We know we’re damn lucky we can do the translation work which pays our rent and buys our food at home.
We know that the working conditions here in this quiet elegant space are downright perfect compared to the noisy crowded chaos faced by our friends who earn their living in downtown grocery stores, banks, and post offices.
Unlike them we can pee whenever we want. Whenever the urge hits I can grab Mitsuko for a hug. Lunch is whenever we get hungry. The air we breath is impeccable. We have no commute. Our hourly pay (though far less than is earned by even the most incompetent doctors, lawyers, professors, realtors, and brokers…) is pretty good. We don’t need to worry about puffed up guys in suits showing up to inspect us. And though sometimes when fighting deadlines we work for weeks without a break, often we can take off two or even three consecutive days, which is something for which many of our working friends in town would kill…
And we also know we’d have crunched long ago if we had to face the humiliation and abuse which this unjust society deals out to them on a daily basis. Because the fact is that we’re not as tough as they are, since like the rest of our “birth class” (including of course the old friends whom I wrote and sang about chucking in “Dark Clouds”) we were spoiled by being raised with too much unearned privilege.
But our knowledge that we have it good, still doesn’t change the reality that we’re more than a little ground down. For nearly 7 months now we’ve been working our butts off to retire the $13,000 of credit card debt accumulated last year when we had no work, and the effects of this sort of abuse are cumulative. It’s been a period when we haven’t had enough sleep, we haven’t had enough fun, and we haven’t been playing enough music.
But at least we are succeeding, and after sweating out 200,000 words of meticulous high quality Japanese to English commercial translations, the finish line is in sight. In another couple of months we should be completely out of debt, which of course makes us feel more than good, it also makes us feel big proud.
By the way, it would be wrong to get the impression that we’ve been translating neat stuff like poetry or literature. That would be lovely, but I’m afraid the less romantic truth is that we’ve been translating thousands of pages of poorly written e-mails and reports. In fact these stacks of documents generated by multi-billion dollar companies are full of such astonishing incompetence that they’ve further convinced us the folks at the top of our society don’t really deserve to be there, and that it’s only the accident of having been born in wealthy families, not any real accomplishment, that’s made them so sure they’re big time smarter than everyone else. Like Mitsuko sings, it’s enough to make one a little worried….
In any case, since we are such flimsy weak types (and again this is of course compared to our friends working in town, since at this point compared to our old birth class friends we are beasts, both physically and psychically), and since spending many many days glued to our computers has left us deep fried, perhaps it was a bit arrogant to try for this post to record a bowus – bowus duet, since that’s the most difficult to play combination of our self-created instruments.
It’s also a combination that produces some of the weirdest most magical music because the sounds created with these instruments are just so peculiar. And this is not just because their sounds lie on a continuum rather than along some discrete scale (which is also true of any fretless conventional string instrument…), but rather because their complicated “notes” are so rich with buzzes, throbs, and squeaks, that it’s only by stretching the definition that they can even be called “notes”.
Playing our bowus instruments it’s all too easy to produce irritating conspicuous finger noises or to lose control of the sound and have it turn ugly. Even worse these terrible things usually seem to happen right in the middle of some beautiful passage. That’s to say right when we’re starting to get carried away, right when the running thoughts related to our too busy days start dying down, and whamm!!!! we blow it and produce an unattractive noise that’s so embedded in a beautiful sound that it can not be removed with our limited editing skills.
In part this is because our decision to keep their string tension low makes it impossible to dominate our bowus instruments. Forcing them to produce pre-selected sounds (as is necessary for any instrument designed to play a written down piece) is out of the question, and instead we must gently persuade them to sing. Or to say this another way, we have no choice but to treat these instruments as equal partners with minds of their own and with their own ideas of where the music should be going.
By contrast our kalimba family instruments are keyboards, albeit very peculiar ones. This means that though their individual notes are also complicated undisciplined mixes of harmonics, their fundamental frequencies do march in sequential order. (Note that despite our calling them “chromatic” and “quartertone” instruments, in fact even their fundamental frequencies are only approximately a half or a quartertone apart, and if you are interested in why this bothers us not in the slightest, you should take a look at our Notation page…) Furthermore since as keyboards they are quasi machine like, when we stroke their keys with our finger tips, if we don’t blow it too badly the sounds they produce are automatically pretty.
In any case since we were well aware of these technical difficulties, and since we knew that doing so much translation had left our poor little brains deep fried, in preparation for recording this combination we made sure to first squeeze in 10 practice sessions. It was painfully obvious we would need at least that long to get our chops back, to reach the point where our fingers remembered how to lift themselves off the strings without creating too many noises, the point where we’d recovered enough skill so that bowing had again become a pleasure rather than just being a frustration.
This of course was not “practice” in any traditional sense, since playing the same things over and over is something we avoid on principle. Rather it was more like “getting in shape” in somewhat the same spirit as preparing to climb a difficult mountain or to swim across a large body of water. What we had to do was to recover sufficient skill and musical strength so that playing these particular instruments and this particular combination would again become easy, so that we could start having fun with it, so that we ourselves would again become instruments through which magic would be happy to emerge….
However since this was during a period when we were glued to our computers writing the translations which pay our bills, finding the time to do this was not easy. (For the same reason putting together this post has taken longer than we would have liked….)
But what to do.
Still trying to play beautiful music during this excessively busy stretch of months has at least been an excellent test for our belief that being unspecialized is a better way of finding interesting newness than putting our noses to the grindstone and focusing on just one type of task. As we note on our Unspecialized page, in our experience when we’ve done that, all we’ve ended up with were ground down noses.
And one more time our unspecialized philosophy passed the test. So even though we were squeezing in our “practice” sessions at the end of long brain draining days of translation, that is even though we were playing our bowus instruments when we were already exhausted, very quickly we started producing some of the deepest and most resonate tones that we have ever managed to coax from these instruments. Very quickly we found ourselves with the musical strength to play non stop for an hour. Very quickly patterns started to emerge that were quite different from anything which we had ever played before with the same combination.
And this was because even though we had not been playing so much music, the demands of translation had been forcing us to think very clearly for many hours, and it was this ability to focus which was giving us our musical strength and which helps to explain why this piece is so conceptually intense.
Having written this, there is one thing which I must admit our unspecialized approach was unable to do, and that was to make us feel deeply peaceful during this period when we were spending far too much time cranking out endless pages of translations. As a result both of us were more than a little disturbed to hear the absence of peacefulness in what we had recorded. (Though of course we weren’t really very surprised that playing deeply peaceful music when we were totally fried was not so easy.)
Fortunately since there were more than 50 minutes of music in the raw file, by radically editing it down we were able to create a finished selection that we felt was sufficiently peaceful. And here one has to score another point for being unspecialized, since it was only because of our immersion in translation that we were in such super editing shape, since in fact we hadn’t done any music editing for at least two months. Still struggling with hundreds of pages of translation had developed both our ability to spot a problem and our will to persevere until we’d set it right, suggesting that editing really is just editing whether it be of a Wave file or a Word file.
In any case understanding our unspecialized philosophy is absolutely central to understanding our approach to music, since for us music is more than just a specialized skill. Rather we see it as another expression of our general togetherness, openness, inventiveness, and playfulness.
This is why while we are enormously proud of our music, we’re equally proud of our wild plant gardening, our cooking, our top of the line commercial translations, our self-made furniture and curtains, our impeccable and beautiful house, our reading habits, our methodical but moderate stretching, our consistent frugality which has been coupled with the willingness to buy what we really want and need, our continual enjoyment of each other, and of the bravery and openness to change which has this year allowed us to chuck most of our past.
Note that when we speak of chucking the past, we really mean terminating old no longer interesting friendships, which like the barnacles encrusting the keel of a ship that keep it from gliding smoothly through the water, were preventing us from changing, growing, and moving into a future rich with exciting newness.
In fact except for dumping all of these crippling old friendships, we are devotees of the past just as much as we are lovers of newness.
So there are big chunks of this unhappy modern world that we refuse to buy into. We never eat in restaurants. Two days out of three our 1987 car just sits in its carport. We have no television. Most days our phone never rings. And at the moment both of us are reading Confucius…
Our unspecialized philosophy also helps to explain why these written blog entries have not focused strictly on the technical issues connected to creating and recording our music. If they did that, they would give the reader a very incomplete and distorted understanding of why our music is so different and so magical.