Ancient Patterns: an essay on Life and Lucky Dragons

Life is Long I (Intro)

I’m not sure anybody would have noticed, but I’ve been absent from the writing scene for a few weeks. To answer your question, yes, I am lazy. But my hope is that through this experimental meditation on a very special artist, I can demonstrate the very artness of life that surreptitiously surrounds all modes of creative production. I’ve been the architect of an imaginary universe whose materials are the very stuff of living. I’m putting my entire life into an aesthetically unified package they call ‘the record’. I’m unpacking my life through my body via sound. (Audience: “Right…” ). In other words, sticking to the tradition of saying the unsayable, this piece-my return to writing- shouldn’t really be read. [I don’t mean that literally. Keep reading. I also don’t mean the next sentence literally (keep reading)] I plan to masturbate, and cover way too many topics beyond the scope of a blog post. There is a method to my madness, however (melty-brained intentions aside). This exercise is as much about form, construction, confusion, division and sincerity as any of the topics it purports to unpack. My absence from writing will be included within this return to writing as a source of spectral potency. The transitive property of space in ten dimensions: a=b, b=c. Therefore, a=c. Art is Life. Life is Love. Therefore, Art is Love.

Lucky Dragons

I heard Lucky Dragons for the first time in 2005 when I copped their major-bargain, 47-song CDR compilation-reissue A Sewing Circle. Needless to say, that puppy gave me a lot to digest over many years. When you consider that each Lucky Dragons song is a sound universe in itself (and I really mean it! More than any other artist), the figure of 49 songs begins to feel impossibly large.

It helps that the man at the helm, despite having spent his undergraduate years at Harvard and finished a Masters degree in Music from Brown, doesn’t take himself too seriously. When I think about listening to Have One on Me, Joanna Newsom’s new two-hour masterpiece, part of me dies in the face of genius overload. If I didn’t love it so much, I would insist the album’s grandiosity is its own undoing. A Sewing Circle is like that micro-universe Lisa Simpson (I swear, the jump from Joanna Newsom to Lisa Simpson was not intentional) grew one Halloween: Impossibly huge, but bite-size and pretty cute. Look at these songtitles: “I Made You Nervous (In 1995)” , “One Version of 23-Year Old American Boy” , “Stereo Glitter” , “Oh My Gosh Vagina” , “Flake Jingle” and my personal favorite… “Blunt” . Those who know me should be nary surprised that I’m completely sucked in to this kind of youthful, suburban, fuzzy carpet and VCR and American Flag and weed mythologizing. It’s just too good to pass up. On the other hand, most of the music that assembles a little shrine to hyper-literate slackerdom is a fucking half-assed generic mess. The thing with Lucky Dragons is, he’s a unique genius and demolishes 98% of the bands in Brooklyn who, to quote the inimitable Charlie Looker, “still can’t figure out how to work their guitar pedals.” As if all that weren’t enough to get your ears wet, I discovered during the correspondence leading up to this interview we like, grew up in the same town or something. My hero.

Make a Baby

Though I had been a semi-enthusiastic admirer (at best) of Luke Fischbeck’s recordings for a few months, it was the first time I saw him perform in 2005 when my interest became devout. It’s important to understand that Luke Fischbeck is something They refer to as a ‘total artist.’ Meaning, his aims are not constricted to the paths of any particular media. He thinks, he writes, he dances beautifully, he’s a well-regarded visual artist and, of course, he’s a musical genius. So before I try to paint a picture of what a Lucky Dragons show is all about, understand this is not a band. From the band’s own bio:“Lucky Dragons” means any recorded or performed or installed or packaged or shared or suggested or imagined pieces made by Luke Fischbeck, Sarah Rara, and/or any sometimes collaborators who claim the name. The name “Lucky Dragons” is borrowed from a Japanese fishing boat caught in the fallout of hydrogen bomb test at bikini atoll in the 1950’s. The crew stricken ill, and the boat itself contaminated, the “lucky dragon” became a crystalizing symbol for the previously diffuse worldwide anti-nuclear sentiment. Eventually the boat was painted black, renamed the “dark falcon”, and put into reuse as a fishing vessel, until it was retired and disposed of on the man-made trash island “dream island”, where it remains today.

My vibe is: this kind of band origin myth would be bullshit if it weren’t so sweepingly, tragically sincere. Can’t fault a guy for having deep thoughts about his surrounding environment (Empiricism), not to mention his enveloping interior environment (Metaphysics, Romanticism). It’s also admirable for outlining a clear socio-aesthetic philosophy. Dig how sensitive Fischbeck is to the sometimes awkward relationship between performer and observer. The circumventing route of course is to create a participant-observer situation for everyone involved-to bring the spectator into the aesthetic situation like a small society takes on a curious, bewildered ethnographer.

Lucky Dragons are about the birthing of new and temporary creatures–equal-power situations in which audience members cooperate amongst themselves, building up fragile networks held together by such light things as skin contact, unfamiliar language, temporary logic, the spirit of celebration, and things that work but you don’t know why. There have been hundreds of these simple yet shifting and unpredictable instances–with audiences ranging from the intense intimacy of one person to the public spectacle of thousands of people. At the heart of it all is playing together–building up social collectivities, re-engaging the wonder and impossibility of technological presence. It sounds–and looks–like simple and ancient patterns coming together and falling apart in a sincere attempt to let wires and screens and words become clear and crystal.

Luke Fischbeck’s entire critical dialogue is worth analyzing over and over again. As a total artist interested in spectral and perilous technology, he writes incisively about why music as human production or craft demands to be taken seriously even in a non-Romantic context. The intricate social entanglements of sound technology are a huge part of the history of modern music, particularly music reshaping and responding to the culture of recording. Like another limitless techno-philosopher, Brian Eno, Fischbeck is simply asserting (and rightly so) that Lucky Dragons are about a lot more than just pleasant sound. Much of Fischbeck’s recordings are maddeningly sprawling and schizoid, coming across as curiously indebted to Frank Zappa’s home studio mad science and Madlib’s self-absorbed, weedy beat-shitting. A Sewing Circle even contains this bold yet charming disclaimer: The older the sample is the more it’s getting chopped up and just put in a different context. You might say “that beat sounds like shit” or “that’s a crappy little hook there” or “that part is nice, I can dance to that” - but it’s not about that. I don’t see beautiful or ugly things. It’s all part of your life and that’s great. The emphasis on a non-hierarchical approach to aesthetic reflection, along with an apparent interest in play, suggests that Lucky Dragons have given some thought to the thought of John Cage. Well, good. I’ll be damned if anyone can prove to me after Cage that there is logic to beauty, more specifically to ugliness. Every day is a good day, or so the Zen master says. Why not build up more social collectives focusing on art and music? Why not seek simple and ancient patterns? No one is too busy to sit for a minute and think about how bizarre it is that music even exists, that’s it’s a documented part of every single human society in existence, and even non-human groups if you want to really get outside of Music Humanities. After all, here we are pulling a thread between music and life. Things work and we don’t know why.

So what does all this have to do with the Lucky Dragons performance? Simply, Fischbeck’s performances engage directly with the possibilities and limits of both technology and the self. This is accomplished by the use of an innovative interactive design interface which he refers to as the “Make a Baby” Project. Watch the short doc below to get a better idea of the interface components. The fabric itself is uniquely beautiful, fun to crouch over. The rules of the game are fairly straightforward. The tricky part comes in breaking the invisible social barriers that divide bodies in private space. Luckily, Fischbeck is as limber and seductive a performer as the Lucky Dragons moniker suggests. He dances like a worm at a sacrificial ritual. He walks around the room gently asking patrons to grab a rope from the mysterious quilt on the floor. Suddenly, five or six strangers are holding hands, touching each other, giggling. A pixilated rainbow of strong wave tones flutters around the room, morphing but always orbiting around a self-similarly subliminal center. It is here that music is revealed as a living thing. It is the origin myth enacted: curious bodies interacting to produce sound. I’m not sure exactly what happened that day, but afterwards I felt like there was a little Jake floating out there in the air somewhere. We fucked. We made a baby.

Life is Long II (Beauty and Philosophy)

I want to cast the philosophical lens on the aforementioned ‘transitive property of space in ten dimensions’. By ‘ten dimensions’ I only mean to emphasize the ‘worlds-within-worlds’ effect of consciousness/phenomenology. It is the controlling metaphor for understanding art in a universal, rational context: Art as a beautiful way of living; a sublime adventure through all possible dimensions and all possible causal ripples in time; the totality of the thing in itself, from the point of singularity to the ‘present moment’.

The invocation of the word “beautiful” is appropriate here if we are to take Kant’s aesthetic philosophy seriously (we should). In his Critique of Judgment, Kant imagines a tripartite structure of satisfaction-the Pleasant, the Beautiful and the Good. The Pleasant is most similar to what we today call “Taste,” i.e. it’s limited to individual preference. The Good isn’t quite the Platonic Good in-itself; rather it is bound to utility and economy, the “good for” . The Beautiful is the most potent, somewhat like a reference to a universal pulse of satisfaction, free from any concept (for otherwise it would be a utilitarian reflection, or an expression of a personal position, i.e. the Good, the Pleasant). Kant: “The universal voice is, therefore, only an Idea (we do not yet inquire upon what it rests). It may be uncertain whether or not the man, who believes that he is laying down a judgment of taste, is, as a matter of fact, judging in conformity with that Idea; but that he refers his judgment thereto, and, consequently, that it is intended to be a judgment of taste, he announces by the expression ‘beauty’” (15). It’s a good thing Kant is slightly more reluctant about asserting a metaphysical bedrock of Beauty here than he was about outlining the Categorical Imperative. This demonstrates the powerful contradictions that haunt the very real breach of Life, by Art. Yes, art is a powerful technique of the self, infinite from almost every direction you look at it. Except of course, the perspective from which you can’t see it (Death, the Other).

Mick Taussig once told me, earnestly, that reality is like a block of Swiss cheese: Any way you cut it, you produce a different dimensional landscape with its own unique blend of presence and absence. It’s a potent image for thinking about the various slices of art in our life, the endless recapitulations of media, each demonstration a metaphor for living in their eruption through space and then figurative or literal disappearance-time passing, performances ending, people passing and other tricks of consciousness. Consciousness, of course, is the lifeblood of separation. Kantspeak calls this the “transcendental turn.”

According to Mark Lucht, “The revolutionary idea driving the ‘transcendental turn’ is that our perceptual and intellectual capacities do not just reflect or conform to the experienced world, but actively contribute to its structure. We project causality onto any conceptualization of events; it is as if, to use one of Kant’s own analogies, human beings all wear space, time, and causality tinted glasses that can never be taken off. Thus Kant thinks that phenomenal nature is known to be saturated with causality simply because human beings are constituted in such a way that they can experience events in no other way but as effects of prior causes.” Ostensibly, this is a relatively un-contentious assessment of Kantian phenomenology. Here comes the rub, though. “Yet since all experience is tied inextricably to the conditions determined by our all too human capacities, we may no longer hope to know anything about things as they are in themselves, independent of any human contribution” (ix). Come to think of it, since I’m not really interested in the thing in-itself, this blow loses impact. The more troubling issue for me is that we may no longer hope to know anything about the Other, or even non-consciousness. We may make worlds and contribute to the phenomenological cesspool known as the Universe, but we’re also warring specks in a vast cosmos, so who’s to say how important consciousness really is?

The hope is that there’s no need to pit consciousness against the Heavens. I think Lucht says it beautifully: “Kant argues that in the aesthetic consciousness, however, there are hints presented to feeling that nature and reason are rooted in the same supersensible substrate; on the level of thing in itself, underneath phenomenal experience and inaccessible to intellect, rational subject and world may originate in a common source” (xii, emphasis mine). I’m sympathetic to this thread in Kant’s project because I think it provides a wonderful conceptual base for thinking about modern music, as well as pushing things forward to realms “beyond music,” to what one of my favorite songwriters dubbed “full-spectrum music.” Making babies. The life creation inherent in all desire; action; labor; and love.

Advancement in music goes way beyond the scope of metaphysics, of course, straight into physics. Much study has been given to the science of music, but it wasn’t until after the Second World War that some truly astonishing empirical works of musical philosophy began to appear. Notable among is the study Sound and Symbol by Victor Zuckerkandl. It’s a pretty comprehensive philosophical study of music through sound. Many of the examples suffer from gross Euro-centric negligence, such as music’s elaboration of motion through the so-called “Paradox of Tonal Motion” (i.e. Non-spatial motion in the realm of tonality). This concept would be neither philosophically elegant for non-Tonal musicians, nor would it be a paradox, since our adjusted views on space (aided by Theory) have allowed for simultaneously metaphorical and empirical dynamism in art. It is that dynamism which must be faced when you fuck a Lucky Dragon.

Uncle Luke, Where Do Babies Come From?

Jacob: How musical is man?

Luke: “Musical” can be as broadly defined as you want it to be… inside of that there’s qualifying things you can say: consonant / dissonant, in tune / out of tune, rhythmic / arhythmic, formal / informal, harmonious, melodious, catchy, moving, danceable, legible, virtuosic, etc..but all of these thoughts are contained inside of musical, and are often pretty subjective / cultural / transitory / superficial / slippery. It’s been said that the only commonly acceptable way to define “musical” would be the quality of sounds as they exist in time–but exceptions to that pop up as you get more abstract… instruments, written or visual scores, lyrics, recordings, could all be musical in and of themselves, just for the mental image of music they suggest, and the ways in which they organize the universe of possible sounds to be made. Also, one could consider music that approaches the limits of conceivable time… especially as relates to music not made by, only appreciated by humans… such as harmonic intervals and relationships in nature. “Man”… oh man…. I suppose you could say we are pretty musical by nature, organizing things the way we do… everything very structured, communicative, such a strong need to be understood and to express and to commune in different ways. Whether we are more, or less, musical than other animals, I think the variety of things we call “music” would say we are at least the most open-minded about music. The more I think about it, the best way to define either “musical” or “man” would be as clouds of possibilities, and when the two clouds overlap, and interact, that is completely musical itself! So the answer is: “completely”.

Jacob: If you are as concerned about the computery aspect of the make a baby project as you seem in the youtube documentary, why is the laptop propped up on a pedestal above the performers, as though creating a shrine to technology? Maybe this speaks to the tension between the technological and the metaphysical in your music, or music in general?

Luke: Ha! Good question! That documentary is almost 5 years old now, and it’s only going to get sillier looking as time goes by… what I was concerned about then was the awkward way the computer worked as a window into the process. It’s an organizing intermediary between the sense-world of touch / play / shared control and the sense world of hearing and reacting–as well as an amplifier that strengthens the feedback loop between the two. Transparency was, and is, important to me in the design of the instrument, but figuring out exactly what that meant was difficult. Show the software and provide direct access to it’s working? Hide the software and get nearer to closing the loop between hearing and doing? Since the documentary was made, I’ve figured out how to at least have that translating / reinforcing process set into the background, so that you don’t need to keep checking in with it to keep things moving forward in time. Set on the pedestal as it was, it allowed anyone playing the instrument to gauge their own limits of attention, and put into motion changes in texture / responsiveness / tones / etc… it provided some degree of control outside of the physical interface of the conductive material. Accessibility was equated with transparency.

The auxiliary layer of control is now built into the instrument itself… as the way people, as a group, change their playing, the software reacts to keep things interesting, and reinforce the initial interest in playing with each other. Technology provides both a promise of infinity, and an barrier to infinity, like any framing device…* Sometimes the way we present the technology is kind of shrine-like, or fetishistic, not in the sense that it is standing in for another object, but in the sense that it is an object standing in for something immaterial (that sense of infinity that encourage play, the bind between self and others, the translation of a gesture into an action, etc). Getting this right, aesthetically, was maybe part of my anxiety.