She was a pitiable creature. I took her away from all that.


Part III.

Leaving Momma standing, tears welling, autistic rocking, hands wringing. Walking into yard, down cellar steps. Dead leaves crunching underfoot.
Momma knitting death shawl.
(Still, those indefatigable traditions…Keeping the magic alive.)
Old door creaking open on hinges rusted, disintegrating.
Only the ghosts know the secrets of this cellar’s darkness.
Thurston thinking, “Bring back the sun. God damn the sun.”
The sun’s infinite pouring light only reminds him of this cellar’s darkness. It’s light spilling onto stairs with each step a little darker.
Momma blinded by tears – moving – sadness settling on the dusty furniture mingling uneasily with the anger.

Thurston’s satchel lying untended.

Thurston hoping to find an abatement of anger in this dark, moist cavern. He only finds fear. Standing for a moment he peers about him. Nothing. There is nothing here. Just rotting memories. Those memories that grow and change with our experience. The entropy is diffident. It can only transform. He knows he cannot find his answers here. The answers to his hatred – his hatred mingled with love and blindness. He lets his shoulders relax.

blows out
a breath
of air
as if
the wind

He is in the bowels of his mother’s home. Swallowed. She marches around upstairs. He can hear her weeping. Her vile weeping. Her salty tears falling on the dusty hardwood floor. Liquid pain. If she died, would his burden be lifted? Would the cord be finally cut? Would he leave this house once and for all, not turning ‘round to see it diminishing in the shadows cast by trees?
Or would he carry
this pain to his grave,
once more covered by
the thickening leaves.

The sun had found the mouth of the cavern as it always did at this time of day. Thurston was annoyed by its peaceful consistency. It poured in its golden light displaced here and there by the dust stirred up by Thurston’s presence here. As he moved toward the light the dust parted before him. This was not the belly of the whale, Thurston thought. Nothing has changed. I am not closer to God.


I am Thurston’s father. I am not known by any name. My mother was made of light and my father was made of stone. My rape came on the wind of an icy night in February. The night Thurston was born, the leaves fell from the trees and covered the ground in a tapestry of fire. The next day, the light shone brightly by the world was frozen on its axis. Thurston cried. For a fortnight he cried, unceasingly, filling his cradle with tears thick like the embryonic fluid that still dripped through the cracks of the floor beneath him.
His satchel had already been packed and stood patiently by his bed as Thurston lay floating peacefully in his own salty tears.
No photographs were taken of his childhood. No memories preserved. Though I was always there he never knew me.


Part IV.

As Thurston appeared in the doorway to the living room, his mother was circling his satchel making a harsh, grating noise with her chaffed wrinkled hands – wringing them as if to rid herself of some nefarious residue.

“Stop that!”, Thurston cried and again more softly, “stop that.”

She stopped and stared at him like a scolded yet defiant dog. She was silent.
Thurston came toward her but they were divided by his satchel, which sat confidently upon the floor between them.
The light was beautiful now. Golden, soft. But it more angrily displayed the filth inside Momma’s unkempt little hovel.
Thurston reached forward with his right foot and slowly scooted the satchel aside until nothing divided him and his mother but internal walls. He reached out and took hold of his mother’s dry hands. They were much softer than he expected. He looked up into his mother’s face, which held interchangeably, fear and great sadness. He slowly brought her hands to his lips and gently kissed them. He rested his cheek for a moment on her trembling fingers and with infinite slowness released them. Without again looking up, he reached for his satchel and followed the sun’s rays toward the door. The dust floated like stars in the stillness. Momma stood and stared at the soft imprint of Thurston’s satchel in the dust. She returned to her knitting.

The door creaked and then was silenced by a soft


Once outside


breathed deeply the quickly cooling air.

The night awaited

him but he

knew his