Think Music: Marc McKee

Today’s Think Music guest is Marc Mckee, author of Fuse, forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press.
Post-Rock Poetics

I know the saying of it is virtually cliché (post-cliché?):  writing about music is like oh, you know the rest: tobogganing about painting, somersaulting about extraterrestrial neo-Platonism, dancing about, well, something. But two things:  1) I read an interview with John Hodgman recently in which he describes young people moving to New York City “like moths to a cliché,” and I am reminded how refreshing a cliché can be when you’re of a mind to kink it, massage the kink, and throw it off a beautiful bridge, and 2) why don’t more people dance about architecture? In that spirit, I’m going to say something inexpert about the blurry genre referred to by the music critics I read (primarily those over at the AV Club) as post-rock.

I will not try to define post-rock; you are looking at this on the internet, after all, and should you so choose, you’ll know as much as me in the time it takes to hit up your favorite search engine.  It’s enough to know that the genre employs the same musical instruments that rock songs do.  You know the ones: guitars, drums, bass, and castanets.  Organs and violas.  Loops of unintelligible public address system garble.  Maybe a flute here, a French horn there, and still further off, crickets.  Et cetera.  The primary marker that distinguishes the genre from just plain old “rock” (or any of rock’s other prefixed iterations) is the pronounced absence of a lead vocal.  This absence is why one of my favorite ways to write poems is sound-tracked by a number of bands who could safely be found by googling “post-rock” (save one).  The work of these bands helps me enter any number of spaces, moods, unadorned rooms, noisy satellites, wig storesCornell boxes or corridors.  They offer me a kind of cinematic “space off” that facilitates imagination and asks for words. There’s a vacuum created by the absence of a vocal.  After all, it provides the lyric, and that lyric the narrative (more or less), the part of any rock song that any of us can be more or less expected to grok, so long as we know the language in which it’s sung.  What’s exciting about this is into this vacuum may sweep any number of options for filling the void.  For me the sense of a void and the need for an expressed accretion that resists it, that insists on life, is one of the imperatives that drives me to write anything down in the first place.

Any number of my writer friends will tell you that they need absolute silence or some sort of isolation to write, the isolation I need is from silence.  Silence invites the mundane anxieties that enfeeble the imagination and make writing poems seem less than what it can be.   These bands lift me out of the day just enough to allow me to try to turn the day into (or at least toward) something else.  What follows are notes on seven of them:

1)     Explosions in the Sky, “Your Hand in Mine”: As any catharsis-addict knows, the television series Friday Night Lights is a rich vein of emotional tension and release, whether that release is in the most tragic or triumphant moments, or in any number of pristinely-realized little victories and defeats.  The first cue that this is the case is in the opening credits, which features work from the Austin band, Explosions in the Sky.  EITS’s music moves from simple parts around which they build more and more sound that feels increasingly like placing emphasis on what is before you, whether it’s a street sign, skyline, a face and/or gas station, a scoreboard in an empty field, or even a telephone pole, and imbuing it with galvanizing poignancy.  In a way, it is an invitation to attention, and that’s as good a guide to have as I can think of when beginning to write.

2)     Tortoise, “T.N.T.”:  Though it’s got the same thing going on as many of the other songs in this list, in which a melody’s established and then various instruments take turns making conversation (or even arguing) with that melody before returning to accord, I associate Tortoise much more with a kind of jazz sensibility.  It reminds me in its strategy, for example, of the opening track off of the Miles Davis classic, Kind of Blue, “So What,” (especially the album version).  It also cues up a different brain cinematography for me: it’s less anthemic, more low-key, appreciative without having to be terribly bombastic about it.  I don’t see oceans crashing and vaulting mountains so much as little urban moments that glue bigger moments together.  Much in the same way not every line in a poem can be epiphanic or final, songs like this pull me toward moments and detail that contribute to something larger.  At the same time, those details have to be precise and tough enough to withstand the bigger moves a song or poem wants to attempt.

3)     Mogwai, “Mogwai Fear Satan”:  What can be said about this song that hasn’t already been said about running for your life while whispering jokes to rubber bands you’re firing into the crystal vases decorating what you’ve left behind the whole time?  This track is not only moving, it moves.  And what’s more, it feels like it’s moving up, ascending—a kind of sad threat accompanies the opening that generally fades as the guitars try to fly towards wherever the flute is and shift the tone towards being more celebratory than lamenting, though the lamentation enriches the celebration in ways that must not be underestimated or abandoned.  As with some other songs on this list, these shifts in tone, and the energies and emotions which get evoked as a result, serve in both the initial making and subsequent re-makings of a poem.  This may seem obvious, but it seems to me that it is increasingly difficult to maintain a singular, consistent tone in any given poem, particularly if, like me, you subscribe to the notion that one of the more productive ways to proceed is by associative logic.  “Mogwai Fear Satan” recognizes this—or, if you rather, I recognize this as I listen to “Mogwai Fear Satan.”  Even as its tones shift, they never free themselves of the resonances and remainders of other tones and the wonderful result is much closer to the rich, strangeness of humans than a pure consistent tone.  Only the ebb and flow sensual apprehension is consistent here.

4)     Yo La Tengo, “Green Arrow”:  Why hadn’t anyone ever thought to use crickets as an instrument before?  This might not be post-rock canon (if there is, heavens forefend, such a thing), but I’m not really concerned.  Something about the song, and not just the judicious use of crickets, takes you from summer dusk to summer twilight, an hour or so that gins up the potential for magic.  Some of the other songs on this list seem to insist on more particular narratives to me, but this one suggests and doesn’t stop suggesting.   This is not to say that the song is aimless, but rather that its aim is pure evocation—I can’t help but start making out shapes, downtown lights, and faces as the song ends.  It feels like it opens and opens until all that’s left is what’s next for the listener.  I don’t know if I’ve ever written a poem exactly like that, but some part of me is always trying to get the poem to lead to life.  If “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” I want some of my machines to get you to go out into the night, like YLT’s “Green Arrow” does for me.

5)     This Will Destroy You, “The Mighty Rio Grande”:  By this time, we must face it: much of the post-rock that I favor tends to operate by establishing a recognizable chunk of sound and repeating it while adding more instruments and increasing the intensity of the song until what is expected has turned into something new, often something that feels like it is going somewhere and that somewhere is up, out, transcendental.  At a certain point, things seem to crash into the sky, an oceanic upsurge, before descending more slowly, in the way that Romantic epiphany can.  The whole 11+ minutes feels like a sustained revelatory feeling, stretching an instant further and further, playing with time the way that the physical experience of epiphany might, whether you’re Wordsworth on a walk or Keats becoming a bird. We should all be so lucky.

6)     The Octopus Project, “Hypnopaedia”:  I stumbled upon The Octopus Project one night in Houston at a club called Mary Jane’s Fat Cat’s (thank you, Joshua Rivkin).  It took about a minute for the realization that a singer would not appear to turn into delight.  This song in particular reminds me of some things poetry can do: it begins with a weird loop of unintelligible origin, what sounds like a distorted human voice over a PA system and some bizarre sound following it, to very robotic (and somewhat menacing) effect. Under it, very softly at first, an organ establishes a very simple melody.  Over 498 seconds, the organ gets louder and louder as the robots slowly sink in mix, as if even busted automatons can give themselves over to an undercurrent of beautiful consolation that can hold every thing together and introduce us to a rich quieting, a salving soothing.  We enter in machinery and leave in velvet—perhaps an elegiac touch, but one that lines the elegiac disposition with undeniable gratitude.

7)     Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “Storm”:  Storm is the shortest possible version of this title, which actually is comprised of several different movements.  It’s kin to “Mogwai Fear Satan” in its determined ascent and soaring, the hopeful march of percussion letting a chorus of horns and a school of guitars effervesce towards some giddy zenith—and then everything turns quiet and slow.  The slow draws out, a reconsideration of the initial lofty soaring that turns into a soft treading of air, perhaps even descent before raising back up, albeit in a more reserved, hard-won way.  Then, it plunges into a nervous vertigo of strings, a sudden turn into barely-restrained harrowing that seems surprising given the buoyancy originally on display.  It’s hard for me to say just what this does for the making of poems—maybe it’s just my experience of the song that it suggests to me as I’m writing that even as I’m trying to assert beauty or joy that joy and beauty can never fully obscure subtractions both global and local.  And even as that awareness leavens what I’m writing, the song shifts into a P.A. system at a gas station, a repeated message addresses customers:

Welcome to Arco AM/PM Mini-market. We would like to advise our customers that any individual who offers to pump gas, wash windows, or solicit products is not employed by or affiliated with this facility. We discourage any contact with these individuals, and ask that you report any problems to uniformed personnel inside. Thank you for shopping at Arco AM/PM, and have a pleasant day. 

Behind this rather empathy-free message, a sad, plucky piano slowly goes on over a feedback-obscured voice that sounds as if it’s sermonizing, before both fade into silence.  Given more time, I might try to say something about how the song is mimetic in some ways of a life lived: the surging joy and excitement of youth tapering into an ebbing confidence in possibility, rising back into a hard-won sense of gratitude and joy, leavened by loss and struggle, with struggle and rueful cognizance of mortality finally getting the better of life, and all in the course of 22 ½ minutes.  But as a poet, this becomes a challenge: if one of the more powerful things about lyric poetry is its ability to absorb and compress, to make musical shapes from the chaotic surfeit of sensation, then how close can I make poems that even at their highest velocities still produce in a reader the rich, visceral sense of lives lived?  That’s when I make the only answer to that question I can:  I restart the song, and go back to work.

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