--James Luther Adams
I like to listen to ambient music. These musicians often work in home studios, and release their CDs on tiny labels which number sales in the hundreds or few thousand rather than in the millions. Ambient artists tend to work day jobs, or have significant others who work day jobs.
I'm also quite taken with the work of artists who seek to make music "outside the margins". I don't mean "outsider music", which can be used to refer to a particular type of artist who faces personal challenges and yet still makes music. I mean instead people who make CDs which consciously explore new ways of making and listening to sound. These artists found tiny labels, which sell titles in the dozens, and build networks of friends and fellow theorists, for whom the customary perks of success are completely irrelevant.
Lately I listen sometimes to jazz on the local jazz campus station. I like the way in which some movements, such as "hard bop", plowed quite new aural ground, even as the music became more inaccessible to many. Although I love a great pop song, something appeals to me in music that explores new places.
I am not really very experimental by taste. I like my reading quite middle-brow and plotted. Although I prefer more modern poetry forms over the classics, I rarely find much inspiration from (and sometimes express a bit of amusement at) self-consciously "arty" poets. I tend to like people who build an image, and then let it hover a bit. When I write, I find I cannot do even that bit of hot air ballooning, but I enjoy writing anyway.
Disdain is not a big part of my day to day regimen. However, I do have a lack of fellow feeling for the view that people are all philistines, other than some limited cognoscenti including the person expressing the view. I like a number of things that are obscure and unappealing to others, but I never believe that is a particular attainment. I instead think this merely helps keep my mind alive, and my sense of humour active.
My post today is not intended to be "Free Bird, Surrender and Other Top 10 Hits I Love" nor "The Problem with those Darn Artistic Elite Today". Instead, I'm taken with the notion of linked communities. I like that I can drive thirty miles and find people who are taken with the notion of playing mountain dulcimer songs. I like that a poetry circle gathers at ten p.m. at the local record store to read by open microphones. I like that native plant societies gather to discuss how to reinvigorate the former prairie with a new prairie.
In my mind, small groups focusing on their own unique vision, self-created, self-sustaining, and self-referential, have a great deal of potential to do good. Of course, one can think of groups that get on the wrong track, neo-fascists and the like, to see that not all communities are helpful and reaffirming.
But I do think that a variant of the old late 60s/early 70s notion of "communitarianism" has a virtue about it. I think that people acquire their religious beliefs not only from the tomes of scriptures but also through their communion with kind and kindred souls, wherever they arise. I think that this effort to explore what matters, even in groups which meet in homes and number in the handfuls, is sustaining.
I love television, and I love big budget films. I buy CDs from popular artists as well as from the idiosyncratic ones I favor lately. But I do wonder if we do not lose the salt that makes living worthwhile when it is adulterated into a pop culture that is the opposite of community-building. I'm not into some "turn off the TV" screed. I do, though, feel that something vital and human and endlessly worthwhile occurs when people compare notes from their own experiences with people of like mind and interests. This kind of friendship--a friendship of minds sharing---can be fostered by this "small group building".
We see this on LiveJournal, when networks of kindred spirits and diverse spirits with kindred ideas congregate and exchange notions. I love that in addition to my friends' list, I can think of other journals who are friends of my friends, whose words also inspire me, even though I may never "add them to my list".
Sometimes people surprise me, as when a journal of philosophic musings converts into a journal of brief plunges into esoteric writings about physical intimacy. Often, though, it's the "witty Mayberry" aspect of LiveJournal that appeals to me. It really can be a small town, like hundrds of other small towns all across the internet.
I am a huge believer that many worthwhile ideas arise in the crucible of small groups of kindred spirits pursuing them with zeal. Notions have a potency when they are in their first moment of re-creation (accepting, for a moment, that nothing is really new). I read today of the excesses of seventies rock musicians whose work I enjoy. I suspect that the allure of drugs and attractive people who wish to sleep with one because one is a "rock star" would be hard indeed for anyone to resist.
The mere image of being a "rock star" conjures up fantasies for me and for many, as I think that most of us, like myself, can count on a hand or two the number of times that folks thought we were "the bees' knees" and expressed this idea in appropriately gushing words of attraction. Yet, with some palpable exceptions, so many times a musician who managed to do something meaningful despite the pressures of corporate record production, somehow evaporated creatively, if not from "too much sex with strangers" and "too many stoned nights", then perhaps rather from "too much unreality".
It's that sense of reality and balance in exploration that I seek. In my mind, if I do "what if", it's along the lines of "what if I'd pursued academia, and really made some kind of contribution to something bigger than myself". Sometimes it's something more vague, like "what if I spoke three languages, turned out a book a year, and saved orphans in the Summers".
The notion of participating in small groups to try to enrich day to day living
comes from a different place. It's not the place of "I'm going to write a great novel" or "I'm going to be rich" (by contrast, "I'm going to write a novel I like to read" or "I want to start a business" is that place exactly). It's not the place of "if I don't become famous in a big way, then I am nothing". It's a different space--a space of this "this matters to me". I love that sense that some musicians I listen to are kinds of cult celebrities, but not from some "rock star adulation" thing, but instead because they are pursuing a kind of small community. Although he's not someone I listen to often, I like the Mountain Goats for just this reason.
I think we live in a somewhat absurd era, but I somehow believe that life has always been absurd. I was reading about this fellow St. Ignatius the other day. He wrote a bunch of letters which just missed becoming books of the Bible. I like that during his period of early Christianity, they built their institutions upon small communities which were devoted to a particular vision of the way things should be. There was no money in it, and fame pretty much came down to having your letters read out in church, and eventually getting fed (in St. Ignatius' case, quite literally) to lions by unsympathetic politicos. But that idea that there is something worth preserving and something to share is a powerful one. The later "evolution" of the church into an institutional arm of government to me was a step backward.
That fellow William Penn said "Avoid popularity. It has many snares, and no real benefits". I don't think he had in mind the problem of Led Zeppelin tours, but I think he understood that the community he sought to build was based on finding what matters to the individual person--the light within. His notions involved a lot of community building, but not a lot of seeking after adulation or money. That's not to say that money is necessarily bad or fame necessarily corrupting. It's a focus thing.
I do not think that all thinkers or all ideas are equivalent. I do believe, though, that in order for ideas and notions(and living) to be meaningful, then it helps to have people join in small groups as equals to compare them. "Teachers" are all well and good, but the "teachers" and "leaders" of small groups should have no more "sway" than the average seventh grade English teacher. I say "should" here not as an absolute, but as an expression of vision.
I personally think the world is saved by African violet societies and odd music websites. If we could have a world in which everyone had enough to eat and a meaningful hobby, I think that we would not have, among other things, terrorism and Fox News.
If there is a lesson I've learned, it's to trust gatherings of two or four or eight people of similar fascinations. That is where the true spirit lies. That is where the "eagles" gather together. That "comparison of notes" is the cookie dough from which great gingerbread is baked.