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Zen Sounds 064: Here and Now
Two records, two books and a DJ mix I've been enjoying lately
Prologue: Does time exist?
The short answer is: We can’t know for sure. Consciousness experiences time, but it might be an illusion. Most physicists do believe that time exists though.
Even if time exists independently of consciousness, the past and the future are manifested in our reality only indirectly, through memories and plans, thoughts and ideas; while the present moment unfolds right before us to be directly experienced. We might as well turn towards it.
This recent post by Zen teacherresonated deeply with me.
“We can’t not be. But we’re prone to bury our true aliveness in layer upon layer of rejection of what is, of trying to be, to become, to create something other than what is fully alive, here and now.”
In turning towards presence, I ask myself: What can I do right now to relieve any being’s suffering? Water the plants. Take the dog for a long walk. Be compassionate towards the people I live with: My wife, my neighbours, my community.
Opposed to capitalist mantra, the poet and farmer Wendell Berry urged us to “Think Little”. In his essay, first published in 1969, he wrote:
“Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world.”
Maybe it’s enough to find the right thing to do on a small scale, in this very moment, in the here and now.
This is how I want to live my life.
Lia Kohl – “Too Small to Be a Plain”
I had discovered the Chicago-based avant-garde cellist, composer and multi-disciplinary artist through her sophomore album “The Ceiling Reposes”, which I’ve recommended here. Now’s the time to revisit her debut “Too Small to Be a Plain”, originally released on cassette and just re-released on vinyl.
Stylistically, the unique musical approach of her sophomore album had been formed here already – a mix of field recordings, drones, radio static, synth loops and cello improvisations. Kohl has collected the sounds over many months, as if she’d collect stones and shells at the beach, and then arranged these pieces as kind of a mosaic. The result is as beautiful as it can be unsettling at times.
Audrey Carmes – “Quelque chose s’est dissipé”
Outstanding debut from a French composer, poet and visual artist. Paris-based Audrey Carmes combines layers of synthesizer, bass, vibraphone and flute with her own vocals, a mix of wordless melodies and whispered poetry in French. In the second half, she includes Malibu-like synth washes and ethereal chants.
In the press text, Carmes is quoted wanting to “find both appeasement and peaceful strength” through creating the project, which she characterises as “kind of a meditation on the vertigo of our existence by approaching the void”. These beautiful, healing sounds have been on constant rotation last week.
Claire-Louise Bennett – “Pond”
Irish writer Claire-Louise Bennett’s cult debut “Pond” (2015) collects 20 short episodes, all narrated by the same protagonist. The title is a nod to Henry David Thoreau, who in the 19th century retreated to a small cabin near Walden Pond in rural Massachusetts, to find out what life is actually about when stripping away the excess.
Bennett’s protagonist is a young woman that leaves London behind after the end of a relationship, aborts her doctoral thesis and rents a cottage on the west coast of Ireland. We don’t learn much more about the nameless woman, but there are some biographical parallels to the author, who studied in London but then moved to Galway in Western Ireland where she still lives.
Throughout these 20 stories, the woman roughly resembling the author is living through a metamorphosis that a critic aptly described as "the re-enchantment of the world”. It is a deeply poetic, strange, mysterious book. The Irish Times says that Bennett’s “writing (…) seems to blend a clean modernist style with a luxurious ornateness”, which sounds on point. She reminds me of Deborah Levy, with a bit of Tove Ditlevsen sprinkled in.
I’m currently reading her novel “Checkout 19”. It’s breathtakingly good as well.
Kathryn Scanlan – “Aug 9 – Fog”
Kathryn Scanlan is an American author who grew up in Iowa, studied writing in Chicago and lives in Los Angeles now. “Aug 9 – Fog” (2019) is her debut work; she has published a few more novels since then.
The book is a minimalist version of a 400-page diary, written by an 86-year old woman from 1968 to 1972. Scanlan found it in 2004, and through an editing process over many years, she arrived at a version following a five-arc structure, with every entry containing just a few sentences. Each day gets its own page, so the words have space to breathe.
This is a reminder of what’s important in life. What does an 86-year old decide to write about? A good meal, the sight of a beautiful bird, the death of a friend. What’s even more interesting is the information that is not disclosed. We don’t know much about her relation to the people she writes about, and she doesn’t explain what’s going on inside her, so the mind starts to make up stories.
The book reminds me of Nate Scheible’s gorgeous album “Fairfax”, originally recorded in 2017 and re-released on Warm Winters Ltd. in 2022. Scheible had found a cassette with voice recordings in a thrift store, probably left on an answering machine. Scheible composed the music around these snippets, and you can’t help developing a relationship to the recorded woman, who is apparently very sick. You feel her insecurity, her fragility and her humanity.
One more thing
Sometimes I stumble across music that feels like a snapshot of a certain era in my life, and I get lost in recollections and hazy images of a long gone past. Case in point, this 90s UK jazzy trip-hop mix by Japanese-born, London-based DJ Nina Yamada. Back in the days, I listened to a lot of Mo’ Wax and Ninja Tune records. I loved the first two tracks in this mix; they’re by an acid jazz band called Marden Hill whose 1994 album “Blown Away” was just re-released. The rest is great as well, as Nina does not resort to the played-out hits from that era, instead focusing on more obscure cuts. Dopeness galore, as we’d say.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze