Never Quite Enough
A while ago, I offered my flatmate a book to read. One night, as she was nearing the end of the book, she looked up to me, asking why I’d highlighted a particular section. I asked if it was nice, and she said something like “nothing special…” She read it to me.
If you don’t know what I mean, what I mean is this: when I speak of walking through a snowstorm, you remember a night from your childhood full of snow, or from last winter, say, driving home at night, surprised by a storm. When I speak of my dead friends and poetry, you may remember your own dead friends, or if none of your friends are dead, you may imagine how it might feel to have them die. You may think of your poems, or poems you’ve seen or heard. You may remember you don’t like poetry.
Something new is made from my memories and yours as you read this. It is not my memory, not yours, and it is born and walks the bridges and roads of your mind, as long as it can. After it has left mine.
From Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
It’s not the most florid piece of text, nor particularly emotionally charged, nor dripping with symbolism or anything else you might consider a hallmark of a “special” piece of text. But reading this when I did—while living with my grandparents at the end of a year’s break from everything—it meant everything to me.
Earlier that year, I’d worked on an installation where I tried to tell a story that was close to me, about me. The piece was a recreation of a memory I had from years prior, featuring fake grass, tarpaulin, and those awful white, plastic chairs you find in people’s backyards that always look both prehistoric and brand new. The chairs vibrated, the tarpaulins swayed and rustled—all, in effect, creating this anxious ambience.
What I really wanted to do for that show was write a story, piecing together the ways in which making the show pulled small things that had happened in my life into focus. As I worked on laying everything out, I would remember, for example, how a teacher at high school—whom I had quite liked—had said to me in this all-knowing way, “you’re different from the others, aren’t you?” I remembered with newly-founded clarity the way kids in primary school had asked me to look at my nails, and laughed when I’d turned the back of my hand towards my face and held my fingers out straight.
This show that I was making was a recreation of my coming out story, set the day after a family event celebrating my grandparents’ seventieth birthday. And while I was making the work, what struck me as the most potent aspect of it all was how, in pulling these vibrating chairs and rustling tarps together, I was similarly pulling at threads of my memory.
I wanted to write a story, not to replace the work, but to accompany the work. I wrote the standard wall text and short copy to publicise the show, but I wanted the space to explain how each aspect led to another, each spark between them lighting up another path in my memory. It felt so crucial that I explained everything. I feared that someone seeing the piece would miss out on what each element meant to me—that maybe they wouldn’t be able to piece together these ideas I had laid out in front of them. I tell you all of this because, I think, it strikes the heart of the way I feel about writing music now.
I’ve now been out of University for almost three years, and it has been almost as long since I have written any music of consequence. And I know that this happens to many others in my position as well. But I’m not without musical ideas. I still think daily about particular sounds and I’m still drawn to throw up imaginary gestures of sound in the space between my ears and see where they land. The five or so years of music-making I had at University still bear their mark on the way I am in the world. However, what I miss in the musical experience, and, I think, the biggest—or perhaps most selfish—reason for my lack of music-making now is that there is never enough time in the performance of a work to get everything across that I feel I need to.
Music moves too quickly for me; sounds dissipate into thin air before you ever have the chance to sink into them. There is so much detail that flits by, gone before you ever hear it. And I want to hear it. I want you to hear it. I want you to know that it is there and I want you to know why it is there. When I write, and especially when you hear what I have written, I want to tell a genuine story. I want to explain the ‘nothing’ references and every reason behind every choice.
On the other side of the coin, I want you to have the time to take everything in. Some things don’t reveal themselves on the second, or third, fifth, fifteenth or fiftieth listen. Some artistic truths are so buried beneath their aesthetic vessel that they might never be exhumed. How would you ever know the exact text of the message that inspired a particular work about lost love, unless I told you? And how could that work ever mean as much to you, unless I told you?
I tell you all of this to say: there are so many memories and references staged behind the choices we make when we write music, and I think that these deserve the chance to shine more brilliantly and be perceived more sharply in our music. When I think about music—when I compose—I am remembering what a particular sound means to me. Perhaps it comes from a sound I enjoyed in a piece I heard one time, but oftentimes it means so much more. A chosen sound brings back a memory of how a piece hit my ears when I heard it. It speaks to what was happening in my life when I heard a work, pulling at the string connecting sound and sentiment.
I don’t think, in any way, that I am the only person who experiences music like this. In fact, I know this experience is widely understood. But this is what I think Alexander Chee is speaking to in his writing. When I write a sound, it hits your ears and perhaps reminds you of similar sounds you’ve heard in other pieces. Hopefully, in turn, this brings your mind to what was happening in your life when you heard these sounds. As this cause and effect unfolds, the stories in your life interlink with my own. This process of interlinking has the potential to be such a powerful musical mode. Instead of presenting the sounds as they are, I tell you the story behind the sounds and leave you to fill in the blanks. Each story birthing a musical work that is purely yours—created by the exchange of my words and your memories. A work that is never quite sounded, instead blooming in your own imagination.
The stories that shape the work that we do are often more important than what is performed in the concert hall. And so, I think my next work should take the form of text, detailing the choices I make. Hopefully then, I can feel like the audience can hear exactly what I am trying to say. Instead of showing you the tarpaulin whispering in the breeze and the chairs shivering nervously, I think I should tell you more precisely how these sounds came to mean so much to me.
Marcus Jackson is an artist and composer based in Pōneke, Aotearoa New Zealand. He approaches sound in extremes, being most comfortable working at the limits of volume and stimulus. In particular, he enjoys taking very small gestures, sounds or objects, and amplifying their role in the performance context.