Ringo 034: Digging In Our Heels

or, pictures or it didn't happen

Hello from the weird wilds of Central Florida. It's your old pal Michael bringing you another installment in what's cryptically titled Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care. Thanks, as always, for being a part of our Ringo fam and successfully deciphering these covert communications.

Each episode of Ringo has a theme song. Oops, except for this one. Or maybe the next one. 

I'm putting the theme songs on pause because 1) I started to feel like I was phoning it in, and I don't want to feel like that; 2) I have a newly commissioned music project that's going to hog my studio-time for a while, and; 3) I really want these musical interludes to be a bit more special for you and me both. So, rather than occurring each episode, I'll surprise us now and then. These will become less 'theme songs' and more a glimpse or preview of 'what I'm working on.' I'm planning to increase the music-making (as part of a new thing I can only hint at right now wut), and the idea is that adding a dose of specialness will spur me on. We all need an extra dose of spurring these days.

I previously wrote about how I felt trapped in this home office, a nasty consequence of lockdown. My solution was a complete office rearrangement. I moved my desk to face a different direction, installed bookcases, added a 'reading chair' area — changes intended to make the space seem like something fresh and new. I hoped for some hocus-pocus: "Hey, brain! We've been in the same room for six months, but now we're in a WHOLE NEW ROOM." It turns out it's not easy to fool the brain.

Fast-forward to New Year's Eve, and we're counting down to midnight at my house. It's ten minutes until 2021, and I pop in to the home office for some forgotten reason. I'm greeted by books and wood and tchotchkes all over the floor. At some point in the last hour of 2020, my bookcase completely collapsed, spreading carnage everywhere. 2020, in all its wretchedness, was determined to get one more stupid disaster in before the clock ran out.

The result is that, for the first two months of the year, my home office featured a bare corner and piles of books and whatnot distributed in inconvenient places. The brain, unaffected by the first office switch, now screams, "I can't effectively work among this inexcusable clutter!" 

I'm pleased to announce that yesterday bookshelves were installed on the wall behind me. They look great, and my handyman assures me, "they won't fall even if you stand on them." I've also hung a couple of vintage Feng Shui promotional posters on the adjacent corner. Now the brain seems happy. This accursed room (in the way that rooms feel accursed after a year of lockdown) is starting to seem like a different place.

Embarrassing confession: I did power up Zoom and test the angle to see how the books and posters look in the background during a call. Oh, come on — you do the same thing. Life in 2021 is so strange. Anyway, the background looks nice and a lot more interesting than it did before. I do need a fourth shelf, though. And, I know: pictures or it didn't happen. So, see below. This is (always) a work in progress, BTW.

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Recorded audio can have a transportive intention, from the 'it's like you're there' feel of a great live album to the third LP in the Environments series plopping the listener in the middle of a hippie be-in

Environments! That series was launched in 1969 when sound recordist Irv Teibel realized listening to the ocean waves he captured for a Tony Conrad film improved his concentration. Teibel eventually released eleven installments, with a few of the Environments records displaying this bold motto on the cover: "The music of the future isn't music."

Hippie be-ins aside, many used the Environments LPs like how we have 'mood' playlists on Spotify or 'music for studying' YouTube channels. The sounds were played in the background, non-intrusive for the most part, aiding the listener in achieving a flow state. You can lessen the anxiety of paper-shuffling and deadlines by making the brain think you're working amid gentle rain in a pine forest.

These 'environments' take on an extra layer after months of lockdown and working from home. Concentration and flow state are still goals, but the transportive aspect has prominence. We want to feel like we're somewhere else, to break up the Groundhog Day-ness of repetitive tasks in the same room. Every. Single. Day. 

One recent example is I Miss My Bar. Set up by an actual bar in Monterrey, the site provides a series of looped audio feeds of sounds you might hear in your favorite drinking establishment. Sliders allow you to adjust the volumes of the various loops, or you can mute sounds entirely. You can also tailor the sounds to resemble a coffeehouse if that's your flavor. 

This isn't the Environments record that transports us into a pine forest or a deserted beach. I Miss My Bar and sites like it imagine city life — the busy, crowded pub and the cheerful night out. Telling the brain that we're in a forest is relaxing, but hanging out in a forest isn't normal for most of us. Recapturing normalcy in these times is oddly regenerative, and for many of us, that's the social sounds of a bar or coffeehouse.

As usual, YouTube takes things a step further. In The New York Times, Eliza Brooke writes about YouTube's version of urbanized environments that features imaginary spaces and pop culture references. Of course, there's the Rainy Day Coffee Shop, but there's also the Twin Peaks diner and lots of Harry Potter. There's an additional visual aspect with YouTube, often a static shot or animation looped alongside the audio, and sometimes subtly creative as in this subway ambience stream

Writer Kyle Chayka refers to these videos as "an imagination aid" to help you "pretend you're somewhere else, or someone else, far from your current worries." While transportive, the Environments records were primarily for concentration, the cover text often noting their meditative qualities. 2021's 'environments' deliver transportation first and foremost. The soothing, flow states are a by-product of aurally planting ourselves outside of our overly familiar settings. These streams promise distant travels from a small room. 

* Addendum: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Numero Group’s fantastic Environments app.

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Though universally revered, Martin Scorsese is sometimes viewed as an old-fashioned relic as he digs in his heels against changes in contemporary media. Previously, he got lots of nerdy flack for referring to superhero franchise films as "theme parks" rather than "cinema." And, recently, in an essay on Federico Fellini, Scorsese went off on algorithms and the overuse of the word "content" to describe artistic output. He's mainly referring to visual media, of course, and how "the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator" when we refer to it all as "content." Here's Scorsese:

"Content" was used more and more by the people who took over media companies, most of whom knew nothing about the history of the art form, or even cared enough to think that they should. "Content" became a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode. […] … it has created a situation in which everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field, which sounds democratic but isn't.

A platform's reliance on algorithms that can't separate artistic intention from specious cash grabs exacerbates this perception. There's so much talk about freeing ourselves from the gatekeepers, but perhaps 'old-fashioned' human curation is a gatekeeping we need. Scorsese again:

Curating isn't undemocratic or "elitist," a term that is now used so often that it's become meaningless. It's an act of generosity—you're sharing what you love and what has inspired you. Algorithms, by definition, are based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else.

"Scorsese is right," tweeted music critic Ted Gioia. "Anyone who refers to film, music, or writing as 'content' is simply not a trustworthy custodian of anything of cultural value. Unfortunately, these are the key decision makers in media right now."

I don't have too much of a problem with media companies calling the music or movies they stream "content." It's like a politician using blatant dog whistle language — at least you know who's in this for the right reasons and deserving of trust. What's insidious is when we, as artists, are convinced to start using the word "content" instead of "art" or even "our work." A musician creates a beautiful song, puts sweat into editing an accompanying video, and then thinks, "here's some content for YouTube" — that's distressing. 

Language is powerful, and the words we use in our heads change our behaviors. If we start replacing words like "art" with "content" — even just internally — our intentions shift. We start feeding the companies hungry for content. Instead of making music and films for the fans or the human curators, we're producing content for the algorithms. 

Seth Godin must have read Scorsese's rant. Soon after the essay's publication, Seth wrote his own rant on his daily blog

Publishing to an algorithm is not the same as publishing to an audience. And living in a culture that's driven by profit-seeking algorithm owners is different as well. Because without curation, who is responsible? Who is guiding the culture? Who pushes the boundaries or raises the standards? […] …we benefit when we realize that the algorithm isn't rooting for us and quite probably is working against us. The only winning approach is to earn permission and a direct connection with our fans and then act as curators for ideas (and as our own publishers).

Getting back to the power of language, I touched on this topic on the blog a few years ago when I commented on Cherie Hu's idea that "The word 'creator' does more harm than good." (Cherie's original essay is offline, but I wholeheartedly recommend her Water & Music platform, where you can find many of her enlightening pieces.) I wrote this in my blog post

It may seem like semantics, but the way we adopt and use language rewires our thinking. Hu's point— which I never considered — is that the more we refer to ourselves as 'creators,' the easier it is to submit to the notion that our creations are in fealty to others. Notice how the services almost all use 'creator' — a sampling of examples Hu points out include YouTube Creators, Facebook for Creators, Spotify's "Creator Marketing.' So when a platform sneakily claims ownership of our work we're desensitized against protest.

"Content" is the same. The language implicates employment, that we're delivering goods in a fiefdom. Responsibility, leverage, and agency shift to the "content provider."

Buckle down, folks. Dig in your heels like Martin. You're artists making art. Don't let anyone tell you anything else. 

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Now that we're talking about language, here's a passage from Philip K. Dick's Time Out Of Joint, which I've been saving FOREVER. Ragle Gumm had some thoughts about how language shapes reality:

Words, he thought.

Central problem in philosophy. Relation of word to object... what is a word? Arbitrary sign. But we live in words. Our reality, among words not things. No such thing as a thing anyhow; a gestalt in the mind. 

Thingness... sense of substance. An illusion. Word is more real than the object it represents.

Word doesn't represent reality. Word is reality. For us, anyhow. Maybe God gets to objects. Not us, though.

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It's never too late to discover a great band. Sad circumstances may make it seem otherwise, as in the case of Tomaga. Somehow this London duo was off my radar despite first appearing in 2013. I happened across their 2019 album Extended Play 1 a few months ago, and from the first track, "Bluest," I was immediately roped in. Tomaga's sound is textured and intricate, with jazzy post-punk drums, flashes of discordance, and in-studio arrangements hinting at a modernized This Heat. That's when I learned the bittersweet moment of my discovery — looking up Tomaga online, I saw that 1/2 of the band, Tom Relleen, had just died of stomach cancer.

Tomaga's other half, drummer and percussionist Valentina Magaletti, announced last month that the band completed a new album before Relleen's passing. Intimate Intensity is due on March 26 and, judging from the three advance tracks streaming on Bandcamp, this is an early contender for 'album of 2021.' The title track is especially potent, carrying forward all the elements that drew me into "Bluest." The drums, accompanied by pingy percussion, play at a meter just out of grasp; a muted bass carries a wisp of melody; warm, melancholic strings embrace this sonic space. This is the final sound of Tomaga (as it's the last song on the album), and it's weighty and intensely moving.

Floating Points collaborated with Marta Salogni on a gorgeous, plaintive 'reinterpretation' of "Intimate Intensity," released last week. It's a benefit for The Free Youth Orchestra, a charity set up in Tom Relleen's name. Amazing stuff. 

Side note: I recently wrote about my love for an EP by Holy Tongue, and I now see that Valentina Magaletti is also a member of that project. 

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NYC musician/librarian Shea Betts visits us again with a dose of aural contemplation on his tranquil new album, Enna. I recently reviewed Sea / Sky, his debut release, and its overdriven, 'natural-wonder' ambient music style. While that album conveyed a windy skyline meeting rough seas, Enna captures an extended episode of pleasance and stillness. And with the cover art foliage and titles like "First Light," "Bloom," and "Sunday," one gets the feeling that spring is in the air. 

The album's method resembles languid chords played on organ or harmonium, realized through warm, synthesized textures that sit somewhere between the two. Shifting movements in the mid-range are often accented with sparkling overtones (most prominently on "First Light" and "August "), barely hinting at melody but still feeling familiar and song-like. 

These days I'm drawn to music that I best describe as "reassuring," something that I can put on as I sit back and clear the attic. Enna fits the bill. And the songs are relatively short — we usually expect a single track in this drone-ish style to take up a side of an LP — but the spaces left in-between songs suggest a moment to breathe and reflect. I'm not sure if this was Betts' intention and that he meant Enna as a sort of sonic balm, but its tones indeed do wonders for a restless psyche. 

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That's a wrap on this episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care. I hope you enjoyed reading my ramblings. I didn't plan it, but I see there's a thread throughout this episode of self-healing and resetting mindsets. As I say at the end of each newsletter, "hang in there." 

I realize how lockdown has shaped these writings and everything we do creatively. That includes all of us, everyone, everywhere. Now that we see some light at the end of the tunnel (though still distant), I wonder how our art will change once we're out of this mess. Undoubtedly it will still be different than it was before. 

As always, don't hesitate to reach out to say 'hey.' I'm always eager to hear from you. Thanks again for reading, and I'll see you here again 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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