Bennett Kuhn // Artist Alfred Darlington (p.k.a. Daedelus) recently tweeted
What’s that thing you are still working on, that could already be considered done, but you haven’t quit on trying to perfect it, even though there is no standard to compare it against; remaining undone and no end in sight?
I encountered Alfred’s words at the onset of writing cdr_, an album of original music I composed in Newton, Massachusetts in July 2013. Making cdr_ lasted a day; releasing it has been a five-year endeavor. What prevented release? cdr_ contains a triptych of live recordings of long-form improvisations with piano and tablet. There really was nothing to tweak about the musical material once it was captured. Today I hear signs of perfectionism hovering not on the level of composition or studiocraft but in how I was conceiving of my own artistic intent and what implications I hoped releasing the music would have on my life after crisis. Made one year after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, cdr_ ushered a re-evaluation of my relationship with music, technology, mental illness, and grief. Below, I share cdr_ for the first time, together with reflections on how the ritual of releasing has changed for me through time.
bc_ – cdr_ (2013-2019)
01 cycle (14:13)
02 disgrace (11:43)
03 resent (11:05)
Music excites portals. cdr_ brings me to a balmy summer afternoon with close friends on a porch in suburban New England. It was the one-year anniversary of my month-long confinement in inpatient psychiatric wards on Long Island the previous July. The heat of summer’s climax brought with it, as it still does, memories of psychosis and being diagnosed and psychiatrized. July had passed like a lightening cataclysm, scrambling patterns and prospects of relation with living and dead people in my life, especially my father, who had perished from ALS three years prior. There was a loop between us that formed in the moment of my diagnosis: Dad himself had been diagnosed with the same mental illness around the same age. Inheriting intergenerational trauma, I carried a new sort of shame, blaming myself for not having inoculated myself better against Dad’s occasional emotional flights and illogical extremes, as though I ought to have achieved some kind of immunity and was to blame for contracting a contagion. I found myself in silence sitting with questions for him: “What did you do about this or that pain and the anger and the stigma?;” “How did you live after meltdown?;” “How did you know you could be a father?”
Against this backdrop, I sat with friends to play a game with Oh Cards, suggestive devices designed to help players form associations or tell stories. On each card is written a single word. I picked three: “cycle,” “disgrace,” and “resent.” What followed was an intense moment of review. Sifting through tangled narratives of 12 months of recovery, I allowed myself to reflect on how I was hurting and growing. Later that day, I sat alone at a baby grand piano in a warmly lit living room. Out of the silence I poured my inner rawness into three compositions, one for each card I had been dealt. The result, cdr_, was my first complete musical project after diagnosis.
On that afternoon, the Oh-Card for “dis-grace” challenged me most of all. In the moment, I thought obviously of stigma and the shame of reiterating my father’s hospitalization (“cycle”) but also the word grace. In a CBC television interview with Leonard Cohen, the young poet is asked to define a ‘state of grace:’
When I get up in the morning… my real concern is to discover whether I’m in a state of grace. And if I make that investigation, and I discover that I am not in a state of grace, I try to go [back] to bed. A state of grace is that kind of balance with which you ride the chaos that you find around you. It’s not a matter of resolving the chaos – because there’s something arrogant and warlike about putting the world in order – but having a kind of escape ski down over a hill, just going through the contours of the hill.
cdr_ was a prayer for a state of grace. I wanted the ability to face chaos in and ahead of my life without fearing my own fragility. To that point, I had felt overwhelmed by my own precarity, following a moralized vision of my relationship to madness following the mores of sanist stigma rooted in some version of Catholicism (maybe on both sides of my family) or psychiatry itself (the classic disease model of mental illness). As with poverty, it is still assumed generally that you are absolutely responsible for your own health. To experience a break is to have made some bad choice or other. In my mind, whether I could word it or not, I was accountable for having crossed the line, committing the sins of my father. It was up to me to set the world in order.
Five years later, my relationship with diagnosis has passed through phases of confusion and alarm, punctuated by plateaus of numbness and graceful moments of self-trust and openness. Madness today seems to me to be a reorganizing force, far from the reductive languages of order and dis-order, constantly exceeding its own vocabularies. Through the Creative Resilience Collective, a design justice group in Philadelphia that I co-organize, I am exposed to diverse thinking about ways to respond to urgencies in mental health justice. Collective members are working with underserved communities and advocates to combat stigma and improve access to quality mental health care services through iterative projects. The dynamic relationships at the core of this collective’s work provide a supportive social context for my personal growth after diagnosis. Releasing cdr_ today (and writing in Synapsis for that matter) is possible thanks to the support of this growing network.
Audio technology also brought cdr_ to release. I performed the bulk of the album’s recording, production, and editing on an iPad mini running Samplr, an iOS experimental sound sampling application developed by Marcos Alonso in 2012. On cdr_, I set up Samplr to record piano and then slice it into chunks that would recombine themselves endlessly. A form of “generative music,” cdr_ music reproduced itself with variations ad infinitum, shaping long-form, semi-automated collages of my piano improvisations. Today, this perpetual reorganization seems to me like an obvious metaphor for healing after crisis. When redemption models, progress narratives, and delusions of overcoming are exhausted, recovery redefines itself as learning to carry forward with the volatility of ever re-surfacing pasts. Half-memories and even forgetfulness become tools in evoking loss, surrender, and other opportunities for restabilization and growth.
Samplr also relaxed my reliance on infinite revisability, a feature built into most audio editing software for laptops. Ableton Live and other popular technologies of undo simulate a world in which all time is now, the user is able to change anything anytime (even time itself), and no one is lastingly accountable for changes made since there is always the possibility of unmaking. (As I write, how many times have I unconsciously tapped ⌘Z?) Technologies of undo breed a material perfectionism, the kind of gridlock described by Alfred in his tweet above. Endless iterative recursions of micro-editing make an editor like me suffer from delusions of grandeur, obsession, and racing thoughts. In 2013, more than ever in my life, I associated these tools with psychosis. Samplr was a reprieve. I could shut my eyes to the work of ‘re-vision’ and touch sound with my fingertips: the extremes of my body. (In Spanish, ‘to play’ music translates as the verb tocar: ‘to touch’.)
As fluidly as the music was expressed and recorded, it hit a wall against the prospect of release. Language around releasing music sometimes uses the verb ‘to drop.’ Evoking a sense of weight in music goes back to when recorded music literally weighed (in the case of vinyl) by the gram. A perilous sense of responsibility, or weight, was baked into the idea of ‘dropping’ cdr_. I knew the music was done and suited to my needs as a form of self-care, but it inspired dread to imagine ‘putting it out’ (another linguistic construction of release, stressing its one-way transference into the public sphere, a fatal externalization). I had questions about the risks of inflecting my personal process of healing so outwardly. Why was I trying to open it up in the first place? Here I recall Johanna Hedva’s commentary on Hannah Arendt in Sick Woman Theory:
If we take Hannah Arendt’s definition of the political – which is still one of the most dominant in mainstream discourse – as being any action that is performed in public, we must contend with the implications of what that excludes. If being present in public is what is required to be political, then whole swathes of the population can be deemed a-political – simply because they are not physically able to get their bodies into the street.
Why was I even considering sending cdr_ out into the streets of musical exchange? Was I too driven by the ableist presumption that politics must be conducted in public?
I certainly wanted cdr_ to reach other people. Some part of me felt like the music might contribute to other people’s healing processes—and that scared me. To give this concern context, I have to diagram a line of thinking first traceable in Pythagoras and later in Plato: the doctrine of musica universalis. This thinking posits that celestial bodies follow mathematical equations as they pass through space, resulting in an imperceptible ‘music of the spheres.’ The scholarship of Gary Tomlinson follows musica universalis as it transforms into fuel for Renaissance occultist philosophers postulating logics of musical influence on magical outcomes. Most Europeans in the 1500-1700s, according to Tomlinson, believed that each musical mode could affect a different humor, mood, color, planetary sphere, and muse. The New Age movement, peaking in the mid-1980s, capitalized on the occult history of healing music, ransacking intellectual, spiritual, artistic materials from sacred and traditional musics within and outside Eurodescendent traditions and combining the haul with presentist reductions of Renaissance esotericism.
In the context of this history, I read most claims about healing music today as being at best inaccessible, at worst knowingly exploitative. Predatory sophists patrol the political landscape of music and health, claiming ancient frequencies have remedial impact on people’s bodies today (i.e, Solfeggio tones, 528, Colundi, Cymatics, etc.) while peddlers of sonic snake oil share conspiracy theories via YouTube channels. To be clear, I was never concerned that by releasing cdr_ I would end up drinking the Kool-Aid or, even worse, mixing a brew for others. What did concern me, however, was the vacuum left by the ages of magical influence and divine determinism in the politics of musical care. Having admitted to myself that I was indeed interested in public engagement through release, I still did not know what intentions releasing cdr_ should take in this fraught context.
One example of an alternative politics came unexpectedly embedded in the form of a resurgence of New Age music in Los Angeles around the time I made cdr_. Through the artist Matthewdavid, his Leaving Records imprint, and related Dublab radio programming, I discovered a way of working like a musical medicine doctor (initials MD). Matthew unabashedly embraces New Age universalism in the manner of a cosmic healer, but far from pushing musical cure-alls and pseudoscientific hokum, Matthew’s work with healing music relies on relationship building. He would pass me ‘unreleased’ original tracks from time to time, some for me to keep close, other times with instructions to be handed off to specific people in my life (people whom, in certain cases, he had never even met before) like aural tinctures. These transmissions made an impact on me through the act of sharing itself. Scaling up to the level of community work, Matthew’s presence as a curator has had an organizing effect. The year I made cdr_, Matthew hosted a weekly radio show on Dublab, improvising original ambient music with guests. The broadcasts signaled a constant beacon of spontaneity against digital cultures of undo and orderliness. Making cdr_, I was surfing the contours of this chaotic method of perpetual release.
Matthew’s model of “putting out” music is constant and scalable. The traditional role of the artist as auteur figure surrounded by crowds, scenes, and discrete releases is traded for a figure embedded in communal interminglings, conversations in flux, live exchanges that stretch across spaces, breaking the ableist public/private binary. Music becomes a call-and-response process writing itself as it is sounded out between parties. Audiences give way for audient processes: back-and-forth interplay. Exposure to this model helped me release cdr_ through some of the grassroots relationships I mention above, especially in the Creative Resilience Collective and Astro Nautico. Through these vehicles it is tangible to imagine passing cdr_ from my hand (or digits or extremes) to yours. Through release, music is always disclosing and discovering to whom or what it can respond (responsibility) while offering us a chance to account for these exchanges (accountability): two conditions of any functional care politics. Medicinal music, then, is not the prophesy of ancient arcana. Care is wherever artists and their listeners are engaging with in cycles of renewal and mutual attendance to ongoing urgencies. ‘Is this music finished?,’ ‘What is my full intent?,’ and ‘How will I know my impact?’ all become secondary to ‘How does releasing this music respond (to what’s at stake)?,’ i.e., an always intermedial position.
At stake in cdr_ today are fluidity and timestamping. After psychosis, my internal and external worlds were especially permeable. Diagnosis had fragmented time into before and after x. (Dia- meaning two; -gnosis: knowing. Diagnosis is double knowledge: what you use to tell apart this from that.) Today I can acknowledge that cdr_ was a chance for me to play with re-identification and telling apart. There is no knowledge without interpretation; no double knowledge without layers of living exegesis. As I was exporting the project in 2013, I did not know how to tag the artist field in iTunes. Who even made this music? Up to that point I had almost exclusively used my last name (‘Kuhn’) as a moniker for releasing hi-fi beats and bass music. cdr_ departed from these works in terms of genre and instrumentation and, more importantly, ethics and epistemology. I diagnosed the difference, settling on the moniker bc_. In this name, I inscribed my initials minus the ‘k’ of Kuhn, marking me on the opposite side of a schism predicated by madness, diagnosis, and recovery. bc_ is dissident, expressing my vote for removal from the pressures of patrilineality and the ridiculous task of burying my dead father forever. bc_ is also B.C.: an endlessly receding past, interminable context: the ocean floor of possibility. Today, on the hither side of splitting, I transmit cdr_ to the readership of this journal in admission that, through release, I am always letting certain pieces (of myself) go.
Bennett Kuhn is a musician-in-residence for Synapsis for the ‘18-’19 academic year. His forthcoming music and critical writings engage spaces of care medicalized or otherwise across topics of mental illness, ALS, chronic kidney disease of unknown causes and birthing as well as dreaming and grief. Follow Kuhn’s music and writings on Instagram, Soundcloud, and Twitter (@RADIOKUHN). Special thanks to mastering engineer Lee Clarke; readers Elizabeth Weinstein, Jesse Kohn, Giovanni Russonello; and illustrator Paul Baisley (post artwork). Dedicated to Oh Cards players and all others surfing the contours of chaos.