That topic of death and passing away is something that you have admittedly been obsessed with. Is it a fascination, phobia, acceptance or something else? Can you please shed more light on this?
What was once a nearly crippling fear turned to acceptance, and then to fascination.
It’s been something I’ve been obsessed with for a long time, nearly as long as I can remember. As a result, I tend to see things in a very retrospective way, like trying to imagine how people I know would maybe remember me or something I did after I’m gone. I’ve never been able to live in the now, I’m always stuck in the past, which is maybe why I gravitate naturally toward thinking about the end – because at that point, there’s only the past.
It used to be a phobia, a really bad one. The obsession I now have with the concept of death was once a nearly uncontrollable phobia and fear – that was until one day, probably about 15 years ago now, one of my best friends handed me a copy of The Stranger by Albert Camus, which then started me down the road to the full-fledged Existentialist I am now (yes I know Camus labeled himself a Humanist, but we’ll save that discussion for another time). Many people mistakenly think that Existentialists are these suicidal, miserable people, mostly due to misrepresentation and erroneous information in popular media, when in actuality the fact that you’ve accepted that you’re going to die someday and that it could be any minute makes you appreciate the small and beautiful things in this life that so many overlook when they’re only thinking about the next one. Anyway, let’s save all that for another day…
Honestly I have no idea where my obsession with death comes from. When I was young I wasn’t exposed to some traumatic encounter with it or anything, it’s just always been something I gravitated toward (much to the distress of my parents when I was young haha). Even when I was young, I spent all of my time stuck in the past, thinking about things that had happened, regrets, and things that might have been – so even from a young age, I began to look all the way to the end, and think back from there, imagining how others may reminisce about their lives someday, and how my own existence would, if at all, intersect in their thoughts. Needless to say, I was a hit at parties.
The concept very recently and horribly came to life when I suddenly and without warning lost my father, who though he would freely admit couldn’t for the life of him understand what was going on in my head, supported every step I’ve ever taken, including all the times everyone else said I was throwing my life away on music. Without him, I would never have made a single note of music that you hear today. I owe everything I am to him, and to suddenly wake up and have him disappear without being able to say goodbye is something words can never describe, though I am by no means unique in the experience – people all over the world have to face it every day.
Though the emptiness I felt was and still is heavier than ten oceans, I think my lifelong obsession with the concept of loss, and my ability to accept and even be fascinated by it in the later half of my life to date helped me to deal with it in a drastically different way than I would have when I was younger. When I would have ran in the face of it at one point, I was now able to stare it straight in the eye, and accept it for what it was. I don’t believe in souls, spirits, afterlife, or anybody looking down on anybody, but he will forever be a part of everything I do, because he was always the reason I was able to do it in the first place. And so I guess this is the definition of my obsession with death. I think that’s the most you can ask of life, to have that effect on someone, and to become part of the very fabric that makes up their being. I don’t think I’ll ever accomplish that, because I’m simply too cold and distant and frankly fucked up to love as he did, but here’s to hoping.
Can talk about the quote on your album, “We all die alone, but some make it their last work of art”. What is its source and effect on your inspiration for this album?
Its source is actually me. I would say it very much relates to this idea of how after you’re gone, others’ memory of you in their lives will intertwine with the story of their own lives, no matter to what extent. For me personally, the most beautiful way this can be achieved, at least in my ideal, is to somehow know the end is near, and to silently disappear to spend those last moments completely alone, thinking back on the life you lived, and then just vanish as easily and suddenly as you appeared.
This has always been an obsession of mine, but it had lay dormant for a while until one day about a year ago I asked someone what their ideal way to die was, and they answered very matter-of-factly, showing they had thought about it many times, that they wanted to die alone in a place no one had ever been. I thought that was such a beautiful answer (coupled with the fact it came from the mouth of someone around 19 years old, which was extremely unexpected) I honestly shed a tear, and every time I even think of it, including now, I do the same. Quite frankly, to me, even the thought of such a concept is truly a work of art.
No matter how many friends you make, how much your family loves you, or anything else that we arbitrarily attach to the meaning of life, we were intrinsically born into this world alone, and we will leave it alone. So to me, embracing that fact, and seeking to make that a time of beauty, makes much more sense than this absurd idea of being surrounded by loved ones etc. What possible good does that do? To me it’s just another attempt to distract ourselves from the inevitable, even when it’s weeks, days, or minutes away. I’d rather spend that time finishing the last few sentences of my own story on my own, rather than making others fumble through them on my behalf.
Basically the idea for the album, its title, and that quote all came about during an extremely low point for me, during a pretty much crippling depression I experienced when first moving back to China, when I was experiencing a loneliness that was really beyond all description. My mind being the tortuous Moebius that it is, I began to obsess on the thought of not only how truly alone I was, but the fact that I could easily disappear or meet my end and no one around me would truly care – it was the closest I had ever come to that point of being alone I had previously dreamed of as the perfect way for it all to end. And the lowness I felt, quite honestly, made me care less by the day as to whether the next day was the last. In fact, I reached one day where I literally didn’t care at all.
I don’t know what happened, but I all of a sudden decided to take that crushing weight and put it into music. I think quite honestly, it was a sort of last-ditch effort to see if I could feel something again. It wasn’t even depression anymore. I had gone numb. So thought the only thing I could do was attempt to put the experience to music, to see if I could come out of the tailspin by talking about it then only way I know how – with myself. It was the first time I had touched music since moving across the Pacific, but it seemed like the perfect time to start, to try to make something constructive happen from what I was fairly certain was a depression that might consume me.
Though from the title of the album to those of the tracks themselves, I think it’s fairly obvious how I was feeling at the time, but what I wasn’t expecting was the beauty that ended up coming through in the tracks (at least I feel it, I can only hope others do too). I think it’s the most overtly sad album I’ve ever made, but as I progressed through it, it began to take on more and more beauty along with the sadness, and before I knew it, it became as much a statement about the beauty of life as much as its futility. And really, I think it’s embracing both that futility and beauty, irrevocably intertwined, that can bring about that one last work of art – one’s ability to make that last stroke on the canvas of their life, alone, just as they were when they made the first.
The repetitive passages in your work are incredibly hypnotic. What is the overall state of mind that you intend your listeners to achieve with this technique?
Since my first introductions to electronic music, I’ve always gravitated toward the repetitive, hypnotic side – to me it was that quality that first drew me to it, the way it would keep you locked in, in a trance. I had never heard music that could do that before, and to me that’s where so much of its power lied, and still does. I think it’s that ability to build on repetition that separates this music from all others.
But I think likely the main reason my music is built on repetitive passages is that my mind is built on them. I think just like my music sounds; one thought loops over and over, becomes more and more intense, and layers of more thoughts build on top of it, until it often becomes so consuming I sometimes literally forget everything around me. I think this is why my music comes out this way – when I make something, I’m completely on autopilot, and most often devoid of any conscious thought, so it makes sense that the music that results would come out just as my mind thinks, since it’s basically just transferring its own interpretations of the world into an audible format. Though now it results in music, at one point it was just plain tortuous, and I was plagued with mental illness for many years until I learned to channel it into something creative.
Of course by building my tracks in the same way, I am in no way hoping listeners teeter on the brink of mental illness, but instead hope they can get a window into the way I see the world, and the intensity with which I see it. Some say much of my music is too melodramatic or over the top, but I just see and feel things with great intensity – far too much, most of the time, and my music is exactly how I think. I don’t know any other way to do it, and I don’t think there should be any other way. It’s supposed to be what you’re thinking. Well, that’s what I’m thinking.
For me, music is supposed to be a kind of living thing that can meld and adapt to your surroundings, and your life. And to me, it’s that hypnotism achieved through repetition that allows it to be so. When something slowly builds on itself over and over and puts you in a sort of trance, time begins to fall away, and with it your ability to focus on one single element. Before you know it, your mind is drifting off, into thoughts of your own life, your dreams, your fears, your joy, your pain. But it’s being guided by the hypnotism of the music. So one becomes part of the other, and before long it’s like your mind can’t even tell which is which. To me that’s what I look to music for, and always have – so it makes sense that that’s how I make it as well. I just hope others can find the same beauty in it that I do.
I’m not an expert on this topic, but I feel that the purpose behind repeating a mantra over and over is to erase all thought and attempt to stay in the present with the sound. Yet external sound is not really implored during an active meditation. I, on the other hand, feel that your music takes me to inner depths unachievable with mantras. I know it’s a lengthy opener to a question, but what are your thoughts on creating an inner transformation with music and sound?
Well without realizing it I ended up sort of touching on this in the last question, but this takes it a step (or more) deeper. Actually it’s interesting you bring up that external sound is not really implored during active meditation. If you’re not an expert on the topic, I’m even far less of one, but from the little I know about it external sound is considered a distraction. I appreciate your comment that my music could help you get further than mantras, as personally (and I’m speaking about music in general, not just mine) I feel that the meditation music allows takes you much deeper than you could reach without it. Now of course, there is the argument that reaching the depths you would with mantras are due to your own inner power and influence with no external stimuli, but what’s wrong with external stimuli? We live on this earth, so why shouldn’t we integrate external elements that surround us, such as music?
I think it’s the exact phenomenon I addressed above that allows music to help you reach farther, deeper places than you could without it – because the music, once it intertwines with your thoughts and the two become nearly indistinguishable, your mind can go places it would never be able to on its own.
What could be more suited for this than music? Someone said to me once, very simply, “Music is the most abstract thing in the world.” A very basic statement, but one that has never left me, and one I remember nearly every day. It’s true. What’s more abstract than different audible frequencies and rhythms mixing together, and somehow triggering any and every emotional reaction ever imagined, especially when a certain arrangement of frequencies can bring about tears of joy or pain in one person, and do absolutely nothing to the person standing 2 feet away from them?
So if you stumble across the music that penetrates to the depths of your mind, and can do what you described above, to me it seems the perfect guide for meditation. After all, meditation is, by definition, simply contemplation or recollection. And for me, nothing brings either about more vividly, often painfully so, than music. From one person’s contemplations to your own, it’s a sort of continuum – and if meditation is supposed to make us more at one or in tune with our lives or being, I don’t know how that can be achieved more perfectly. Or beautifully.
– – – – end of part one – – – –
Read also Headphone Commute’s review of The Art Of Dying Alone