the forelife

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As Halloween and Day of the Dead approach, I am surrounded by familiar, sometimes strangely playful, imagery of the afterlife. Ghosts, talking skeletons, and zombies adorn front porches and in-store displays. The season’s horror films, books, and series promote a variety of entertaining speculations about what happens after death, all in the name of fun. Somehow this fact of death, one that usually causes discomfort, is okay to revel in while it’s in season. And the rest of the year, when it gets existentially uncomfortable, we have religions, each offering their own comforting take on the afterlife.

But there are far fewer stories about what happens before birth, which is every bit as mysterious and intriguing as the death question. There just isn’t the same emphasis or cultural depiction of “the forelife.” We are not haunted by the souls of those yet to be born. There are no film or literary genres devoted to this unknown territory. Aside from the religions who feature reincarnation, the world of pre-existence is ignored.

So, when I was trying to figure out how to write a song about my firstborn son without sounding horrifically Hallmark, I thought I might speculate about his forelife, specifically his journey from the great where-ever to his parents.

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I first considered this concept when we knew a baby was on the way. After hearing the heartbeat, I was struck, like many soon-to-be dads, with the strangeness of having the power to create a moving and, one day, self-conscious entity — from nothing. Along the way, I met someone from a nontraditional spiritual community who told me he was not coming from nothing. In fact, she had a vision of him with his great great grandmother awaiting his entry into the visible world. I liked the idea of him spending time with the grandmother he would never meet in the physical world, and I was intrigued by idea that the forelife and the afterlife were the same place.

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It is that image of my son with his great great grandmother that begins the story of his journey from the forelife to this sliver of space and time. The lyrics tell the rest of the story.

Great grandmother waved as you swam away

trying to get to the soft glowing light

We all gathered round on the other side

singing your name all through the night.

Now we’ve given love a name

A little river runs through me

Oh, how strange it is to be here.

When you reached the light, you were thrown into time

for a while until the return.

We looked in your face and saw all those who came

and left before you arrived.

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Now we’ve given love a name

A little river runs through me

Oh, how strange it is to be here.

When the stars look down on me,

I am not the way I seem.

A river running under everything.

If you’re quiet sometimes you can hear it rushing.

Now we’ve given love a name

A little river runs through me

Oh, how strange it is to be.

A river under everything

Oh, how strange it is to be here.

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The guitar chords were written during my son’s first year while he bounced away in his baby seat. He really liked this driving chord progression, especially when accompanied by my stomping foot on the hardwood floor, so I included that, too. This song is now available as a single on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, and most major online music vendors. The album cover and photos are from a narrative series, taken by photographer Sarah Featherstone, depicting his journey. As for the song’s title, Little River, the river is a common symbol of the journey between worlds, from the River Styx to the River Jordan to the Ganges. Along with this symbolism, the title also combines two translations, Gaelic and Arabic, of my son’s name.

That’s the story. Here’s a song.

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droning on

If you aren't aware of the compelling but wildly unpopular sub-genre of ambient music known as drone, I'm not surprised. It goes against the stream of our hyper-rational, quick fix, consumer culture. Unlike most popular music, it does not track you down wherever you are and beat you in the face with Hallmark melodies until you can't ever forget what you've heard. It’s not likely to pop up as a suggestion on Spotify or Youtube unless you are already listening to drone. Instead, a listener has to find drone and choose to engage with it. Drone music is an ongoing, subtle backdrop from which everything else seems to emerge, like consciousness itself.

To me, drone music, whether intentionally or not, expresses the idea of an undivided ultimate reality. Not only the myriad complex connections between living things, but also the space between parts of an atom, the darkness between stars, and the silence between thoughts. All very easy to ignore until you finally, for some reason, give them sustained attention. And then nothing is the same. The hierarchical order we impose on all things quickly evaporates into the drone.

Long after I was composing primitive ambient sound collages and drones with my 1980s Casio keyboards, I found that I was not alone in sensing something fundamental and ineffable about drone music. It seemed that the music of Vedantists, Sufis, Aborginees, and even the Celts (that low continuous tone on the bagpipes is called the drone) all features drone elements. You can delve into these traditions if you want to sense the full significance, but basically you have unbroken elemental tone that lies beneath everything. People have different names for that, like ultimate reality, the ground of being, the tao, god, tathata.  Either way, I’m not the first weirdo to find this should-be boring music existentially stirring.

What does this sonic enlightenment sound like, you ask? Well, you’ve probably ignored it on many occasions. It’s quite easy to do. Without repetitious hooks or narrative lyrics, it just floats on through the room. Surrounds you like a fog and then moves on when you get up from the massage table, finish your hot yoga class, or finish watching that epiphanous film scene. It’s a series of tones sustained over time, a melodic hum, a mood without a storyline. The tones can be made with acoustic or electronic instruments. They can even be field recordings of industrial or natural sounds, collected and manipulated to evoke emotion. It’s the sonic equivalent of abstract installation art. You’re just in it. The sooner you stop trying to interpret it, the closer you get to an authentic experience.

After being a closeted composer of ambient soundscapes and drones for what feels like forever, I decided to start releasing new and old material under the project name bluejay, because that's the name that always appeared when I wondered what I should call this abstract endeavor, because sound always seems to have a color, because jay is a name that runs through my family, and because I hope to reincarnate as a bird. Besides, the web has made it more possible than ever for eccentrics everywhere to find the audio esoterica that suits their needs, so here we are.

This first release, Cascades, is recent work, an album of piano-based drones. Most of them were recorded on a 113-year-old vintage York upright, though one was recorded on a 1960s Baldwin spinet. The stereo recordings are digitally edited and then “stretched” to be 10-40 times their recorded length, an effect made possible by recording software. I first heard about this effect when the 800% slow Justin Beiber track “You Smile” turned an annoying pop song into a beautiful ambient drone masterpiece.  Like looking at a leaf or a drop of water under a microscope, what was ordinary and insignificant became strangely sacred.

After hearing slow-motion Bieber, I thought it would be interesting to reincarnate some of my own real-time compositions and songs in this way, and, finally, I’ve gotten around to it. Whether you stream it in the background of your daily life or you focus on it until you achieve full realization of ultimate reality, I hope you find something in these tones.

When I first started working with these piano recordings, I found that, when stretched 10-40 times, the piano sounds more like a bowed instrument but still retains some of its tonal character. One might think of Dali’s melting clocks in “The Persistence of Memory,” only replace the clocks with piano keyboards.

Hearing my compositions slowed down also made me think of the particle/wave duality in quantum mechanics. The finite strike of the piano hammer against the string in real time (particle) becomes a slow unfolding of a tone when stretched (wave). But these radically different sounds are actually the same audio phenomena heard in two different ways. Most extreme in its transformation is percussion. In the dreamworld of slow drone, a single snare drum hit sounds, fittingly, exactly like the swell and crash of an ocean wave.

On some of my stretched recordings, I could hear this crashing wave effect caused by the clicks and creaks of the old pianos’ hammers and pedals. Such noises are an annoyance on the real time recording but a beautiful surprise on the dream time recording. Again, the whole thing was a surprise lesson on perspective.

In a lecture, “stand-up philosopher” Alan Watts talks about the ways in which “discord at one level is harmony at another.” He cites examples like the battle of intestinal bacteria appearing as raging conflict at the microscopic level but as balance at the level of a healthy human body. Playing around with the time scale of music made this lecture come to mind, along with the feeling one gets when trying to sense something like geologic time or the size of a galaxy. So, for me, drone music is mind-expanding.

I’ve probably offered more words than necessary about these sounds, so, if you aren’t already doing so, you should give a listen to these recordings. They are available on Spotify, iTunes, GooglePlay, Amazon, Youtube music, and other online venues. I’ll just add that the striking photos here and on the album cover are the work of my talented wife, photographer Sarah Featherstone. After hearing these bizarre, ethereal sounds emerging from the home studio, she suggested we embark on a shoot to see if she could create an appropriate visual complement. I think we found it.

Thank you for reading, listening, and sharing this work with others.