Wednesday

"... the figure of the artist or creative worker has been emblematic of the experience of precarity: negotiating short-term, insecure, poorly paid, precarious work in conditions of structural uncertainty."

So, all along, this conference has potentially been less about all those global issues that are listed on the conference site and more about the struggles I've had this year as a freelancer. Imagine that. There's a body of research corroborating the experiences I've had as I've waited for work to come in, staring at the wall then jumping into a frenzy of activity, not seeing distinctions between work time and other time, seizing every opportunity to work, grappling with the distinction between self-expression and self-exploitation, and seeing socializing as a necessary disciplinary technology to increase likelihood of work. I could have written about my own evolving relations with my diminishing capital and increasing anxiety, my obsessive attachment to my doctoral applications, my fixation on my health insurance, my well-educated and joyful "elected" poverty. Precarity isn't my past -- it's my present. And it is the present for many people in my community I didn't really have a perspective on how and whether it could be different. My work is the technique and spectacle and performance of pleasurable feelings, both on stage for the audience and off stage for each other -- for insecure wages without benefits. The piece in the "On Precarity" issue of Theory, Culture, & Society could be written about me. Footnoted and referenced and contextualized, it's a detailed and all-too-lucid picture of my current world. 

When will I stop feeling like the object of other people's research? When will the musician's experience working as a musician be considered valid, and not have to be reviewed in the Times or theorized on by humanities scholars? It's so uncomfortable to be carrying on with my life and suddenly feel scrutinized, like the chance to observe me working "in the field" will illuminate some point for some greater mind about the wider conditions of capitalism or historical performance or gender or Bach? It's obnoxious, to read something that recognizes me so clearly, that acknowledges my experiences, but writes people like me out of the story altogether. Only the theorists produce the knowledge in Theory, Culture, & Society: culture and society -- and the people who make culture and society -- are patiently present and waiting to be theorized upon.

Tuesday

"The trauma survivor must find empathic listeners in order to carry on. Piecing together a shattered self requires a process of remembering and working through in which speech and affect converge in a trauma narrative... The communicative act of bearing witness to traumatic events not only transforms traumatic memories into narratives that can then be integrated into the survivor's sense of self and view of the world, but it also reintegrates the survivor into a community, re-establishing bonds of trust and faith in others." 

And later, "If to remember is to provide the disembodied 'wound' with a psychic residence, then to remember other people's memories is to be wounded by their wounds." Memory provides the disembodied wound with a psychic residence, and now, particularly for the traumas that are widely dispersed, politically charged, and turned into narrative content for news sites of all kinds, trauma has a digital residence as well, one that is often far-flung from the boundaries that personal or community memory would provide. 

"It is only by remembering and narrating the past -- telling our stories and listening to others' -- that we can participate in ongoing, active construction of a narrative of liberation, not one that confines us to a limiting past, but one that forms a background from which a freely imagined -- and desired -- future emerges." This redemptive rhetoric may seem premature, and perhaps even inappropriate, for those of us who are facing an uprooting of life and place and stability in the coming years. But the narratives are being constructed nonetheless, already in process for those of us who have already started having trouble with their visas to the US and those of us who are having to work harder than ever to help maintain our students' status, to those of us whose family or friends have been deported, to those of us who are grappling with the many-headed, invisible monster that is bureaucracy and the policy that is being written on our behalf these days. I hope that by sharing one trauma narrative that involves losing place and safety in a context of hostile and distant policy and an insidious and potentially toxic flow of information will encourage those of you who are able to seek to assist one another in providing listening experiences, using your place in the world and the institutions with which you are affiliated to help articulate the narratives that are building around you. As scholars and creative artists, many of us are highly trained in this particular type of listening. We may not all be in a position to provide psychological or medical support, to give legal advice or representation, or to write public policy, but one person at a time, we can listen to one another. 

Thank you for helping me to share part of my story, and please reach out to me if you have any interest in more resources on facilitating these types of conversations. Just briefly, here is a list of the key texts that I used to prepare this presentation, which I have found useful both specifically to understand my history and more generally to understand trauma studies and scholarly activism for trauma survivors. 

Friday

Clearing low bars -- or trying to. Some days I move unbelievably slowly, feeling the weight of all the intersecting obligations. That's today, and there will be more like today. A morning full of administrative tasks and planning usually leaves me focused and energized, but I guess not today. And by this evening, I still feel like I've been churning through and not accomplishing anything. Time to go write, time to go edit and expand.

An event is a thing that happens. It's important to acknowledge that that statement is a metaphor. That an event, an incidence in time and change in material context, can be considered a thing, something, an object with boundaries and solidity that occurs in relief. What makes an event unique, the defining quality of eventhood in this metaphor, is that an event can "happen", or can possess the quality of "happening". I am so intrigued by this metaphor and what it says about how we think. Once you start seeing language as metaphorical, especially seeing linking verbs as metaphors, things shift. (Things shift -- ideas change places physically in a conceptual space.) 

Thursday

It’s finally the end of the day. I’ve gotten quite a lot done, and now I’m home relaxing on the couch, looking for what to read and listen to tonight. I did battle with what seemed to be a roach in the kitchen — I barely flinched when it skittered out from the gap in the wall behind the sink. The apartment does seem to be opening at the seams somewhat — in every room, the baseboards slowly detaching wider and wider from the floor, cracks opening in the wall paint at the vertices, caulk vanishing in the shower, tile gapping against the wall, thin empty spaces wherever one thing meets another. I wonder if it’s just that it takes some time to notice things like this, or if the house really is slowly coming apart as things dry and condense, materials aging, eroding back into the prewar bone structure of this apartment. Curious. I’m not sure how much longer I want to live here. In the city, in this particular apartment. In this country, even. The it’s past time for me to live in another country again. The itch is starting to grow again — to make a life anew in another part of the world, to challenge myself and spread my wings and seek another pace of life. 

Wednesday

Snow and frozen sleet all day. A slushy day inside and out. It's evening and I've been inside working on the computer and in the kitchen all day -- it's time for me to get out of the house, get to the gym or the yoga studio, clear my head. 

Some days, it's hard for me to be alone -- I'm not at all built for it. I love being by myself but surrounded by people. After just a few hours of truly working at home, being alone without social contact, I find myself incredibly lonely, lacking structure and full of self-doubt. Without a good social context for myself, I feel detached from my own ideas and even goals. Pushing myself back into a stable and consistently social situation is one important motivation for going back into a school. This all sounds very thoughtful, but by 5:45 pm on my first day by myself, I was earnestly researching shut-ins and people with extreme agoraphobia to see if I might have a problem. Clearly, my tolerance for being at home by myself is too low for me to ever become a shut-in. It spooks me after just one day. 

I need these hours of work alone to be on track for this presentation, though. I think I should try to work out of the house starting tomorrow, bring my laptop with me to my rehearsal and work somewhere before and after. 

The trouble is that some schools have released their doctoral candidate decisions, and it's within two weeks of the date I received the initial decisions this time last year. I signed up for this presentation in part to mitigate the obsession with waiting at my laptop, checking every email and junk folder for decision letters. I thought I'd be better this time around, and I think I have gotten better. But it's still growing -- every day I feel it growing in my awareness, inherently neutral but increasingly obstructive, like a mushroom cap expanding fast in the cool shade of a mossy rainforest tree. The writer in me cringes at the terrible simile, but unfortunately, it truly feels that way. Fungal, and potentially spreading, but hopefully dignified. It's hard to think about anything else. This year, like last year, I'm totally fixated. The stakes seem higher this time: health insurance, a feasible income to stay in New York, mentorship when I have none. Last year I felt so desperate, each day that I still didn't hear, a catastrophe. The program is more real to me now, so I feel significantly less hung up on an idealized vision of what life might be. If I had gone, I most likely couldn't have made it to Finland, worked up at Cornell, spent so much time at home this winter. I'll keep trying to be grateful for the time I did have out of school, and I'll continue to do so if I end up having another year. I'll be grateful, too, for the work I've added to my CV because of this year. 

Today's writing is a tailspin of work-related navel-gazing and professional self-blame and instability, I think, poorly concealed in the paragraphs above. I'll scramble back to myself soon. 

Tuesday

Listening: Ryuichi Sakamoto and Fennesz, Flumina

Reading: Hermann Melville, Moby Dick

This morning is pearly-grey, sleepy, the sky soft with cloud-filtered light. It's a perfect day to be at home, I think, and I'm feeling so lucky to be here in this cozy fifth-floor apartment filled with my books and music and plants. I've done my online course on perception and psychology, I've meditated, had my coffee and breakfast, tidied up a bit, adjusted my websites, and set up a plan for the next few hours. I'm getting used to weekdays like this one, days when my tasks of writing and practicing settle back into long unfilled hours. It's a time that I know won't last forever, these days when I work with others three or four days of the week and have the rest of my time to fill blissfully by myself. 

When I was in fifth grade, I had a writer's notebook as part of my English class. Our English teacher gave us regular writing time to fill out the book, and I now treasure the traces that I left. As a ten-year-old, my writing style was quite similar to my style now: heady descriptions of the weather and the time of day, clever words clumped in ungainly sentences, fragments and sometimes phrases drifting through my dreamy attention span. Even at that age, I lived in a quiet world of sensation and impression. The people in my world -- friends, family, schoolmates --  just barely breach into my awareness as I caught myself up in the thrill of capturing summer light, frost on the ground, lists of delightful words for hot tea and cold weather and quick movements. I kept a "treasures list" that reads: "love... fruit, tea, quietness, silence, writing, words, dreams, sleep, warmth, the sound and feel and usage of water". In a required entry that describes my morning routine, I never actually get myself out of bed, instead musing on the softness of my sheets and contemplating my dreams and how much I wish I could re-enter sleep. As a young writer, I was placid, receptive, but never passive. I was so completely alive to the senses of my world of music and books and playing outside. This writer's notebook was the first structured and teacher-endorsed opportunity I had to indulge my habit of capturing and collecting traces of my experience in the world. It's a habit of observation and description that I practice daily now, and hope to practice more openly in the future. I want to be proud of the thoughts I can express now, after so many years of practicing this craft, and I want to share them with others, make them a bigger presence in my outward-facing life. 

I thumbed through this writer's notebook on the hunt for traces of my childhood processing of the trauma of riot and mass protest that I had encountered as a young girl. I thought perhaps once I had established a writing routine, some early attempt at therapeutic writing might have surfaced. I think I might have found one, though I'm not sure whether it was inspired by my own memories or the vague and distant discourse around 9/11 that reached all the way to Alaskan elementary schools. This is the poem I wrote:

 

golden sun warmth around me

sprinkles of silver laughter

smiles that light more than candles

summer engulfs me

 

the explosion shatters my world

into a million shards of glass

the burning fire shoots up

then blackness clouds my eyes

 

my heart beats his does not

he was only three

 

In this childhood poem, I most clearly see my strong identification with the caring and protective role of an older sister. The poem mourns a lost and unnamed three-year-old killed in a fiery explosion, a boy of the same age as my youngest sister at that time. At that age, I had a recurring terror that my little sisters would die suddenly in their sleep. I would regularly run panicked and silent into their nursery to hold my hand close to their nostrils and check if they were both still breathing in the night. In the opening, I see traces of my childhood in Jakarta: the comforting warmth of the sun, the engulfing summer air, smiles and laughter drifting in sunlight. Then, warmth intensifying into overwhelming heat, the burning hotness of fire and explosion shattering the peace with sudden violence. This ambiance was a familiar progression to me, a feeling of heat intensifying that I had tucked away in then-recent memories of glimpses of burning buildings while driving through Jakarta's traffic jams, huddling against my mom to avoid being seen by the shouting mobs that streamed through the packed-together cars. To this day, intensely hot weather signifies surreality and instability to me, simmering tension or burning desperation. Hot days still break my sense of continuous reality, especially hot days in a city. When temperatures reach the 80s and 90s and upwards in the city -- sunlight beating down on the shimmering pavement, reflecting off the shining metal buildings, glancing mirror-like off the coursing, silent, rush of traffic -- I melt away from this world. It's a hot drift away from the clarity of normal life that I cannot help, a slippage that I both long for and fearfully resent. 

Writing the events that I remember in Jakarta and in Bangkok and even to some extent in New York takes me back to those overheated days. In the blissful grey chill of February, I can at least see things in stark, clear relief. 

 

Monday

Listening: Ólafur Arnalds, Island Songs

Reading: Annie Dillard, For the Time Being

This week is starting with a clear blue sky. Steam curls up from the columns of Columbia University Medical Center and New York Presbyterian, stark white against the blue, as I look out across my fire escape during another morning full of emails and organization. This weekend I had the apartment to myself and was temporarily knocked out by a surprisingly strong cold, so I had a lot of time to stare at the wall with a strong cup of lemon and ginger and think. 

As of last night, I've landed on a strong direction for my more outward-facing website. I'm excited to get started building the platform and continue to develop ideas for material and collaborative writing possibilities. I also found and leafed through a few guides to approaching traumatic memory from memoir writers. All this as research for the presentation in two weeks. It's time to start putting it all together into something I can bring into the world, pour out the ideas that have been percolating. 

Issues of craft and process still fully occupy my writing headspace. I probe myself with questions and poke holes in my own ideas until I goad myself into choosing not to write. The advice I've found out there for this issue tends to suggest separation from yourself: tending to your "artist self" or "creative self", dividing yourself between "writer" and "editor" to put off the critical thinking, temporarily (or, in elated can-do rhetoric, permanently) suspending judgment by imagining the productive part of you as a child. I don't know for sure, but I think these methods don't work well for me because I don't happen to have a strong sense of empathy for myself as a child. For some reason, I have a hard time feeling protective or even cherishing towards a conjured image of my younger self. I also don't like schemata that attempt to disintegrate or re-order my personality, even for strategic benefit. Dividing my writer and editor, my creative self and my critical self, my outer adult and an imagined inner child doesn't make sense to me. It's difficult enough to smooth myself into all the varied grooves that I'm obligated to fit into on a daily basis; even for the purposes of an experiment, performing further psychological segmentation on myself just doesn't feel good. The real challenge is not how to artificially delegate tasks onto different "parts" of me, but how to empty out the hidden pockets of accumulated knowledge and integrate them with the whole into something new. 

Now, to write what I need to write. 

Friday

Listening: Pauline Oliveros' Time Perspectives and Mnemonics

I'm writing late today, sitting my kitchen after a bumpy afternoon with a cup of long-steeped lemon and ginger to ward off the beginnings of a winter cold. Today I'm thinking about audience and description. These two frames catch my attention most as a writer and reader these days: who will be in the room? Who will share space with the work? What will the work say to them? How will it speak? How will they receive it? What is their role in it? What role might have been designed for them, and what role do they ultimately assume? It's a sort of cyclic preoccupation for me as I think about designing new pieces of writing, this daily writing practice included.

Descriptions strike me as particularly filtered pieces of writing, dependent from the outset on social context. Describing an experience is really a matter of translating an external reality into a relationship with another person, with their past and their perspective. I notice myself shifting descriptive parameters quite widely from person to person when trying to convey. In conversation, I'll find myself describing the same event from wildly different perspectives, as I subconsciously shape my descriptions with details that I hope might particularly delight or enliven my companion in the conversation. The depictions might entirely contradict each other in some aspects (mood, tone, takeaway) while maintaining factual continuity, as I hope to fold my story into another person's life experience. 

One of my professors that his own teacher, Milton Babbitt, loved to use the word "construe". He thought that using theory to approach a piece of music -- using the practice of music theory to glean structure and meaning -- would produce an answer not to the question "What is this?" but to the question, "How do you construe?" Construe, which in Babbitt's turn of phrase was charmingly turned intransitive, comes from the Latin construere, from con- ("with") and -struo (“pile up, arrange; build, erect”). The sense of metaphor: materials, objects, construction, fabrication. Thinking is building. Or at least, piling things up. Construal means that studying music closely is really an act of developing a meaning that is derived, stable, defensible, and true, but also completely particular to you. Your theoretical approach to Stravinsky's Agon may be understandable and even fully expressible, but certainly not replicable. A construal is a description that you have made by bringing your own knowledge to a work, a description that is both shareable and uniquely yours. To me, that duality is divine. 

If I can "construe", I hope also to "convey". When I write, I ask the question, "How do you convey?" Again turned intransitive, convey comes from the Latin con- ("with") and via ("way"). Conveying is finding the way together, seeking the path for me and the others on the journey. Thoughts are roads, and writing is traveling those roads with others. Lately, I've been joining birdwatching walks, a group of walkers seeking the soundings and sometimes even sightings of birds in the hidden wilds of New York City's parks. Our wayfinder is an incredibly knowledgeable leader who greets each walker with cheer and calm, finds the quiet trails along the coastline and through the protected forests, recognizes a downy woodpecker from just a chitter through the trees, knows the stand of pines where owls might hide, holds up the group to watch a red-tailed hawk wheel on silent wings above. We walk for a few hours along the park trails, and he points out each bird and tree as we encounter them, naming them, helping us to see and hear the rich variety of life in the natural world that we move in. My hope is to make pieces of writing that do the same, writing that asks my reader to choose to come and seek out a way with me, to walk slowly noticing through the world with me for a while, to listen for the details and complexities and beautiful creatures that live alongside us. 

Thursday

Listening: John Snijders, Morton Feldman's Triadic Memories

Reading: Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

Yesterday was full of doubt and distance. This week, I'm circling back to a few challenging situations that I thought I'd moved on from: starting a rehearsal cycle back at the school that pushed me so hard to change during my masters degree, intensifying a writing schedule to intentionally relive and describe some of the most troubling moments in my life, and meeting with a performer that reached out to me about some hurtful things I said in one of my personal pieces. I'm meeting with this person tomorrow, and I'm terribly nervous. The piece I wrote was an outlet for my own feelings, never meant to be read by as many people as it was. I thought I'd reach a dozen people, and instead have found thousands. My feelings on the piece -- and for the experience of being read by four thousand people around the world -- vacillate between deep regret that I'd ever written it and honest gratitude for the opportunities to reflect and grow that it has given me. The sort of openness that I sought through that piece of writing is powerful: powerful to hurt and powerful to relate. Seeing that power and seeing the way people sought it out from me made me pull back strongly, but also made me recognize that I could integrate that powerful openness into myself, fold it in as a part of my life. It's both why I've become intent on being a better writer and why I haven't written that way publicly again. 

A few blatantly misused words I've noticed lately: "performative" and "curated". In most contexts I've seen, they're utterly non-functional adjectives from a semantic and descriptive perspective. Last night, I went to a show that was described as a "curated event". This is an act of useless linguistic inflation, a rarefying description of a very typical programmed performance. What concert isn't an event? What concert isn't "curated", or as the music industry typically says, programmed? The first few dozen times I encountered this popular misuse, I was irritated. I saw it as a simple misuse of language, a way to pad program notes, to inflate descriptions of one's own work in a late-stage attempt to improve its reception. But lately, I've realized the critical importance of musicians and artists using words like these in contexts that tend to establish authority and expertise. While there may be only a few people in any given audience who know what these words actually mean, and perhaps I am the only thin-skinned curmudgeon bothered by musicians' linguistic clumsiness, these words allow musicians to themselves frame their own work in artistic and academic traditions. There's a power in that, too, to use a lexicon that frames the music-performance activity as both contra the musical tradition from which the performer hopes to distance themselves and aligned with art activity ("curated") and academic or intellectual activity ("performative"). It's stating what is normally tacit, transforming the expected into a unique perk. It's just good salesmanship, if and when it works. The overwhelming tendency in these contexts, though, is that either the language is poorly used and undercuts its own intentions to add credibility, or the performance is so weak, unconsidered, or underprepared that pretentious descriptive language only draws more attention to the wide gap between artistic claims and performed reality.  

I'm increasingly convinced of the power of strong, accurate description. I like reading and rereading it from writers I trust, I like coming across it unexpectedly in a note or an article, and I love the feeling when I stumble my way into writing it. For years now, I've kept books that I fill with language I love. When I find a passage that sparkles up at me, that lights a small fire in my mind, that heats up my heart and stokes my attention, I read it over and over, then copy it into my book, taking time as I retrace each word in my own writing. These books are part of the walls that line the room where I work. As I go further into the challenges of looking back, the words I have collected surround me and give me strength.

Wednesday

I'm at my desk again, looking on this bright clear blue morning. The last of the coffee is in the cup at my side, and I am balancing on the line between savoring the soft nutty flavor and letting the cup grow cool and bitter. The task I've set for myself today is to write my memories of Indonesia and Bangkok and New York under times of extreme political and socioeconomic duress. These are excruciatingly painful memories, I've discovered, and trying to write about them has been giving me pause and relived pain.

I set myself this awkward task somewhat unintentionally. In an attempt to practice my academic skills and participate in music-scholarly life, I sent four paper proposals to four widely varying music scholarship conferences this spring. This was supposed to be the first step in a growth process, a way to refine the skill of proposal writing and seek some mentorship in the tangentially related and seemingly impenetrable field I am trying to move into. Instead, three of my proposals have been accepted, and I'm now in the position of having to write these papers and preparing to read them aloud in front of a room of graduate students and professors. I'm nonplussed, to say the least. I don't particularly like the situation I've put myself in, one in which I'm facing judgement from peers in just two and a half weeks for a performance on which I've had very little mentorship or direction. The task makes me nervous, especially because the first conference topic is highly charged and hosted by a school whose students are notoriously obnoxious problematizers, of whom I'm unsecretly terrified. I'm also the only person on the recently released program who is without an institutional affiliation. For some reason, I've put myself in the position of taking my place in a fraught academic space, in which I'm the least credentialed and will likely be the least supported, because I had a moment of motivation and an underestimation of my proposal's expedience, which landed me with twenty minutes to fill that I certainly do not deserve. 

According to the proposal, I'm supposed to be writing about the events that led to my disrupted and expatriate citizenship: the riots and conflict in both Jakarta and Bangkok that created the emergency conditions under which I was evacuated twice. I've set myself the task of writing about my own memories of pain and mass political trauma again, of recognizing and criticizing my own position in those situations, of theorizing and framing my own lived experience. I suppose that's what I know how to do best. That's the in-road to understanding that I've laid out for myself as I attempt to belong as a participant in this ill-advised academic conference. I have a strategy: I'll consider each of the three historical events as three events in and of themselves -- first, the living of the event, second, the remembering of the event, and third, the re-encountering the event through the records that are available now. The living of the event is tacit. It cannot be performed for the audience. The remembering of the event is also tacit, but can be both recorded by me -- words written, traces captured -- and performed for the audience in my twenty minute slot. The re-encountering of the event can be performed for the audience. They can (re-)encounter the story right alongside me through the media coverage that I've unearthed in the process of remembering, preparing to perform this remembering. 

Accordingly, I've broken down the presentation into an introduction, three sections for each event, three subsections within each event, and a conclusion. I don't know whether this surface structure will contain the meaning that I hope to convey. Truthfully, I'm still telling myself that I've got a few weeks to determine what I want to convey. How do I contain these events in the space of twenty minutes? How do I show what they've meant to me? How do I make them mean something for my listeners? How do I make them mean something together? I wonder whether there is another person out there who has lived each of these three events, who has been shaped by these three particular fractures in history. I wonder whether they're turning out to be anything like me. 

The struggle is to own my story. I've been in so many situations where I can't rightfully claim ownership over my experience: where I feel I'm the one in the wrong for even being there. In Jakarta, I was the child of an expat petroleum engineer, living in a marble palace paid for by greedily and wastefully exploiting the cracks of the earth for a check from a multinational corporation. In Bangkok, I was a glorified tourist, expanding my precious life experience and escaping the upheaval of my separating family with a year of adventure in a distant land, paid for by an organization that spreads toxic Western neoliberal capitalism by sending privileged young children throughout the world to carry its message. The slightest consideration and introspection beneath the surface of my life experience overwhelms me in a caustic plume of recognizing the fact that my childhood and adolescence was fueled by opportunism and exploitation, resource manipulation and cultural tourism. I can't speak for these sins. I don't feel guilty about how I have lived, and I don't regret the choices that I and my family members made, but I cannot say that I am happy to look at my life in the face. I can say that a few months ago, I worked up at Cornell University for about a week preparing a program of Baroque music for choir and ensemble. Cornell has an exceptionally strong Indonesian studies program, and the halls of the music building are lined with enticing posters advertising Bahasa language lessons and gamelan courses. They were attractive and painful: I imagined stepping into an academic life that brings me spiraling back, closing in ever-closer to the experiences of my own childhood in a safe, bright, controlled classroom, so far from the reality I lived and remember and re-encounter. I suppose that's what I'm doing now, in telling this story.