O Essayer


Centuries passed in Western literature before authors let themselves be themselves in what they wrote. Dominated by classical conventions, the literati found no forms in which to describe themselves freely and randomly. [...] Saintly epiphanies and confessions like Saint Augustine's had recorded the search for salvation. A letter addressed to a particular person, usually not intended for publication, was governed by the candor and the good manners of the writer. But how could an author show himself naked, unboastful and unashamed?

- Daniel Boorstin, The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination

The critic must know more than either writer or academic. He must also value experience and have a truth-telling nature. [...] In their youth most people worry whether or not other people will like them. Not me. I had the choice of going under or surviving, and I survived by understanding (after the iron—if not the silver—had entered my soul) that it is I who am keeping score. What matters is what I think, not what others think of me; and I am willing to say what I think. That is the critical temperament.

- Gore Vidal, Views from a Window: Conversations with Gore Vidal

As Boorstin describes, Michel de Montaigne devised a form of "literary self-portrait" so as to put himself on display, "unboastful" yet "unashamed." He called it the "essay," for they were only "tries." In addition to Boorstin and Vidal, the exemplars of the form in the English language in the past century include Perry Anderson, Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, Terry Eagleton, Frank Kermode, Christopher Lasch, George Orwell, Richard Rorty, Edward Said, Susan Sontag, George Steiner, George W.S Trow, E.B White, Hayden White, and Edmund Wilson. Some of these individuals worked outside academia all their lives; others were confined to the hallowed halls but made the wise, yet oft-disparaged, attempt to speak to a broader audience. The work of Kermode, Eagleton, and others whose principal interest remains literature reminds us that the essayist and the literary critic have often been one and the same, yet we do not share many literary critics' disdain for those modern arts where technology seemingly encroaches upon the integrity of individual artists and disparate media. Indeed, of those listed above, only Sontag (and, to a lesser extent, Vidal and Anderson) appreciates the way the arts, in the modern, post-Dada milieu, penetrate each other's boundaries regardless of an individual's or a medium's relationship to the techniques of recorded sound and of still, and motion, photography.

Accordingly, those journalists covering non-Classical music, film, and intermedia arts more broadly, who have succeeded in analyzing the artists and their work with the respect commonly reserved for traditional visual arts, (European) Classical music, and literature, while simultaneously elevating their own writing, especially attract our attention and, at times, reverence. In the case of popular and experimental musics, the models to point to include Greil Marcus, Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Jon Savage, Simon Reynolds, David Toop, and Peter Guralnick. More specific still, and more important, there are the artists who consistently explore the space between music and literature, a pursuit inevitably leading to concern for the relationship between music and politics, music and ethics, and so on. Among this elite are Derek Bailey, Anthony Braxton, John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Nick Cave, Eugene Chadbourne, Rhys Chatham, John Corbett, Morton Feldman, Brion Gysin, Neil Hagerty, Jon Langford, George Lewis, Alan Licht, Lydia Lunch, Evan Parker, Eddie Prévost, Hal Rammel, Pierre Schaeffer, Wadada Leo Smith, Mayo Thompson, Trevor Wishart, Davey Williams, and Iannis Xenakis.

Numerous writers in the multifarious fields of modern non-fiction writing (examples being Robert Fisk and Lawrence Weschler) like the best of the music journalists noted above, deserve a place alongside the finest essayists. Besides engaging, and perhaps dispensing, with the frameworks already developed by other writers on music, we keep in mind these inspiring examples of non-fiction journalistic writing, as well as the graceful detachment of the essayist.

Indeed, though we would certainly not limit ourselves to the essay, nonetheless, with regard to non-fiction, we especially appreciate and aim to exploit the essay as a means of personally organizing the world in an aesthetic way. The essayist projects a desire to question, irreverently yet seriously, conventional ways of understanding culture, and to do so from a perspective determined by the charming round-about learning processes of daily personal experience. The essay makes the inane profound; the writer circumvents the regimented processes that precede writings done for academia and other professional arenas, and asserts that, if the matter at hand is looked at radically enough—distilled to its essence—then his experiences to that point, and ahead to points further afield, are all the "research" he needs. Which is not to say that years of reading and listening and viewing (touching? tasting? smelling?) do not factor in a cohesive, even linear, way.

No matter how thorough anyone's education is, there remain holes to be filled—or not. These gaps will be dealt with randomly, at least relative to one's formal education. Having taken a class on Hindustani classical music, learning it the "proper" way, and witnessing performances by those schooled in the tradition, one may first hear the instruments of Javanese gamelan music on a Sun City Girls record. Learning of said traditions in such a way, sure to be characterized as incomplete or inappropriate by many, could actually lead one to perceive a greater range of possibilities; after all, in such a case, concerns about the authenticity and exoticness of that which is "foreign" to one's self are negated from the out-set.

The essay's amateur-ish origin makes transparent the amauteur-ness of all journalism, non-fiction. The guiding principle is modesty (less is more). Do not say anything beyond what one experiences first-hand. Inevitably, some readers will react negatively to the seemingly-obsessive tendency toward categorization of music scenes and traditions in my own essays, thinking they have discovered a contradiction. One must keep in mind that such acts of naming attempt to describe recordings, and result from approaching recordings much the same way one does literature, as texts that will intrigue and captivate listeners for ages to come: not because of their accessibility, their bringing individuals together in some sort of consumerist utopia, but because of how strange and mysterious they are, of the doubts and questions they raise, the sense of alienation from society that the listener literally feels when he enters the sonic worlds found therein. These categories are simply loose practical aides in exploring the vast range of recordings coming out of our modern world. The reader might also be surprised to learn that they often refer to little more than a few artists: an analogy perhaps is that of an aerial photograph of a city, where the individuals to the viewer's eye are just tiny blots of color, while the buildings and other large objects are seen relatively clearly, but not too well, mostly allowing the viewer to see their relations with each other. In this analogy, recordings are buildings; in both cases, those which embody conclusive aesthetic and social findings are rare.

Those who object to the categorization and academic-like study of popular music are most likely those who see promises of liberation in mass culture, in a particular scene and its self-righteous claims of transcendence of any attempt to control it. In our textual analysis of music (a different way of thinking than what music academics peculiarly call "music theory": nothing more than the study of musical notation) the goal generally is to define different approaches to instrumentation and composition; doing so does not pin down or degrade the evolving work of any particular artist. In contrast, both sociological studies, as well as contemporaneous attempts to group artists together based upon vague notions of common causes or "life style" choices, are nearly always suspect, and persistently falling apart. Instead of the many melting into a singular entity, the broad social currents holding us together upon examination splinter into ever-smaller individual units. After all, the artist usually only allows himself to be confined to such amalgamations because of the need to become known and popular, to make money.

In non-fiction writing, the author's act of giving shape to what has taken place never captures exactly what the objects of the author's attention thought they were doing. Even those objectified, of course, can only scrutinize themselves in retrospect, where the benefit of hindsight allows one to chose which light to put his actions under (a "good light," more than likely). As one moves away from the diary entry, journalism, and the essay toward history, the make-believe part becomes greater still. Indeed, historical narratives and fictional narratives perhaps should be in the same literary category; while distinct, they over-lap to such an extent that the latter has more in common with the former than it does with poetry, and the former has more in common with the latter than it does with other non-fiction, whether "social science" or journalistic.

Even in the non-essay contributions to this site—the interviews and Correspondences—a non-professional approach is at work, similar to the essayist's methods. Although we approach interviews in a standard fashion—cassette recorder in hand, documenting a conversation taking place in "real time"—the questions, at times disarmingly simple, capture both the awkwardness and the comforts of interviewing one's friends. The Correspondences, done via electronic mail, remove inter-personal exchange from the strictures of society to the vast expanses of culture, even at the cost of communication, as if the participants are talking past and over each other. Then again, our daily conversations often end up as such.

Sweet Pea merely pretends to be an e-zine. While the e-zine imitates the magazine, suggesting an ambitious, yet specious, argument that internet's malleability and high speed of transmission better fits the tasks of journalism, this site uses the World Wide Web as an escape route from professionalization, to attempt to think more clearly and methodically about cultural interests; and, in this age when humanity's vast scope raises the prospect of its eventual decimation, to resist any trend toward resignation to the transitory-ness of human life. As such, it does not evince any definite appreciation or, or expectations of, the "information age." Moreover, I cannot but think that Sweet Pea's very existence is absurd: putting writing on the Web is like putting visual art on posters decorating the walls of college dormitories. In both cases, they are in the company of advertisements and pornography, and advertisements for pornography.

As an imitation e-zine, Sweet Pea is not updated regularly, and the contributions will never become out-dated (they can be newly edited if need be, though at a certain point even such minor revisions will cease) and never be removed. It is an anthology-in-progress, the writing of a book, or several books, put on display as their progress, or lack thereof, unfolds.

September 2006

This site, alternately known as Sweet Pea, Sweet Pea Review, Sweet Pea's Ghost Dance and Music Review, Sweet's Music Review, and Sweet's, is (usually) based in Athens, Georgia. Essays, interviews, photographs, illustrations, fiction, poetry, and what-not are welcome.

- J Kaw jkaw1979@gmail.com

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