Alex, in our last discussion, you described your musical aims as reconnecting with nature and embracing cultural transparency. Have your aims differed much since then?
My explanation of them has. In the last interview there is a great opposition of nature and culture which I think is a bit misleading. Nature was meant not in the sense of an alternative state to culture, but rather in the sense of what endures at the core of culture. The two are not in opposition, they form a single unity. But the core of this unity can still remain hidden behind its outer proportions. This is not due to the unity itself but the way we perceive it. In itself it is indivisible, but in perception it is divided.
What might be a better word than "nature" then?
Well, there is no better word. Or rather, there is no word. Nature is a bad word, just as there are many other bad words. A better tactic completely would be to revisit the question I tried answering with the word "nature", which was: what endures at the core of culture? In reality, no word can answer that question adequately, because words themselves are cultural entities. So how do you approach the question? Precisely by resisting an answer, by resisting a "name". We don't need to construct an answer so much as stop constructing altogether. Then we are truly listeners, ready to receive.
A meditational state perhaps?
Well, a state though which we are able to shed the mental layers that make us want answers and definitions. [We'll talk more about this state later on.] In this state language becomes meaningless because we are no longer seeing the world in terms of distinct name-able entities, we have touched the core of ourselves that sees only the interconnection of all of existence. It's an inner revelation before it's an outer one. It must be -- because the outer person inhabits the realm of language.
Isn't this the ultimate anihilation of language?
No. Through communication language will always take care of itself. And we'll always want to communicate. We are talking about listening. Listening and communicating are two very different things. Listening is about silencing the desire to name things. You can't truly be listening if you're already planning communication. Listening requires we open ourselves to the world; communication requires that world be rationalized and defined and made into something it isn't. It is for this reason listening, solitude, meditation, etc. precedes communication for most mystics (while fundamentalists tend to give priority to literal names and definitions). But this does not mean the mystic path rejects language -- not at all. It simply puts language aside until the moment it is absolutely necessary. If anything, language is vitalized in this moment, not anihilated.
Perhaps it is the information age that has pushed listening and communication closer together.
Yes, but I'm more pessimistic even than that. The transference of information is expected to occur at such a rapid rate now that the space in which we are actually able to listen is virtually non-existent. There is a danger that listening will disappear completely behind communication, and communication is made to be a continual shifting back and forth of empty words.
It seems to really listen we have to forget about communication at least for that moment in which we listen. Communication depends for its effectiveness on the use of a mutually agreed upon language system, which as we have said must have internal limits. By listening with this system already in mind, we effectively agree to miss everything outside these limits.
The biggest shock we might get through really listening is that most of what we hear does not fit a system at all. We then realise authentic expression is a much more difficult task than it first seemed, because it demands we are continually subversive -- it demands we rework the system from the ground up again and again, with each new expression. Not because there is a better system out there which we have to find and immortalise, but because all systems set limits to what is actually limitless. It's not a rejection of any one system per se, but a rejection of "system-ness" as a whole. In the end, there is no system at all, only means, only channels and openings -- all of them temporary and makeshift.
Openings for nature?
Well, what manifests in these openings is really not for us to name. We can call it nature or Being or God, but in the end these are just more words, which amounts to more openings. What it is we experience but cannot adequetely define, suffice to say it is a reality of vibration and energy that is profoundly more significant and far-reaching than the mere cultural or human channels through which it happens to filter, the human "shapes" it inhabits. We don't create light, but we do create windows that light shines through. Sound is the same.
You have talked about rejecting the word "nature", but it seems the word "culture" might not be so easily disposable. What are your current feelings about culture?
I engage with culture as a medium, rather than as a distinct entity in itself. Actually the window analogy is a good one. Because what is a window but a medium for something beyond itself?
So I see cultural tools in this way, as windows or frames. What is the light shining from beyond their borders? We live so thoroughly in the domain of these tools that this question tends to be forgotten. Take musical instruments. Musical instruments occupy such importance in the politics and practice of music that we imagine sound itself must play a supporting role to the instrument, or indeed that it is the instrument which gives rise to sound. This is as absurd as saying light only exists because of the window. No. Light exists beyond the window, just as sound exists beyond the instrument. Sound and light each filter through their respective instruments.
How can you see objects that aren't in the frame though? Surely that's impossible.
That's impossible yes, but we're not talking about seeing more objects, we're talking about seeing light itself, which is present in all objects. In other words, we don't need more objects (the ones we can see right now are fine), we just need to know how to look at them. That is, how to let our focus reach a certain level of penetrative intensity, so that we begin to see through these objects to this core of light, which in the ultimate sense is the same regardless of its host object anyway.
Are you saying the paticularity of the object doesn't matter at all?
That's exactly what I'm saying.
- But this does lead on to an important point. Of course there are quicker and slower ways to getting to this type of focus. The frame doesn't matter to the light itself (which is the same regardless of the frame), but it does matter to the perceiver. A frame that includes many, many objects is obviously going to keep our attention on the objects a lot longer. Whereas a frame with fewer objects is more likely to allow a perceptual shift a lot quicker. And this is the basis of my interest in minimalism.
What minimalism does is reduce these objects, so that we are not continually shifting focus from one to another to another, noticing only the composer's imposed connections, progressions and sequences. When there is only one object (for example) in the frame, or one sound, a listener is suddenly able to focus on it. That composed information quickly fades, and we are able to navigate our way through the sound's deeper levels and approach that core I was talking about -- the space is there for that to happen. When there are several sounds in a functional relationship we cannot hope to penetrate any of them very deeply, because we are forced to focus on something else. It's not that these deeper levels are absent, we are just not given much of a chance to find them.
So the composer still might have a role in encouraging this type of focus?
Absolutely. And it's ironically by resisting the urge to "compose", by which I mean attempting to construct some human or musical "statement" out of sounds, using sounds to try and communicate something which is fundamentally not related to sound at all. By reducing all that human input, minimalism allows a level of sonic perception that in "normal" music is very difficult to access.
Thank you, Alex.
Alex Carpenter (© 2002)