Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Friday, December 14, 2018

What are "spectral projections"?

After listening to MENTAL ILLNESS, an acquaintance recently asked me what a spectral projection is.  And, I will just answer that right now: I'm not sure.

I know I've been really about "astralpop" lately and most people have probably just assumed "spectral projections" was a nonsense phrase that sounds cool when you say it and is somewhat "outer spacey", so it falls right in with the theme.  While this is partially true, it does, however, have actual meaning behind it.  Most musicians or people who take music very seriously and have music as a focus point in their life have a term like spectral projections.  The nuances between each person's definitions may be small, but they are very significant.  So, for me, the idea of a spectral projection is based on a fusion of two musicians' thoughts on this subject.

The first instance of this that I became familiar with was when I encountered the great multi-instrumentalist and super unique personality of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.  Already an absolute giant in the jazz scene for well over a decade, he released a live album in 1973 called Bright Moments.  Great record and worth seeking out on its own, but for the sake of this discussion, I'm only interested in one specific part of the album: the speech that opens the title track (Roland was born blind).

(it is essential that you listen to that speech before proceeding­čÖé)

Already quite the orator, Roland goes into a tale of the things that get lost in translation when assessing how a listener feels about music (from different, but equally understandable positions). He even starts out his speech with, "Bright moments is like. . ."  So, right away, it's a nebulous term.  What he's saying feels like it's had a lot of thought put into.  Maybe years worth.  But when he is actually saying it, it never once feels rehearsed or premeditated.  His articulation is rushed, but completely comprehensible.  As the listener, you can feel and easily follow his enthusiasm.  He lived for those bright moments.  And I always have, too.  I just didn't know what to call them.

(if you want to learn more about Roland and his fascinating life, I highly recommend the documentary, the Case of the Three Sided Dream — respect to tREBLEFREE for hipping me to this)

So, what happens when you get into one of those bright moments, but it's not exactly the same as how Roland Kirk talks about?  Admittedly, RRK's definition doesn't quite blend with mine 100%.  His were more about the moments than the brightness, as I understand him.  So, what happens when the brightness overtakes the moment(s)?

We have to check in with London at the height of the punk explosion to answer that question.

If Bob Dylan was revered for his progressive and eloquent songs speaking in favor of civil rights and in opposition of violence, I'd like to propose that his punk-minded, heart-on-sleeve counterpart was a man named Adrian Borland.  Adrian first started out making music as the frontman of the Outsiders; very much a punk band, and of historical importance as they were the first British band to self-release a full-length, all punk album.  Like all good punks, Adrian became disillusioned with the music and the scene.  By 1979, the Outsiders had broken up and Adrian had formed a new band with a new purpose.  I've talked about them at great length on here in the past, but if you like new wave and 80s guitar rock in general, you must check out the Sound.  When they released their first album in 1979, it was a huge critical success.  The band struggled to find an audience beyond a cult following, however.

Time out to discuss another reason I hold Adrian's words in such high regard (and yes, this is excruciatingly sad): He lived the life of an eccentric, yet incredibly gifted, songwriter who also happened to struggle with schizoaffective disorder.  While the Sound remained active and prolific throughout most of the 80s, they sputtered out after 1987's Thunder Up (a very underrated record).  Adrian plugged away, writing songs, recording, and performing on his own and with pick-up bands.  All through his life, he would often touch on his articulately unique point of view.  Sadly, Adrian succumbed to his condition in the spring of 1999, when he decided to end his own life.  His thoughts on politics and love in songs like 'Monument' and 'Silent Air' are not only amazingly prophetic to his own life, but I also happen to find them extremely heartfelt; delivered in a nearly cathartic way.  Very appropriate.

When the band was recording their second (and arguably best) album, Adrian was determined to not just become another band with great reviews, but empty concert halls.  He believed in the power of strong, heartfelt music, and its potential to change the world.  While that may be a romanticized thought in today's scene: in Britain in 1980, Adrian saw his songs as a way to give his listeners a revolution of the mind.  Ian Curtis was dead, Thatcher was in office, the Cold War was reaching its most intense period since the 60s, and the world was in a state of general (and very noticeable) unrest.  The United Kingdom especially was struggling socially and economically.  Adrian called it the new dark age.

So, into the studio he would go, working on what he was planning to be his masterpiece and ultimate artistic statement.  He was easy going in those days, but with a very clearly-defined goal that he would not deviate from.  After recording a song to his satisfaction, he would go into the engineer's booth to listen and evaluate.  Most times, as he was quite the perfectionist when working in the studio, he would voice critiques during these playbacks that ranged from (mostly) self-criticism to anything else he could manage to constructively critique.

On some rare occurrences, Adrian would listen in total silence, with his eyes open, staring straight ahead (but not at anything in particular), through the duration of the recording (and often several moments after it had finished playing; Adrian still in silence).  And, if it was a bright enough moment for him, when someone would finally ask what he thought, he would simply respond two words: "It exists."

There was a short anecdote about Adrian using this phrase in the liners of one of the reissues of the Sound's albums, but it doesn't go as far to convey just what he meant when he would say this.  To my knowledge, he was never publicly asked to clarify what he meant by this.  So, going off what we've discussed so far, I'd like to offer up my own version of what I think he meant.  Just as Roland Kirk was unable to truly convey what a bright moment is (although he made a worthy and commendable effort), Adrian simply didn't even try.  Not because he didn't want to, but because he was unable.

He understood in his own mind that it was a moment of pure, wholly resonant, compassionate, and complete inspiration; the magnitude and significance of which he was unable to accurately state.  So, instead of trying and possibly tainting his own creation, he said the only thing about it that was absolutely inarguable.  He knew what it meant to him, but he was unable to truly translate that into words, so he left it up to his audience.

So, we come back around to the initial question:  what are spectral projections?

Now that I've established what these fleeting occurrences are to serious music people, think about it this way: Roland Kirk was trying to describe his spectral projections purely from the perspective of a listener, while Adrian Borland was describing that same feeling from the perspective of a creator.  Because I've spent most of my life solely as a listener, it didn't materialize to me until much later that the two are directly related.

So, when I start naming songs "Spectral Projections", I'm doing so because those songs are either inspired by a spectral projection, are intended to be a spectral projection themselves, or maybe they're a combination of the two.  And, even though I talk about Rahsaan and Adrian specifically, they are not the only people who have referred to interaction with music in these vague, but universal ways.  I liken the Spanish idea of "duende" to spectral projections.  In his autobiographical account of his travels across Spain, James Michener goes to great lengths to explain what "duende" means, and yet still falls short.  There is no English translation of the word "duende", and the word (being essentially an old Basque slang word) has not endured through generations; so even some native speakers are unaware of it.  But when the idea is explained to someone in more detail, they are usually able to understand the general idea, while throwing in some of their own ideas of what "duende" can be.  Sometimes, people don't even have words for this emotive thing that they experience (folks like, James Brown, Michael Jackson, and Smokey Robinson were clearly masters of their body language, in this regard).

I don't think there's any music follower or creator that would deny that this is a phenomenon that exists.  As well, I don't think there's anybody from that group that would also agree on what it actually consists of. . . not to mention, what to call it.

That is a spectral projection.