Ringo 026: The Dilemma of Leisure

or, doing it for ourselves

Hi, friends! I'm Michael Donaldson, and this is my weekly newsletter about music-listening, music-making, and the sometimes exhausting culture around those things. Thanks for subscribing and hanging tight with the Ringo squad.

Every episode of this newsletter has a theme song. Sometimes I stress out about this tune — last week, without warning (sorry), I didn't do a Ringo, and part of the reason was that I hadn't recorded a song. There were other factors why there wasn't a Ringo last week, including busy-ness, some family responsibilities, and burnout (see below). But the lack of a theme song pushed me to decision. 

Again, it's a busy, busy week, and time's scarce. As I write this, there are only a few loop ideas on the computer. It sounds cool, but it's not a song, and I'm not sure what I'll have for you. This weekly theme song pledge is tough! But I'm going to give you what I've got, even if it's only a minute long. And I'll give you a new pledge: even though I love doing these songs and it's a good exercise for me, I won't hold up Ringo if there's not a theme song. So, in the future, don't be surprised if there's no accompanying song. Or if there are more guest songs, like I did with Gemini Revolution a few weeks back.

OK - it's a half-hour or so since I wrote the paragraph above, and I've got a minute-long track I'm randomly calling "Stubs." Short but sweet. Listening to it now, I think this was inspired by a fantastic podcast interview with Cabaret Voltaire's Stephen Mallinder I listened to this week. I can totally hear him doing his patented whisper-growl on top of this. Have a listen to this quick burst of "Stubs," and then let's get into this week's episode.

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Last week I received a recommendation from my friend (and friend of Ringo) Kara — host of Le vital corps Salon podcast. She thought I'd enjoy the episode of the Ezra Klein Show titled "Work as Identity, Burnout as Lifestyle." Yes, it's a lively and thought-provoking discussion (which is often the case on Klein's highly listenable podcast). And I uncomfortably identified with the dilemma of leisure activities becoming fodder for work. You know, a byproduct of creating that thing we call 'content.' 

Case in point: As I listened to the podcast, I couldn't help but think about how to fit it into my blog or this newsletter. Rather than merely enjoying, I'm always plotting. I guess we all are. When I read a book, I'm highlighting. When I'm watching a movie, I'm connecting it to the week's topics. When I'm listening to music, I'm considering a review. I'm not saying this, in itself, if unhealthy. But, as pointed out on Klein's show, this work-mode posture, always in the background, can lead to burnout. Now, more than ever, we need to find things to do for ourselves

Kelly Reichardt's First Cow is presently at the top of my 'favorite movies of 2020' list. First Cow is available as video-on-demand from various movie streaming platforms, and you should see it. On the surface, it's a warm story of friendship set in early 1800s Oregon. A skilled frontier cook and his newfound friend, a Chinese immigrant, form a business making 'oily cakes' for the settlers. These biscuits are a sensation. And there's a secret to this success that could mean big trouble for the pair. 

But the movie also conveys observations about work, commerce, and capitalism. When the cook makes his first biscuits as an offering to his friend, the friend's immediate comment is, "How much do you think someone would pay for a biscuit like that?" It's like when your friend knits you a scarf for your birthday, and your compliment is, "You could make money on Etsy making these." Don't feel guilty — we all do it.

It's not lost on me that I ended up mining First Cow, a movie I watched for intended enjoyment, for newsletter content. Again, that's fine. I still got pleasure from First Cow, and the film effectively transported me out of the world's orbit over its runtime. What more could I ask for? However, I feel like I need something — a hobby! — that is free of analyzation. 

For this reason, I started reading science fiction novels in the evenings, catching up on books I would have enjoyed reading when I was younger. (Ezra Klein's mentioned getting into comic books as there's little in the Venn diagram to his day job.) But even those can't escape — I was able to work in passages from The Cyberiad in a newsletter rant about FOMO if you remember.

I thought about this some more, that I need a hobby without screens and removed from writing and thinking — something to take me out of my head. I've landed on cooking. I'm going to learn to cook. Vegan cooking, to be exact (as that seems a little more challenging).

I'm not making a radical decision here. It seems like everyone else knew the importance of the 'get your mind off things' hobby before I figured it out. All that sourdough baking, and gardening, and ukulele playing — you folks had it figured out from the beginning. I feel like the people working from home for the first time due to lockdown did a much better job at this than us remote working veterans. Speaking for myself, I initially saw lockdown as an opportunity to do more work.

So, yeah. Burnout. That's the cusp I'm on, the edge I was balancing for the past five months. And I'm getting through it. I have high hopes that learning (and enjoying) cooking and time-blocking my work will help. An antidote may also mean cutting back on Ringo — I might go every two weeks instead of weekly, at least for the next month or so. I know I've teased this before. Rest assured, I'm not giving up as this newsletter is now such a delightful cap to my week. The challenge of publishing the newsletter has been a personal boon during The Strange Times.

Tl;dr: Please take a step back and check in with how you're doing, especially if you're a seasoned work-from-home person or 'content creator.' Come up with a hobby or something you can do that work-thoughts won't intrude upon. Don't end up like me, in burnout denial and mentally working during all waking hours.

A couple more notes about First Cow:

• After watching the movie, read this article in The Playlist that examines First Cow's underlying themes about societal greed. It's a fantastic piece of writing. But — please don't read it until you've seen the film as the article is a snake pit of spoilers. [LINK]

• The soundtrack to First Cow is by guitarist William Tyler. One of the very last concerts I saw (before lockdown) was Tyler at Third Man Records in Nashville. I hadn't heard of him yet but was immediately a fan. Tyler's 2016 song "Highway Anxiety" is a #Worktones favorite. And his work on First Cow is terrific. I look forward to hearing him on other film scores. [LINK]

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(Old man voice:) Remember when we recorded mixtapes in one take, two turntables recording to a cassette, and that cassette duplicated to cheap tapes to give/sell to friends? If you messed up, you had to start over again — kind of like the first two attempts to film Russian Ark

In the summer of 1997, I recorded one of these mixtapes, and, yes, started over a few times due to flubbed beat-matching. Finally, I ended up with one of my most popular tapes. This recording was a special session — only recently had I found my ‘sound’: a floaty, jazzy psychedelia hinged on downtempo and mid-tempo breakbeats. I enjoyed the tough Mo Wax’ian trip-hop of the time and the phased-pad soundscapes of the dreamier drum n’ bass productions. I settled on a vibe that combined the two, which inspired my first records and Feng Shui. Anyway, this mixtape was a documentation of my favorite songs of the time that expressed this style.

I lost all copies of the tape and haven’t heard it in perhaps a couple of decades. Then, Friday afternoon, I’m cleaning out some old folders on a dusty hard drive and find an MP3 labeled ‘Summer 1997 Mix.’ I didn’t think anything of it and clicked to preview the file. I heard the opening didgeridoo of the Wagon Christ remix of Nåid’s “Blástjarnan.” OMG, this is that mix!

I have no idea where this MP3 came from. I don’t remember ripping it from the cassette — I didn’t really have the means to do that until recently. Maybe a fan or friend sent it years ago, and I filed it away to listen to someday, then I’m immediately distracted and forgetful? No idea. 

But what a find. The audio quality isn’t the best — it’s a rip of a cassette tape, after all — but THESE TUNES. I love them all. I have the fondest memories of playing these at Knock Knock, in the backroom of Phat N’ Jazzy, and, with increasing frequency, in dark rooms across the globe. (Nostalgic sigh.)

This might be my favorite mixtape I ever recorded, which is really something as I had another 20 years of mixing ahead of me at this point. Here it is, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have since its rediscovery. 

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Portland-based producer and label owner Elijah Knutsen recently alerted me to his terrific Memory Color project. Titled Blue Sun Daydream, the album features gentle and assuasive ambient textures interspersed with field recordings lifted from various southern Tokyo locations.

The album is a tribute and continuation of the Japanese strain of ambient known as Kankyō Ongaku. The subgenre was recently popularized in the west by the label Light In The Attic through the compilation Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990. But Kankyō Ongaku doesn't end there or with the artists featured on the collection.

Elijah's knowledge of this music is extensive. I interviewed Elijah for 8sided.blog for a feature that will appear in the coming week. In this excerpt from the more extended interview, Elijah reveals his take on the history of Kankyō Ongaku and offers some listening recommendations. Prepare yourself for links and rabbit-holes:

I would say that Kankyō Ongaku is simply a particular type of ambient music, focusing on "background noises" and environments as a whole, and including the natural sound of life into its compositions. Infused with synth and sometimes guitar elements, the melodies are simple yet evolving (and sometimes not even there).

It started in Japan in the 1980s as an offshoot of more contemporary ambient music and quickly became its own form of art. The music from this genre is generally an explorative and calming soundscape, with bits and pieces of melody blended between long stretches of environmental noise. Synthesizers are typical yet used carefully. The patches and sounds used are soft and straightforward, much like the compositions.

Artists like Hiroshi Yoshimura and Takashi Kokubo are probably some of the most well known in this genre. Yet, there are many very talented artists from this genre that weren't featured in the compilation. Right now, my favorites are Yutaka HiroseTetsu InoueKensuke MitomeTakao Naoi, and Kazuo Uehara

I feel that the art of Kankyō Ongaku has been greatly overlooked, and only now is it becoming apparent how special it is, especially to western audiences. The artists of the '80s continued making their music, and many went on to work in the film and video game industry (Joe Hisaishi - Studio Ghibli). However, the specific type of Kankyō Ongaku explored by Light In The Attic is mostly in the past. But Hiroshi Yoshimura's final album before his passing in 2003, Four Post Cards, sounds directly taken from one of his earlier works.

The sound of Japanese ambient in the 1990s was defined by the artist Tetsu Inoue. Tetsu worked with Pete Namlook and his pioneering FAX label, releasing groundbreaking new albums like World Receiver and Ambiant Otaku. These albums did away with the simple melodies and defined the genre in a very different way. Instead of programmed synth arpeggios and babbling creeks, Tetsu's music clouds your head with dense textures of sound, set upon an ever-evolving noise sheet. Tetsu, unfortunately, dropped off the radar in 2007 and hasn't been heard from since. 

The best part about the whole genre is how encompassing it can be. There may not be another artist exactly like Hiroshi, but there are tons who can fit the idea of Kankyō Ongaku. One of the more experimental artists I've been listening to is Tamako Katsufuji, a sound artist from Osaka, Japan. Her albums are incredibly eclectic pieces of sound art, focusing on field recordings, cat sounds, and singing bowls, all arranged in a strangely calming fashion. Although her music varies significantly from Four Post Cards or Tetsu Inoue, her work is as "Kankyō Ongaku" as the giants of the 1980s.

Be sure to check out Memory Color's Blue Sun Daydream. It's a fantastic and soothing album that fluently carries on and pays homage to the Kankyō Ongaku tradition. 

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My first exposure to Silver Apples was through Howie B. Howie came to Orlando on holiday around 1994 and wandered into my record shop. We hit it off, and he joined me for a few drinks that evening. At one point, Howie asked, “Have you heard of Silver Apples?” I said no and, shocked, Howie stood up and enthusiastically commanded, “Well, you’ve got to hear Silver Apples!”

Silver Apples keep popping in and out of consciousness. They were so weird, so ahead of their time, it’s easy to doubt they ever existed. Silver Apples reemerged last March when the excellent YouTube channel Bandsplaining spotlighted the band in this video:

That video has well over a million plays, an extreme case of unexpected virality for Silver Apples. Outside of getting name-checked by the likes of Stereolab and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, this might be their most significant moment of exposure. There’s a lot of fresh groovin’ to “Oscillations” going on.

I bring up Silver Apples as Simeon Coxe, the last remaining member of the original duo, passed away this week. The Guardian has a glowing obituary which features this historical note on the Simeon’s sizable innovation: 

In the late 60s, Coxe introduced a 1940s audio oscillator into his group, the Overland Stage Electric Band. “Besides the drummer Danny [Taylor] who later joined me, no one in the band was amused,” he said in 2012. The change in direction prompted the departure of his band members until only he and Taylor remained. They changed the band’s name to Silver Apples and established their pioneering, proto-synthesiser setup: nine audio oscillators and 96 manual controllers – pieced together in part from discarded second world war equipment, Coxe once said – fondly known as “the Simeon”.

Simeon had a loose Orlando connection, collaborating with local art-punks Obliterati and playing the city regularly. About three years ago, I saw him perform with his longtime companion and musical partner Lydia Winn LeVert. He was in his late-70s then (he was 82 when he died this week), and it was remarkable how experimental and ambitious his performance was. But it wasn’t a throwback — Simeon accompanied Lydia with electronics and samples from his laptop. Apparently, some of the samples were the drums of his late bandmate, Danny Taylor. 

I was lucky to have a short conversation with Simeon afterward. He was fun to talk to. I remember thinking, “I wouldn’t mind doing what he’s doing when I’m in my ’70s.” And I’d like to believe, if not for his passing, he’d be back and enthusiastically continuing his sonic experiments into his ’80s and beyond. Inspirational.

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Let me close out this newsletter with some musical recommendations (as if there weren’t enough of them linked above). Here are some things I listened to over the last couple of weeks on Bandcamp. → [LINK]

And, with that, thanks for reading this episode of Ringo Dreams Of Lawn Care. I’ll be back next week or maybe in two weeks — I can’t quite say but I’ll let you know either way. In the meantime, please let me know if you have any thoughts on this newsletter or anything you’d like to tell me. I’m all ears. And, above all else, take care of yourself. Do something fun — it’s okay to take your mind off things and leave this planet for a moment or two. See you soon!

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btw — I'm Michael Donaldson and you can read more about who I am and what I do here.

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