I was in a yoga class the other day when Mumford & Sons came on. This music makes me feel like I’m shopping at a Target. That isn’t the worst outcome, as things go, but it’s not the best way to spend your Saturday, either. In general I prefer my music much less fluorescently lit. Candles, lamps, lanterns, fireflies. The sun and the moon.
The last couple mid-Decembers have found me stopping through El Cosmico, in Marfa, Texas. It’s a sort of camping hostel where you can wake up with ice on your tent, go inside to the front room where there’s a wood fire going and they’ve made some Stumptown coffee for you to enjoy while someone sings with their guitar on the hi-fi. It’s a place where people still care about guitar music. The lighting is exquisite. Little ground lamps line the walkways outside. It was just a flat crappy land-scrap on the edge of town before someone brought in some nice coffee and invested in good lighting design. When I enter a new space these days it’s the lighting I notice first.
Among recent music notable for its good lighting, I’d mention Sam Moss’ Pitkin County Morning EP. I can see the slanty morning sunlight and the mountain mist off the creek nearby. One would never mistake this music for occurring in a big-box store. A locally owned candle shop, perhaps. More likely a porch, or someone’s kitchen. It’s about nine-thirty A.M.; the light is coming through the one window over the sink.
Maybe when we speak about nuances of light what we’re mostly noticing are the characteristics of its deficiency. Full fluorescent saturation is for the office buildings and Bed Bath & Beyonds, and we find it exhausting. Our attention is more captured by the dimensions of the light that’s missing—or, more specifically, by the processes of light’s change. The way it comes on in the morning as you step into the kitchen to grind that nice coffee of yours; the way it ebbs in the evening as you sit out on the porch. The way a candle flickers, the way a campfire is always whipping around in flux. A fire is a process, not an object. Light is not a steady state, and the less it pretends to be, the better it feels.
For a music of fuller saturation that maintains a natural arc, I’d suggest Ashra’s 1976 synth delight, New Age of Earth. Tipped off perhaps by the cover art, and biased by my recent experience listening to the record while sitting on a beach, I can think only of a lighthouse. The beam may be intense and electric, but it sweeps around, leaving fistfuls of darkness in its wake.
Light is the time it takes something to reach your eyes. Some of the most dimly lit music I know of emerges from the late compositions of Morton Feldman. I’m thinking particularly of For Philip Guston, which is almost five hours long. The last hour is really something special.
Light helps us see the musicians, helps us mentally organize the sound that’s coming at us. I’m thinking of this collaboration between ICE and lighting designer Nick Houfek, illuminating a performance of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s piece In the Light of Air.
Writing on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Jon Caramanica suggested that “being slightly unfinished is the new finished.” I’m fascinated by the work lights that are still on in “Pablo” and in Kendrick Lamar’s recent untitled unmastered.
Mount Eerie’s Sauna is the light in a cloudy Pacific Northwest forest, the sun low in the sky, midafternoon in winter. There are some pretty intricate gobos in evidence on David Bowie’s final record Blackstar. Vanessa Russell’s performance of Rodney Sharman’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is a late night in the concert hall. You’re on stage, the lights are up full, but the hall is completely empty.
Close your eyes and have a look.
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