Music and possible-zones – Geoff Dyer on Andrei Tarkovsky
Dyer: And what about you? Do you feel that the style you’ve arrived at is some sort of compensatory thing? Did you start out to be a straight-down-the-line novelist?
Sullivan: No, I never did. And I really relate to what you said about helplessness. Because you know that you do your best writing when you follow your interests, even when they don’t go the way you’d want them to, out of a kind of politeness. I’m often sheepish about forcing my obsessions on the reader, but I know that when I indulge that, I write better. So what became the guiding thing in my work is that I kept indulging that.
Dyer: That’s something we have in common. Too often, self-indulgence is used in the pejorative sense.
From a conversation with John Jeremiah Sullivan and Geoff Dyer.
I sat down in my home office on the last day of 2012 and began to write. I actually had no idea what I would write. I described some ideas in my 2012 year-end post about being more focused in this coming year, wanting to do less, achieve more, so I figured that I should hold to that and start with the first item that appears on my list of possible subjects – my thoughts about a brilliant book: Zona by Geoff Dyer.
Why this book and the reason it aligns with this essay’s title will be revealed. But first, the extract from a conversation between Dyer and Sullivan above has them dwelling on self-indulgence, where both agree that it’s a good thing. I too agree; as Sullivan remarks, “you know that you do your best writing when you follow your interests.”
So what are my interests? Well the list would be long, as I’m sure Dyer and Sullivan’s would be too. Perhaps there’s a subtext to Sullivan’s quote: first focus on your interests, then indulge in them. So – music, reading, writing, philosophy, politics, and the Internet’s disruption of culture and business, are all high on my shortlist of interests. Regular readers of my essays here are no doubt attuned to those self-indulgent topics of mine. (And by attuned I accept that you might find my opinions boring or downright disagree with them, but then that’s what makes the world turn.)
Dyer’s book and his conversation with Sullivan became the inspiration for this essay, one that could have had a subtitle – my problem with contemporary popular music. Problem might be too strong of a word. I notice that I am becoming more self-aware especially in trying to make sense of who I am now and how, as I age, my relationship to music changes (actually, it would be more honest to say how my relationship with culture in general is changing.) Music that I have enjoyed in the past remains, obviously, just as it was recorded – often mellifluous tunes captured in vinyl like arthropods mummified in amber. Unlike those encased insects the songs can still take flight. Dyer and Sullivan have both made music a subject of some of their best work: Dyer – But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz and Sullivan in his book Pulphead: Essays.
I tend to spend more time reading older books, especially biographies, diaries and correspondence and seeking out older films on Netflix and YouTube, searching for classics that I missed. This is not nostalgia, it feels more like adding Spackle to my cultural indexes, patching in if you will. Perhaps my curiosity in those departments also serves as an antidote to the more A.D.D. aspects of our current always-on culture. (Now I’m back to ‘mindfulness.’) With music I lean toward the new more than the old.
As a musician I have had a schizophrenic relationship with music: a clinician’s focus and a super-fan’s gooey embrace. Which explains how I can spend hours in the proverbial deprivation tank, letting the music of Burial wash over me, while spending equal time outside the tank with Taylor Swift’s latest album, then find myself nodding to the hells bells, whistles, scratching and pummeling beats of Brother’s Gonna Work it Out from Fear Of A Black Planet by Public Enemy, and later still, find myself blinking steadfastly at the ceiling, lost in thought, listening to the ambience of Stars of the Lid or the click-clacks and sub-bass firmament of Quarter Turns Over a Living Line by Raime. These listening habits of mine are an example of multiple possible-zones.
Back to Dyer’s book. The subtitle to it is ‘A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room’ and I would call it, if I were high-minded, an exegesis upon Andrei Tarkovsky‘s famous film, Stalker. (I say famous even though you may never of heard of it, but at least amongst the cognoscenti it is famous.) Exegesis is too freighted with religious terminology though, something Dyer avoids when discussing Stalker. (Tarkovsky always denied that his films reflected religion of any kind.) In short, Dyer first saw Stalker about 30 years ago, soon after leaving Oxford University – the film has haunted him ever since and he has watched it numerous times. (I have seen it only once but have now ordered a DVD version so I may well fall under the same spell as Dyer.) The book is an almost scene-by-scene breakdown of what’s actually happening. It is so well written and so precise it made me wonder if I needed to see the film again.
Sullivan: I ended up watching it in Russian, so I probably have a skewed view.
Dyer: How is your Russian?
Sullivan: I speak hardly a word. But it’s a good film to watch in a foreign language. It’s almost like watching mime. There’s so little dialogue, and you can tell without it what’s going on emotionally with the characters, and so I was able to follow. And also having read your description of it.
At the heart of the film is the Zone, a mysterious place that may or may not exist – a meteorite impact zone? a nuclear meltdown zone? who knows… Whatever it is, the Zone has been abandoned and therein lies its appeal: as Dyer notes “The paradox of abandonment soon kicked in: anywhere abandoned serves as a magnet.” A ‘Stalker’ serves as a guide to those who want or dare to visit. The film follows our Stalker and his companions, Writer and Professor, on a journey inside the Zone – maybe. In fact, Dyer suggests that because the camera is capturing everything then the camera creates/is the Zone, or maybe the Zone only exists as a figment of Stalker’s imagination – or ours? What is clear is that Stalker “lives” for his Zone.
Dyer: “I’ve watched it so many times now, and there’s that moment when he gets to the Zone, and he goes off to have a little walk on his own, and he collapses into the vegetation in this state of just bliss that this place that he loves so much, that he’s pinned his whole life on, is as he remembered it. And it’s just..I find it incredibly profound and moving.”
The Zone also contains the Room.
I was reflecting on Dyer’s reflections on Tarkovsky’s Zone when thinking about music. The concept of a zone is really intriguing, and the more I think about it the more I realize that Tarkovsky’s film, the actors, the cameras, the set, are a Zone of his own making, a Zone that exists at “the will of its creator.” Dyer: “Often, in Tarkovsky, when we think something is still it’s not; at the very least the frame is contracting or expanding slightly, almost as if the film were breathing.” The camera acts as another person in the Zone, intently watching Stalker, Writer and Professor. And it may be malign. And then comes the overlap as Dyer refers to revisiting Stalker the film as “going back to this cinematic Zone many times…” He also asks “what is the Zone like when there is no one here to witness it, to bring it to life, to consciousness?”
Which makes me think of music again, especially digitized music. Ones and zeros; now, in digital form, a musician or a band’s music doesn’t exist until someone interacts with it, when someone enters its Zone. This can also be said of vinyl records and CDs, as interaction is required to listen to them. And so, to be in the Zone is to literally be part of the Zone. Perhaps it’s a stretch to conflate a film, music and zones but I see analogies. And that’s where possible-zones come in.
I mentioned at the beginning of this essay how I am trying to make sense of who I am now in middle-age versus the 22 year old Gang of Four musician, or the newly-minted husband-soon-to-be-a-father at 34. Well, in another of those serendipitous moments where, when doing research I came across an article just today… actually, wait a minute… is it really serendipitous if you discover something through research? I’d say no it’s not, as researching something increases the chances of finding it, so I’d have to say it’s not the ‘happy accident’ of serendipity. Where was I? Oh, yes. I found this article today: Why You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be, a scientific study about our inability to predict our future selves – although we are really good at remembering our past lives. It turns out we have always been terrible at considering what we might be doing in 20 years time. And interestingly, the article has many references to music. Here’s an extract:
“When asked about their favorite band from a decade ago, respondents were typically willing to shell out $80 to attend a concert of the band today. But when they were asked about their current favorite band and how much they’d be willing to spend to see the band’s concert in 10 years, the price went up to $129. Even though they realized that favorites from a decade ago like Creed or the Dixie Chicks have lost some of their luster, they apparently expect Coldplay and Rihanna to blaze on forever.”
I personally hope that Coldplay doesn’t “blaze on forever” but that’s a diversion. We obviously get well outside the zone when we look to the future, but that’s not my point here. It’s about living in the present really.
“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”
Weirdly, (or not) the article helped me look through the lens of who I am now; a guy who is very happy in his skin, growing more curious and inquisitive as he gets older, filling his house with books and building a giant Netflix list of classic films that he may or may not get around to watching, who is looking forward to receiving a ‘Stalker’ DVD in the mail. I think that’s a reasonable place to be for now…
What I’ll be doing in 20 years time is anyone’s guess. I don’t care to. I’ll always have my multiple music Zones though.
In closing, and re the film, here’s the ultimate value that the Zone brings. Dyer again:
“The Zone is a place of uncompromised and unblemished value. It is one of the few territories left – possibly the only one – where the rights to Top Gear have not been sold: a place of refuge and sanctuary. A sanctuary also from cliché. That’s another of Tarkovsky’s virtues: an absolute freedom from cliché in a medium where clichés are not only tolerated but, in the form of unquestioning adherence to convention, expected. There are no clichés in Tarkovsky: no clichés of plot, of character, of framing, no clichés of music to underline the emotional meaning of a scene (or, as is more usually the case, to compensate or make good for an emotional meaning that would be absent were it not for the music.) Actually, we need to qualify this slightly: there are no one else’s clichés in Tarkovsky.”
And finally: “I really, really like the Zone. In a weird way, even when I’m listening to music, that’s all that I really want to do is just get into a trance-act with music in some sort of zone.”
That sounds like happiness to me. Amen to that.
John Jeremiah Sullivan: Pulphead: Essays
[Update: 1/5/13] In mentioning ‘mindfulness’ I was remiss in not including Roy Christopher’s essay: Mindfulness and the Medium.