You'll get no argument from me if you want to designate the subject matter of the sounds curated in this collection as heavy: melting glaciers; the destruction of the Amazon rainforest; self-immolation; a young man dying of cancer at age seventeen; good old fashioned Death. But while perhaps somber in theme, I believe that these sounds are a true reflection of our times, of the world of gross suffering in which we live, a world which contains repression of basic humanity so great that setting yourself on fire becomes an viable option to draw attention to the plight of your suffering and the suffering of others.
So when I look at all the coarse suffering befalling the world, I am, like many people, hard-pressed not to believe that humanity is dying in slow motion before my eyes. Like the gigantic tree of life Hometree that came crashing down in 3D IMAX horror at the end of the film Avatar, the message is clear: humanity has made the definitive switchover from nurturer to destroyer of its host planet, and the destruction is gaining momentum on a downward slope.
It's all in plain view, there can be no denying it. Earth is truly dying. So now what?
Hope Within Sorrow
Whether it's the electricity-fueled flapper jazz of Louis Armstrong, the powdered-wig hedonic royal court pleasures of Mozart, or the hip-shaking rock and roll horsepower of Elvis, music that sounds like the times in which it's created always strikes a familiar, relative chord within its listener's minds and creates its own zeitgeist. lamentations is a collection of my thoughts and creative reflections, lamentations for all of the self-evident suffering so massively piled upon so many of the inhabitants of our planet. They are reflections of my struggle to come to terms with this suffering and find some hope and meaning amongst all this sorrow.
Rhythmically speaking, these sounds are exercises in slow motion, reflections of the state of the world as it is slowly dying. But let’s be clear: while heavy in theme, these sounds are not dark. They have clarity and focus. They are crisp and illuminated, and presented with an unflinchingly truthful gaze.
If I had to carve out a statement for this work, it would be as follows: The visceral aspects of life contain emerging elements of decay and death; and yet, against this backdrop of suffering can be found the most precious jewel in all of life—Compassion.
List of Influences
The subtle influence that my listening habits had on my creative self when these sounds were composed gives them their own particular commonality. High on the list of influences was David Lang’s 23-minute Slow Movement, a riveting long note dronescape recorded by Terminal Velocity. I also dug my aural heels deep into the vociferous clanging and guttural chants of Tibetan Cham music, as research for an upcoming sound project on the Tibetan diaspora.
The vocal toning exercises I am practicing from master sound healer Jonathan Goldman also provided a solid inspirational foundation for the background ambient pads that flood the deep reverberating spatial dimensions of the sounds. And the frightening, omnipresent howling wind on the soundtrack to the Hungarian film The Turin Horse left a deep inspirational impression on the centerpiece sound, noble offering.
Primary among the influences that I simultaneously look up to, and whose shoulders I try to steady myself upon, are the true masters of ambient, minimalist, drone, and new music: Steve Roach and his infinite dreamtime-scapes; Brian Eno and his shimmering pools of lucidity (Plateaux of Mirror, Day of Radiance, The Pearl); and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and his breathtaking brushstrokes of stillness and solemnity.
Trumpeter Jon Hassell and his Hindustani classical influence also looms large, as do the works of Harold Budd, John Luther Adams, Terry Riley, Don Cherry, Steve Reich, Vidna Obmana, Keith Jarrett, Kronos Quartet, Robert Rich—the playlists go on and on. The one thing these disparate artists have in common is their dedication to exploring new boundaries in sound. They give me permission to be myself, to create the sounds I love to create.
1. glacial breach
The album opens with the violent upheavals of glacial breach, a bit-crushed reflection of global warming’s expressions of increasingly extreme weather. Our age is that of mankind’s negative anthropogenic impact on our environment, and this sound laments the beginning of the end of the harmonious way in which we have been accustomed to live with Nature. (For a powerful documentary on glacial melting, check out Chasing Ice.)
2. tonal (soul bearer)
tonal (soul bearer) refers to the term tonal, which is coupled with the term nagual to denote the two parallel worlds that comprise the universe, as described in the Toltec shamanistic tradition. These are multi-dimensional terms, but generally speaking, tonal is the world of material objects, including the earth and our social self, while nagual is used to describe the non-material world and our spiritual self. tonal (soul bearer) unfolds as an elegy for the tonal destruction of the Amazon rainforest and its native people, of the ongoing tearing down, tree by tree, of the most sacred and mysterious region of our planet.
3. everything that lives
The tone of the album switches gears with everything that lives [score excerpt below], moving into sharp but lightly rendered distortion, as if tethered to a short, taut leash. Like the early dissonant works of Arvo Pärt before his mystic minimalist tintinnabuli breakthrough in style, everything that lives is the sonic equivalent of the birth pangs that accompany the transition into life’s punchline, i.e., Death. It is the sound of a powerful transformative energy, a Manjushri buzzsaw sword that cuts open an empty space to reach the center of the collection, noble offering.
Although my emerging new music creative heart tends toward the "West Coast pretty" sounds of artists like Harold Budd, and is thematically flavored by my Tibetan Buddhist studies, particularly the teaching of Alan Wallace, I’m simultaneously drawn to the beauty of the distortion and dissonance that often emerges during the compositional process. (What can I say—I contain multitudes.)
Unlike some ambient music that’s designed as aural wallpaper or mind candy, these sounds are specifically designed to be listened to, without distraction. They are categorized as glacial, meaning that they take their time; ideally, you should take the time to listen to them when you have 26 minutes to spare in order to grok their full flavor. In their totality these sounds comprise a sonic journey, and require what composer Pauline Oliveros calls deep listening.
These sounds are mastered a little hot, a little bit louder than normal, in order to push their energy to the forefront of your listening experience. There’s different layers that open up and display their tonal colors depending on the volume; loudness is the best choice. There’s also a certain time-out-of-mind feel to the work. These sounds are primarily renderings in subtle shifts of the perception of time. They approach a stillness that demagnetizes your mental awareness of time, not unlike the way a Richard Foreman play demagnetizes your mind from concepts of dramatic form.
Overall, you have to be willing to accept some dissonance while listening. But bridle your despair, for your sonic palette shall be cleansed and your spirit lifted with the heartening effervescence of the closing sound, the birds outside my window.
4. noble offering
During the time I was composing noble offering, there were several high-profile stories in the world press about a new round of self-immolations in Tibet, typically carried out by Buddhist monks or nuns as symbolic protests against the ongoing brutality of their Chinese occupiers. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to appreciate the power that these sacrificial images convey to the outside world, and the fiery nature of these gestures helped shape the contours of the sound’s overheated undercurrent.
For those who choose to make these statements, they consider them noble gestures in the name of Compassion for all of humanity. As Sonam Wangyal, the highest-ranking monk to have immolated himself, declared:
I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them—each of whom has been our mother in the past and yet has been led by ignorance to commit immoral acts—to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light.
Like a spirit leaving its body but still attached to the life it once had, noble offering displays both the beauty and terror of the dying process. Gigantic swells of underlying tension continually cascade throughout the sound. As you listen, it thwarts your expectations at most of its turns; like death itself, there’s freedom and liberation in its form.
noble offering is, at its heart, an eleven-minute death meditation. Should you choose, while listening to this sound, to meditate on the thoughts and feelings that arise when you visualize and consider the hour of your own death, you’re bound to experience some mental or emotional discomfort. But this meditation can also be filled with great insight. As your meditation ends and you return to your normal state of mental affairs, you’ll more than likely have a profound realization about one of the most important facts about living that we often overlook due to the busyness of being alive—and that is, we are, in fact, right now, at this very moment, alive.
Which brings us to Zach Sobiech.
5. the birds outside my window (in memory of Zach Sobiech)
I first heard about Zach Sobiech on the day he died, 20 May 2013, from a biographical video online. Like millions of others who had been following Zach’s courageous struggle with bone cancer, I was profoundly touched. This seventeen-year-old young man who I had never met transformed my life.
the birds outside my window (in memory of Zach Sobiech) is short, like Zach’s life. Compared to the sounds that precede it, the birds outside my window rises above and encompasses them through the sheer power of its simple beauty. To my mind, Zach was an alchemist, someone whose spirit for life grew stronger the harder life got. His life power, his love for life and for other people, his Compassion, exponentially increased as his worldly conditions deteriorated. He transformed loss into wisdom, fear into love, darkness into light. From the depths of despair and annihilation, his lustrous form illuminated the world he inhabited like a great lamp of truth.
Like Zach, the birds outside my window has a lighter touch, softer and gentler, as delicate and wispy as a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, as free as baby chicks taking flight for the first time. The voicings of the track create a counterpoint sum that is greater than its parts and which transforms the energy of the preceding sounds into something not unlike hope. (I’m excited to know I will be plumbing the depths of this particular sonic palette and track voicings on my next project, a soundtrack on Monarch butterflies for my documentary filmmaker friend, Robert Pacelli. A preview sound sketch is available as a bonus track to lamentations.)
They say in every life the rain must fall. Here in the Pacific Northwest, in Cascadia, we know that adage quite intimately. There are many times when suffering rains down on our lives, despite our best intentions and efforts to keep it at bay. Suffering loiters always in the shadows like a criminal on a darkened street corner, waiting to inflict itself into our every relationship and every experience. We can’t wish or pray our way out of the pain that we sometimes must experience in life, including the sense of personal loss that will attend our own death experience. But we can, as journalist and activist Michael Ruppert noted in the peak oil documentary film Collapse, learn to balance the horror with love.
With a clear-headed view of reality, we truly can begin to see that amongst all the detritus is found the most meaningful part of our life’s essence—Compassion. And we can find our own personalized way to express our Compassion with strength, determination, and momentum so that we can better help alleviate the suffering of others, as together we traverse through the vicissitudes of life. We can take refuge in the inspirational and intentional way we live our lives within the confines of suffering, as perfectly exemplified by the way Zach Sobiech lived and died his life. In this way we can let our Compassion rain down on everyone in our life, and in our world.