I've been absurdly fortunate to collaborate with some great musicians over the years. One of my longest, and most fruitful, collaborations has been with Flynn Cohen, the composer and stringed instrumentalist, with whom I've been writing songs for over 20 years at this point.
Flynn and his wife Liz Simmons are in a trad/folk band called Low Lily (formerly Annalivia) that performs at festivals and venues around the world, mostly in New England. Their sound needs to be heard — it has all of the grace, subtlety, complexity and simplicity that good traditional string music should have, without any of the ersatz "folkiness" that sometimes characterizes artists working in this genre. Plus, they're surpassingly good songwriters.
Every year or two, when Flynn and I get together, we write a new song. Then, two or three years later, I get to hear Flynn and Liz record and perform it as part of their repertoire. It's part of my life that I actively look forward to.
My latest collaboration with Flynn, titled "Full Grown Love," was just performed by Low Lily on a radio show called Folk Alley Sessions. They nailed it, every note. Here's the video:
p.s. If you enjoy this song, check out Annalivia/Low Lily performing some of my earlier collaborations with Flynn:
A few years ago, my friend Lonny and I convened a bunch of media scholars who are interested in science fiction for a formal discussion at the National Communication Association conference. The conversation spilled over from conference to cocktails, and further. We had so much fun, we did it again the following year.
Our specific focus was on what Lonny and I call "futuretypes" — those narrative tropes like interstellar travel, black holes, material replication and AI that appear, over and over and over again, from book to movie to game to comic and so forth. Why, we wondered, do we keep telling ourselves the same stories over and over again, and what do the stories mean to us? How can they help us better understand the political and cultural dynamics of our present-day society, and in what ways might they illuminate, and even shape, the paths we take in the future?
We decided we'd take these fruitful and fascinating conversations and publish them as an academic journal section — but not in the form of standard academic articles. Instead, we'd try to preserve the dialogical nature of our conversations with a new format based on short, punchy "provocations" and responses to those provocations.
Nine of us in all — mostly the crew from the original NCA panels — contributed provocations to the project, each discussing a different futuretype from a pre-defined list. Then, each of us responded to at least two other people's provocations. The result was an exciting, diverse, complex web of interrelated textual conversations, and those conversations have now been published in the International Journal of Communication, one of my favorite academic journals. It also happens to be Creative-Commons licensed and freely accessible to the public.
Below is the official announcement for the journal section, including direct links to each of the provocations. I'm really proud of how it all came out. Please, take a look!
Humans have been imagining the future since the distant past. From ancient calendars and pyramids to modern blockbuster films and video games, the artifacts we build and the stories we tell reveal our aspirations and our fears about the world to come. Yet it is also a truism that stories about the future, whether utopian or dystopian, surreal or banal, also tell us a lot about the world we live in today. Ironically, speculative fiction allows many writers and readers to inhabit a form of honesty and clarity about the human condition that is often lacking in more “realistic” contemporary fiction, and even from much journalism and documentary.
This IJoC Special Forum Section on Imagining Futuretypes takes a close, critical look at several of the most dominant themes in speculative fiction, using these well-worn tropes as a starting point for understanding how we reflect and reproduce our contemporary world via the conceit of the imagined future. By examining narrative concepts such as machine consciousness, alien life forms, interstellar travel and material replication, we have much to learn about contemporary visions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and identity. By understanding these imagined futures, we are also afforded a glimpse at our possible actual futures, which are manifested in part through the popularization of these futuretypes, and through our internalization of their logics. In short, they help to extend our vocabulary about the future, ultimately shaping what we will do, think, and build. In this respect, they amount to a form of science fiction capital, their power stemming from the implicit, explicit, and contested aspirations they give voice to.
Guest-edited by Lonny J Avi Brooks and Aram Sinnreich this Special Forum Section of 11 papers grew out of a series of programmed and impromptu conversations between a diverse range of scholars at the National Communication Association annual conferences in 2013 and 2014. It features an editorial introduction, nine “provocations” (most of which include video clips), each by a contributing scholar, and followed by several short response pieces by other contributors. Additionally, the Special Section includes a commentary by futurist McKenzie Wark, tying together many of the dominant themes across our conversations.
We invite you to read this new Special Forum Section that published November 5, 2016 at http://ijoc.org. To direct access any of these essays, ctrl+click the respective article title below.
My family and I have been spending the summer in Germany, where I'm working on my new book and participating in a research project on a fellowship.
It's been surreal to watch my home country devolve into a level of partisanship, hateful rhetoric, and outright violence the likes of which I've never experienced in my lifetime, but to see it all unfold from afar, via social media, citizen journalism and mainstream news outlets. Adding to the uncanniness of it all is the fact that my forebears departed this very region a few generations ago, already chafing under the anti-Semitism that would soon be catalyzed by fascism into full-blown genocide. Yet here I sit, in the heart of the Rhineland, surrounded by friends and well-wishers, with my African-American wife and brown Jewish children, feeling in many ways more secure than I would in my own neighborhood. (Not that Germany is free of the madness, as this week's horrible attacks in Munich attest to).
Two weeks ago, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed within days of each other, two more in a long line of unarmed men with brown skin gunned down by American police without reason. Two more families and communities torn apart, two more pieces of evidence that black lives – the lives of the people I love most in the world – don't matter in my country, in the place where I choose to live and raise my children.
I woke up the morning after Castile's death with the grains of a new song in my head. It was a different style of song than what normally comes to me. The lyrics were fractured, like the competing narratives in my media sphere, like the unresolved thoughts warring for my attention. The music was very spare, just an echo of a bass line, looping angularly in my aural memory. I wrote down what I could, and brought the results to my wife, who has also been my musical partner for decades. She took those pieces and ran with them, pouring in her own anguish and anger, her own hopes, her own angle as a black woman from America and a visionary with the widest perspective of anyone I know. Then I added some, and she added some. The kids were there in the room with us; they're used to hearing us work on new material. Within an hour or two, we had a song we both felt meant something. A song we were proud of, even relieved to have gotten out of our systems. The song is called #letuslive.
Fortunately, I had just given a talk a few days earlier at the Institute for Popular Music in nearby Bochum, where they have a state-of-the-art recording studio and a faculty and student body with excellent musical and engineering chops. I messaged my friend Hans, who runs the Institute, and asked him whether he'd be interested in helping us record the song. He kindly, even enthusiastically assented, and we made plans to come back down to record the song the following week.
In the meantime, Dallas happened. It's still unclear what the story is. A group of gunmen, or maybe a lone gunman. An ex-marine suffering post-traumatic distress. A black man fed up with systematic violence, seeking to settle the score. Maybe none of that. Maybe all of that. I don't know. Our song includes the refrain "policemen's ears they hear no sound." Now it was literally true, in a different way altogether. More pain. More agony. More broken families and communities. More finger-pointing and divisiveness.
We headed down to Bochum, and cut the tracks, with great support from many of the fine musicians at the Institute. I mixed them on my laptop a day or two later, and Dunia and I released our demo version of #letuslive on Youtube and Soundcloud.
More madness. Cops killed in Baton Rouge, where Alton Sterling had so recently been a living man. More pain agony finger-pointing division bullshit. More ears that could hear no sound.
This week, Hans himself released a remix of the song – a danceable disco track, twice as long as our cut, infectiously groovy. Dunia and I were overjoyed to hear our music and lyrics refracted through his DJ sensibility, and we were excited to see how well it was received, especially here in Europe.
More madness. The RNC convention. Protest snuffed out by overpolicing, unspeakable hatred passing as a political platform, crowds cheering as demagogues stoke them into xenophobic frenzy. America First. A black therapist on the ground with his hands in the air, catching a bullet to the leg from a clueless cop as he pleads with the police not to shoot his autistic patient. America First. A promise of "law and order," a warning note. Is it any more vague than the one my grandparents heard, when they decided to flee this place, this very place where I'm sitting right now? Should I stay here in Germany, where my family and I are welcome? Should we return and fight? Stand our ground? Speak out for what is right? How can I factor in the risk that my 12-year-old son and his friends will be profiled, will be targeted, will be killed? How can I raise a black son in a Trump America? Even if he loses – inshallah, kinehora, devil get thee behind me – it's still going to be Trump America. Those adoring crowds aren't going anywhere anytime soon. America First.
And here I am, enjoying my summer with my family, tasting Westphalia's fruits and hacking away at my new book, 1,000 words at a time, and going mad. I've never felt so close to giving up, to relinquishing any hope of making sense of life, of finding meaning in the day-to-day. I feel like I'm standing on the shore of a vast dark ocean, watching bodies wash up on the sand. Each face looks too much like my own, too much like the ones I love most dearly.
If it weren't for the music, I think I would have teetered over the brink and fallen into the black hole of nihilism, or gray anhedonia, or green hulk-like rage already. If it weren't for music, I don't think I would still be able to love. I really mean that.
So thank you. Thank you to whatever little piece of me took the pain and confusion and tried to make something beautiful with it. Thank you to my wife, my bandmate, my coparent, my life partner, my sparring partner, my lover, for taking my fragmented bits of dreamspeak and weaving them with her own into a beautiful tapestry. Thank you to my friend Hans, for opening your heart, your studio, your laptop, and amplifying and dancifying the signal. Thank you to anyone who listens, to anyone who dances, to anyone who shares, to anyone who plays and sings. I know you need my music, and I need yours. If we stop listening to one another, we'll be lost in the noise.
Dub producer Numinos just posted his own remix of the tune, and it's amazing. Love the way he turned my bass line around with respect to the vocals.
I once met Robert Plant in a SoHo bodega, around 2am. Coincidentally, I had just been to a midnight screening of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, a film named for a song made famous by Led Zeppelin (though the song was notably absent from the film's soundtrack) and which was at one time the target of a copyright infringement suit by the composition's original author, Jake Holmes. Plant and I were waiting on line to buy some munchies, and as we stood there in the painfully fluorescent light, a Chuck Berry tune played on the radio. "I wonder what happened to him," Plant remarked to me. I responded that I thought he was in jail for filming women in the bathroom of a restaurant he owned (turns out I wasn't quite right, though there was both a class action lawsuit and some incriminating evidence seized from his home). We spent another few minutes chatting, then we paid up and he went back to his hotel across the street to continue doing whatever rock legends do in their hotel rooms in the wee small hours, and I went out to rejoin my friends, who had been waiting for me on the sidewalk. This is how I brush with greatness – under punishing lights while waiting to buy a granola bar.
This week, I've had the chance to bask in Zeppelin's reflected glory once again, by writing an article for The Daily Beast about their latest copyright infringement suit. This time, a representative of a long-defunct band called Spirit is claiming that the iconic opening riff to "Stairway to Heaven" was ripped off from their tune "Taurus." As I discuss in my article, this claim has some compelling aspects at first glance, but it's actually much ado about nothing, and a finding of infringement against the band would ultimately help to consolidate power and ownership over global musical culture even further by ensuring that only the major labels can afford the litigation risk entailed by releasing new music.
While I don't get deep into the copyright weeds (discussing legal technicalities at issue, such as whether the plaintiff has standing, or whether the riff in question is representative of the master vs. the publishing right), I think I do a pretty good job of breaking down the musical and legal contours of the case, and discussing the broader implications if the plaintiffs prevail. You can check out the article here.