Playlist: Encounters with The Invisible
Playlist: Encounters with The Invisible
In working through this issue of CHARGE, the task of creating a playlist—a playlist for The Invisible— became increasingly puzzling. Music is already invisible, isn’t it? Present, but unseen, untouchable; existing in sound waves, sleeping inside instruments, or, more often these days, digitally in the cloud until awakened and activated by the click of a button.
I began to think about different kinds of music, and the strange, “uncanny valley”-ish feeling of music that is removed from human expression. Muzak for instance, where “audio architects” use elements of recorded music to create tracks devoid of the element of human input. There is no voice, no vocal inflection, indeed, no words. No musician funnels her rage or grief into the strings of a guitar or the keys of a piano, no drummer balances the world on the edge of a cymbal. Everything is made smooth and robotic. The melody remains, but it has been stripped of life. (For a fun time, catch this muzak-y version of “Smells like Teen Spirit,” and watch Kurt Cobain commenting on the synth album “Grunge Lite.”) What does Muzak Orchestra’s mildly bouncy version of “Hooked on a Feeling” have to say to human beings about the intoxication of falling in love? There is a kind of existential terror that creeps over me as I listen, calls forth images of a benzo-dulled Brave New World, where everything is soft and safe and homogeneous and blandly, horrifically, pleasant. This feeling is perhaps less paranoid than it may seem on the outset, when we understand that the Muzak company engineered and patented the Stimulus Progression program, 15-minute blocks of instrumental background music, designed during WWII out of a need to amp up productivity in industrial workers.
Moving away then, from the idea of “music” invisible of humans, I began to think instead about how one might be able to record The Invisible in more natural, less creepy-manipulative ways.
At the midpoint of a long car trip recently, I pulled to the side of the gravel road to witness a particularly dramatic sunset. I have always felt a strange need to stand witness to natural events — sunrises, meteor showers, lightning storms— and this sunset, giant red ball sinking with that lion-king waver behind the distant hills, was no exception. The invisible feeling, something about beauty and pain and our own aching mortality, that comes over a body at this liminal moment eludes description. But it is recorded in the track, below. Aside from myself and my dusty, bug-spattered Kia, the only other things to experience that particular moment at that place on that particular day were a cluster of six cows in an adjoining field, who by all observation were unimpressed, a meadow of long grasses bordered by gentle oaks turning red-gold in the light, and, as you will hear in the recording, a significant population of cicadas.
The Union Train Depot in Joplin, Missouri has quite the history. Built in 1911 as a junction for the Kansas City Southern Railway, and the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, the station helped put Joplin on the map in the early half of the 20th century. The site, part of a swath of land known as the Kansas City Bottoms, had previously been popular with miners and prospectors during the late 1800’s, and great care was taken to both excavate and fill in the labyrinth of mining tunnels to ensure the stability of the site for railroad use. During this phase of construction, a number of human skeletons were found, leading citizens to speculate that it had been an unofficial burial ground for the miners and prospectors of the time. Despite the uneasiness of workers at disturbing human remains, excavation continued, and the building came together in a fashion one Joplin News Herald article from the time described as, “of old Roman type, antedating the classic style.” The use of mining waste in the the concrete by Architect Louis Curtiss earned the building a feature in Popular Mechanics in 1912. The station, which was in constant service for 58 years, bid farewell to her final train, the Southern Belle, in 1968, and has been standing, abandoned ever since.
My daughters and I stumbled upon the site a few months ago quite by accident, when upon jumping out of the car to explore, we were greeted, serendipitously by a local youth. The young man, this seeming angel of abandoned structures, guided us through the crumbling rooms, flooded basements (where, moss hung thick from the windows, and a shopping cart floated eerily), and up onto the roof where we were met with “the best view in the city.” Every wall is covered in graffiti, ranging from intricate portraits, to vehement expressions of anger, and you can imagine the feeling of walking through the vaulted central corridor, past the ticket counter where a few iron fixtures still rust, surrounded by the collected artwork of innumerable cans of spray paint, as the wind blows hollowly through the weeds and oak shoots that are slowly reclaiming the Kansas City Bottoms for themselves.
I returned to the site recently, at night to record the layers of invisible history as the last of the light left the sky.
The final track in this collection is the recording of a conversation with The Invisible. I met up with a local clergyman, associate pastor Craig Brown of First Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, to talk a bit about the idea of prayer and what it means to be in that particular kind of conversation. For Brown, the idea of sitting down and folding your hands in the traditional sense, is somewhat limited. “Pray without ceasing,” Brown states, quoting the apostle, Paul. For him this means inhabiting an attitude of open dialogue and connection with God as an ongoing and perpetual practice. “People sometimes have a hard time knowing how to listen to God as well,” Brown commented. Silence is hard for us, and often responses take a different form than what we expect.
The sanctuary at First Lutheran was under construction, so this recording was made in a small prayer chapel, adjoining the church offices. Folding tables and chairs are arranged in a square, and we sat facing a stained glass window filtering the light of the bright afternoon sun. After we spoke, I left the room while Pastor Brown sat in silent prayer. I do not know the focus of Pastor Brown’s prayer, the concerns of his deepest heart. Nor do I pretend to understand the mechanism of prayer, a process whereby, according the the Bible, “The Holy Spirit makes intercession for us, with groanings that cannot be uttered.” It is this very unutterability, this longing beyond words to communicate with the ineffable, for a human being to connect with an ultimate Source, to grasp for a sense of guidance, of peace of meaning, to indeed dialogue with such a source, that for me, makes prayer in whatever form it might take, a fundamental human endeavor, and one that, in contemplating The Invisible, cannot be lost. This is the recording of one such conversation. May the silence herein invite you to your own unsayable communion.