They Play Solitaire


6) Michael’s junk-music past

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I’ve been having some long discussions with Nina, Bobby, Michael and Jack (with a few tidbits thrown in by Davie) about Michael’s junk-music past.

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Michael didn’t have much interest in anthropology, orchestral tuned percussion or the physics of audible wave propagation. He only knew that few of his teachers saw any value in the sublime characteristics of the sound of rubber bands wrapped around a small cardboard box being plucked…

At either seven or seventeen years old — while filling jars and bottles with various liquids, to various levels — he had never seen any reason to limit his experiments to an eight tone scale, when it was the timbre of each note that he was always reaching for first.

He might have read about the acoustic properties of the kinds of wood and wire that “native people” used, but only to the point where it told him something about the bonks and twangs he was looking for, figuring that it was about equally productive to just get some wood and some wire and make whatever noise they could.

And “counterpoint” and “harmony” just didn’t mean as much as the sequence from plink to plonk to plunk by themselves, that most people would say was unmusical or that “avante garde” music academics would say were almost moot. He always wanted to leave that to the jam. The NMBJ-et-al (Nina, Michael, Bobby, Jack and friends/cohorts) collaborations would make the music more complete than the same improvisational experiments he did with junk in his garage at home. (The accumulation of which eventually became baggage that was a general “stiflement.”) Theory was fine, but for Michael experiment was where everything happened. Consequently, Michael — in a way that is more specific than the others — was a mediocre student.

A few of his more perceptive teachers — two in grammar school and one in high school — had him do “independent study” as though a given experiment were like a science fair project and they didn’t expect him to produce much more school work.

Most annoying to Michael were the people who tried to like his tuned-percussion experiments because they thought they should or just tried to like it as a technical challenge.

Michael had always understood systems. He would do fine in a one-dimensional world; where everything was its linear sequence, but he didn’t have the manual dexterity for playing the guitar or saxophone or the violin. He could describe every loop in the sequence of the refridgeration systems he had been working on since his first couple of years out of high school, but still, he couldn’t work all that well with written music. To further complicate things for him, nothing had any shape or depth or space until he had experienced it as a linear system. The world around him was a flat cloud, but he could “see” shapes when he heard music, particularly if it was live, improvised music that he was playing or recordings he played on or his own tuned-percussion compositions.

He said it kind of annoyed him to be associated with influences from Cage and Partch because he said they only tried to satisfy themselves that they had created something without “aching” for what it would be as part of a collaboration. “Nobody but my friends understands the connection to ‘real’ music.” (“Real” — in this sense — always got him into trouble.) “They either only understand the kind of noise I make or they only understand ‘real’ music. They don’t know what they’re missing.”

At some point, at an early age, Michael had a bad audition experience and a troubling experience with a music composition competition where he had placed in the top ten and he “vowed” never to do anything like that again; that it was “stifling.”

When he ventured anything social with the longing that he had for onomatopoeic adventures, it put people off. Even “charts” he wrote for tunes for NBMJ-et-al to play didn’t always go well. Within a few years after high school, his pipedream was to become “normal” — to “join the human race.” He had always dreamed of a place where nothing was real unless some kind of complicated system was happening.

Whenever a solution to a problem in his family home involved a system, the rest of his family acted like his ideas were abuse or betrayal. Michael almost equated the cheap fiction they read with their cars breaking down and leaving them stranded in some unsavoury mall parking lot. His father, in particular, suffered these misadventures-in-technology in silence, but sometimes made it clear that Michael’s arguments for getting stability back in the picture was evidence that Michael had been “duped” by “them.” It sounded like they believed he had somehow been culturally abducted by linear-logic aliens.

Michael’s “latent” ability for systems logic started to surface when it was time to enter the working world. At a community college, he was told that he could get a job right away, if he had a credential for HVAC (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning). Particularly if he specialized in refrigeration.

After working at a local university hospital for almost a year, he fell into a vortex of problems that all pointed to his preoccupation with sound strings. He would take on all the most routine tasks — mostly “amping” units to check their stress and cleaning and “tightening them up” to reduce it — so that he could relax with his ruminations about music.

Just at the point of being fired, he was instead offered a transfer to an observatory in the UC system, but that job unravelled when he got there. There was a fire on the mountain where the observatory and all its ancillary facilities are and in the confusion — complicated by what was probably a combination of car sickness and altitude sickness — he was evacuated by a medic to the firefighters’ bunkhouse — twenty miles east of the observatory — after stumbling down off the mountain top to the wrong side of the fire line. He spent several days at the bunkhouse in perfect solitude — not only away from other people, but more importantly away from all his stuff, most of which was left at home or in his ratty mini-van in Silicon Valley parking lot.

(His greatest relief had been the discovery that all his noises could be captured digitally so that his whole world could live on his notebook computer, but there remained the problem of getting rid of all his junk, which itself oscillated. He would be free and then buried again, several times.)

The bunkhouse had all the media info-tainment systems that expectant firefighters could possibly hope for. Michael spent his time there “studying” DVDs and the web.

A few days after the fire, when he got back to the observatory, he found that the people there didn’t want him to work for them. One of the scientists gave him a ride back to his car down in Silicon Valley and on the way, the scientist told him about a railroad junkyard/restoration place that his uncle owned in Los Angeles and that his uncle was always looking for “handy people that aren’t ambitious.”


Written by Kenny Mann

04/24/2006 at 2:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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