Originally published in For Alma (book/CD/DVD)


Introducing Alma
Alma is a ghost who may or may not occupy the building in which all of the present material was recorded. If she exists, she has managed to find a way to avoid being released into whatever unknown nothingness awaits her. What an ingenious strategy. To remain somehow protected within the confines of the building she occupied in life. This building is not only a physical dwelling; it is also representative of all the comforts and certainties Alma "built" around herself, the things into which she invested meaning while living, indeed which distanced her from this great, looming nothingness in the first place.
    The building today bears little resemblance to the building Alma probably remembers. In fact, her "house" is no longer really a house. It is just an empty site, devoid of people, furniture and decor. The only physical object consistently present in the building, in fact, is a framed photograph of Alma herself, which reputedly keeps reappearing despite several efforts to remove it.
    The building itself, built in the mid-18oos and located at 706 Duke Street, Alexandria, Virginia, USA, was introduced to me by my friend, and assistant recording engineer on this album, Nicholas Syracuse. Nicholas, who has long-standing family ties to the building, thought it would provide exactly the type of recording space I'd been unable to find in New York (multi-roomed, spacious, rent-free). He was right—it did. But it quickly became more than that. As more and more "ghost" stories about the space began to emerge, Alma's presence grew clearer in my mind, and she began directing my performances in very unexpected ways.
    I recorded audio over four weekend-long sessions between December 2011 and May 2012, and shot video over three days in July 2012, and during that time my relationship with Alma changed significantly. I went from dismissing her, to being interested in her conceptually, to finally trying to locate and communicate with her. When I felt I'd found Alma, I was struck immediately by a desire to help guide her beyond the house, beyond the faded investments that seemed to hold her prisoner. But this project slowly gave way to an identification with her apparent struggle, and eventually an appeal to the unique perspective I imagined she must have possessed.
    In the final stage—some time after the sessions—it occurred to me that perhaps I hadn't been at the helm of this journey at all. Perhaps it was Alma who had found me, and who had been directing the communication all along.

Plate 1 - Street entrance, 706 Duke Street

Locating Alma
It must first be said, Alma's realm is always present and available to us, but is part of a reality we are culturally or habitually inclined to tune out. This might make us think that Alma exists in between our normal points of focus, that she is like the object you walk past every day but don't notice because there are too many other more conspicuous objects taking up your attention. But this would send us a little off course. Ghosts are (if anything) essences. And the essence of things lies within things, not somewhere else. From this perspective, Alma's realm cannot be in between normal points of focus, in the sense of next to them, on equal footing; it must rather be at the core of these points.
    If this is true, then the question is not how to look away from those things present and available to us—how to escape or "transcend" them—but how to penetrate these present things more deeply; how to focus on them in a new, magnified way.
    This idea might best be visualized in terms of photographic magnification. When an image is magnified, its normally-reliable shape starts to lose recognition. But in the wake of this apparent disintegration, a space is cleared for the exposure of details and processes on a different scale; details we never noticed before, not because they weren't there, but simply because we were preoccupied with the shape. These details present themselves not when we look for better, more "successful" shapes, but when we look more deeply into the ones we already have.
    This deeper engagement might not always happen. In fact, it seems as though the opposite outcome would be far more common. If our investment in the pictured object is strong enough (as it often is), of course our inclination is to look away when it ceases to be recognizable as such, to dismiss the magnified image as valueless and turn to another shape. In this scenario, we escape the object but are greeted immediately by a different object, a different framing of the same situation.
    To find Alma's realm, what is needed is not an escaping or transcending of the object, but an excavation of the object. A clearing away of layer after layer that keeps us occupied with the object's outer appearance and functionality. Accordingly, we don't need to divert attention away from our normal points of focus, to make them softer or more subdued, as though we were looking in between these points for a separate and distinct essence. If anything, we need to make these points more singular, more forceful, louder. Only then, once our perception is given a chance to tire of its surface investments, to become exhausted with them, can we really hope to cut through to the core that has always eluded us; the realm—perhaps—that Alma occupies.

Plate 2 - Entrance to 3rd floor recording space

Hearing Alma: Scenario 1
Alma occupies an empty house. But she doesn't see an empty house. She sees the house she always lived in. To her, the dirty, nonfunctional cupboard is still the cupboard that stores her fresh linen. The musty, water-damaged north alcove is still the cozy living-area where her family members gather. So powerful is Alma's attachment to these memories that they utterly eclipse the present reality in front of her.
    We share with Alma this condition of selective blindness. Perhaps it is even this condition that prevents us from seeing Alma herself. Alma doesn't see the empty house, and we (in the empty house) don't see Alma.
    Like Alma, we are captives within our own structures of meaning. Shrinking under a protective veneer of normality that moderates and shapes the flow of light beaming in from some endless horizon of possibility. We are engaged from birth in building and maintaining this structure; we seek from our experience continual confirmation of it, tune out the data that threatens its stability. This is the situation of our own "house", and is precisely the reason we relate to Alma so readily. The fact that we can entertain the possibility of remaining within this shelter even after death (when we talk about ghosts having "unfinished business", for example) speaks to the intensity of our fear of being without it.
    Of course, we are always on some level aware that our house is doomed to the same fate as Alma's, that it will ultimately and finally fail us. But rather than weakening its framework, bringing us into a broader field of possibilities, this underlying awareness only fuels an instinct in us to defend and strengthen our particular enclosure, to further validate our investment in it. All the anxiety looming at our core about the vast, uncertain reality surrounding us, we manage to absorb in the process of living. We are propelled into a project of affirming life as we know it, shoring up the structures that house and protect us, immersing ourselves in the roles they provide, and celebrating the sense of worth, meaning and security they afford us. This is a desperate "forgetfulness", no less powerful or automatic perhaps than any animal's response to the threat of danger.
    Is it possible such a project could continue into death? If our fear of death is at the root of this project, wouldn't it make sense to assume we are most invested at our time of death? Most desperate to preserve our house?
    This is Alma's position in Scenario 1. She is trapped in a house of investments built up over her life, unable to let go and extend herself towards the present reality in front of her. In this scenario, it falls upon me to help Alma, to share with her the pathways of guidance I have found for myself. Perhaps the road block Alma faces is not so far removed from the one I face as a musician.
    The "elusive core" I mentioned earlier is perhaps nowhere more available yet at the same time covered-over with obstacles than it is in the experience of music. Within musical sound, endless layers of detail remain largely hidden; layers which we are inclined to tune out because they don't proceed from the conscious, human activities of composition and performance, yet which stand always before such activities, supporting them, giving them life. On the surface, humans recruit sound in the service of expressing themselves; sound is understood as a medium. But sound is also always in the process of unfolding and revealing itself through human media, through channels it never seems to quite fit into comfortably or completely. There is a confusion (or forgetfulness) about which is mediating which. Sound cannot be a larger entity than the musician whose role it is to "master" his tools and resources.
    It is clear, probably to most people, that the forces or "energies" (for want of a better term) music engages with, although hard to pinpoint, reach beyond the fixed categories and media of human presentation they filter through. But through our perceptual habits (fueled largely by compositional habits) we get so caught up in the particularities of these media—composers, styles, instruments, musical syntax, extra-musical messages—that we are constantly at risk of shutting out the broader expressions of the very energies operating through them. Whether we realize it or not, there is an entire world unfolding—or waiting to unfold—behind the veil of our cultural preoccupations.
    It is not simply that we inadvertently overlook this world either. If Jean-Jacques Nattiez's musical semiotics describes a popular sensibility (which I think it does), then we actively downgrade it. In Nattiez's book Music and Discourse, musical sounds are characterized explicitly as empty symbols awaiting the redemption, or as Nattiez puts it "consummation", of our willed meaning[1]. The statements they forge amount to little more, for Nattiez, than invitations to construct narrative: "The listener will be seized by a desire to complete, in words, what music does not say, because music is incapable of saying it."[2] Under this rubric, sounds are deemed valuable—and indeed are heard—only insofar as they retrieve the meanings we expect them to retrieve, fulfill the structural functions we expect them to fulfill. They are not approached as the mysterious entities they really are; entities capable of revealing new dimensions to us, and showing us the transparency and incompleteness of the messages we project onto them.
    Perhaps what we encounter in Nattiez is exactly the impulse towards house-dwelling, the desire to see reflected in music a confirmation of ideas we already firmly grasp, to hear within music the comfortable message spoken in the terms and grammars of an already-familiar language. Seen in this light, styles of music (as aggregates of these ideas and messages) could appear like the "character defenses" of psychoanalysis: reflections of the particular repressions that mark our emergence into the social world. Ernest Becker, who wrote exhaustively on the theme of repression in his book The Denial of Death, reminds us Sándor Ferenczi called human character-traits "secret psychoses"—strategies built up to shut-out the full overwhelming anxiety of our existential situation, yet necessary armor (housing) if we wish to move assuredly and uncritically through the world[3].
    The criteria against which we measure our sense of worth are inherited largely by way of example. As children working towards the goals of self-confidence and functionality we fall easily under the spell of those observed character-styles that appear to have resolved the anxiety dilemma for individuals and communities around us. These styles show us a fast-track to acceptance; even in the measured rebellion against them we manage to find a way of being seen and substantiated by the world.
    The evolution of the musician tends to follow a similar path. Communities in the music world—as in any world—provide structures within which we can feel valuable, special, appreciated; they carry a seductive pull one might feel even before deciding to become a musician. What could be more powerful and self-affirming than finding a place within The Great Tradition, than contributing to the zeitgeist? The musician might even say upon arriving at his niche something like "these are my people", or "finally, I've found my home".
    But communities are also by definition products of certain "currencies" of ideas—languages, if you like—that organize and stabilize themselves largely unwittingly on the basis of collective approval. These currencies are self-perpetuating, quietly at play in the minds of community members, or aspiring community members, even before they go forth in search of things to present. Musicians go exploring, but their anticipated means of trade have already designated the way they will explore, what they will value, and thus ultimately what they will discover. Further, since the discovery is often presented back to (or at least received most enthusiastically by) members of the same community, the currency continues to gain sway, and the process only plays out more assuredly next time around.
    Thus, within our "necessary armor" also lies the danger of the ever-narrowing path. Just as "the child becomes dependent on [his character defenses] and comes to be encased in his own character armor, unable to see freely beyond his own prison or into himself, into the defenses he is using, the things that are determining his unfreedom"[4], the musician is liable to shut himself off to the layers of data which have no place in the system he is obliged to uphold, but which nevertheless are available to his consciousness at all times.
    The road block I'm describing shares something with the road block Alma faces in Scenario 1, in that it stands in the way of what is truly present to us, locks us into a known world whose borders we lack the fortitude to look beyond—what we have above called our "house" (and indeed what is represented by the house at 706 Duke Street). Outside Alma's house is a great unknown nothingness, but what is outside ours?
    We talked before about an excavation of the object, which I will now state is the process—explored within the present material—of penetrating the outer layer of shapes through increased exposure and magnification, a seeming imposition of limitation that paradoxically unlocks the limitless possibility of everything. But only (if I might put it so brazenly) by first destroying everything.
    The sound which we normally interpret as the symbol for "this" or "that" meaning, or as the object serving a particular function within a language system, upon extended exposure starts to reveal itself in ways not only foreign in these contexts but also structurally detrimental to them. That is to say, given the chance, the sound will deliver up layers of detail, intrinsic to itself, which undermine the very meanings and functions we had reserved for it. In these layers we find not merely a "supplement" to the original shape, but an occasion to recast the shape altogether. If we listen to the interval of a "major third" for long enough, for example, we start to hear intervals within that sound that are not major thirds at all, intervals that in fact occupy completely different positions and roles within the musical scale. It is not that we have imagined these contradictory layers; they were present in the sound all along. So why did we miss them? Because we were never really listening to the sound; we were listening to a sign in a framework of reference.
    Needless to say, and oddly, increased attentiveness towards the object does not amount to increased veneration of the object. Despite the concentration of our focus on the "object", we arrive only at a clearer recognition of its conditionality. In light of the new data, the object's normally-reliable shape becomes utterly unstable. We are not locked further into the frame of the object, but drawn back toward the endless backdrop of potential, against which the transparency (and possibility) of all objects is revealed.
    How shocking must it have been to discover that 99.9999999999999% of matter was empty space?[5] To realize what we understood so thoroughly in terms of positive value was at its core a void? All this from revering the object of our investigation so highly, too. The deeper we looked into the nature and structure of the material world, the clearer it became: matter was inherently also non-matter. Our curious and dedicated exploring returned data that negated the very thing we set out to explore.
    A similar puzzle is found at the heart of sound. A component soundwave consists of two displacements from a central equilibrium: a "compression" displacement, culminating in the waveform's peak, and a corresponding "rarefaction" displacement, culminating in the waveform's trough. Audible content results from periods of compression, but not from periods of rarefaction. Thus, although a constant tone is perceived, the soundwave is in reality "not sounding" 50% of the time; flickering on and off, as it were. The curiosity deepens when we realize the activity in the rarefaction period is often an inverse reciprocation of the activity in the compression period, an opposing kinetic reaction that spreads out from—and is pulled in by—a core equalizing force. That is to say, soundwaves depend for their very sounding on the presence of a central gravitational axis which itself makes no sound, is motionless. To say that silence lies at the core of sound is not to express some vague, poetic concept; sound quite literally is also inherently non-sound.
    In summary, it seems within the object lies the thing that spells its own disintegration. This, indeed, is a vital component of the object's nature; it lingers ever before us, is at all times present to our consciousness, yet we dwell within houses designed to keep this component hidden and tucked away. Here we not only arrive at an answer to our earlier question "What lies outside our house?", but also encounter the overarching paradox of our situation: what lies outside our house also lies inside it at its very core. Our house stands in defiance of this core, and yet the core is crucial to the objects that make up our house. Echoing this, Alma in Scenario 1 stands before an unknown nothingness which is itself central to life, but from which—throughout her life—she has been fundamentally distracted, and from which she remains distracted still. The similarity of our respective situations is precisely what leads me in Scenario 1 to play for Alma, to offer to her the guidance of a music which takes as its practical focus the letting go of outer investments, and the uncovering of a vital core; a music which aims to cut through to the truly present, to the central layers within objects by means of saturation and the forceful obliteration of meaning. Perhaps, through experiencing a metaphorical "exiting" of meaning structures in music, Alma might find a way to exit the literal structure of her house.

Plate 3 - Framed photograph of Alma

Hearing Alma: Scenario 2
Before I move on to Scenario 2, it is important to restate this "obliteration" is not simply an aimless destruction of objects. The core is not mere negation, but a positive and creative force that brings objects into clear view, in the same way colors might be brought out in sharp relief against a background of black. It ensures we are not unwittingly buying into an ever-narrowing situation of closure, that we are not allowing the assemblage of merely actual and already-realized objects to eclipse the far deeper reservoir of possible and not-yet-realized objects. By tunneling down to this nothingness, we paradoxically discover being itself, in the sense of endless possibility.
    The significance of such a discovery must be a little different for Alma, however. For us it is a renewal, a springboard that propels us back into the world of objects with newfound authenticity. But if Alma is no longer part of the world of objects, how could the discovery provide her with anything renewing or hopeful? Maybe for Alma there is no new beginning, no "next thing", just total disappearance, final merging with nothingness itself. Is it fair of me, then, to assume I understand her resistance? Or even to assume she is in a state of resistance in the first place? Despite the concentration of my focus on shedding layers and penetrating shapes, I still cannot rival Alma's proximity to this core, to this realm outside her house. Willingly or reluctantly, she dwells there; I can only visit, observe and imagine.
    In this context, dwelling should be distinguished from habitation or enclosure. Dwelling, here, is precisely this penetrating of shapes—dwelling in the sense of dwelling on—not the fearful occupation of a meaning structure, not the covering-over of uncertainty, or the expedient filling-in of nothingness.
    Perhaps the fact that nothingness must always be a springboard back to "somethingness" for us means we can never fully grasp its significance. Alma, in this way, could represent the viewpoint of someone who has seen both sides, someone with exactly the perspective we are seeking for ourselves.
    In Scenario 2, Alma is not trapped in her house at all. She is not attached to or hung-up on some memory of her former life. She lingers in her realm only because from here she can at last see the grand being for what it truly is. Against the backdrop of the final nothing that is now but a step away for her, all the beings of her life shine out before her in their authentic, originary incandescence. Indeed, in their transparency. Alma has shifted from a state of habitation to one of dwelling; not any kind of dwelling familiar to living beings, but the privileged dwelling of ghosts.
    Earlier, I made the comment that living beings could at any time look away from the magnified image and focus on another recognizable shape. As living beings, of course we see this as a freedom, but perhaps Alma sees it as our shortcoming. Perhaps Alma's freedom lies precisely in the fact that she cannot look away. As we move about from shape to shape, creating and investing in connections between them, Alma remains immobile, aware somehow for the first time ever that the key to apprehending being is not to chase being, but to simply be. Could we access some of this perspective if we learned to dwell like ghosts?
    With this shift in perspective comes the affirmation that I am not above or removed from the human need for meaning. I occupy a house, and like every living, conscious thing, I have a powerful internal resistance to its exit. I am not exempt from the desire for comfort and certainty, from wanting my investments to last, to keep me supported and protected. How could I really offer any help to a soul who is potentially free from these wants, given I remain essentially captive to them still? Perhaps to equate Alma's predicament with my own is to miss the real message she has to offer me. The objects and meanings valued in life must surely appear to Alma now as monumental contrivances, not least because they exist to conceal the very realm she occupies, or is about to occupy. Surely these objects could be of little significance to someone on the verge of their ultimate cosmic destiny. If my goal is to penetrate the outer layer of precisely such objects, then who is in a better position than Alma to help me?
    So, in Scenario 2, I call upon Alma in the spirit of an appeal, a request for guidance and direction. In issuing this call, I want to ensure the empty space, so present in music—the space into which my will and intention might otherwise rush—is kept clear. I want to preserve and maintain this space as a vital opening into which Alma is invited to step. In issuing this call, I want to remind myself this space is not mine to "fill in", except insofar as I can facilitate the growth of what appears.
    Maybe Alma calls to me also. Maybe she wants a voice, a physicality through which to express the perspective she could never truly grasp as a living being. Or maybe her call to me is selfless, like that of a nurturer wanting to pass on the lessons of experience.
    But mustn't there also lurk within this dialogue between Alma and myself a certain feeling of futility? A sense that, other than in some grand cosmic context, each of our calls must ultimately go unanswered? Alma's appeal to "somethingness" cannot make her "something", just as I cannot cease to be "something" through my appeal to "nothingness". And yet, each of these two notions—something and nothing—remain awkwardly incomplete without the other. Like two sides of a single coin, Alma's perspective and my perspective are eternally connected, yet eternally incommensurable; contingent on one another, yet never really able to occupy the same space, or be experienced at the same time.
    Even in light of this, though, I wonder: did there transpire, against all intelligibility and reason, against all logical feasibility, some fleeting instance of connection? Did Alma and I, if only for a second, communicate?

Plate 4 - Cupboard containing framed photograph of Alma

In a recent dream, I saw myself covered in thousands of tiny magnets, which I had built up around myself in elaborate formations. The magnet structure appeared to be sturdy, but actually the pieces were slowly falling away from me, being pulled one by one towards some unseen source of attraction below. The magnets were never really secure in their formations around my body, since to congregate there meant to be displaced from their natural equilibrium, temporarily disconnected from the object that really attracted them—where they wanted to be. Even though I knew this, I fought it, desperately clutching at the magnets as they fell away, pulling them back onto my body in vain.
    Years passed, and the magnets continued to dwindle. It became clear I could not ultimately keep the magnets with me, and eventually I found myself holding the last one. As I looked at this solitary magnet quivering in my hand, threatening to slip away, I was overcome by a gripping fear: if I were to let go, would my body itself drop like dead weight? Would I fall just like the magnets, so hopelessly at the mercy of this unseen object of attraction?
    Of course, I had no choice; I had to let go. But when I did, to my surprise my body didn't drop. In fact, it no longer seemed to weigh anything. I realized the sense of weight I had felt was never inherently connected to my body, but was an illusion caused by the magnets themselves. With the magnets gone, cleared from my body, gravity no longer existed. I was no longer liable to fall, no longer in need of support or protection. I was free to float.

© 2014 Alex Carpenter

[1] Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, trans. Carolyn Abbate (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990) 128-9.
[2] Nattiez 128.
[3] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973) 27.
[4] Becker 73.
[5] Physics Forums Archive. <http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=74297>. Retrieved 13 November, 2012.