Oh Light – A Conversation Across Disciplines with Musician and Writer Eric Lindley of Careful

Oh Light, Eric Lindley’s latest album as Careful, is a well crafted example of sonic Alchemy. As he explains in his essay for Indigest Magazine on the process of creating the album, it was a harrowing month of experimentation in his girlfriend’s closet that lead to the emergence of a unified and beautiful vision through “multiple guitars (plucked and bowed), mbira, flute, punch-card music-box, toy percussion, and hundreds of layers of vocals.”

With a background that includes time at Dartmouth College studying under experimental composer and musical theorist Larry Polansky, and at Cal Arts with the minimalist pioneer James Tenney studying music and cognition, much of his live performance has been focused on creating participatory installation works that use biofeedback to create a direct interaction with the audience. Biofeedback, for Lindley, has become a tool for focusing on the listening experience to better understand composition.

It also changes the way that he experiences music. Through Biofeedback Lindley is able to tap in to a deeper understanding of how harmonic elements come into play in changing and enhancing emotional responses. It gives him a direct look at how the listener is being physically affected by the experience they are having.

While building one of the devices he uses in his installation pieces, a friend of Lindley’s helped him test the GSR (Galvanic Skin Response) sensor by using it to monitor their meditation. These direct applications show the potential for those willing to explore a wider understanding of the creative process to have a deeper relationship with sound and art.

Has your experience with biofeedback changed or augmented the way that you compose?

I think so—there are some very direct ways that I’ve been thinking about integrating biofeedback , or more audience interaction or control, into the more song-like music, where audience members could affect the processing on the voice or instruments live; but I haven’t really put much of that into practice yet.

But in other, more subtle ways, I’ve been thinking about how people actually physically react, and form less literal feedback during performances, where before I think I was more preoccupied with my own, kind of isolated experience on stage, with little bits and pieces of interaction.

Now it’s more holistic—the full social interaction that happens in a performance, and how the initial composition can affect that (though structuring songs for more of a traceable, act-like structure that creates a more unified moment for listeners, for instance). But again, I would like to figure out ways to more literally incorporate biofeedback… we’ll see.

Do you think techniques like this can be used by the artist to guide the listener/reader/etc.? Does it change the way you personally listen to music?

Absolutely. I had another project I was thinking about doing, which was kind of like machine learning, where the audience would be hooked up to the GSR (Galvanic Skin Response) sensor, and the machine would play through passages that had various random patterns of different parameters, all the time reading the audience response. The idea would be that when the machine got a response it wanted, it would go for more sounds that utilized those parameters, and learn what the audience wanted to listen to at any given time.

I guess this is more like the opposite of the technique guiding the listener, but in some ways, as the piece would evolve, and the things the audience wanted would change, the machine would learn what they wanted, and be guided by them. At the same time, it would be instructive to me, ideally, as to how I could structure things to guide particular audiences…. But yes, in general, I think that regarding these biological processes is huge to understanding how the listener will react, and how to structure things.

For instance, our chemistry just can’t change back and forth between certain moods as we may want it to for big, dramatic passages, and research shows that even men and women differ in the rate at which emotions dissipate in their bodies, depending on the particular emotion—so you could even structure music tailored to particular body chemistries…. And this definitely affects how I think about my listening experience with regard to my body chemistry, cognition, and
understanding of my place in a larger social structure determined by these processes and musics.

In terms of realizing an idea for the composition is there an advantage for the composer in being able to create an instrument (circuit bending, etc.)?

Definitely. I think that humans react to a lot of different things about music, but a big part of that is a certain Neophilia (something a mentor of mine, Larry Polansky would talk about a lot). Not everything new is engaging, of course, but oftentimes blatantly “new” things—whether they’re completely revolutionary or just new to a particular listener—resonate really directly with an emotion or idea that it can become new and fresh and a symbolic shorthand for this idea. In this way, it becomes, for a short time, a really powerful device. Of course, these symbols eventually become ingrained and stale in music, or simply the object of the symbol becomes less relevant to people, so it’s unusable.

That’s where new sounds and methods come in, to make another musical shorthand, or “word” for an idea. For instance, trains in folk songs from eras where trains were new were framed as new, fearful technology, and represented technology as a whole, as well as potentially government control, industrial isolation, etc, but as trains became more and more common, then obsolete, and have eventually become representative of a bygone era, a folksong about a train now speaks more to a kind of romanticized vision of the old west or even a cheap shorthand for the days of yore, rather than the really emotionally resonant thing it once was (though I think there are still wonderful possibilities for revitalizing the train as a symbol, and people are doing that even through twists on folk idioms these days). It’s was the same with sounds like the Theremin, or even entire musical styles, like certain types of punk or blues or I suppose anything that was once meaningful.

I feel like, though it’s days are numbered, like anything beautiful, circuit bending became a really powerful way to represent political, anti-consumerist, ad hoc, sincere ideas about modern experience. It’s still really powerful, and there are beautiful things that are being done with it, as there are with any new way of using material—and that’s what composition is all about: finding new vocabularies to understand and represent experience, and new instruments are a huge
part of that.

How does your composition change when working with theatre, puppetry, etc.?

It’s a very different process, particularly because it requires me to work with other people. My music tends to be very personal and a little hard for me to get the same depth and risk in my own feelings when I’m tailoring it for collaboration with someone else. Because of that it’s been hard for me to find good collaborators, but in the end I have.

But it’s a different process, still: I have to be able to articulate what I’m working on in more of a formative stage, and check in with the collaborator to make sure that we’re headed in a similar direction. It’s helped me think of more large-scale form, but it does really affect a kind of categorization that my music has to fit in if I need to articulate it. I like the process, and it pushes me, but it’s definitely different.

How closely connected are your compositions to the creation of the puppets?

That’s interesting to think about—I’ve worked mostly with Katie Shook doing puppetry/music shows, and I haven’t actually seen her create the puppets, but I imagine there’s a similar sense of teetering on the edge of suspension of disbelief.

I had another friend remark that, as an animator, a lot of her job was to reinforce the suspension of disbelief, and pull the viewer in as much as possible to the world being created, to actually believe that they are seeing something “real” unfold in front of them, but a lot of the puppetry I’ve been involved with, though that is important, is often just as much about puncturing those moments by letting the audience in on the illusion, by showing little (or big) cracks.

Katie has a beautiful way of moving her puppets, which is very magical and fluid and strange, and the puppets and environments are cleverly and meaningfully constructed. However, though I’m not sure we’ve talked about it, I think we share the feeling that in order to get certain ideas across, you have to break the illusion at some points, in a kind of Brechtian, alienating way.

I think my animator friend feels the same way, but she does it in different, stylistic ways, rather than directly letting the illusion fall and rise at key points—and of course, I don’t feel like either approach is inherent to animation or puppetry, but more something that these particular people are pursuing.

Is collaborating across disciplines similar to playing with other musicians?

I think so. There’s more translation necessary, and the cultures and concerns are often very different across disciplines, as I’ve mentioned a little bit above, but ultimately it’s been more freeing for me to work with other non-musicians, because it means there’s a big field of “Music” for me to work in, where I can control the entire world of sound.

When you’re working with other musicians, you have to be more aware of your socio-musical niche in the soundscape, so while it can be very productive and very fun, I love the feeling of an open field that can be in dialog with the visual or narrative aspects of what other people are doing, rather than being somewhat confined by immediate stylistic tendencies of other musicians.

Of course, I love working with other musicians as well, but the initial sniffing-out of similarities and inclinations sets up more confined roles.

How does your experience across disciplines affect your focus during composition?

I think a lot more about musical metaphors for visual ideas, or for narrative flow in music, or for dramatic arc, for physical-visceral experience, or even ways that a song can be shaped like a meal or a particularly delicious dish of food.

It sounds a little disingenuous and even cliche to say that, I think, but I also really believe that everyone is really working with the same constraints of human perception, cognition, body chemistry, and social/national roles, with minor differences between how the information actually gets there: through the ears, mouth, nose, skin, or eyes.

Of course, there’s a big difference between time-based art like a play or a song, where you would have to devote an inhuman amount of attention to each millisecond of information to “see” it all, and something like painting, where you can basically look at every inch of the painting, and back up, and feel like you “see” it—though, I have to admit that saying that may just reveal some of my ignorance about static visual art, which though I love and have tried to do, I don’t really consider myself an artist in that way.

How do you view the artist’s position in society? What is the role of the artist for you?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Right now I’m up at a residency with a bunch of artists in different disciplines, and it’s amazing to see the diversity, but it’s also interesting to see that we’re all more or less scraping by, either living off our art, or getting supplemental teaching jobs.

I think that there are a lot of different artists, and that all of their roles are valuable, from people like Matthew Barney, who do incredibly beautiful things with inconceivable amounts of money—something I am completely in awe of, and would never want him to stop, because it reveals things to me about my own ways of thinking and feeling that are important to me, but also seems horrifying in a world where (I don’t know where his studio is), but there are probably people who are destitute that pass just feet away from its walls—to the little communities of artists I met in grad school—who make beautiful things for fairly small communities, even just for themselves, and have teaching and other types of jobs—to commercial artists like Thomas Kinkade—who, if I am really honest, I think of as more of a businessman, but assert that his art makes a lot of people very happy, even if I suspect that it’s more the happiness of acquisition than of art-appreciation.

So, there are a lot of roles, way more than I’ve mentioned, and I think they’re all valid, but personally I’m at a point in my life where I love what I do artwise, and I feel like I am making some amount of difference, but I’m extremely conflicted when I think that—and I know this to be the roughly the amount—I could send a child to four years of high school in Malawi, essentially changing the course of their life for the better (though of course that’s debatable) for the price of a single guitar.

Has literature affected the way you look at music? How integrated is your approach across disciplines?

Absolutely—I mentioned this before, but I think about narrative arc and different kinds of metaphor in more depth because of literature—and because of some of my linguistics study. I was actually talking about this with my partner, Heather, who is a writer, the other day: we were talking about what is and isn’t permissible in writing versus music (more on this below), and what is and isn’t possible, but I think that with music you can really accelerate dramatic moments because of the kind of ineffable shorthand of certain musical conventions, or musical innovations that just make sense, and bypass rational judgment in a way that writing can’t always do, or takes longer to do.

That is, you can set up a beat in music really quickly, or strings can swell, or a wall of glitched-out noise can just come out of the speakers, and you’ll need a couple seconds to get your bearing, but you can follow it pretty quickly, but it takes a bit more time to understand the voice of the prose or the logic of the poetics that a writer is using. I think that my approach is very integrated across disciplines, but it takes things like this into account, and like I said before, also makes me think about how I can take the effect or properties of one discipline and carry it over into another.

Do you ever use William S, Burroughs’ cut up techniques? Or the alchemical techniques he outlines in Electronic Revolution?

I actually haven’t, and I haven’t read Electronic Revolution, but I’m interested in the process. Writing words is an extremely sensitive process for me, because it teeters on a very delicate edge. Whereas I feel you can write a lot of things on the page and not come off as pretentious, and you can try a lot of strange, cut-up or stream-of-consciousness, or other techniques that mirror cognition or experience in writing or in sound-art, when it comes to songs, the setting for most is not such that those things come off naturally or enjoyably (at least not yet, in my hands—I’m willing to bet that people out there are doing and have done brilliant, beautiful things that I just haven’t seen yet).

Do you think artists can affect social change through their creativity? If so, does cross discipline collaboration aid in this?

I do—and though I did mention that I’m a little bit wary or self-critical when trying to measure my impact in the world for the better versus the amount of resources I take up and the amount of enjoyment I get out of the world by making music and art and doing other things that I enjoy, I really do think art can “change hearts and minds” in a very positive—emphatically non-propagandist—way.

There are those artists who have a kind of “brand” that is political, but don’t do a lot to actually change the political landscape for the better or help anyone but themselves get more money, and there are also those artists who revolutionize ideas and in so doing ripple through and cause major paradigm changes in the way people think that change the social world for the better, as well as artists who happen to be political, and do a lot of good in both areas.

Ultimately, though, I do think there are some tricky aspects, though not a conflict, between art and politics. I’ve heard people say that they can’t mix, because (and I think this is half-true) art is less direct, more personal, and addresses things on a level that is simply incompatible with political effort, which must be blunt and mechanistic to be effective.

However, I feel like a lot of people, including both overtly political artists like U2 or Guy Debord , as well as self-described “non-political” artists like John Cage have done a lot to integrate their artistic and political lives and goals.

What are the idea seeds that you enjoy working with? Do the themes that shape your electronic publication [out of nothing] come into your music as well?

I think with songs or short dramatic or written pieces I like working with little ideas, like palindromes, or playful/meaningful uses of the words “some” or “might”, but with larger form work, like a full album, or a novel (which I’m working on right now for the first time), I like using big ideas, like different examples of uneven power dynamics on small-to-large scales, or the tensions between practical decision-making versus reification of ideas or objects… Really, anything that strikes a chord and makes me excited to work.

[out of nothing] is an interesting project, because I feel like it integrates a lot of my interests, as well as the interests of the other editors, Janice Lee and Joe Milazzo, but it’s more of a curation, and so depends largely on the work that is submitted. Of course we get a lot of amazing things, and we pick someone we respect in the field to frame each issue, but beyond planting the initial seed, which we editors do in really fun, excited conversations before each issue, it is really left up to fate what’s going to happen.

But absolutely, especially the conflicted ideas I have about reification, as well as my love for effusive, messy, beautiful things framed in humorous, somewhat abject ways, is a real running theme through [out of nothing]—which informed the title, which was taken from one of my writing pieces—as well as my music.

Eric Lindley’s Bio:

The mastermind behind New York City’s Careful is sleepy-eyed polymath Eric Lindley.

Though he is a published writer, orchestral composer, visual artist, and part time builder-of-robots, his first and fiercest love is making a blend of intimate songwriting, esoteric theory, and delicate electronics.

Lindley self-produced Oh Light, his second full length effort, recording and mixing the album over the course of a month in a closet in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Oh Light is being released by Sounds Super Recordings, it is also available as a digital release.


Eric Lindley on Myspace Music

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