Saturday, May 02, 2015

Girl in a Band: Inspiration for "No Wave" Christianity -or- Toys Break When You Give Them a Goal

A Sonic Memoir

I just finished reading Kim Gordon's fantastic new book, Girl in a Band: A Memoir. Gordon and Thurston Moore, two of my rock heroes, fronted Sonic Youth for over a 30 year stretch, and have become without a doubt one of our more iconic bands. They are so seminal in the world of rock & roll that, in a way, they ARE a genre rather than easily pigeon-holed into a genre. They had their start in the No Wave movement in New York City, a movement that attempted, in punk subculture fashion, to fight against commercialization and another movement of music of the period, New Wave, the most famous band of which was the Talking Heads (which is a whole other story, because David Byrne, also a New Yorker, frontman for the Talking Heads, is as much a creative hero of mine as Kim Gordon).

Gordon is a heroine of rock for many reasons, including, as she recognizes in the title of her memoir, that in that early period of punk and rock history, it was simply remarkable (unfortunately) for a woman to be on stage singing and playing bass.

But here is what is intriguing about Kim Gordon--she wasn't a musician, really didn't even think of herself as a musician. Like Arcade Fire and other big name bands, she kind of fell into the band scene out of a more general interest in performance art.

It's worth reading the memoir for this part of her story. She offers a short version of it in her interview on NPR with Terry Gross:
GROSS: You've always loved music, but you didn't know how to play. And you write you've never considered yourself a musician. So what inspired you to actually start playing? 
GORDON: It began with this artist friend of mine, Dan Graham, who had a performance piece. And he wanted to do the piece with an all-girl band. So he asked me if I wanted to participate. And that was kind of how it started. But, you know, the whole atmosphere of - this was like post-punk era, in a sense - 1981. But something about punk rock - I was just talking with someone about this - how it kind of set people off on this course, and you didn't know where it was going. And it wasn't about being a musician. It was just kind of this almost social phenomena that was happening. But it was happening through music, whereas everything had been fairly staid in mainstream music and also the culture. And so it kind of almost, like, set up this context where anyone could kind of participate. So it was this whole other avenue that was opened up. And it kind of pulled you along with it. 
GROSS: Do you have a lot more technique now than you did then? 
GORDON: (Laughter) I suppose I do, but it's hard to describe. Like, I have a vocabulary of sound and, you know, I have a pretty good sense of space (laughter) and rhythm. But, you know, again, now I play mostly improv music. And, you know, it's not really about playing conventional chords, and it never was in Sonic Youth. It was - the guitars were always tuned in different tunings. The base was tuned in regular - a regular tuning. So we didn't really talk in terms of chords so much and, you know, I almost felt like I had to work against learning how to play, because there was kind of a skill in that, really.
I find one sentence in there mind-blowing. "I almost felt like I had to work against learning how to play, because there was a kind of skill in that, really." Now, to get a sense of what she means by that, I'd suggest you watch this video of a live performance.

After you watch that one, then watch Gordon perform with Sonic Youth on the David Letterman show when she was 8.5 months pregnant, an event she describes with some poignancy in her book:

Towards Sonic Preaching

Here's what I ponder... do more of us allow ourselves to be open to creativity that is beyond constricted creativity? Do we allow our assumptions about how things should be to keep us from creating what is? Gordon didn't let her lack of traditional musical knowledge keep her from singing and playing bass. Instead, she actually cultivated it as its own kind of skill.

I think, for example, of the art of preaching. So many preachers preach the way they think somebody should preach. It becomes a kind of constraining and trapping and derivative performance. So what if preachers could tap into the kind of punk framing Gordon clearly taps into for her sonic explorations? 

Here, watch one more video if you have time. This one is a song Gordon wrote after reading William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition, about Cayce Pollard, a "cool hunter":

I am not here arguing for mediocrity in our creative pursuits. There is far too much of that. But true creativity is killed as much by goals and guidelines as it is by middling dullness.

Okay, if you've been willing to go this far down the rabbit hole with me, will you go one step further. Pause in your reading of this blog post, and go read this post about Videogames As Broken Toys. It's a fascinating meditation on gaming and design theory, not unrelated to a couple of chapters in my book Mediating Faith

Burgun defines the terms this way: 
Here's a quick primer on my four prescriptive interactive forms (read more here): the base interactive system with no goals is a "toy". Add an objective/solution and you get a puzzle. Add measurement and you get a contest. Obfuscate game information (allowing for decisions to exist), and you get a game (a contest of decision-making).)
A fully functional lego turntable
More and more of our toys have been given goals, and so they are increasingly broken. A prime example of this are Legos. Legos used to be interactive with no goals, like the big starter set I played with as a kid. Now, increasingly Legos are only issued with a specific design to build. Of course you can build other things, and so ignore the goals, but the fact that kits are designed for specific stories, looks, and brands "breaks" them to an extension. 

Many games are breaking not because they fail at obfuscating game information, but because they are too goal-oriented. This is Burgun's complaint about many video games. Some video games are incredibly open, and so achieve something much closer to a no goal environment (one of the more famous recent games of this type was Elderscrolls V: Skyrim), but to be a true toy in Burgun's sense means a certain kind of purity that most video games, with the exception of perhaps Minecraft and Burgun's own Auro, lack. 

All of this seems like an opportunity for Christians in particular to consider a greater level of open creativity and confidence in all of our crafts. If we consider much of Christian art, from Christian novels to Christian music, the general insipidity that characterizes much of it is, I believe, connected either to a failure of confidence in the way Kim Gordon confidently transcends the very art she performs, or a narrowing of art by the application of overly constraining goals.

Very few Christian musicians or artists have found a way to transcend these constraints, and when they do, they are typically ostracized from the "guild." Think, for example, of Sufjan Stevens.


First, learn to go punk without going punk. The point of punk isn't to be punk. The point of punk is the discovery of the creative that resides within deconstruction. Nobody can discover a new (spirit-led) direction if they are simply striving harder and harder to perfect the given order. Yes, you can learn how to sing by learning how to sing. But you can also learn to sing by learning how not to sing.

There's a version of this rule made famous by Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Yorke, mid-career, started wondering whether he should learn to read music. Jonny Greenwood, his handmade, basically said, no way! Don't learn to read music now, it will suck out all your creativity. Once you learn how to do something, it is hard to unlearn it. Unlearnedness is a gift.

Then consider gaming. Perhaps we are less aware than we should be of how much of our life is actually an RPG. Joseph Laycock's recent book illustrates this point well. "the claims of the moral entrepreneurs [a coalition against the rise of RPGs in the 80s], in which they presented themselves as heroes battling a dark conspiracy, often resembled the very games of imagination they condemned as evil. By attacking the imagination, they preserved the taken-for-granted status of their own socially constructed reality. Interpreted in this way, the panic over fantasy-role playing games yields new insights about how humans play and together construct and maintain meaningful worlds."

In all of this, there is an invitation to get back to the sandbox, to deconstruct some of the rules and goals that have accreted over the particular sandbox we inhabit, and to live in the open space a true sandbox offers. Anything can be built, and it is all there, given, as a gift. Just don't try to make the sand castle durable, as if waves don't come along with the rising tide.

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