I am cycling the city. Cruising through San Francisco on a cool evening. Then I am falling, really slowly. And now I am on my back. There is an IV in my arm. The stark hospital lights stave off what would be a warm, welcome sleep with the painkillers. My hip is broken. I am told that for the next couple of months I will not be walking.
In a moment everything can change. You know this already. The question is when that moment comes for you and life pivots some other way, how do you relate to it? This is a whole new experience for me. Painful, emotional, difficult, and absolutely new and just so interesting. I am grateful.
A package arrived today containing the vinyl master of my new album. As I hand it around to show everyone in the room, they each sniff the record. It is made of acetate. It feels like porcelain and is heavy. The record smells of fresh chemicals and we all agree it is a good smell.
Sometime at the end of the summer I am riding the train towards San Francisco. It is late afternoon, my head is gently pressed against the window and, as I doze, I sometimes open my eyes just a little to squint at the sun and silhouetted towns passing by.
It is July in Finland. We’re walking through the forest in the evening summer sun. The path is crunching beneath our feet, the air is damp. As we walk, the sun illuminates the path and flickers spotlights through the canopy.
A short and sweet video was just published featuring the Museum of Contemporary Art A Coruña’s 2012 residents. Alongside the video are a series of behind-the-scenes photographs too.
I joined the museum as a resident back in October of 2012, invited there to work on Music for Forgotten Places. It was a strange, blurry, busy time. Rainy days in the cold museum filled with strong coffee, punctuated by moments of solitary meditation, or meals and snack breaks with my fellow residents.
This video and these photos are special to me because they capture the other artists in situ, just as I remember them. Those people, that museum, hold a special place in my heart and I look back on my time there with a fondness.
When I first found the spring onion it had been chopped down, almost to the root. The rest of it ended up in a salad and this barely two inch rejected portion was headed for the bin.
A few days earlier I’d received a selection of tiny rubber plant pots, called root cups. I decided I would try to re-grow this broken spring onion. I filled the root cup with water, wedged the spring onion in there, and placed it on my window sill.
Almost two weeks later, it is ten inches tall. Each day I notice how it has grown a little since yesterday, and how it has leaned a little more toward the light. My delicate spring onion.
A small package from Finland arrived yesterday. Inside were two bags of sweet, soft multi-coloured liquorice. With all of my energy going toward completing my new album, the package’s contents gave me a candy boost and a little reminder of the small joys found in faraway Finland.
Back in December I performed live at the Museum of Contemporary Art in A Coruña. Four girls were connected to an electrical circuit via their mouths. In effect their bodies were transformed into musical instruments, touching each of them triggered sound.
Christmas came early for me this year. The folks at Asthmatic Kitty invited me to collaborate with a rapper to remix one of the tracks from Sufjan Stevens’ new Christmas album. I really dig Asthmatic Kitty and I’m a big fan of Sufjan, so this is something seriously special for me.
Let’s just break this down in to each component: christmas-themed, Sufjan Stevens remix, rap mix tape. I joined forces with New Orleans native Nicky Da B, who contributed some naughty lyrics to compliment my nice beats.
Weina Ding, one of my fellow residents at A Coruña’s Museum of Contemporary Art, asked me to pose for a photograph with her latest installation. A dreamy realisation of a poem by the Tang era’s Li Bai, the installation is entitled A Drink With The Moon Is A Company Of Three.
The story of Li Bai’s death has become something of an enduring legend. It is said that he drowned in the Yangtze River, drunkenly trying to embrace the moon’s reflection.
The reassuring din of Los Cantones envelops and calms me. I am in A Coruña’s shopping mall, sitting on a bench and listening. Wherever I go in the world, shopping malls always sound the same. Far from home, I sit and listen. I feel calm.
Squint a little and I could be anywhere. I could be, and have been, and now may be, in Jakarta, London, Tel Aviv, Tallinn, Houston, or wherever. It doesn’t matter. The shopping mall becomes a transporter, a weird nexus for the generic. I step in and am everywhere and nowhere.
Contrast and compare with McDonalds. Though the golden arches are as precisely curved and exactly yellow at each franchise location, stroll through the door and it is a different experience depending on where you are in the world. In Rome, for example, there are free breadsticks next to the straw dispensers. In Paris you can get a beer with your Big Mac. In Mumbai you might order a Chicken Maharaja-Mac™. At some branches in Manchester you may receive a complimentary stabbing. The point is, each McDonalds brings a little local flair to their offering.
Shopping malls have a range of ingredients that blend together into one specific sonic din: babelic bustling of shoppers browsing, nattering and buying, punctuated by the shrieks and yelps of toddlers, and underscored with a blurred soundtrack of inoffensive pop hits (or swap pop for some accessible classical – such as Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ or Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’ – if you happen to be perusing the posh part).
Visiting shopping malls when I am missing home is like riding a bike which I know I will fall off. It is ultimately quite unpleasant but nevertheless familiar, easy, and available to do almost everywhere in the world. Do not misunderstand me this is not a rant about the homogenisation of our retail shopping spaces. Today, I feel at home and am content in this messy, reassuring din.
All great stories eventually come to an end. I knew I’d have to leave New Orleans one day, I just did not think that when the time came I would be quite so desperate to stay. In two days, I fly to a city in Spain called A Coruña. I’ll spend two months there as a resident at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Over the next eight weeks, I will research and create a public art project all about transforming mundane sites in our cities into places of wonder through signs, telephone calls, storytelling, sound, and music. It will be immersive and magical and memorable, like stumbling into the pages of a book, or a scene from a movie, before continuing with your day.
In the meantime, I am sat here in my double-shotgun house a short walk from the New Orleans French Quarter, a swinging mix of 1920s and ’30s jazz on the stereo, waiting for the evening to come so I can go dancing, waiting for tomorrow to come so I can pack my bags, and waiting for the day after that so I can fly away for a short while.
This is an ending of sorts, until next year at least. I feel sad to be leaving and happy that, this time at least, I will get to return.
When filmmaker Antonio Diaz traveled to Detroit he met a 20 year old carpenter-cum-tailor who inspired this short film (which features ‘The Oak Settlement’ on the soundtrack). Diaz said, “I quickly realised that there is so much talent in that city with people that work with their hands but the rest of the world never gets to see their work.”
Of course it’s not just carpentry and tailoring that are in decline. Lots of traditional skills and techniques are disappearing. In Finland though, I had the chance to see traditional Finnish skills live on. From preparing intricate delicacies, such as Karjalan Piirakka, and foraging for berries to make jam, to knitting heavy-weight and utterly essential socks for the winter months. There are skills passed down to each generation, taught in schools and by parents and grandparents.
This video is inspiring because it’s a rare thing to see something being made. What’s more, it’s in the USA and that’s damn exciting. To see craftsmanship applied to constructing an object, to watch time pass as someone invests their experience in creating something useful. I want to see more of that.
Later this month, I’ll be speaking about sound and cities at the We Are City Summit in Indianapolis. Here’s a short essay I wrote for the We Are City newsletter about why I do what I do:
I grew up in Manchester, England, a city known in the 1980s for Factory Records, gun crime, gangs and rain. I remember endless grey cement walls and pavement polka-dotted with old black gum. And the dirty beige of the Arndale Center, our flagship ‘American style’ shopping mall. Visiting as a small child, hanging on to my mother’s hand, being burnt by the lazy cigarettes of passing shoppers.
They say it’s grim up north in England. And it really was grim. In the 1990s a spate of arson and fire-bombings led to the big IRA bomb in 1996. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was on my way home from school after weekend detention. Although I didn’t see it, I heard it. My next trip to the city, there wasn’t enough Arndale Center left to visit.
Many years later, living in London my friends were routinely stopped and searched under anti-terrorism laws. With my olive skin, growing my beard a little too long drew concerned glances from fellow tube passengers. Living in Helsinki, a city that is safe and manicured, I saw fist-fights and once chased an attacker through the snowy streets. Living in New Orleans, the regular chatter about gun crime makes me feel afraid.
Cities are serious things. This is why I would like to bring a sense of playfulness to our cities. I write music and build soundtoys that empower residents to connect and create surprising experiences that bring a sense of wonder back to their city. I have built sound toys that explore crime and psychoacoustics in the city, wearable installations that encourage listeners to get lost and explore their hometowns, and musical devices that track and reveal the inhabitants in private buildings.
I like to imagine the city as a vast playground. Insert something unexpected into public space and we are snapped out of the noise and bustle and transported into a memorable moment. Dealing with the grim realities of modern life, we occasionally need a little perspective, a moment away from the noise, a special memory just for ourselves. This perspective reminds us of our role in the city and why cities are so important. This is why I create soundtoys and this is why I believe playful art in our cities is more important now than ever.
You’ll find my music in two Tate Modern projects at the moment. The first is a video for the TateShots series celebrating Damien Hirst. It features his college professor, artist Michael Craig-Martin. It’s fun to hear about Damien’s time at Goldsmiths in London, the very same college I studied composition at.
The other project, Tweet Me Up, is by Tracey Moberly and takes places at the Tate Modern’s Tank space. Tracey is using all sorts of social networking sites and communication tools, including Twitter, Instagram and SMS, to create an evolving digital exhibition. This means images, videos, sounds and words from across the world. If you’re in London on Friday, August 25th, go there to experience the work and listen to Tracey’s artist talk.
London’s Tate Modern is a significant place for me. I was lucky enough to wander in to the Turbine Hall back in 2003 whilst Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project was live. At the far end of the hall, which is a sort of aircraft hanger for art installations, Eliasson had affixed an immense, glowing orange disc. Attached to the ceiling was an equally massive mirror. In the warm glow, people lay down, fidgeted and squirmed as they watched their reflection above, or simply sat in quiet, satisfied meditation.
It was awesome. Not awesome in the surfer dude sense but awesome in the knock-you-to-your-knees, visceral, biblical sense. Staring into the sun, experiencing The Weather Project, really changed my perception of art. I finally understood that art could fundamentally move people. It could shake up the soul, take you by surprise and carve images and thoughts into your mind with a burning permanence.
After years of imagining what it would be like to encounter one of these giant tangled trees up close, I finally saw a real baobab.
I pointed out to the little prince that baobabs were not little bushes, but, on the contrary, trees as big as castles; and that even if he took a whole herd of elephants away with him, the herd would not eat up one single baobab.The Pilot to The Little Prince
Kinfolk is a publication about small gatherings. One of these small gatherings happened in Oregon and they made a video about it with Pikku Karhu ja Tiikerini as the soundtrack. I’m not in the video but you will see several guitar players, a banjo player, various attractive people, a pear salad, a pipe and a rustic picnic.
One of my favorite things to do is eat: cooking something special and delicious, sharing food with friends, talking with friends about food. There’s some wonderful food here in New Orleans but Kinfolk’s video reminded me of the rustic food I miss from England and Finland: crusty fresh bread, Wensleydale and cranberry, Finnish berry pie and blackberry juice, ale (or even better, home-brewed sahti), salmon soup or sausages cooked on the fire after a summer sauna. I miss all of that.
My always inspirational studio-mate at Civic Center, Candy Chang, is off to Las Vegas for a project called Confessions. She’ll construct a thoughtful space for contemplation and respite at a hotel called The Cosmopolitan on the Las Vegas strip.
Visitors to Candy’s space can enter a confession booth and write an anonymous confession on a delicate wooden plaque. The plaque is then hung on the wall of the space, where other visitors can read, explore and contemplate. It’ll be a place for respite from the craziness of Vegas.
Candy invited me to compose a piece of music to soundtrack the space. The recording incorporates the sounds that comfort and bring a sense of safety to both of us: an old Finnish coffee machine, secluded hotel rooms, the voice of a loved one. The end result is something special, a long play 45-minute piece that draws you in and slows you down, setting the tone for a moment of peace and perspective.
You can visit Confessions at The Cosmopolitan from July 19 – August 12, 2012. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 6-11pm.
P3 Studio (3rd Floor)
3708 South Las Vegas Boulevard
Las Vegas, NV 89109
The Girl and I just returned from five days at Disney World. We kicked off my big birthday trip at Epcot, under the shadow of Ray Bradbury and R. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic sphere. The sphere, known as Spaceship Earth, is a wonderful architectural snapshot of a future that could have been: vintage futurism at its very best.
Where the Magic Kingdom, Disney’s famous flagship theme park, has sagged with age, each passing year makes Epcot a little more retro and fantastic. The real magic though was at Disney’s new Animal Kingdom theme park. This was something else entirely. A dense jungle that opens out into a tropical world containing hyper-detailed African and Asian villages.
I’m not a fan of zoos but this seemed to be something else entirely, more akin to a nature reserve combining education, conservation and research. We learnt about crocodiles, rhinos, gazelles and found out why reticulated giraffes are called reticulated giraffes. I came face-to-face with an alpha-male gorilla.
It wasn’t my plan to gush about a Disney vacation, but this was something special. I got to revisit these places from my childhood and make a few new memories too.
Back when we moved to New Orleans, we rented a shotgun house. It was damp, dark and ramshackle. June bugs, which are actually really big, skittish flying cockroaches, would crawl up the kitchen wall. The pool in our backyard had dried out and become home to a colony of red insects.
Beyond the backyard was an alleyway. The walls of the alleyway had been painted with dancing skeletons and giant skulls in top hats. We were told that the alley led to a voodoo temple. At night as we lay in bed, we would sometimes hear the sound of drums.
Just next to the voodoo temple was something called the Music Box. A shanty town of houses rigged with musical tools and toys. We never visited on account of the alley being a little too spooky. This weekend, we finally got tickets to a performance at the Music Box.
There’s a short story written by Jonathan Nolan called Memento Mori. Jonathan’s brother, Christopher Nolan, later based the film Memento on this short story. I’ve still not the seen the film but I read the story yesterday.
It’s a short story divided into even shorter chunks, making for a kind of staccato rhythm that compels you to read on through. Which, I’m feeling silly for only just realising, is a clever way of communicating the central character’s stop-start life.
There’s a great passage in the story. It’s quite long but revealing it here doesn’t spoil a thing. Its sentiment and clever conceit seems to sum up why I need lists.
Here’s the truth: People, even regular people, are never just any one person with one set of attributes. It’s not that simple. We’re all at the mercy of the limbic system, clouds of electricity drifting through the brain. Every man is broken into twenty-four-hour fractions, and then again within those twenty-four hours. It’s a daily pantomime, one man yielding control to the next: a backstage crowded with old hacks clamoring for their turn in the spotlight. Every week, every day. The angry man hands the baton over to the sulking man, and in turn to the sex addict, the introvert, the conversationalist. Every man is a mob, a chain gang of idiots.
This is the tragedy of life. Because for a few minutes of every day, every man becomes a genius. Moments of clarity, insight, whatever you want to call them. The clouds part, the planets get in a neat little line, and everything becomes obvious. I should quit smoking, maybe, or here’s how I could make a fast million, or such and such is the key to eternal happiness. That’s the miserable truth. For a few moments, the secrets of the universe are opened to us. Life is a cheap parlor trick.
But then the genius, the savant, has to hand over the controls to the next guy down the pike, most likely the guy who just wants to eat potato chips, and insight and brilliance and salvation are all entrusted to a moron or a hedonist or a narcoleptic.
The only way out of this mess, of course, is to take steps to ensure that you control the idiots that you become. To take your chain gang, hand in hand, and lead them. The best way to do this is with a list.
It’s like a letter you write to yourself. A master plan, drafted by the guy who can see the light, made with steps simple enough for the rest of the idiots to understand. Follow steps one through one hundred. Repeat as necessary.
I’m getting older and plan on celebrating the only way a proper grownup should do. The Girl and I are going to Disney World. And dammit, we’re staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, whatever the hell that is.
Last winter we holed up at The Girl’s parents’ place, preparing for our big move to New Orleans. Her folks live in a beautiful house, set amongst a forest, in a small town north of Helsinki. While we were there, we visited the forest and foraged for fresh winter berries.
Somewhere in Russia there’s a radio station broadcasting a single repeating sound. A buzzing. 25 times a minute, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year round. It was first heard around 1982 and for nearly 30 years it buzzed. Incessantly. Until just a few weeks ago, June 5th to be precise, when it stopped.
The really interesting thing about The Buzzer isn’t the buzzing (which, incidentally, has started back up again). The really interesting thing is the way it makes people feel when they hear about it. People get freaked out. Why does this thing exist? What is its purpose? The what and the why hang in the air and become more ominous and incessant than the buzzing itself.
Most people haven’t even heard the station for themselves. The simple notion of such a thing existing is enough cause for discomfort. Reading comments about the station on an Internet message board, somebody called Rockswell concisely summed the matter up, saying, “This makes me feel weird.” It makes me feel weird too.
The most recent change in my attitude toward sound has been in relation to loud sustained sounds such as car alarms or burglar alarms, which used to annoy me, but which I now accept and even enjoy. I think the transformation came through a statement of Marcel Duchamp who said that sounds which stay in one location and don’t change can produce a sonorous sculpture, a sound sculpture that lasts in time. Isn’t that beautiful?
John Cage, quoted in Mark Epstein’s Thoughts Without A Thinker
Somewhere between Louisiana and Texas, we’re heading west along the coast to Houston. The landscape is greens and browns, houses on stilts and distant offshore rigs.
We’re well below deck now, in the engine room of America. Passing through a town called Cameron. This is oil country. This is where the energy comes from. It stinks.
The flames off the coast come from oil refineries. The smell they make fills our rental truck, pinches my nose and pokes my eyes.
The romance of dusty American roads is burnt up in the refining process and we’re tired. We find a motel, nestled between an artfully lit industrial plant and an artfully lit Capitol One Bank.
The people living here give up so much. Fresh, clean air. Unobscured natural beauty. The rig workers get sick, the families get sick too. I wonder if they know what they’re giving up. If they think it’s a worthwhile cause. Oil martyrs in a stinking town.
This is a sad, horrible place. I’ll be glad to leave.
Yesterday I watched In The Mood For Love. The film is set in 1960′s Hong Kong. I spent the whole movie convinced it was made in the 1970s. “It has way too much class to have been made in the last decade,” I said in an insistent, educated tone. Turns out it was made in 2000. Shows what I know about film.
There’s a piece of music – Shigeru Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme – that is revisited throughout. The action slows down and for a few seconds everything is melancholy and deliberate, like a sad ballet.
Christopher Doyle was the film’s cinematographer. Doyle establishes a sort of forced intimacy where, scene-to-scene, we get right in there with the characters. Wedged in to their stuffy Hong Kong apartment, watching from the other room. Or stood in a dark alleyway, sharing their breath and their problem.
Take a couple of hours out of your day to watch it. It’s comfortable and intense. Like putting a pillow on your head so you can be alone.
I first met James A. Reeves in a bar called Ahven, a couple of blocks from my apartment in the centre of Helsinki. The bar was decorated in brown and served expensive imported ales. James drank a club soda with lime, wore an eggshell white blazer and was tall.
We introduced ourselves. He’d just moved to Helsinki from New York. He ran a design agency and a record label. He was trying to be a writer. He took photos, thought a lot, and wanted to run. I had just moved from London to Helsinki. I designed and wrote music. I smoked Kent Menthol cigarettes and I did not run.
In the summer, James and I would carry his big desk into the yard and work in the warm sun. Several months later, he left Finland and moved back to New York. We had become solid friends and agreed that one day we should work together. And that was that.
Months later, James moved to New Orleans. Together with Candy Chang he founded Civic Center, a creative agency that makes cities more comfortable for people. And most recently, in the summer, James invited me to join Civic Center. I accepted his invitation, quit my job, packed my bags and took a flight to the United States of America.
Now, my local convenience store is called Mardi Gras Zone. They sell boat soap, mouse traps and Bob Marley dietary supplement. Strangers smile and greet me on the street. I like to smile back. Some days I wear shoes but not socks. There are palm trees, freight trains and secret Asian restaurants. There is a voodoo temple behind our house.
I don’t smoke, but I run. And I do good work with good people.